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“There is a Crack in Everything: That’s How the Light Gets in” *

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Soundings

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As our country makes its way daily amidst the turmoil of an ongoing governance crisis and with an executive Administration that is clearly unprepared for the repercussions of the evolving Coronavirus pandemic, it seems apt to reflect on at least a share of the major reasons for how matters came to this pass. It seems equally appropriate to ponder how our nation’s people might collectively move forward in this deepening darkness. Perhaps the most perceptive and comprehensive stock-taking and summary of the challenges now confronting our nation and its democratic governance I have seen to date appeared in an article by historian Jill Lepore in the February 3, 2020 issue of The New Yorker.[1]

In describing our country’s current pass, and while acknowledging that similar concerns are afflicting a number of nations, Lepore observed that the U.S. is now regarded as a “flawed democracy” by The Economist magazine’s respected Democracy Index and presently continues to suffer from:           

Misinformation, tribalization, domestic terrorism, human rights abuses, political intolerance, social-media mob rule, white nationalism, a criminal President, the nobbling of Congress, a corrupt Presidential Administration, assaults on the press, crippling polarization, the undermining of elections, and an epistemological chaos that is the only air that totalitarianism can breathe.[2]

It is difficult to contend that any of these concerns and trends should not be included, as all are surely present and intensifying with each passing day. In particular, the corruption and incompetence of the President and his administration are more obvious daily. Indeed, Trump, especially, is becoming more overt in pressing that venality confidently and publicly since the GOP-controlled Senate refused to remove him from office in recent weeks. Nonetheless, and as revealed by that body’s choice, it is important to emphasize that one primary driver of this current difficult turn in our nation’s historical evolution has been the now near-total corruption of the Republican Party. This appears to have occurred historically for three reasons: the party’s adoption of a credulous and absolutist belief in capitalism tied to a similar credulity in its agents, a willingness to take whatever actions appear necessary to bend government action to serve the perceived interests of an elite cadre of those actors, and a companion and increasing readiness to use virtually any means to secure public power to serve these first two aspirations, even at the expense of democracy and human rights.

I have argued in previous commentaries that a large share of the concerns Lepore raises are, in fact, the consequence of the usurpation of the Republican Party by an extremist faction in recent decades. That debasement is surely now almost complete, as the Party’s leaders rush to support the ugly and mendacious outbursts of an obviously malfeasant and incompetent chief executive and to proclaim that individual’s efforts to punish, revile or, when he can, remove, anyone who dares state the obvious: This would-be emperor has no clothes. The daily telenovela of double-speak, fearmongering, lies and ignorance that is governance at the federal level today raises the nagging issue of how the party of Abraham Lincoln could became the sycophantic, know-nothing and cynical institution it is today.

The answer lies in both the growth of ideological extremism among GOP elites and their principal supporters and in the misanthropic strategy the party has long employed to obtain support, especially among white males without college education, for what are otherwise broadly unpopular positions. Writing in the late 1930s, W.E. B. DuBois argued that the assault on human and civil rights symbolized by then evident Republican Party support for forced immigrant deportations as well as continuous attacks on New Deal programs was placing the American regime at risk. He could have penned his remarks today:

If it is going to use this [its] power to force the world into color prejudice and race antagonism; if it is going to use it to manufacture millionaires, increase the rule of wealth, and break down democratic government everywhere; if it is going increasingly to stand for reaction, fascism, white supremacy and imperialism; if it is going to promote war and not peace, then America will go the way of the Roman Empire.[3]

Those taking the public position of supporting elite (monied) rule, white nationalism and racism, overtly or covertly, that DuBois rightly decried, largely lost ground politically during the 1940s, except where already ensconced, and they were eclipsed in the 1950s and 1960s, even in their traditional strong holds, but they did not go away completely, nor did they ever foreswear their claims and allegiances. An important, and now dominant strand of the Republican Party adopted precisely those stands once again during the 1960s. More, and in a mainstream fashion, Richard Nixon used race and fear of racial difference quite self-consciously in his “Southern Strategy” quest for the presidency in 1968 and during his tenure in office to rally working-and middle-class white voter support.

Ronald Reagan went much further just a few years thereafter to support the views of a small number of radical partisans, intellectuals and businessmen by attacking government and governance per se as illegitimate. He coupled those arguments with sustained efforts to heap disdain on the poor (especially the homeless) and on minorities, depicting them as effectively taking money from white taxpayers to little purpose except to sit about idly and ungratefully in supposed flagrant abuse of popular good faith. This rhetoric cast the Democratic party, still willing, if often unevenly, to espouse equality and to worry about equitable taxation policies and opportunity structures for all, as mistakenly and illegitimately willing to take tax money from hardworking white workers to “give it” to indolent minorities.

I have argued previously that Reagan’s unfounded and meanspirited rhetoric reflected a long arc in American political history in which individuals seeking office proved willing to use race and fear of difference as a device to garner votes to dismantle or hobble government regulation and as much as possible, to remove the costs of taxation for major business firms as well. The double-barreled myth that these contentions reflected—that capitalists could govern in lieu of duly elected government representatives and that existing democratic entities were being ill used to redistribute funds from hard working whites to undeserving minorities—has served as the mantra of the Republican Party since at least Reagan’s 1980 election. The GOP’s devotion to that narrative is indeed, as Lepore argued, now far more obvious and nastier under Trump.

To that willingness the Party has now coupled manifest contempt for the law and for American institutions, exhibited as an inclination to take any action perceived as necessary to maintain power, from denying a legitimate Supreme Court nominee consideration on purely partisan grounds, to refusing to consider the evidence in a Presidential impeachment trial, to doing all possible to suppress voting by individuals and groups perceived as unlikely to vote for the “right” tribe.  

All of this is well-known and glaringly obvious. What strikes me today is how stridently ignorant much of the President and Party leaders’ rhetoric has become—consider, for example, the President’s claim that the Coronavirus pandemic is a Democratic Party-fomented “hoax”—as they have pressed these memes and how willingly rank-and-file GOP supporters have accepted that coarse, sophomoric and dangerous messaging.

In any case, it seems to me that one part of the reason for this cruelly paradoxical irrationality lies in the fact that those accepting it are seeking a nonexistent certitude and are content with politicians’ scapegoating and lies if those address that need. Such certainty has never and can never exist in any human life. These Americans are demanding the impossible and the GOP has decided that power is so important, and serving an absolutist ideology and elites who embrace it so essential, that they will claim to provide such assurance at the expense of the nation’s governance and the abridgment of the civil and human rights principles enshrined in those institutions. The irony is supreme and tragic.

Nonetheless, as scientists daily remind anyone who will listen, a major part of what makes human life worth living unfolds in the impossibility of knowing all that will or might befall one. An essential question, therefore, that lies at the core of this nation’s present democratic crisis is whether anyone can successfully mount a political movement or provide a governance narrative that will encourage the Americans content to request of their leaders what they cannot provide and do not daily experience, to rethink those demands. Such a call must seek instead a return to a democratic governance that represents and reflects the rough-and-tumble and ambiguous reality of human life and social existence. Breaking the spell of wistfulness and the willed ignorance that accompanies that penchant for unreality now appears essential for the preservation of America’s potential and freedom’s possibility in this nation.

Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” spoke to hope and reflected the wisdom that, however needy and frail, the human spirit is also aware that its knowledge will ever be incomplete and its reach the same. But even as that intuition suggests the need for humility and for acknowledging limits rather than accepting false convictions, it also suggests an opening for counterarguments to malicious claims. Cohen’s insight bespeaks the ever-present possibility for new ways of thinking and knowing that is innate to humans’ capacity to imagine. That capability, indeed, can provide the cracks through which light may be cast anew on our society’s present darkness. In its profound understanding of the human condition, “Anthem” provides a reminder that there is always reason for fresh hope amidst what otherwise may appear to be gathering gloom, and cause to seek to mobilize and to act on that possibility.

Notes

* A phrase from the song “Anthem,” by the Canadian poet and singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wRYjtvIYK0, Accessed February 28, 2020. 

[1] Lepore, Jill, “In Every Dark Hour,” The New Yorker, February 3, 2020, pp.20-24.

[2] Lepore, “In Every Dark Hour,” p.21; The Economist, “Democracy Index, 2019,” https://www.eiu.com/topic/democracy-index, Accessed February 28, 2020.

[3] Du Bois, W.E.B., as cited by Lepore, “In Every Dark Hour,” p.21.

Publication Date

March 2, 2020

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