“The old forms rattle, and the new delay to appear.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, February 3, 1861
I remember, years ago, reading Bruce Chadwick’s 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See, a book about the eponymous year, and thinking: they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the war came, and swept them all away.
That book, like my news feed, covers missed clues as well as more reassuring events, such as marriages and economic trends. John Brown’s raid vied for public attention with a nasty economic recession, and I’d be a Monday-morning quarterback not to acknowledge that it must have been hard to sift through all of the merely important news to discern the momentous.
To make it more difficult, the former masks the latter. We’re used to our divisions on issues like women’s rights, gun control, taxes, and the government’s role in health care, and the news about them justifiably garners headlines. Florida’s school shooting last week revived the gun-control debate for a few days; the White House was relieved that the shooting turned the restive social media focus away from the Russia probe and its investigation into one administration threat to our very democracy.
We’re in something like what James Hurst once called the “clove of seasons”: our decades-long, divisive season is not yet dead, but our crisis season has not fully arrived. The political weather on any given day can feel more like chilly division than stormy crisis. It must have felt that way to Americans picking up the newspapers in 1858. And a lot of 1858 is like 2018 so far – a mid-term election year, a deeply divided and incendiary press, a host of conspiracy theories (including Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech), and there’s much evidence of food, drink, and sex. But the similarities aren’t the point. Rather, can we discern the times any better than our forebears given the equal portion of news from the old and new political seasons?
Generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe posit that, every four generations or so, America moves from an “unraveling era” to a civil crisis. It happened around 1858, and over a quarter-century ago Strauss and Howe argued that it would be happening now. The civil crisis, they said, would threaten our national existence. Our civil-crisis news concerns a president who often threatens our press’s freedom – not just by threatening to change the libel laws but also by cooperating with foreign disinformation campaigns – a president who often attacks our country’s intelligence services, a president who refuses to protect the integrity of our electoral system despite the clear and present danger four of our intelligence services conclude that Russia poses to it – indeed, he has attacked the system’s veracity himself by repeatedly claiming without evidence that almost three million illegal aliens voted against him in 2016 – and a president who has, by his own admission, obstructed justice – he has twice admitted to firing the FBI director in order to “fight back” against accusations concerning his and his campaign’s ties to a foreign enemy.
Over the last few generations we’ve had other scandals and cover-ups, of course – Nixon during what Strauss and Howe call our latest age of spiritual renewal and Clinton during the middle of our own unraveling age – but neither previous presidential scandal was as serious and, given the groundwork of our deepening political divisions, more likely to succeed. The members of our intelligence services are in my prayers day and night.
It would be hard to run for Congress this year on just the existential threats, of course. One may be tempted to run as an independent and emphasize the threats, but any attractive third-party movement based on such a strategy may split the vote and result in a Congress that would ignore the president’s threats to our government and Constitution as much as the current Congress does. Countries with united oppositions against would-be tyrants are much better at ridding themselves of them, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt report in their new book How Democracies Die.
One doesn’t have to wait for this fall’s elections, though, to hear the resurgence of the old partisan issues. Over the past few months, it has been difficult for certain “resistance” groups formed in response to the president’s election to maintain a crisis-era focus. In league with the political left, many of these groups now indiscriminately mix unravelling-era issues with crisis-era ones.
Besides, if we think our unravelling-era political opponents are worse than our crisis-era foreign enemies, then we may allow a would-be tyrant to use what James Madison ruefully calls in Federalist 48 “some favorable emergency” to consolidate power – for instance, to make the Justice Department and the FBI loyal to him alone. However, it may not take that much. Given our country’s preference twenty years ago for a strong economy over the well-founded accusations brought by Kenneth Starr against President Clinton, good economic times may give the administration as much cover as an emergency to quash the investigations into its Russia ties.
I acknowledge that, unless things get a lot worse, meeting the crisis probably won’t solve the problems that got us to this point. Indeed, if we don’t resolve our underlying problems, we may face a worse crisis in the future. But avoiding today’s crisis can’t help matters. Politics in the best sense is speech and action. We must practice what we can of politics, or it won’t exist.
I’m not suggesting a choice between the crisis and the merely urgent. It’s a matter of precedence: political existence comes before policy debate. Jesus once castigated the scribes and Pharisees for tithing “mint and anise and cumin” while omitting “the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” Jesus made clear that he wasn’t asking these religious leaders not to tithe: “These [weightier matters] ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” We neglect the weightier matters, too, by involving ourselves only in matters that in a less dangerous political age would be of the first moment.
Right now, political practice involves triage. We’re in need of political triage and the discernment it requires.