Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Common Weal

We are losing our sense of what it means to be a country, a nation.

The centrifugal forces on our politics have created a moment that is genuinely dangerous.

Nations and states don't just happen; they are acts of will and planning.  When we created our form of government in 1787, it was an act of will that many people resisted.  But eventually, we came to accept the Constitution, for all its flaws.  We set about trying to create a "more perfect Union."  It was not always a smooth or steady process, but the arch of the universe and all that.

When we create a government, we invest that government with a monopoly of violence.  That's Max Weber's term, and it means that we cede to the state the ability to enforce laws, even unto death.  But that "violence" could presumably apply to property, too.  We cede to the state the ability to seize our property in the form of taxation.

This is necessary for governments to function.  The alternative is anarchy.

The rhetoric of America has spun into the realm of anarchy.  Much of that rhetoric exists on the Right, from the Bundys to the NRA saying we need guns to protect ourselves from the government.  The Libertarian Right has - as its model - the idea that each citizen stands apart and "free" from the state.  Frankly, the Anarchist Left has the same model.

I'm not trying to engage in false equivalencies here, but once you undermine the legitimacy of the state, you unleash all sorts of shit.

The language on the Right of Armed Rebellion and on the Left of Revolution is a language that undermines the legitimacy of the state.  I can't count how many times I've heard the phrase "all politics is corrupt" or "they're all terrible in Washington."  That's cheap cynicism, but it's also terribly erosive to the common weal, the common good.

The roots of this, I do believe, lie predominantly with the Tea Party.  Their entire genesis was a resistance to the idea that the federal government should do much of anything beyond national security.  The anti-government rhetoric was matched by a complete resistance to the idea of governing.  At least we are currently not about to default on our debt, but it was touch and go. Remember at least a few Tea Party politicians embraced the Bundys at first.

The ideologues on the Right have now been met by ideologues on the Left.  As I've written elsewhere, their constant attacks on Hillary Clinton are really just an attack on centrist government.  Some of that attack is marinated in an unacknowledged sexism, but it is also a by-product of the idea that "we need a revolution" that Sanders promulgated.  I know Sanders was not talking about killing police officers.  But revolutions involve killing police officers.  Not the kind he was talking about, but that rhetoric, once it leaves his rally can latch on to some angry or deranged man with powerful weaponry.

An assault on police officers is an assault on the ability of the state to perform its most essential task: the maintenance of order.  The war of attrition waged against black men that I wrote about yesterday also erodes the ability of the state to maintain order.  As Deray McKesson said when he spoke at our school: "We don't hate police, we just want them to stop killing us."  As a white person, I don't trust the police necessarily, but I don't mistrust them either.  If I was black, I would actively mistrust them, and frankly, I would have reason to do so.  That has to change or there will be more Dallases.

Governments are built on institutions.  Many of those institutions are informal.  They are things we agree to do in order to serve the common weal.  Many of those norms in Congress were destroyed by the Tea Party.  They were attacked by groups like the Bundys.  They are now under assault from men with heavy weaponry.

Our institutions - our boring, conservative institutions - are shaking under our feet.  We have a candidate for President who routinely violates those norms.  Every day, he says or does something that would have been beyond the Pale a year ago.  There is a cost to that.  I do not think Trump can win election.  But I think he can continue this pattern of tearing apart the fabric of our society by repeatedly shredding the norms and boundaries we have erected for ourselves over the years.

Do you want to know what pulling down the edifices of government really looks like?  Look at Baton Rouge, look at Minneapolis, but really look at Dallas.

In November, 1963, in Dallas, we saw a similar assault on our collective life. While great and positive change came in the next few years, by 1968, the country was on the brink of anarchy.

How about we not do that?

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