A very brief note on a rather unpleasant matter. One keeps hearing of “anger” and “division” in the body politic. Some folks express anger. We can all think of examples. Watching one of my favorite segments on a Fox News show today, called “the Political Insiders,” the former Republican congressman from New Hampshire, John, was visibly angry. (The two former Democratic pollsters were not visibly angry). The Republican was very angry, and focused on Trump. He has never manifested that kind of anger in my viewing, and the host asked him about it. It seems obvious to note that the Republican establishment is besides itself, “having a cow,” so to speak, about the possibility of a Trump nomination. And I keep hearing some establishment figures—including this Congressman John—talk about “another candidate who will yet emerge.” Hints of a “contested convention” and floor fight after the first ballot, when most delegates are free to vote as they want. And most delegates are party regulars from each state, by the way, not necessarily fans of the person they must—by Republican rules--vote for on the first ballot. They are members of the Establishment.
And that leads me to what particularly interests me today: This John has mentioned for the past few months that the decisive candidate for the 2016 Presidential election “is not in the race yet.” Again today, he said that it will be someone who brings R’s, D’s, and independents together. I really do not know whom or what he has in mind. Then I have heard Democratic experts speculate that neither Clinton nor Sanders will be the Democrat nominee, but possibly Biden. His name keeps recurring, as in a Biden-Warren ticket. And then the big one today, the most puzzling comment. Ms. Peggy Noonan was on some news show, a clip of which I watched on Realclearpolitics.com, in which Noonan said that the country needs a single person to bring us all together.
Here is part of my thinking on the Noonan wish: her desire seems laudable, but it also sounds rather messianic to me. Americans have a history of looking for a political messiah to “bring us all together,” especially in times of crisis or severe stress. Several generations ago, FDR had the appeal of a political messiah when most Americans were anxious, many on the edge of starvation. Reagan had such an appeal, to an extent, for much of the electorate. Obama presented himself that way (“no more red states and blue states,” etc), and the media hyped him into that role of being “the One.” As much as I admire Peggy Noonan, I think that it is wishful thinking, and not even healthy. Or is it?
Can any of you think of a single American who could truly bring us together as a people? I mean this as a genuine question, as a thought exercise. No one comes to my mind. And remember, I am not persuaded that it is possible, but it sounds like a messianic dream. The best we may be able to do is to find someone to appeal to half to 2/3rds of the electorate. In all honesty, who could possibly satisfy “Black Lives Matter” and the KKK, or a similar group? Who could even satisfy both Socialists and conservatives, or nationalists and internationalists, free traders or protectionists? I can think of no one who appeals to such diverse groups, can you? Not even our past Presidents who are still alive—Carter, the elder Bush, Clinton, W Bush, or Obama. Is not Peggy Noonan really just dreaming this time, and not facing reality? We are not only diverse, but highly divided, whether we like it or not. It may be the case that there is no political solution to divisions that have spiritual-intellectual-psychological roots. Perhaps we need to deal with the spiritual wasteland?
I wish our country and world well, but I am starting to sense uncomfortable similarities to the 1930’s. If you ever read, for example, “The 20-years Crisis” (1919-1939), by E H Carr, you know what I mean. Divisions and propensities to violence are deep and common. I think about the phrase from “the Second Coming,” poem by Yeats, 1919, published in 1920: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….” The western “democracies” as well as Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia all looked to some one man “to bring us all together.” A dangerous dream, I think. (Note: If you walk in D.C., look at the statues from the FDR era; they are remarkably similar to Soviet, Fascist, and Nazi art: massive, muscular animals and men. Glorification of power [not beauty] in statuary. This art shows the similarity in underlying culture, in engendering spiritual experiences (Geist).
Is the world, as we know it, breaking apart before our eyes? Or is that just being far too melodramatic? Are these tensions more typical of western history in the past several hundred years? English, American, French Revolutions; nationalism; Communism revolutions; National Socialism; wars for “liberation”; and so on. And yet, are there not also signs of consensus, of coming together, of cooperation across borders, of good will towards many, and of diverse forms of spiritual renewal, as with Zen, and so on? Even in the U.S., do we need or want a single man or woman to “bring us together”? Why?
News reporters tend to be a little short-sighted. I turn on the TV, and keep hearing about disruptions at Trump rallies, about violent break-outs in Florida among students on spring break, about police killing or serious wounding in Maryland, and so on. And more terrorist activity in Africa, this time in Ivory Coast, and threats from North Korea that they could destroy Manhattan with a hydrogen bomb. All of that since yesterday evening. On and on—reports of violence.
The larger and more disturbing issues are ignored: violence and disorder are becoming common in everyday life, in America, and in many countries of the world. Without doubt, America is becoming—or is—a violent society. How often do we see images of riots in cities, or of murders? Even high school, college, and professional sporting events become occasions for slugfests.There seems to be a large appetite for violence, for watching violence, for reporting it. So many of us are given to violence that the more peaceful millions get overlooked.
What is there in our national character that promotes or at least enjoys violence? When in our nation’s history have we not been a violent society—at least with repeated outbreaks, and recurring wars, incursions, occupations of other lands, and so on?
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Or, how deep are the divisions, and how long can we stand given our proclivities to violence?
There are several main alternatives to handling violence in the long run: One way is to let the violence continue, and increase, even to the point of living in virtual anarchy and chaos. Another way is for a far greater power to suppress the violence, as by police or military action even against its own citizens. A third way is for a foreign power to impose order on the disordered realm. The fourth way is the most difficult, but clearly the best: for individuals to discipline themselves, to get ordered from within, and live their lives peaceably.
I think that the fate of our political society is in the balance. As I quoted from Yeats, “the center will not hold.”