A generation ago – when the first Bush was President – no one would have believed that the American political system would have deteriorated into its present condition. We’d all have assumed that we’d continue to have two mostly functional and constructive political parties. Politics had not been the kind of “war” it has since become.
Of a whole spectrum of possible futures that might have been proposed when Reagan was president, the course we’ve traversed since would have been regarded as implausibly bad.
“America is too decent,” practically everyone would have agreed, “too good at making society work reasonably well to achieve a better American future.”
Reviewing our history — Social Security, the G.I. Bill, the Interstate Highway System, Civil Rights for ALL Americans, Medicare – we’d have assumed we Americans would continue to be pretty good at using our political system to get constructive things done. We’d have assumed both major parties would do what they needed to do to maintain the system on a morally positive level.
But evidently, we’d all have been wrong.
So how can this unexpected downward turn be explained?
I’ve studied two other historical eras when (what I’d call) a “Force of Brokenness” became powerful enough to wreak great destruction: 1) the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany, and 2) the breakdown of the American nation into Civil War.
Can either of those two occasions help explain the terrible turn things have taken in the United States over the past generation?
The Rise of the Nazis
1) How about the rise of Nazi Germany, in which Hitler tapped into passions that turned a reasonably decent German population into a Force of Evil?
That dark transformation seems to be the result of the compounding blows of a whole series of traumas that befell the German people. Within a mere two decades, the German people endured:
- the terrible trauma of fighting a war that killed much of a generation of young men; which was then compounded by
- the devastating pain of losing that war in which so much had been sacrificed; followed by
- the imposition of a destructive and vengeful Treaty of Versailles; and soon thereafter
- the astronomical wave of inflation that wiped out countless families across Germany (the famous pictures of wheelbarrows filled with paper money to buy a loaf of bread).
Trauma is defined as being “more than we can handle.” So it’s not surprising if a people would become more broken by having to absorb all that, providing an entryway for a “Force of Brokenness” to exploit what was already broken in the culture – e.g. German culture’s militarism and anti-Semitism – to create a nightmare of a World War that would spread brokenness across the planet.
But we Americans have not had any comparable traumatic period over the decades that lead from the Republican Party of the First Bush to today’s Trump Party (which has already done so much damage to America, and is threatening so much more).
The reasonably smooth sailing we’ve had – by the standards of history –indicates that some other kind of force than trauma will be required to explain how tens of millions of our countrymen became vulnerable to the call of a Force of Brokenness.
Why the Civil War Came
2) So how about how this nation got so broken that it plunged into Civil War?
That war was the bloody culmination of a profound conflict over a huge issue. For generations, the nation had been embroiled over the expansion of Slavery, crises whose threat to break the nation apart could be deflected only temporarily (in 1820, through the Missouri Compromise, and then again with the Compromise of 1850).
The Slavery issue was huge both practically and morally. Practically, the wealth and power of the nation’s most powerful class – the big slaveholders, who had dominated the early generations of the Republic – had slavery as their foundations. Morally, there were deep tensions between slavery and the nation’s creed of all men being “created equal” and endowed with an “unalienable right” to “liberty.”
So when the brokenness in the nation intensified throughout the 1850s, and finally inflicted great destruction – through armed conflict that killed a large proportion of American manhood and which left wounds that remain unhealed – the explanation seems ready at hand: the Force of Brokenness could gain such power by exploiting intense divisions over a hugely important Issue that proved incapable of resolution through political/constitutional means.
But America in these times has not been at all like that.
We in America today have had no such overriding issue. (Indeed, I’d say that in these times, there’s been even less than usual focus on any issue, or even all issues.)
Our political combat, in this era, is fed from an entirely different level. We’re fighting because one of our political parties began insisting on making a fight over everything — from across the board obstructionism of two successive presidents from their opposing party, to eventually trying to overturn an opponent’s legitimate victory in a presidential election.
So the unexpected recent turn toward brokenness in the American political system will have to be explained in some different way from either of those two other dark times.
That I will attempt in subsequent pieces.