Saturday, January 20, 2018

A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

It was a dark time in America's past. Forces of division threatened to tear the nation apart. It compelled Abraham Lincoln to borrow the biblical phrase, "a house divided against itself cannot stand."

In June, 1858, Lincoln won the Illinois Republican nomination for the US Senate. After taking the nomination he delivered these remarks.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

"I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

"I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

"It will become all one thing or all the other.

"Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South."

It wasn't long before the Illinois abolitionist won the presidency. November 6, 1860. By April of the next year, barely five months after the election, America plunged into civil war, the bloodiest war in American history. A war that pitted brother against brother, father against son. A war that is still being played out in the dark hearts and minds of some Americans.

It's widely accepted now that America's presidential election in 2017 was hacked. There was Russian meddling. There was also sophisticated meddling by affluent interests, Robert Mercer et al. 

The Russians sought to sow chaos. The defeat of Hillary and the election of the Orange Bloat were a bonus. Mercer and Company, however, finagled for a Republican win.  Both succeeded. America lost.

A recent article in Foreign Policy looked at Russian hacking of America's presidential election and why it succeeded so well in the US but largely faltered when employed to skew the German, French and other elections. The conclusion was that America has a unique vulnerability - alternate realities.

Russia’s relative success in the United States is not thanks to the unique strategic insight of Putin. It is because Russian operatives have chanced upon real weaknesses in U.S. democracy, and American elites are unintentionally giving them a helping hand. While France and Germany have their own social divisions, they do not face the specific problems that America faces.

The "Failure of Democratic Knowledge."

In America, more than in most other Western countries, there is a basic failure of democratic knowledge. In a well-functioning democracy, citizens agree broadly on facts and have some trust in the democratic system, allowing democracy to harness different perspectives and put them to good use. In America, in contrast, distrust and profound disagreements over facts have led to a kind of crisis of democratic knowledge that leaves democracy open to outside manipulation.

Over the last two decades, the common knowledge of American democracy has been undermined. As Alexis de Tocqueville warned could happen, the structures of shared knowledge are being weakened by democratic politics itself. Politicians — especially on the right — have cast doubt on sources of authority such as science and government, telling their supporters that they shouldn’t trust experts. Finally, the public itself, on its own initiative, has become less trusting of traditional institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church as they have revealed their feet of clay.

Democracy is liable to pull itself apart.

Yet when people with different perspectives stop sharing a common basis of knowledge, democracy is liable to pull itself apart. Parties become enemies rather than competitors. When people stop trusting any institutions, they are likely instead to start thinking that the democratic process is rigged, and to pin their hopes instead on cranks and conspiracy mongers.

We may be witnessing just that today, a democracy pulling itself apart, a failure of democratic knowledge, a house very much divided against itself.

America has descended into warring camps, each embracing its own reality. Each cleaves to a different narrative of America, past and present. Tribes, one anchored in knowledge, the other finding its facts in belief.  Red America, which now controls the White House, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, is susceptible, seemingly even indifferent, to outside and hostile influences. It sees Russia as an ally, the FBI as an enemy.

How does this possibly end?

This brings to my mind Chuck Thompson's book, "Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession." Washington Monthly describes it, "As if Keven Phillips 'American Theocracy' was being narrated by Matt Taibbi."

Thompson uses satire to make the case that both sides, the Union North and the Confederate South, would be both better off and far happier if they simply went their own ways. Using research and interviews he amassed during two years traveling the south, Thompson shows how culturally, socially and politically the two sides remain apart and could mutually benefit from some sort of, dare I use the term, sovereignty association.

The chasms that have riven America, cultural, social and political, may have grown too wide to bridge.

Something has to give.


Northern PoV said...

"Union North and the Confederate South, would be both better off and far happier if they simply went their own ways"

I don't buy that....
My Pennsylvanian friends tell me that, outside Philly and Pittsburgh, the Penn state is politically and socially the same as the deep south.

It more coastal vs interior, rural vs urban. a Clusterf**k not easy to disassemble.

The Mound of Sound said...

Read the book, NPoV. You'll enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

It is widely accepted that Russia hacked the US election, is it?

Not by me, and I see zero proof that it was, beyond all the pundits agreeing that it was. Perhaps if we all could agree beige is grey then we could rename beige. That is about the level of punditry about Russian hacking - can't think of anything else so it must be.


Tal Hartsfeld said...

NPoV is right: What about all the other subcultural demographics within the U.S.?
Especially rural vs. urban, west vs. east, coastal vs. inland?
Different mindsets, different priorities and criteria.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi, Tal. As I wrote to NPoV, you should give Thompson's book a read and, while you're at it, Kevin Phillips, "American Theocracy." Phillips is a veteran, conservative Republican, who served, I believe, three presidents, Republicans of course.

I think in those books you'll find vastly better responses to your comments than I could ever muster. I have both around here somewhere and, after 13 years, it would be useful to dust off Phillips' work.