By Mike Koetting July 3, 2022
Well….it’s not a great week to be writing a Fourth of July blog. As has often come through in these posts, I hover between hope for and despair with this country. This week my despair has the upper hand.
One has to remember that democracy is not the default state for societies. Throughout recorded history, some form of authoritarian figure has been far and away the dominant mode. (What happened in un-recorded history is much less clear; there have been some recent writings that suggest a lot of different models were tried.) Authoritarians have been more or less authoritarian from place to place and the degree of tolerance within those regimes likewise varied, but they were the modal form of government. The idea of democracy as we think about it is at best 1000 years old, and more likely only around since the Enlightenment. The explicit terms with which the fledgling United States—at that point not much more than an almost ad-hoc collection of disparate colonies–spelled out a democratic creed really was revolutionary. The echoes still redound.
As we all know, the initial effort was an imperfect effort, blinkered as it was by a self-referencing notion of what it meant to be human. But, even so, the language they used was, and remains, catalytic:
Once articulated for the world, in uneven and inconsistent ways, people everywhere started to take these words seriously. Slowly, the meaning and practice of democracy spread and deepened. But everywhere, it was a development project. Even the initial American model fell well short of its lofty goals.
Its most glaring inconsistency—one of the greatest imaginable–eventually became too large a contradiction. For its first 100 years, the country was able to accommodate slavery because there would be no country without that initial compromise. As the country grew and prospered, the bulk of the population could live with slavery. Some liked it, some didn’t. But it was an accepted fact. The question always was whether those people who found the existence of slavery intolerable could coalesce enough political power to threaten the very existence of the country. As the anti-slavery factions grew, the slave-holders responded by themselves being more aggressive, fearing that unless they consolidated their positions, they would eventually lose. Pushed by this aggression, the palpable moral bankruptcy of the Whig party led to the creation of a new party, the Republican party, which was willing to take the risk of breaking up the country. As it happened, they won and slavery was defeated.
But it was an incomplete victory. The people for whom domination of other people seemed natural continued to do so, just in different ways. The national compromise returned. The North was willing to tolerate Jim Crow because the alternative was messy and, besides, Northern attitudes toward non-Whites weren’t all that open-minded anyway. For most of the country, the idea that some people were inherently more human predominated, no matter what parts of the law said. To paper over this problem, lip-service was provided to a national rhetoric that a large portion of the population accepted very selectively. As Lyndon Johnson summarized the situation a century later, “Emancipation is a Proclamation and not a fact.”
Nevertheless, bit by bit, the power of those words—“all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable Rights”—continued to leach into the national conscience and more people started to take it seriously and to understand it more broadly. It became harder and harder to maintain the compromise. This isn’t about race alone. It’s about the broader question of whether one person is inherently superior to some other person—whether their rights are the really same as your rights and whether all have an equal right to consent to a particular governmental arrangement.
That question is again raising its head as an existential question for the nature of our country.
I don’t know the intellectual mechanisms by which large chunks of the population convince themselves that the claims of a fraudulent election are consistent with the fundamental tenets of democracy. There are probably different reasons held across a spectrum of people ranging from those who simply believe that anything that furthers a White, Christian Nationalist agenda is ipso facto a good thing and it runs all the way to people who are much more moderate in their views but retain some residual, reflexive reaction to anyone not sharing those values and are willing to tolerate a little fascism around the edges.
We know from China, from Russia, from Nazi Germany, from everywhere a dictator has arisen that a material portion of the population likes order and conformity more than it likes uncertainty, diversity or change. For this group of the population, it is axiomatic that a strong person be put in charge and wield the instruments of power to achieve order and conformity. If this autocrat winds up with huge power (and huge wealth), so what?
We also know that virtually everywhere there is a handful of energetic and capable people who believe not just that they are better than other people in some general sense but they are sufficiently above others that the rules imposed by the society don’t apply to them. These are the dictators—in practice or in-waiting. Whether these people have underlying values or simply hijack a handy set of values as an excuse to quash others is an academic question. Their overriding absolute value is maintenance of their own rule. From a Marvel movie: “The Gods take care of only themselves.”
For democracy to keep functioning, the strength of those fighting for democracy has to be greater than the forces against it. On a day-to-day basis, democratic values are represented by a rule of law that relies on certain basic principles—equality under law, universal voting, peaceful transition of power, willingness to make compromises for the good of the society, protection of the weak, freedom to exercise convictions that don’t harm others. It is much less the specifics of this “rule of law” than the spirit. When the spirit weakens, the endemic tendency of one group to want to dominate another gets reflected in autocrats who attack the democracy.
It seems to me, this Fourth of July, that this battle is as fully joined as at any time in the history of this country. The cultural broadening of the last fifty years has stripped away a huge portion of the hypocrisy that facilitated the compromise between those who didn’t really believe “all men are created equal” and those who wanted to take those words seriously. Those who have a narrower version of “equality’ understand this is, in some sense, their last stand. The battle-cry “You will not replace us” has specific referents. But I think it is also understood as a recognition that the goal of people like me is in fact the replacement of White, Christian Nationalism with a world view that accepts diversity in all its messiness and sees our society in a gradually evolving global perspective. There are many things my views are accused of that just aren’t so. But there are real differences and I am comfortable asserting that White, Christian Nationalism as being espoused is incompatible with the words of the Declaration of Independence found at the beginning of this blog.
Some people might think I’m making the issue too stark. Perhaps. But the news of the past two weeks seems to make it clear that we are in a struggle for the meaning of America as serious as the Civil War, even if it isn’t necessarily being fought with guns. Right now we are facing the shocking spectacle of an entire political party making absolutely no bones about its willingness to subvert the popular vote. They were turned back this time, but it is clear they have plans to continue. And they are putting in place to impose their version of reality on the population. Then we have the Supreme Court—engineered in an unprecedented way to give a hard political line that is at systematic odds with the “consent of the governed”—handing down a series of decisions that assert the hegemony of the White Christian (and I might add male) ethic. And we are looking at upcoming elections with the broader electorate clearly distracted by other issues, particularly inflation and related economic issues.
I don’t know how this is going to turn out. But I am worried.
4 thoughts on “Reflections at the Fourth of July”
Mike, you’re far from being the only one worried about where all the recent events are leading us.
I didn’t doubt that…but the response I’m getting from this post is really reinforcing that.
The second America Civil War began in March 2020, when Trump and his right-wing allies began a disinformation campaign directed against COVID precautions. To gain political points, he offered as collateral innocent people — mostly older people or people with fragile health — to die. The war continues with Republican policies on guns and abortion causing more death and suffering to vulnerable Americans. The object of Republicans in this war is to terrorize a portion of the population while scoring political points with another, and to distract and use the media by blaming others for these problems. Recent scapegoats include Dr. Fauci (COVID), guns (Democrats and police), etc. So far the Republicans are winning the war because the Democrats are in denial that it has begun.
Mike, I would add the following observations: that same very lofty-sounding quote from the Declaration of Independence about the equality of “all men” was cited by Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott case in support of his decision, on behalf of the Court, that Black persons were not citizens and had “no rights that a White man is bound to respect.” Chaney reasoned that Jefferson and the other founders assumed and understood those words from the Declaration to only apply to white persons, otherwise, Chaney reasoned, “the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted, and instead of the sympathy of mankind to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.”
Taney concluded his reasoning: “Yet the men who framed this declaration were great men…incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting. They perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others… and they knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the Negro race, which, by common consent, had been excluded from civilized governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery.”
This reasoning strikes us now as abhorrent and horribly twisted, but at the time it struck Taney as obvious and self-evident. Of course all of this reasoning, as well as the way you described slavery as a “compromise,” and an “accepted fact,” is only addressing how white people then regarded slavery. Black persons subject to it had no choice and of course were subject to extreme duress, physical coercion, rape, torture, maiming, death. The conditions many enslaved persons endured were such that on this date in 1852, Frederick Douglass stated towards the conclusion of his famous Fourth of July speech that “there is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
Bryan Stevenson has aptly pointed out that when we talk about slavery as the worst thing or the greatest evil in the history of this country, we overlook a more insidious and more persistent problem: that an entire mythological ideology of white supremacy and Black inferiority was created and ruthlessly defended to rationalize slavery. The 13th Amendment ended slavery but it did nothing to address the myth of white supremacy and the cruel lie of Black inferiority. The subsequent history of our country— including its recent history and current events— shows just how persistent and widespread the pernicious ideology of white supremacy remains. I agree with Stevenson and others who argue that we are in dire need of a Third Reconstruction— but right now there are revanchist forces at work. All people of good will who believe in the idea of a true democracy built on respect for the full humanity and social equality of all need to redouble our efforts.