This Fourth, a Civil War
Terry H. Schwadron
July 4, 2022
On this Fourth of July, it’s hard to keep from being overwhelmed by the growing disputes in our public lives, though obviously it has been building towards this point for years.
Not unlike 150 years ago, there is a shared feeling across political allegiances that we are deep into a renewed civil war over rights and values, over the very definition of what it means to be American — especially in an extended time of pressures from outside forces like inflation, war and climate change. We’ve seen judges rip away abortion rights with invitations for more, a yet-looser attitude towards carrying guns, and halt the government from being able to address emissions that threaten to hasten climate change.
From that perspective, it is no wonder that politics, the game-like outer expression of all this introspection, feel more out-of-control than ever. States with Republican legislative majorities are limiting voting and allowing for overturning of election counts; voters, meanwhile, are choosing more extreme candidates on all sides. Donald Trump, who may be facing criminal charges from the Jan. 6 riot, reportedly is ready to announce he is running again, along with a Joe Biden who, for both he and Trump, is resisting calls about stepping aside over age.
A University of Chicago poll last week found most Americans agree the government is “corrupt and rigged against everyday people like me,” and 25%, skewed way Republican and libertarian, warn that the day of armed rebellion is not far off.
The fundamental question here: Have our values changed or are we seeing them as if they have as the result of temporary political realignments and now-constant bombardment of made-up issues and invented disinformation campaigns. Have we truly decided that the American Dream is about protecting a predominately white, Christian male culture becoming another of many minorities by demographics, but exaggerated by our most extreme politicians or by Fox News or some competing cable network?
Part of the war-like protectionism no doubt is resulting too many things happening outside our personal or even national control, like covid. But at this point, we should be acknowledging that a good part of it is as the result of now institutionalized disinformation campaigns — a bludgeoning by repetition of half-truths that insist that night is day, or that Jan. 6 was a bunch of tourists happening by the Capitol.
We are more than brittle with so much conflict at once in our public lives. It feels as if each wave of public challenge can sink our individual boats — and the very democratic republic that has allowed for our various individual choices and paths. We are in a time of contraction and protectiveness about our personal lives rather than growth and exploration.
Political Issues Everywhere
Gas prices are an excuse for blame, not as a sign of worldwide economic pressure; an incident on the border is red meat for politics rather than a sign of problems needing solution. Success for a single transgender swimmer is sudden cause for nationwide concern about “grooming” young people to consider gender identity.
It is not by accident that Republicans increasingly are making cultural and lifestyle issues more dominant than more traditional arguments over taxes or size of government. Obviously, they have found an audience — perhaps audience overly fearful of the changes of the last 20 or more years — and, at every corner, now seem to want to wind back the clock to a time when race, gender, sexual orientation and self-exploration was far more limited.
Volumes have been written about the political mechanics of this change; less has explored the reasons for emerging new narratives.
Clearly, we have been moving from eras of expanding civil rights towards political autocracy on the one hand, and elimination of choice for those not subscribing to a white, Christian theocracy on the other.
The dominant American emotion now is perpetual anger, with a healthy dose of personal anguish over being passed over, ignored, forced to adopt an unwanted cultural outlook. It’s seemingly true for the political Right, which is proving adept at winning local and state reins to get their way, and for the Left, which flails a bit in its bigger political tolerance tent.
If you insist on guns at your breakfast table, restrictions on books for your kids at school, the ability to claim religious reasons not to follow whatever today’s rule is, it is a good time. If you are worried about abortion choices, about whether police will stop you for what you look like, about limits on whom you can love, it is quickly turning into the worst of times.
We can all worry a lot about whether we can speak freely without of violence or public harassment.
Blogger and economist Umair Haque summarized, “Right about now, there’s an urgent question which needs to be answered. It’s pulsing around the globe — and flashing a bright crimson of alarm in America. How do you defend a democracy?” He answers, “Restoring norms and values of democracy. Its people enacting democracy — its basic values of truth and justice and dignity and decency, giving those to one another, supporting those leaders who expand them, instead of acting in bad faith.”
A New Social Conservatism
A New Yorker magazine article recently described the rise of Rightist figures like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, conservative education proponent Christopher Rugo and Fox’s Tucker Carlson to build a new brand of social conservatism that boldly and confrontational about how America should learn, love and live built on the ashes of Christian religious values.
“Instead of an explicitly biblical focus on issues like school prayer, no-fault divorce and homosexuality, the new coalition is focused on questions of national identity, social integrity and political alienation,” Nate Hochman of National Review was quoted. “We are just beginning to see its impact. The anti-critical-race-theory laws, anti-transgender laws and parental rights bills that have swept the country in recent years are the movement’s opening shots.”
The early political success of promoting parental bills about control of education are now echoing in calls for legislation about what teachers can and cannot say in the classroom about American history and how we view sexual choice, race and learning itself. The new agenda for the Supreme Court for next season already includes opportunities to have partisan legislatures decide voting districts, kill off affirmative action programs in colleges and further strike the government to regulate business. Texas officials already are aiming to challenge rejected laws of the past barring same-sex relationships and contraception. It’s coming.
A spokesman for Heritage Action for America, which advocates for conservative limits on everything that the Left sees as objectionable, told Reuters that, among the base, bills like Florida’s “Don’t-Say-Gay” law had generated the “highest energy (among Republicans) since the Tea Party.”
All this is giving many Democrats agita, because they increasingly see the response of the Joe Biden White House as less than willing to confront the culture broadsides head on.
So, we hear an increasingly loud political murmur about hesitation to force the elimination of the Senate filibuster to preserve voter rights limits, to deal with unfair policing tactics, to get more effective gun legislation or to answer the Supreme Court’s decision to throw out 50 years of a perceived right to abortion.
Telling the Story
We’re hearing much of the same call for re-balancing from within journalism. Organizations like Media Matters or Press Watch increasingly are calling for a redefinition of what passes as objectivity and fairness, arguing basically that democracy no longer has two sides interested in preserving the country.
“Political journalism needs a reset because of its inadequate response to the spread of disinformation and the asymmetry between the two political parties. That asymmetry now extends to whether Americans keep their rights,” argues Dan Froomkin of Press Watch. “This country is headed straight toward Christian theocracy, unless the people rise up,” and attempts towards giving equal time to understanding “both” sides essentially is a false duality, according to this argument.
“The goal of a responsible news organization is not to get people to vote a specific way. But it is to make sure that everyone understands what’s at stake. . . Fundamentally, they need to be more honest than journalists have historically been about what’s going on,” including, as he said, “Republican trickery” to put the last three justices on the Supreme Court.
Or that the abortion decision has arrived as we also are promoting state-sponsored surveillance of neighbors by neighbors, many of whom now can more easily carry concealed weapons.
Difference is seen as an enemy rather than as a strength.
We do have a responsibility as citizens to demand that the public agenda be straight, and that organized disinformation campaigns are out of bounds.
Our rights are increasingly in the crosshairs of a Rightist Supreme Court majority that looks askance at legal precedent, for example. Our political geography is skewed enough towards more rural states that we likely have assured another generation of Republican legislative majorities. Our leadership should be more worried about finding economic solutions than on burning books.