Have you ever observed a guy in a bar laughing too loud, getting in other people’s space, and concluded: “That guy is looking to get in a fight”?
That’s the whole United States right now.
I was reading Christopher Caldwell’s essay on the roots of America’s partisan divide the other day. He makes a fascinating argument: the two seminal dates in American history are not 1619 and 1787, but rather 1787 and 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act passed.
That year, for all intents and purposes, a second constitution was created. American constitutional law pivoted from the ethos of ‘one law for all’ to ‘different laws for different races, sexes, sexual orientations, etc.’–seemingly a move to boost the historically disadvantaged but actually a regression to tiered inequality which America had slowly but surely been moving away from since the founding with votes for women, desegregation, and decriminalization of homosexuality.
The civil rights constitution turned old injustices around and granted poorly defined identity groups permanent privileges not available to Americans as a whole (‘privilege’ = ‘private law’). Caldwell writes:
Now we can apply this insight to parties. So overpowering is the hegemony of the civil rights constitution of 1964 over the Constitution of 1787, that the country naturally sorts itself into a party of those who have benefitted by it and a party of those who have been harmed by it.
The new constitution separates the populace into (1) a coalition of identity groups who receive special treatment from the courts and government (the Democratic Party) and (2) everybody else (the Republican Party), who cling to the original Constitution which supposedly undergirds the nation but gets treated in practice like a relic.
Why aren’t Americans–and particularly conservatives–discussing big ideas like Caldwell’s at every dinner table, in every article, and every social media thread?
Because Americans as a people are spoiling for a fight. They don’t want ideas. The populace has lost faith in the power of ideas to bring positive social change and unity to the body politic. Like a wound-up guy in a bar, Americans antagonize one another into a shirt-tearing brawl to vent their terminal frustration.
The media has foregone discussion and transformed into a octagon for cage fighting. Opinion columnists taunt and sneer, heaping fuel on the fire of grievances while vilifying the president and whole sections of the American public. Even supposed “impartial news” is curated to inflame conflict, rationalize intolerance, and draw attention in the crowded marketplace.
While it’s easy to point to the media as the cause of the fighting, that would be a mistake. Willing combatants must stand ready for egging on to work. America’s commentariat are just the loudest and most obnoxious bystanders encircling the snarling, bareknuckle pugilists in the center. Americans want to get in a fight or to watch stand-ins duke it out–in the press, in our elections, in the streets with bats and bike locks.
As Caldwell’s formulation makes clear, liberals and conservatives today are not defined so much by what they are *for* as what they are *against*. Conservatives rally against the modern ‘some are more equal than others’ constitution; and liberals rally against conservatives–which, technically speaking, makes liberals the new conservatives, since Democrats are trying to ‘conserve’ the constitution of 1964, while Republicans are trying to knock it down.
Politics has become once again a brutal spectator sport–but unlike old times, also a reality-TV event. Politics is something that other people do, far off in capitals, not locally. Americans are bored, disconnected, and largely powerless. As John Gray points out in Straw Dogs:
Whatever they become, tyrannies begin as festivals of the depressed. Dictators may come to power on the back of chaos, but their unspoken promise is that they will relieve the boredom of their subjects.
Perhaps we have put too much weight on ideas and political philosophy. We trusted that abstractions could somehow win out, even when more and more people stand ignorant or antagonistic to those abstractions. A good fight might restore Americans’ perspective on why societies unify around ideas in the first place: blood on the streets makes them slippery.