Welcome to a special two-part series about the looming clash over the future of America. In part one, we look at the tattered state of our democracy as the election on November 3 approaches, and we assess nonviolent ways to respond to the twin threats of political polarization and President Donald Trump’s thuggish behavior.
These are probably the last two pre-election episodes I’ll make, so I decided to try something a little ambitious and probably a little crazy: making sense of 2020 in all its perverse complexity. It’s a cliché at this point to say that Trump isn’t the disease, he’s the symptom. But it’s true, and underneath all the name-calling and dog-whistling on the campaign trail this year, there’s a far deeper problem, which is that we’re more divided in our goals and our beliefs than at any time since the Civil War.
In the series, I bring together ideas from a bunch of conversations I’ve been having with smart people who think about partisanship, polarization, the duties of citizenship and the future of democracy, including (in part one) Sean Eldridge of Stand Up America and Protect The Results, Erica Chenoweth of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Robert McElvaine of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. The episode explains why the threat of communal violence is so real right now. It also puts the current unrest in historical context and looks at ways for citizens to usher the US through this perilous moment — for example, by mobilizing nonviolently to ensure that the election is fair and free.
The prospect of a Trump win in November — whether fair or fraudulent — is horrifying. The thing is, a Trump loss would create its own set of problems. As Yoni Appelbaum wrote in a 2019 Atlantic magazine article entitled, “How America Ends”:
“[T]he president’s defeat would likely only deepen the despair that fueled his rise, confirming his supporters’ fear that the demographic tide has turned against them. That fear is the single greatest threat facing American democracy, the force that is already battering down precedents, leveling norms, and demolishing guardrails. When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has—whatever the cost.”
What form that fight might take is the unsettling and unanswered question now lingering over the nation. Armed extremists, like the participants in the Michigan kidnapping plot exposed, hope violent action will spark mass chaos and civil war. We can thwart extremist individuals and groups one by one. But can we stop the politicians who stoke extremism for their own cynical ends?
My goal in this episode is not to alarm listeners, but to equip them for what may be coming. My most memorable interview was with Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who’s done extensive comparative studies of violent and nonviolent mass movements for social change.
“There’s nothing inevitable about even low scale, low-intensity conflict in the United States,” Chenoweth emphasized. “Those who claim inevitability of this are totally misguided and probably have some pretty cynical agendas behind that … . There are many different things that we in our communities at the state and national level can do to prevent violence from escalating any further than it already has.” In the episode, we cover some of those things, including actions citizens can take without leaving home.
Part 2 of this special two-part episode moves beyond the election to ask how we might reconfigure our politics to defuse the kinds of tensions that got us into this mess. Because the real question isn’t how we’re going to get through the election without a violent meltdown — it’s how we’re going to get through the next decade and the next century.
Mentioned In This Episode
- Check out the essay version of “American Reckoning” on Medium, which includes extensive annotations and links to source materials
- “The American Crisis: When Went Wrong, How We Recover” by writers of The Atlantic
- Graham Gordon Ramsay
- Titlecard Music and Sound
- Erica Heilman, Karl Hammer and the Donkeys, Rumble Strip, September 24, 2020
- Hub & Spoke
- 00:22 The Birth of the Republic
- 02:33 “We’re Going to Have to See”
- 03:48 Sean Eldridge: “We Can’t Pretend This Isn’t Happening”
- 05:04 Welcome to American Reckoning, part one
- 08:54 Things Are Worse Than You Think
- 09:42 Demographic Realities
- 13:25 Minority Rule
- 15:46 “Beyond a Powder Keg”: Party, Identity, Polarization, and Violence
- 19:08: Trump, the Extremist Threat, and Ballot Paranoia
- 23:22 Sean Eldridge: “Mass Mobilization Is Really Key”
- 28:25 Erica Chenoweth on the Power of Nonviolent Civil Resistance
- 34:15 There Is Nothing Inevitable about Civil War
- 37:56 Robert McElvaine, historian of the Great Depression: “It’s Much Worse Now”
- 45:49 De-escalation and the Basics of Direct Action
- 49:38 Rediscovering Our Voices
- 50:33 End Credits and Acknowledgements
- 52:20 Meet Hub & Spoke’s Rumble Strip from Erica Heilman
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.