Politicians think about politics all the time, so we don’t have to. You could say, in a democracy, we are all politicians. Caring about politics comes with citizenship. Yet when incessant, partisan political conflict comes to dominate, as it has in our dying republic, you perceive something has drained out of the foundation. Leadership, or followership, social cohesiveness or some other quality we cannot name has gone missing.
Yes, our democracy has always been contentious. Times of tranquil, amicable relations in public affairs have hardly existed, never for long. Yet as I have observed before, we have never had this degree of disunity with the singular backdrop of a powerful state that is ruthless, cruel, secretive, vengeful, potent, punitive, and watchful. It is all of these things in part because it feels vulnerable. When you combine an insecure state with opportunities to use extralegal techniques to protect power, outcomes for regular citizens – and especially for non-citizens – have never been good.
We observe these outcomes as a police state develops here in our beloved country. No one knows how to prevent it anymore. One group wants to give the state more power, confident that in the right hands, well-placed power can promote common welfare. Another group wants to concentrate power to fight the state’s enemies and troublemakers more effectively. Still another envisions a weaker state that permits more freedom, and with that, more wealth and happiness. No group cares to work with any other group. In an atmosphere of civil conflict, you see only one response to proposals for negotiation: What good would come of that?
Few can fathom how we arrived here, when we had so intense a period of national unity seventeen Septembers past, in 2001. I have not seen anyone raise a connection between deceptive attacks, and the impact such attacks have on social psychology. If national unity arises from lies – a web of connected, fundamental falsehoods that originate with state power – what effect does an illusion like that have on people’s willingness or ability to cooperate with each other? How long can you sustain amity under circumstances like that? Read backward from our current state, to discern the threads’ unweaving.
Last couple of days, I watched a couple of documentaries about 1968, as I would like to write a memoir about that year. One clip caught a brief, insightful remark from a young man who volunteered to fight in Iraq. He said, “You believe what government tells you about the need to fight a war in Iraq. Then you get here, and you find out it’s all a lie. And they want me to sacrifice my life for that.” You will remember one of government’s main arguments for going to war: Hussein, along with al Qaeda, was behind 9/11.
Now multiply that young man’s disillusionment and resentment by the millions, as one soldier after another discovers how their leaders duped them. Multiply again by millions, as the soldiers’ families and friends learn what our service members learned. Think especially how families and friends feel when government lies to convince young men and women to fight overseas, and they return home in the middle of the night, in a coffin decorated with a flag.
Deception of the kind practiced on patriotic young men and women only lasts for a short time. When government – including the commander-in-chief and every other senior official – tells the lie, it alienates itself from people it is supposed to protect. When those people discover the lie, at first they do not know what to think. At last, the alienation cuts both ways, and each side – government and citizenry – resents or hates the other.
Social observers point to our long-running culture wars as a primary source of partisan civil conflict. Without a doubt these cultural conflicts, which do extend all the way back to the 1960s, bear some connection to our current divisions. Yet the big lie of 9/11, and the war in Iraq that followed, have a more immediate bearing: one not directly connected to generational conflicts, or left-right conflicts as we currently prosecute them. Big lies propagated to justify futile wars bring alienation – resentments far more unbridgeable, and grievances far more irreconcilable. Ultimately, these public deceptions will bring our republic to the ground.