A fifth of the way through the 21st century, when the steady-handed leadership of the United States in the preceding century has given way to the international rise of authoritarianism and the domestic threat of insurrection, we find ourselves more divided than any time since the 1850s. It is fair, on the precipice of a new year, to wonder how far we can go before the entire system fails.
In the heady days of the Space Race, NASA flight director, Gene Kranz, famously said of the vexed Apollo 13 mission, “Failure Is not an option.” Against all odds, he and his team of engineers brought those astronauts and their crippled spacecraft safely back to earth. It was touch-and-go for days on end, but innovation and teamwork saved the day.
Today, innovation has been outsourced to Silicon Valley, and we are short on teamwork. It all makes me wonder if, after the very collaborative and innovative “American Century,” during which we pulled together to bring the automobile, penicillin, rural electrification, radio, television, commercial air travel, computers, space travel, and the internet to a world that we saved from both fascism and communism, our run really is over.
In the mass media era—c. 1930-1990—we operated from the same playbook because there were no information silos. You couldn’t choose your news. While we had our share of kooks and frauds, they never held sway for long, and even when distracted, we always righted the ship because our sense of decency and fair play prevailed over the divisive voices of the time. We changed our laws to include all of our citizens, and we welcomed the worlds’ outcasts to our shores. We had a sense of common mission.
For various reasons that range from political to religious, change has come too fast for some, and its implications like the loss of power and prestige, have been too frightening for others. We find ourselves here, divided, angry, and spoiling for a fight—with each other.
A sad moment is made even sadder by the fact that instead of taking on the existential crisis of climate change, or pulling together to unite the world against the rise of authoritarianism, our domestic fighting is internecine, which obviously thrills our adversaries. The radical right has decided to put party over country, making their own reelections more important than our Constitution, the rule of law, and democracy itself.
As Michael Steele, the former RNC Chair said, when you don’t treat an infection, it gets worse and worse. Now they’re intent on casting out of Congress those who don’t pass the Trump loyalty test: if you don’t believe and promote The Big Lie, you’re toast.
Actual conservative, Liz Cheney (R-WY), tops their list: “In this time of testing, will we do our duty? Will we do what we must? Will we defend our Constitution? Will we stand for truth? Will we put duty to our oath above partisan politics? Or will we look away from the danger, ignore the threat, embrace the lies and enable the liar? There is no gray area when it comes to that question. When it comes to this moment, there is no middle ground.”
Thirteen Republicans voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill—something that throughout our history has been an easy, unanimous vote—only to have the rest of the Republican Caucus castigate them, levying death threats against two of them, and promising to challenge them all in their next primary election.
Paul Gosar (R-AZ) is the charmer who posted an animation of himself killing Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and then turning his blade on President Biden. Gosar has nine siblings, six of whom have appeared in advertisements urging voters not to support him. One said: "My brother is unhinged. He needs to be more than censured. He needs to be expelled. And if it is determined that criminal charges need to be filed, then they need to be filed." Just after being censured and stripped of his committee assignments, Gosar reposted the video, proving that what is unethical, and indecent to most, is simply a fundraiser to others. Term limits, anyone?
Now, “The Freedom Caucus” is determined to primary every Republican who voted to impeach Trump, as well as every Republican who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. If you’re keeping score at home, it’s now okay to post an animation of yourself killing Democrats, but it’s not okay to vote for fixing potholes and bridges.
If only rational, mutually beneficial priorities ruled the day. But when dealing with irrational people, it is impossible to use reason to predict their course of action. All I know is that the loudest, angriest people have a way of controlling the room, and their success is our failure.
©2021 Jon Sinton