Is there a viable model for political change in 21st century America? ‹ Literary Center
The United States of America celebrated the 246th anniversary of its Republic on Monday. Most Americans, however, weren’t in the mood for a birthday. Much of the country fears political fragmentation, economic decay, civil unrest, the erosion of its democracy, and environmental apocalypse. America fears both its history and its future.
And that July 4, marked by yet another mass murder by another psychotic young man waging an arbitrary war against his own community, the foreboding in the American Republic was palpable.
On Monday, I spoke to two prolific US-based authors: the East Asian and European historian and former editor of New York Book Review Ian Buruma and Brookings Institute scholar and liberal gay rights activist Jonathan Rauch. What to do with America for its 246th birthday, we discussed. But we didn’t share any birthday cake or fireworks. And our conversation was anything but celebratory.
My conversation with Jonathan Rauch captured much of the sentiment in the country. On the one hand, Rauch reminded me that he wouldn’t be who he was – an openly gay man legally married (to an immigrant, he chose to add) – without the achievements of the Republic. over the past fifty years.
For Rauch, freedom means self-realization. It means having the right to choose your own sexuality and to live as equals before the law. So, in assessing the achievements of the American Republic, the classically liberal Rauch celebrated the success of the same-sex marriage movement that cultural historian Sasha Issenberg describes in his excellent book The commitment.
When Issenberg appeared on Want to Last month, we published the interview under the title: “What America’s Long Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage Can Teach Us About the Possibility of Gun Control.”
Not much, I’m afraid. On Monday, with both the mass murder in suburban Chicago and the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe fresh in mind, Jonathan Rauch openly envisioned (and feared) a post-democratic America. That wouldn’t necessarily be the death knell of the Republic, Rauch acknowledged. America could evolve into a chaotically technocratic version of Singapore. Or a multi-denominational mafia state like Lebanon.
The future of the American republic could then become a semi-representative political state, existing in the twilight zone between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. It’s happened before, of course. Especially in antiquity. Classical historian Edward Watts came upon Want to last year to warn against the endless comparison between the decline of Caesarist Rome and the decline of Trumpian America. But just because the comparison is easy to make doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong.
Even a democratically troubled Singapore or Lebanon might be too optimistic a vision for America in 2022. According to another Want to Guest this week, science fiction writer and polemicist Elizabeth Sandifer, a bloody end to American democracy is not only likely but perhaps even inevitable.
Technology is as much the problem as the solution to the current crisis of the American Republic. Particularly in view of the fragmentation of the country.
It’s not just abortion rights, Sandifer warns mainstream liberals like Jonathan Rauch, that is now under threat in an America controlled by authoritarian Republicans like Steve Bannon (who recently Want to guest, Jennifer Senior, imagines as a “deadly threat” to democracy). The end of gay marriage could be next, warns Sandifer in his dystopian vision of a real Atwoodian America. And then even the right for Americans to be gay or trans.
Can the Republic reinvent itself in the 21st century? If so, many futurists believe the reinvention will be driven by new technologies, especially the internet, artificial intelligence, and the metaverse. It might even create something that tech author Jamie Susskind calls, in his interesting new book, The Digital Republic. The new technology, therefore, Susskind told me this week, could “deepen democracy and deepen freedom.”
But it all seems annoyingly vague to me. For all Susskind’s references in his Digital Republic to classical republican texts such as the Federalist documents and Rousseau Social contractit’s hard to see the historical analogies between the founding of the American republic in 1776 and the brave new American world of TikTok in 2022. Indeed, today’s vocal factionalism is the very thing Hamilton and Madison feared most in the Federalist documents.
Yes, technology is as much the problem as the solution to the current crisis of the American Republic. Particularly in view of the fragmentation of the country. As Jonathan Rauch noted in his excellent book, The constitution of truthSilicon Valley’s digital technology has undermined truth and weakened democracy in America.
Digital technology – whether it is Web3 cryptography or Web 2.0 social media or intelligent machines – is, in many ways, incompatible with the fixed geographies of the 20th century democratic state. Digital technology moves fast and breaks things: communities, ideas, people, even republics. All it builds is chaos, uncertainty, anxiety and division. Yeah, yeah, I know, not everything can be blamed on technology. But hoping that the American Republic can be saved by Big Tech is like relying on the gun industry to find solutions to national mass murder.
Digital political issues are, by definition, either radically local or international. And I don’t hear anything very compelling from writers like Susskind or some other Want to invited this week, the German author of digital feverBernhard Poerken, whose notion of “editorial society” seems particularly absurd, on how the digital can guide us between the political scyll localism and charybdis of internationalism.
But it’s not just digital idealists clinging to straws in 2022. In a vast Want to conversation with environmental activist George Monbiot about his new book Regenesis, Monbiot has defined a strategy to feed the world without devouring the planet. It all makes perfect sense, especially his critique of the American industrial agricultural complex. The only problem, and this is not insignificant, is how to achieve this.
So, George, I asked him about his ambitious vision for a regenerative economy. How are you going to change everyone’s mind about agriculture, the soil and our eating habits?
The model, Monbiot explained to me, is the American fight for same-sex marriage. In 50 years, he explained, America has gone from aggressively rejecting the idea of same-sex marriage to thoughtlessly accepting it. The integration of regenerative economy and agriculture could be done in the same way, he said. I hope George is right. But early July 2022, I doubt it.
You see, the environment, like the Internet, is an international issue in a world still controlled by 20th century nation states. We still don’t really know how to switch from one to the other. If America wants to reinvent its Republic in the 21st century, it must be a pioneer of this architectural change. Our political theory and our political practice are not synchronized. The miraculous story of same-sex marriage is moving. But this is not a survival plan.