The line was long in the bank lobby, two of the three ATMs were out of service, their screens flickering. As we waited, the sound system, meant to play pleasant music, instead was emanating a strange fuzzy hum with skips and pops. A distinct and eerie feeling fell over me that if I poked my head out of the door and looked up, a patch of blue sky would be worn away, revealing some video game or hologram grid. As if the entire world was glitching.
Since early 2020 Americans have lived through several events that just a scant few years earlier would have been deemed impossible. Locking down entire cities for months? Impossible. Soaring and consistent inflation, five dollar gas, and baby formula shortages? Impossible. A major land war in Europe? Impossible. These are but a few examples. We can toss in a lost and vacant president, and men competing in women’s sports. In fact, today, the only thing that feels impossible is a return to life the way it was.
It is difficult to talk about the psychology of an entire society, especially one as starkly divided on partisan lines as the United States is just at the moment. And yet, when you travel across the country and talk to people of all kinds of stripes, the overwhelming sense is that they are waiting for the other, or maybe just the next, shoe to drop. For the progressive it might be symbolized by the overturn of Roe, for the conservative, the desecration of American history, but for each, the stakes are spectacularly high.
Change in America tends to be generational, not civilizational. From the time of the Silent Generation to the Millennials things changed, often in bunches, but always within the framework of the same basic civilization. For the last 20 years, and most dramatically the past two, the constant occurrence of “impossible” immediate change, indicates, for the first time in living memory, that American civilization itself could be on the verge of major, irreversible transformation.
The totality and the gravity of the fight underway is made evident by the right and left’s ineffable inability to share a language. On the most basic terms: man, woman, racism, insurrection, protest, our definitions are not only different, they are often contradictory. There really are no more fundamental building blocks of any civilization than these kinds of central concepts.
But the divides run deeper still. There are Americans who want to return to their offices, to normal life as we knew it so recently, and there are those who want the new normal of atomized existence in your own home. If the latter prevails it will transform life into something that nobody would recognize as American civilization.
When conservatives look at progressives, which in 2022 is all but the entire Democrat Party, they see overreach and opportunity. And those are there. But winning and losing elections is only one lever of the progressive movement. Why won’t Democrats pivot to the center? Because they are progressives who by definition must always be going forward, or at least fighting for it, or they are not only losing, but failing.
They really do envision a future in which your primary association to anything in the world is not your family, not your church, but your government. We’ve seen this from mainstream Democrats at least as far back as Barack Obama’s Life of Julia cartoon. In every significant aspect of her fictional life, the government was her main partner.
But achieving that state requires obedience from the people. That can be achieved both by convincing or compelling. Progressives, of late, have proven to be deft at both. They terrified many people into truly believing their lockdowns were sensical, and simply forced it on the rest of us. They have convinced some that Drag Queens in our elementary schools are wonderful, and that those who disagree are bigots who can pound sand.
The great danger for conservatives right now is not that progressives are converting Americans in droves. They’re not. The danger is the Democrat Party’s ratchet approach of going for broke with Obamacare, or Biden’s spending bonanza, even if it means losing elections. They are ok with some political wilderness. By the time they are back in power, enough policy will remain that they can build upon to further control the lives of the people.
What seems to define the New Right, in all of its contentious iterations, more than anything else, is an understanding that we are in a civilizational battle. Maybe even a battle over reality. It sets them at odds with the ever dwindling number of neoliberal conservatives who still wish to place power in the hands of corrupt institutions, trusting perhaps that nobody from Yale or Princeton could be a dangerous lunatic.
Like that day in the bank lobby, the New Right sees the glitches and knows that in fact, powerful institutional forces are transforming the plastic of reality, from currency, to food, to borders, to democracy itself. And the giveaway really is that this all done in the name of their concept of democracy, yet another basic word we share no common understanding of. Is it government by the people? Or government over the people? Disagreements don’t get much more civilizational than that.
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Remind me next month