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Saturday, June 12, 2021

When you know, but don’t believe, that everything will end badly

To live for a certain age, you often hear people remark on the sheer disbelief of public servants who imagine how things are going to unfold in the foreseeable future. “No one could have foreseen that 1960s would be like this,” they explain. Then there’s this phrase, celebrated among some high-school English teachers: “People just don’t see these things coming!”

Which is true. The feeling is, after all, due in part to the familiar attribution of civic disbelief to an ignorance of how society will function. And it’s an interesting and bracing conundrum, because it’s not really clear what happens if we just come to accept the worst is about to happen.

Then again, somebody else is sure to surprise, and you don’t have to see the worst as inevitable to hope that somebody else will surprise. The pundits’ uncertainty about how things will pan out — the list of possible answers is long, starting with “it will get better in due course” — may be how we’ll get the best: we’ll learn something surprising, from some new source of information, about the facts of human life.

In light of all this, it’s worth thinking about what happens if a truth of human life is still as unpredictable as it was then. Suppose, for instance, that you go back in time and find that John Nance Garner, the president in office when the end of World War II came, really did understand everything that had to be said in reference to fighting Adolf Hitler. You can believe — or doubt — that the U.S. will be invaded in any given quarter century, but if what you’re looking for is a succinct and vivid statement on the question of America’s role in history, the findings of 1939-45 make Garner’s words more valuable than they ever have been.

Think of it: you’re faced with the question of whether people can be expected to act like the ordinary human beings we all are from whatever time period we’re thinking about, given the circumstances we know so far. One option is that voters in 2024 are likely to behave like Americans of the 1930s or 1950s, but the other is that a sense of the coming apocalypse will lead them to act like people from almost any time period. Or, if everybody does settle into their own autopilot time period, then it becomes difficult to imagine how there would ever be a political, social or economic system that gives voters that sort of choice.

As was the case in the 1950s, when Americans, in the 1950s, found them selves living in a country whose job market was dominated by white males from the North with blue-collar jobs, the defining concern in the coming decades will be economic insecurity and polarization. How, then, can voters in 2024 learn about the causes of this problem, and then hope that it’s a bad thing?

What if we’re settled into a time when politicians are so vague about what sort of business they’re running that any matter they raise is picked over for symbolism, with explanations that are always a little tricky? In this context, what if we find, in 2024, that no politician is saying one thing and doing another, no matter what he says in his speeches? To which the article of faith of many partisan reporters (and writers generally) is: it just can’t happen, so can’t we accept the defaults?

A decline in public expectation of public service is an unpleasant prospect for all sides, but it’s also an opportunity. Republican politicians don’t want to run on a winning issue, because the media and the public don’t give them much. Democrats, to the extent they’re right-minded, don’t want to run on a winning idea. This leaves a space for a new idea to emerge, with enormous potential.

I don’t think we’ll know that the era of partisan gridlock, of ordinary political paralysis, is over until the end of the 20th century. We may even hold off a long time, a rarity today, until our failure to change while others change has turned into our success. But eventually we’ll know.

We will know when we cannot seriously contemplate any more losing elections. Or rather, when most of us finally admit that unless something is changed, many more of us will be losers than winners. When the deep-inside dread of American political politics strikes a deeper resonant chord with one faction, however, people might be asked to step outside their assumed narrative of preordained outcomes.

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