Are things really worse now than they’ve ever been, or are we just now able to see it more clearly? Is it just because of YouTube and cameras that UFO sightings are down and police brutality reports are up, or is the state of the world getting materially worse?
Why can’t it be both?
There’s a very good case to be made that technology is letting us see more of what was always there – the hate, the ignorance, the general bullshit. But twenty-five years ago, if you wanted to be a white supremacist terrorist, you had to find people through badly mimeographed flyers and post-office boxes, try to build some kind of bomb, and hope that one of your pals wouldn’t turn out to be an undercover FBI agent. Now it’s as easy as buying an AR-15 and several magazines, posting a rant on the same message board you learned everything from in two clicks off Google or Facebook, and going on a shooting spree while live-streaming the whole thing.
A lot of this shit was always with us, but we had at least established some unwritten rules that said it was wrong, and even if people didn’t follow the rules they were obligated to acknowledge the breach. What has changed is that the quiet parts are now said out loud – which means that yes, it was always bad, but also there is now nothing against saying them out loud, which is a worsening. One of our political parties is trafficking in the kind of talk that as little as twenty years ago would have been beyond the pale even for the kind of Southern Republicans who had just taken control of Congress – although they went to great lengths to bend the curve of what was acceptable and pave the way to where we are now.
And now people have the gall to talk about how dishonest this era is, as if the 21st century doesn’t sit on a quivering foundation of lies and bullshit and choose-your-own-reality. And that’s why the next challenge, if we survive, is the struggle to write the unwritten rules into law. This administration, the Confederacy at its apotheosis, is about codifying the underlying racism that was starting to find itself on the ropes as its practitioners aged out of power. Conversely, we need to be writing the guardrails into law to prevent yet another Republican minority presidency running wild. Income tax disclosures? Mandated by law. Electoral college bound to the result of the popular vote? Mandated by law. Anything that was “tradition” or “the way it’s always been done” or otherwise limited only by norms and manners? Has to be mandated by law, because norms and manners are worth nothing if you have a big enough asshole.
And the risk you take at this point is that people don’t care. The indolence and indifference, the tuning out of “it’s just politics” and “this isn’t important to my life” is all it takes for one side to dig in. You won’t get a Watergate reckoning now, and you may not get an electoral solution if you don’t take all three branches of government – and the Supreme Court is probably lost for a generation at this point, which means you’re back to trusting that the norms of stare decisis and judicial review are all that’s preventing nine old men from wrecking shit for the rest of our lives.
It’s past time to fight, but it’s also time to start making plans for losing.