By Derek May:
I’ve been debating whether to write this or not for several weeks now. Outside of a few select people, I generally avoid discussing politics in any specific way. In my experience, I’ve found that for the most part it’s a fruitless effort with very little upside: you’re either preaching to your own choir (in which case nothing changes) or you’re arguing your entrenched side with someone else’s entrenched side (in which case nothing changes). While I do believe that tends to be the reality, I don’t believe it’s a good thing. When I’ve had rational discourse with people who don’t necessarily agree with me (the keyword being “rational”), I’ve had some pretty amazing and insightful conversations. Sometimes I’ve helped someone else see things a little differently, and sometimes they’ve helped me. Sometimes I’ve discovered that my overall belief was correct, but the scope of it, the nuance of it, the effect of it was different than I believed. And that’s been helpful. And yeah, sometimes I’ve been flat-out wrong (dammit).
So if I’m going to write a political post, who am I really writing it for? To be honest, I don’t know. I tend to side heavily with those generally termed “liberal” and “progressive.” You may have stopped reading right there and immediately dismissed me. Fair enough. Or you read that and felt relieved. Cool. But I really don’t want this to become about labels or divisions. The United States is as polarized as it’s ever been in my lifetime. This is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is the attempt by our two major parties to define themselves as being the antidote the other. Over the years, both parties have pushed further and further to either extreme until discourse has devolved into just yelling across the aisle with ever-increasing volume. Republicans vehemently oppose anything Democrats put forth (so nothing gets done), and Democrats tend to cower and play at taking the higher road while not always following it (and nothing gets done). I believe that most Americans, when divorced from rhetoric and partisan gaslighting, generally circle around the center. The problem is that in order to whittle our ideas down to a place where we can rationally talk about those central, agreeable tenants, we have to fling off all the mud first, and guess where that mud generally goes?
But being about a week out from what I would argue is the most important election certainly in my lifetime but perhaps even in American history, I feel like I have to say something. There’s just too much at stake here. America is being dragged kicking and screaming into an uncertain future. I truly believe that change is a painful process, messy, sometimes bloody, and most often not possible until people are forced into it. We are seeing an ideological turning point present itself. If we step back and look at what is happening now, objectively and particularly with an eye on the historical similarities, things are not looking good. History will be the ultimate judge, but we’re living that history right now. We’re in it hip deep. So, my friends, the first question I will pose to you is this:
Do you truly, objectively, like the direction things are headed now?
If you do, you can stop reading now. If you don’t, though, I would challenge you to thinking about what we can do right now, at this moment, to affect it.
We’ve come to a fork in the road where we have two paths: Joe Biden or Donald Trump. At this point, my guess is there probably aren’t a lot of undecideds. Our system is designed to make you take a side and ride or die with it. I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish we had better choices. I wish this didn’t feel like a war, with lives literally on the line. But we have what we have. We can’t change it (at least not right now). Bitching about not having your favorite candidate is useless at this point. We have two choices, and each of us will make their choice.
But I don’t want to make a case here based simply on Democrat vs. Republican. I don’t want it to be so black and white, because I think for the majority of us it isn’t. Maybe for the extreme right who think Trump is the second coming and the extreme left still crying because Bernie didn’t get the nomination see things with such divisive clarity. But I’m talking to those on both sides of the aisle who are looking past party and at the state of things as they are, not as we wish them to be and not even as you may have been told that they are. Things are messy, and there is a definite divide. But it’s not about parties, it’s about ideologies. It’s about moralities. It’s about how we want history and future generations to remember this moment. So I ask my next question of you:
What do we want those future generations to read about this time? How do we want this all to play out?
Those questions have been haunting me lately. Not just because of what’s at stake now but because of my own personal past. While 23&Me confirmed I’m a mixed bag of European white boy, I didn’t need it to tell me my most dominant feature. See, my mother and her entire side of the family was born and raised in Germany. They’re old enough to remember life in a post–WWII Deutschland. My grandmother, now well into her 80s, doesn’t like to talk about it much without some major prodding, but she remembers the war. I’ve always had a thing for genealogy and history, so I’ve elicited plenty of stories. We’ve always adamantly denounced Hitler and his insane beliefs; we’ve talked about the “Nazi Uncle” (by marriage) who was the black sheep that everyone hated; and using these familial tales and my research of the times, we’ve discussed how a monster such as Hitler could have risen. I admit that for most of my life I never understood it. It just seemed impossible.
I don’t wonder anymore.
The sheer magnitude of propaganda and disinformation has reached a level even the Third Reich could not have dreamt of. Sure, the news media has always used hyperbolic drama to oil its machine (trust me, I worked in the news for years), but to dismiss what we’re seeing as simply an elevation of that same status quo is dangerous. Just as parties have seen their members pushed to their extremes, so have certain once-trusted sources of information, most especially on social media. It was always important to be sure to verify the information you get, but the fact that we see posts and videos and memes explaining how to spot disinformation and limit its spread solidifies that we’re playing a whole new ballgame here. Fox News always leaned right, sure, but it was never the propaganda machine it’s mostly become (and even some of them are starting to push back). We’ve never seen nutjobs like Alex Jones being taken as seriously as he’s been, never seen conspiracy groups like Q-Anon gaining legitimate traction within the actual government. And the social media accounts we voraciously use have never been as weaponized through carefully designed algorithms as they have become. A massive shift of sensationalism to the right prompts the counterparts on the left to seem equally extreme in their condemnation and counter-reporting. And that’s just what they are doing to themselves, never mind that fact that an American president has repeatedly sowed doubt across such a wide swath of media that even the ones still upholding their journalistic integrity have been cast under shadows of doubt and distrust. I almost can’t blame people for not knowing who to trust, where to turn, and believing what makes them feel most comfortable. I have seen highly intelligent, thoughtful people helping spread some of this misinformation, repeating disproved claims with complete conviction. I’ve seen righteous anger spewed at the wrong targets out of simple, though effective, emotional manipulation.
And that’s really what it has come down to. We are all being driven by anger, and it’s gotta go somewhere. And there are things that we should be angry about, that absolutely deserve complete and total condemnation. We can be angry that the health of our nation has been politicized. We can be angry that there are opportunistic individuals who are derailing important messages with violence and destruction. We can be angry that in our great salad bowl nation groups are still being marginalized and disenfranchised. And Nazis. We can all hate fucking Nazis. But how do you think those Nazis arose in the first place? How did the down-trodden people of Germany let themselves be conned into subjugation and fascism? It wasn’t because they started hating out of the blue; it was because they were given a direction for their hate, for their anger, for their frustration. And for many people, having somewhere to put that, no matter where it is or how much it goes against their own best interests, is better than simply dealing with it.
Do I think the U.S. could become Nazi Germany? No. But only because no two things are ever exactly alike. Do I think that we are seeing many of the same things play out that got Germany into the problem it did? It saddens me to no end to say “Yes.” 2020 has taken us to a breaking point. This is the worst time we could have chosen for an election, because emotions are running at a level where just about anything can set us off (I know that’s true of me). We’re ready to latch on to whatever makes us feel better. But scapegoating and embracing otherness are temporary balms that avoid the underlying issues. We need to accept that the United States didn’t just appear fully formed, gleaming with unmalleable perfection. It’s not perfect. It’s an ongoing process, a great experiment in Democracy. It needs to be tended to, given near-constant adjustment to reflect changing times, attitudes, demographics, and points of view. But more than that, it needs to start with the acknowledgement that the Founders wanted these changes, needed them, expected them. They left plenty of room for interpretation, for debate, even so far as to say that if the government isn’t working, the people have the right to start over again. That doesn’t equate to disloyalty or lack of faith in the American Dream. Just the opposite. But it requires taking a long, hard look at ourselves, warts and all. Because the idea of America is its greatest strength—and is worth fighting for. But hiding from its faults doesn’t help anyone. We have to make a distinction between nationalism and patriotism. We have to accept some uncomfortable truths.
There is no denying that we are seeing a rise in racial tensions. There is no denying that the federal government is clashing with local leaders. There is no denying that our leaders are telling us that the other side cannot be trusted. There is no denying that the needs of the people are not being met because of the petty internal squabbles of leadership. There is no denying that people all over are angry, frustrated, and willing to accept scapegoats. There is no denying that our news media is under fire. There is no denying that intellectuals—and science itself—are being attacked, or perhaps worse, dismissed. There is no denying that our election processes are being placed under suspicion and have been affected by interference both within and without.
I could go on, but you get the point. No matter which side of the aisle you fall on, we can agree things are bad. There are a LOT of factors that have gotten us to this point. And not just in Washington but in our own neighborhoods. We’re headed down a rabbit hole no one is going to like. But again, I don’t think it comes down to Republicans versus Democrats.
It’s going to be Trump and his people versus the rest of the United States.
From the left’s perspective, Republicans tend to be lumped all together as part of the problem. That’s simplistic nonsense. Republicans aren’t inherently bad. For many years growing up, I would have been considered one of them. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with conservatism in terms of fiscal responsibility and questioning government interference and wanting a strong economy.
Those seem like rational views. One of my heroes (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a proud, responsible Republican. But the party I saw in my younger days is all but unrecognizable from the one we see today. And that’s why we’re seeing so many Republicans standing up to this seismic shift and separating themselves from those who would follow Trump blindly off the cliff. We’re seeing a massive break of party members not becoming Democrats but simply