The Curse of Interesting Times

What historians of the future will make of this week’s events on Capitol Hill is more than any of us can know. It may seem the United States can hardly grow more divided and angry, but that, I fear, is wishful thinking, an understandable attempt to deny the ongoing drama of disintegration. Those who eventually write the history of this time will, as always, be the victors, or rather, perhaps, those who survived, who did not reap the full force of the now gathering whirlwind. Perhaps historians will say Democrats made a colossal blunder in pushing their case too quickly, forcing a vote before diligently pursuing all legal means to build a case. Republicans may well be judged as having sold their souls for power, a treasure considerably less than the whole world. Most likely, this week will be seen as one step – perhaps a momentous one – in a larger, longer process.

I’m old enough to remember when impeaching a President was thought a one-off historical anomaly, a clash of ideologies that could only have happened in the chaotic wake of the Civil War. That the Radical Republicans fell one vote short of removing Andrew Johnson from office in 1868 was then seen as a near miss, a constitutional crisis that almost changed the way Americans – or at least those white males permitted to vote – governed themselves. Some historians suggest that if any of the ten Republicans who voted for acquittal had chosen otherwise, the federal government may have assumed a more parliamentary form, with the President assuming a smaller role as obedient executor of Congressional will. That none of the ten holdouts never again served in elected office reveals history’s short-term judgment, a fact I suspect was on Utah Senator Mitt Romney’s mind yesterday.

Of the many things that have changed in the intervening 150 years of federal governance, the growing power of the Executive now looms large. From warmaking to the power of the purse, it’s increasingly the President who proposes while Congress dutifully disposes or, perhaps more often, simply dithers. Neither new nor the work of just one party, presidential primacy became a matter of open concern well before Arthur Schlessinger’s 1973 book, The Imperial Presidency. How much it concerns even those few paying attention largely depends on who’s in the White House. Gerald Ford spoke of an “Imperiled Presidency,” unable to enact it own policies, and members of congress rarely complain when their guy’s getting done by executive order what they can’t accomplish through legislative compromise. Since Schlessinger’s book and Ford’s complaint, however, the country has undergone what Bill Bishop called “the Big Sort,” a clustering of citizens into increasingly homogeneous, like-minded enclaves, the polarized ideological silos that render near neighbors unintelligible to one another.

The form this takes in legislative bodies like the US Congress has all but ensured dysfunction, creating a vacuum the executive branch has been more than happy to fill. Believing the results of the 2020 election will significantly alter this dynamic is, I think, an unwarranted triumph of hope over experience. The reins of power may change hands from time to time as the wagon of the nation-state lurches back and forth on the road, but the driver – whoever that happens to be at the time – holds the reins and the whip and isn’t about to give either up. Not that character, integrity, and truth-telling don’t matter, of course. After the collapse of the Roman Republic, a virtuous emperor was always preferable to a venal one, but no matter how much the reigning Caesar talked about returning power to the Senate, it never happened.

When understood as a nation, the United States has always been an imagined community, its connections based on something like shared moral sentiment rather than blood, ethnicity, religious practice, or even political engagement. How much that inchoate sentiment was ever truly shared depends on where one drew the line between “We the People…” and those who, for whatever reason, didn’t really count. Americans have often taken pride in being unable to define precisely and for all what it means to “be American,” leaving that to each individual to determine and live out. Whether an imagined community whose shared identity is a matter of consumer choice can cohere in an ideologically fractured post-truth world remains for those now living to see and tomorrow’s historians to ponder.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote, “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” The result, she added, “…of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”

In such a moment, it is absolutely necessary that people of good will speak truthfully, act conscientiously, and listen carefully. Careful thought must guide speech, attention precede judgement, and discernment result in appropriate action. The outcome is beyond our control. How we behave is not. In the words of what is often described, without any documented source, as “an ancient Chinese curse,” we are doomed to live in interesting times.

Image: Hannah Arendt, c. 1963, Jewish Chronicle Archives/Heritage Images