Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Crisis Without Consensus

                      The Cold War Consensus didn't care for Henry Wallace

Recently I have been thinking a lot about how the end of the Cold War has been underrated in understanding American politics. Some of this comes from reading Julian Zelizer's excellent book about the rise of Newt Gingrich. His brand of scorched earth politics, which dumped governance for power by any means necessary, would not have worked in a Cold War America. That conflict forced a certain level of consensus, no matter how strained.

The Global War On Terror also had its own consensus, evidenced by Democrats voting along with George W Bush to bring the nation to war with Iraq. At this point I should say that I do not consider the Cold War or GWOT consensus to be good things! Both led to horrible things like the Red Scare, Vietnam, the Iraq invasion, and the PATRIOT ACT. I'm more interested here in getting at the domestic effects of consensus politics and as a comparison to our current situation.

The coronavirus is a crisis that lacks consensus. It's the most destructive event this country has faced in my lifetime and instead of uniting the country, has further divided it. The Cold War and GWOT formed their own consensus, as did Pearl Harbor, the Great Depression, and World War I. You can't really respond to a crisis as a country when there's no basic agreement over whether the crisis is even serious or not. 

To go back to the beginning, a big part of the reason is that we are thirty years removed from Cold War consensus and have spent that time embedded in Gingrichian politics. I also think this is in some ways reverting to the mean of American history. This is the same country whose fundamental divisions led to a bloody Civil War just over 150 years ago, and those divisions haven't even been settled! The Black Lives Matter movement is still having to push back against "the badges and incidents of slavery." There are still unreconstructed whites who want to keep up statues to Confederate generals. 

As the American Century ends, the global events that helped maintain consensus over a fractured and fundamentally divided United States have faded. It might be tempting to be only alarmed or sad about this, but this is an opportunity to finally have it out. The tides are shifting against the reactionaries, and they are holding on like the devil to maintain their power. There is no outside conflict they can use to blunt the forces of change anymore. Now is the time to act. 

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