“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
— William Butler Yeats, 1919
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. But as things grow stranger, as the impossible becomes ordinary, I can’t help but think that we are witnessing something historic and transformative, that we are leaving behind an era of political stagnation and have entered a period of outright metamorphosis, passing through something on the way to becoming something else.
Something better? Something worse? I haven’t a clue, but the suspense is so great that I almost want to avert my eyes and binge-watch the whole thing later, after it’s over.
Both major political parties are shaken, threatened, the establishment unable to assert itself. Yeats puts it well: ” … the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” The fact that this discontent has erupted simultaneously in both parties suggests that it has a common source, even if it manifests itself in different ways. In both parties, we get the sense that the old explanations, the old prescriptions, have run their course, but have yet to be replaced by something new. The political verities of the last 50 years have lost their ability to bind or soothe.
And as much as he preens about the stage, Donald Trump is not a cause of that disruption but is merely its symptom, an opportunist rushing to fill a temporary vacuum. He claims to have the answers at a point when everybody else is still uncertain what the real questions might be, and that makes him appealing to some. But he is an empty vessel that echoes loudly.
In some ways, this pervasive sense of pending change is deeply misleading. The truly important changes — technological, economic, demographic –have either already occurred or are so far along as to be irreversible. What we’re witnessing is the panicked attempt by our political system to try to catch up to those changes, to respond in a period of weeks or months to changes that have played out over decades, but that they have refused until now to address.
That reluctance is natural. We know that in times of great change, people have a tendency to grasp ever more firmly to the old, even as it crumbles to dust in their tightly clenched hands. A year ago the dominant political dynasties of our era, represented by Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, were expected to have their respective nominations sewn up by now. Nope. Instead Jeb has been reduced to a figure of ridicule and pathos, and Hillary is stumbling, unable to find firm footing. Watching Bill Clinton founder on the stage, so oddly out of step, suggests that even the master politician, the famed crowd whisperer, knows not what to make of the world around him.
And it’s not just us Americans of course. After 45 years, the bipolar world of the Cold War, pitting capitalism vs. communism, gave way to a unipolar world of U.S. pre-eminence. After 30 years, that era is now itself giving way to a multipolar world in which power and responsibility are diffused. It’s not that the United States has declined, it’s that centralized power of all sorts, in all fields, has been disrupted. In such a world, even the illusion of control is impossible to sustain.
Islam, for example, is no longer capable of insulating itself against an all-intrusive modernity, and has evolved no mechanism by which it can adapt. China is a giant manchild on the scene, trying to run before it has gained the coordination needed to walk, making a headlong dash toward the future and hoping to get there before its past catches up to it. Europe may have already lost that race and shows signs of knowing it, while the Middle East … the Middle East is a complete and tragic mess.
The Obama administration has been harshly condemned for lacking a coherent policy toward the Middle East, and the criticism is correct. The problem is, nobody can describe what a coherent policy in an incoherent land might look like. That ancient region of cramped ambition and unforgiven resentment gave us the maxim that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but these days even that cynical formulation is too simplistic and naive. We are trying to negotiate between the enemies of our friends’ enemies’ enemy pitted against our friends’ friends’ enemies’ friends, and who gets cast in each role varies depending on the day and situation. Turk vs. Kurd vs. ISIS vs. Iran vs. Saudi vs. Iraqi Shiite vs. Iraqi Sunni vs. Wahhabi vs. Alawite …. the notion of some that the U.S. military is capable of imposing order on all that is nonsense.
Historically, when peace has come to that region, it has been a hard peace imposed by clear winners. It’s an ugly thing to say, but it’s difficult to see how it all gets sorted out absent a tragic, clarifying, purging war in which old accounts are settled in blood, the survivors are all rearranged into temporary new places and the many dead are put into more permanent places of their own.¹ I don’t say that at all lightly, and of course that means of conflict resolution must be avoided if at all possible. I’m just not optimistic that it is.
It doesn’t help matters to know that we were the flame that lit the fuse, just as Osama bin Laden hoped we would be.
Back here at home, Republicans are in a bitter fight over the identity or perhaps even the existence of their party as they know it. They have defined themselves until now by their struggle against change, but there must always come a point when the change that they protest becomes a reality that must be accepted. Understandably, that’s a hard thing to do.
Likewise, Democrats who in recent years have been able to skate by defining themselves in opposition to the rage on the right are finding that suddenly insufficient. New questions require new answers that at the moment they are ill-prepared to provide. Yet somehow, in the next two or three months, both parties are supposed to sort all of that out among themselves before turning, united, to compete in a general election campaign.
So as crazy as it all seems, what we’ve witnessed to date is only the beginning, the prelude. Come November, the American people are likely to face the starkest political choice they have been given in over half a century if not longer, and despite their confusions about who they are, both sides are eager for the defining battle. Somebody is going to have to win, and somebody is going to have to lose, and this time, I get the sense that the outcome won’t be close. The icejam is going to break.
But like I said, maybe that’s just me.
¹One major country is absent in that discussion, but its absence is on purpose and deserves explanation. Given the internal conflicts that have broken out within the Islamic world, Israel — once the central point of contention in Middle East politics — has basically become a side issue in the region. That alone tells you a lot about how quickly the situation has evolved.