In the bad old days before Year Zero, some Americans used to know about something called the Miracle of 1800. The reason America's first transition of power from one political party to another was called a "miracle" was because the peaceful transition of political power in a democracy was not something that had been known to work. There is, in fact, no particularly good reason to think that it should work. And yet, miraculously, it did work. Perhaps it was that Americans, still fresh with patriotic feeling for their new country, forged in a Revolutionary War, willed that it work. Who knows?
But even when it did work, there was no real reason to assume it should go on working. Yet, Americans saw it go on working. Perhaps there was something exceptional about America. Who knows?
In fact, the peaceful continuation of American democratic governance went on working so well, and for so long, that Americans began to take it for granted. They began to see peace as a sort of natural state of their political life. And political violence as something, strange, foreign. Something that, if ever we should observe it, could be explained only as something that must have been imported.
Violence, we came to assume, was not among America's gross domestic products.
In the bad old days, too, Americans used to acknowledge death as a fact of life. Illness was commonplace, and it took from all groups, not just the old. Poverty, too, was a typical and certain condition. If a person did not work, he would not eat. And then, almost suddenly, there came a point when Americans could expect good health, and a long life, as the rule and not the exception. And to accompany that good long life, Americans could assume a comfortable and satisfying job, and settle in somewhere in the broad middle-class. These became nearly as certain as the Laws of Thermodynamics. Exceptions to the rule prompted questions that someone was to blame for upsetting the natural order of things.
But then came 2020, a year wreathed in horror. That year upset the presumptions of perpetual good health, perpetual prosperity, and perpetual peace. The year 2020 came with these three sobering and ancient lessons: Good health is a miracle. Prosperity is a miracle. And domestic peace, too, is a miracle. Health, prosperity, and peace are not the story of human history. The story of human history is sickness, poverty, and war. They are the domestic product of every people, in every time, in every place. And we have no right to insist otherwise. Ever.
We suffered mightily under the tutelage of 2020. It drove its lessons into us with fire, pestilence, ruin, despair, and death.
It is now early January 2021, and it is clear those lessons, however cruelly drilled into us, were not learned. We still insist on health and prosperity, enforced under pain of law. We will take them by force, if necessary. And we still take peace for granted. We assume democratic governance is naturally and automatically self-perpetuating.
When Trump supporters broke into the Capitol building Wednesday, January 6, 2021, they acted wrongfully. Their actions were wrongful for exactly the same reasons BLM supporters' actions were wrongful when they broke into hundreds of buildings, both private and government, over the summer of 2020. These acts were wrongful because violence, except in self-defense, is wrong. And no justification of self-defense was ever offered by either group.
That short paragraph is all that needs saying about that. Yet we are now treated to endless versions of it, offered at indulgent length, by every person who is paid to offer political opinion in America. All talking heads think the country needs to hear, on an endless loop, that violence against our democracy is wrong. Fine. But Americans already know that violence is wrong. What they need to start hearing is why our democracy is worth keeping. And what they really need to hear is that our political class cares about our democracy – that they don't just care about maintaining the assumption that they are entitled to rule over our democracy, without meaningful challenge.
Both groups who committed recent violence in America – BLM in dozens of American cities in 2020; Trump supporters at the Capitol on January 6 – happen to have acted for the same reasons. They both stopped believing the very thing we ought never to have taken for granted: that our system of democratic government still functions. They both stopped taking for granted that our democracy is worth keeping. In 2020, these people on the left half of America told us that, for them, the Miracle of 1800 was dead. And on January 6, 2021, these people on the right half of America told us that the Miracle of 1800 was dead for them, too.
That, my friends, is a serious problem. These BLM supporters and Trump supporters were not attacking democracy. Their violence was not a threat to democracy. For these people, democracy was already dead. The violence we witnessed was the violence our democracy, during its miraculous existence, had kept at bay. As our democracy continues, in the eyes of growing numbers of Americans, to die, I am afraid we will see the ancient violence fill its place. Not something new, as though from the outside, but something that has always been, covered over by the thin veneer of our democracy. Our democracy is an artwork, painted over a bloody canvas.
There appears to be precisely zero acknowledgment that the peaceful continuation of democratic self-government should not be taken for granted. Instead, every reaction to January 6 is about pointing blame. Donald Trump is at blame for "inciting" his supports to invade the Capitol building (though that is bosh). Republican senators and lawyers are at blame for giving credence to claims about election fraud (though officials charged with the responsibility have not bothered to investigate, let alone prosecute, the many instances of credibly alleged fraud). Social media is at blame for not more tightly censoring claims that undermine trust in the American voting system (as if their censorship were not already intolerable).
Blame? Blame is what got us here. If democracy fails, it is not because someone committed violence. Violence is always the default position, lurking in the background, and never more than a few millimeters from the surface. Shower upon a man every earthly blessing, chided Dostoyevsky, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. No, iPhones and DoorDash and porn-on-demand and bubbles of bliss will not keep a man from storming the nearest AutoZone. And nihilism about toppling statutes of our country's founding patriots seemed an improbable way to instill reverence toward the same country's legislative buildings.
Nihilism is what is killing our democracy. The leftists who toppled statutes believe, because they are taught to believe, that the people the statues depict – the people who founded our country – hated them. And thus that the country itself hates them. The Trump supporters who invaded the Capitol believe – because the people in that very building told them – that the people in that building, who run this country today, hate them. A country cannot have peace while its government tells its people the country hates them. Yet our government has managed to tell both halves of its divided nation that they are hated. If there were a Darwin Award for governments, the American political establishment would be tough to beat.
As I said, violence is always lurking just beneath the surface. We do not place blame for man's fallen nature. We only ask how to mitigate it. We used to call this civilization. Violence is also mitigated through speech. Not polite speech. The only kind of speech that could ever serve as a substitute for the thrill of violence is the kind that lets 'er rip. No mute buttons or fact checks or penalty boxes. A man who would just as soon fight his opponent is not going to submit petitions to a censor. If you desire democracy, you must give a man his adverbs.
Trump tells his supporters he hears them. Trump's opponents want to censor them. They've already censored Trump himself. Raucous free speech was one of the ways we ensured peaceful democracy. Not polite democracy. And not always exactly peaceful. But peaceful enough. And when the alternative is the war of all against all, as Hobbes believed – and the grim history of mankind bears him out – peaceful enough is enough.
But that safeguard is gone now. Our political and corporate establishment refuse to accept the American form of democracy: crude, and not always completely peaceful, but a mostly peaceful democracy. Those who would defend the peaceful continuation of democracy today have a mind to impose it forcibly. They will censor you. They will take your adverbs (and give you new pronouns instead). They will put you on lists. Dox you. Humiliate you. Destroy you. They will no longer tolerate the rough peace we enjoyed through the crude exercise of our freedoms. They insist upon a perfect peace, through the exercise of their strength. They will achieve peace through war. War is peace.
I will tell you why they are doing this. Our political establishment is a government without a country. Trump's supporters are a country without a government. The calls for Trump to resign, and the building of lists so that Trump's supporters will never have representation in the current government again, are not helping our democracy. The Trump supporters' spontaneous, stupid, and wrongful actions against the government is not the real story. The real story is the government's wrongful actions against its people. That is why we do not have peace. And that is why we will not have peace for quite some time to come. Except the Orwellian kind.
If democracy fails, it will not be because someone did something. It will not be because someone is to "blame." Democracy is not a thing that may be taken for granted. Democracy, if indeed it can last at all, lasts only as a result of...of what, exactly, we have never been able to answer. That is why the first peaceful transition of power in 1800 was called a miracle. There has never been a better word for it.
It is perhaps not for nothing that that miracle persisted for so long as America could be called a Christian nation, or at least a nation with Judeo-Christian values, who worshiped Yahweh, the God of our founders. The America that saw its miraculous experiment continue was a praying nation. America today is a blaming nation. I do not know what good there is in blaming. I will leave that for others to answer. All I know is blaming has not yet produced a miracle.
If we would like another miracle, I suggest we start praying for one again.