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[Essay]

Is America Ungovernable?

The difference between protest and reform

Illustrations by Mike McQuade. Source photographs © Alamy, Ron Sachs/CNP, and Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

[Essay]

Is America Ungovernable?

The difference between protest and reform
Adjust

Donald Trump’s first and (if we are lucky) only term as president will be remembered for his unconcern with the pandemic and his catastrophically wrong prognosis. The president’s neglect of duty was also among the causes of a recession and, indirectly, a disintegration of public order. In a functioning democracy, leaders are blamed for such multiple strokes of bad fortune. And yet there has been consistency in Trump’s approach. Confusion is his method of running the country, as it was for running his businesses, with their serial bankruptcies. He piles up disastrous victories from the distrust he is able to sow. Grant that he is mad, bad, and dangerous to those he works with, and that the executive power he wields is a present danger to the United States. Trump, however, is possessed of the remarkable ability to render large numbers of people as crazy as himself. This holds true for his voter base. The furor has also infected the media, the Democratic Party, and the activists in the streets.

The summer of 2020 found America in a crisis of authority whose dimensions were not fully explained by the ignorance and irresponsibility of the president. A shocking event recorded on video, the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, turned the eyes of the nation inward and ignited a rage that has lasted into September. Daily protests and nightly riots have dominated the news and riveted the country. No one knows what people are thinking about what they are seeing. For a time, it appeared that climate change had become the unifying issue on the liberal side, in America as it is throughout the world. But in the past several months, harbingers of the future of the planet—fires and floods, droughts and unprecedented infestations—have been pushed aside and replaced with a burning question. Can the United States rid itself of racism once and for all? The question is asked by front-page articles, by editorials, by the daily protests and the nightly riots. The protests, and the riots too, have been drastic and persistent. If the Democrats are the saner of the two parties—the only one that still resembles a coherent political entity and not the captive entourage of a demagogue—the long summer that began on May 25 has shown it to be a party uneasy with exercising authority over disorder. This political default is all the more disturbing because it magnifies an apparent change of course in the entire culture.

Within days of Floyd’s killing, institutions began issuing pledges to redirect their resources to the fight against racism. In accordance with the doctrines of Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, which these statements closely echoed, “antiracism” differs from the practice of racial equality through its commitment to reparatory promotion of Black interests, Black representation, and Black jobs. “The only remedy to racist discrimination,” Kendi’s central axiom asserts, “is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” Present discrimination, that is, against white people is to remedy past discrimination against Black people. The present status of Black people is supposed to be marked at every moment by systemic racism. White people are oppositely marked, so the doctrine maintains, by the reality of white supremacy. In every civic or cultural encounter, race identity supervenes on personal identity.

It may be unsurprising to read such avowals from the Poetry Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Book Critics Circle, the Yale School of Drama, or the Rutgers University department of English, to pick a few prominent instances of self-conscious institutional diversion of resources to the cause of antiracism. A large-scale directive “to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis” around the issue of race in the battle against Trump had already been declared by the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, after the disappointing upshot of the Mueller Report. What was astounding was the speed at which so many extravagant commitments emerged, the unembarrassed politicization of culture to which they testified, and the number of institutions that fell into line.

The manner of these public declarations was also unusual. Pledges of solidarity commonly took the form of confessions. Perhaps the strangest display was afforded by Democratic congressional leaders “taking the knee,” their shoulders draped with kente cloth. But the calculation behind such scenes was best illustrated by the messaging from universities. The first version of an apology by a university president, as Yvonne Abraham noted in a canny piece for the Boston Globe, was liable to be denounced for its lack of passion. The president of Boston University frankly admitted to the feebleness of his initial attempt: “Many of you have read that letter and have told me I did not do a good job in expressing how I felt about this tragic situation and the state of the country.” His revised effort sought to repair the damage: “The deaths of Black men and women at the hands of racists should shake every other soul in this nation and make us understand and share your anger.” Similar two-part apologies or restatements-of-aims were issued by the presidents of Harvard University, Middlebury College, and a good many other schools. The point was not to explain conditions on campus; it was rather to approach a semblance of comity with a disappointed constituency.

Expressions of group contrition have long been part of American culture. They draw on what is ultimately a religious emotion: the human need for atonement. Confessions expressive of “surprising conversion” provided the impetus for the Great Awakening of the 1740s, and the Second Awakening of the 1850s. Apologies of a less overtly religious character, driven by sudden accusations and the threat of the blacklist, became familiar during the McCarthy era. “I was a fellow traveler with Communists in the 1930s,” ran the confessional script, “but now I understand the shining good of Americanism. I was blind but now I see.” A similar protocol, dictated by fear of being shunned on social media, was conspicuous in the #MeToo awakening of 2017–18 and the emergence of a progressive blacklist maintained by the authoritarian left.

This history was overlooked as protests began this summer—easily forgotten in a country where two years can seem as long as two decades. But there is no doubt that the #MeToo movement set a precedent for the Black Lives Matter escalation. In both cases, the pressure was turned on fast and never let up, and the sincerity of exhibited penitence has mattered as much as the gravity of the offense. The message to those who apologize has been unmistakable: “Say it like you mean it. Understand that we are watching.” On June 13, 2020, Spike Lee felt the need to backpedal and apologize for a kind word he had said about his friend Woody Allen. Lee had a movie out, and couldn’t risk the Twitter storm.

Consider the weight of that concession. If even Spike Lee wilts under the glare of social media, what is the president of a university or the director of a museum to do? These signals of accusation, ultimatum, and apology now constitute a well-understood ritual on the left; but it is possible to overrate their broader political efficacy. The mainstream press is constantly asking Trump to apologize for something. Though he has much to apologize for, he never gratifies their wish, and it doesn’t seem to have cost him any votes. In his crude way, Trump understands a truth that more seemly public figures are innocent of: a voluntary apology, the effusion of spontaneous feeling, may be counted as magnanimous, but an extorted apology looks nerveless. And it is always an invitation to ask for more.

Source photographs © Alamy and iStock

The willingness to utter verbal formulas on command—and to revise them under correction, if necessary—is closely related to another recent development in respectable culture: the deliberate exclusion of news that is bad for the cause. This culture has mostly erased the boundaries that once separated academic from journalistic discourse, and political reporting from political advocacy. The morale of the culture is revealed by a common menu of the characters to be admired or deplored, as well as the catchwords and clichés and incidental phraseology that convey the necessary features of an attitude. The attitude in question was born and incubated in the academic environment of the Eighties and Nineties, but over the past generation it has migrated from the academy to the media and from the media to the Democratic Party. The transition may be gauged by the growing currency of terms like “binary,” “intersectional,” “phobic,” “toxic”—among a great many others. When academics used this language, they thought: “People outside don’t hear what we’re saying.” This was a comfort in some ways: it meant that hyperbole and wild paradox could be uttered without embarrassment. Professional deformations did not suffer correction by a standard of good sense. Academic ambitions might be exorbitant, but the culture was insular and everyone knew it. When the attitude spread to the media, however, the illusion set in that a certain we was everyone who matters. We can say and do what we like. They don’t matter; they are a declining majority. And anyway they still don’t hear us.

But they did; and they do. The mainstream media and the Democratic Party got 2016 very wrong. The grossness of their blunder was facilitated by the suppression of bad news and inconvenient facts. Reporters for major networks and newspapers knew that Trump was filling stadiums while half the seats in a high school gym sat empty at a Clinton rally. This disparity meant something, but right up to Election Day, the liberal corporate media made sure their followers were unaware of such omens. To the extent that the information surfaced, its import was minimized. The truth was that large numbers of ordinary people (including many Black voters) hadn’t been stirred by the Clinton campaign the way her admirers assumed they had been.

The disappointment led to a protracted attempt at restitution—a long train of plausible but insufficient challenges to the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. These efforts to undermine his credibility had the quality of a fuse that kept burning out, was relit again and again, but never quite reached the bomb it was meant to detonate. Trump has long been a person of interest to law enforcement for many reasons. He had been a pariah on Wall Street since the 1990s, yet he kept picking up buyers for his apartments. It wasn’t clear who was keeping him afloat, or rather it was almost too clear—empty apartments mean Russian oligarchs and money laundering. Yet the forces aiming to overturn his presidency took a turn so misjudged that only a panic siege of group thinking can explain it. The intelligence community, the Clinton campaign, the mainstream media, and the Obama Administration in its final months of power, transferred the idea of Russian business connections to an overall theory of Trump-and-Russia. They repeated rumors about Trump’s idolatry of Putin. They puffed up half-digested facts to insinuate that Trump was a Russian agent. They sniffed treason in every dim report that brought the names of Putin and Trump within three degrees of separation. Of all the instances of misconduct eventually catalogued in the Mueller Report, the surest sign of the president’s aim to obstruct justice came in Trump’s musing (in a gangster grammar between wish and command) that Mueller ought to be fired. None of his auditors put it through, so Trump was left unsatisfied but blameless.

When the Mueller Report arrived at the office of the new attorney general, William Barr, it came with an extraordinary conclusion: the president was cleared of conspiracy with Russia, and though he might have obstructed justice, the report did not recommend indictment, but neither did it exonerate him. This last was so foggy an equivocation that it opened a path for Barr himself to make the call. He did just that, and Trump was off the hook. Robert Mueller had behaved toward Barr as a hierarchically respectful old-school lawyer might have been expected to act. The most aberrant detail of the investigation was Mueller’s decision not to compel the president to be deposed in person: a fateful choice, hard to explain on any grounds except reluctance to precipitate a constitutional crisis. The impeachment that followed took up the Russia conspiracy idea again, but at one remove. The circumstantial evidence was stronger: Trump withheld money appropriated by Congress to the government of Ukraine for the shipment of weapons. He did it to induce that country’s president to investigate Hunter Biden’s work for the oil company Burisma. Trump’s motive was obviously corrupt. Yet, here again, criminal intent and criminal performance failed to mesh in a convictable deed. Trump did finally release the money for the weapons shipment, without conditions.

As we enter the last leg of the campaign before another election, the same anti-Trump forces are looking at upbeat poll numbers and thinking once more that their opponent is so morally depraved that the causes of his popularity needn’t be noticed. Once again, the suppression of bad omens is accompanied by the suppression or airbrushing of bad news. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and NPR have all grossly underreported the destruction from riots and looting this summer. Many of the cities where protests occurred have Democratic mayors, and in most cases, these mayors understated the violence and chose not to call in the National Guard until the rubble was piled high. Instead, they addressed the rioters as if they were a slightly unruly group of students who probably meant well. An ABC News tweet on July 26 offered an unintentional parody of the tendency: “Protesters in California set fire to a courthouse, damaged a police station and assaulted officers after a peaceful demonstration intensified.” “Intensified” there functioned as a revolutionary euphemism for gutted shops, broken windows, stolen goods—just as, in the second stage of the French Revolution, “effervescence” became a euphemism for terror.

“They don’t hear us” has become “They don’t know about this” (because we are playing it down). But the image-saturated and scandal-rich online environment affords access to anyone. Readily available photos and video clips show police stations and government buildings on fire and city shops with broken or boarded-up windows. Conservative papers such as the Washington Examiner and the Daily Mail are online, too, and they say out loud and freely display the things the Times and Post hint at. The divided coverage of the riots has continued a pattern from an earlier stage of the university-to-media cultural revolution. One had to look to the conservative press to catch a glimpse of the miscarriages of #MeToo, for example, or abuses of authority in the early hunt for a Trump-Russia connection. On the other hand, one relied on the corporate liberal media for truths suppressed or ridiculed on the right, concerning the reality of climate change or Trump’s likely reasons for firing five inspectors general in April and May. The ideological division of labor in honest reporting, taken to this length, is new in this country, and it is ominous.

The most startling exhibit of a selective approach to facts and logic arrived as soon as the Floyd protesters broke the rules of the novel coronavirus lockdown. One began to see medically certified notices of approval and solidarity with the crowds. The most remarkable specimen may have been an open letter publicized in the first days of June and signed by 1,288 “public health professionals.” The mass demonstrations, this letter asserted, might seem to violate previous orders on the health restrictions necessary in a time of pandemic. However, the exception was justified because racism itself constitutes a health crisis, and perhaps a greater one than the pandemic. The double standard was jaw-dropping. Why (anyone might ask) are thousands of concerned citizens, marching shoulder to shoulder across the Brooklyn Bridge, any less a danger than the hundreds of young Miami Beach partiers the liberal press had excoriated only weeks before? The letter cautioned against misreading its endorsement of the mass antiracism protests as an encouragement for anyone else to take to the streets, touch each other, or shout. Protests against lockdown orders were a danger to public health. Black Lives Matter protests were a service to public health. How could this juggling not be interpreted as hypocrisy?

Over the long summer, many Americans first encountered words that have long been in academic circulation, but towering over all the others was systemic. The word carries enormous persuasive force, if you allow that individuals have no agency: we are governed, it suggests, by mechanisms of presumption and discipline that work through us. Michel Foucault on punishment and Frantz Fanon on colonialism are the thinkers whose work underwrote systemic, but the value of the word for accusation and polemic came from a simpler cause. “Systemic racism” suggests an involuntary, irremediable complicity in oppression for which every white person is accountable, and through which injustice is perpetuated. Even where apology is demanded, “systemic” makes the apology both frivolous and pompously irrelevant.

The antiracism doctrine of Ibram X. Kendi deserves a longer look for the way it cuts off all exits. “Only racists,” Kendi writes, “shy away from the R-word. Racism is steeped in denial.” And again: “There is no such thing as a not-racist idea, only racist ideas and antiracist ideas.” The antiracist ideology is thus proof against criticism. Just as a psychoanalytic zealot can blame “resistance” to his view on an unacknowledged father complex, and a Marxist may arraign all disagreement as a retreat to “bourgeois” certitudes by a typical property owner, the antiracist knows that his critic, by virtue of the criticism itself, is racist. So a necessary regime of discussion preparatory to reform is displaced by a regime of accusation and confession. Kendi’s belief that “every policy in every institution in every community in every nation” can be judged either racist or antiracist may weaken, by universalizing, his pronouncement that racism and capitalism are “conjoined twins.” Nevertheless, the asserted inner dynamic of capitalism-as-racism has served to justify the practice of looting in Minneapolis and other cities. As one Chicago activist affirmed in the days following the Magnificent Mile riot of August 10, theft by Black people is a form of reparations.

The protests this summer led to conversations about antiracism across America. And the sensation of living between two media worlds was never more marked than in the many different depictions of the unrest in the streets. Formerly reliable outlets like the New York Times scarcely mentioned the conflict between the Seattle police chief (Carmen Best, a Black woman) and the mayor (Jenny Durkan, a white woman), who told the police to stand down from the occupied zone in Seattle—an area that included a central police station and several government buildings. Durkan had predicted that if the leaderless crowd were just left alone, there would be a “summer of love.” By July 20, several people in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone had been shot and two had been killed; police had to retake the city center to prevent a deadlier anarchy. Best went against the wishes of the mayor and city council members when she appealed for a court order to regain her authority to use nonlethal methods, such as tear gas, to break up violent or threatening crowds. The chief at last resigned when, having been excluded from negotiations, she was shown the extent of police defunding the Seattle city council had voted for: it would have compelled her to cut new officers from the force (Black men and women among them). You got a better sense of the story if you relied on a short AP report, or even on tabloids like the Daily Mail or the New York Post, than if you trusted the muted coverage in the Times or the Washington Post.

The same was true of much other reporting. On July 27, federal law enforcement officers in Portland, Oregon, spent the night inside the government building they were ordered to protect. The Times published a roundup of events in Seattle, Portland, and Oakland that was technically accurate but framed in a way that confused the earlier protests against Customs and Border Protection with later assaults against city police. The Times story acknowledged a strain of violence emanating from the crowd, but found the police mostly to blame. The story’s headline suggested an ecumenical empathy: joy, rage and suspicion: complex alchemy shapes a protest movement. “Alchemy” is a mystery word whose popularity is growing: you need the alchemy of protest to fight systemic racism. The story quoted a family attorney who said, “There is room for chanting and dancing and joyful noises and there is also room for rage. We make that space for each other.”

A much longer AP story, by Mike Balsamo and Gillian Flaccus, filed on the same day, brought a very different finding. Balsamo and Flaccus split their watch; she spent the night with the protesters, while he was inside the besieged courthouse with federal law enforcement. The wilder activists in the crowd, one learned here, had aimed laser pointers into the eyes of federal agents. Some were brought to the hospital for blindness. Other officers suffered burns from commercial-grade fireworks that protesters had launched. A bonfire had been built as a screen through which the crowd threw other miscellaneous objects at the officers on the other side of the flames. The crowd was composed largely of young men. As always in such scenes, there was the continuous excitement of risk. Sheer exhilaration at the breakout from the lockdown must have been among the mass emotions of the summer. Protesters in Portland had been trying, night after night, to pull down the fence around the courthouse: if they could once gain the advantage, they would rush in and overwhelm the federal agents inside.

What is the meaning of the expression “Defund the police”? The question needs to be asked, since many Democrats have flirted with the slogan. The protesters who chant the words hardly seem to care, but the phrase has come to represent several different ideas. Most generally, there is now broad support for national police reform, including measures such as banning choke holds and eliminating cash bail. Lawmakers are also using the phrase to push for reallocating budget funds: more should go toward cooperative community work and less toward SWAT teams. A third sense of defunding involves “dismantling” a department—that is, temporary disassembly followed by new hires and fresh instruction, a model that is said to have worked in Camden, New Jersey. Finally, there are the calls for abolition—no police. That appears to have been the endgame in Seattle.

The armored vehicles, tactical gear, and militarized rules of engagement that were on view during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown—a product of the Bush and Obama Administrations giving war surplus to police departments all over the country—never belonged to the proper arsenal and conduct of domestic law enforcement. On the other hand, additional funding seems necessary for police training, which could help departments avoid unjust actions like those captured on video in the cases of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and others. As for recent discussions about ending “qualified immunity,” by which police officers are exempted from civil liability for the use of excessive force if they follow correct procedure, the abuses possible under such a reform have yet to be thought through.

In New York, after the police stood down in some places during the first days of mayhem and staged a “slowdown” for some days after, shootings in July went up 177 percent from the same month the previous year. There has been a comparable rise in violent crime in other cities. Police officers, meanwhile, are regularly doxed on social media (thirty-eight by late July in Portland alone). Many cops are simply quitting. The riots have allowed them to clock plenty of overtime, their pensions are decent, and so they will check out in the first possible year of retirement, instead of the fifth or the tenth. New officers, again thanks to the riots, are harder than ever to recruit, especially in majority-minority communities.

The truth is that Democratic mayors have played a dangerous game in ordering the police to stand down. The mayors of Seattle, Portland, New York, and Minneapolis, in particular, have been discredited by their failure to set a personal example of concern for the rule of law. This was a result of their eagerness to be seen joining the battle against Trump. They put that appearance ahead of their civic duty, and will have prompted the question in some minds: “If the Democrats let this happen in the cities they run, what will they do when they run the country?” A crowd looking for trouble must be peacefully curbed; if it feels no restraint by a stronger hand than its own, it grows violent. To allow mass violence to continue is to concede that a given city—or the entire country—has so forfeited its title to authority that disorder may as well be condoned.

This train of thought offers the only coherent explanation for much of the action and inaction lately on view. We are living in a time of moral panic, when political professionals and cultural authorities have forgotten how to say their simplest lines. The comment Nancy Pelosi should have made about the vandals who dumped a statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore’s harbor pretty well writes itself: “At a moment of high political passion, some people get carried away, but the vigilante destruction of public property is always wrong. Protesters should consider how they may harm a good cause by actions like these.” Yet Pelosi could not bring herself to say that. What she actually said was, “People will do what they do.”

In August, a video captured a police officer shooting a Black man, Jacob Blake, seven times in the back—among the most egregious of such incidents yet caught on tape—and the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, erupted in protest and rioting. A governor who understood that his position called for restraint would have said something like this: “Police were responding to a call about domestic violence, and a conflict with the suspect developed during which he was shot. He is in serious condition. Details will follow when we learn what happened.” The Democratic governor of Wisconsin, Tony Evers, chose to say instead: “What we know for certain is that he is not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or our country.” A statement at once high-flown, emotional, and tending to excuse public disorder in advance. Riots in Kenosha were already under way when Evers spoke those words. They grew worse the next night.

Many voters feel they are facing a choice between anarchy from the bottom up (protests continuing indefinitely) and anarchy from the top down (Donald Trump). Doubtless, Trump meant to provoke conflict when he sent the CBP to cities in the Pacific Northwest. Those agents had never been trained to deal with civilian protest. Unfortunately, since Trump did aim to incite the protesters, attacks on federal buildings gave him an ideal pretext. A disciplined protest movement would have understood this and avoided making the president look good—or anyway look justified. But these have been leaderless protests (a fact at once denied and admitted by the new coinage “leaderful”). By the time Barr was called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on July 28, there had been so much destruction, defacement, and arson, and the statue removals and associated vandalism had been so long in public view, that the anarchic passion of the wreckers couldn’t be denied. Democrats on the committee sounded out of touch when they said, as Representative Jerry Nadler did, that reports of violence were a right-wing “myth.” In this setting, Barr came across as the reluctant bearer of a simple truth: law enforcement agents were guarding federal property, such as courthouses, which the police and city agencies were no longer capable of protecting. Media reports outside the U.S. liberal bandwidth (including the BBC) would bear this out.

In the midst of a pandemic and a recession, when the ugly words and spasmodic evil deeds and gestural politics of an unfit president have led many to despair, the country may seem wide open to every kind of change. Young people, especially, feel they can participate by giving up things they used to hold dear: the wish for safety, for example, or the opportunity to think for themselves. But it is not true that such a renunciation of one’s will—in effect, delegating conscience to the movement—reliably becomes a gain for someone else. “Black lives matter” is a tremendous slogan because it is a reminder; the very fact that the reminder was necessary said something. But the BLM emphasis on the unitary burden and demand of Black people, as if they were a collective entity, presses out of the picture the reality of Black persons. Nor has any reporter tried to gauge how many Black people agree with BLM—not the three-word sentence, but the named movement under whose banner the crowds of activists have marched.

Still, calling someone a racist in 2020 inflicts as sure a wound, with as light a burden of proof, as calling someone a Communist did in 1952; and Democrats in our time have found antiracism as valuable a weapon as anticommunism was for Republicans in the McCarthy period. But if it is never good for a major party to associate itself with civil disorder, this is especially so for a party that seeks to embody political legitimacy against a president it calls illegitimate. The women who founded BLM had their first notable mainstream success when they disrupted a speech by Bernie Sanders in July 2015, demanding that he say the words “Black lives matter.” Initially, Sanders tried to argue with them: economic security, he thought, could matter as much as race, the “privilege” of a poor white person being not manifestly greater (for the help it buys, the pain it dispels) than the privilege of ten million dollars in the bank (no matter your race). But Sanders eventually made his peace with BLM, and the pattern of disruption followed on other fronts.

Long before the onset of COVID-19 and the Floyd protests, a mood of revolutionary fervor set in, and Democratic leaders followed more than they sought to channel or control that mood. A new ethic of iconoclasm spread from statues of Confederate military officers to those of Ulysses S. Grant and George Washington. Petitions circulated calling for the removal of monuments of Lincoln and freedmen in Washington and Boston. The liberal establishment generally expressed a vague sympathy for the removals; their reservations never rose to a pitch of clear disapproval. This diffidence set the stage for Trump to address his audience at Mount Rushmore on July 4 as the defender not only of law and order but of a national heritage now under attack. By that time, the protests in Oakland, Chicago, Austin, D.C., and Los Angeles had shown impressive staying power. Ordinary people in the cities with the largest and longest-lasting protests, such as Minneapolis and Portland, are likely to respond the way people do when they see that the truth of their situation has been ignored or suppressed. The total reaction will be plain only when ballots are counted, but there have been disturbing indications. A poll by the Cato Institute, published on July 22, showed that 52 percent of liberals “feel they have to self-censor”; among conservatives the proportion rises to 77 percent. This will affect the reliability of opinion polls in a country where voting is done in secret and someone who votes wrong cannot be doxed.

If you want to make a revolution, as constitutional reformers have long understood, you should take care not to call it a revolution. People don’t like the idea of their familiar habits and practices, the objects and ideas they have lived with and feel a certain affection for, being overturned all at once. That was why Lincoln insisted that the 1860 Republican platform, which would set permanent limits on slavery and thereby assure its ultimate extinction, was “eminently conservative.” People’s attachment to their property is conservative, and it comes into play when they see that public things they care for (a kind of abstract property) are in danger of being effaced or destroyed. All the altered names and prohibited words, the statues decapitated and windows broken, the fires burning outside, and sometimes inside, the courthouses—these manifestations can seem an attack on feelings that are as important as possessions. “We’re taking away everything you’re used to,” the rioters seem to say. “This is revolution. Now deal with it.”

Well, but if you are a poor white person in Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Maine, which iteration of the Fourth of July will you now be told to celebrate? What will your kids be taught in school? The sentiments behind such questions have not been imagined by Democratic leaders. Of all the Democratic mayors, only Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta came out early and categorically against the riots. The recent and humorless adoption of the word “righteous” to celebrate people on the correct side who breach a code of manners, morals, or law is a sign of religious enthusiasm on the brink of a new fanaticism. So is the recent vogue of “reckoning”—as in the day of reckoning, when the proud and lofty shall be brought low.

A party that aims at a long-lasting national majority cannot afford to continue on the trail that was bushwhacked in June, July, and August. For without the approval of the people missing from the protests—their willing cooperation, if not their votes—major reforms may be proposed and implemented, but they will sink shallow roots and will soon be gone. As white Americans saw this summer (not for the first time), and as Black Americans have always known, racism is real. But though Americans of all colors are practiced at denying it, class is equally real. In a confused and hectic state of uncertain authority, people look for any force that promises a measure of stability. Today, that may mean whatever force spares them another rupture on a par with the coronavirus and mass unemployment, the current derangement of the economy, and the greater difficulties that are likely to come.

Most people, even in a time like ours, live as they can and take short views. Will my job still exist next year? Will my business survive tomorrow’s siege? Will life out there go on being orderly enough for me to visit my friend without having my car stolen? The Nixon-like campaign that Trump is running, centered on “law and order,” is not for that reason destined to win as it did in 1968, but rational fears will linger in 2021 no matter who becomes president. A party or a government that ignores such fears will confront disorders of its own. Why would a movement that so quickly gained the upper hand against city and state governments temper its strategy in dealing with a new administration it believes to be its ally? Kamala Harris confirmed this reading of events when, in a mid-June appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, she said of the protests: “Everyone beware. Because they’re not gonna stop before Election Day in November, and they’re not gonna stop after Election Day. . . . They’re not gonna let up, and they should not.”

The demagogue-president had a discouraging spring and summer. He said every imaginable contradictory thing about the pandemic, refused to lay out a national plan for disease prevention, testing, and recovery, and gradually alienated himself from his widely trusted advisers Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci. On August 3, Birx pointed out that the virus was still dangerous, still spreading, and the president called her remarks “pathetic.” His penchant for attacking individual citizens, including members of his administration, reveals the most anarchic feature of his character. It will not grow mellower in a second term. The Democrats have stretched the limits of hyperbole in their continuous attempt to delegitimize him, but at least one thing they began saying in 2019 is true: a broken democracy such as the United States cannot survive four more years under such a president. If any proof were needed, he supplied it once more by undermining the legitimacy of the election before any votes had been cast. On July 30, he tweeted his suspicion that there would be widespread fraud, and suggested that the election be postponed. He has since denounced the incompetence of the U.S. Postal Service and the ease with which absentee ballots could be falsified. Characteristically, Trump offered evidence for neither charge. His nature is to sow chaos and trust that chaos is his friend.

If we define politics in a democracy as an unending peaceful argument aimed at consent to measures for the common good, the United States has sunk deep into aberrational politics since 2001. The political confusion and cultural upheaval of the past five years have seen us plummet several layers further. And yet, to make politics a search for the common good, political parties have to restrain the people they can control for the sake of continuing the argument. That is why the Republicans no longer constitute a party in any intelligible sense: they forfeited their stature as a rational association when they followed opportunity and advantage by marching in lockstep with Trump. Democrats haven’t yet departed from their political character in a comparable way; but leaderless movements stand outside electoral politics, and a party loses credit when it responds indifferently to those who break the public peace.

Turn back to the riots in Minneapolis, D.C., Portland, and Seattle. They will be on voters’ minds this month, along with the pandemic and widespread unemployment. Donald Trump will exploit the violent outbreaks without tracing them to a proximate cause. He will use them to show that the Democrats are the party of disorder. Silence, in the face of that distortion, harms the only effective opposition the country has. But the Democratic Party kept silent about the unrest during its August convention, and the meaning of the evasion is unfortunately clear. Democrats must now trust their candidates to wield such an inspirational mystique that the crowds will disband of their own volition; or they must step forward to criticize the destructive behavior publicly, and rally the party to the cause of the rule of law: one law for all Americans, rich and poor. The latter would be at once the courageous and the prudent course.

Self-government means, originally, one person governing the actions of one person. You give the law to yourself; and you obey the law. Broadened to the reach of a nation like ours, it means that all of the people govern all of the people. Every person is answerable; no one is exempt. It is part of the popular wisdom of democracy, and true as far as it goes, that a successful reform government requires the supporting energy of a protest movement. On no account, however, must the government permit itself to be confused with the movement. The job of government is different, its aims wider and more practical. It cannot hesitate to condemn and punish the destruction of property. It cannot set up separate penalties for different classes of people who commit the same crime. If it does so, it opens the door to a general civil conflict, and the size and persistence of the trouble that follows will blight many hopes of reform.

 is the author of The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke and the editor of Writing Politics: An Anthology. His most recent essay for Harper’s Magazine, “Return to Reason,” appeared in the February 2018 issue.


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November 2020