The Island States of America: Is that this country’s future?
The opposite of left is right, the opposite of right is wrong/ So anyone who’s left is wrong, right?
Those are lyrics from a song that the brilliant Stephen Sondheim wrote for his 1964 musical Anyone Can Whistle.
In 2022, because of the polarization in this extremely divided country, the lyrics for a current song titled Whistlin’ Into the Wind might go something like this:
If there is only the right and only the left, there is no middle. If there is no middle, there is nothing left, right?
Is that right or wrong? What happens in these not very United States of America over the next few years will provide the answer to that question. As we begin this new year, it appears this great nation is on a devolutionary trajectory toward becoming the Island States of America.
States’ Rights Rule
Events in 2021 show that states’ rights are becoming dominant in this country’s systems of governance and the nation is becoming increasingly balkanized. There are numerous examples that support this analysis. To name just three, consider: voting rights, abortion rights, and gun rights
After Donald Trump lost the presidential election, in 2021 legislators in 19 primarily Republican-controlled states passed new laws limiting voting rights. There are more limitations to come in 2022. Nick Corasaniti of the New York Times reports that “… at least five states — Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire — have filed bills before the next legislative sessions have even started to restrict voting in some way…”
Earlier in 2021, it appeared that passage of one of the two federal voting rights bills under consideration could offset the impact of the state bills circumscribing and/or suppressing voting rights. For example, the Freedom to Vote Act would eliminate partisan gerrymandering. And the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would require states that have a history of voting rights violations to seek “preclearance” from the Justice Department before modifying their voting rules.
As the year draws to a close, the possibility of either of those bills being passed is becoming increasingly unlikely. There is no bipartisan support for either and, as Theodoric Meyer highlights in his piece for the Washington Post, the Senate would need all Democrats onboard to ensure passage and implementation before the 2022 midterms.
If things look bad for voting rights in 2022, they look even worse for abortion rights.
In May , the Texas Senate passed Senate Bill 8 (S.B. 8) to be implemented in September. The bill banned almost all abortions after a heartbeat can be detected for the unborn — which is at approximately 6 weeks. A case was brought to the Supreme Court for an emergency hearing to try to block implementation in September, but the Court refused to rule so the implementation moved forward.
On December 10, the Supreme Court ruled that providers can challenge the law. This was a hollow victory for providers because they can only sue Texas licensing officials but not the state itself. The Court left it up to lower courts to rule on the legality of S.B. 8, which had become known as The Heartbeat Act.
The Supreme Court’s inaction on the so-called Heartbeat Act sticks a dagger in the heart of abortion rights. It’s ruling on a Mississippi case, which will come later this year, may stop the heart of abortion rights from beating altogether. If the court supports the state, rights that were established by Roe v Wade nearly half a century ago will effectively become a thing of the past.
The Mississippi case, Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, would ban the majority of abortions after 15 weeks. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on this case on December 1. Based upon the nature of the questions asked by the justices, most of the commentary afterward opined that the court appeared inclined to support the Mississippi law
While the Supreme Court appears prepared to support depriving women of their rights to decide whether to carry a child, the question becomes will they deprive Americans of their rights to carry arms.
The Court already partially answered this question with its 2008 opinion in District of Columbia vs Heller, which stated that an individual had a right to have a handgun in a home for personal protection. In his majority opinion in that case, Justice Antonin Scalia stressed, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited… [The right ]… is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatsoever purpose.”
On November 30, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case from the state of New York to determine whether that “right to keep and carry” should include carrying loaded, concealed weapons in public places with “no proper cause requirements.” The state of New York restricts that right, as do seven states who have similar laws.
The Court’s ruling on this case will be significant for America’s gun-carrying landscape. As George Will noted in his Washington Post opinion piece, “…the Supreme Court must bring some regularity to a nation where in 2020 almost 20 million Americans had concealed-carry permits, and at least 21 states generally allow concealed guns to be carried without a permit.”
No matter how the Court rules, it will not bring “regularity” to a nation that, early in the third decade of this 21st century, is becoming more and more like the Wild West of old. As we noted in a blog published last June, gun ownership and violence has increased dramatically over the past two years. The final statistics from the gun violence archives show that 2021 was the most violent year for deaths by guns in American history.
While a large number of states — and the trend nationally — has been to restrict voting rights and abortion rights, the contrary is true for gun rights. From that it might be logically concluded that, in the U.S. today, states’ rights rule. And it could be further concluded that we are on the precipice of becoming the Island States of America.
The Island States of America in Historical Perspective
This is nothing new. This country was founded near that precipice and has been there more than a few times over its nearly 250 years of existence.
We examined this condition in some detail in a blog posted in July 2017 — early in the tenure of former President Donald Trump. Following is some of what we wrote back then:
For more than a decade now, much has been written about the increasing polarization and the tremendous philosophical and political differences among those in various states and regions of this country.
There are: The red states and the blue states. The coastal states and the heartland states. The big states and the little states.
The question becomes is the American democracy at risk because of this separation? The answer is it all depends.
Truth be told — and it should. The United States of America have never been all that united.
A retrospective look at the U.S. over time does not reveal an integrated, interdependent, and unified America. To believe otherwise is to ignore or misread history.
In fact, given our country’s history, the United States of America might even be a misnomer. A more accurate name might be the Island States of America.
Those Island States are held together by a constitution and a central government. But, they have fought with each other and together since this country’s founding to elevate states’ rights above the rights of the federal government to exercise certain controls over them.
The Island States of America at the Founding
The Articles of Confederation adapted in 1777, which established the Confederation of States, created a weak form of federal government and gave Congress virtually no power to regulate domestic affairs and absolutely no power to tax or regulate commerce.
By 1786 many of the individual states were bankrupt and the states were in an ongoing war of discrimination against one another. Recognizing these problematic conditions, in 1787 the Continental Congress called for a Constitutional Convention (Convention) “to devise such further provisions as shall appear to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the union.”
The Convention of 55 delegates from 12 states (Rhode Island, which opposed the Constitution, sent no delegate) was convened in Philadelphia in May of 1787. The delegates considered a number of proposals and plans — such as the Virginia Plan, which would have created a much stronger federal government, and the New Jersey Plan which would have kept federal powers quite limited.
By September 17, 1787, through a series of negotiations and compromises the delegates drafted a new Constitution. 39 of the 55 delegates — barely enough to win majority support from each of the attending state delegations — voted to adopt the Constitution.
That Constitution gave new powers to Congress such as regulating commerce, currency, and the national defense. But it also restricted Congress from regulating the slave trade for 20 years and allowed a slave to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportionment and electoral votes. Importantly, the Constitution also called for representation in the House of Representatives to be based on population, and for each state to be guaranteed an equal two senators in the new Senate.
Getting the Constitution adapted in Philadelphia was the easy part. Getting it ratified by the states required even further compromise and amending the Constitution itself.
During the debate on adoption of the Constitution between 1787 and 1790, many citizens raised concerns that the Constitution gave too much power to the central government and would result in tyrannical rule similar to that experienced under the British. They demanded further protection, both of civil rights and states’ rights.
Based upon this feedback, on Sept. 25, 1789, the First Congress of the United States put forward 12 amendments for ratification by the states. The 10 amendments to the Constitution that were approved became known as The Bill of Rights.
The majority of those amendments dealt strictly with protecting the individual’s rights. The Tenth Amendment, which reads as follows, protected states’ rights:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
As we look back on it now, this amendment might be labeled the Island States of America Amendment.
In spite of the addition of this amendment, and the entire Bill of Rights, ratification of the Constitution was not a slam dunk. It just squeaked by in some states. For example, the vote in Massachusetts was 187 for and 168 against. The vote in Rhode Island, the last of the 13 states to approve the Constitution, was the closest with 34 for and 32 against..
The Island States of America and the U.S. Constitution
As the foundation and framework for this democratic republic and our representative democracy, the U.S. Constitution is unquestionably one of the greatest documents ever written. Unfortunately, that same document establishes the context not only for the United States of America but for the Island States of America as well.
The Constitution does that by:
- Assigning the same number of U.S. senators (2) to each state regardless of its population
- Giving the states the right to redistrict their federal Congressional, state senate, and house districts in accordance with census results
- Establishing the electoral college, with electors from each state as the means for electing the President and Vice President of the United States
Those provisions in the Constitution make the states the fulcrum for political decision-making, and give the smaller states disproportionate power in the governance of the nation.
The assignment of two U.S. senators per state may have made some sense at some point in time. But that time is long past.
Larry J. Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, makes that point in his book, A More Perfect Constitution. He comments,
In the early years of the Republic, the population ratio of the most populated state, Virginia, to the least populated state, Delaware was 12 to 1. In 2004, the ratio was an incredible 70 to 1 between California and tiny Wyoming. Therefore, the current Senate is absolutely skewed in the direction of the small states. Theoretically, if the twenty-six smallest states held together on all votes, they would control the U.S. Senate with just under 17 percent of the country’s population.
The Constitution gives each state the right to draw federal congressional districts. As L. Paige Whitaker writes in a Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report, however, “The legal framework for congressional redistricting involves, in addition to various state processes, both constitutional and statutory requirements, and case law interpretations of each.”
Whitaker notes that prior to 1960, redistricting plans “were considered non-justiciable political questions.” The 1962 Supreme Court ruling in Baker v. Carr held that the plans were justiciable. Since then, “…a series of constitutional and legal challenges have significantly shaped how congressional districts are drawn.”
So, there’s no problem in the drawing of district lines any longer. Right? Wrong!
An AP analysis conducted of the 2016 election results found that political gerrymandering is alive and well. The AP looked at the outcomes of the 435 U.S. House races and approximately “4,700 state House and Assembly seats,” using a “new statistical method of calculating partisan advantage.”
It found that “four times as many states with Republican-skewed state House or assembly districts than Democratic ones.” Moreover, the AP also found significant Republican advantages in their U.S. or state house races in battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and Virginia. Each of these states “…had districts drawn by Republicans after the last census in 2010.”
Finally, there is the Electoral College (College) — a political anachronism in the 21st century if there ever was one. The College is presently comprised of 538 electors from 50 states (435 electors based upon the number of U.S. Representatives and 100 electors based upon the number of U.S. senators) and the District of Columbia (3 electors).
The College is probably the ultimate testimony to the pre-eminence of the Island States in our political system. It gives supremacy to the states over the individual voters. It gives greater influence to the smaller states and the voters in those states over those in larger states. And it gives the states virtually complete latitude to determine how electors are selected and votes are allocated.
In conclusion, these island states, legitimately constructed, are insular and polarizing by design. Because of their “legitimacy’ and the advantage they give to a minority over the majority of voters, it will probably be impossible to break their stranglehold unless the general public perceives it is threatened by the status of the current political, economic, and social condition of America.
The Island States of America: Today
That was our historical assessment in 2017. That assessment remains essentially the same today.
In 2017, we also observed that:
The Constitutional Convention and the Bill of Rights were major pivot points in American history that impacted the social and economic terrain of the nation and its citizens.
There have been scores of other pivot points through the years that have impacted the tensions between states’ rights and federal rights and have determined whether our island states have drawn closer together or drifted further apart.
To name just a few: The Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education; Roe v. Wade; and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 2022, are we at just another pivot point that we can manage or muddle our way through without derailing that fragile construct known as the United States of America?
We think not. We believe the United States is fast approaching a tipping point. A tipping point is “the point in which a system is displaced from a state of stable equilibrium into a different state.”
In 2017, at the outset of the Trump presidency, we asserted that the United States was in a nearly “apocalyptic state”. That state was being created, in part, by the Trump administration’s elevation of states’ rights and subordination of the role that the federal government played in decision-making and direction-setting to hold the United States together.
Trump’s island states approach to governing for four years, followed by the refusal to accept the results of a legitimate election and allow the peaceful transfer of power, combined with the continued perpetuation of the Big Lie, have made the current state of this nation much more apocalyptic than it was nearly five years ago.
If the current course we are on is not changed in the near future, there will most probably continue to be a United States of America, but it will be united in name only.
That’s not just our opinion. There are a lot of experts who have spoken out to support that conclusion — or worse.
Thomas B. Edsall, who writes a weekly opinion column for the New York Times, always does an excellent job in securing informed commentary on issues relating to the future of our American democracy. He opens his December 15 column, titled “How to Tell When Your Country is Past the Point of No Return,” as follows:
Political analysts, scholars and close observers of government are explicitly raising the possibility that the polarized American electoral system has come to the point at which a return to traditional democratic norms will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The endangered state of American politics is the dominant theme of eight articles published by the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday with titles like ‘Polarization and tipping points” and “Inter-individual cooperation mediated by partisanship complicates Madison’s cure for factions.’”
The academy is not alone. On December 6, The Atlantic released “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun” by Barton Gellman and “Are We Doomed? To head off the next insurrection, we’ll need to practice envisioning the worst” by George Packer.
The Academy and The Atlantic are joined by many others in their dispiriting analysis. There has been much written recently regarding the possibility of US state secession or of a civil war.
On December 13, William G. Gale and Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institution issued a blog titled “How seriously should we take talk of US state secession?” The answer is very seriously.
Gale and West open their piece by stating, “One troubling sign of our deteriorating civic mood is the shocking breadth of support for secession in the United States.” They cite several studies revealing a substantial percentage of both liberals and conservatives support possible secession of the state in which they reside.
Gale and West observe that “…it is possible to imagine a situation similar to Europe where a number of separate entities would emerge…” After further examination, however, they conclude, “Of course, the many unresolved questions and complex challenges…indicate that secession remains an unlikely scenario.”
Two authors published books near the end of 2020 that took an in-depth look at this scenario and drew different conclusions. Richard Kreitner, a contributing writer for The Nation, wrote Break it Up: Secession, Division and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union and determined, as he said in a New York Times interview, “Maybe it’s time to pull the plug.” In his book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, David French, political commentator and theological Christian, advocates taking steps to hold the union together through federalism.
Even more scary than the possibility of secession, making the U.S. an altogether different nation-state based upon legal actions, is the potential of a civil war erupting and said new nation being created through chaos and conflict.
In a piece published in the Washington Post shortly after the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, Melody Barnes, co-director of the Democracy Initiative at the University of Virginia and John L Nau, III, Professor of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia, advise:
Long before the Trump presidency spiraled completely out of control, many Americans comforted themselves by asserting we were not in a civil war. As we sift through the debris left by the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on Jan.6 — and anticipate what is likely to come — we ignore at our peril the cautionary tale of the last Civil War and what followed it.
In September of 2021, William Gale and Darrell West of the Brookings Institution weighed in again on whether the U.S. is headed toward another civil war. At the opening of their piece, they declare “It may seem unthinkable, and yet there’s much to worry about.”
As they did in their blog on secession, they draw upon a survey to support their assessment. That 2021 national survey, by pollster John Zogby, found that “a plurality of Americans (46%) believed a future civil war was likely. This compared to 43% who felt it was unlikely.
Gale and West identify several forces “pushing many to imagine the unthinkable.” Those forces include: hot button issues; high levels of inequality and polarization; winner-take-all politics; belief the other side doesn’t play fair; and the prevalence of guns.
Finally, there is a new book by Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego who serves on a CIA advisory panel called the Political Instability Task Force, titled How Civil Wars Start and How to End Them, that will be published on January 11 of this year.
Dana Milbank, in his December 17 opinion column for the Washington Post on Walter’s book, declares “Her bottom line: ‘We are closer to a civil war than any of us would like to believe.’” Milbank goes on to state, “Walters writes that the United States is now an ‘anocracy’ somewhere between a democracy and an autocratic state.”
Milbank notes that the U.S. democracy “had received the Polity index’s top score of 10 or close to it for much of its history.” During the five years of the Trump era, that score fell to 5 — which indicates there is a high risk of a civil war.
Milbank concludes his column by writing:
We are on the doorstep of the “open insurgency” stage of civil conflict, and Walters writes that once countries cross that threshold, the CIA predicts “sustained violence as increasingly active extremists launch attacks that involve terrorism and guerrilla warfare, including assassinations and ambushes.”
It is no exaggeration to say the survival of our country is at stake.
The Island States of America in the Future
As we said earlier in this piece, we believe the United States of America will survive. The overarching question at the beginning of 2022 is in what way, shape, and form will it survive going forward in the years to come.
Will the U.S. recover to a state of normalcy as a functioning democracy similar to that which existed in the past, where there is some sense of unity and balance between states’ and federal rights, and comity and concern for the common good among individuals of different ideologies and priorities? Or will it continue to exist in the current state of limbo, animosity, and alienation as an “anocracy?” Or will it be violently torn apart and rent asunder into a differently configured nation-state or confederation of nation-states?
These are matters of conjecture and speculation now. The answers will be forthcoming and determined on the playing field in the future.
What we know, at this point in time, is that there is an emerging game plan from those on the right, or the Republican Party, which is now the Party Of Trump, to at least maintain the current status quo and possibly deepen the division among these island states, further straining the connective tissue that holds us together. Even though it is reported that the Democrats are allegedly starting to gear up to win state and local election races, the Democratic Party nationally is still fighting amongst itself and has no cohesive and coordinated game plan to offset their opponents’ in the short or near term.
That influences our predictions for the future of these Island States. We preface these predictions with a caveat. That is, predictions are “guesstimates” based upon available data, the frame of reference for analysis, and the perspective of the predictor. They are definitely not a guarantee of anything to come.
Dan Gardner points this out in his book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway. Gardner shines a spotlight on failures by many experts, including the fact that in December 2007, Businessweek published a forecast in which all of the 54 economists surveyed predicted that the U.S. economy would not sink into a recession. These predictions came just before the Great Recession, which actually started in December of 2007 and ran till June of 2009.
In his book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, statistician Nate Silver does an excellent job of explaining why predictions go awry. In a nutshell, what Silver says is that the root cause of failure is a poor understanding of uncertainty and probability. Moreover, he points out that we, as consumers of information, tend to mistake the more confident predictions and those from more “authoritative” sources as the more accurate and reliable ones.
So it appears that forecasting the future may be a fool’s folly. Nonetheless, we rush in. Here are our fearless predictions for the expected, worst, and best scenarios for the U.S. moving forward for the next several years in this decade.
The Expected Case
Our expected case is that the U.S. will stay stuck in its current societal and political rut for some time. There was a hint of optimism after the presidential elections brought Joe Biden and a new agenda to the White House at the beginning of 2021. But what has been discovered is that a turnaround requires much, much more than clicking the presidential light switch.
Under Biden’s leadership, the macroeconomy has rebounded with gusto, a national agenda was implemented to combat COVID-19, there was a call for unity rather than division, the federal government became more relevant again, and the dialogue from, and with, the Executive Office — and nationally — became more temperate.
2021 has proven, however, that there are numerous factors beyond the control of the President that impact the attitudes of the citizenry and the mood and momentum of the country. While the macroeconomy is strong, the microeconomy is not so much so. Rapid inflation and increased consumer prices have had a substantial negative impact on the purses and pockets of the majority of citizens. The resurgence of COVID-19 and the Delta variant, due to the unvaccinated, followed by the emergence of the Omicron variant, has stifled the belief, which existed at mid-year, that we might be on the path to becoming COVID-free. The unexpected rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the debacle surrounding the American withdrawal harmed America’s image as a “winner” in the public’s mind.
But the major and overriding factor that has not changed for the better is that the avid supporters of Donald Trump and true believers of his rhetoric are members of what we — and others — have called the Cancer Cult. They number tens of millions, and they have no intention or desire of changing course, compromising, or finding common ground.
We issued a three-part series on the Cancer Cult earlier this year. In the first part we defined a cult as follows:
A cult is a group of people with extreme dedication to a certain leader and set of beliefs
The important elements of that definition are a “certain leader” and “a set of beliefs.” In this instance, Trump is that certain leader embodying, magnifying, and legitimating a set of beliefs.
Some of those beliefs are the beliefs of the members. The others are those of Trump himself. There is a reciprocity in this relationship that’s mutually beneficial to the cult specifically and harmful to society in general. In a phrase, this is a cult of personality and aligned personalities.
We examine the impact of the cult in considerable detail in each of our blogs. In the first, we look at the impact on the physical health of our citizens. In the second, we address the effect on our democracy. And in the third, we analyze the impact on our American mind and memory. Suffice it to say here, the outcomes have been extremely negative in each and all of those domains.
This is the current context and it is not a very positive one. There is no dawn on the immediate horizon. In fact, there are storm clouds.
Based upon his analysis of the redistricting and “gerrymandering” after the 2020 census, David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report finds that the dark red districts and the dark blue districts have increased, and the number of competitive districts has decreased by about one-third. Given this, it is highly probable that the Republicans will win the mid-term elections in 2022 and take back the U.S. House with a solid majority, and could get back the majority in the Senate also. If that happens, it will impale the nation at the federal level, which would exacerbate the nation’s divisiveness and gridlock, making the gloomy status quo even gloomier.
The Worst Case Scenario
The 2022 elections will be a prelude to elections in 2024. There are two views of our worst-case scenario after that. The first is that the Republicans win the presidency and control of the House and Senate, and proceed on a path to dismantle the federal government’s role on all domestic fronts and with respect to most human rights issues. That was a defining modus operandi of the Trump administration. The second is that the Republicans lose the presidency and there is a wave of violence nationally and anti-governmental actions at the state level that push us toward the civil war or secessionist condition discussed earlier in this blog.
The Trump administration did not try to eliminate the federal government domestically. It tried to make it irrelevant or invisible. It continuously elevated conservative states values and legislation over federal laws or initiatives.
As an example of what could happen going forward with Trump or a Trump-like successor at the helm in conjunction with a Republican-controlled Congress in 2025 after the 2024 elections, consider two new trends emerging at the state level. In this past year, at least 26 states passed laws “taking away the powers that state and local authorities use to protect the public against infectious diseases” — requiring the wearing of masks or promoting taking vaccines, for example. And by October, 8 states had banned teaching critical race theory while another 20 had such laws under consideration. A conservatively-controlled federal government could pass national laws supporting and reinforcing those state laws.
Republicans totally in charge of the nation in 2025 would definitely curtail the federal government’s role and leadership in many areas. It might be hard to believe, but Republicans not being in charge of the nation could have an even greater negative consequences for the future of the United States as a “unified” entity.
There could be an armed insurrection with attacks on the U.S. Capitol and lawmakers by those who felt disenfranchised that would make January 6 look like a walk in the park. Or, as three retired generals wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, there could be a military coup. Or the red states could use the loss to mount a full out campaign to exit from the United States and create a new country called the Confederate States.
These hypotheticals might seem impossible, or at least implausible. But then again, who could have imagined January 6 — except for those who planned the overthrow of this nation? The bottom line, with the Republican Party amuck in discussions of the acceptability of political violence, is that the probability of our worst-case scenario occurring is not much lower than that of our expected case.
The Best Case Scenario
By contrast, the probability for our best-case scenario is low. So low, in our opinion, that we were almost prepared to say that there is no best-case scenario.
Then, as we did further analysis and reflection, there emerged a possibility — even though it is a slim one — of the best case occurring. It would be driven by the Republicans gaining considerable control in 2022 and taking anti-democratic or autocratic actions so radical they provide the basis for mounting a successful challenge to Republicans within “swing states” and nationally in 2024.
These actions could trigger a blue wave and a large turnout of traditional Democratic voters. More importantly, they could drive some of the approximately one-third traditional non-Trump Republicans who have still continued to vote Republican to not do so in 2024. Most importantly, it would ensure that independent voters become the determinant factor in the presidential election, as they were in 2020 and in many congressional races in 2018.
The importance of independent voters in both 2022, and especially in 2024, can’t be overstressed. We think that former president Donald Trump understands this and this may be the reason why he has come out recently advising his followers and the unvaccinated to get vaccinated.
Trump’s motivation may be that he has been converted to be a “truth-teller” in the crusade to halt COVID-19. A more cynical perspective is that his vaccine advice could provide the impetus to begin to shift independent “never-Trump” voters and lapsed Republicans in his direction if he runs to be President in 2024, or toward candidates the former president supports in 2022. An even more cynical perspective is that Trump is doing this now so that if the Republicans take back the U.S. House by a large margin, they would nominate him for, and he would win, the vote to be named Speaker of the House.
While this would not make Trump president, it would definitely be an unprecedented win. And given Trump’s fondness for winning, and inability to concede defeat, he might revel in this victory and use it to launch his candidacy for re-election for the presidency. If this is his motive, in a strange way we hope he is successful. That’s because we believe the one thing that would significantly increase the probability of realizing our best-case scenario which follows would be the former president Donald J. Trump as the Republican candidate for President in 2024.
In 2016, Trump ran without a record and was able to barely skim past Hillary Clinton because many voters did not know who he was and did not view him critically. In 2020, that was not the case, and in large part, he was his own undoing. In 2024, given his egregious behavior following his loss including the encouragement of the January 6 insurrection, his excessive baggage is even heavier, and would make his winning again not impossible but improbable.
Those are our predictions. We make them fearlessly, but also fearfully, because they are not optimistic in nature. That is because, as we have said, the U.S. democracy is at the precipice.
Just as climate change has ravaged this planet, changes in the political, social, and economic climate have pushed the island states further apart. Our democracy is on a slippery slope. It has already slid half way down that slope into a state of “anocracy.” It will be easier to slide down that slope to the bottom to become an autocracy than to reverse the direction to climb back up to the top in order to continue this great experiment called the United States of America.
Keeping the Island States United
Is it possible to change that downhill slide?
We absolutely think it is, but as the foregoing discussion suggests it will be an uphill battle. Much will be required to keep this nation united.
Three key ingredients will be:
A national leader with a compelling vision and cross-cutting appeal and support. Barack Obama was such a candidate and president. His message in his initial campaign, “Change you can believe in,” was simple and drew people of various stripes and persuasions to him because of its non-partisan nature. In his 2008 race, Obama received 9% of his vote nationally from Republicans and 52% from independents. Ballotpedia identified 206 counties that Obama carried in 2008 and 2012 that Trump won in 2016.
21st century citizens who are American patriots and community builders. These will be concerned citizens who view America’s division and the anti-democracy trend with alarm and will be ready to come together to build the nation’s social capital and the common good. As American patriots, they will pledge allegiance not to a flag, a religion, or a race but to the call from the founding fathers to work always to craft “a more perfect union.” They will link arms to unite America, not take up arms to divide it They will commit to building bridges between us and not walls.
A unity agenda around which citizens can rally. That agenda will reinforce faith, confidence, and competence in government at all levels. It will spell out how the federal, state, and local levels of government multiply the capacity of the United States and do not detract from it. It will demonstrate the benefits that have been achieved through unity. At a minimum, it will incorporate the following elements we outlined in a 2020 blog as essential to preserving our American democracy: the American dream; federal government; civic life; civic learning and engagement; and the public health system.
As citizens, we should remember, as noted earlier, our federal government was not founded to be the pre-eminent component of our governmental systems. The three equal branches at the federal level were created to ensure a balance of powers and the states were given substantial space and authority to offset the federal government’s roles and responsibilities.
The citizens’ collective faith in the federal government has diminished considerably over the past half century and more. According to various surveys, our trust in the federal government to do the right thing, either most or all of the time, has fallen from the low to mid 70’s in the late ‘50’s and early 60’s, to the mid 20’s in 2021.
Louis Menand highlights, in his August 16 New Yorker article, two recent books that blame different groups for this substantial decline. In their book, political scientists Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris point the finger at the Republican Party fueling distrust, beginning with Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for President and going up to Donald Trump. Historian Paul Sabin in his book points his finger at liberal reformers, with a particular focus on Ralph Nader.
We believe there is enough blame to go around. We would point the finger at Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, and at we citizens who have become less and less knowledgeable about government and civically engaged in this century. Having said that, the need is to stop the finger-pointing and to get involved in doing things that will help to unify this country.
The race to do this is a critical one. In a blog in which we named “critical race” our word of the year for 2021, we stated:
2021 was a crazy and convoluted year in which rationality was abandoned, the Big Lie became the purported truth, and personal preferences triumphed over concern for the common good. That’s what caused us to choose critical race as our phrase for the year.
It is not a race to the finish. It is a race for the future. The performance of America and Americans will determine this nation’s condition moving ahead in this 21st century.
We think that part of winning that race is not despairing and giving up but persevering and coming together. This year was the 75th anniversary of the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life.
In January of last year, we published a blog on that movie titled “Make 2021 Our Year for Building a Wonderful Life” which began as follows:
This past Christmas Eve, NBC ran the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Those who have not seen this phenomenal film might think it is just another feel good and mindless holiday movie.
It is not. It is just the opposite.
It is a feel real and mindful “dark” movie with a powerful message. That message is what we do in our life to build community and to help others matters, even if we lose sight and confidence that it does.
It is one year later in January of 2022. There is an even greater need to hear and heed that message because the building of community still needs to be done in order to keep these island states united.
Those are our thoughts and insights on our country’s future. We close this blog as we began it, with words from Stephen Sondheim. In the opening, we quoted lyrics from a Sondheim song about the right, the left, and the middle. In conclusion, we quote Sondheim in a statement from the New York Times, in which he says:
Life is unpredictable. It is. There is no form. And making forms give you solidity. I think that’s why people paint paintings and take photograph and write music and tell stories that have beginnings, middles and ends — even when the middle is at the beginning and the beginning is at the end.
To borrow and build upon this thought from Sondheim:
As we have written, America is a song that tells many stories. At 246 years old as a democracy, it might be considered middle-aged, but could still be thought of as in its beginning or approaching its ending. The essential question at the outset of 2022 is whether the American democracy is at the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?
We hope and firmly believe that it is at the end of the beginning. This will be the case if we as citizens understand the perils of the country’s current condition, discover our better angels, and do everything that is required to ensure this democracy is not extinguished but continues to shine as beacon of hope for all in the United States of America and around the world.
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.