United States of America; “we the people”, irony, and order 22-Jul-2021

Counting heads - “we the people”

Frontier Mogul is interested in frontier markets and America looks very interesting.

America is definitely not returning to the American frontier. Cowboys and Indians, outlaws, railroad magnates, homesteading, prospecting, the gold rush, and high noon, no.

Yes to "where and wither". (America is also definitely not returning to the Civil War. That’s silly. More on that later.)

Some data isn’t a bad place to start for some “where and wither”. 

On Bastille Day, Bright Line Watch released a study and polling about American political attitudes (Bright Line Watch 14-Jul-2021).

First key point: 37% of respondents overall indicated willingness to secede.

How much of this is bluster? Perhaps quite a lot.

Celebrities have wailed and moaned as long as you can remember (Chicago Tribune 06-Dec-2000) every 4 years about how they’ll leave the US if the presidential election doesn’t go their way. There were poll bumps for secession when Obama won reelection and little petitions triggered little responses (Reuters 14-Nov-2012). Worrying about “stolen elections” isn’t new (Public Policy Polling 04-Dec-2012).

How much of this is just mental repetition of “your side’s” mantras, and self-reassurance that you are a loyal Democrat/Republican? Perhaps quite a lot of that too.

But the direction is interesting.

A Reuters poll in 2014 found that 23.9% of Americans were open to the idea of their state seceding (Reuters 19-Sep-2014). If that same rate of increase continues +50% of Americans could support secession in another 7 years.

Is that level of support even necessary?

Many estimate (based on a misinterpretation of the founding father and 2nd US president, John Adams - see here) that only approx 1/3 Americans supported independence. Only about 1/3 (17.4m out of 46.5m registered voters) supported Brexit. That 37% looks a lot like 1/3.

Whatever the case, history is full of examples of small groups of committed people who change the world.

Second key point: Democrats in Democrat areas, and Republicans in Republican areas, and Independents in the more swing-state area (“Heartland”) are more in favour of secession.

Bluster and self-reassurance are not interesting on their own. One side wins, the other side is unhappy. What’s interesting is that everyone is unhappier simultaneously.

Add to this the apparent escalation.

In war-gaming around what could happen in the 2020 presidential election, Democrat and former Hillary Clinton advisor John Podesta advised that California, Oregon, and Washington states should threaten to secede if Trump won (New York Times 02-Aug-2020).

The Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas tried to further HB 1359, the Texas Independence Referendum Act (Texas Nationalist Movement 04-Feb-2021).

In Oregon, 7 counties voted to leave to join Idaho (NPR 20-May-2021) because their rural voters want to be governed by Republicans.

Differences of opinion are becoming stronger and more apparent; in how they’re voiced, geographically, and in resulting actions.

“We the people”?

Would it not in that case be simpler for the government to dissolve the people and elect another - “we the people”/irony

Increased support in secession is a sign of what you’ve probably already observed.

Americans are less happy to agree to disagree, and that the institutions of the US stand, that the process was fair and followed, and that it’s OK to make your case and try again in a few years.

A huge amount of political disagreement isn’t about policy differences and how public services are delivered any more. It’s increasingly about who is part of “we the people” and the terms and conditions about what their relationship with the polity is.

For example: access, process and postal votes, IDs, age of majority, counting machines, audits, abolishing the electoral college, census results and districts, non-citizens voting rights, dreamers and DACA, creation of new states, gun control, voting rights of felons, political donation rules, gerrymandering, building a wall.

If politics is a continuation of war by other means, then all of the above is about filling, drilling, arming (figuratively, 2nd amendment issues aside), and mobilising the ranks.

(America is definitely not returning to the Civil War. That’s silly. A little more on that now, and then more properly later, I promise).

The idea of secession keeps popping up in popular culture.

Let’s take the comedian Bill Maher as an example.

Do we take him seriously because he’s talking about serious things? Do we not take him seriously because he’s joking? Do we take him seriously because “that’s so funny OMG that’s so true”? Clown nose on when he wants, clown nose off when he wants?

Who knows any more? The west has never been more steeped in irony but humans are still not very good at dealing with it.

A surprisingly large number of staged relationships in WWE (never mind Hollywood) turn into real relationships. How much disbelief can humans suspend? Does repetition eventually just become the truth in the human mind? Who knows? Puffed-up, mouthy, gesticulating super-egos covered in fake tan and shouting about how they’re going to whoop their opponent? Is that the WWE or a US presidential race? Is Donald Trump just the first WWE hall of famer to get elected to the presidency? When does America get President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Camacho?

The ridiculousness and level of political aggression is increasing e.g. Barack Obama’s a secret Kenyan, Hillary Clinton & lock her up, the Russian collusion conspiracy theory, the QAnon conspiracy theory, the 2020 BLM carnage.

And don’t you know that the US was almost conquered by a half-naked, face-painted buffalo shaman, a lectern thief, and desk shitters? Is that an insurrection or Animal House? It’s not exactly the storming of the Winter Palace. Wait, didn’t Bluto become a senator?

More people are going to struggle to separate reality from the kayfabe and the best lies always weave some truth into them. Remember the above. You don’t need most people to be dangerous. You just need enough.

Bill Maher is right that there’s not going to be another 1860’s style civil war in the US. He’s wrong that another one would look like that though. It could look like the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Spanish Civil War, the war in Afghanistan, or any number of long, drawn out violent conflicts spread over patchworks of territories or mixed in across the population. Maher’s right that the Mason-Dixon line of today would cut through states, streets, and even bedrooms. The last one is a joke but horrifyingly real to anyone who has read Stasi reports.

The more interesting bit is about how Americans should stop bluffing about secession, stop seeing each other as “mortal enemies”, and instead more like a toxic family or “roommates from hell”.

Bill Maher is wrong. Hellishness is a good reason to leave. Nobody has to tolerate that. Looking at the polls, a lot of people seem to agree. Even if they’re saying it as bluster or with some level of irony, at what point does it start to become real? “Haha, Trump as president would be funny, I’m going to vote for him”...and we all know what happened. What’s next?

All of America’s political problems were supposed to go away with the replacement of Trump with Biden, right? Biden was supposed to represent institutional regularity, a politician since the early 70s, a nice, comfy, reassuring embrace drawing on the memory of the Obama administration. For a lot of people that’s exactly the problem. Trump was a symptom and not a cause. It’s still going untreated.

The result is that separation is now in a very early stage (though not necessarily irreversible) of becoming acknowledged, tacitly and practically, by political leaders on both sides, and Biden himself.

We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us - “we the people”

That was the USSR. Today’s USA might be more “Biden pretends to be the President of America, and we pretend to be part of America”.

The fight over the voting process in the US (BBC 13-Jul-2021) is revealing some feelings.

A number of changes were made ahead of the 2020 presidential election campaign about the voting process. The idea was that these changes tackle pandemic-related issues, like voting in person vs postal, increasing the time-window and early voting, etc.

Democrats are looking to formalise these changes for future elections in the For the People Act. Republicans have a problem with some, though not all, of these changes. They’re resisting a little in Congress and state legislatures.

Biden has been invoking the Civil War a lot, in some interesting ways.

America has “never been as divided as it is today, since the Civil War” (White House 24-Jun-2021). In his inauguration speech he said he wanted unity and compared himself to Abraham Lincoln (White House 20-Jan-2021). Lincoln said there could be one way or the other, but not both. Is the “where and wither” here that Biden wants unity under his crushing military authority?

Biden gave a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia where he continued to invoke the Civil War (ABC News 13-Jul-2021), addressing the Republican responses to the For the People Act.

Some highlights:

First and a half highlight. This is what Biden had to say about the January 6th riots:

“...violent and deadly insurrection on the Capitol...”

“The Confederates back then never breached the Capitol as insurrectionists did on January the 6th.”

Violent and deadly for who? Well, it turned out to be violent and deadly for Ashli Babbitt, who was unarmed and shot without any warning (Guardian 07-Jan-2021). It was determined later that a police officer, Brian Sicknick, who died on 06-Jan died away from the crowds, in his office, from strokes brought on by natural causes (BBC 20-Apr-2021).

The way 06-Jan is described doesn’t match reality, though it makes sense if you understand that nobles are always terrified of the idea of peasant uprisings. Today’s nobles are not exactly the mounted and armoured sword-swingers of the Middle Ages. Their terror makes some sense. Today’s nobles and peasants are more town and gown, perhaps. Plus ça change?

The other point is that Biden is comparing these people (and the Republicans, see below, because the “Confederates” quote directly follows the quote below) to the Confederates. That sounds serious. No. This is much more like Animal House. Wait, didn’t the Deltas build a Deathmobile?

Second and a half highlight. This is what Biden had to say about the Republican response to the For the People Act:

“The assault on free and fair elections is just such a threat, literally. I've said it before. We're facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That's not hyperbole. Since the Civil War.”

“For "We the People," for our democracy, for America itself, we must act.”

Assault? Not hyperbole? What the Republicans are doing today is as bad as industrialised slavery and war? What level of irony are we even on here given the origin of the Republican Party? Most significant test? Not women’s suffrage, Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment camps, forced conscription for the World Wars or Vietnam, not the Patriot Act?

What response is owed to the Republican Party if none of this is hyperbole?

(America is really, really, definitely not returning to the Civil War. That’s silly. More on that below, it’s coming, that is definite.)

Does Biden mean what he says, should he be taken at face value? A lot of Americans are going to have a lot of questions about exactly who Biden is talking about when he says “we the people”. Does replacing “our democracy” with “our oligarchy” make more sense, and applied retrospectively to everything said about Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, Ross Perot, and others?

OK. While Biden pretends that he’s president for the whole US, who is pretending to still be part of America?

Biden has a lot to say about the very serious measures Americans should take in response to Covid-19. 

Before inauguration he had reopening plans, he pushed a mask mandate (New York Times 29-Mar-2021), then he relaxed outdoor mask requirements (CNBC 26-Apr-2021), then he allowed vaccinated people to ditch masks (AP 14-May-2021), then he won’t rule out a lockdown (Newsweek 18-Jun-2021), and then he repurposed Independence Day for independence from Covid-19 (White House 04-Jul-2021).

Who is he speaking to? Definitely not Texas or Florida, or even the more rural parts of blue states, where they got rid of masks a long time ago, never bothered in the first place, and where people don’t care about Covid-19.

Biden is only speaking to Democrat-run states and cities. He is pretending to be POTUS. Republican-run states like Texas and Florida are doing their own thing. They’ll say all the usual, abstract patriotic-sounding things about America, its democracy, etc, all while ignoring America’s top leader. They are pretending that they are still a totally coherent part of America.

Maybe one side says that Biden is definitely President of all America, the others are just fleeting dissenters. Maybe the other side says the Democrats have long departed from the US constitution and traditions, and that their side has the real Americans.

Either way, that looks like the beginning of an irreconcilable difference.

Democrat Chicago is adding Florida to its travel advisory list (ABC7 21-Jul-2021). Some states have quarantine requirements for domestic travelling US citizens (CNN 13-Jul-2021). The Federal Government has recommendations (CDC 10-Jun-2021) but there haven’t been any outright bans of US citizens traveling interstate in the same way that some foreign countries and citizens are banned from US entry.

Readers should keep an eye out in case there ever are domestic restrictions like that. It’d massively compromise the Constitution’s Privileges and Immunities Clause and undermine the idea that Americans are all of one country, whichever their home state.

It seems less likely if the pandemic is on the wane but let’s see what the reaction is to the Delta variant (Guardian 21-Jul-2021).

We shouldn’t expect anything too exciting too soon but there’s only really two and a half ways this can go.

We can work it out - order

Finally. You were promised.

America is not heading for a civil war. That’s silly.

It doesn’t need to.

But with all this unhappiness there’s really only two and a half ways America can go.

Half. Things plod and stay the same for a long time. It seems likely American cohesion continues to deteriorate, which leads to one of two options.

First. Balkanisation.

There’s increasing support for it apparently. There’s no need for any sort of violent civil war. There are enough recent examples of peaceful breakaways and government overhaul. Brexit, collapse of the USSR, reunification of East and West Germany, the Velvet Revolution.

This mostly just requires people to go “yeah, that’s dumb, we’re not going to do that any more, there’s an alternative which sounds better, let’s try that” and in the above cases there wasn’t very much the existing power structures could do to prevent change.

Irony might be pervasive enough that something currently unthinkable might hit right.

How else do you explain recent American politics? Things that would have been completely unthinkable even a decade ago - reality TV presidents getting Pepe frog-memed into the White House, a giant political movement for defunding the police, locking Americans in their homes for over a year, buffalo shamans almost conquering the US - are increasingly regular.

What happens when someone says “guys, why don’t we just, like, abolish the US Government?” with cartoon accompaniment, and it catches on, gets memed and goes viral?

It could be very amicable. There are ex-Stasi officers who still receive a state pension in Germany. There’s probably even a Wehrmacht pensioner or two still on the books. The nobles of the old regime don’t need to be afraid. Some of them might even end up working for the new one.

That’d be one way to restore some order. Everyone could go their separate ways and do their own thing. Bill Maher doesn’t have to worry about his roommates from hell. They won’t be his roommates any more.

Second. Disruptive startup government.

If you’re particularly invested in the continuation of the US this will be more appealing.

A lot of people clearly don’t think the US Government is very good. It’s like a busted old Blockbuster. It doesn’t deliver a service in line with today’s expectations.

Why not get a nice new disruptor tech startup Netflix government?

It could be like when they recast James Bond. Just pretend it’s the same guy, same movie, the same old government as before. Maybe next time it won’t be as rapey, racist, and dwarf-tossing as the last one.

Instead of US politics being a scrabble over who gets to do what to whom, maybe someone needs to come in, straighten out the nonsense, and clearly delineate everyone’s place and how everything will be run and delivered.

US govt startup could set some order, take responsibility, and set anyone straight who’s trying to mess around with anyone else. Dad needs to separate the fighting brothers, they can sit in the corner for a while and think about what they’ve done, and then go back to being a happy family.

Skip the chaos after Julius Caesar’s murder. Why not go straight to Augustus? Skip the insanity of the Terror, go straight to Napoleon.

If you want America to stay united, you probably need someone with the power, authority, and competence of an Abraham Lincoln. That’s not Joe Biden. It’s not Trump if he comes back in 2024.

Is it anyone? Probably not for a while.

May you live in interesting times

Returning to Bond, and at the risk of sounding like Elliot Carver, living in interesting times would probably be good for Frontier Mogul.

There’s enough happening to say that we live in mildly interesting times at least. The prospect of new American frontiers is still distant.

Just keep an eye out.