Weekend Edition: A little bit, right now, everywhere, every day
The 2022-ness of what we're living through started well before this cycle, and we need to embrace both a longer horizon and new everyday, always-on approach to our civic life to find a new path.
Author’s note: This essay is an invitation to a long conversation that I’ve been wrestling with for months but obsessively so since the Paul Pelosi attack ten days ago. “Why not four or five essays?” you ask. Good question. First, I believe we need to try as best we can to take in all of these subjects together and endeavor to see them apiece of a larger, more solvable challenge. Second, these connections are fragile and tenuous and because they are emotional and confronting, they are hard to hold, they resist consistent inspection, but they are so interrelated that they need each other to make sense. I recommend taking your time with this one — be gentle with your reactions and the speed of your conclusions — I hope the effort is worth the opportunity in the end.
I had a Halloween tradition going there for a while of writing essays about Democrats misinterpreting elections. It was interrupted by the COVID Presidential cycle, but this essay I wrote in 2018 feels oddly consistent with what I might write have written this year. Except, I’m tired of cycle-specific narratives. Partially because they always seem to elevate some small symptom of a deeper underlying trend in politics and culture to some inaccurate, binary, determinative status that misleads both voters and campaigns. And partially because they belie most people’s lived experiences and feed the political animal industry more than any productive dialog about a civic life that might support communities and elevate leadership.
So instead of adding to the miasma of midterm pre-post-mortems, let’s talk about where we are more broadly, the context for the mid-term cycle we’re mercifully coming out of, and see if engaging in a conversation that reaches for all of what we’re experiencing might could contribute to the kind of deeper understanding that might could lead to a new story that might could pull most Americans eager for a new American story into some kind of alignment about the possibility of a shared future.
The unbearable heaviness of being
“Man, the world in 2022.” We hear some version of this refrain almost everyday.
“How are you?” “You know, 2022.” “Phew… Hear ya…”
Constant challenge, confrontation, relentlessness that exhaust us. But also a growing sense of intractability and inevitability that discourage. Part of that relentlessness is rooted in the language and narrative of crisis that has come to dominate almost every civic and social concept we confront. Some of that repetition is driven by the media looking for attention and campaigns with the volume stuck at eleven. Some of the inevitability is driven by systems straining under the weight of their own unsustainability after generations driving us toward growth, expansion, and a very narrow, fragile idea of progress. Each of these crises individually feels essential, fundamental, existential — and each also feels inevitable in ways that resist action or make us feel that the are beyond our reach, scope, or agency. They are not. But it is this combination of urgency and inevitability that contributes to our sense of fatigue, angst, even despair when we see the world through narrow windows and short horizons. But the pain and paralysis of that posture only holds when we get stuck so close to the elephant that we lose sight of the elephant.
This series of crisis narratives that dominate our 2022-ness has broken through into our collective cultural and civic conversation, but we’ve engaged with them in isolation. In isolation each feels both too far-fetched to really consider seriously and plan around and too terrifying to be willing to look at.
The collapse of democratic legitimacy
Outrage is not discourse
The use of force as a moral good
Political violence and The Civil War versus a civil war
Secession in place
But in combination all of these things taken together make more sense and seem, counter-intuitively, to be more solvable, addressable, less inevitable, more manageable than when they are taken alone — perhaps precisely because they only make sense when taken all together.
1. The collapse of democratic legitimacy
The core pillars of effective democratic culture and healthy democratic governance are well-studied and well-understood, but not widely held or deeply understood these days in favor of broader hand-waving appeals to patriotism and nationalism wrapped in democratic tropes. Commitment to self-determination, self-government, pluralism, civic duty leads to systems that are participatory, fair, majoritarian, and openly accountable. Continued unaccountable minority rule we’re suffering through will eventually erode any remaining confidence that our republic is an active exercise in self-government. Democracy also works because we believe that we are represented by people who have been selected by us. But the more disconnected American cultures become, the more we feel we are being ruled by others selected by others, the more our willingness to submit to the rule of law decreases because it is not by us for us, we don’t see ourselves. And when we don't see ourselves in leadership, it's difficult to trust we will be taken care of by institutions. For many communities, this disconnect between community and leadership has always been their American story. But increasingly, as our government has become more and more captive to narrower and narrower interests via processes that feel less representative, that story has become the American story. It is these “we”’s that need our attention. Who is in our “we”? On what do we need to agree to decide we are allies? Fellow citizens? If there are “we”s in America who don’t believe they can or will ever be presented in our democracy, they will begin to erode the system not out of spite but out of desperation. The current populist conservative anti-democratic pressures are rooted in this desperation along with a healthy nostalgia and the deep pain of futurelessness.
We do not need to accede to conservative minority rule. But we do need to exercise caution amidst a deeply dis-integrated society. We — everyone who has ever called or been called or been appropriated into American — are all still here. We must be genuinely inclusive of the people with whom we share community — the ones we rely on, invisible and visible, acknowledged and hidden, empowered and ignored, supported and disenfranchised — across many, many dimensions. We must be broad and diverse and inclusive. We need a creative declaration of everyone all together. We need to redefine what we mean by we — redefine what we mean by America and American. Now we can do that together as an integrated, collective experience — or we can continue to try to impose a narrow construction on the rest of the country as previously defined and see if we can overrule and outshout our neighbors. And for democracy to flourish with renewed legitimacy, we must be willing to get some of what we want some of the time, so that we can get the things we have to have all the time in more stable, consistent, trusted ways — or we are going to have to architect our governance of community power entirely.
2. Outrage is not discourse
My entire book and half of what I’ve written for the last two years — Outrage versus change and conspiracy theory providing the belong and safety that political community does not. Much has been made and diagnosed about the ill health of our public sphere and public discourse. Mis- and is-information are now constant topics in mainstream conversation. They have finally escaped from media critique into the wild of public discourse where they themselves have now been weaponized as terms of threat, malfeasance, and dismissal. The fundamental failure of modern media is the near impossibility of discerning who and what to trust without consistent, recognizable, shared markers of authority and credibility. But beyond the broad dysfunction of information systems not designed to build community or vibrant integrated culture, the key here to tap into are the risks associated with discourse collapse and especially its collapse into violent rhetoric.
If the fundamental problem with violence is that “it is a descending spiral” the language we use in our civic life is part of what starts the ball down the hill. If all discourse is outrage, if all discourse is final, conclusive, and lacks any room for exploration, creativity, questioning, fallibility, listening, two things become certain: one, we will utterly fail to engage in any kind of creative, generative community conversation — within or across communities; and two, we will alienate and dehumanize our opponents over time making physical violence against them not only easier to justify but ultimately something that we must do if we are good citizens — especially when our competitive political language is built on violent war metaphors.
3. The use of force as a moral good
Political violence, police violence, and gun violence are all deeply related, and a single failure to understand and communicate about the relationship between hard power and good citizenship is at the heart of our failure to advance a more open, peaceful, and safe culture.
Our approach from the Left to each of these problems has been to assume their immortality and treat (ban) the most egregious, dangerous symptoms of the expression of that obvious immorality rather than engaging with and working to reshape a culture that embraces violence as a legitimate part of the valid spectrum of tactics for community and political action. If you see the world as a place that predominantly attacks or takes and that our first instinct is to protect AND you think of human life as primarily individualistic AND citizenship is rooted in property then defending property with hard power is a key feature of good citizenship. And the need to express that hard power is inevitable.
In this worldview, at some point you will be called to pick up arms, and if you are not ready or do not answer that call, you are a bad citizen. If this way, hard power is morally right, good. In that moment, peaceful is immoral. Developing and building that hard power and then restraining it until it is inevitably needed is just healthy preparation and again a feature of good citizenship. Same is true for police training. Trained and restrained. Meant to wield hard power as the primary tool of protection that is inevitably necessary — police violence is therefore also inevitable and some element of overuse acceptable as a consequence of standing posture. Staying armed is essential to good citizenship, without arms you cannot be a good citizen when called to protect us and ours.
Now how we define the “us” and “ours” in that sentence really matters as it sets up the who we fight and who we fight for. But for now I want to focus on violence as a feature, a moral good in terms of citizenship. If that’s true then peace and pacifism are bad, immoral. Combine that with political discourse that frames all conflict as existential and filled with violent metaphors with a dose of macho masculinity and some tactical fetishism, and we have a deeply problematic recipe for increasing and increasingly dangerous political violence that is rooted not in extremism but tied to and marshaled by calls to good citizenship.
In this construction, violence is patriotic. Thinking of America’s founding as an intellectual movement, the foundation of American patriotism is full of violent narratives — Jefferson’s “the tree of liberty” as a common, prime example. This language remains a core building block of how conservatives think and talk about patriotism — deeply rooted in the language of personal sovereignty, power, and the inevitable violent challenge of tyranny. On the Left, there also exist moments when taking up arms against oppression and tyranny are morally good actions — slave uprisings, armed Black Panthers, etc. But when these actions emerge as both necessary and legitimate are much further in the historical rearview mirror and perhaps more importantly have been pushed further to the edges of acceptable political identity compared to the deeply present-tense sense of hard power deeply embedded in the current and mainstream culture of citizenship and patriotism on the Right. Additionally, as rhetoric has intensified and because hard power is more tightly tied to conservative’s sense of patriotism, it finds its way into the acceptable spectrum of political language and then behaviors with less friction more quickly and easily than on the left where it is confined to theoretical response to extreme threat largely beyond the realm of practical experience. On the right, that threat is ever present and the need for hard power inevitable.
The key here is that independent of what I (or we) might believe about human nature, political violence is much less of an absolute wrong than I might hope for nearly all Americans. In civic cultures where hard power and violence are so tightly tied to citizenship at any level, peace is work. These cultures are not inevitable: they are choices — stories we have elected to accept. They can be rewritten, but until we do, we need to make conscious choices about our relationship to political violence if we ever want to build a safer America. Consciously pushing away from our edges where it becomes acceptable, removing or redesigning forces that insidiously push us toward our edges, AND proactively pushing those edges further away from anyone’s day-to-day experience of civic life are required to building a safer society where creativity and generativity can safely encourage bridging and genuine engagement with difference as good, not as potential threat.
4. Political violence and The Civil War vs a civil war
Irregular political violence has been a constant feature of American civic life from our founding. It is nearly always attributed to deranged individuals and discounted as random or disconnected from the rest of politics or culture. Or perhaps a nod is made to broader civic dysfunction, but individual mental illness is almost always the ultimate attributable cause amidst whatever other events, conversations, and conflicts might be driving culture in the moment. They tend to end up representing release valves rather than canaries.
The attempted kidnapping of Nancy Pelosi that lead to the assault on her husband, Paul, is a much bigger event in American politics than has been made of it so far. We are seeing some discussion about just what this event might signify about the state of American civic culture, and President Biden put it at the center of his democracy speech last week at Union Station. But we also need to be connecting this event and this discussion of rising political violence to two other conversations that have risen in the last couple years: the escalation of acceptable political rhetoric and the possibility of civil war.
Hyperpolarization, hyperpartisanship, filter bubbles, confirmation bias are all consistent features of modern public engagement, information consumption, and American civic life, but physical violence is (and should be) something different. No matter how partisan politics feels, crossing especially into righteous, acceptable violence is a new stage of dangerous dysfunction. The recent Carnegie Endowment work by Rachel Kleinfeld has quantified some of the rising acceptability of threats and violence as legitimate on both sides of the political spectrum — comparing the state of American political conflict to The Troubles in Ireland in the the 1970’s:
In 1973 during the most violent period of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, 25% of Catholics and 16% of Protestants agreed that “violence is a legitimate way to achieve one’s goals.” The U.S. is fast approaching these numbers.
Politico introduced a concept from terrorism research to distinguish disorganized actors like DePape from the the discussion of organized violent political organizations like The Oath Keepers of “ungrouped.” Ungrouped is a new term to refer to independent actors operating outside any organized operation. Because of the nature of culture and intensity of existential threats in politics and commonality of violence and narratives of uprising, resistance, and fighting back against institutions that individuals are more capable of acting alone. I would consider we think about this differently than renaming “lone wolves”.
All of our information and cultural systems have been rearchitected by the rise of networks in recent decades. I have talked ad-nauseam about the evolution from channels to graphs in media — see some from me here, here, and here as well Networked Propaganda among others who talk about this rearchitecture relative to mis/disinformation and conflict. Rather than seeing “ungrouping” as a new way to describe disorganized actors, perhaps what we are seeing is actually the rearchitecting of organized political violence. It is organized. It is coordinated. Just not in the way that patterns from previous generations, operating in old architectures, would have us expect. It is tied together by consistent narratives driven by powerful graph-based cultural media engines and reinforced by the context collapse and narrowing opportunities for bridging with outgroups that create more distance between more tightly bonded ingroups and more different outgroups and overstate the misalignment of disparate, diverse American communities. And it is easily inflamed and harder to confront because of the breadth of populist dis-ease combined with increasingly porous boundaries between mainstream political engagement and genuinely dangerous fringe political action. And if this shift does represent the rearchitecture of political violence rather than simply the continuation of individualized, uncoordinated actors, then when do cross the vague line, usually controlled and defined in hindsight by historians, into a rearchitected civil war?
In the last year much has been made about the state of American democracy and the possibility of a second Civil War in America. There are many problems with most of this dialog, but the use of the phrase “civil war” might be the most problematic because of our particular history and the particular cultural resonance of The Civil War. In America, civil wars aren’t possible features of conflict — civil wars plural are things that happen in other places. The Civil War was the defining conflict of our young nation and not just an escalation of conflict but a conflict over the fundamental direction of the country. When political scientists and experts in political violence talk about rising cultural features that drive civil wars, we tend to dismiss them because they don’t fit our image of North vs South. They don’t seem to be describing what exists in our collective cultural imagination. We can’t see California declaring war against Texas in any way other than silly rhetorical hyperbole. But if we accept some version of the idea of the rearchitecture of political violence and that what we are seeing is organized, then we should not expect to see and do not need a Confederacy to secede from the Union.
If we lean into what happened this weekend with DePape’s attack on Paul Pelosi and expand the idea of ungrouping, perhaps this is what a civil war looks like in a networked world. And if do, this attack is merely another “battle” in an ongoing graph-based civil war. If this is the better, more accurate way to be interrupting what we're living through, without the benefit of hindsight, it has been ongoing, and it certainly predated January 6th. The Scalise shooting was definitely a “battle” in this “war.” Likely back at least to the Gabby Giffords shooting in 2011. I'm not certain what historians will decide was the beginning of this new stage of American civic life, but we aren't on the verge of something — we are in it. Wherever that line the defines what feels like an arbitrary but important boundary between our regular irregular political violence and a graph-based civil war is, that this discussion feels like a rational, non-hyperbolic set of questions (to me) about the state of American society suggests that that line is behind us. And even if we aren’t there yet, momentum suggests we need to start thinking about how to get ourselves out of such a conflict. If networked and decentralized like other graph-based disruptions, how does it end? With whom is peace negotiated? Who signs an armistice? Who gathers at Appomattox? If we are, in fact, already in it, perhaps the most important question right now is what does graph-based deescalation look like?
5. Secession in place
It has been over a decade since Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubbles,” and ever since America has been increasingly confronted by the disreality that results from a lack of cultural contact with neighbors and fellow citizens. Shared stories are the basic building block of culture and community. And the lack of shared narrative is not really new in America. Despite the nostalgic longing for “the days of Walter Cronkite,” that era simply represented a more homogeneous monoculture of privilege crowding out other voices not a more genuinely representative, curious, creative America. But because the old gatekeepers were able to constrain mainstream narratives and a lack of choices meant that most people did consume some shared stories even if we over estimate the degree to which they were widely and genuinely shared.
Beginning with the collapse of the fairness doctrine in 1987 and the emergence of 24-hour infotainment masquerading as partisan news followed by the rise of social media, we now live in an era where we don’t have to hear anything we disagree with. Ever. And that's exactly the way many people on both sides of the political spectrum like it.
When I see data on the left saying things like 89% of Americans worry about democracy taken as proof of a widely held majority opinion about the ills of American politics, I always ask about the follow up. I suspect there are two entirely distinct populations aggregated in that 89% who hold the same conclusion but blame each other for that state of play. It doesn't represent a massive majority of Americans willing to fight for democracy. It represents two hardened edges of a spectrum looking at the other side as enemies of democracy.
Enter new investments by conservatives in social media.
These moves tend to be dismissed as conservatives getting banned from “mainstream” media and having to create their own “crazy” spaces while rational people can stick to Facebook and Twitter. There are almost too many problems in that perspective to unpack in a single essay, but the element that I think needs calling out right now is how we're moving from algorithmically accelerated and reinforced filter bubbles toward self-created and increasingly hardwired, disintegrated cultural and societal infrastructure that actively resists bridging. Combine this with parallel service institutions, parallel technology stacks, parallel financial infrastructure, and very quickly we might see parallel political institutions emerge: two elections been run in parallel in the same territory, one by a county board of elections, one by a local partisan community group to protect liberty and democracy with their own ballots and their own processing both claiming to produce the legitimately elected representatives of the people. What if more people participate in the community-run election? Then what? What if in some smaller municipality, County Executives side with the community-run election? Local law enforcement would be in a profound and painful conflict with long-held friends and neighbors. Do state police intervene? Local national guard under direction of a Governor? The jurisdictional challenges would be mind-numbing and open to interpretation by partisan judges. It would be easy to imagine a politically aligned governor willing to “look the other way,” leave police to poice each other with painfully murky chains of command. And now we have small municipalities run by parallel pseudo-public institutions enacting their own laws completely divorced from but directly adjacent to the rest of the systems of the rule of law and enforcing them largely by social coercion and perhaps eventually private militias. This scenario is piecemeal secession in place. And it has already started. But it requires our inertia to build momentum: our disengagement creates the vacuums to be filled. So uncomfortable, patient participation is demanded to keep weight on the side of continuity and integration or the scales will tip in the direction of further cultural disintegration and eventually structural and institutional fragmentation.
Illegitimacy + failed discourse + acceptable violence + graph-based civil conflict. What is the inverse of this equation?
Each of these has long roots, complex history, and is not solved by a single action in a single moment, and (not but) each is connected to a dysfunctional cultural foundation that can be shifted and redirected this generation toward a society that is more human, more humane, more generative.
Within corridors and systems of power, we need to get our foot off the accelerator and that means less fighting fire with fire, more patience. Slower conclusions, more open dialog — debates that take longer and don’t resolve. Much more istening. Intentional, coherent, basic deescalation that demands that we deradicalize ourselves as part of the acceptance that the systems we rely on for sustainable society are not and were never designed to be sustainable. Sustainable is a buzzword meant to distract from exploitation in neoliberal capitalist democracy. Equilibrium is not desirable in systems predicated on growth as a moral good. Our examination of these facts will lead us down a path that resets our footing away from the inevitability of conflict, away from ingroups and outgroups toward a much broader transnational, transspecies “us” where we see each other as members of shared systems with all of nature, not separate from it. Building the sense that we are both smaller and more important to the completion of the circle than we feel day-to-day, that our collective civic life can be both lighter and more meaningful.
The broader answer is/has to include some kind of decentralized diverse cultural movement of people that drive political institutions to different long-term behaviors, that resets norms and expectations, and that follows similar network contours (multiple voices in multiple communities creating the echoes of broad bonding and bridging) as the spreading dysfunction. And that cultural transformation must begin with a wholesale reimagining of what we are willing to engage with as legitimate and determine as absolute, a desire to live in the generative discomfort of letting go of the misleading certainty of binary frames, a broad rejection of political hyperbole, absurdity as valid, and the language of violence itself in political discourse, a rejection of the normalization of violence without drawing false equivalencies, and an earnest, consistent, disciplined effort to build bridges between groups while still defining boundaries by the intentional, public, intense rejection of what cannot be included. And we start rebuilding community the way humans always have: by doing things together and taking care of each other. If disintegration at the hands of networked political violence is the disease, perhaps intentionally integrated civic experiences can be part of the cure. Experiences that ensure enough safety that deradicalization, deescalation, and integration can become brave features of an always-on civic life. That we can claim and keep our seats in civic life to ensure that vacuums don’t emerge and that our care and belief in each other continues to shape and guide the civic containers we rely on and create the conditions for healthy integrated culture of community. So what seats both figurative and literal can we hold?
Just as there are many dimensions to our 2022-ness, there are many dimensions to the transformation we seek. There isn’t one answer, but rather many levers to be pulled and sustained over time to shift culture toward a path that lifts us, that supports us, that reduces the friction of daily life, that encourages our flourishing and that of our communities. But this idea of proactive, graph-based deescalation is one piece we can embrace now. This work must be embraced first by those of us who are safest in our current systems, openly, consistently embracing the responsibility of benefiting from systems that endanger others by carrying more of this existential weight and make others’ loads lighter. And importantly, deescalation is not an exercise in unilateral disarmament. We are changing the conditions of the conflict, ending a default state of war in our civic life, not just opting out of the dysfunction and hoping our opponents do the same. We are meeting somewhere new and headed somewhere better. Part of the good news here — in a graph, we all have more agency. Same with media and storytelling, same with asymmetric political conflict. We don’t have to wait for General Lee and General Grant to gather at Appomattox, we can start the deescalation a little bit, right now, everywhere, every day.