Angry crowds are boiling over. Revolution is at hand, something has to change. But change to what and where is it going? It doesn’t matter to many people. Smash what’s there and take control – we’ll figure the rest out later.
Many terms bubble out as we struggle to describe this moment. “Socialist” and “Fascist” have been easily pushed out to describe the followers of Sanders and Trump, some of whom move more fluidly through Sanders / Trump / Paul than our typical left to right, Democrat to Republican divide tells us is possible. What language do we have to even describe this?
That is, in the end, the problem. We have a rise of “Populism”, a largely apolitical beast whose character reflects is leadership – which can come from anywhere in the spectrum. At the radical heart of it all is “Revenge Populism” which lacks any vision of the future and little sense of past, living entirely in the hot here and now.
This failure of the future is rooted in a failure of the mythological past. The flip side of a people’s movement is always the mythology of who they are and what binds them. That’s what has actually failed us – our national sense of identity.
Historically, we’ve seen this play out in the extreme through the recent history of a nation where many Americans came from. If you asked anyone in the early 19th Century what they thought of “Germany”, they would probably laugh. It wasn’t a nation, it was a scattered collection of tiny states filled with craftsmen and poets. Any notions of nation running through them were rooted in song and drink. Some longing for the old medieval Holy Roman Empire, really a Secular German Republic, compelled a search for order.
They were at their most dangerous as Napoleon’s playthings, which is why greater powers actually encouraged the Prussians to organize the chaos into something more like an empire starting in 1819. It rarely went well.
But in 1871 it did become an Empire, rapidly leaving behind all notions of romanticism and republic which characterized the people for centuries. It lasted less than 50 years, dissolving in the carnage of World War I. The nation languished until a new mythology was created, driven by populist instincts, that told them they were descended from an ancient great race of people.
When that collapsed in absolute horror and devastation, another new mythology was born – a technocratic republic more like where they started before the terrible journey through imperialism. German unity became European unity, bureaucratic and peaceful.
The United States has been on a much less severe trip through an imperial identity since the end of World War II. The men who fought in this war led the nation for decades after with a military devotion and precision, each knowing their place.
It was a time of greatness around the world and a time of unparalleled opportunity and monetary equality. It was a time of order and a time of progress.
But were we a Republic or an Empire? It didn’t matter a lot as the good times kept rolling. A new national mythology was written around the experience of this time as it transformed us. We revered the Founders and said the Pledge of Allegiance every day. The system, regardless of how it was constructed, took care of us all. War loomed over the horizon at any moment, but our government looked out for us and protected us.
Obviously this time fell apart in the single event we can make out of 1968. Dr King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, cities burned, the war in Vietnam heated up dramatically, and the Democratic Convention fell into chaos. Nothing went right.
We have yet to recover from that period, despite our best efforts to patch things up and go forward, because we never corrected the mythology that answers the basic question, “Who are we?” Is this a white nation, where everyone else must be in a lower place? Are we defined by are material possessions? Does our government protect or enslave us? Who runs this country? Why is it changing? What has gone wrong?
Is this a Republic or an Empire?
The generation who had no need to answer that question as they sat down to work are now gone. Their children and grandchildren are left contemplating their inheritance – and clearly do not understand what it is. They are left with the jealous feeling that someone got more when the will was read.
At one end of the bubbling anger is a call to “Make America Great Again”. In that vision the past was truly great because it had strong leadership. Many in this group woke up one morning in a nation that was less white, more accepting of different sexual expressions, and more open than they once understood was “right”. Their nation left them behind. They want the mythological past back.
At another end are those, often young people, who were promised they could do anything only to realize that the land defined by great opportunity does not exist anymore. Corruption determines everything they see and holds them back from being truly free. The promise of this land isn’t theirs, it was a lie. They want the mythological past back, too, in their own way.
But which vision of the nation is correct? They can’t both be, can they? But this is where the rise of the final spasm of Imperialism in German history is particularly illustrative, even as a far extreme. The first step towards recreating a past which never really existed is to destroy the legacies. What exists now is a corruption of everything – not just people and power, but of mythology. It is all lies.
That’s how some people can move fluidly between all populist movements right now. There is a point of solid agreement on the status of the mythology.
In this world there is no” left” or “right” which describes anything useful. Those terms have one assumption at the core of them, which is that we have something to argue over. There is a sense of unity overarching useful political debate – and that has disappeared.
Populism has risen, as it often does, when the sense of national identity and character is in flux. It’s not that the nation has broken, it is that it has decayed into a lie. There is nothing to argue about, there are only scraps to fight over.
What was our legacy? What did we inherit? That is far more important than who got what. The political movement which can ultimately answer this as well as describe a hopeful future is the one that will come out of this in charge. But no matter what, they will have to answer to the populist masses this time – not just in material goods, but in joy and peace and unity.
We are a Republic, not an Empire. The populist desire to burn it all down and sort it out later comes from a very good realization that something has gone horribly wrong. But to cast off the apparent advantages of Empire will be hard, even though our journey towards doing so will not be as horrific as Germany’s. We will get through this and get back to what we once were – and so much more. The secret to our unity probably lies in a greater unity, as it eventually did for Germany. Hopefully the world coming together and sorting everything our will be less bureaucratic and more open as it redefines our nation, the Unnited States of America, as a more accepting and harmonious nation.