As I reflect on the purposes of the retreat I attended this past weekend in the Little Missouri Badlands of western North Dakota, I have been asking myself hard questions about my approach to what the retreat hosts have called “the situation.” I inquired. Turns out they mean the whole enchilada: borders and immigrants, health care, global warming, the 1 percent and the 99 percent, race relations, education and much more. It makes me weary just to think about trying to address these issues at a dude ranch weekend.
I suppose the question is, how to live a good life in a broken republic. We cherish that Jefferson could argue in our national birth certificate that we are entitled by nature and nature’s God to the pursuit of happiness in any way we wish. What else is freedom? “The pursuit of happiness” is a profoundly American idea and, on the whole, we have been very proficient at seeking it. Until the past 30 years, everyone grumbled about government but on the whole felt pretty good about it. That was before this Sturm und Drang period of American life, with so much ugly anger bombarding us, for a wide variety of reasons, from a wide variety of sources. For many Americans now, the pursuit of happiness is at odds with citizenship or even public awareness because if you take citizenship seriously, it is hard to be happy, and if you take happiness seriously, you might want to turn your back on the public square.
Heartsick About America
Most Americans are sick at heart of having to think about the disintegration of America. We get it, but what do you want us to do about it? The reps we send to Washington, D.C., have proved to be worthless. They don’t fix things. They pontificate and make calls to solicit campaign funds from rich donors who donate to increase their influence in Congress. Since Donald Trump went quiet (or mostly so), many Americans have turned away from the mad world of the Fox News Channel and MSNBC and allowed themselves some long sighs of relief that the political temperature has come down a few degrees.
So now what?
Four Choices For Coping
“You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.”
I see four options for those of us who feel that the American republic is broken, for those who believe we are perhaps headed to some form of populist authoritarianism or socialist authoritarianism, or that the United States might fracture into several sister republics: Texit, Calexit, Heartlandia, etc. This is the message I planned to deliver at the retreat if I was called upon at any point. Here are ways we can respond to “the situation.”
Option One: Escapism
Never a better time to turn away from the frustrations of the world and just binge-watch whatever pleases you, from the “Real Housewives“ of X to one of the half-dozen glitzy evening talent shows, from reruns of “Have Gun Will Travel“ and “Columbo,” to season two of “NCIS,” “Law and Order” or “Yellowstone.” You can start tooling around on YouTube at 5:15 p.m. and stand up in shock seven hours later, well after midnight, having given away your discretionary time to old clips from “The Tonight Show“ or the best of the “Dean Martin roasts.” Johnny Carson smoked while interviewing his guests?
An evening of escapism on YouTube could take you to vintage television segments featuring Carson, Dean and Hope — along with a cigarette and a drink.
Thanks to Amazon.com, Audible, Kindle, Peacock and Paramount+, and other electronic delivery systems, you can order up any movie, book, song, album or television show you desire and watch it instantly. Remember when you had to drive to Blockbuster at 8 p.m. in search of something worth watching?
You can sit in your favorite chair and read Harry Potter books or “War and Peace” for that matter, and whatever mood or background music you wish can be ordered up, literally, from Alexa. Coping mechanism No. 1 for a nation in fundamental crisis: Tune out. Enjoy your toys.
Option Two: The Enlightenment of One
You wear a mask to the grocery store even though everyone else has desisted. You subscribe to the online editions of the great national newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post. You get exercise and try to eat as someone who understands the problems of the American food supply: processed foods, artificial ingredients, obesity, produce grown thousands of miles away in countries that don’t have America’s regulatory regimen. You drive a Prius or an electric vehicle though most of your neighbors continue to drive big SUVs or pickups. You read the award-winning fiction, high-minded books about current events and the state of the world, classics of world literature. You support public television and public radio. Perhaps you have a vegetable garden out back or tomato pots on your balcony. You vote — after studying the candidates and the issues. You are bewildered by your unenlightened neighbors but mostly you just ignore them, as they do you. You have access to all the fruits of life and most of them can now be had with little or no encounter with other human beings. You practice yoga. You drink excellent, though not necessarily expensive, wines. You have an analog stereo on which you play LPs that you treat like eggshells. You have made a study of Mahler’s symphonies and collected the best performances.
You are for universal single-payer health care in America, but you have your own expensive insurance package, and you are content to wait until Congress finally figures it out. You write email letters to your friends but not to your congressman, mayor or superintendent of schools. You mind your own business and pursue your own happiness, and though you wish everyone around you were more enlightened, you are quite content to be a republic of one on a house-sized island in a sea of angry Americans. You bake artisanal bread. You know your Thoreau. You have friends in the tiny house movement.
Option Three: The Virtual Community
You find ways to meet other people who share your outlook and convictions. Some may be local and available to meet for beer or brandy — nothing better than that. Some are friends scattered around the country, men and women you went to college with, or worked with, or met at a conference or retreat. And then there is your virtual community — people you have never met in the flesh but who have become real friends in cyberspace. Together you constitute a community of purely voluntary association, a platform where you get to spend time with others who share your perspectives, who care for the same things, who pursue some of your causes. This works across the political and ideological spectrum.
There are groups to save the whale and groups to protect the rights of divorced men in custody disputes. There are groups that cherish the Jerusalem cross and there are groups that cherish the swastika. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet and social platforms like Facebook or Instagram and curation services like TikTok, individuals have been able — as never before — to find each other across space.
I may be the only person in my town who likes to track the International Space Station with a phone app, but I can find individuals just like me all over America, hundreds, even thousands of them, and we meet on digital platforms. The electronification or digitization of culture has overcome physical distance and made it possible for everyone to find or formulate the community they would rather live in. Even in this pixilated medium the virtual universe is real and for many extremely affirming and reassuring. It’s a cobbled community — local friends and allies, old friends from around the country (or world), and your new virtual mates. Call this the Three Musketeers Option: all for one, one for all, and to hell with the outside world.
Option Four: Into the Arena
Thomas Jefferson would say all the first three groups are part of the problem. A republic can only flourish, Jefferson said, if the people show eternal vigilance about their rights and liberties. If you turn away in disgust or self-indulgence, according to Jefferson, you will assuredly lose your republic. Theodore Roosevelt reserved special venom for those who stand on the sidelines making righteous and sarcastic comments about those who take on the challenge of governing. He called them mugwumps. In his most famous pronouncement, TR declared that the credit in life belongs not to “those cold and timid souls” who shrink from the challenge but to “the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause.”
Inspiring — until you spend some time gazing into the arena. It feels more like the bar scene in “Star Wars” than Plato’s Republic.
The problem of Option Four – engagement in the struggle for enlightenment – is that the public arena is now so filled with hate, invective, sneering, blind partisanship, tribal pride, the demonization of the other, incessant derivative talking points rather than serious dialog and the vulgar commercialization of cable media, that who wants to jump in? Public service is not only dispiriting; now it’s dangerous. All around the country, school board members, mayors and state legislators, members of Congress, and nonpartisan bureaucrats are being chased down in airports, shouted down at public meetings, threatened (including death threats) on the phone and social media, often in their front yards. When Trump was in power, his aides were rudely interrupted while having a quiet dinner with their children in a D.C.-area restaurant. That’s not what happens in a republic; that’s what happens in a republic that is dying.
We all wish that our political party would achieve a generation-long majority in all the legislative bodies and the courts, and that our representatives would truly represent our interests in the halls of Congress. We want to live the good life, but we don’t really want to work for it in the public square. We want to be free to turn away toward private pursuits. Americans have always been so materially successful that we don’t care much about the faraway world of politics, unless those who govern are doing something that would get in the way of what I regard as my freedom.
At this critical moment in the life of our storied republic, most Americans are opting for one of the first three choices — escapism, the enlightenment of one, or the enclave of the like-minded. As to the fourth, the poet William Butler Yeats seems to have formulated it perfectly: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
I was most interested to see what unfolds at the badlands retreat. The setting was magnificent. I love the subtle smell of pine trees. We were, like it or not, a self-selected enclave, which means that things are likely to remain civil. But how any of this earnest and purposeful discourse percolates back into the real world is unclear to me. That’s why so many people are sitting in their home theaters pushing buttons on the remote.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.