In some tellings, the old phrase “when the dog catches the car” refers to situations where people work so hard to achieve a goal that they don’t know what to do next once they’ve acquired their trophy. But as a young child growing up on the fringes of rural America, I heard people end that phrase with, “the car always wins.” Early in my life we had a few dogs that chased cars. That latter interpretation is, sadly, accurate.
Both of those short bursts of truth have been on my mind as I have considered our turbulent life in America in 2022.
First, some background
As I’ve written before, a minority of Americans have sought for decades to turn back the clock, frustrated that their traditional vision for the country was slipping further into the rearview mirror as the rising immigration supporting the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, the New Deal of the 1930s, and the Civil Rights advances of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s shaped a nation headed in a new direction. Historians have written of how the oligarchs in America, beginning with John C. Calhoun and working forward to Charles Koch, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and others, have made the case throughout history that they should be the ones with the power to decide where the government spends what little money they agree to provide in taxes for the maintenance of order and the public defense. And as Anthea Butler has so powerfully written, for a number of reasons they found a willing partner in their efforts in America’s evangelical tradition.
Those supporting a modern vision sought, with some success, to build an America that was more economically and socially equitable and just. New opportunities for those traditionally on the margins of American life meant that women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and immigrants could contribute more substantially to our common life.
The power of myths
Yet that minority which benefits from a centuries-old hierarchy that is paying dividends for fewer and fewer people has looked for ways to divide the majority of Americans. As journalist Nesrine Malik wrote in the 2021 U.S. edition of her powerful first book We Need New Stories: The Myths that Subvert Freedom, this minority used a malignant thread of myths to achieve its purpose.
These are not myths that animate believers into a shared sense of camaraderie and direction. They are myths that divide and instill a sense of superiority over others.
Those myths were put to use in support of an ideological “stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and the national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation,” as documented by historian Nancy MacLean.
Working to divide, not unite
Race always plays a factor in American history, but these oligarchs also worked hard to find wedge issues where they could use their myths to divide Americans. Three issues where they have been the most effective revolve around:
- Who can rightly be called an American — We now have a political party where its leader and a large number of its members supported an unsuccessful coup d’etat in 2020. That coup boils down to the bogus claim that huge swaths of Americans, who don’t look and think as they do, should be disenfranchised. The facts are now emerging as to the depth of the involvement of the party in that event, ongoing efforts at a cover-up, and continued work to overthrow future elections.
- Who gets to control those who have long been on the margins of society — A rouge Supreme Court, using bad history and worse logic, took away a constitutional right for American women, stripping them of their bodily autonomy. Forgoing precedent, that same court is going after other rights of women and marginalized communities in America, using the same fact-free analysis to reach a pre-determined conclusion.
- Who gets to define freedom — To help justify their decision that our right to life as American citizens is not as important as the right of young men to walk into a gun store and buy semi-automatic assault rifles, multiple high-capacity magazines, and all the ammunition they can carry, that same court turned to the work of the individual who the nation’s historians identify as our worst chief justice: Roger B. Taney of the infamous Dred Scott decision.
Those oligarchs, along with many who have led corporations over the past half century (*), have paid to enlist and support the foot soldiers in their efforts, small minorities that have been single-minded in pursuing their own goals: enshrining white Christian male rule in a country that is growing in diversity, outlawing abortion while making the actions of those who support it illegal, and equating gun ownership with freedom at the expense of all other freedoms, including life itself.
Now that the dog has caught the car, is there a way forward?
This is where those two old sayings become relevant. In an insightful article in The Atlantic entitled Roe is the New Prohibition David Frum suggests that the minority that has focused on outlawing abortion so fervently should be careful of what they wish for. Looking at the history of prohibition during the Industrial Revolution, he sees parallels with our times. In this analysis, Frum envisions a hopeful outcome as people across the political spectrum realize what they have lost through minority rule and come together to reassert their rights. Frum even uses the language of the dog catching the car when he compares our time to the tumult of the 1880s through the 1930s.
So welcome to the Roaring Twenties. The pro-life dog has at last caught up with the Roe v. Wade car. Now it has to chew on its prey. And it’s about to discover that the prey in its jaws is a lot bigger and stronger than it looked when the dog started its chase.
Frum makes the point that while those focused on turning back democracy through fights over abortion, or voter suppression, or gun rights have been singularly focused, the opposition — largely today’s Democratic Party — has been much less organized. Which is where Will Rogers’ insight comes into play. Democrats aren’t generally as organized as Republicans because they represent a much wider ideological swath of the American population.
“Democrats in disarray” is a cheap, easy catchphrase often used by the media, even when the story isn’t true. And when the media writes about Biden’s leadership weakness, they seldom compare it to the alternative. It may help to recall that only one Republican president has won the popular vote in the last 30 years, yet Republican presidents have appointed six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court. (Thank you, Electoral College, for that bit of minority rule, as well as Mitch McConnell’s willingness to lie to achieve and maintain power.)
But when the majority is aroused and sees their rights disappearing because a minority wants to control how we live, watch out. Frum shows how swiftly things changed after national prohibition. FDR through his New Deal showed how significant change can come quickly when people are pushed to the edge economically. We forget about the large, bipartisan majorities in Congress who came to support voting rights until Chief Justice John Roberts achieved his life-long goal of eviscerating the Voting Rights Act with a dishonest grab at power as an unelected jurist with lifetime tenure.
When the minority over-reaches, as they are doing now, the majority will push back. It takes work. It won’t be easy. The oligarchs, the racists, the authoritarians, the Christian nationalists, the politicians who benefit from minority rule (**) will all cling to power in any way possible. As historians have been writing throughout the Trump era, we’ve seen this all before. But we have also seen that democracy can prevail.
In his short but vital book On Tyranny, historian of the Holocaust Timothy Snyder has given us twenty lessons as to how to fight back against authoritarianism. There are lessons dealing with the need to defend institutions, think for ourselves, and take responsibility for our actions in the civic sphere. Other lessons and suggestions are focused more on the individual choices we make to stay active and alive in a civil society, such as joining and supporting causes; reading more books and spending less time on the internet; making eye contact and small talk. He ends with the critical need to study history. He notes that “the habit of dwelling on victimhood,” the province of the nationalist, “dulls the impulse of self-correction.” History, on the other hand, “gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.”
Part of my role is drawing out voices that deserve to be heard and shedding light on generative possibilities and robust goodness. Not goodness on a pedestal but the messy drama of goodness that makes it riveting and also means it’s not just for saints. I talk about hope being a muscle. It’s not wishful thinking, and it’s not idealism. It’s not even a belief that everything will turn out OK. It’s an imaginative leap, which is what I’ve seen in people like John Lewis and Jane Goodall. These are people who said: “I refuse to accept that the world has to be this way. I am going to throw my life and my pragmatism and my intelligence at this insistence that it could be different and put that into practice.” That’s a muscular hope.
Now that the dog has caught the car, we need to demonstrate how organized and powerful the majority can be in America through hard work, voting in every election, focus on what really matters, and muscular hope that says, “I refuse to accept that the world has to be this way.“
More to come…
This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry. To read the other More to Come posts cited here, click on:
- The abandonment of democracy (December 11, 2020)
- On Tyranny (March 17, 2021)
- We need better stories (June 23, 2021)
- History sets the context (June 27, 2022)
*Judd Legum at Popular Information has an interesting interview with the New York Times business reporter David Gelles on his new book The Man Who Broke Capitalism, about Jack Welch. It is worth a read.
**Also, if you can get past the paywall, please read Mark Lebovitch’s article in The Atlantic entitled The Most Pathetic Men in America, which is an excerpt from his new book Thank You for Your Servitude. If you cannot get through, Diane Ravitch has a good summary on her blog.