The Signs of Revolution
Many of the posts I’ve written here have been about the goals of understanding human nature, seeking community, and living in balance with our environment. Circumstances in this country are rushing us farther and farther away from achieving these goals.
What happens to a country that is divided the way we are? Where the government and the citizens consider themselves enemies, where defense of perceived individual freedoms trumps communal responsibility? What happens to a country that digs itself deeper into debt every year, pursuing geopolitical power and a minimalist bread-and-circuses for its citizenry? What happens when a country’s power to raise revenues to pay its debt and do its business is severely restricted by dispensations made for the privileged? When the people whose labor makes the system work are underpaid and disenfranchised? When the institutions that are supposed to protect the vulnerable are so corrupt, so bogged down in bureaucracy, and so focused on their own survival that they become the abusers?
We can look at France in 1788 to see what happens. Our current circumstances are not perfectly parallel to France’s before the revolution, but they do have some similarities. For example, the French government was strapped for funds after conducting foreign wars (our revolution, in fact). There was entrenched and increasing income disparity. Loyalties were divided – to the state, the church, the aristocratic class, the pursuit of wealth . . . People lost a sense of what it was to be French, to the degree they ever had it, and became atomized into competing groups. These are striking similarities between our country in 2020 and France in 1788.
There are striking differences, too. One difference involves the process that led to revolution. Despite the later bloodbath that the French Revolution became, the first steps were in many ways admirable. There was an extraordinary meeting of the Estates General to discuss better representation of the French citizenry within the government. This was done outside of the existing political structures; if we had something comparable here, it would be a nationwide convention that had nothing to do with Republican or Democrat but would provide a forum for free dialogue, not politicized bluster. During this time, the French leaders – including King Louis XVI – who were advocating for reform introduced the cahiers de doléances, basically notebooks of grievances, where people in every “estate,” or branch of society, could express their grievances freely. These and other actions were genuine responses to the divisions in French society.
The fact that these attempts failed to stem the Revolution doesn’t negate their value; they were still good things. We, on the other hand, are instituting no comparable sweeping reforms right now in the United States, as far as I can see. If America descends into revolution, I anticipate our first actions will be violent reactions, not organized reforms.
The other difference between the United States and revolutionary France is our country’s split into local and federal governments. This adds even more potential for disunity and divided loyalties. We saw how this played out in 1860; local versus federal conflict seems like the most likely fracture line for any future American conflict, too. For years state and federal governments have challenged each other in the Supreme Court, on issues such as abortion rights, unionization, same-sex marriage, and other social and legal issues. The Interstate Commerce clause and federal funding have been the club the federal government has used on the states to enforce conformity. And the divide is only escalating. Voters, while struggling to protect their ability to vote at all, are questioning if their votes even matter, given the way the Electoral College works. States are pigeonholed by the powers that be as “red” or “blue,” regardless of the nuances of sentiment and policy represented within their borders. Cities have declared themselves “sanctuary” cities in defiance of federal immigration policy. And now federal agents are clashing with citizens against the will of local city and state leaders, and the President has stated plans to post them to more cities in the coming days and weeks.
What will happen next? Will reasonable people put together a plan for widespread reforms that address our cultural, racial, economic, and social divisions? That would be nice – but it would have to be done despite Congress and the White House, since those institutions, to put it mildly, are not at the forefront of change. If Washington isn’t behind the reforms, then a parallel government might effectively result, with challenges in the Supreme Court, the voting booths, and the streets. That could easily lead to the breakdown of civil structures and the rise of violence.
Or perhaps we’ll skip the widespread reforms and just escalate immediately to violence. If I wrote fiction, I could create a believable scenario for a revolution out of what’s happening right now: a state or city refusing federal forces; local blockades and federal invasions; federal funds withheld leaving locals without their Social Security, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid; and passions rising. Other cities and states would take sides, local citizens would weigh in, though hardly as a well-regulated militia, and all-out revolution could result. As the thirteen colonies did in 1776, rebel states might seek foreign involvement to strengthen them against the federal government and those states that remained with it. This recipe for disaster could be made surprisingly probable in fiction.
But if there is one thing that the last few years have proved to me, it’s that real life is stranger than fiction. Mark Twain said, “Of course truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” I can’t help noticing the signs of the times and speculating on what they mean for future of the United States. But I’ll refrain from making any predictions, because I don’t expect the future to make sense.