By Jay Bookman
We are living through history, through a tumultuous time in which change accelerates, the once-solid becomes fluid and no one has any real idea of where this thing is headed. Living in chaos, trying to make daily sense of it, has been frightening, exhilarating and confusing.
Someday our grandchildren, reading about this era in their history books, may be able to understand some of it, but me, living in the midst of it, I’m struggling.
But maybe, just maybe, what we’re witnessing is the last stage of the culture wars, the deciding battle of a decades-long effort by conservative Americans to enlist government as their champion against cultural changes that they have long fought against. Maybe the strange, even bizarre presidency of Donald Trump can best be viewed as an act of desperation, a last-ditch effort to return this nation to what it had never been. Certainly in 2016, Republicans sifted through what was deemed a strong field of senators, governors and business leaders and decided instead to nominate the man who most loudly voiced their fears, who promised most explicitly to protect them from the cultural changes threatening them.
That cultural change is undeniably real, and on this scale and pace it is understandable that people feel threatened by it. And in the conservative narrative that they use to explain it, it is government in the hands of liberals that has created all this; it is government that has used its power to force all this cultural change. And what government has created, government can also stop.
I don’t think any of that is correct.
Government at the American scale, with American restrictions, simply is not capable of producing cultural change on the scale that we are witnessing. It can slow such changes, for a while; it can adapt to them and regulate them and in the end it must reflect them, but it cannot create them. Only highly intrusive governments such as Soviet Russia, Communist China, Nazi Germany and revolutionary Iran can force such profound change.
Conservatives may argue that with laws such as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, American liberals have indeed used the political system to drive cultural change, but that argument confuses cause with effect. Those laws, while historic, did not drive cultural change, they were the products of cultural changes that had already occurred. The civil rights movement of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, brought into American living rooms by the new technology of television, had made people see things differently, to think about things differently. Only after the civil rights movement changed hearts and minds, after it changed what was deemed culturally acceptable, were the laws changed to reflect that culture.
And yes, the South experienced that differently. The cultural changes that occurred on a national level were forced on a white South reluctant to accept those changes, but even here that change had already been underway. Segregation and Jim Crow laws were written in an attempt to use government and police power to stop those changes, to prohibit cultural and social change, but as hearts and minds and relationships changed, mere government laws could not stand in the way. A change was gonna come.
In our own times, no law or government action forced NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag, as it did earlier this month. A changing culture did that all on its own. You can argue that sponsors forced it, that advertisers forced it, but those sponsors and advertisers were themselves responding to changes in culture. Corporations are not acting as agents of change, but as signals of change that has already occurred.
In recent weeks, two conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court joined the majority in deciding that gay and trans Americans can’t be fired for the crime of being who they are. Gay-rights opponents raised a muted objection, pointing out that no law had been changed to give gay Americans that protection, and that when the authors of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex, they had clearly not intended that protection to apply to homosexuality.
Technically, those critics had a point. However, the words of the 1964 law hadn’t changed, but the culture sure had. And as culture changed, the way those words were understood changed as well. The Supreme Court didn’t force that change; it didn’t do anything but acknowledge it.
And here in Georgia, conservatives who could feel the culture changing, who could sense the ground shifting beneath them, passed a state law that prohibited the removal of Confederate monuments from public places. Again, they were trying to use politics and government to stop cultural change, and again it didn’t work. Earlier this month, the city of Decatur defied that law and removed a Confederate memorial at the center of its town square, citing what is frankly a pretty weak legal loophole. In response, though, no one has raised a serious objection. Other cities are now likely to follow that lead, because the cultural context is changing and no government can stand in the way of that change, not in America.
So if government is not the culprit in driving cultural change, what is?
History gives us several great disrupters, one of which is war. So far, we’ve managed to avoid that one. Another is technology, which for decades has been transforming the country at such a rate that government and society haven’t been able to adapt to keep pace. Just to cite a few obvious examples of its impact, cell-phone cameras have now shown white America a disturbing picture of their country that only Black Americans and other minorities had previously witnessed. Social media has also given voice to the voiceless and often to the crazy, violent and disturbed, and technology has devalued labor to such an extent that income inequality is now the highest in our nation’s history.
Demography is another great disrupter; the demographic changes in this country have been profound, and to many profoundly unsettling, with impacts that will echo for generations. And this year another of history’s great disrupters, disease, made its appearance in the form of the coronavirus, which is also altering the world in ways we can’t anticipate.
(With temperatures now hitting 100 degrees above the Arctic Circle, yet another great disrupter — rapid, manmade climate change — waits in the wings, and I fear will prove far more powerful than any of the others.)
A government that is large enough, intrusive enough and brutal enough to tamp down cultural change in such an environment is not a government consistent with American traditions. Trump has nonetheless made gestures toward building such a government – his violent assault on peaceful protesters at Lafayette Park, timed to coincide with his press conference promising “law and order!”, was a trial run toward such an approach. The sly encouragement that he offers armed right-wing militias also fits that pattern.
But judging from the public reaction, that is not a deal that American voters are willing to strike. Change is difficult; it is challenging. But the one thing more threatening than change is a government with the capacity and the desire to stop it. What we need instead, and what we haven’t had in a long time, under Democrats or Republicans, is a government that is flexible and courageous enough to respond to those changes, to sand down the rough edges, to make change less terrifying, to ensure that in our dash to the future we aren’t leaving Americans behind, blue or red, urban, suburban or rural, white or minority.
Time won’t stand still, and it sure as hell won’t run backward. Neither should our government.
Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He writes for the Georgia Recorder, which, like the Mercury, is part of the States Newsroom network of outlets covering state governments.