Below is an excerpt from “Fragments,” my book of essays available at https://jsscifo.substack.com/
Talk of civil war is in the air these days. Elements of the Right see action, perhaps even violent, against the federal government and the ruling Left elites as necessary to protect individual rights and the Constitution as written. The Left views such notions as an attack on its power and prerogatives. More to the point, the Right Rebellion is a direct challenge to the Left’s vision of a country reimagined outside the confines of the Constitution. The fact is, by the time you start talking about a civil war, you’re already in it, and the country has been in a civil war since the social revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s.
For anyone born after that upheaval, it is difficult to imagine just how transformative the disputes of that era were. Ignited by the spark of pacifist and anti-imperialist reaction against the Vietnam War, and coinciding with the advent of birth control and the civil rights movement, the countercultural uprising unleashed a torrent of radical social ideas that up-ended almost every social arrangement, private and public. Many of the nostrums of that time—free love, eastern (and other transcendental) religion, a return to nature, vegetarianism, women’s equality, Marxist economics, Nietzchean philosophy—had been floating around for a century. There were fears of civil war then, too, but the country’s social foundation was still strong enough to withstand the tectonic shifts.
And so the country settled into an uneasy truce. With Nixon, and later Reagan, there was a counter-revolution. When Nixon spoke of the “Silent Majority” that opposed the countercultural agenda there still was such a thing. The 1970s saw the rise of the Christian fundamentalist Moral Majority, the libertarian Supply Siders, and the constitutional Originalists. For awhile it seemed that the Right had won the economic battle while the Left’s social ethos of tolerance, acceptance, and “live and let live” had prevailed.
In his under-appreciated 2020 book “The Decadent Society,” Russ Douthat notes that many of the country’s current arguments “over race, abortion, taxes, and welfare look much as they did two generations ago” with both Left and Right “cycling through the same domestic arguments, the same basic range of issues and ideas.” Writing before January 6, Douthat also argues that what passes for extreme social action is really just “playacting” enabled by technology and virtual worlds where radical politics becomes “a kind of sport…that doesn’t actually put anything in their [the radicals’] relatively comfortable, late-modern lives at risk.”
Insightful as all that may be, the question is whether the cycle continues or finally breaks out of its circularity into something more dangerous. It is certainly true that for all of the media’s warnings about the rise of right-wing extremism, neo-nazis and other white supremacists remain inconsequential. Although one can point to lone-wolf events, thankfully, there never seems to be anything close to a mass following, or even momentum building, for these outfits or their agendas. And, yes, the January 6 riot had an undeniably performative element to it, suggesting that participants conceived of it as something of a lark.
But I tend to think that the playacting has ended. The Uprising Summer of 2020 when Left radicals took over center cities (large—Seattle; medium—Portland; and small—FUCKING Kenosha!) across the country, followed by the January 6 riots, when the Right-wing counterparts of BLM and Antifa attacked the very foundations of the constitutional transfer of power, felt like an attempt by the forces of history to finally resolve the conflicts of the 1960s once and for all. True, the country seems to have settled once again into an uneasy truce under the Biden administration, but that may just be the calm before the storm.
Add to that the shift in party allegiances. The Democrats have transformed from the party of the working man (which in the U.S. was always been a fairly conservative concept), to become a truly revolutionary force dedicated to the upending of every conventional social arrangement. Again, that shift is an outgrowth of the social upheaval of the Sixties. Part of that transformation was the realignment in political allegiances. The signing of the Civil Rights Act, along with other cultural shifts, made the Democrat Party inhospitable to Southern conservatives. Their migration to the Republican Party, along with other trends in conservative circles emphasizing local control and states’ rights, transformed the party of Lincoln (which was really just an updated version of the Whigs, who were really just a reformulation of the Federalists, the original party of government, i.e. strong centralized government) into the true party of Jefferson.
This shift was already complete by 1981 when Ronald Reagan stated in his first inaugural address that “the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government.” Jefferson himself, or even John Calhoun, could not have put it more succinctly. A quarter century after that line was spoken, the Democrats were retreating from any former fealty to Jefferson and his offspring (i.e., Andrew Jackson) by eschewing the traditional Jefferson-Jackson annual dinners. The response to the constant refrain in the media and others on the Left of “what happened to the Republican party?” is simple: It became the old Democrat party.
And the old Democrat party has historically been the party of rebellion. Nullification, secession, segregation, these were the great crusades of Jefferson and Calhoun and Thurmond (Democrats all). Even Andrew Jackson’s fight with the bank of the United States, an example free of the unfortunate taint of race, was a rebellion against the country’s financial elite. And so Republicans have, over the past 60 years, led a series of crusades against taxes (taxes being synonymous with government), regulation, and government overreach. And while it has had some major—even historical—successes (the defeat of Communism, welfare reform, the elimination of abortion as a right enshrined in the Constitution) the America of 2022 is largely a creature of the goals and ambitions of the progressive Left over that same period. In other words, the Right has run out of options.
This has been made all the more evident by the permanent reign of Left elites. The U.S. used to have a ruling consensus that was nominally conservative but bipartisan. Thus, both Republicans and Democrats were generally anti-communist. That led to a number of policies, particularly in foreign affairs and national security, that had the general support of most Americans, regardless of party.
The same was true of moral issues. Outside of intellectuals and artists, most people adhered to similar beliefs regarding common decency and conventional morality. As a result, policies were consistent across administrations. Both Republicans and Democrats went after radicals. That’s how J. Edgar Hoover kept his job for nearly 40 years. Both Republicans and Democrats enforced public decency laws. For instance, as district attorney in San Francisco, Edmund “Pat” Brown could target a prominent abortionist in a campaign against corruption and still go on to become governor. Without consensus, the government simply becomes a tool to punish one’s enemies. “To the victor belong the spoils” is not the victory cry of some Roman general but of a 19th century New York politician.
This tendency towards unbridled dominance has been most prevalent on the Left. For example, with each new Democratic administration comes a myriad of rules, regulations and orders to promote or diminish guns, abortion, universal healthcare, trans rights, immigration, etc according to its preferences. And each succeeding Republican administration will try (and fail) to undo them. And because the government itself has become a refuge for the institutional Left, it is always serving the interest of the Left no matter who is in office.
Thus, the very liberals who led the fight against conformity and narrow-mindedness in the 1960s and ‘70s have become the most stalwart proponents of cancel culture. The very radicals who had previously opposed the CIA, the FBI, and all other instruments of the national security state have become its most steadfast defenders (Exhibit A: Hillary Clinton). The same people who drove around with “Question Authority” bumper stickers in the 1980s and ‘90s are the most fastidious enforcers of the unwritten rules of language, thought and, with COVID, dubious public health measures. In this they have been aided by corporate giants, most significantly Big Tech, many of which are dependent on government largesse (either directly or indirectly) for a significant portion of their profits. Almost without exception, these corporate bodies reinforce the prevailing progressive ethos of the government under the guise of private ownership.
Given this state of affairs, what, exactly are conservatives—traditionalist or libertarian—to do? They have participated in the political process. They have engaged in honest debate. They have organized. Yet, nothing ever really seems to change. The march of “Progress” goes on. January 6 and similar acts (both collective and individual) are the desperate actions of people who, with some justification, have lost faith in the system. Those acts are often misguided, but they are not to be dismissed.
J.S. Scifo is a North County resident who has worked in national and state politics.