Long ago, on what seems another planet in a solar system far away, an organization with the phrase “the present danger” in its name plied the policy seas. Years later, after an unexpected peaceful victory over an evil empire, I played off that phrase by titling an essay “the present opportunity.” Now I write of “the present madness.” What a difference 40 years make.
There’s no shortage of diagnoses for what ails America right now, but madness is rarely counted among them. That’s because it doesn’t sound serious, because it doesn’t sound possible. Societies do not go mad. They do not go crazy or insane, become manifestly irrational, lose their collective shit. These are mere figures of speech.
Except that they do, temporarily at least. Just as there are sudden financial market swoons, so-called Minsky moments, there are “Lord of the Flies” moments. Hell-in-a-handbasket moments. Screwed-pooch moments. These are figures of speech, yes, but what they describe is not mere metaphor. I mean madness not literarily so much as literally, even to an extent clinically.
To fully plumb how and why spasms of societal irrationality and consequent breakdowns occur would take us afield into cognitive psychology, phenomenological sociology, and philosophy, among other fascinating precincts. Showing that they occur and describing some distinctions among them is much simpler, as a few thumbnail illustrations make clear.
Some mad moments in history have been short and circumscribed. One case in Salem, Massachusetts, in the winter of 1692-93 is well-known to Americans; it did not result in wider societal breakdown. Some are not so short or circumscribed. The Taiping Rebellion lasted for 15 years, from 1850 to 1864, and spread over vast enough stretches of China to kill around 20 million people, none of them witches. It did constitute societal breakdown.
Between and around those extremes, we can cite Jerusalem’s streets transformed into rivers of Muslim and Jewish blood after the Crusaders showed up on June 7, 1099, a case where only one side of a conflict was certifiable. Consider the behavior of the “flagellants” in the wake of the 1347–51 visitation of the Black Death, where only a part of society went nuts. The flagellants did not cause societal breakdown so much as reflect it. Note the apocalyptic violence of Thomas Müntzer’s Peasants’ War of 1524–25, in the immediate wake of the Protestant Reformation, in what is today Germany. Breakdown is a polite description of what that looked like.
Now, sometimes cultural mentalities change apace (as historical time is reckoned) without the stimulus of a major external shock, so that societies do not so much go crazy as become unable to recognize themselves. First Copernicus and then particularly Galileo, with his 1610 book Sidereus Nuncius (“The Starry Messenger”), moved John Donne to observe in “Anatomy of the World” (1612):
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
Already by 1651 Thomas Hobbes had euthanized the divine right of kings, and nothing in the Western political world has been the same since. Those 40 years of the early 17th century were not crazy years, but they were deeply confusing and disconcerting years as perceptions of cosmic realities and the fundaments of authority ricocheted around like ping-pong balls in a wind tunnel.
Something rather similar is now happening to us in America, and around us in the Western cultural world and beyond. Whether it leads us to craziness, violence, and societal breakdown is a function of two factors: the social-psychological and institutional context into which it falls, and the way that human agency is exercised in response.
Ah, but all these events, crazy and not so crazy, happened long ago, you retort, before the Age of Reason, before the conquering advent of modern rationality and the subduing of primitive superstition, before the deep institutionalization of popular sovereignty. So: the World War, and its years of militarily pointless trench barbarities; the Nazi regime and the Holocaust; Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge’s class-genocide; Indonesia’s 1965, the “year of living dangerously”; the Rwandan genocide. I could go on and now, very likely, so could you.
The conceit of the contemporary, or what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” is powerful. It blinds us to the fact that what we think of as civilization is not as solid and stable as we suppose. It hangs on gossamer threads of useful memory and socialized habits based on nothing more sturdy than a handful of faith-based principles. Rapid changes in context can stress the application and relevance of those principles. As to human agency in response to such stress, befoul enough memories and disenchant or derange enough of those principles, and all that stands between social order and the whirlwind is mainly good luck.
Well, befoul, disenchant, and derange are appropriate verbs to use to describe what we Americans have been up to in recent years. Our memory banks for civic virtue are befouled and near empty because so many of us have lost the knack of deep literacy; we cannot remember and discuss key principles of public life if we have not read or otherwise heard about them.
Our founding principles, evolved over time through struggle and experience, have been disenchanted by a trahison des clercs covering most of the academy and much of the elite media. The gods of the American civil religion have only feet of clay now after five straight decades of deferred myth maintenance.
They have been deranged by multiple race-to-the-bottom scoundrel cascades among our business and political elites, many of whom have long since succumbed to Arnold Toynbee’s “schism of the soul”; and, partly in response, they have been deranged further by a new “woke” utopian idealism that, knowing nothing of Socrates’ sublime advice in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, ever insists on making the best the enemy of the good and the better. Both forms of derangement violate central Enlightenment principles upon which all key American political institutions depend. The former kind instrumentalizes the law on behalf of narrow parochial or class interests; it turns government from a reasonably neutral procedural ground to adjudicate conflicts into a tilted playing field that uses government to advantage some and harm others. The latter substitutes group rights for individual rights and equality of outcomes for equality of opportunity. The former cares maximally for liberty and minimally for dignity, and the later cares maximally for dignity and minimally for liberty. The moderate and moderating habits of the heart on which liberalism depends—modesty, humility, open debate with respect for dissent, toleration of loyal opposition—are thus vitiated from both ends. There’s not much left of those habits, which is why every policy difference comes to be seen as a quasi-theological argument over ultimate moral stakes in which compromise equates to surrender. The last time Americans bid up a divide so profound, using language as brittle, distorted, and splenetic, we had a Civil War.
That, in excruciating brevity, summed together, is why we now hear the high winds that whirl. That is why we verge on a “Lord of the Flies” moment. That is why, when people increasingly say, usually casually for fear of what it would mean to be more serious about it, that the country is going mad, they are far more precisely correct than they imagine themselves to be.
What do we have in common with the foregoing historical examples of collective irrationality, and what is different about our circumstances?
Common to virtually every “Lord of the Flies” outburst is an antecedent situation of high stress and ambient anxiety, of disorientation and uncertainty. Such situations have often been catalyzed by pandemics, wars, famines, and natural disasters, either alone or in combination. Sometimes, as noted, rapid disorienting change can come from within human culture. Either way, it is the reactions to such catalysts as they fall into the context of imperfect human social institutions that usually define their political consequences.
Informal customs and formal rules, taken together and whether promulgated in a religious or a secular framework, are supposed to mitigate visitations of chaos. When by more or less spontaneous consensus they fail to do so, a general collapse of authority and social order threatens to spill out. Sometimes the threat is more or less contained, and sometimes it is not, usually making everything much worse. In the case of pandemics, classic literature enables us to be time-travelling flies on the wall. Note only Thucydides’ account of the Piraeus plague of 420 BCE, and both Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” and Boccaccio’s Decameron in the era of the Black Death, and the point comes clear.
In our case we have a pandemic to deal with, and much more. We have a hellishly complicated concatenation of more remote and other proximate sources of social instability, too numerous to list and labor over here. A snapshot of that concatenation resembles a multi-vehicle cascade of high-speed back-end collisions on the interstate. Everyone has been speeding along, seemingly content and mostly oblivious to danger, until one thing went wrong—and then suddenly everything seemed to go wrong. Still not understanding the situation very well, it’s easy for many to suppose that the highly polarized reactions to the George Floyd killing on May 25 have had nothing to do with the highly polarized reactions to COVID-19. That’s not so, of course. Identifying the other vehicles in the accident pack is harder still for most, but the pile-up is pretty obviously not an improbable collection of coincidences.
What is different about our present case? Two things.
First, much if not most of the disorientation and uncertainty that many Americans have felt in recent years is not the result of natural disasters, wars, or disease. It’s more like the cognitive seasickness of the early 17th century. Most of it is man-made, the product of unprecedentedly widespread affluence and radically novel but socially untethered technological innovation. We have brought upon ourselves a hyper-version of “future shock” so powerful than even the Tofflers could not have fathomed it.
Second, our plight is not circumscribed geographically because, both within the United States and in much of the world at large, the “net effect” of a highly integrated form of turbo-capitalism has flipped the upsides of pervasive interdependence into the downsides of mutual assured vulnerability to disruption. COVID-19 has suddenly accelerated and magnified these downsides, pulling back the curtain on what the hapless Davos wizards do not know and cannot control. But the COVID-19 visitation did not create these downsides. Different kinds of people from many countries with many different but overlapping interests did so, over more than a quarter century. The result is that the mayhem is spread over the entire United States. Given the primus inter pares role of the United States in the world order, such as it is, this bears implications beyond for much of the planet.
This is a distinction from the past that amounts to a real difference. Never before has a crazy society, or a “crazy state” as Yehezkel Dror once called a specific political manifestation of a crazy society, implicated pretty much the whole planet. This is new.
Note that I have not mentioned Donald Trump even once so far. Donald Trump is symptomatic of the general madness, an other-directed narcissist of such extreme qualities that he is in many respects its quintessence. It is therefore hardly surprising that he appeals to so many others wandering around lost in the same set of funhouse mirrors. Trump has managed to turn himself into a Ripley’s Believe It or Not-style carnival barker and its main attraction at the same time—not obviously fictive but not matter-of-factly real either. Not even P.T. Barnum achieved that feat of attention-grabbing mesmerization, that transformation of spectacle into political capital.
But of course Trump is not just a symptom. Since January 2017 he has been the chief engineer of the madness, and its great accelerator. No longer impeachable, there is no telling how much more damage he can wreak between now and November 3, and, if he loses, between November 4 and January 20. All that is assuming we have an election that is considered free and fair when all is said and done with it. That is not a given.
Put a bit differently, we stand at the hinge point of our future as a nation: Will our ambient instability, lathered lately by new sources of stress, tip toward craziness and breakdown, or will we find a way to step back from the precipice?
If, one way or another, Trump remains President after January 20, each day will push the nation farther from any possible return to relative liberal constitutional normality. If he lasts as President for a full four-year second term, there will be no way back. Nothing of this world can stop a 200-pound anvil pushed from the roof of a ten-story building from hitting the sidewalk below. If he loses and can be made to relinquish office, even if that requires beating back a wave of deliberately evoked political violence, we will still face a wounded and angry Trumpian movement, and all of the gathering sources of madness that gave us Trump and that movement in the first place.
Maybe the experience of constitutional near-death will shock us into a boldness for reform that would otherwise have been absent. And maybe it won’t. Either way, history suggests that societies do not long abide derangement and irrationality. It is much too stressful and dysfunctional. People crave order, predictability, and some semblance of both fairness and competency in how they are governed.
But there is no guarantee that a new post-upheaval equipoise will be a kinder and gentler version of the original. Redemptive decisions made in haste and under pressure, even if they prevent worst-case outcomes, may still leave us depleted, enervated, and vulnerable to whatever is next speeding around the blind curve of the future. Getting rid of Donald Trump is only the first step toward the recovery of American civic virtue. Subsequent steps will need at one point or another to get beneath politics to address what ails We the People in a more fundamental sense.
Autocratic government is ultimately as good, or as bad, as the autocrat of the moment. But democratic government cannot in the longer run be better, more moral, or saner that the majority of the citizens it serves. If most people don’t care that their government is minimally honest, fair, competent, and efficient with the resources at its disposal, then in the end, human nature being what it is, it won’t be. If creature comfort, and a fantasy-addled life of mild stupefaction sates the vast majority, then Aldous Huxley will turn out to have been a prophet.
Self-government isn’t and never was like a vending machine; it’s more like the Lincoln Logs set you may have had as a kid. It’s not something we can use to buy, consume, and discard stuff, which is why Harold Lasswell’s famous 1936 definition of politics as who gets what, when, where, and how isn’t nearly as wise as its reputation. Politics is something we use to build, maintain, and rebuild as necessary not our stuff, but our institutions and our collective spirit. This is easy to understand, if you’re not crazy.