Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Getting along ... or not

At the end of 2018, a curious event will occur that has happened before only twice: at the end of 2010 and at the end of 1926. The first occasion, at the end of the third year of Calvin Coolidge's presidency (he took office in 1924 on the death of Warren G. Harding), was the first time that the US had had Republican presidents for exactly half of the preceding century: 1926 completed the fiftieth such year.

For the next fourscore and four years the number of Republican presidency years was consistently higher than 50, as high as 64 for the end of the Eisenhower administration and the beginning of Kennedy's. From that high point, the running-century total crept steadily downward as the Reconstruction years aged out of the window, finally reaching the exact 50-50 split between Republican and Democrat presidency-years at the end of President Obama's second year in office. (Of course, for the earlier years of this analysis, the beginning of the 100-year window included a lot of time before the GOP was even founded in 1854, and in which the older parties would have been included. This is why the two-decade Roosevelt/Truman administrations made no dent in the Republican total: that total included no years at all from the period 100 years before those two Democratic presidents.)

Under Obama the percentage of Republican presidency-years over the previous century went down to its post-Coolidge minimum of 48% in 2012, and remained there for the rest of his time in office, as the Obama years being added onto the front replaced Wilson years departing from the rear. But at the end of 2018, we will once again be at an exact 50-50 split, divvying the time evenly between the two modern parties.

I bring this up, not because I'm obsessed with puzzles and numerical trivia (oh, who am I kidding? Of course because I'm obsessed with puzzles and numerical trivia), but (also) because it shows something being forgotten in today's rancorous political feuding: a simple fact, one that anyone would think painfully obvious, but somehow so very conveniently forgotten, so temptingly neglected, that in partisan times like ours most of us would rather sweep it under the rug. Still, putting an elephant (or even a donkey) under a rug is actually not a practical way of disposing of it, or of the problems it's going to cause. So I propose that we simply face it:

This country is about half Democrats and half Republicans.

About half the time, Democrats are going to run the federal government, and about half the time, Republicans will.

This of course has policy implications, to anyone who thinks about a government program that he likes while envisioning it in the control of people he trusts, but not thinking about how the other party would use it. Did Republicans like expanded government surveillance powers under GWB? Well, how about under Obama? Did Democrats think the IRS targeting conservative groups was, well, hilarious? Are they still laughing now the Trump will be controlling it? How about the Department of Education: wonderful that the federal government can impose Common Core on everyone, right, Democrats? Oh my gosh, now Betty DeVos is the Secretary of Education--pull your kids out of the public schools, quick! And Republicans, before you get too contented with the thought that Trump is going to make all your gripes go away for good, remember that half the country is still Democrats; his victory in 2016, no matter how much of a relief it was to his supporters, was still a historically slim Electoral College victory, and that was with the very. Worst. Candidate. Ever, as his Democratic opponent. Who better than Clinton the Democrats will run in 2020 is unclear, but they could hardly find anyone worse.

In other words, half the country is Democrats, and half are Republicans.

There was a marvelous movie, made probably fifty or sixty years ago. If I ever knew its name I've forgotten it now, along with nearly everything about it except for the basic premise. But the premise was so mythically, allegorically significant that I'm sure I'll remember it always. I doubt that watching the movie again would even be as stimulating as simply contemplating the situation. A group of prisoners, probably in the American South in the 1950s or earlier, are being transported in a van, manacled together in pairs. Or maybe they were manacled to links welded to the van itself, but the guards were short one pair of cuffs, and so the last two prisoners had to be handcuffed to each other: a black man and a white man. They object to being so attached, because neither one likes the other on principle, but the guards laugh off their complaints.

The van has a road accident, and everyone aboard is killed (I suppose), except for our pair. The two of them escape, still cuffed together, and have poignant adventures as they are forced to work together to make it to freedom. I recall one point where they were trying to ascend a steep, muddy slope, in the rain: maybe they had been going through a gorge, and a flash flood would soon send a wave upon them that would drown them both unless they made it to the top. But for a long time each kept trying to climb without considering the other one's difficulties, and so both kept falling back again. Eventually they caught on that they had to cooperate to make it up together, but quickly forgot this lesson again as soon as their danger was past.

The most dramatic, haunting, and absurd scene came later, when their frustration with each other reached a climax and their tempers were worn away to nothing, and they set upon each other in an insane fight. Each of them was shouting, "I'll kill you!" at the other--still manacled together, of course--as we in the audience sat open-mouthed at the lunacy of trying to corpsify your handcuff-mate while still desperate to evade your pursuers.

The allegory was presented in terms of racial prejudice, but it could apply as well to today's centrifugal politics.

Unfortunately, recognizing the relative desirability of peace over war does not help to achieve it. There is something called the J-curve theory of revolutions, which my brother once described to me as "first things get better, then things get worse, then things go kablooey". Wikipedia has a longer but hardly more vivid description. If the Left considered the Obama years as "things getting better" and the Trump years as "things getting worse", perhaps the outrageous behavior we're witnessing has its explanation there. Will it escalate still further in the years ahead?

I have a feeling it's going to be hard to write science fiction concerning the decades ahead that won't quickly be overtaken by events. Writing good, inspirational SF/F is one way of fixing the culture, but fixing a culture is slow work: pray that we have enough time left. And get back to writing.

I have about seven hundred words done on my second story, and hope to get at least a couple thousand done over the weekend.

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