Commentary

Column: We could lose our democracy to a toxic stew of conspiracy and partisanship

November 24, 2021 4:25 am

If you believe this photo is faked, you just might be a candidate for QAnon. Astronaut John W. Young salutes the U.S. flag in 1972 during the Apollo 16 moon landing. | NASA

They say outer space has a smell, and it stinks.

Astronauts who have come back from space walks have described the smell as oily meat. Or gunpowder and gym socks and rum. Or welding fumes. The space walkers have a hard time describing exactly what the smell is like because, reportedly, it’s not like anything else on earth. Because, of course, it isn’t found here. It’s literally out there.

That same smell is wafting through our political and civic discourse.

Take a deep breath anywhere in the country now and the acrid tang of our disconnect from reality will sting your senses. It leaves writers like me searching for the right words to describe exactly what’s happening, to convey a bit of context, to offer a new insight for readers.

But I have to tell you, this time I’ve got nothing. The tried-and-true is to find an episode in history to compare current events to, and while that works well in a general way — and I recommend Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny” for the big picture — history has pivoted since Jan. 6 to leave us in an undiscovered country of democracy.

I was talking about this just the other day over breakfast with Kim.

As is my habit, I mused about what period of history is most like what we’re living through now. Is it the 1890s (Populism!) or the 1920s (the Klan!) or the 1930s (Global Economic Depression and the Rise of Fascism!). Or perhaps 1968 (the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement!).

How QAnon is seeping into Michigan GOP politics

She gave me that look, the same look that one of her cats has when perched on our roof surveying the quotidian routines of the dogs and mortals below. I get that same look from her when I talk about some historical event I think has relevance today but which she knows I’m just using as an excuse to live in the past.

“This isn’t any other time,” she told me. “It’s now.”

She’s right.

Consider three bits of news from just the past week.

Item: Seven in 10 of local school board candidates backed by the 1776 Project PAC in our state won election on Tuesday. And it wasn’t just in Kansas. The PAC also supported candidates in Colorado, Minnesota, Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The PAC is a response, in part, to the New York Time’s 1619 Project, which examined the legacy of 400 years of slavery and embedded racism in American society.

But the 1776 Project’s calling card was its opposition to critical race theory, which it misinterprets for political advantage. Never mind that CRT isn’t taught in the Kansas public school curriculum, or that it doesn’t encourage white children to be ashamed of their race, or that it isn’t a conspiracy hatched by the radical left. The facts don’t matter. People are more likely to be driven to the polls by what they feel, rather than what they think, and CRT is a boogeyman of fear and outrage.

Item: Hundreds of QAnon supporters gathered at Dealey Plaza in Dallas waiting for John. F. Kennedy Jr. to somehow appear and help reinstate Trump as commander in chief. Never mind the son of the late president, who was assassinated in 1963 in the plaza, himself died in the crash of his private plane in 1999. In a real Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment, the crowd took up a chant about the moon landing being a hoax.

This is nutty even for true QAnon believers, and I can’t help but make one historical connection here: On Oct. 22, 1844, thousands devoted to the teachings of Biblical scholar William Miller stood on a rock at a farm outside Hampton, New York, and elsewhere, waiting for Jesus to return and whisk them to heaven.

They waited a long time. Some were so sure they had given up all of their possessions except the diaphanous “Ascension Robes” on their backs, convinced they would no longer need earthly things. The event was called the “Great Disappointment,” but their despair didn’t stop some Millerites from continuing to believe; the Seventh Day Adventists, and other churches, emerged from the movement.

Item: Global greenhouse emissions are back, after a decline during the pandemic. Scientists estimate we have just 11 years, if we continue burning carbon at the current rate, before the world tips over into catastrophic warming. That’s the warning in the Global Carbon Budget report, released at the U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow. Last year, emissions dropped 5.4% because of the pandemic. This year, they’re exceeding 2019 levels. One researcher called this a “reality check” for anyone hoping a year of social and economic upheaval would shake the world from its climate complacency.

So, this is now.

Let’s break it down.

The alarming thing about the 1776 Project PAC throwing its weight behind local school board candidates is that these positions are traditionally nonpartisan and filled by individuals with little incentive other than public service. Now, like much of everything else in public life, these positions have been politicized to the degree that they are in the forefront of the culture war now tearing us apart.

Here we have a new myth, a narrative about the son of a popular and assassinated president coming back from the dead to anoint a political outcast and restore him to power.

– Max McCoy

There’s been more screaming and parents behaving badly at local school board meetings these days than at any high school football game. From masks to CRT, right wing extremists have bullied school board members based on issues that have little relation to fact. Although much coverage on Tuesday was given to the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, these local school board elections may have the most far-reaching, everyday consequences.

The QAnon supporters gathering in Dallas might seem risible — and there is much to be said for the political effectiveness of what Mark Twain called the “assault of laughter” — but it represents a dangerous intersection of popular culture, religious belief, and political manipulation.

Here we have a new myth, a narrative about the son of a popular and assassinated president coming back from the dead to anoint a political outcast and restore him to power.

This is a variety of King Arthur legend, reimagined for fact-free 21st Century America, complete with a resurrection and the metaphorical drawing of a sword of power from the mythical, blood-drenched stone of Dealey Plaza. In the past, these kinds of stories have provided real comfort in times of national crisis.

The promise of Arthur’s messianic return gave Britain some measure of hope during World War II, even though most understood it as fiction. But the QAnon movement has perverted the Arthur myth into something that is not at its core hopeful, but predatory. It preys on the desires of earnest Americans and compels them to act in ways that hurt themselves, puts their neighbors in jeopardy, and denies verifiable, objective truth.

With climate change, we are in such deep denial that we put future generations at risk in exchange for the comfort of complacency and a few dollars in our pockets. A hundred years from now, when the sap of current events has solidified into the amber of history, this transaction will rightly be damned as a betrayal of humanity.

Those who doubt the science behind climate change predictions today and see radical left-wing plots behind every peer-reviewed report are contributing to an anti-science mindset that may ultimately be our doom. Climate change, as with nuclear weapons, represent an existential threat to our species. In the end, the world we know may not end with a bang, but with Eliot’s whimper.

So here we are, in the evanescent now, distracted by irrational fears while the things that ought to scare the hell out of us approach unimpeded.

We are in real danger of losing our democracy to an erosion of civic duty fueled by hyper partisanship. We have already become, at least for a significant faction of the voting public, a mob so motivated by a sense of outrage and supernatural yearning that we will embrace the most toxic and discredited of theories as truth, if not fact. And nearly all of us are so preoccupied with the business of living that we can’t see beyond the next decade or so, much less beyond the end of our lifetimes.

We’ve never been here before.

The stink of oily meat, gunpowder, and gym socks is strong.

What do we do?

We try to come back to earth and urge others to do so as well. We quit treating politics as a football game (or, if you’re a reporter, a horse race) and step back and ask how our civic institutions like our school boards can be insulated from partisan politics and outside influence. We refuse to promote feeling over fact, we cultivate a respect for science and expertise, and we try to find common ground with those we disagree with. To survive as a nation, we must find our way back to the center. We must be willing to compromise, respect fact, and contribute to civic life in a way that strengthens our democracy.

Nobody is coming to save us. We’re going to have to save ourselves.

– Max McCoy

We sure as hell don’t stand at Dealey Plaza waiting for the dead son of a dead president to magic a cult leader back to power.

There’s a prevailing notion that I’ve heard voiced over and over in the past year, and it’s this: We’ve survived tough times before, and we’ve always come out OK. This time is no different. So yeah, it’s uncomfortable, but we’ll be OK.

But here’s the thing.

We’ve never been here before. It is possible that we won’t survive the challenges confronting us. The “we’ve been through this before” narrative is told only by the winners, the survivors, the lucky. History can provide guidance, but history is not a forecast, and the events buffeting us are unprecedented.

All of us are beleaguered by fatigue. We’re exhausted by 18 months of pandemic, fatigued by the onslaught of politics, and worn down by the quotidian routines of everyday life — made all the tougher by short tempers, supply chain shortages, and skyrocketing prices. We are unmoored from the earth. Still, we cannot give up. We must find that spark of civic duty within each of us, ground ourselves in fact, and work, in whatever ways we can, to make the world a better place for now and the future.

Nobody is coming to save us. We’re going to have to save ourselves.

This column first ran in the Advance’s sister site, the Kansas Reflector. Read the column here.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.

MORE FROM AUTHOR