It’s as if the video game designers behind “Fortnite: Battle Royale” came out with a real-world sequel: “Fortnite 2018: American Political Carnage.”
Signs of the potential for intensifying political violence include not just actual alt-right and antifa clashes, but the evident loathing between national political leaders, the delegitimization of institutions, armed attacks on government facilities and politicians, and, at the extremes, preparations for civil war. It may even help explain our current cinematographic preoccupation with societal collapse.
Hyper-partisans on the left and right might claim they don’t agree on anything, but that’s wrong, of course. America’s political extremists agree on quite a bit: The system is rigged against only them; opposing arguments are not just illegitimate but constitute a threat; and those on the other side are not debate partners but enemies.
Is America at risk?
In 2018, I’ve been on sabbatical from my obscure life as a policy wonk, writing a novel that explores what a 21st-century American revolution might look like. It’s a thought experiment, not a call to arms, although I admit to being as disgruntled with American politics as anyone.
What might precipitate a revolution? Who might launch it? What tactics would they employ? What form would the counter-revolution take? Would the revolutionaries prevail?
America will probably weather our current crisis. If we are sufficiently patriotic, we might even usher in an era of institutional reform. But it does not require much imagination to see a darker future, with more frequent and severe constitutional crises. I fear there are Americans — left and right — prepared to participate if political violence metastasizes.
The formative years of my professional life were spent as a political officer with the U.S. State Department. From American diplomatic missions, my colleagues and I analyzed foreign societies.
Were they democratic, rule-abiding, entrepreneurial, stable, competently-administered, hopeful and cohesive? Or, were they authoritarian, corrupt, paralyzed, chaotic, bungling, belligerent and internally fissured?
Where markers of decline are present in abundance, our diplomats send back warnings of potential instability or violent political change to Washington.
A foreign service officer’s analytical habits don’t automatically toggle off when he or she returns home. America is not just the country I love, therefore, but an object of analytical scrutiny. I must admit, the governance chaos the U.S. has experienced over the last two decades alarms me.
For example, most of the Founding Founders envisioned Congress as the primary driver of government. Yet, our 21st-century Congress is a pathetic failure — irresponsible, corrupt, incompetent and toxically partisan.
When the president’s party holds control, it functions like a parliament, serving as a check on the executive only in rare cases. With the president’s party in the minority, Congress’ implacable opposition to the White House is not easy to differentiate from efforts to undermine the republic.
While it needs more capacity, the legislative branch also must be subject to augmented sanctions — directed at members of congress themselves — when it is derelict in its duty.
Modern presidents are less constrained not just because of the expansion of the executive branch or because of the nationalization of permanent campaigns but because institutional checks have withered.
Relevant to our current circumstances is the absence of legal clarity about whether a president is effectively immune to criminal law while in office.
Acknowledging that procedural hurdles are needed to avoid frivolous harassment, it seems shocking the only remedy for presidential law-breaking might be a political process (impeachment by House/conviction by Senate) that can be strangled by the president’s supporters.
It is especially peculiar, given that the Founders took up arms against George III because they believed he was unconstrained by law.
The judicial branch too is being undermined by partisanship. The successful effort to deny Supreme Court nominee Merrick GarlandMerrick GarlandAbbott promises to hire Border Patrol agents punished by Biden administration House passes bill to ensure abortion access in response to Texas law Delta pushes for national 'no fly' list of unruly passengers after banning 1,600 from flights MORE even a hearing was a constitutional crisis.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFord to bolster electric vehicle production in multi-billion dollar push On The Money — GOP blocks spending bill to kick off chaotic week in congress Overnight Health Care — Presented by Alrtia — Booster shots get bipartisan rollout MORE’s (R-Ky.) effort to “plow right through” with the confirmation of Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGraham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally Senators denounce protest staged outside home of Justice Kavanaugh MORE reveals that his first allegiance is to political tribe, not national community — as did former Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidTo Build Back Better, we need a tax system where everyone pays their fair share Democrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Biden looks to climate to sell economic agenda MORE’s (D-Nev.) 2013 rules change obviating the filibuster for lower-level federal judges.
Reform would reinstitute supermajority requirements but impose consequences for untimely delays.
Is it reasonable to ask whether the American political system can rescue itself without some sharp shock? Speculative fiction, at its best, can serve as a bucket of cold water to the face.
In trying to describe in novel form the motivations and platform of 21st-century American revolutionaries, I’ve come to wonder whether our bitter politics is different from that of the 1850s only in degree, not in kind.
Now, as then, America has unscrupulous politicians, a broken status quo, and clever foreign adversaries who want us to tear ourselves apart. I worry there is a non-zero chance that, once again, Americans might fight Americans.
The revolutionaries in my novel draft two dozen constitutional amendments, in an effort to update a document that was a brilliant achievement in the 18th century but is inadequate to the threats against American democracy in the 21st.
Other actors in the book threaten violent insurrection or target government critics. But democratic rejuvenation doesn’t require violence. In the real world, experts at think tanks and universities regularly churn out smart reforms that garner less attention than they should.
The 21st-century American revolution in my novel is alternative history. Comprehensive political reform is the best way to ensure it remains fictional. Then maybe video game designers will come out with “Fortnite III: Saving America by Reforming Its Institutions.” Let’s play that.
Joseph Cassidy is a global fellow at the Wilson Center.