A Seinfeldian Civil War about nothing?

(AP Photo/Bruce Barton)

So says POLITICO’s John Harris, who writes that while previous fractures of civil society can be identified with particular causes and issues (slavery and the Civil War in the 1860s, civil rights and the tumult of the 1960s, for example), our ongoing cold Civil War seems to be based on not much more than our animosity towards the opposing political party. And since Harris is a comfortable part of the Democratic establishment, you can guess which party he primarily blames for our current dysfunction.

The transcendent issue of this time — no matter the specific raw material of any given news cycle — is the belief that one half of the country suspects the other half is contemptuous of them, and responds with contempt in turn. “Seinfeld” was not really, as was often said, “a show about nothing.” It demonstrated instead that with the right characters and frame of mind, you can make a show about anything that might happen in daily life. Donald Trump has shown that you can use the same approach to create a national crack-up. The violent rabble that crashed the Capitol a year ago showed that crack-ups are fertile ground for crackpots.

Are you starting 2022 in an optimistic mood? You might take solace in the argument that it’s hard to have a real civil war without a real cause — a great question that will be resolved by the outcome. Trump’s moment in national life will die out because he always has lots to say but no longer has anything meaningful to say.

Or perhaps recent years have steered you toward escalating pessimism. Perhaps the squalor of modern politics flows from ancient truths of human nature. People are easily manipulated with appeals to prejudice and paranoia, never more so than when technology has led to massive growth in the industry of commercialized contempt. A country that can have a civil war with no one really knowing what the conflict is about is one in which the muscles of governance are pitifully atrophied.

Harris’ simplistic and one-sided narrative doesn’t offer much meat behind his theory that no one really know what this conflict is about, and instead ends up as just another exercise in media bias; bashing the right while excusing the left.

If you really want to know what’s driving our current political crackup, look no further than Benjamin Franklin, who astutely described the conditions that create popular unrest back in 1760.

People who have property in a country which they may lose, and privileges which they may endanger, are generally disposed to be quiet, and even to bear much, rather than hazard all. While the government is mild and just, while important civil and religious rights are secure, such subjects will be dutiful and obedient. The waves do not rise, but when the wind blows.

We’re not arguing over nothing right now. We’re in our Cold Civil War because neither left nor right views the other as mild or just when they’re in charge. We don’t believe that our important civil and religious rights will be secure with the other side in control of government, and for good reason.

When it comes to the Second Amendment, for example, we have politicians eagerly adopting laws they believe are unconstitutional purely to screw over the other tribe. We have presidential candidates vowing to ban the possession of tens of millions of legally possessed firearms. We have senators and representatives who want to pack the Supreme Court and overturn the Heller decision in order to treat our right to keep and bear arms as a privilege on rare occasions and a crime in most circumstances.

It’s not just the Second Amendment, of course. On virtually every hot button issue today, both parties view the other as antithetical to their own idea of what this country’s all about, what rights should be protected (or even recognized), and how our government should be structured.

Compounding the friction is the fact that there are competing factions within both major political parties, as well as a strong bloc of nominally independent voters who aren’t formally aligned with either Republicans or Democrats. In fact, it’s probably too simplistic to talk about the two sides when our political alignments are just as fractured and splintered as our culture itself.

Despite what Harris claims, our current fight isn’t over nothing. It’s more accurate to say it’s about almost everything, including some fundamentally important questions about the nature of government and the relationship to its citizens. And as long as the hurricane-force winds keep emanating from our political and cultural nerve centers, I don’t see any reason why we should expect our ship of state to cruise along on calm, still seas.