John Podhoretz has written a very wise column on the Trump and Sanders phenomena. People are supporting these formerly fringe figures, he writes, because they are panicked. They fear the whole future of American civilization is on the line and huge things must be done right away to save it.
This is not, at bottom, about ideology or policy or any of the usual political factors. It's panic about our survival as a civilization.
And I see the very same panic in many of my friends who hate Trump. It isn't only Trump and Sanders. Many Cruz backers view him as the final chance to save America from falling into the abyss, because only he will govern conservatively. Many Rubio backers feel the same way about him, because only he can win the election and keep the enemy away from the levers of power.
With all due respect to baseball, panicking is America's favorite public pasttime. From colonial times (Salem!) right down to the present day, American history is one long chain of panics - financial panics, religious and moral panics, racial and ethnic panics, health panics and political panics; panics about Catholic infiltrators, fascist infiltrators, communist infiltrators, Islamic infiltrators; panics about what's in the food and what's in the water and what's in the air and even (remember cell phone towers?) what's in the ether; panics about anything and everything you can imagine.
The biggest problem with the Religious Right movement, which was well-intentioned but did so much damage to both the cause of the gospel and American civilization, was not that it was naive about politics. It was naive about politics, but that was a symptom. The cause of that naïveté was panic. The fate of the country hinged on winning the war against liberals, and winning it now. There was no time to stop and figure out how politics really works and what it can and cannot achieve.
Of course, every now and then the survival of our civilization really is immediately affected by election results—see 1860. But much more often, it simply isn't. It wasn't in 1980 and it wasn't in 2008 and it almost certainly isn't in 2016.
If for no other reason, the real tipping point for our country is unlikely to come in the next five years simply because people don't want it to. Americans have already proven to have far, far more power to delay making hard choices than the doomsayers said they would have. The cold, hard facts of reality were supposed to have long since forced the tough choices on us by now. And here we are, still having our cake and eating it, too. I suspect we can go on like this for a ways longer before the real crisis arrives.
But let's say I'm wrong about that. Even then, panic is the wrong response.
The crisis of civilization that we are now living through was over a hundred years in the making. It isn't going to be averted by anything we do in the next five years and certainly not by the results of the coming election. The moral conesnsus at the center of American civilization has broken down. The work of rebuilding it will take time, and election results—as important as they are for other purposes—are only marginally relevant to that work.
I know many of my panicking friends, if they've had the patience to read this far, will be crying out, “but even if the crisis is delayed as you say, we still need to be working very hard right now to get ready for it if we are to have any hope of surviving it!”
That's true. That's exactly why panic is the wrong response. When you panic and try to avert the crisis of civilization, you fail—as the Religious Right mostly failed. When you crucify your desire to panic and resign yourself to living through the crisis, when you focus not on averting the crisis but on preparing for it and laying the groundwork for rebuilding on the other side of it, then you can really save civilization.
The model here is Lincoln. As I said, the survival of our civilization really was immediately impacted by the election of 1860. When Lincoln realized that his election would trigger a crisis that might destroy us, the panic response—the “save our civilization at all costs!” response—would have been to drop out of the race or find a way to make a convincing peace with slavery. But Lincoln knew the crisis couldn't be averted. He knew the destruction of American civilization was something that had to be risked. He focused on preparing for the crisis and getting ready to rebuild on the other side.
And that is why we are still Americans today.
Greg Forster is the author of six books and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness.