Was The 17th Century English Civil War A Prelude To America’s 21st Century Identity Crisis?
Is There Any Relevance In The History Of The English Civil War To America’s Deep Political Divisions?
Under the Trump presidency, modern American politics is ruled by Congressional paralysis and grave ideological differences between the Left and Right. The division is more than just distinctions between what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican. These are merely titles up for grabs. The divisions between Americans and their Congressional leaders are distinctly cultural, between those that seek to define themselves as either globalists, whom derive their identity from the external influences of culture and education, or nativists, whom derive their identity from the internal influences of the nation-state.
America’s modern problems are not institutional, as in the case of the English Civil War, but rooted in a deep conflict between the American people (the globalists vs. the nativists) on what should be the social norms and cultural ethos of American identity. Congress is politically inept because of parallel interpretations of what the American identity is in the 21st Century. Is the American identity Anglo-Christian or is it multicultural? The longer the struggle between these dueling narratives over the cultural identity of America as a nation, the more cynical the nation will become, thus slowly weakening the state’s political authority to rule over its people.
Looking at the case of the English Civil War, the battle was over the religious and cultural identity of the British government. The question of what, as a people, the British wanted to represent them was never asked or answered, weakening the power of the state held within the crown and leading to many decades of civil strife and external wars.
Currently, I do not believe that America is at a point similar to that of the English Civil War, but it is also hard to ignore the emergence of a few warning signs. Day by day, with the ongoing counter-intelligence investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential Election, not only is the Trump presidency increasingly being seen as illegitimate, but the seat of the American presidency is also in danger of becoming tainted beyond recognition.
It is understood by those monitoring the vast problems of American politics that there are factions with the multitude of government institutions that are either Trump loyalists or anti-Trump. With a government fighting within itself, can it retain its legitimacy to govern under its current form? It might be in the realm of dystopia to think we may be developing our own version of the Roundheads vs. the Royalists, but it is even scarier to surmise what or who might come after the Trump presidency. Do we get an Oliver Cromwell?
Political vacuums always seem to bring in military statesmen. Perhaps this should make us question Trump’s predilection for surrounding himself with military men and placing them in political offices. While this conjecture may seem a bit too fantastical for most people, the unfortunate mix of cultural revolts within the American populace, institutional ineptitude of Congress, and the multitude of grievances between the Executive Branch, the State Department, and intelligence groups will eventually put American governance in a catatonic state. The Trump era is testing the American Republic on all grounds, slowly redefining who the American people seek to become.
Raging within the cultural and political battles of our time is the question of what will become of the seat of the American presidency. Should the seat be more representative of the state as an institution or be more of a ceremonial figurehead for symbolic populism? As more American people view President Trump as undermining the traditional role of the American presidency, the ability of the nation to be governed under its current form comes into jeopardy. If our president cannot govern us, then what constitutionally unites us under ‘We the People’ must be used to protect us against the intransigence and personal failings of American leadership.
Unlike England in the 1600s, we have a written constitution that we must learn to use in order to reconstruct American political culture. Reevaluating the traditional democratic ethos of the American Constitution that bind us together as a nation can help guide us in diffusing modern cultural divisions. Before people seek to rebel against the Trump presidency and revolt against the system, we must be capable of communicating with one another in order to begin the process of negotiating political compromises that can make all sides content. A revolt with no consensus for a new political platform is doomed to fail and only likely to usher in more dysfunction.
In order for America’s large democracy to continue to work, compromise is key. Negotiating differing political opinions is a healthy part of democracy. Arguing over the substance of America’s constitutional framework is a vital function towards democratic progression, helping society evaluate whether laws, and therefore the interpretation of those laws, are applicable to modern society. The problem today is that when people look at the Constitution, they interpret it through the lens of a warring political tribe. The interpretation of basic rights held within the American Constitution has increasingly become cultural. This has the possibility of slowly eroding the social bonds we hold to each other, and thus the original meaning of the social contract that governs us as a nation, i.e. the Constitution. Both the elections of Donald Trump and Barack Obama showcase the growing political tribalism of the Left-Right cultural divide.
Maybe we need to go back and answer the question: Is the king the state or the state made up of people? Charles I broke the social contract with the Parliamentarians, igniting the foundation for the English Civil War and partially validating the temporary cessation of the British crown. The man was corrupt but not the seat. Americans need to reevaluate what good governance looks like and ensure that our government and the people who fill its offices exist to defend our rights. In order to mature as a country, America cannot be afraid to look inward and confront the issues that divide the nation.
The Left vs. Right divisions that polarize the country culturally are myriad in depth but are not innately irrevocable. Issues such as tax policy, guns laws, and abortion rights should not divide Americans into intransigent ideological camps that are unwilling and unable to negotiate with a competing camp. If we want to continue to live in a liberal democracy, we must relearn how to negotiate competing ideas into practical policy where all camps are represented.
A few reasons why Americans are culturally polarized include partisan gerrymandering, exclusionary party primaries, and opinion based news coverage.
Partisan districting means that one political party will be continually favored to win elections based on the way the borders of cities and townships are drawn. A political party will seek to re-draw a district that unites a homogenous group of voters, ensuring a politician will win based on this intentional grouping of people. The people in these districts typically reflect social, economic, and racial factors that census data proves will be friendly to either a Democrat or Republican. Gerrymandering is a cheat around democracy and lessens the ability of average voters with moderate viewpoints to drown out more ideologically divisive politicians. If anything, gerrymandering summons voters based on ideology and teaches voters that they have to accept an unrepresentative politician due to the non-competitive nature of voting in partisan districts. One recent development is a ruling by the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court that redraws the state’s districts to more closely align with county lines, blocking the usage of the old map due to counties being split among multiple districts.
Partisan party primaries have also caused an imbalance in the way the body politic of the American public is heard and represented. In some states, such as Connecticut, a person is barred from voting in state primaries if he or she is a registered Independent. This should be unfathomable in a liberal democracy as it takes away the ability of more moderate voices from deciding the best person to represent their interests. By excluding people who want to refrain from registering for a particular party, politicians elicit ideological extremes held within both the Left and Right. This exacerbates the cultural divide between Americans by making people believe that in order to be a true Democrat or Republican they must adhere to and abide by the loudest (and thus more extreme) viewpoints. There is no room left for engaging the political center, leaving many voters feeling unrepresented and thus apathetic to the democratic process.
When non-ideological voters are not politically engaged and systematically unrepresented, they eventually become an unofficial underclass. While they are not necessarily susceptible to developing adherence to ideological extremes, their interests are underpinned by the basics for human survival: food, shelter, and prosperity (jobs). If one or more of these are not met, they will be forced to work within a democratic process that feels foreign to them or in direr cases take to the streets.
American democracy must become more accessible to non-ideological voters in order for them to develop the skills necessary to learn about politics, what constitutes the political platforms of the Left and Right, and decide what feels comfortable to them. Only when American democracy becomes more representative of a variety of viewpoints will voters have the ability to pick their leaders rather than the politicians picking their voters.
Lastly, one of the worst offenses to the American people is cable broadcasted opinion based news coverage. Whether it’s Fox News for the Right-wing crowd or MSNBC for the Left-wing crowd, news coverage in America is strongly dominated by ideologically driven pundits who routinely cater to appeasing the vanity of its viewership. Mainstream news channels are validating and deepening the cultural divisions within the country, presenting competing facts and narratives that teach Americans to talk past one another and not with one another. The effect being that America is developing a stagnant civil society. Political street rallies have become divisive, loud, and laced with a retaliatory anger that disengages centrist viewpoints while glorifying more radical ones.
The Trump era has not been easy for Americans. The current battles being waged are as much between institutions (Executive Branch vs. FBI) as it is culturally between the American people. With our institutions in battle with one another aided by partisan political news coverage, Americans see extremes at every turn. Both voters (ideological) and non-voters (non-ideological) feel as though democracy has failed them, which disables people from using democratic tools to build multi-confessional coalitions. This is in part due to the overwhelmingly divisive issue over whether Donald Trump is a legitimate president.
Lingering over the American psyche is the ongoing Mueller investigation over Russian inference in the 2016 Presidential elections. A Quinnipiac University poll released on February 6 shows the nation is almost equally divided on whether or not they believe the Mueller investigation to be a political show trail. The poll quotes 50 percent of Americans believing the investigation to be valid while 42 percent believing it to be a political witch hunt. This means that the country is split on its assumptions on whether President Trump is a democratically elected president, putting into question the legality (and legitimacy) of his political power. The effect of this being the slow corrosion of real political authority traditionally held within the seat of the American presidency.
While I do not question the merit of the investigation, I only contemplate its effect on the American public. The part of the population who voted for Trump is left feeling as if their democratic vote is being illegitimately invalidated based on political reasons, with the anti-Trump camp feeling as though the Mueller investigation can legitimize their sense of political grievances toward the cult of personality of Trump politics. Either way, American politics is consumed by a dangerous deadlock that was avoidable, but existing, nevertheless. One is left wondering; can a democracy as ruled by the common denominator truly give a complex society the leaders it deserves? Whatever the answer, democracy will be the only thing saving us from repeating the political acts of 1600’s England.