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We’ll never be the same

The past three-and-a-half years have not been kind to those who dream. For those who dream of a long arc of Hegelian progress, a kind spirit moving the arc of history ever upward toward justice, this period has been nothing short of a nightmare. With my apologies to you who read this, I don’t see the nightmare ending.

No, it’s not COVID-19, though that blight has done much to disrupt our lives. Nothing seems to be like it was. A trip to the store is something you have to plan in advance. A night out at a movie theater is out of the question. Who would have imagined even a year ago that a public gathering of more than 50 would be the stuff of imagination and not daily reality? Worse, who would have imagined that we would be living through a pandemic that is a perfect mirror of our changed political landscape?

Stories that have been widely known for a long time are generally worth hearing. Stories that have been well known for 2,500 years are especially worthy. One of the most well-known stories of ancient times is the story of Pandora’s Box. It is also one of the most assuredly appropriate tales for our present day.

Pandora was tempted by Zeus not to open a certain locked box. Sly god that he was, Zeus provided her with a key. Pandora had every luxury she desired, but she could not get the idea of opening that box out of her mind. Eventually, of course, she did open it. From that box poured all the misfortune in the world.

Democracy is a delicate balance of representation and popular will, with representation moving with more deliberation and delicacy than the fickle will of the populace. The modern-day Pandora’s Box exists in that space between the people and their elected representatives. We’ve been lucky — up until now — that we have never entirely undone the lock on that box. Surely, we came close in the Jackson administration and possibly the Polk administration as well. Both had fanatically obedient lackeys in the House and Senate, making their outrages all the more palatable due to the ease of their legislative successes. When Jackson ordered the Cherokee to leave their ancestral homeland, the Supreme Court declared the effort unconstitutional. Jackson, with the support of his sycophants, successfully defied the Supreme Court. The result was one of the most shameless episodes in our history.

Through all these and other misdeeds, our box of greater disasters has steadfastly remained locked. The horrors within are constantly updated to represent the darkest possibilities of American politics. The box containing xenophobia, national chauvinism, racism, division, constitutional misinterpretation, cruelty to children, misogyny and administrative mismanagement, has now been unlocked, opened and emptied.

In the time just prior to World War II and after, America developed a government that was much more involved in our lives than it had been previously. This was in response to the needs of an interconnected country that began seeing itself as a member of the community of nations. The Republican Party opposed many of those changes, most notably Social Security. They campaigned against the growing federal role — but even with candidates who demanded our withdrawal from the United Nations, or who claimed we should pulverize the Soviet Union with H-bombs or scrap Social Security, there wasn’t a chance these ideas would be enacted. They were seen as candidates of a small minority, loud and obnoxious but essentially harmless. Robert Taft, a leader of the extreme conservative wing of the Republican Party, lost the 1952 primary to Dwight Eisenhower, after some rather shady actions on behalf of old Ike. Then, 12 years later, Barry Goldwater held the flag for the loony wing of the Republican Party.

Never ones to be left out in the cold, the Democrats had their own loony wing: the Dixiecrats, the dirty little secret of 20th-century politics. In 1968, one of the more shameless demagogues from the Democratic Party, George C. Wallace, ran in the primary races for president. Although he lost, he rattled that box pretty thoroughly. He preached a form of white supremacy that would be very comfortable in the ears of most Trump voters. Wallace reveled in divisive rhetoric, giving his supporters targets to hate. But he was no real danger. Still, he got plenty of votes.

Donald Trump’s election blew open the box in 2016 with blunt force. All the machinations of modern representative democracy, now cowed into submission by the power of political destruction, malfunctioned before the will of the people. The Republican Party is now the party of Trump. One of the evil spirits issuing from that sundered box informed us that the American voter was no longer insulated from foreign propaganda. Another was that Americans no longer cared if the Environmental Protection Agency followed its mandate, or if the Justice Department became a mockery of justice. Yet another closed our eyes and sealed our mouths when children were separated from their parents and put in cages, subjected to God only knows what outrages. And our representative in the House supports all this, as do all her fellow Republicans. She is part of the shape-shifting creature once known as the party of Lincoln. For them now to claim that heritage is the height of cynicism.

If you’ve ever witnessed a violent crime, or been in a serious accident, you know that there is a before and an after for you. You cannot un-see what you have seen, no matter how much you may want to do so. You accommodate it.

America cannot un-see kids in cages. We cannot un-hear a president savaging a free press or a family of immigrants. We cannot undo the damage done to our international reputation, to our moral power in the world. Once we have allowed the evil that was always just at the periphery of our political experience to pollute our national politics, we are forever changed. Pandora’s Box is wide open: Racism, vigilantism and national chauvinism are daily White House fare. We let the wackos into power. Our experiment in representative democracy is now only fit for history books. We will never be the same.

Emmett Hoops lives in Saranac Lake.

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