What Comes After America

Whatever happens today, the Union is done.

It has been for a long time, maybe even from the start. But we have reached the point where the longer it goes on, the more harm it will inexorably do. It’s time, past time, to admit it didn’t work, it never worked, and that the Constitution and its institutions have ossified. There is no reforming the United States of America, there is no more perfect union to chase after. That turned out to be a lie — a lie woven into the legal fabric of this nation-state from the start. The United States of America, as defined by its constitution, can only get worse because of how irreparably broken both that document and the system it created are. This isn’t a Trump or GOP thing. They are symptoms, but they are only symptoms. As angry as you may be at Trump, voting him out, driving him from the country, jailing him, whatever, none of that will fix the great flaw that created his presidency. It does no more than shoe a fly away from an open wound and call it fixed.

The flaw is our Constitution. As there is no politically possible path to rewriting the it, the Constitution can only fall further into entropy and catastrophe.

The longer this goes on, the worse the end will be. This is why it’s the duty of people who are in and of, or love, America the culture, Americans the people, the land it spans and the diversity it holds, to imagine what comes next and the easiest way to get there. We’ve been running what was essentially the broken beta of the first representative democracy for almost 250 years, and it was built to not be upgradable. It doesn’t work right, it never did, and it is awful. It was a compromise of rich and frightened men whose imaginations (understandably) didn’t reach far beyond the 18th century.

The nightmares we live with, and their disconnect from the values we hold now are impossible to count. I was researching children in ICE detention living in cages, and their families being held in unsafe conditions and coerced into forced labor — back in the Obama days. The exploitation of forms of unfree labor continues to this day, as does the rise of oligarchy and political corruption.

Police have killed almost 900 people this year, despite a mismanaged pandemic presumably making it somewhat harder. The Flint water crisis is six years old this year, and still going. One person has been found guilty and sentenced to probation. I could go on, but you know this song: opioid crisis, inequality, lobbying, campaign finance, the two party system, gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, and of course, the damn virus. And still, all these problems are just symptoms of a deeper disease, a broken political basis for our society. Our laws have lead to an irreparable failure of the American system when it comes to the basic task of keeping the people who constitute it alive and functional and with some kind of path to a sustainable, if not improving, existence. Medical care, housing, and education are all contingent. These are the most fundamental parts of having this thing called government and ours failed these tasks aggressively, despite the brilliance and determination of even its most oppressed people pushing forward our culture to greater things.

It’s impossible to change any of this at a fundamental level, because it is impossible to re-write or even amend the superstructure of our laws and our government. Even if the GOP lost everything, and the Democrats suddenly became a party of reform (which they won’t), nothing could meet the global problems we face because the judiciary will destroy efforts to reform and remake ourselves at every turn. But even before we get to the problem of the judiciary, the two party system is disconnected from the world as it is now: facing the end of the Holocene and with that, a planet that is gentle to humans. What was the most democratic system of the 18th century is a travesty of permitted corruption, unrepresentative elites, and openly bought-and-paid-for influence. It’s over, it’s done, it’s time to let it go before it kills us all.

The successes of America, and there have been many, came not because of our form of governance but despite it. The culture – for good and ill – isn’t the constitution or the legal regime or the nation-state as recognized by other nation-states. It’s the people. It’s what we choose, believe, and imagine. Right now we choose to be constrained by a document that has manifestly failed us.

And yes, there have been efforts at positive movement using our constitutional framework, like the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. But they have been undermined and destroyed almost at birth by the perniciousness of the very flaws amendments were meant to fix. And thusly, because of the 14th, we live in a world were Exxon holds the rights meant for black folk who still struggle to vote.

After spending much of my adult life feeling alone in my views, it has surprised me how many people have said to me over the last years, and especially this year, that there’s no redeeming this union, that it’s not worth preserving. But this is not an ending thought that drops into a void.

The end of the Union isn’t a hopeless position, but the only hopeful one we have. The alternative isn’t chaos and dystopia, just as the alternative to monarchy in the 17th and 18th century wasn’t chaos and dystopia. It was us.

Right now is when we start imagining and working on the most peaceful and productive transition to a post-USian world we can manage. That may seem impossible, but that’s also what we thought about the Soviet Union in 1987. It’s what we thought about the end of European hegemony at the end of the colonial ages. It’s what we thought right before parliamentary reform swept Europe after 1848. Right now we’re settling for Churchill‘s worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…, in this world of sin and woe. Why does humanity think it needs to stop there? We invented everything we have now politically, technologically, culturally, and in ways of coordinating and governing.

Why on earth are so many people convinced that we don’t have anything more to invent?

The founders imagined a new thing, but they chickened out and didn’t do it. They half-assed it, retreated from their own notions. When they were done with the thing, it was born almost a ghost and tied down to the old hierarchies. The framers of the constitution were afraid of their own notions of self-determination and equality. They pulled back and tried to not make it too democratic a nation for three million people, and now it fails more than three hundred million. In fact, it fails more than seven billion.

In 2020, this structure has been constraining the political imagination for centuries, stunting our growth, and stunting the world.

My allegiance is not to America, and it hasn’t been for many years. My allegiance is to my family — my family of all the strange living things, unique in a seemingly endless void of rock and chemistry filling the universe, but not life, not as far as we know. I do love America — the land, the people, the crazy, loud, funny and emotional culture. I will always love America, but like all real love, it will be complicated. I don’t have to love its flaws, its racism, its cowardly cruelty, or its legal institutions in order to love its soul.

My allegiance isn’t to a bastard compromise of frightened men in 1776, or 1648, or even 1555. It’s to the world now, in 2020. Those men are long dead, and they do not get to describe the limits of political imagination in the 21st century. But right now, we are trapped in the infinitesimal space these old men described for us, surrounded on all sides by the high cliffs of doubt and familiarity. We need to succeed where they failed — humanity is counting on it.

I know it’s unthinkable that any of this could change, just as it was unthinkable that Rome could fall, that Carthage would be wiped from the map, that the Russian Empire could cease to be, that the Dynasties of China would come to an end, that the Toltecs would collapse, that the eternal Pharaohs of Egypt would pass from the world, and any more of the dozens of political systems that have come and gone. We are still here, waiting on something worthy of our brilliance and creativity.

One of our greatest poets, a man treated like shit for the color of his skin, wrote

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

If you want to call that thing Hughes sang for America, sure, why not. But don’t mistake it for the quicksand of desires we inhabit now. Don’t mistake it for this most failed of hoped-for states. Don’t even mistake it for a Westphalian state.

It all stops the day we decide it stops. None of these documents, forms, systems, or laws have any existence beyond our imaginations, and they never did. It is 2020, and we face a pandemic (with undoubtedly more to come), the end of our own Holocene, environmental destruction, and the task of meeting the needs of eight billion people in this world. It’s time to abandon the best systems men could think of in the late 1700s and figure out one that works now. We could even lead the world in figuring out what comes after the Westphalian nation-state, hopefully before that legal and cultural construct kills us all.

This too shall pass. How it passes, whether it’s the end of the world, or the birth of a better one, is up to our imaginations, which we need to put to work in a hurry.

And so, on this most strange of days, I put the question to you – What comes after America?

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203 replies
    • Norskeflamthrower says:

      What a bunch of useless drivel, this is an example of what has been passing for “progressive” analysis: a whole lot of regurgitation of the facts of our history without any imagination. This is a moment when we have the possibility to win the battle to take back a future from a history that relentless refuses to stay where it belongs. Whether we win the battle of this moment will be determined not by self pitying whining but by standing up and learning what the struggle is all about.

  1. bmaz says:

    Whatever happens today, the Union is done.

    It has been for a long time, maybe even from the start.

    What a load of navel gazing tripe.

      • bmaz says:

        Don’t give me that stupid :D baloney. I have never been more disgusted by a post on this site since its inception.

          • bmaz says:

            Is it perfect? No. Is it better than than the proverbial “all the others”? Yes. Your post is bullshit. All forms of democratic/republican governance depend on the input and votes of the citizens governed. If you want to make a mark, try doing it with citizens instead of plaintively whining here.

            I’m sorry, I need to go take a shower after this question.

            • Quinn Norton says:

              I think a lot of european countries around me right would have a lot to say about the idea that our system is better than all the others, without question. and for that matter, a lot of non-european countries as well. this idea that america is best because it’s america needed to hit the dustbin of history a long time ago.

              • bmaz says:

                Screw that. You stay ensconced there while completely shitting on your origination. I will have absolutely none of that. Your post is truly whimpering horseshit.

                I never thought I would see something like this posted on the front page here. I am embarrassed that it was.

            • Quinn Norton says:

              no, it’s just this specific idea that the american system is absolutely the best in the world/best possible that i still find gobsmacking.

              • J R in WV says:

                So, Quinn,

                Where do you live? Comments above imply that you don’t live in the USA. True?

                What kind of government works where you live? Britain just jumped into Brexit, and just living with Sars2-Covid-19. Sounds Great!!

              • bmaz says:

                You have exhibited this by spewing this fairly uninformed shit, against a country you are not in, from where you went to, without even trying.

                It is deplorable.

                • darms says:

                  I’m not stupid enough to argue with you bmaz but at age 64 I have long ceased to recognize the country I was born in. Sure it’s got the same symbols & such but it’s just not there anymore. For example, do you remember when there were Republican Liberals? I say Quinn has a point…

              • Sandwichman says:

                Looks like you struck a nerve, Quinn! I’ve spent much of the last quarter century researching that “striking a nerve” phenomenon. My conclusion? The reaction comes from from an abiding faith in theodicy. This is “the best of all possible worlds” and therefore whatever bad happens “happens for a reason.” Either we are being punished for our faithlessness or the bad stuff is to clear the field for good things to come. Economics is theodicy. American exceptionalism is theodicy. Theodicy is bullshit written large.

                • Quinn Norton says:

                  I feel like you’re describing the Just World Fallacy, not theodicy. My understanding of the term in religious philosophy is that it grapples with the existence of evil and pain through tools of reason and revelation (with greater and lesser effectiveness), whereas the Panglossian best of all possible worlds just ignores the evil or pain, or assumes that it’s as good as it can be.

                  (I have a softspot for theodicies, successful or not. It’s people of faith grappling with the hardest problem faith hands you)

                  • Sandwichman says:

                    Doctor Pangloss was Voltaire’s satirical repudiation of Leibniz’s theodicy.

                    I can accept a theodicy where faith provides motivation for redressing injury or injustice. But that requires humans, brushing against the grain, to be the agents of history not an idea or supernatural being.

  2. Charles Bragg says:

    Never commented before. This has to be the most pointless post in a long while. Two tons of whining and you want us readers to give you a solution. OK, how about a military government thirsting for empire? Think Japan in the last century. That worked out well, didn’t it? How about a kleptocracy – think Russia. How about a parliamentary system where the population is just as stupid as ours – think UK. Hungary? Poland? Etc., ad infinitum.

    And if you think that a dissolution of the Union makes sense you haven’t visited the redneck parts of the bluest state of all – California. There is no sparkle pony land out there. You will have to work with people, 50% of whom are below average and 27% of whom are bughouse insane. Suck it up. You’re stuck here on earth. Quit your belly aching and do good where you can.

    • Quinn Norton says:

      I grew up going up the Kern river, around people who thought of Bakersfield as the big city. And believe it or not, (and I strongly suspect not) they have things to contribute as well. It’s hard, but if the thing doesn’t work, it doesn’t. And this political system doesn’t work.

      • Charles Bragg says:

        You’re like an ER doctor who gets a patient with a broken arm and internal injuries and ignores him. All he can do is say, “Why don’t I get healthy patients?”

        Honestly, who let this guy write for emptywheel?

      • graham firchlis says:

        Ah, the Kern. One of the West’s unappreciated treasures, may it ever be so. I’ve rafted, fished and camped along most of it, long reaches of glorious wildness.

        Grew up hyper-religious white trash, steeped in Merle Haggard. Good person that he is, Merle grew with exposure to more equalitarian ways of thinking, as did I, and made amends for his early bigotry. I do love me some Merle.

        Try to keep bigotry from my thoughts, but I struggle when confronted with white trash behavior. The worst sort of unfounded smug self-satisfied false martyrdom, thoroughly deplorable and indefensible, most offensive perhaps because it cuts close to the bone. It will take a lot of creativity for the Left to penetrate that reactionary resistance, but there are many in it still of good intent and worth the effort. I struggle to keep a civil tongue, but a soft voice turneth away wrath. Sometimes.

        • Quinn Norton says:

          I remember some long into the night conversation with a cousin-ish person of some sort*, where she talked a lot about what it took to kick meth, and the struggle she had every day. She exuded a strength I have rarely seen in this world, but despite that, neither of us knew if she would make it. She was doing this on her own and had family older and younger to take care of.

          She was 14.

          That’s what we leave on the table as a society when we leave behind the white trash. That’s what all kinds of classism and racism leave on the table.

          *I am really terrible about remembering how I was related to people, and anyhow I changed my name and ran away from them all in the end.

    • Rugger9 says:

      It’s almost as useless as Friedman Unit (= six months) saying that a Biden presidency and a GOP Senate was the best outcome since everyone would be forced to compromise. He’s learned nothing from the 2010 election.

  3. GKJames says:

    The dilemma, it seems, is how to reconcile — in a society as evenly split as this one — two starkly contrasting values as to the fundamentals: democracy, justice, laws. The tools still exist to improve matters, but it’s going to take special effort on the part of millions to overcome the structural impediments.

      • Quinn Norton says:

        but how robust is that power to speak? a vote (in the US, not everywhere) is a binary thing. if the simple majority rules that say, for instance, being gay is a crime and that darker skinned people are less human, is that system working?

      • GKJames says:

        No one argues otherwise. But what’s the recipe for the one third that doesn’t participate at all, and the other third that does everything possible to shrink the franchise?

    • Quinn Norton says:

      i hope that we can come over the next years to see that as our project, with as little strife as possible. because the strife is already built in, and all we do when we ignore the problem is increase the strife in the long run.

      • Rugger9 says:

        Article V (IIRC) allows for a convention of the states if enough demand it, and it’s one of the ways the GOP is trying to cement their ill-conceived policies. It’s not far off at the moment, and there are no restrictions on topics. After all, the US Constitution itself was originally billed as being about slight modifications to the Articles of Confederation.

      • Silly but True says:

        You are throwing this tantrum because you fundamentally misunderstand America, its government, and how to make it a more perfect union.
        1. The United States is a nation of compromise. What you write off as “strife,” is the very process by which diverse opinions and solutions enter our public discourse to be debated and accepted or discarded.
        2. Accept the principles of freedom of speech as your tools for change. Never give up talking and never keep anyone from talking. The point of letting the Nazis march in Skokie is to use their march as proof of their failures of their ideas. Pushing them off the street and out of view means you’re empowering them to reach people and in ways you don’t know or understand.
        3. Accept that “all politics is local,” is the truth, not merely a platitude. The US federal system is a strength not a weakness. Fix your home first, and after your problems are fixed, sing your solutions to the heavens. Don’t worry about MS and AL are doing if you live in CO or CA. They are their own sovereign states with their own so sovereign governments and constitutions. Your greatest power lies in a strong and relatively easier ability to fix where you live in ways you choose. But great ideas flourish in a society the values speech. Your great solutions that fixed the problems where you live can likely work elsewhere too where those same problems exist.
        4. Don’t be angry you can’t convince others. What you really want is not the US but a benevolent dictatorship where your ideas are forced on everyone, because you think your ideas are better than everyone else’s. That’s fine if you can magically be that god-emperor for life, but not so good when the next benevolent dictator is Trump.

        So you’re still on the right path: you’re here selling your ideas, and that’s great. But understand your sales pitch is not generally getting accepted.

        If you can permit me to make an observation, the welfare of the US does not appear to be your priority right now: _you_ are. Don’t worry about it, or making it better, or tearing it down. Get away. Leave it behind and work on your health and your safety. With this post you show it’s not good for you to try to work within at this moment. Heal first. Gain your strength and energy back. Then come back with the energy to sell your solutions and fight for them to make your home better. Then make your neighbors’ lives better. Then you all can make your neighbors’ lives better. The US will still be there, and still in need of being made more perfect.

        Silly but True

    • madwand says:

      “The dilemma, it seems, is how to reconcile — in a society as evenly split as this one — two starkly contrasting values as to the fundamentals: democracy, justice, laws.” Perhaps we don’t, perhaps we fracture into regional polities. It’s certainly not out of the question. There are those on the right who posit we are already in a civil war, it’s just the real shooting hasn’t started.

        • Quinn Norton says:

          I specifically didn’t want this to be seen as trying to talk people out of voting, nothing i do right now is going to change what’s already in motion.

          • bmaz says:

            Then what were you doing posting this garbage on election date?

            I logged back in to find common ground and say so to you. Now I see this. I am sorry, I respect your voice, but this is hard.

            If “nothing you can do right now” can change anything, why are you shitting on the field now, when the election is in play? It is bad faith, and bullshit.

            As I said, I came back to find common ground. You made that impossible. You have a right to your opinion, and the right to express it here. To do it this way, and today, is despicable.

  4. P J Evans says:

    The Union, the USA, has always been something of an ideal to work toward, not a reality.
    But giving up on it is the wrong thing to do.

    • Eduardo Flores says:

      Yes, the folks in Flint need to continue working towards removing lead from their drinking water, even if means decades longer of poisoned brain cells, and thousands of children permanently disabled from lead exposure,….just so your “ideals” work towards a solution that abides by the dictates of a piece of paper written a few centuries ago.

      • Rayne says:

        Hey. Eduardo of 4 comments to date. My oldest kid was poisoned by Flint water and still has health problems. What have YOU done about it?

        • Eduardo Flores says:

          Rayne, I’m sorry. I wasn’t explicit enough in my attempt at sarcasm. I meant, in response to PJ Evans’ comment saying *the USA has been an ideal to work toward*:
          “While PJ Evans is working towards ideals that *may* make the USA better, there are STILL children and adults being poisoned by lead pipes in Flint. Pursuant to the oligarchic ideals of our founding fathers, the health and even the lives of ordinary Americans are an after-thought to those believing “the USA is an ideal to work toward”. That extreme wealth, political/corporate corruption, injustices can exist, while the short and long-term health of living human beings, all for the sake of “ideals” is truly horrific.
          Rayne, again, apologies.
          -Eduardo

          • Rayne says:

            Yeah, yeah, blah-blah…PJ has been here for over a decade. You, however, pop up out of nowhere and think you’re going to tell us what’s up and you still haven’t answered my question.

            Not like I don’t know what’s up with Flint.

            • Silly but True says:

              One helpful change moving forward is to break free of habit of punitive recriminations while a crisis is underway. It’s simple triage on what’s important: check for breathing, stop the bleeding, treat for shock, then call a doc. Flint is stil trapped between the stop the bleeding and treating for shock. Save the damn victims first, there will be ample time to review in detail how it got to that point.

              Today, Nov. 3, 2020, the Michigan State website still stops short of calling Flint water “safe to drink.” It says the water “meets very high standards” and “low lead levels.” The EPA warns Flint to not drink unfiltered water, in clear terms: “it’s not safe.”

              Flint remains in crisis mode. The first step in Flint remains getting people safe drinking water.

              There are civil judgments, and criminal investigations still to complete. But the State of Michigan, joined by negligent federal EPA and private commercial consultants still have a problem to resolve. Much of it is on Michigan residents to hold them to it. But some sits on shoulders of every American, as the duty for the Corps’ of Engineers’ negligence in floodwall designs in Katrina also sits.

              Silly but True

          • P J Evans says:

            Nephew who’s been hassled by police because black in a mostly-white community.
            Brother who was hassled by one particular cop just because. (I think my brother talked back to him. And that was in the mid-60s.)
            Cousins who aren’t white. And some who wouldn’t count as white if we still used the “one drop” rule. (We haven’t been all white or all Northern European since before 1930.)
            Don’t tell me what this country is. My family IS America.

  5. emptywheel says:

    I think the problems with the Constitution go beyond the way the 14th has been hijacked by Exxon, though that’s a key bit.

    But it’d be nice baby steps to simply remove the 3/5ths compromise and use it as a means to rethink the electoral college.

  6. Molly Pitcher says:

    I have seldom agreed with your posts, but I never expected nihilism from you. That you would choose today, in the current environment, to state this case speaks to your lack of vision, hope and courage.

    We need more people dedicated to working for the betterment of all people, not self proclaimed intellectuals sitting on the sidelines, passing judgement. I suppose you think John Lewis was a fool for risking his life in the face of brutal inequality ? I say the country needs more John Lewises with the dedication to humanity and the vision to see what can be.

    I will never waste my time reading another of your selfish posts.

  7. Sandwichman says:

    You’re right, Quinn. But part of the rot — the Constitutionally sanctioned rot — of the American civic religion is “YOU CAN’T SAY THAT!” I grew up saying the pledge of allegiance sincerely, drawing flags and fighter jets with U.S. insignia on them, and I left the U.S.A. because of an “unconstitutional” war when the remedy offered was “love it or leave it.” I don’t remember the “strict constructionists” or “originalists” caring much about that. “States’ rights” was always code for segregation and, before that, slavery. The separation of powers was always about protecting the oligarchy.

    The “founding fathers” had mixed motives. Some good, some bad. Once upon a time it may have been reasonably argued that the good could be redeemed from the bad. The experience of the last 40 years has shown that such expectations were naive.

  8. Alan Charbonneau says:

    I’m with bmaz on this one
    This reads like the Alan Sokal Hoax, which included such gems as:
    “Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step farther, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded.”

    While I know that Sokal’s article was deliberate gibberish, I’m not sure if your post is intended to be nonsensical as well or if you think there is some deep meaning embedded within it, but it sounds like gobbledygook to me.

  9. Tom Joad says:

    Outstanding piece. Went without saying that some would take it wrong. It’s time America stop worshiping the ‘founding fathers’ & acting like the US constitution is some holy document. I wonder if most people have even read it.

    • bmaz says:

      Hi there “Tom”, thanks for dropping in. I have not only read the Constitution, but argued it in numerous courts. You are full of shit.

      • Norskeflamthrower says:

        Sigh, thanx for what you do Bmaz but I worry about you. There seems to be so much s**t coming down and you are the only one with a shovel.

      • J R in WV says:

        Weren’t the Joads a family in the pine barrens of NJ, inbred to the point where they couldn’t achieve a job, or “graduate” from 6th grade…? I’m not good with specific details of the fiction I read, but rings a quiet bell for me.

        OK, research shows that the Joad family was in Grapes of Wrath, from Oklahoma, not NJ. Won’t dig further to ID the family name of the Pine Barrens of NJ. Doesn’t matter much.

        Quinn is an attractive person, but writes abject trash as far as I can tell…….

        Kind of like J Vance. Lots to say, but can’t really find the words. If Vance did find the words, people would know Vance was both crazed and a moron.

  10. John Paul Jones says:

    I understand the angst because some days I feel it too. But the nature of the world, especially the political world, is that we don’t get to choose the best alternative, but rather the least worst. I spent a good deal of my time in grad school trying to write a history of utopia, and came to the conclusion that utopia was dangerous shit, and that utopians all too often turned into dictators and terrorists. The connection between the Soviet experiments and the Nazi experiments was that both were utopian, determined to impose a vision of “humanity” on actual people, using their theories as a bed of Procrustes, and trimming off (usually by murdering) the people who didn’t fit, the same way you trim beef that sticks out of the edges of a sandwich.

    The pursuit of social harmony by utopians leads in the end to society as a prison. Consensus and social harmony on the larger scale depend on satisfactions on the small scale, which can only emerge from decisions about matters not directly related to either harmony or consensus: reliability; and non-arbitrary structures of authority. Reliability simply means that access to roles and occupations is equal, given only ability; non-arbitrary means that authority is not random – that is, given because of incumbency of a place (a class function) – but task-specific. If people know or believe that their society operates on reliable and non-arbitrary principles of authority, their satisfaction with it is likely to be high enough that the issue of non-consensus is effectively banished. This will neither create nor guarantee harmony but it will work to reduce disharmony to lower and more manageable levels, and thus avoid the moral problems involved in the use of large-scale coercion. A constitution, even an imperfect one, which tries to achieve those outcomes (reliability; non-arbitrary structures of authority) is a good place to start. I believe that the US Constitution meets those requirements (sort of).

    • Quinn Norton says:

      Sort of as you say… and at one time. The thing is, it would be something if we had a viable political path to a rewrite. I do think in general a certain amount of utopian thinking has to be in the mix to get away from creating kleptostates, and utopia is definitely part of the founding myth of the nation (myth here as the powerful story, rather than implication of untruth), hence the beautiful phrase, a more perfect union. But no one had ever written anything like the constitution before, and the flaws in making it the holy object, rather than the process tell these 240-odd years later. I feel like if I said you’re not realistically going to get a rewrite or a big batch of amendments maybe ever again, that wouldn’t be hugely controversial. What is is that I’m saying that means the political system will fail on its own, and we should try to get ahead of that *as a culture* is what’s getting people’s panties in a twist.

      There’s always a bind when you try to write about the existence of a problem. Do make suggestions, and then people call it megalomaniac, or so you point out the problem and ask people to think about it, in which case you’re whining or don’t have any solutions. Of those particular abuse modes, I decided I prefer the latter, partly because I think there’s still more of an opening to get people to engage creatively with really hard problems.

      There’s no part of this, on its own, that’s terribly controversial. Was the Constitution a flawed document authored by Enlightenment era men, who engaged in slavery but feared tyranny? Obvs, does it reflect that? Yep. Did they make it kind of unclear? Famously. Is it hard to amend? it was when the country was small, now it basically impossible.

      Do the body of laws that spring from it also have very hard to address flaws? Again, uncontroversially, yes. Is there a viable path to a rewrite? almost certainly not, at least not without breaking up the Union. Think about this, if the GOP keep their state houses and actually manage to trigger one, is California going to stay in the union they would come up with? Is Hawaii? No, definitely not.

      So here we are, between a rock and a hard place — a legal basis that was never really that fit for purpose but designed to be both holy and unchangeable, and a system absolutely spiraling, as climate change and disease get ready to really beat it down.

      The political concepts we have are simply not ready for what comes next, and yeah it hurts my feelings when people say mean things to me for pointing that out, but they aren’t, and a lot of people are going to die if we keep pretending that things are fine.

      I got into this argument with a friend of mine who once ran for president, and he said to me, and i paraphrase: you don’t know how bad this could get, wait until you’re fighting the US military.

      I just replied, wait until you’re fighting nature.

      Westphalian sovereignty isn’t going to survive climate change, either because we get rid of it and try to figure out how to manage a planet (not something i’m claiming i or anyone else knows how to do), or because climate change gets rid of our ability to maintain a nation-state. I’m really rooting for the former.

      • Rugger9 says:

        Careful what you wish for, Quinn. Here in CA we have hundreds of amendments to our state constitution (IIRC it was put together in San Jose during the “legislature of a thousand drinks” before the capital moved to Benicia and later Sacramento) and a robust initiative process originally used to pry the state out of the clutches of the robber barons.

        However, like many other things the initiative process is now all about the money for professional signature gatherers and special interests hammering away until they get what they want.

        There was a reason that the US Constitution is as difficult to amend as it is, because the changes needed to be long-term consensus ones, not fads. Even with this process we have seen 17 amendments after the ten in the Bill of Rights so far from being “politically impossible” the process requires a consensus. See also my note about the Article V convention of the states, above, which opens a very large can of worms.

        • Quinn Norton says:

          I’m originally from Cali, and lived there most of my life. The thing is, there’s hundreds of constitutions out there, and they get re-written quite often, even without wars and disasters. They don’t all end with California’s disastrous version of direct democracy. There’s a whole world out here, and much of it works better than America does, but we don’t even have to pick up one of those already more representative systems, we can look for ways to innovate on them. Why wouldn’t we draw from all this knowledge, and all these traditions around the world in our next iteration?

          • Molly Pitcher says:

            California’s “disastrous version of direct democracy” has led to the 6th largest economy in the world, measured against all the other countries of the world. It is a vibrant government that is responsive to the electorate. It is the wellspring of the majority of the new ideas that have moved the world forward for the last 60 years.

            Generally speaking the rest of the United States lags a few years behind California in most every category.

            While not perfect, as no person or government ever is, we in California are willing to try new ways to deal with problems. If they don’t work we learn and try again.

            After watching what Mitch McConnell and his ilk have done to Congress, I would think that a little more “disasterous direct democracy” might not be such a bad idea.

            And don’t call it ‘Cali’.

            • Quinn Norton says:

              I don’t ballot measures are what makes California great, and it’s a weird contention that they do.

              I’m fifth generation Californian born and raised and mother to a 6th, I will call my home Cali if I damn well please.

          • Rugger9 says:

            I’m also a native-born Californian, and also lived most of my life here except when on Government service. Your musings are off base, unless you have an actual solution you are just concern-trolling.

            Answer the question: what system do you prefer, Quinn?

  11. Eduardo Flores says:

    Excellent article!! I’ve thought the same for a long time. The U.S. Constitution was obviously written to establish and preserve an oligarchy. And it has done a swell job! The Constitution was just the ideas from the 17th/18th centuries. Most other things in our lives have been updated over the years, why can’t the people living in this part of the world also update how we organize ourselves politically (which would lead to changes in just about every other thing in our lives…for the better)? Too scary? The current organizational scheme is too scary.

      • Eduardo Flores says:

        From your other responses, it obviously doesn’t matter to you what I would suggest. But did you see the recent vote in Chile??

        • Rayne says:

          Chile didn’t have the equivalent of our Fourteenth Amendment. The problem with the U.S. Constitution is that the Fourteenth has applied inequitably by white men, not that the Constitution doesn’t work. The other problem with the U.S. Constitution is the missing Equal Rights Amendment, which again has been shot down repeatedly by states with governments under a majority of white men. We don’t need a new Constitution — that’s the GOP’s intent, to replace government under the existing one with an autocratic theocracy. What we need are better representatives and judges who interpret the living Constitution reflecting its people.

          • OldTulsaDude says:

            Thanks to the presidential election of 2016, we will not see better judges in our lifetime. Optimism is good; but one must also accept realities. We are well on our way to a theocratic oligarchy and really have no good way to halt the momentum.

            • Rayne says:

              I’m reminded of Albert Einstein’s quote, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels,” often paraphrased as “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

              This is the reality. We have barely scratched the surface seeking ways to change course. When more than 50% of the population is ignored in the problem solving process, there’s a vast untapped wealth which may yet find solutions.

              • OldTulsaDude says:

                I don’t know how you can stay so positive when 1/2 of our population prefers abandoning the idea of the American Republic in order to live in a country run by an authoritarian white man. But I do admire you optimism.

        • MB says:

          The Chilean constitution currently in effect dates back only to 1980, created under the military dictatorship of Pinochet. Despite subsequent major amendments made to it in 1989 and 2005, and numerous minor amendments made between 1991-2010, the fact is that its original creation, and many still-standing provisions within it were created by Pinochet, and the Chilean population at-large is no longer willing to tolerate that.

          Also bear in mind that this the 8th (!) constitution for Chile. The 7th constitution was adopted in 1925, so that one lasted for 55 years before Pinochet swept it away.

          The fact that our country has only had one constitution, has never had a military dictatorship, has managed to make significant amendments to the original document, but still has yet to effectively deal with the legacy of slavery makes the comparison with Chile kind of an apples/oranges affair.

          I have friends whose family emigrated to the U.S. from Chile in the 1960s (before Pinochet) and some of them have since moved back there after Pinochet’s departure. What I hear is that the income inequality situation in Chile is terrible, worse than here, and that their health care setup is also worse than here. So they have really urgent and basic quality-of-survival issues going on down there.

          • Eduardo Flores says:

            MB, you’re right. And more importantly SPANISH is spoken in Chile, while mostly English is spoken in the U.S. I’m such an idiot! So, because of this blatant difference let’s not make any changes to how we organize ourselves over here.

            • MB says:

              Did I say “let’s not make any changes”?

              We need change like crazy! The question on this thread seems to be whether to tear down and start over, or continue to work harder than ever within the current highly-imperfect system.

              Sorry if you felt I was lecturing at you, mainly just wanted to put some nuance into exactly how Chile’s situation is different than ours.

  12. Max404 says:

    Pretty weak posting, let’s say.

    The problem is that lots of people in the US think that they can get through life as if they were rich rich people and their money will insulate them from various threats, such as illness or marauding bands of the underclass, or climate catastrophes. So no need to contribute to the commons, they think. Better to hire your own security force and doctors and build hilltop castles. Of course not many have that much money, but lots think they do, or will, someday.

    It is such a hoot to have the fear of socialism back as the Republican cri de coeur, what nostalgia. This seems to be the case for about the last 10 days. (“Law and order” didn’t pan out, so give “socialism” a try.)

    All the Dems need to do with their new majority is to raise taxes on the top 5 %, invest in green infrastructure without delay, give everyone good medical care regardless of economic status, as well as free university education and decent housing. The Dems will never lose their majority again, if they do that. If they don’t, well then you can kiss the civility and peace goodbye, but it won’t be because of the constitution.

    What are we, back in 1932 or something? I think so. 1932, the green version. Welcome to social democracy.

    All the stuff written in the OP, well, doesn’t say too much of use.

  13. Lex says:

    Well, in being right you’ve offended the sensibilities of some. I’ve done the same on this subject. The fundamental problem is how our history is taught and learned. We’ve mistaken a flawed legal contract for the ideals put forward in the Declaration of Independence; mistaken that flawed contract for the tablets Moses brought down from the mountains; and accepted that we are somehow an exceptional nation which is immune to histories of decline and fall. And we’ve mythologized a bunch of asshole politicians from the 18th century to remove their weaknesses, failures, evil and vanity. We make excuses for them. Somehow these men get to be the most inspired group in history, wise beyond their time but without responsibility for their actions of greed and evil. But if you mention any of that or how our successes are in spite of rather than because of our golden calf contract, the offended are besides themselves.

    • Sandwichman says:

      “mistaken that flawed contract for the tablets Moses brought down from the mountains”
      I would add that there were TWO SETS of tablets, the first of which was broken. Two main explanations for this discrepancy are that 1. the second set was punitive while the first was emancipatory, and/or 2. multiple texts fused together in Exodus contained inconsistencies and incongruities.

      So the take home from the Mount Sinai story is actually about the unreliability of scripture, the uncertainty of authority. The “fetishism of commodities” is especially applicable to the fetishization of texts.

  14. Peterr says:

    Quinn, I’m surprised you quoted Langston Hughes like this, as he is saying damn near the opposite of what you posit here. Even as he rings the changes on oppression, he does so with something more:

    . . . I am the man who never got ahead,
    The poorest worker bartered through the years.

    Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
    In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
    Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
    That even yet its mighty daring sings
    In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
    That’s made America the land it has become.
    O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
    In search of what I meant to be my home—
    For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
    And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
    And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
    To build a “homeland of the free.”

    That “yet” is the pivot. That “yet” is the point at which Hughes says that even with all its problems — past and present — the dream of the poor, the outcast, the oppressed has not and cannot be killed.

    Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
    The steel of freedom does not stain.
    From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
    We must take back our land again,
    America!

    O, yes,
    I say it plain,
    America never was America to me,
    And yet I swear this oath—
    America will be!

    Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
    The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
    We, the people, must redeem
    The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
    The mountains and the endless plain—
    All, all the stretch of these great green states—
    And make America again!

    More than writing about America, Hughes was writing about the people of America. People with dreams and hopes and strength that was not and could not be crushed by plutocrats, racists, and authoritarians. He wrote it in 1935, as the Depression raged, as droughts fed the Dustbowl, and as SCOTUS was busy tossing out chunks of the New Deal. He wrote as Hitler was rising in Germany and Stalin preparing his Great Purge in the Soviet Union.

    What makes this poem so powerful is that Hughes both names the struggles and the pains, but even more powerfully names the dreams and the hope that lives in his readers. He spoke of redemption, not coming from the powers that be, but from the strength and commitment of ordinary folks.

    What this post lacks is that kind of vision. No one who regularly reads EW is unaware of the flaws and problems — past and present — of this nation. This blog was founded on and continues calling attention to those flaws, but doing so in a way that points to the hopes and dreams laid out in the Preamble to the Constitution: “in order to form a more perfect union, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .”

    Are we perfect? Hardly. Are we better than we have been? Absolutely. Do we have a ways to go? Hell yes.

    But you gotta have a dream, or you don’t know where you’re going and when you’ve gotten there.

    • Quinn Norton says:

      This is literally a post asking people to dream, and be hopeful, and imagine how to create the foundation for a better world.

      • Peterr says:

        And that gets to the vast gulf between you and Hughes. You asked people to dream, and he inspired them to join his dream, adding their own to what he laid out.

        It’s the difference between saying “Life’s rough – what should we do?” and “Life’s rough, but we’ve overcome rough before, so c’mon . . .”

        As Harvey Milk put it, “you gotta give them hope.”

        • Quinn Norton says:

          Langston Hughes is one of my favorite poets, and yes of course I’ve read, and written about Let America Be America Again, I’ve even written an interview with my mom called I The Land That Never Has Been Yet.

          This article is entirely about hope, but not a fragile and contingent hope. This is not a situation in which the answers are handed to you, or simple. No one is going to come save us from this mess, and what you want me to tell you is that there’s not so much mess and if we rally round the flag and give it a good go we’ll build the school house or block the developers or rally round the clean up effort.

          But we’re not in that story. We’re in the story of political breakdown and global catastrophe. Yes there’s hope, but it’s not easy hope and it’s not hope you get to cheer from the sidelines. It’s get up and work hope, and we may still not make it, but we definitely won’t without the work.

          • bmaz says:

            “This article is entirely about hope”

            What a complete load of crap. This post is entirely doom, gloom and shitting on your own country of birth, even if not your current domicile. I learned semantics via S.I. Hayakawa, through several teachers, starting in high school, and then in college. If you think your vision is “hope”, maybe you need new glasses, and certainly better semantics.

            As to your response at 5:30 pm, nobody is “terrified” of you. And nobody “mooted” or “policed” you or your thoughts. They responded to garbage. And, yet, you are butthurt? “Very sincerely, why?”

            • Quinn Norton says:

              you still don’t get to tell me what i’m writing about. i don’t care about what i’m sure was your very good education, you don’t get to tell me what is in my own mind.

    • Norskeflamthrower says:

      Beautifully said. Again we are confronting a lot of folks who wallow in the trap of a history that has imprisoned a future without the imagination to envision anything different.

    • Quinn Norton says:

      I don’t know who that is, but I assume you’re wishing me some kind of horrible, violent death?

      • Epicurus says:

        Why would you ever assume that? Perhaps the assumption says a lot more about you than me and, perhaps, what may be wrong with the country that we need to, and can, fix. Don’t be lazy. Google Phillip Nolan and the Man Without A Country.

  15. Dysnomia says:

    This post has been accused of being nihilistic, but I don’t think that’s true at all. I think what it’s saying is that we the people have the ability to create something better than this, a more just system, and we should get to work doing it.

    As far as what that system should look like, I don’t have the answers. But what I’m pretty sure of is that any centralized power structure will be used for abuse and repression. It’s inevitable. If we want to create a world of free people, decentralization of power is the only way.

  16. jaango says:

    Come on, guys! This is a political blog with very smart people.

    Thus, the follow-on to an Anglo-oriented democracy will be in the form and function of a Progressive-oriented democracy, that is premised on Decency Personified.

    For these past twenty years as a political writer, my first self-published book was titled, “Chicanos Talking to Chicanos. And to date, I have completed my latest and eighth volume.

    And needless to say, this past weekend, the local news rag, published its article and tiled, “For the past 100 years, state has suppressed Latino, Black and Indigenous voters.” Of course, this is nothing “new” or “news” to us here in our wonderful Sonoran Desert.

  17. dude says:

    “What comes after America?” America 2.0
    …which is to say the inspiration of a better way for us all hasn’t gone away and we will continue to evolve a better system rather organically, haphazardly. We may indeed have to fashion new tools, but I doubt we will wholly abandoned the old ones. If Quinn is suggesting the “Union” means “nation-state”—well, I have to admit I don’t have the imagination to come up with a better organizing tool. So I believe this particular Union–the one I was born into and the one I have learned with–is one which will evolve along with the aspirations of its participants. The inspiration of ‘America’ is a North star. It’s a direction, not a place. The ‘Union’ is the place.

  18. person1597 says:

    “History shows again and again
    that nature makes out with all of your friends”

    Wait, What??!! Crazy talk!

  19. this_is_peak_karen says:

    Privileged white women talking about how her allegiance is only to her family. Have fun living in your mountain hilltop. You don’t see BLM activists being this pessimist and navel gazing.

    • Quinn Norton says:

      well, my family or orgin is basically dead, so I like to think of the world as my family. when your family is mostly dead, you get kind of metaphorical, but that’s not all bad. in the end i feel like i really learned to care about the whole shebang more.

  20. this_is_peak_karen says:

    What is your suggestion BTW? Should the US be broken into 50 states? Two territories aka the north and the south? Do you prefer kicking out certain states? Do you have any idea at all beyond the US must end? What will you replace it with?

  21. gmoke says:

    Went to a conference Lawrence Lessig put together at Harvard Law School on the possibility of a new Constitutional convention. It had the full spectrum of political views there, from at least two groups that called themselves the Tea Party (it was when that “movement” was close to its height) all the way over to sorta kinda liberal Democrats (Lessig began his politics as a delegate to the 1980 Republican convention if I remember correctly, so his political perspective is certainly not 360º from my observation).

    It gave me the willies.

    A Constitutional convention in the USA now would be a disastrous fiasco, even though it might be necessary. The can of worms that it would open might never be brought back into any usable condition, even as bait.

    Having just finished Thurman Arnold’s The Folklore of Capitalism this morning, I can say that Arnold, for one, recognized the stupidity of corporate personhood and other myths of American economics and democracy quite clearly in 1938 when the book was published. For a long, long time, probably from its inception, the USA has been running on myths, lies, and alternate realities. In some ways, it may be the human condition to avoid the ground truth, the truth on the ground. Our species just can’t take it. We need pretty lies we can tell ourselves. The ones that gall me most is that legislation makes change and that politicians are leaders.

  22. Dylan Tweney says:

    Hey, I came here hoping that the title was a promise, but instead it’s a question. What comes after America? I don’t know. Can you offer us some ideas, Quinn? I love your writing and think you have in the past offered some of the most nuanced, emotional and factual analysis of many aspects of our broken history and flawed culture. Your writing on “how white people got made” changed the way I think about race and is widely cited. But this post, offering despair without solutions, feels bleak. I am not asking you to propose solutions that would fix all our problems for us, but I would hope that you’d share some of your imaginative ideas with your community here. (Either that, or ask Emptywheel to put a question mark at the end of the headline so those of us coming here will have some hint of the inevitable disappointment. But I’d rather see the ideas.)

    • Quinn Norton says:

      I want to have all the ideas, but I want them to be a community project, not just something I moot. I wanted to make the point that something has to come after America, but we, all of us, in the world, need to figure out what.

  23. this_is_peak_karen says:

    “I am much more persuaded by lefists who work their politics in the street, taking care of people in need, like trying to shut down prisons, instead of cheering when the bad guys get put in them.”

    What happened to the Quinn Norton who wrote this?

  24. N.E. Brigand says:

    As regards corporate personhood, suppose we could do away with it (whether through a Constitutional amendment or whatever reorganization of the U.S. that Ms. Norton has in mind): what would be its negative consquences, if any?

  25. Mosey says:

    Quinn, thank you for not only writing bravely with your thought provoking post, but also “braving the heat” here in the comments section. It seems to me also that the American experiment is all but over – hell, even the principal writer on this site moved to Europe, what does that say? I myself just moved back to Canada after 30 years of living in the states and I cannot believe how much better life is outside of the states. I do not mean to insult anyone here. I am just stating a fact. There still are caring societies on the planet. There was a time period, i feel, when America was becoming one of them. But, that ship sadly has sailed. I remember how optimistic i was 12 years ago when Obama was elected. Maybe Biden will win today and maybe he will be able to put America back together. Maybe. I saw the writing on the wall, I was told over and over that foreigners were not welcome in the states. It seems to be a hobby amongst many US born humans, to single out those who are from another place. But – I am so lucky. I happened to be born in Canada. So many people would do anything to get out of America and move to Canada if they could. When we decided to sell up and move north last summer we never encountered a single person who didn’t ask us how they could move to Canada – realtors, bankers, assessors, people coming to yard sales asking where we were moving. And of course all of our friends. Not a single “you are crazy to leave the greatest country in human history” comment was ever made to us. You tell me why that is because to me that is not indicative of the “we are all going to pitch in and make our country better” theme that America needs so desperately. I love so many things about your country but i could no longer watch it go down in flames up close. And i truly hope that you guys, my brothers and sisters, get it together and show the rest of us how it is done. You are capable. You just don’t have the collective will, not when money is the new religion and everyone is forced by your society to be only looking out for themselves. Clearly i am generalizing. But seriously, can’t you guys see that the damage is so deep that it’s almost unfixable? Why is Quinn the messenger being shot at?
    I see is what I see and what I see about America is…well it’s not good. Sending prayers. Quinn – hang in there. Everyone is so stressed out right now, and for good reason.

    • Rayne says:

      Look, buddy, this is bullshit: “It seems to me also that the American experiment is all but over – hell, even the principal writer on this site moved to Europe, what does that say?

      What would you do if you were married to a foreign national whose family member became sick and needed extended care? Just ignore the problem? Your question is better posed to Quinn personally.

      As for this: “can’t you guys see that the damage is so deep that it’s almost unfixable?” So not taking that from a white dude who isn’t even a U.S. citizen. Canada has some massive problems beginning with its own original sin — try focusing on that before you lecture us.

      • Quinn Norton says:

        Ok, here’s my answer: I got lucky in falling in love with an EU citizen. I didn’t have health insurance and was slowly dying of an indescribably painful condition that was compressing my cervical spine. Here I got surgery, and while there’s permanent damage, I can at least use my hands again. Which I guess maybe people aren’t so happy about, since I was able to type this out.

        There’s a lot to quibble with me about, and plenty of my friends do, but the American exceptionalism that has poisoned this discussion is a bigger danger than anything I’ve suggested. Of course America has tons it can learn from the rest of the world, especially about making political entity that works better for its people, I feel like I’ve seen you say as much yourself.

    • this_is_peak_karen says:

      What about the people who can’t afford to move to wonderful Canada and wonderful Europe? I doubt someone with my skin color and my lack of college education will be able to emigrate to those countries so easily. It’s easy enough for some people to give up on America, but so many people can’t afford to give up, can’t afford to wallow in ‘everything is broken let’s all move to Europe’

      • John Paul Jones says:

        I think you could emigrate to Canada if you wanted. Not easy, but still possible. Not a professional’s opinion, just someone who lives there.

        After 1950, a lot of emigration to Canada was European (German, Hungarian, English, and so forth), but after the early 1970s, even more of it – most of it – was Asian (China, India, Korea) and I have acquaintances who emigrated in the early 2000s from Africa.

        However, you’re right about the college degree (or certificate); you get more brownie points for education than anything else. In that sense, the 1980s in particular marked the beginning of shutting down of easy working class emigration, I think to the detriment of the country. You still get brownie points for craft skills, so carpenters and electricians and so forth are likely to be accepted as immigrants as easily as those with BAs.

      • John Langston says:

        Moving to Canada is certainly a thought, even assuming they’d let me in. The downside, it shares a border with the US and who knows if Canada will be scapegoated and invaded?

        Fascism thrives on conflict and scapegoating.

  26. Tony el Tigre says:

    Whatever it is, it will be matriarchal.

    It will value cooperation over coercion, authenticity over obedience, or it won’t exist at all.

  27. graham firchlis says:

    The futurist Paul Saffo has observed, in contradistinction from the self-comforting mythos we commonly substitute for history, that

    “The spires of the future are not constructed on the foundations of the past; they are built upon the rubble.”

    Even a cursory familiarity with archaeology must recognize this truth. The course of scientific – and thus technological -advance within a single human lifespan is likewise clearly demonstrative.

    Recognizing our position on the precipice of overwhelming change without offering a clear path forward is not a fault, but an honest recognition that our collective future is both obscure and of manifold complexity.

    I am rather more inclined to give credence to those who call for a process of the dialectic to guide us into the unknown, than to those who lay claim to certain knowledge of a One True Way.

    (Been to Carthage. Unexpected side benefit of a fruitless attempt to do business in a culture I still can’t get my mind fully around. Admission was a handful of small coins tossed into a can by the side of a sleeping guard, red fez askew, flies covering the remains of a lunch still resting on his lap. Unlike similar historic sites there were no docents, signage, interpretations or forbidden zones. We wandered as we pleased through the sad remains of a once great empire, the citizens of which did not see this outcome from sending a mighty elephant army against Rome. Surely they did so on balance filled with hope.

    From the center of the site of Carthage That Was stretches a great plain, soil sterile to this day, scattered rubble and abandoned artifacts as stark in message as Ozymandius and as unlikely to ever regain lost glory. We are not immune.)

    In my upbeat moments I can believe that we, people of the world not just Americans, will find a way to muster collective action and ameliorate the coming disastrous effects of anthropogenic climate change.

    Already near on 300 million people live in areas formerly productive but now unsustainable due to desertification and destructive land use practices. Another 700 million now live in areas already becoming marginal. In another 30 years, without revolutionary change in our current energy and agricultural means of production, a billion people or more will be on the move, desperate people with nothing to lose closing in on people increasingly desperate to hold on to what they have.

    In my darker moments I concede that the eventual use of nuclear weapons cannot be foreclosed, followed quickly by a global multiyear winter obscuring sunlight, killing most plant life and with lethal radiation exterminating the vast bulk of larger species, including so-called Homo sapiens sapiens. Speaking of aspirational verbage.

    In my positive moments I envision an evolution of American exceptionalism giving way to an ethos of global communitarianism, an enlightened transnational collaboration that may, just may, constrain our worst behaviors.

    I am old now, in ill health and with little hope of seeing next spring never mind the future most others here will experience. Yet I remain hopeful those I leave behind will be better able to address our deepest survival issues more successfully than those of us who came before.

    We will not survive by denigrating those who challenge our preconceptions. Dear Quinn, do not be dissuaded by those whose discomfited response to calls for bold rethinking are limited to shallow insults and calls for censure. They do so because they can do no better, poor things.

    Thank you for a provocative essay.

    • Quinn Norton says:

      I’ve been to Carthage too. It’s beautiful, and the Mediterranean laps against it, like it always has, and it’s beautiful too.

      Nothing is too terrible to happen, but so many times we’ve pulled it out and made it better — but we being humans, not we being Americans specifically. America has so much to give the world, but it also has so much to learn from the world. I hope it does one day.

      Thanks for this. Keep a weather eye out, and tell your people what you’ve learned, we need that now more than ever.

  28. yogarhythms says:

    Qn,
    “It’s time, past time, to admit it didn’t work, it never worked, and that the Constitution and its institutions have ossified.” Quinn, institutional inertia and constitutional inertia are thermodynamically inevitable. I applaud your use of death and acceptance as metaphors to jump off of. I applaud the gallery for arguments pro and con and demanding you defend your words.
    I’m a romantic idealist and work with my hands and guides and gifts to help heal this planet.
    The dream, aspiration, hope, is real not a masquerade living in our constitution. Bmaz is professionally upholding the life of our constitution as a concept to be litigated daily.
    Celebrate your health with those you love.

  29. skua says:

    The responses to the OP have me learning much more about a side of America that I’d only seen vaguely before.
    Clearly the OP wasn’t intended as Garfinkling. But it functions as such and so made clearer the rules in play.

    Quinn and all, thanks for the valuable learning.

  30. John Langston says:

    I don’t know if Quinn is right that we’ve gone over edge but we’re damn close to it. And I don’t see many ways out.

    If we get Biden, he’ll have a hell of job to do. Think how much worse off we’re going to be in two years’ time when Asian economies have been functioning and their children educated and the US and Europe are just getting back on their feet? That’s not mentioning the central issue regarding our divided country, non functioning constitution and the continued dominance of a corrupt rich cabal over the majority.

    I think America might have had the last ticket out with Obama and the response by the opposition was to burn everything down. We’ll need some good luck and some good will. I can’t guess the former but we’re short on the latter.

    • bmaz says:

      Brilliant. And what is “your” solution, Mr. Langston? Do tell. Otherwise, you are, like Quinn, spewing a load of crap.

      And “if we get Biden” what is up with that? Would you rather four more years of Trump? What exactly are you advocating for, or do you even know?

      • John Langston says:

        I’m looking for a solution and I certainly voted for Biden. I think Quinn makes accurate points. Rather than asserting motives on me, you could provide some logical criticism. It’s not like I want to be right.

          • Quinn Norton says:

            Why is this conversation so terrifying? I wanted people to talk, and you’ve methodically insulted and shut down everyone who’s even started to moot a thought. You spent *time* on that, on wanting to make sure no one at all could talk about an America beyond the constitution, or talk about any knowledge coming from outside the American framework. You are a lawyer and political pundit and nothing was more important on election day that policing and shutting down this conversation. Very sincerely, why?

        • Colm says:

          “You’re as reliable as the North Star” is inapt as a figure of speech, and your reliance on it as a facile insult is telling.

          Thuban (a different star altogether) was the North Star in the time of the pharaohs, Polaris has that honor currently, but will give up its position as closest to polar north in due time. There is nothing about any North Star that is reliable, and I do not credit you with the elegance of wit to have been using it ironically in trying to fashion an insult. For the future, directed speech is better.

  31. Epicurus says:

    I say that Quinn is a coward. Quinn won’t tell us the way to Nirvana. Quinn is afraid to tell us, afraid to take criticism for what will be an imperfect system – like all the others, afraid to defend Quinn’s preferred process. By the way America is about 340MM out of about 7.8B people in the world. What is Quinn’s plan for the other 7,460B people in the world? How is Quinn going to get, e.g., Russia and China to follow suit if Quinn won’t tell us what the plan is?

  32. PhoneInducedPinkEye says:

    Let’s put it another way… There is a spec, or a standard, that we have a particularly shitty implementation of. The spec certainty needs to thrive and be updated and revised, but I don’t think we can say it needs to be tossed yet. A lot of people are being kept from participating but that is probably on the cusp of changing.

  33. skua says:

    1. What are the critical purposes of the Union?
    2. Is it fit for current critical purposes?
    3. Can new Union/s that will more reliably fufil the critical purposes of Union/s be reliably formed in processes that necessarily start from the current circumstance?

    One concern I have is that the last time that the Union approached sundering a civil war resulted that had more American deaths than even Trump’s COVID-19 has had to date. This seems to bear on question 3.

    • jo6pac says:

      I agree;-) Sadly there are those that live in very different world than mine here in Calli. Poverty. Thanks Quinn if you move to another site lets us that care know.

      • bmaz says:

        I have no idea who “Gwen”, or you, are talking about. Quinn does not need to “move” anywhere. She should, however, understand that this is a forum with historically strong and informed opinions.

  34. BD Mac says:

    Bohemian diatribe. Get off the escalator down brother. Your words remind me too much of Derek Jensen.

    To see our Great Mother Earth harmed so is tragic, and to see our fellow citizens behave without compassion can break one’s spirit, but don’t fall into darkness like this.

    “In the light; you find the road”

    Cheer up!

  35. catchspock says:

    I find the ad hominem attacks in response to the OP to be beneath the dignity of this site, including (and especially) those of some of its administrators. There was no attempt to engage with the topic or to rationally deconstruct it. That I find this disappointing would be an overly kind characterization. I expect better from the leadership of this site.

  36. Summertime Blues says:

    The premise of this post is pretentious drivel. The Constitution is not the source of our current political morass. Lest we forget, Russia helped Trump get elected with the assistance a Republican party that made a devil’s bargain. It’s the culmination of years of political warfare by the Republican party. Throwing out our governing documents won’t fix a broken two party system, because any subsequent document will be subject to the same cheat to win at any cost philosophy that’s breaking our political system. It’s easy the say our system sucks if you don’t offer up a viable alternative, but the underlying reality is there is no political comity, no longer any sense of a “loyal opposition”. Its roots go back to 1994 and the concept of total political warfare. If you want a viable democracy you’d best step out of the ivory tower and fight for it.

  37. Krisy Gosney says:

    Looking at it metaphysically— we have had masculinity and masculine energy ruling all of us for the last several hundred years but a shift to being ruled by feminine energy is already happening. It will last for at least the next 700 years. It is called The Divine Feminine. So this union of ours, and this constitution of ours will eventually be under rule of the feminine and no longer the masculine. It’s expected for the masculine to think our institutions and constitution no longer work because the masculine interpretation no longer works but the feminine interpretation is going to thrive. There will be ups and downs but The Divine Feminine will win. So hurry up and get on board a new train!! It’s already left the station but there’s room for you. https://www.bustle.com/p/what-does-the-divine-feminine-mean-its-so-much-more-than-a-new-age-buzzword-2966641

  38. DAT says:

    Seems to me there is one overriding agreement here. That is that things are going to change. (There is a subsidiary argument on whether the change will be good or bad. )the key argument is the mechanism that we work to effectuate the changes we desire. Specifically, do we work inside the constitution or outside? Is the change we want incremental or revolutionary?

  39. Janis LaDouceur says:

    WTF? I am appalled by this post!
    What website am I on? Marcy, bmaz?
    This sounds like the evil mirror of infowars. I see no good outcome to arguing with this, just back away slowly! Sigh.

  40. darms says:

    If the US Constitution is such a wonderful ‘thing’, why is it that 51 senators who represent a minority of voters can paralyze the entire federal government?

      • darms says:

        told you I’m not stupid enough to argue with you. I have no solution because I do not trust the people who would/could implement one! Wanna talk hypotheticals? Sure, I could do that easily, the problem is human nature & human corruptibility. The link to AB’s post above (https://angrybearblog.com/2020/11/dearly-beloved.html) could be a good start but really, a constitutional convention in these days of qanon & trump is jesus? NFW.

      • Quinn Norton says:

        Well we could ask Canada how they do it, they have a more representative system. Also, off the top of my head, we could get some advice from Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Norway. Lithuania has done quite well, at least compared to us, and they really had to come through a lot. Lithuania is tough and loves freedom. Australia has enough problems that I wouldn’t want to lift their system wholesale, but they’re still more democratic than we are in some ways, and they allow for a wider range of political voices in their system. Hear me out, Botswana is quite good. They are flawed but we’ve hardly got a leg to stand on there, and their elected system has formal ways of interacting with community leaders. Also when it comes to managing public health, they have us beat hands down given their resources. Lot of experience with that. But staying in Africa, Mauritius has a lot of good ideas. It’s a unicameral system, but it has pretty good checks and balances, and again, like every single country I’ve mentioned, is better at representation than the USA.

        • darms says:

          We (the USA) had checks & balances once. We also had an independent media (for the most part). Looks like we got over it…

    • Silly but True says:

      “The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.”

      A filibuster somehow remotely paralyzing “the entire federal government?!?”

      Nah, man. You have to know what hyperbole that is. Are you talking even just legislative process? Not even that.

      Silly but True

    • EricB says:

      There is no set of rules that can work for people who refuse to be bound by them.

      I would certainly like a simpler/better Constitution and laws, but I don’t think that’s our core problem.

  41. Stephen Calhoun says:

    Thought provoking, bunkum too, hard to discern the core conviction, ‘mileage obviously varies,’ yet, I wonder if we might entertain, as Gregory Bateson would have it, some imagination and rigor with respect to increasing equity, justice, and decreasing harm, and do so within the constraints which have yielded much progress, progress mostly unmentioned in the essay?

  42. georgeh says:

    Thanks for writing this, Quinn Norton. The negative responses that you are seeing and reading are the reactions of people who have been highly-propagandized to believe the lies of American Democracy. There is no “American Democracy;” it is an oxymoron. There is an American oligarchy. The Constitution is an anti-democratic document that was designed to keep wealthy white men in power, and it has been remarkably successful in doing just that, and it will continue to do just that. It has no mechanisms for meeting the pressing issues of the day, and as we hurtle toward mass extinction, it has literally become a suicide pact.

    bmaz’s reaction to your post sounds like he is wearing his very own MAGA hat.

  43. georgeh says:

    In the last 20 years, there have been 2 Republican Presidents, 3 Republican Senate majorities, 2 Republican House majorities, and a Republican Supreme Court majority that all came to power without ever receiving a combined majority of votes.

    Mitch McConnell is probably the second most powerful person in America. How many votes did he get?

    That is your so-called “democracy.”

    There is not even a right to vote in the American Constitution.

    A democratic process should have some fundamental qualities:

    – Everybody eligible has a right to vote
    – All votes are counted equally
    – The person or idea receiving the most votes wins.

    America’s so-called “democracy” has none of these. And as far as it being a “representative republic,” the Senate is essentially controlled by 51 states representing about 20% of the population. 12 states representing about 11% of the population have veto power over any Constitutional amendment.

    The “American Experiment” in democracy is clearly a failure.

    In regards to other better Constitutions, I will leave you with the words of RGB:

    “You should certainly be aided by all the constitution writing that has gone on since the end of World War II. I would not look to the U.S. Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the constitution of South Africa — that was a deliberate attempt to have a fundamental instrument of government that embraced basic human rights, had an independent judiciary. It really is, I think, a great piece of work that was done. Much more recently than the U.S. Constitution, Canada has the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — dates from 1982. You would almost certainly look at the European Convention on Human Rights. So, yes, why not take advantage of what there is elsewhere in the world?”

    Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jan. 30, 2012

  44. PhoneInducedPinkEye says:

    All said there are representative democracies without the EC, without the counter majoritarian bend of the senate, which would serve us better. No doubt.

    I think that the union itself, like the land, people, legacy, culture, can hold. Maybe we will get reforms in time.

    The problem with any split or dissolution is it throws people to the wolves in red states, not acceptable. What about the people who can’t afford to move to the blue states republic?

    • treeoffreedom says:

      They should fall in love with an EU citizen and move to Europe instead, obviously.
      If they can’t do that either, well, we have to break a few eggs to create the perfect American omelette of Quinn’s dream. Some people will get hurt and be left behind. There’s nothing we can do about that.

    • Quinn Norton says:

      The Union hasn’t exactly done a good job protecting vulnerable people. As, uncomfortably, I keep finding myself mentioning, most of my family and a few of my loved ones are dead, largely because of the failures or America.

      Drug overdoes, alcoholism, Covid deaths, suicides… a hell of a lot of people are being thrown to the wolves everyday. The main answer I’ve heard most of my life is that you’ve got to let the process work. Over that time, access to healthcare has fallen, inequality has risen and life expectancy is failing all while the political process further polarizes the nation and puts gains on normally taken for granted things even further out of reach. The process hasn’t worked.

      I don’t think the US should become 50 nations, but it’s also clear that the same federal system used to integrate schools post Brown has been used to keep civil right constrained in those red states, and to push a lot of bullshit back onto the rest of the union (much of which lapped it up eagerly, i should add). I mean, get creative. autonomous communities could create trade and commerce links with each other around the continent; if you want to empower Mississippi’s black community, creating trade and mutual support networks around the south with the rest of the world, with the threat of sanctions on communities that oppress them. Something like that could go a lot longer in helping than trying to deal with their senators. I’m spitballing here, but that’s exactly what I want to do, spitball what a new and fairer political system could look like.

      • PhoneInducedPinkEye says:

        I can guarantee you that any Black community or enclave in a post-union Mississippi approaching success would be razed to the ground by white supremacists. Hundreds of Tulsa massacres would occur in red states, and probably some blue states, without the implied threat of overwhelming response by federal authorities.

        • Quinn Norton says:

          This is a problem and a possibility all over the world, and it’s going to happen eventually if we don’t work out how to address it directly, rather than just ‘the threat of federal troops’. It matters that it’s happening in Myanmar and China too, and that’s not theoretical or future, or somehow not our business. That’s right now and just as bad. It’s due to how we’ve ordered the world, and if you want to save enclaves in Mississippi or Bangladesh or Muslim Delhi, you’ve got to address that misordering of human society, not just hold up one fragile institution stopping one thing that frankly it has a longer history of permitting than stopping.

  45. Stacey says:

    Quinn, I couldn’t agree more with absolutely everything you said in your post! I’m not sure why seeing that a poorly executed good ideal is spiraling to a very bad uncontrolled crash landing can only be conceived of as whining. Or why someone posing a provocative question to stimulate ideas and discussion must bring the solutions and conclusions to that discussion ahead of time in order to be taken seriously. I will never understand the over-identified American response to criticism as displayed in most of these responses, but it does make quite clear why progress is so hard in this country. If the “defining the problem” phase gets so viciously attacked with that “solve it NOW so I don’t have to stand in the shame of the problem for even a minute” I’m not really sure how they think they would entertain any suggested solutions.

    I felt like the link someone posted for the suggested changes to our Constitution would be a good place to start IF the patient wouldn’t bleed out on the table of a Constitutional Convention because we have passed the point in our decline where operating is an option. You have proposed that we calmly and safely get up and proceed to the nearest exits of a building that has fire alarms ringing because waiting till the building is engulfed in the flames of the Civil War energy we are clearly in is not a good strategy. Who stands in a burning building refusing to leave because of how wonderful the building or brilliant its architects? I read your post as suggesting we proceed intentionally to a designed, planned, safe exit strategy to what is by all appearances a burning building. I’m not sure where the shame in that is. Are we protecting the vulnerable by prolonging the exit? Are we expecting that 45% of the US population is going to be extracted from the death cult that Trump has lead—not created—but is its most recent leader? What fight are we expecting to win in the apartheid political state we are now in, exactly, without reconstituting something new?

    The country was started in genocide and moved on to slavery—I’m not clear how any sane person thought that story was going to end. But who is suggesting that the end of the US as we know it is the end of democracy? Or that some straw man alternative is all that’s left if our current version of this flames out? Obviously that’s preposterous given the multitude of successful representative democracies that have a higher rate of satisfaction among their populations than the US will ever have on our current trajectory. I’m sure that America 2.0 will be able to create something better as a new thing than she can trying to haul the carcass of all of the brokenness into something not new just because we were too embarrassed to admit a country’s life cycle was more powerful than our story of ourselves. Sometimes the most painful thing about loosing something is the not letting go at the end. Staying in the burning building because we love it is not better than safely leaving and reconvening outside and figuring out what to do next. I’m more comfortable with exits of things in general than the average bear, but exiting with agency is a damn sight better than the alternative. But hey, denial is fun, too!

    • skua says:

      One way to hasten the disintegration of the Union would seem to have been to get Trump re-elected.
      It is arguable that the OP might have moved some people to take that approach – though I’m thinking very few to none of EW readers.

      Having been gaslit, mislead, and left to die in a pandemic by a President who has taken the nation to the edge of widespread civil violence, and being betrayed by the many Americans who voted for the re-election of that President, will, AIUI, have everyone here on edge.
      (Except any for any psychopaths who’ll probably be feeling pretty normal if this poisonous social environment amplified by DJT works somewhat like how being in combat works.)

      • Quinn Norton says:

        Timing the post was very important to me — I wanted to not do it before election day, because I didn’t want it to be perceived as suppressing votes at all. But I also didn’t want to do it after, as what could be interpreted as a reaction to the outcome of the election itself. But yeah, having no real chance of influencing whether or not EW readers choose to vote was part of why I did it when I did it. I really wanted it to be about the sweep of history, not this one election.

          • Quinn Norton says:

            You’re nothing if not consistent. Honestly, you should write a script to insult me every time I post, and save yourself the time. You could even just generate the insults with a markov chain of seeded with all your other insults.

            • Stacey says:

              Bmaz reminds me of one of those novelty fake fish plaques that you give your grandfather who fishes. It has a motion sensor in it that activates whenever someone walks by and it moves and sings a few bars of some stupid country song. It’s very cute the first two times someone activates it, but it has diminishing comedic value after that.

              I especially love how it’s always “ navel gazing” that’s the sin or the song he sings. Like self-awareness is HIS strong suit and he’s helping you figure out how to appropriately warn someone else whose about to step on a rake! Amazing!

  46. darms says:

    We’re pacifists and by no means ‘doomsday preppers’ but there is a reason several years ago I moved me & mine to a liberal small town on the edge of the world that is mostly self-sufficient, especially WRT fossil fuels. While trump & his world go down in flames we will mask, socially distance, and laugh as old people like us w/o kids, we need not worry about a future…

  47. EricB says:

    I don’t think we’re done for as a country, or a people.

    People live in metaphors, and expect our country to work as a machine, or a family, or an epic novel, or a sport. It has always failed to be these things.

    So I’m not surprised when powerful people break laws – they don’t think laws work like a machine. And if I find I like someone with dumb political views, that’s fine – we don’t have to be on teams. And at this point I sure don’t expect the villains of our story to get their poetic justice.

    But there are plenty of ways we *can* continue to exist as a country:
    – rebuild media (like emptywheel, but also larger organizations) to provide ongoing, factual, education to people like me
    – make local government really friendly (and simple!) for people who want to get involved
    – make more (lots more) chances for people to meet strangers, preferably involving food and/or dance.
    – feed and house everyone. You can’t plan for the future if you’re starving.

    Given decent information and a break from fear, people are basically OK. We can build from there.

  48. this_is_peak_karen says:

    The Union is flawed because it was built on the backs of slavery and the suffering of Black bodies, and Quinn’s solution is to throw Black people in the South under the bus. Do we not see the irony in that?

    “They’re already hurting” is not a justification to propose a solution that will hurt a group of people even more.

  49. this_is_peak_karen says:

    “I’m spitballing here”

    Maybe people whose lives will be made worse by the solution you are spitballing would wish that you give a little more thought about the real world consequences of your spitballing. Or is that too much to ask from public intellectuals these days?

    • Quinn Norton says:

      Then maybe make some suggestions towards solutions rather than making an account called “this_is_peak_karen” to insult me and then forgetting how threading works.

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