By SEAN QUINTAL
In 1919, one of the English language’s greatest poets, William Butler Yeats, took notice of the calamity that had befallen the globe during World War I; he also felt a gathering energy of dread and foreboding, sensing (correctly) that even greater horrors were to come. This inspired him to pen one of his master works, “The Second Coming.” Yeats uses biblical imagery, much drawn from the New Testament’s Book of Revelations, to intimate that a “second coming” is at hand, one that promises not redemption, but chaos and destruction.
The poem begins:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;”
The first stanza ends with:
“The best lack all conviction,
while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The poem concludes:
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem.”
When considering the many assaults on democracy occurring today throughout the world, Yeats’ words resonate now with an ominous intensity. China under Xi has transformed what was a nascent, partially democratic economy into a fully authoritarian, repressive, state-controlled economic system, which is brutally intolerant of any dissent or contrary thought. Moreover, China is investing massively in infrastructure and other sectors in many developing countries. Its aim is to offer the world a different sort of superpower for the 21st Century, an authoritarian quasi-capitalism alternative to the liberal democracy order, which has predominated since World War II.
Consider also the many putatively democratic nations, ruled by populist right-wing demagogues, that are devolving into functional autocracies. Andrzej Duda in Poland is transforming the first democracy of the former Soviet Union into a clenched political system where a journalist is currently on trial for insulting Duda. Viktor Orban in Hungary is systematically dismantling all democratic institutions in that country, replacing them with organs that function as a rubber stamp for himself. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonara is threatening the Supreme Court which is overseeing investigations into his conduct, and is using baseless claims of fraud as a basis to cancel of contest next year’s election.
Sound familiar? It should, because the Republican Party in the U.S. is using the same playbook to undermine American democracy. The other examples, aside from Xi, are all elected officials. They are men who exploited populist sentiment to be elected the first time, then once in office, misused constitutional means to intentionally subvert their respective nation’s democratic institutions. The conservative, American historian Robert Kagan wrote recently, “Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory (in 2024) by whatever means necessary … establishing a predicate to challenge … results that do not go his way.” Kagan continues, “(In 2024) Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020.”
In Yeats’ beautiful language, “the widening gyre” may be understood as the ricocheting chaos in which democracy the world over now finds itself. And things do “fall apart;” witness the failure of the American people to unite in solidarity with one another against a deadly pestilence that threatens each and every one of us. “(T)he centre cannot hold,” when some Americans willfully risk their own lives, and the lives of others, by defying basic public health sense, all to declare allegiance to an ideology or its ideologue.
At some point, these right-wing populist movements become more than their individual progenitor. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” Neither can true believers listen to reason, or even the words of their beloved demagogue; rational thought gives way to a religious-like zeal, when even basic political choices seem redolent of societal collapse.
Yet most Americans seem blithely indifferent to the rapacious pests gnawing at the very frame of our country’s democracy. Most of us can manage but a desultory shrug when confronted with the clear and present danger to our right to free and fair elections; a danger that menaces more with the passing of each day. And if “the best of (us) lack all conviction,” it is horrifyingly obvious that these would-be usurpers of democracy “are full of passionate intensity.”
And we have seen our “rough beast.” His clown-colored make-up, his crayon-hued hair, his sagging belly, all suggest a caricature, a figure of fun. But our Beast’s “hour (will) come round” again. As he “slouches” back toward Washington, will we feel shudders of Yeats’ early-20th Century alarm, or will we be passive and resigned, as that second coming threatens to destroy what America means?
— Sean Quintal writes on behalf of the La Mesa Foothills Democratic Club.