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The Era of Pretty Good Feelings
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The Era of Pretty Good Feelings

‘It is difficult, yet we want to believe in the victory of civilization.’

Ukraine’s Odesa Opera reopened Friday after more than four months. With sandbags piled around the entrances, the ornate 122-year-old rococo theater that looks like the top tier of a wedding cake resounded not with air raid sirens but the arias of Puccini, and, of course, the battered but defiant nation’s anthem.

When a country’s 160-year-old official song is called “The Glory and Freedom of Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished, you know you’re dealing with a people not unfamiliar with hardship. But Russia’s brutality in its assault on its liberty-loving neighbor has still taken its toll in the once-wealthy port city. Though Odesa is peaceful now, just 70 miles to the east, the city of Mykolaiv is enduring the wrath of Vladimir Putin’s frustrated dreams of empire. Farther to the east, residents of Kharkiv brace for the imminent return of Russian tank columns.

Everyone who attended Friday’s performance knew that the first show in months could be the last one ever, that the war could return any time, and that the crimes against humanity inflicted on their countrymen in Bucha and Mariupol could be their fate as well. So how do they sit in a gilded opera house and listen to Turandot

“At the start of the war the explosions and sirens terrified me, as if I had plunged into some unreality, a World War II movie, but humans get used to everything,” Viacheslav Chernukho-Volichthe, the opera’s chief conductor, told the New York Times. “It is difficult, yet we want to believe in the victory of civilization.”

Same here, maestro. 

In America, we ask each other all of the time now whether we are about to have a civil war or if we can just meagerly persist in our current state of dysfunction and disunity. Political violence has been on the rise. When our leaders are not corrupt, they are often incompetent. The idea of shared national purpose and values sound as quaint as a quilting bee.

Indeed, there is much certainty in those who foresee the imminent failure of the United States. 

Here’s the Times’ Ezra Klien: 

Neither [Richard Nixon’s resignation nor Al Gore’s concession] would play out similarly today. Nixon would survive, backed by Fox News and a more radicalized Republican Party. A 2000-like scenario would cause chaos in the streets, and the Supreme Court wouldn’t have anything like the credibility it spent to intervene in Bush v. Gore. The conditions that helped us meet past challenges no longer hold.

I don’t mean to pick on Klein here, because this kind of thinking is everywhere today. I have heard this construction or something like it scores of times in the past six or seven years. It is usually from someone two or three decades older than Klein, but nostalgia is not limited to the events of one’s lifetime.

Nostalgia is a yearning for a time that never existed. It is powerful and dangerous, and, unlike daydreams about the future, takes on the weight of deeper truths rooted in history. Nostalgia quickly becomes the imaginary standard by which we judge the imperfect, real experience of our lives.

Klein says that the public today would never accept the Supreme Court’s decision on a presidential election without “chaos in the streets.” Klein says the high court doesn’t have “anything like” the credibility it had 22 years ago, despite the share of Americans who have a “great deal” of confidence in the court being only 3 points below where it was in 2000 or that the numbers for the court were better after 2000 than they were in the early 1990s.

The Supreme Court ruled on an effort to overturn the results of the presidential election two years ago. The then-president dispatched a goon squad to the Capitol to try to prevent the transfer of power from taking place. There were no riots anywhere else in America to my knowledge. Promises of massive resistance and mass demonstrations in other cities came to naught.

Now, given what we all saw from the former president and from his supporters on January 6, do you think that we are more or less likely to see violence after the next election? The next two elections? Certainly Trump set a precedent that aspiring authoritarians in the future will aspire to surpass. But given the vehement rejection of Trump and his works by most of the electorate, we’re more likely moving away from political violence, not toward it. 

Many Republicans cannot yet accept the diagnosis that Trump’s attempted coup is a cancer on their party and therefore the country as a whole. But Americans overall, including most Republicans, are likely to be less tolerant of political violence than before they had a taste of it.  Look at the regret now evident among Democrats over anti-police rhetoric common on the left before, during, and after the race riots of 2020.

That’s the thing about the unthinkable: Once it happens, it isn’t unthinkable anymore. 

That’s not to say that we won’t make new, worse mistakes in the coming years. Indeed, whatever the catastrophes of our future may be, some of them are taking shape right now as part of the counter-reaction to the madness of recent years.

Which brings us to Nixon and his resignation. The 37th president did not resign in a vacuum, nor did the Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. Barry Goldwater, who dropped the anvil on Nixon 48 years ago this August, act on some plane outside their time.

By the summer of 1974, America had been through more than a decade of political violence and turmoil starting with the murder of President John Kennedy in 1963. In a shorter time span than the panic of 2008 and its recession to now, America was wracked by assassinations, riots, nearly 60,000 troops killed in Vietnam and the resignation of Nixon’s vice president in disgrace. 

When Nixon resigned, the country was in the midst of a far worse energy crisis than we’re now experiencing and a Soviet threat more powerful than Russia today. There was no appetite for the kind of chicanery that Bill Clinton and Donald Trump exhibited in their own impeachments or for a drawn-out trial, good TV or not.

We can’t know what’s next, but we can know that what is happening now will shape our expectations and tolerances for what follows. We may not have hit bottom yet, but it’s not as if America is proceeding in the belief that we are on a glide path to civic virtue and tranquility. We may or may not get the next part right, but if we fail, we will probably fail differently.

In the face of all that uncertainty and in the wake of all the death and disaster of recent years, what are we supposed to do? Sing out, of course. Like our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, sing out in celebration that the glory and freedom of the United States has not yet perished. Maybe someday, but not today.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor of The Dispatch and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.