I have been intrigued with the recent behavior of Andrew Sullivan, one of the most innovative and gifted political commentators of the age.
Note in this column Michael Anton’s description of how exasperated Sullivan, an ardent NeverTrumper and self-described conservative (albeit of the wet Tory variety), became during a podcast interview in the face of interviewee Anton’s refusal to acknowledge the validity of 2020 election outcome. Sullivan would abide none of this and, over the course of the interview, kept dragging Anton back to the topic.
Personally, I think that Sullivan’s exasperation with this topic possibly provides a fascinating glimpse into the soul of the American political cognoscenti, especially those in the thinning ranks of thr centrist camp, of which Sullivan is the most conspicuous and talented member.
Anton is only one of several commentators who have pointed out the fractiousness with which Sullivan and other political commentators have treated those who have summoned the temerity to question the validity of the election outcome. But then, why wouldn’t they?
For at least the past century and a half, most Americans have regarded their country as one of humanity’s singular achievements, one built significantly, if not entirely, on the basis of ideals rather than from the Old World ingredients of language, culture and ethnicity. And this narrative typically has also encompassed the argument that this singularity has been sustained – backstopped – by governing institutions, notably an electoral system that, at least until the last few election cycles, has set a benchmark not only for every other Western constitutional democracy but also for nations that aspire to lofty standards of governance.
Singularity has comprised much of the adhesive that has held this country together for at least the past century, especially following the tidal wave of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe in the late 19th century, which threatened to dilute the moorings that previously had connected the country to its strong Anglo-Saxon cultural and political legacies.
In the face of this rapid demographic transformation, American intellectuals began improvising an updated national identity that over time was expressed as propositional nationhood. It is grounded on the premise, foreshadowed in the Gettysburg Address, that America derives its identity from the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence and that these are sustained by a rigid adherence to the rule of law. Many liberals and a few conservatives would contend that this improvisation has worked reasonably well, at least, until recently.
Yet, cultural and political upheavals since the 2016 Trump election upset have drawn growing numbers of Americans on both ends of the political spectrum to question whether or not these idealistic foundations have frayed to the point of threadbareness.
While it’s impossible to discern an individual’s motives, I suspect that Sullivan is one among several in the elite punditry who harbor serious misgivings about what is unfolding in America. After all, Sullivan, a Briton by birth, is a naturalized American who has affirmed more than once in his columns and blogs how the idealistic underpinnings of American national identity ultimately inspired him to acquire citizenship.
Yet, I wonder if this enthusiasm has been beset recently with the same gnawing doubts that have gripped other Americans. Sullivan is no naif by any stretch of the imagination. He has demonstrated time and again in his commentary not only vast erudition but also a highly nuanced understanding of vitually every prevailing political trend.
Over the course of his wide reading, he’s undoubtedly encountered Czech playwright and later Czecholovakian President Vaclav Havel’s seminal essay “The Power of the Powerless,” wherein Havel likens the embattled Czecholoslovakian Communist regime and its underpinning ideology to a hermetically sealed package prone to rapid spoilage at the mere prick of the seal.
A time or two I’ve wondered if Sullivan, pondering the parlous state of American unity, has been reminded of this seminal essay and noted parallels with present-day America.
I readily confess that I have.
Sullivan undoubtedly understands that a nation such as the United States founded on and sustained largely by abstract ideals survives as a functioning constitutional democracy only so long the majority of its citizens evince faith in these ideals.
What if the spoilage described by Havel ultimately is setting into American idealism? Likewise, what happens if Americans, growing numbers of them, no longer express confidence in these ideals? What if they come to the point of openly expressing doubts that these ideas still comprise an adequate basis for America unity?
To be sure, Sullivan’s exasperation with Anton may simply have been a means of reinforcing his standing as an Establishment commentator standing at the temperate center of American elite discourse. And who can blame him? Sullivan has no incentive to run afoul of elite media,, despite that fact that it’s increasingly evincing proto-totalitarian traits. After all, where could a gay man with an Oxbridge/Ivy League educational pedigree possibly go?
Still, I doubt that I’m the only one who has closely followed Sullivan’s career and noted his recent behavior. He’s too smart and perceptive to ignore the specter that is haunting America: the increasingly evident doubt among millions of Americans of the efficacy of this nation’s ideals and as well as the institutions charged with sustaining national unity.
Maybe this accounts for Sullivan recent exasperated podcast exchange with a defiant Michael Anton.