2016 is the year of paralysis in the face of certain disaster
Calvin Coolidge reportedly said that "if you see 10 troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you." Well, it seems that Europe and the Americas can see enough troubles rolling down the road that a few are getting past the ditch and to us. And we're frozen, like the proverbial deer in headlights, just staring as our own doom barrels down upon us.
Welcome to 2016, the year of paralysis in the face of certain disaster.
The Republican Party entered the year with a collective action problem, the problem of Donald Trump. No respectable GOP candidate wanted to take the risk of flaming out, like Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal did, for criticizing Trump too early. So most Republican candidates said nothing — or worse, praised the man they assumed to be merely an ephemeral frontrunner.
Ted Cruz, who last December said Trump is "terrific," was counting on time and chance to scuttle Trump's candidacy. He waited too long to attack his rival. Trump repaid the compliments by attacking Cruz's wife and accusing Cruz's father of being involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Cruz was left spluttering that Trump was an "utterly immoral" man and a "pathological liar."
Now the GOP is stuck in paralysis again, unable to organize a convention revolt. They are stuck half-endorsing, half-lamenting a candidate who spreads conspiracy theories, praises dictatorships, and sources Twitter images from anonymous anti-Semites. By doing nothing, well-meaning Republicans hope they can be spared the fallout when Trump loses. But many will simply remember that they did nothing. And there's always the chance that the real disaster happens, Trump wins, and the party has to half-endorse, half-lament his agenda, his memes, and his scandals for another four years.
A party can survive a broken convention. It may not survive two consecutive bad presidencies. But preventing that requires actually getting up and doing something.
You can see the stagnation across the Atlantic, too. The Brexit referendum glided through thanks to delayed action and paralysis. The Remain campaign was disorganized and relied on a repulsive and backfiring campaign of fear. But far more worrying was the revelation that even the leaders of the Leave campaign had almost no plans whatsoever for the possibility that they might win. Now the two largest political parties in the U.K. have been plunged into acrimonious leadership battles, pushing the debate over what Britain would actually do with its sovereignty, and how it will manage its trade partnerships, out of the headlines. The longer this goes on the higher the risk that the political class simply fails to trigger the Brexit that voters narrowly demanded. This lack of action would precipitate an even graver crisis of political legitimacy, and cost these parties an even larger share of their political talent.
And of course, inaction grips the EU as well. Its problems of construction are well known even to its defenders. Yet it lacks consensus on a way forward. Germany wants more political centralization, but other member states object. Poland proposes a reduction of Brussels' power. The can is kicked down the road.
The member states are similarly afflicted. My French contacts report a kind of absence of mind in their country after the terrorist attacks of November. Continental Europe knows it has enormous troubles coming down the road. There is the demographic problem that threatens economic growth and the solvency of Western welfare states over the medium and long term. European countries have largely failed to assimilate immigrants from certain parts of the Middle East and South Asia, even as more are invited in. Attempts to assimilate them — with apps that describe the necessity of consent for sex — come across as condescending or racist. Radicalism thrives at some mosques, but enforcement options seem too radical.
So Europe doesn't do anything effective to solve these political problems of socialization, integration, or border control. Instead, the governments just attempt to grow their surveillance capabilities at the same rate that security threats grow in this vacuum. The paralysis takes an acutely existential form. Part of Europe pines hopelessly for Europe to produce "an Islamic Luther" who will solve radicalism for them, and another party idly anticipates a catastrophe that will simultaneously rouse Europe to act and excuse Europe from the moral enormities contained within their reaction.
Everywhere in the West the paralysis is the same. Europe dares not look at its own problems. Brazil cannot prepare for its Olympic Games. America resigns itself to elect one of the two most unsuitable and disliked candidates in modern memory.
Our collective paralysis springs partly from our cynicism. The members of our political class want money, comforts, and status. They don't want renown or glory, because those require something not on their endlessly manicured CVs: risk and responsibility.