politics as prophecy

to understand why political discourse today is so furious, look to medieval England

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a resolution formalizing the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. With this vote, the political situation would appear to inch closer to the result that liberals have been expectantly predicting since 2016.

There’s more than a little anxiety about defeat baked into liberals’ expectations of victory. From the prospect of Brexit to climate catastrophe, from Elizabeth Warren’s “I Have A Plan For That” to Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” predictions about the future are the bread and butter of political discourse. They are more than campaign promises, wishful thinking, or a scientific consensus, though they are these things, too. Like predictions of the apocalypse in various religious traditions, political predictions instill the sense of a common cause, galvanizing believers to agitate for the future they demand. Thinking of politics today as a form of prophecy clarifies why political dialogue can be so furious—and so impervious to fact-checking. It also means politics today is not as different as we might wish from politics in the European Middle Ages, when a more overt type of prophecy energized political action.

In pre-Enlightenment Britain, this political prophecy was associated with a particular strand of history writing, the one whose cast of characters included King Arthur and Merlin. Merlin was, among other things, a prophet. People took very seriously the obscure “prophecies of Merlin,” which represented political and ethnic conflict between the English and the Welsh in terms of dragons, lightning bolts, and rivers of blood. From the Wars of the Roses to the English Revolution, people experienced contemporary political developments through the prism of a vast and complicated future imaginary. You can read the binding real-world force of prophecy in any number of historical episodes: Richard II fleeing to Ireland in 1399, because he feared that certain lines in a popular prophecy referred to himself; the prophecy book that nearly convinced Anne Boleyn not to marry Henry VIII; the Benedictine nun Elizabeth Barton, hanged in 1534 for spreading “false” prophecy.

Political prophecy is supposed to be something that we cast off, like a sheath of skin, on the way to becoming modern. The German social historian Reinhart Koselleck, who has perhaps the best claim to being the theorist of prophecy, associated apocalyptic prophecy with the Middle Ages and a special kind of self-fulfilling secular prophecy with modernity. According to Koselleck, thinking primarily of northern Europe, only during and after the Enlightenment did it become possible to imagine a future and then work to make that future real. Koselleck’s ideas are powerful, but they are incomplete. The cultural dynamic he described as quintessentially modern was already in place in the fifteenth century, in the reign of Henry VI, when supporters of Henry’s rival, the once and future Edward IV, commissioned manuscripts of prophecy in order to stoke partisan rage and redirect English political history.

Prophecy is still with us, but we no longer call it by that name. Following the religious and political persecutions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe—a new phase of cultural absolutism that we are still working through—prophecy came to be concealed inside the seemingly rational machinery of political platforms, advertisements, speeches, and negotiations. Prophecy went underground.

The subterranean history of political prophecy extends right through the 20th century. In that century, communism, fascism, and liberalism laid claim to three mutually exclusive visions of a utopian future, and the world went to war over them. Or think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous line about “the arc of the moral universe.” What is this if not political prophecy? King’s phrase orients grassroots political action toward a future imagined but not yet realized. His commitment to prophecy (biblical as well as political) lay in the conviction, not that the present redeems the past, but that the future redeems the present.

The politics of climate change have a similar structure. I am not the first to notice the religious overtones of the debate, with charges of apocalypticism on one side met by charges of denialism on the other. A more apt comparison would be with medieval political prophecy. Human-caused global warming is scientifically indisputable at this point, but that fact can’t explain the intransigence of people and corporations with an interest in denying that there is a problem. What unites these groups is a belief in the future of capitalism, the infinite scalability of exploitation: a dangerous idea, challenged by the approach of an increasingly uninhabitable future.

Another example is the spectacular failure of pollsters’ predictions in the ramp-up to the 2016 US presidential election. For Trump’s opponents on the left as well as his backers on the right, in opposite ways, the inaccuracy of most pre-election polling lent his victory the stature of a singularity, an extension of American history into an unplanned-for future.

Trump seems particularly at ease in the prophetic mode. In his inaugural address, he alleged a dystopia of “American carnage” and promised redemption for “the forgotten men and women of our country.” During the campaign, Trump had named real problems in America—income inequality, the entrenchment of a political class, the centralization of cultural power, the hollowing out of the blue-collar professions, terrorism—but proposed to solve them with the fantasy of a nation that becomes an island unto itself. “But that is the past,” he said. “And now we are looking only to the future.” His critics’ tendency to focus on Trump’s lies and opportunism is understandable, but it misrecognizes the source of his political appeal. In 2008, Barack Obama was the chosen prophet for a leftish alliance (an alliance later riven by the discrepancy between prophecy and reality). Trump has consistently nominated himself as a counter-prophetic voice for those backward-looking, mostly white American voters who could experience not only 2008 Obama’s predicted future but even the political present of the Obama years as an apocalypse scenario.

Looking back to the European Middle Ages is a sobering reminder of the political power that imagined futures hold over the present. When it comes to politics, the choice has never been between facts and imagination. (This is what the term post-truth, the word of the year for 2016, gets wrong about our political and cultural moment.) Every political proposition implies a new future. We are still learning this essential lesson of the 20th century, and every century before that: choose a future, or a future will choose you.

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