Dinosaur (original / biological meaning): any of a group of reptilian creatures notable for large size, fearsome appearance and ferocity, that once dominated the planet’s prehistoric landscape but became extinct when they failed to adapt to environmental changes
Dinosaur (metaphorical / political meaning): a person or entity that is impractically large, out-of-date, obsolete; a has-been, a relic
Looking back just over 66 million years into Earth’s prehistoric past, the fossil record tells a stark tale. The dominant lifeforms everywhere on the planet, even in the shallow seas, were dinosaurs or closely related reptiles. They appeared in fascinating variety, and while a few were fairly small — say, the size of a modern dog — many others were wondrously huge, representing by far the largest creatures ever to live on dry land (only ocean-going baleen whales are known to be bigger). They came to prominence roughly 225 million years ago and thereafter completely dominated the landscape for some 160 million years, a period known as the Mesozoic era.
And then, in the relative blink of an eye, they disappeared. Various theories have been posited to account for their sudden extinction. Almost certainly a huge asteroid strike just north of what is now Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, marked by the Chicxulub impact crater, was the main culprit. That strike caused immediate global devastation but also triggered massive climate changes around the world that may have lasted for millennia. The impact and its aftermath resulted in the extinction of some 75 percent of all life on earth and ended the age of dinosaurs. Only one branch of the once-vast dinosaur family managed to persist — today, we call them birds. But, for all practical purposes, dinosaurs ruled the earth for the entire Mesozoic and then vanished, victims of a rapidly changing world to which they could not adapt.
Today, the dinosaurs present a classic illustration of how failure to adapt can lead to extinction. And, in a world where environmental pressures are growing daily, humans must recognize that our failure to adapt in timely fashion is a recipe for potential global disaster.
But the fate of the dinosaurs is also a metaphor for the dangers posed by human failure to adapt to changing political and social conditions. The dinosaurs could neither understand nor control the global changes that eventually wiped them out. Today, humankind faces a range of regional and global challenges that threaten to disrupt life as we know it. Unlike dinosaurs, we have the capacity to understand and respond to such challenges before it’s too late. But just because we have that ability does not mean we will exercise the wisdom to act in our own best interests.
The Conservative / Liberal Divide
Politics in modern America operates along a spectrum of ideas and values ranging from very conservative (or reactionary) on the right to very liberal (progressive or radical) on the left. Broadly speaking, conservatives tend to believe that social conditions as they are, or as they were in the past, are preferable to conditions that might arise through social change. Hence, conservatives generally resist such change, unless that change actually fortifies the way things already are. American conservatives, for example, are dedicated to maintaining a status quo hierarchy of social dominance wherein wealthy white people hold most of the political power and resist extending any fraction of that power to less privileged (mainly non-white) segments of society. In contrast, progressives tend to believe that human society is always amenable to improvement, and that extending social power — say, the right to vote — to more people is a means of promoting greater fairness, justice and equality for all members of society.
The political history of the United States is a testament to the constant, sometimes bitter and violent, tension between those who fear and resist social change (conservatives), and those who demand and fight for it (progressives).
Asking a conservative to not resist social change is like asking a dinosaur to suddenly evolve and adapt — it’s a nonsensical request, one that defies the basic nature of reality.
As a group, American conservatives are neither stupid nor evil, despite what some overheated liberal rhetoric might suggest. That said, however, mainly white conservatives for the most part cannot tolerate a changing America in which their political and financial fortunes are gradually eroded by the needs, demands and advancing power of society’s more progressive cohorts, which include rapidly growing black, brown and yellow populations.
Like the dinosaurs of old, today’s conservatives find that the world in which they have long held favored status is changing out from under them. Their share of the electorate is shrinking, such that their only strategy for retaining political power consists in disenfranchising as many non-conservatives as possible, by any means necessary, including means that are blatantly abusive, intimidating or outright illegal. As this is written, Republican politicians in at least 43 states are fighting to restrict voting rights in order to suppress the growing numerical advantage of liberal-leaning voters.
Evidence suggests that today’s conservatives are fighting a losing battle. In a fair fight, they are certainly outnumbered. More than that, many hardcore conservatives literally deny basic elements of the consensus reality most others take for granted, such as the idea that science provides a more accurate and useful description of that reality, overall, than scripture. In truth, many conservatives know better; but even so, a significant number are still inclined to reject science when it runs afoul of their preconceived rights, values and beliefs. Example: U.S. conservatives have shown marked resistance to mask-wearing in relation to the Covid pandemic, saying that mask mandates infringe upon their individual rights, even if evidence shows mask-wearing saves lives.
No topic illustrates the conservative / liberal divide more than the presumed right to carry firearms. At a time in our society when gun violence has reached cataclysmic levels, conservative politicians are resisting efforts in Congress to pass meaningful gun control legislation. Recent polling (Ipsos, March 2021) shows that 82% of Democrats favor stricter gun laws, but only 40% of Republicans agree. Meanwhile, just days ago, conservative Texas governor Greg Abbott said he would sign into law a measure that permits any person age 21 or older to carry a handgun in Texas without a license, a background check or training of any kind. Referring to Texas as a “second amendment sanctuary state,” Abbott and his backers would seem to confer upon “the right to bear arms” a sweeping authority roughly tantamount to divine scripture.
The Facts Be Damned
Recent events sadly demonstrate that many conservatives simply ignore or deny facts they don’t like. For example, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll finds that 60 percent of Republicans still believe last year’s presidential election was “stolen” from Donald Trump due to voter fraud. In fact, numerous inquiries and court rulings have established that no significant fraud occurred. Similar numbers of Republicans also believe that “antifa” or other left-leaning actors were largely responsible for the capitol riot of January 6, despite all evidence pointing instead to Trump and his ardent followers as the main instigators.
In the words of John Geer, an expert on public opinion at Vanderbilt University, “Republicans have their own version of reality. It is a huge problem. Democracy requires accountability and accountability requires evidence.”
Because liberal / progressive citizens have long favored extending the voting franchise to under-represented groups in society, notably people of color, those groups tend to vote Democrat. Therefore it should surprise no one that conservatives, already fighting for their political lives, will do everything imaginable to deny and suppress the vote among those groups.
It is of course politically unfeasible today to simply say, “Blacks aren’t allowed to vote.” What conservatives are doing instead is to install voting restrictions that primarily disadvantage black and brown voters — for example, fewer voting locations (requiring transportation that can be more difficult for blacks), onerous ID requirements (requiring forms of ID that black voters, on average, are less likely to carry), and restricted voting hours (playing on the idea that whites may have more leeway than blacks to take time from work to vote). As previously noted, such suppressive tactics are currently underway in at least 43 states.
Again, the dinosaurs of old had no concept of their impending demise, and no way to prevent it. In contrast, the dinosaurs of today — hardcore political conservatives — are at least somewhat aware of their plight. Like any organism facing the prospect of doom, they are fighting tooth-and-nail to survive. And, in an all-out fight to the death, there are no immutable rules of engagement, no line that cannot be crossed, no decorum that must be observed. What we should expect instead is every variety of lying, cheating, intimidation and outright violence in the service of their desperate desire to stay alive and relevant.
No one watching this drama unfold should be shocked at the tactics in play, nor the ugliness of the battle. These dinosaurs will not go down until every snarling one of them is utterly defeated. There will be pain, and violence, and death before it’s over. Anyone who hopes for better will, I fear, be sorely disappointed.