Political To-Do

Both houses of Congress assembled for the State of the Union.
Convince Americans that the two parties are hopelessly broken and obsolete.

Unify everyone in the political universe who objects to Trump.

Restore the broken connection between the people and their federal representatives.

Create an entirely new political party organized around relevant and forward-looking governmental goals.

Neutralize corrupt actors, including all those who lobby or influence elections with money.

Convince disenchanted voters to support a new third party.

Cultivate a new generation of knowledgeable citizens and public-spirited leaders.

Lure decent moderates back into politics.

Turn off the television.

Cultivate national self-love.

Image: Both houses of Congress assembled for President Trump’s first State of the Union address, January 2017.

How Many Enemies Can Trump Make and Survive?

The list of powerful figures Trump has alienated, injured, and offended is growing.  Paradoxically, many of them are members of his own, rather than the opposing, party.  How many such enemies can Trump make and survive?

For more than a year, the GOP establishment has presented a “business-as-usual” facade.  Having tolerated the rise of candidate Trump, who vowed to wage war against the Washington establishment, leading Republicans have mainly tried to make lemonade out of lemons, sucking up to President Trump once he was installed.  House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prostituted themselves, claiming that the president and the GOP-controlled Congress shared the same values and political agenda.  Papering over their differences with Trump for the sake of personal and political gain, they collaborated instead of organizing a principled opposition to him on Capitol Hill.

Individually, some Republicans have spoken out against Trump: Jeff Flake, John McCain, Bob Corker, and Lindsay Graham come to mind.  Their criticisms, though brave, fall short of organized opposition.  As for Trumps’ former rivals for the presidential nomination—remember the legion of GOP candidates that included congressman Rand Paul and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz?—: despite Trump’s shameful treatment of them, these “leaders” have blended into the woodwork of the Capitol, as if to avoid further personal injury.  Republicans on the Hill who have followed the path of least resistance to Trump will go down in history as spineless, feckless cowards.

Belatedly, Republicans are beginning to reckon the costs of this unbecoming position.  Speaker Paul Ryan’s abrupt decision to leave Congress with no plan other than to spend time with his three teenage children in Janesville, Wisconsin, smacks of the political wilderness.  He joins some 36 House Republicans and 3 Senate Republicans fleeing the Hill.  The Republicans have not seen this level of quitting, according to Frontline, since World War II.

The question is, what will become of the free-floating political capital that these phalanxes of displaced and disaffected Republicans embody?  How long will it be before Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Rex Tillerson, Jeff Flake, Paul Ryan, and their ilk find a new party model, or a new means of influencing a politics grown ever more chaotic and uncertain?   How long will it be before moderates of all stripes realize that it is very much in their interests to unite?  The GOP is becoming a Trump casualty.  Will its survivors stand against their destroyer now?

The Trump Years: Day 74


I regret not writing as much now as I did before the election.  When I ask myself why, I come up with a complicated set of reasons.  Few of them reflect well on me as a citizen or human being.  They range from the situational and emotional (my father having died recently) through the characterological (I hate conflict, so how will I survive the intense political conflicts of the Trump years?) on up to the super-structural (both the parties are defunct and I really think the only way forward is to create a new party).  The thought of how much we will all have to pivot and struggle in order to re-energize, re-organize, and purify our politics overwhelms me.  And, to be honest, I wonder whether we even have it in us as a society, to purify American politics, to cultivate a new generation of moral and responsive leaders, and to keep our nation and culture from sliding swiftly downhill.

After all, the political problems we confront can’t be blamed on a single person.  The creepy manifestations of decline emanating from the Trump White House and from Capitol Hill stem from a dysfunctional culture and institutions no longer organized effectively in support of the noble form of government that we inherited.  To make our politics praiseworthy again is going to take a massive jolt of collective energy.  Just as important, to transform our existing institutions, Americans are going to have to formulate and rally around a newly urgent set of principles and goals.

The burned-over district: In the nineteenth-century, the western section of New York State became known as “the burned-over district,” because of its unusual susceptibility to religious revivals.  Before the rise of the social sciences, Americans were collectively more inclined to see the hand of God at work in human history.  They were more likely to praise “the Almighty” or “Providence” when experiencing prosperity and to see adverse events (such as Trump’s election) as a divine punishment for society’s failings.  In western New York, such a mentality led both to religious enthusiasms and to a forward-looking social activism that fueled Americans’ determination to secure votes for women and freedom for slaves.

While not wholly efficacious in themselves, such movements inspired much ideological ferment and in time impelled major changes in the platforms of the political parties.  Leading Republicans of the Civil War era, like William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Charles Sumner, were undoubtedly inspired and influenced by the high-minded spiritualism associated with “the burned-over district.”  The United States could use some of that same pure, high-minded fervor today.

Image:
Casimir Bohn’s “View of Washington City and Georgetown” (1849),
from this source.

Our Political Parties Are Behind the Times

REAL CLEAR POLITICS is offering a mind-bending set of survey results showing how respondents would vote in hypothetical general-election match-ups.  A number of organizations conduct these surveys, and at the moment the results of all of them are pretty consistent.

Clinton vs. Trump
Clinton would win

Clinton vs. Cruz
Clinton would win, but more narrowly

Clinton vs. Kasich
Kasich would win

Sanders vs. Trump
Sanders would win

Sanders vs. Kasich
Sanders would win

Sanders vs. Cruz
Sanders would win

These fascinating results help correct the myopia that sets in during the primary season, when passions within the parties control the focus.  On the Democratic side, Sanders is losing the delegate race to Clinton, yet in a general election he might fare better than she.  His positions, though untenable, might be more palatable than the kinds of ideas the Republicans are touting, for according to the polls, he would beat any of the remaining GOP candidates handily.

Interestingly, Clinton, though holding her own within her party, would fare less well than Sanders nationally.  She will be lucky if Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee, because, of the three remaining GOP candidates, he is the only one she can probably beat.  She might be beaten by Cruz, and the lowly Kasich, according to these numbers, would defeat her easily.

Overall, these surveys highlight the blinkered condition of the parties.  Sanders, the candidate the Democratic establishment has refused to accept, points up the existence of a dominant voter base that Clinton’s candidacy isn’t capturing.  Clinton is electable, but Sanders is even more electable than she.  Old-style Democrats don’t want to see this.  They don’t want to abandon the comfortable centrist positions they’ve grown accustomed to.  They’re ignoring the reveille: new, more egalitarian policies are what the nation wants and needs.

On the Republican side, we see confirmation of what we knew from the start, that the Republican field was weak though large.  The two Democratic candidates are more in sync with national sentiment than are their counterparts in the GOP.  Overall, the Democrats are more likely to prevail.  Meanwhile, the GOP’s most viable candidates, Trump (on the basis of primary support) and Kasich (on the basis of electability), are those the party has been most unfriendly toward.  Cruz’s candidacy provides the sole hope for the staunchly conservative wing of the Republican party, a minority element that continues to jeopardize the health of a national mainstream Republicanism.

Neither political party has proved adept at accommodating the sentiments of the voters, who are demanding new leadership and significant ideological reform.