The Nature of Our Political Crisis

Low-angle shot of Trump and smiling lawmakers.
Perhaps you, my reader, feel as I do, that it’s a challenge to act meaningfully in response to the present political situation—despite recognizing that, as the federal government shows signs of veering off course, all citizens have a responsibility to promote stability and work together to avert an all-out crisis.

So many Americans are unhappy—worried—distressed—alarmed—embarrassed—about the state of the union.  We doubt our president’s sanity, and we fear the real destruction that could follow from having entrusted the entire executive branch to someone who is vicious, immoderate, unenlightened.  We are unhappy and disappointed in the condition and posture of the political parties–both the Republicans and the Democrats lack unity, ideological clarity, and discipline.

Trump gained power partly by destroying many Republican reputations; and, since, as president, he has pushed the GOP to support his style of politics and ideological viewpoint, the influence of many moderate Republicans has been checked.  This has further weakened what was formerly the most effective and palatable element of that party, an element that far-right zeal has gradually eclipsed.  Many formerly respected Republicans have disgraced themselves by collaborating with Trump or, by their silence and inaction in the face of his outrageous condescension toward them, have shown themselves to be terrible cowards.  The hearings that placed a maudlin Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court displayed the moral bankruptcy of Trump’s Senate collaborators.

The condition of the GOP is highly worrisome because it is the nationally dominant party.  For nearly three years, Trump has been cannibalizing it, eating its heart out, and injecting it with a virulent moral rot.

Meanwhile, the Democrats remain riven; not only do they remain too weak to determine the direction of national politics, but they have yet to unite around a figure or an approach capable of undermining Trump’s popular appeal.

The condition of the parties and their inability to advance a legislative agenda that could rally the nation behind a set of positive political goals, demonstrates to the nation that Trump is in fact unchecked and unchallenged.  Congress can’t counter the president’s power.  Watching this bizarre situation unfold every day leads many of us to perceive the federal government, and hence the entire republic of the United States, to be dangerously near a breakdown of an unpredictable kind.

That there is no leadership—that there is no coalition mobilizing and unifying an opposition—is perhaps because, though we all perceive the political actions of the president to be highly abnormal, and we all perceive the relations between the president and Congress to be in near-paralysis—what danger we are on the brink of is very unclear.  Personally, I doubt the president can be impeached (that is, I don’t think the Senate has the will to convict him and throw him out–please see the post I have written on this subject), so even if we agree our affairs are in a critical state, the most constructive course is to concentrate on positive politics, on mobilizing opposition to Trump across party lines, and defeating Trump at the ballot box. 

I hope we will see a resurgence of party control and even deal-making among rival candidates—this is the only way to achieve the necessary degree of unity in either party. If the Democrats have a long slug fest like they did last time, there won’t be enough time before the general to get everyone behind the chosen nominee. The challenge is even greater on the Republican side, where I hope we will see some more conventional players (like Romney and Flake) perhaps teaming up to try to rob Trump of the nomination.

The prospect of a unified opposition isn’t too bright, however.  Presidential hopefuls who aren’t equipped to beat Trump or run the country are already throwing their hats in the ring.  If the national parties can’t exercise discipline over such narcissistic candidates, divisions will increase, allowing Trump to retain his ascendancy.  The lost art of pulling together is all-important now.

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The Trump Years: Day 32

Panoramic view of Washington City (Courtesy Library of Congress)
Dynamics:
Underneath the Trump presidency are a pair of fragmented and outmoded political parties, contributing to the public’s rightful perception that national politics are inchoate. The Trump presidency itself represents a vertiginous jolt, one that delights those who supported him even while it startles and alarms everyone else.  A nasty political struggle that will take the US in a new direction has begun.

The press:  It is a particularly difficult time for them.  Journalists, opinionators, and social-science experts have just been through an experience that established the limits of their influence and damaged their authority.  The vote showed how much of the nation is indifferent to their views.  A majority of the states are inclined to reject the intellectual establishment’s worldview and its prescriptions regarding what is good for the US.  The nation’s need for a vigilant, balanced, and discerning press remains urgent. Unfortunately, some previously reliable figures (e.g. David Brooks) are wild-eyed and near hysterical post-election.  Is the nation heading toward a Constitutional crisis?  Toward tyranny?  If so, we need journalists who are calm and can help the public focus constructively on matters susceptible to its influence.  The public can do nothing about Trump’s personality.  Move on.

Chinks in Trump’s armour (my sister’s approach):  What aspects of the political situation offer leverage for averting national shame and moving the nation in a positive direction?  Strangely enough, the present constellation of power, which pits an outsider against all officialdom, may give rise to more unity of purpose across party lines.  Trump has made a few sound cabinet picks and shown some willingness to delegate to them.  We need more people like Mattis and Tillerson to stay in the mix.

Image: Panoramic view of Washington City from the new dome of the Capitol, looking west.
Drawn from nature by Edward Sachse. 1856.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Know Your Fears

know-your-fears-2

My husband told me he plans to write out a list of what he fears from a Trump presidency.  It makes sense, given how much fear is in the air.  Until each of us gets a bead on the nature of our fears, chances are it won’t matter much what we do.

We are exhausted from a long and tortuous election season.  Our nerves are wracked, our moral compasses are twitching.  Our guts are writhing from a roller-coaster ride that isn’t over but barely beginning.

The presidential contest was close, but it was more than that: it was polarizing, salacious, and unedifying.  It was omnipresent and momentous, hauling us all in together in a stinking net of civic obligation.  Then it ended with an ugly surprise, revealing that the nation’s ‘leading citizens’ don’t deserve their reputation as a leading class.  Today, American minds are still traumatized and reeling.  People are depressed, resentful, angry, disapproving.  Most of us sense further calamity brewing. 

Who likes the feeling of powerlessness that sets in after ‘the people have spoken’?  We, the electorate (yes, we’ll all complicit) have tipped the political order upside-down.

So, instead of bringing relief, the outcome of the election brings a new host of worries.  Americans must continue to be attentive and mitigate the various forms of damage Trump’s presidency may cause.  Fissures have opened up in both political parties; they, too, are divided and dangerously weakened.  The next few years will see ongoing tumult and crisis, making it all the more urgent to clarify goals and conserve energies.

American politics requires stamina and organization.  No one person or organization can fight every battle.  So know your fears; name the nature of the danger as exactly as you can.  Let the list you write define the wisest course to pursue.

Feel free to state what you fear most from a Trump presidency
and what you think people who share your fear should be doing.
If you’re viewing this on a laptop, the comments link is in the left sidebar at top.

The Good News? A Dollar Can’t Vote

LBJ signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr and others look on (Courtesy of the Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

As Election Day dawns, final tallies of money spent on the 2012 campaign are appearing.  In a country where a dollar is sometimes taken as a measure of all things, it’s worth remembering that these billions have been expended in the hope of bending the great will that collectively lies with the American people.

That’s right, fellow citizens: at the end of the campaign, it all comes down to you.  The special interests, the media, the national parties, the consultants: in the end they’re all equally powerless.  It’s up to you to get out and vote today.  Ignore the cynics: your action—no matter where you live—is an expression of power that remains awesome and singular.  No matter who has the money or how it’s spent, the voter’s mind and heart are where power lives.

So get out and exercise your power today: vote for the best men and women, and may the best of them win!

Image: Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr. and others look on, from this source.

Excitement Is General

Crowds gathered for the presidential inauguration, 1921 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Excitement is general as we head into the final weeks of the long campaign.  With the presidential race in a dead heat, it’s anyone’s guess who the victor will be.  The candidates receive ever closer scrutiny, waves of analysis rolling in over airwaves and Internet incessantly.  Stalwarts gear up for the final push.

The uncertainty of the race is drawing huge audiences to the presidential debates.  Last night’s debate between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney is estimated to have drawn some 65 million viewers.  According to Bloomberg, the viewership for the debates has been roughly double what it was for the nominating conventions this summer.

The spontaneity of the response to the debates is unprecedented, too.  Last night during the debate, Twitter recorded over 7 million new tweets, with more than 109,000 recorded during a single minute when the candidates were discussing immigration.  Romney’s peculiar remark about ‘binders full of women’ prompted an immediate outpouring and a new hashtag.  Within minutes, satirical takes on his remarks were available for view on this Tumblr page.

Every age has its own political customs.  The ones we’re using today are making history, too.

Image: Crowds gathered for the presidential inauguration in 1921, from this source.
Click image to enlarge.

Political Affections

Robert Cruikshank watercolor of crowds attending Andrew Jackson's inaugural reception in 1829 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Amid the strife wracking US politics, a soul can grow weary.  Why do we care?  Why do we bother—why not lay down the burden of republican citizenship and turn away?

In our hearts, most of us have a vision of a more just, peaceful, and prosperous nation.  With concerted effort and good will, we can attain a condition better than what we’ve experienced lately.  I suppose I became a historian and took the unlikely step of writing about politics because I want to make citizenship a large, evident part of my identity.  Whatever else I do, being a citizen is something that I want to achieve.

Patriotism is out of fashion with the sophisticated.  We think about “going into politics” as a sort of careerism; and, if we don’t do that, it’s pretty much understood that we are on the sidelines.  It would be difficult for us to make sense of the 19th-century statesman who, on his death, was eulogized as a “pure patriot. . . whose brain and heart and means and energies were all at the service of his country.” We can understand the part about the brain and the heart—but to commit all one’s means and energies to the country?  That’s alien.

Yet the many-sided commitment of self to public life was once a commonly held American ideal, which individuals pursued in the hope of gaining a special kind of honor and esteem.  Conversely, the wholehearted identification of one’s personal destiny with that of the nation was a crucial element on which the future of the republic was thought to depend.

Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee last week stirred up many warm feelings, underscoring the important role of human affection in maintaining a government and a country.  Having a queen may seem useless from a functional standpoint, but symbolically Elizabeth represents the nation in her person.  To love Elizabeth is to love Britain, which isn’t too hard, especially when she is looking so darned benign and motherly.

Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II wearing a hat adorned with flowers

Yet the sentiment the Queen evokes isn’t particularly cozy.  Often she evokes awe, especially when projecting loftiness, magnificence, or a tireless duty.  All the qualities associated with the Queen serve to bridge a gulf that might otherwise exist between her subjects and that abstraction that is their nation.  It’s precisely because Elizabeth is a person—rather than a building, say, or a flag—that she can embody so many varying qualities that, taken all together, help maintain something distinctive in Brits’ feeling for their country.

In the words of the 19th-century Englishman Walter Bagehot, the queen “excites and preserves the reverence of the population,” thereby helping to bind their sentiments to the state.

Besides her gobs of jewels, her surreally one-of-a-kind existence, and her heavily photographed family, what I like most about the queen is the way she styled herself as a sort of sacrificial über-citizen, beginning on the very first day of her reign.  On the evening of her Coronation in 1952, the young queen made this declaration to the people of her country.

I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.

Thus began sixty fairly unsensational years of color-coordinated dressing and the performance of millions upon millions of prescribed and customary royal duties.  At the end of the day, it’s hard not to admire Elizabeth’s dogged commitment to all the formalities and tedious conventionalities that are part and parcel of her country’s monarchical tradition.

When it came time to draw up our own Constitution in the 1780s, the Revolutionary generation was conscious that, in rejecting monarchical government, they had given up something that, in good times, helped secure citizens’ attachment and loyalty.  What, in a republic, could substitute for monarchy’s appealing glitter, pomp, and ceremony?  What could the framers devise to cultivate the people’s respect and embody the fledgling nation’s character and authority?

Ironically, the answer they came up with is the presidency.  The framers hoped that the occupant of this new-fangled office would function as “the people’s sovereign.”  Federalists like John Adams hoped that the style presidents adopted would be sufficiently “splendid and majestic” to instill a sense of the dignity and authority of the nation in the public mind.  In addition, members of the federal government took care to develop a set of forms and customs for capital life that might earn the republic respect, both at home and abroad.

Still, it would be hard to claim that the Founders solved the problem satisfactorily.  In the years before the Civil War, observers recognized that the federal government exercised only a weak, secondary claim on many Americans’ loyalties—secondary to their homes and to the states where they were raised.

As we contemplate the narcissism and partisanship permeating the competition for the presidency, we may be justified in doubting whether the work of securing the affection and loyalty of the people remains a priority today.

Image: Robert Cruikshank’s watercolor,
“President’s Levee, or all Creation going to the White House”
(published 1841), from this source.