Day 7: Yes, It’s Scary, But Is It a Critical Election?

stereopticon image of a crowd gathered around a train to hear Roosevelt speak.

For all its drama and dismay, the election of 2016 might not end up being a ‘critical election,’ in the sense of marking a permanent change in the makeup or ideology of one or both of the parties. Whether the election ends up producing such change depends on which presidential candidate wins and how his or her party establishment behaves afterward.

If Hillary Clinton wins, her victory will mainly mark a continuation of the Obama years and of the centrism that has prevailed among Democrats since Bill Clinton’s presidency.  Secretary Clinton adopted a progressive platform at the time of the 2016 Democratic convention to placate Sanders’ supporters, but the Democratic establishment in general has given few signs of having adopted a dramatically new constellation of ideas. Instead, the tenor of the campaign on the Democratic side has been defensive, couched in terms of defending past accomplishments and promising to advance along the established lines.

If Donald Trump wins, it remains to be seen whether his victory translates into a broad and permanent change in the philosophy and direction of the GOP.  There is no question of 2016 being a critical election if Trump succeeds in getting his party to move in the direction he is charting: if he succeeds in associating Republicanism with a more inward-looking, pro-citizen, and anti-global ideology. In order to do this, Republicans would have to renounce their history of support for big business, which is now typically a transnational enterprise. Republicans would have to take the lead on reforming trade, recasting themselves as protectors of American workers and American industry. Hawkish Republicans would have to get in touch with their isolationist side. And the issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives would likely take a back seat to those having to do with the economy.

In most cases, a critical election is the culmination of broad and concerted changes already occurring within a political party, often in connection with the emergence of a charismatic standard-bearer. In 1860, for instance, Abraham Lincoln’s election was merely the capstone of a decades-long effort to incorporate anti-slavery into a broader platform of economic empowerment that would appeal to mainstream voters (who were white).  In 1828, Andrew Jackson’s election signaled the emergence of a new kind of party that combined a desire for retrenchment and austerity with an unwavering democratic appeal.  And, in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s election signified the arrival of a new kind of economic philosophy (henceforth known as ‘Reaganomics’), along with a newly potent faith-based conservatism intent on bucking certain types of modern secular change.

Trump is an outsider whose ideas the GOP mainstream has not embraced.  If he is elected, it’s unclear whether, or to what extent, other leading Republicans would feel pressed take up his agenda and ideas. Republicans in the House and Senate could act in contradistinction to him.  Were this to happen, the GOP as a whole would continue in a state of fragmentation and confusion.  Governmental paralysis, rather than lasting partisan transformation, would be the result.

Image: From this source

Trump’s rise signals a full-blown political crisis

American primitive (La Brea diorama), by Susan Barsy
We are living through the 2016 presidential election.  Someday, perhaps next year, perhaps decades from now, we will try to recall just what it was like.  What was it like, when Donald Trump, in his bid for the presidency, claimed the Republican nomination and precipitated widespread political turmoil?

This is an experiential question, historical yet subjective; it’s not a question of fact, social science, or policy.  Therefore we will each be entitled to our own truths, however aberrant or incompatible.

Meanwhile, the very multiplicity of our views, which will never agree, adds to the confusion of what we are experiencing, the uncertainty of how it will all end.  Where is the nation heading?  What will happen to its party system?  Whose judgments and actions will prove to have been most insightful and right, a question whose importance will grow retrospectively, furnishing a yardstick for identifying who in our generation is most discerning, most trustworthy.

Watching and listening to a Trump-obsessed nation and being part of that nation ourselves, nets some insight into past political upheavals, particularly rise of Hitler in early 20th-century Germany.  The abiding mystery of Nazism is how the German people could have empowered someone so aggressive and hateful.  How could they have been so mistaken as to repose trust in someone so utterly inhuman, so indifferent to world order and prevailing norms?  From the perspective of August 2016, it’s more understandable how masses of citizens could end up giving too much power to a dangerous leader.

Something similarly unpredictable is happening in American politics, something for which we all bear responsibility, yet we aren’t completely sure what it is or how bad it will be.  And we don’t agree on what we should do.

Three conditions are combining in the United States, creating widespread and practically leaderless confusion.  Together, they amount to a dangerous political crisis, threatening a constitutional government we normally think of as stable and strong.  A disillusioned electorate cognizant of its powerlessness and vulnerability, a weak unresponsive leadership class, and the appearance of an unknown but charismatic ‘political savior’: there you have the recipe for political catastrophe.

All three elements—the frustrated expectations of American citizens, an outmoded and out-of-touch political establishment, and Trump’s charismatic authority—must be addressed to move beyond this dangerous political crisis.  Unfortunately, a rotten political system is difficult to replace or reform overnight.  Our parties are filled with self-seeking prima donnas.  Creatures of party, they’ve lost touch with the people.  They farm out the task of deciding what they believe in, relying on experts to formulate their positions.  Collectively, in their quest for personal power, the leaders of both political parties are failing the people of the United States.

Anti-Trump forces comfort themselves with the notion that, if only Hillary Clinton will win, the United States will ‘be okay.’  Thank goodness the people who are demanding change at any price are not quite a voting majority!  This theme organizes much political discourse.  The experts, who deliver so much in the way of political anesthesia, tamp down our anxiety with a never-ending stream of surveys and polls.  Meanwhile, Trump, with his stark directness, soldiers on defiantly, feeding his electrifying certainties to millions of mesmerized followers.  Trump and the popular discontent he energizes will remain a threat until his opponents unite and respond to the people’s needs by forging an appropriate yet superior ideology of change.

Image: A diorama showing
the inimical relation between two extinct species
at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles.
Author photo.

Seismic Forces Rock the Parties

White height, © 2016 Susan Barsy
The newspapers I glimpsed while traveling communicated a sense of political calamity, the dismay of wonks, journalists, and miffed members of the GOP.  Trump, the party’s likely nominee, was causing the commotion, but the kerfuffle spoke volumes about the muddled condition of the party itself.  Something seismic is happening: the GOP’s ill-assorted components are about to morph into something new, or break apart.

In ordinary times, politicians, the media, and a vast network of consultants and experts promote ideological order and continuity.  The nation’s leaders use the media, and influential constituents use the leaders, to shape the citizenry’s vision, mapping out choice in a limited way.  A centrist ideology that is pro-corporate and pro-global has dominated both parties since the Clinton era, while ‘hard-liners’ of various stripes have increasingly dominated the GOP.  These modern-day fire-eaters may be against federal debt, reproductive rights, or even religious pluralism, but, collectively, they have skillfully gained sway within the Republican Party, with the dream of imposing their minority views on a moderate mainstream.

Trump has attacked the precepts of this centrist-right ideology, making him anathema to many leaders in both parties.  Are Americans voting for Trump because they are hateful and benighted, or are they supporting him because he alone is promising to jettison a set of ideas that has left much of the population stuck in the past and impoverished?  In either case, his ascendancy shows how completely the GOP establishment has lost touch with the people’s will.  The hegemony of the social conservatives and GOP moderates is over.  Paul Ryan and others who want Trump to shift in their direction hope to perpetuate it.  They’ll fail.

Will Donald Trump allow other GOP leaders to ‘handle’ him?  If he accepts orders from the likes of Paul Ryan, voters will conclude Trump is being co-opted and abandon him.  Ryan claims his goal is to ‘unify’ the party: if so, he could hardly have gone about it in a less auspicious way.  Why grand-stand when more might be accomplished quietly?  This crisis has exposed leading Republicans as shockingly short on political skills.  But then, how can a party whose leaders are famous for digging in their heels suddenly develop a genius for collective compromise?

In general, we can hardly blame Trump for the downward slide occurring in our political culture.  He has divined a set of issues that voters care about most passionately, and his ideological response has been more apt than that of any other prominent Republican.  We can abhor Trump’s crudeness and bigotry, and we can impede him by voting someone else into the presidency.  If I were a Republican party leader, however, I sure would be trying to salvage whatever is feasible about his ideology, and trying to integrate it into that of my party.

Trump’s main talking points have to do with restoring broad economic prosperity, insisting on corporate responsibility, and burnishing American citizenship’s prestige.  Trump’s ferocious hatred of outsourcing and unfair trade, his demand that something be done to relieve blue-collar pain, are oddly reminiscent of the leaderless Occupy movement’s themes.  Trump might not have it in him to be a successful president, but he’s been smashingly successful at reminding us that politics is ultimately about ideas not money.  Those who want to stop Trump need to counter his ideas with a positive agenda.  Can his opponents disavow their complacency?  Can they disavow their role in perpetuating a dysfunctional status quo?

Photograph by Susan Barsy