From a Person without a Party

Dawn under a cloud in Minneapolis.

I find it lonely, not being able to identify with either the Republican or the Democratic party.  I regret that they have left me behind.  Each is hurtling forward along on an increasingly weird and alienating rhetorical arc, becoming ever more oriented toward the constituencies who still find the establishment line urgent and interesting.  Both parties are curiously bereft of talent, of true leadership and direction.  I see no one I want to follow.  For the first time in my life, I feel that there is no one out ahead of the rest of us, articulating what we need to be doing, where we should be going now.  I look at the strange pass that the two parties have come to, at their increasingly desperate struggle for supremacy, and I wonder how much more time will pass before they collapse and fail.

What do I mean by a “weird and alienating rhetorical arc”?  In the case of the Republicans, I mean an opportunism and a style of revenge politics that is ignoble, unchristian, unpatriotic, and downright damaging to the nation.  Trump is too small a man to leave the sound policies of his predecessor in place, while Republicans in Congress, determined to destroy the Affordable Care Act, have shown a callousness toward ordinary citizens that few initiatives in American politics can match.  (Remember the heat Reagan took when he went after school lunches?)  In Alabama, voters for Roy Moore showed the same willingness to throw moral scruples aside for the sake of partisan advantage.

Meanwhile, the Democrats, doubling down on the very points that doomed them in 2016, are blazing a weirdly alienating arc of their own.  Democratic-leaning commentators are back to reading poll-numbers like tea-leaves.  They have not gone out to get to know the “fly-over zone.”  They are back in their privileged haunts, pontificating.  In the face of Trump’s victory, and given the many heinous aspects of the President’s behavior, the Democrats have found an excuse to ignore the legitimate frustrations of Trump’s voter base.  That Democrats need to win over some of these voters hasn’t kept them from behaving like patronizing snobs.  Democrats who believe they can write off the white vote, or the rural vote, or the vote of people who are working-class and uneducated, are as callous and provincial as their Republican foes.  Circumstances have thrust Democrats in a defensive posture.  If they can’t break out of it and review what America needs, they’ll be in big trouble in 2018.

Personally, I expect to remain ambivalent about the parties until I hear someone articulating a politics that is plausible, efficient, and broadly humane.  I want to hear from candidates whose interests are truly national: who have fresh ideas about wringing prosperity from our own resources while mitigating the degradation of the natural world.  I want to hear from candidates who want to beautify and uplift local economies, who care about bridging the urban-rural divide.  I want to hear from candidates about bringing immigrants out of the shadows, giving every inhabitant of our country a legal status, and controlling our borders in ways that are smart and modern.  I want to hear from candidates with new ideas about public schooling and work, who believe the US can become a new kind of “maker nation,” one whose future is more creditable and peaceable than its past.  Bring on a capacious and inclusive vision, and save us from the desiccated remnants ruling the republic now.

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

Day 46: Hillary’s Views, In a Nutshell?

Florida aerial, © 2016 Susan Barsy
It’s an asymmetry that may determine the election: in contradistinction to the Democratic nominee, Donald Trump has hammered away at the electorate with a few controversial ideas.  These ideas have been castigated, ridiculed, and discussed so much that the main 3 or 4 of them are easy to reel off.  Trump has a gimme cap that says ‘Make America Great Again.’  He ‘wants to build a wall.’  He favors: 1) establishing inviolable national borders and radically altering US immigration policies; 2) ending ‘unfair’ trade deals; and 3) radically reducing US commitments overseas.

Trump has been careful never to disavow these ‘unpopular’ ideas.  He has articulated them with intense discipline for more than a year, through countless interviews, debates, speeches, and rallies.  No matter how odious, these are the main ideas he stands for.  To the mainstream of both parties, any one of these goals is anathema.  So, American politics has been furiously warring over Donald Trump’s ideas for almost two years.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has run a far more sophisticated and decorous campaign.  Suddenly, though, commentators and allies are noting that her campaign is singularly empty of goals and ideas.  The bland sameness she offers is meant to be reassuring, premised on the assumption that most of the country ‘feels okay.’  But what does Clinton stand for?   Where would she lead?  What, in a nutshell, is her vision of our future?

Public intellectuals friendly to Clinton are prodding her to zero in on something.  But the asymmetry already established may continue to weigh heavily on her campaign.

Image: Aerial of Florida,
© 2016 Susan Barsy


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