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


RELATED:
Albert R. Hunt, ‘Hillary Needs a Better Slogan’ (Bloomberg View)

Day 53: ‘Economic Patriotism’

Day 53 (aerial of riverside town), © 2016 Susan Barsy
I’m interested in the phrase ‘economic patriotism,’ which Zephyr Teachout of New York has made central to her congressional campaign.  Ideologically, its appearance is significant as a harbinger of the ‘thought revolution‘ destined to shake up both political parties.  As a phrase linking domestic and green production with political empowerment and civic responsibility, ‘economic patriotism’ is smart and historically resonant.  Without pointing fingers, it suggests that economic actors could be encouraged to behave in ways that will promote the good of the country, thus harkening back to a traditional concept of ‘political economy.’

Anti-globalism and a demand for policies that protect citizens’ prosperity have defined the 2016 election cycle.  The popularity of these ideas, which both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have variously articulated, signals Americans’ weariness with the pro-corporate globalism central to the political establishment (and much of the intellectual establishment, too).  Popular anxieties about immigration, out-sourcing, and unfair trade deals all spring from uncertainty as to what will prevent many forms of work from disappearing.  Experts tell Americans that globalism is good, but it’s hard to deny that it undermines national and personal autonomy.  Which lessens American power and independence, right?

Despite eliciting the scorn of experts who point to statistics suggesting otherwise, such ideas, mocked as parochial or alarmingly nationalistic, formerly propelled the US economy to might.  The ideal economy is one that promotes an egalitarian prosperity: this notion has been central to American political development, accounting for such diverse initiatives as protectionism, abolitionism, and the massive sale of public land into private hands, which gave millions of Americans a foothold in the nineteenth century.  A desire to ensure that Americans have the autonomy and cultivation needed to be active and informed citizens of the republic has accounted for many features of the US economy.  It bears considering what ‘economic patriotism’ should look like now.

The Democrats: Anger in a Different Key

low-angle black and white photograph of a startled-looking Hillary Clinton
For years, the Democratic Party has pursued a comfortably centrist agenda while relying on identity politics to sustain its popularity.  It has pursued social good without much regard for economy or efficiency, and, primarily for that reason, has alienated many business interests and ordinary, thrifty, business-like people.  In Illinois, the good that individual Democratic officeholders seek to do hardly makes up for the many instances of criminal corruption and abuse of trust that stain the reputation of the party.

Though Democrats purport to fight the scourge of poverty and ignorance, that goal has lost its urgency, the how of it suffocated under layers of bombast and bureaucracy.  Even health-care reform, which has given millions of Americans better access to medicine and stands as this era’s chief domestic initiative, has driven up premiums and supplied fresh evidence of federal ineptitude.

Whatever Hillary Clinton’s merits (and they are many), she personifies the compromised condition of the Democratic Party.  Like her party, she wants to be all things to all people.  That very characteristic disables her from accommodating and channeling the ire festering in the hearts of the Democratic electorate, the ire that is powering the “Feel the Bern” movement.

However worthy her intentions, Clinton cannot step out of her skin.  She can’t disavow her wealth and celebrity, can’t ditch her myriad A-list connections, can’t dis-entrench herself from the inner workings of her party.  She can’t re-imagine Democratic ideology for fear of upsetting the apple cart that’s carrying her along.  And she can’t set herself at odds with the past without diminishing the legacy of her husband, Bill.   Being so closely identified with the ex-president is proving a big liability.  All these factors prevent Hillary Clinton from being the change agent Democratic voters want and need.

Bernie Sanders represents this constituency, which amounts to approximately 43 percent of all Democrats voting in this primary season.  Sanders doesn’t want to please anyone, and he (like Trump) isn’t very concerned about the tenability of his program.  Sanders’ goal is to redefine the purposes of the Democratic Party.  Sanders’ voters will be lost unless someone else comes along who can do this well.

It’s a shame, because the Democratic Party is ripe for radical reform.  It could transform itself into a proponent of internal economic growth, with a focus on the intensive cultivation of the nation’s human and physical capital.  It could be a party of peace, a party of green.  Once upon a time, the Democratic Party stood for reform, retrenchment, and economy.  Could the right leader make the Democratic Party great again?

Image:  “First Lady Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Tom Foley,
and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt speak at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol,”
1993 photograph by Laura Patterson, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
For more information click here.