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 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.

A Stress Test for the Constitution

Soon after the election, a friend envisioned Trump’s presidency as “a stress test for the Constitution and all of its institutions.”  This is proving to be the case, for reasons that are both collective and peculiar to Trump and his administration.

Collectively, his presidency has halted, and aspires to reverse, the direction American government took under President Obama, a direction decried in some quarters but one charted in careful accordance with the law.  The Affordable Care Act, which some Republicans so revile, was nonetheless “ratified” after a protracted but open struggle by both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In other areas, President Obama’s use of executive power, though politically unwise, was legally defensible.  His approach to reducing carbon emissions, so hated and feared in some quarters, took shape only after a long period of public comment and after his legal team was certain the new guidelines could withstand a Constitutional challenge.  President Obama exercised discretion in whether and how to enforce immigration laws, but, as Richard Lugar, a former US Senator from Indiana, has observed, every president has done the same, since all have lacked the means to see that the laws on the books were fully enforced.  Lugar, a moderate who was one of Capitol Hill’s most influential Republicans before a member of his own party “primaried” him from the right, driving him from office, wrote in the New York Times that, given the howls of outrage over Obama’s immigration policies, one would never guess that his administration had “vastly exceeded the deportations under President George W. Bush,” just as Bush’s had vastly exceeded those of President Clinton.

President Obama sought to move the nation and the Democratic Party in a new direction, but he was not a party leader, and he did not wait for a bipartisan consensus that he knew was never coming to emerge.  In his second term, he focused increasingly on what he could do without Congress–but to the extent that his victories lacked Congress’s active assent they were unsustainable.  They were simply too far ahead of the collective political will.  In the meantime, Obama’s dogged pursuit of his own grand vision hid the senescence of the Democratic Party.

As the first person of color to occupy the presidency, Barack Obama symbolized the America we are fitfully becoming–a nation that is truly inclusive and color-blind.  As a symbol and agent of that change, he aroused a lot of resentment and fear, emotions that candidate Trump and some other Republicans inflamed to their benefit in the campaign.

The stunning political triumph of a charismatic outsider, the shattered GOP’s success at hanging on to power, and the dangerous eclipse of the Democratic party: these are the three huge interrelated events whose consequences are shaking the political community, from the nation’s most powerful institutions to its polarized citizenry, united only in its demand for responsible governance.

Image: “Save yourself”
@2017 Susan Barsy

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.

On the verge (Election Day)

The shadow of a man and woman standing under a tree in autumn along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Today is Election Day, and we are each and all on the verge of something new.  Something unknown.  The campaign has been a time of trial—a time of bad dreams, friction, and more than a few out-and-out breakdowns.  Charisma, in the form of Donald Trump, has ruptured fault lines in the Republican Party and the nation that existed already.  Because of his candidacy, we as a nation and as individuals have gained some self-knowledge the hard way, which is how self-knowledge is always gained.  He has tested us, exposing our weaknesses, our normally veiled resentments, our various gnawing dissatisfactions.

Americans need.  Some truly live in a state of want, but others are fearful of the future, sensing decline and the increasing challenge of securing work and access to opportunity.  Others, not in need, want something other and better than what they already have, and, for that, they’re ready to trade something away.  Certainly, this is true of Republicans who have enjoyed considerable political power but insist the political order should be delivering something better than what it has managed to create so far.

Twitter sometimes delivers thought-provoking jewels, such as a tweet this morning quoting Gerald Ford: “Truth is the glue that holds governments together. Compromise is the oil that makes governments go.”

Hillary is not an innocent, but someone who has winked at the order herself and at acts within her province that are immoral or unseemly.  She is a tarnished political heroine, this ‘First Woman’—the other choice that all our earlier choices have made.  Many will vote for Hillary as a symbol of something she doesn’t really stand for, then expect her to wring something better from federal government and the political establishment.  She is the good-enough candidate, particularly in the eyes of those who feel no urgency about political change, whose hearts may have stopped bleeding some time ago.

 Whatever we stand on the verge of, it is best to acknowledge our complicity.  Whichever future we’re on the verge of, it will feature a world of political work that the republican model calls on ordinary people to perform.  My hope is that the election will usher in a period of broad ideological ferment and political reorganization, necessary precursors to restoring what is unifying and wholesome in American culture.

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 31: Republican Party Chaos

A serious fissure (Hawaii), © 2016 Susan Barsy
Today the signs of institutional chaos within the Republican Party are growing.  The fragmentation of the party is more open and unscripted.  The party is being called on to dump its nominee, which would be unprecedented.  It appears more certain that Trump will lose the election.  Afterward, the GOP itself is more likely to break apart than to survive.

The immediate precipitant is an ‘October surprise’: nasty footage capturing Trump boasting of his crude sexual behavior back in 2005.  The tape is causing a flap, outraging a whole new constituency of people who were not openly speaking out against Trump before.  Many GOP candidates and voters are suddenly loudly denouncing Trump, demanding that he quit the race or be forced out by the RNC.

Moreover, I agree with this darkly compelling article by Rick Wilson that the troubles of Republicans in Congress are just beginning.  The constituency that catapulted Trump to the nomination and continues to back him in the general campaign is fundamentally anti-establishment and will not mesh with either the Party’s conservative or moderate wing.  The support flowing into the GOP presidential race is thus a force antithetical to the success and cohesion of the GOP in Congress.

Leading Republicans, whether moderates like the Bushes or conservatives like Ben Sasse, know they cannot cooperate with Trump without his damaging them.  Were Trump to be elected, the ideological divisions among Republicans in Washington would be unlike anything modern Americans have ever seen.  (The closest parallel might be the ‘accidental presidency’ of Tyler back in the 1840s, or the dark-horse ascendancy of his successor James Polk.)

Given that figures like Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and Ted Cruz have been badly damaged by attempting to work with their party’s ostensible standard-bearer, other GOP leaders are bound to begin strategizing about how to keep their distance and distinguish their branch of Republicanism from Trump’s.  I would not be surprised to see the party break into three.

Image: A serious fissure (Hawaii),
© 2016 Susan Barsy

Political change

Walk the walk (DNC 2016) screenshot by Susan Barsy
A return to ‘normalcy’ after the US presidential election is unlikely.  Many of us are tired of the campaign, tired of the endless opining, poll numbers, and tweets.  Tired of the candidates and the unpleasant prospects they embody, we long for the closure of election day.  Election Day!  What then?

Underneath the candidates is an undeniable weakness in both parties.  Over a hundred GOP leaders have said they will not support their party’s nominee.  Yet Mr Trump was chosen through a much-contested primary, in which voters failed to coalesce around any of Mr Trump’s numerous challengers, rejecting both moderates and conservatives.  Moreover, disgruntled Republicans subsequently failed to rally around an alternative, despite a protracted explicit attempt that Mitt Romney led.  Leading Republicans know what they’re against.  But what are they for?

The Republican problem isn’t a lack of talent.  It is a lack of a unifying, majoritarian ideology.  This is why disaffected Republicans have proved unable to bolt (as they did, for example, in 1912, when the Progressives, disaffected with President Taft, broke away to support Teddy Roosevelt’s effort to retake the presidency).  Republicans as a group don’t agree on what they stand for, having honed their identity as the party of ‘no.’  Should leaders who can’t govern their party govern the country?  I don’t think so.

Less remarked on is the disturbing weakness of the Democratic party.  In an election cycle playing out as an epic battle of personality, the idea that the Democrats are just as beleaguered as the Republicans is inadmissible.  Yet the Democrats are arguably as benighted.  They bank too much on identity politics, while relying on a concept of the role of government that has scarcely been updated since the 1960s.

Besides the staleness of their ideology, Democrats are turning people off with their record of poor governance in some cities and states.  Here in Chicago, corruption and egregious mismanagement are synonymous with Democratic rule.  I personally have grown disaffected with the state’s Democrats, who as a group have not come out in favor of reform and government efficiency.

At the national level, Democratic leaders like Donna Brazile want citizens to think that the practices of the DNC and the Clinton Foundation are nothing to be concerned about; yet this is the very attitude that voters find unacceptable and disillusioning.  Who believes that, if elected, Hillary Clinton would ‘run a tight ship’?  The Obama Administration has been a model of probity; but a Hillary Clinton White House?  Hardly.

Besides winking at corruption and coasting along on a raft of outdated and expensive ideas, the Democrats suffer from a striking dearth of junior leadership and grass-roots organization.  When will their next generation of leaders appear?  It’s appalling to consider that Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Rahm Emanuel were, until lately, their brightest stars.  The most admirable and powerful figures in the party are all senior citizens, which augurs well from the point of view of experience but augurs a bumpy leaderless period ahead.

Thus, despite the all-but-extinguished condition of the Republican party, it is doubtful whether the Democrats will win control of the Senate, let alone the House.

The systematic weaknesses plaguing both major parties indicate that the nation is heading into, but scarcely concluding, a period of partisan re-alignment.  The ugly factionalism that is so distressing for citizens to witness and that poses a grave threat to stable federal governance is likely to continue for some time.  When major parties die, it can take a while.  In the short-term, the parties’ problems will cause widespread anxiety and confusion.  Ultimately, reorganization awaits the emergence of clean new leaders with viable modern ideas.

Image: “Walk the Walk” (DNC 2016).
Screenshot by Susan Barsy.

Note: this post has been modified from its original version.

Bernie Sanders: Not Leading But Misleading

A dwarfed candidate slinks off as the world smirks at a campaign poster declaring him 'the people's choice.'

Yesterday, some two million Americans cast their votes for Bernie Sanders, in addition to the 10.5 million who had voted for him in earlier Democratic primaries.  But Hillary Clinton has simply out-polled him, garnering an estimated 13.5 million votes even prior to yesterday’s final set of state contests, the most populous of which (CA, NJ, and NM) she easily won.  In terms of  pledged delegates awarded on the basis of the primaries, Clinton won a total of 2,203 delegates, while Sanders racked up just 1,828.  Yet Sanders cannot bring himself to concede defeat: to acknowledge that she, rather than he, is ‘the people’s choice.’

All along, Hilary has had an advantage stemming from the fact that she enjoys the favor of many Democratic super-delegates, who do indeed wield an out-sized influence when it comes to determining the party’s presidential nominee.  The super-delegate system is a holdover from the days when party officials were entirely free to select at the convention any candidate on whom a majority of them could manage to agree.  Senator Sanders claims that this is undemocratic and unfair; but he would not make this claim if more of the party officials were inclined to favor him.

He is, in fact, exactly the kind of interloper whose self-interest is at odds with the communitarian nature of a political party, which requires internal discipline, compromise, and self-sacrifice, to remain ideologically coherent and unified.  Whereas Hillary Clinton has spent her entire career working within the network of the Democracy, Senator Sanders joined it only when he declared his candidacy, no doubt realizing that it would benefit him structurally.  But, having never given anything of himself to the party per se, he can hardly be surprised that its most influential members don’t feel they owe much consideration to him.

Sanders has little in common with his arch-rival, Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee.  Yet the two men are the same in failing to grasp the huge role that manners play in the presidency.  The president is the face of the nation, and sometimes that face is obliged to wear a gracious smile despite inward longings to sport a frown.  When, many months ago, I asked a friend her impressions of Sanders, she replied that he behaved as though he were still in college.  He does indeed resemble those intense young disciples we knew back then, with their no-frills backpacks and doctrinaire ideals.  Now in his 70s, Sanders has gained a fervent following, by feeding voters a vision that, without the support of a party, he would have no means of realizing, even if he were to rise to the presidency.

Ultimately, Sanders has deceived his followers, both by professing an imagined injury at the hands of Democracy and by perpetuating a fantastically exaggerated conception of presidential power.

Image:
‘The Day After: Licked, and the World Laughs at You’
(Puck Magazine),
from this source.