On this day in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born. He was born into an American heyday, when the new United States (having fended off the British in the War of 1812) were mushrooming. In 1809, the nation consisted of seventeen states, the westernmost being Ohio, along with a vast territory that pioneers were flooding into, appropriating from natives, and organizing. Lincoln was born to one such pioneer family and grew up in Illinois, which became a state when he was nine.
By the time Lincoln became president, the number of states had doubled. The nation stretched to the Pacific. His milieu was morphing as quickly as he was, a reckless proliferation the politicians could barely control. The gargantuan Lincoln, with his terrible grooming, was a perfect embodiment of this rough hasty time. Continue reading →
Dear Readers, Thank you so much for watching and commenting on last week’s video about living through a paradigm shift. I truly appreciate our dialogue, which you enrich every time you choose to go public with your thoughts.
This week I discuss the troubling political situation we face in the wake of the January 6th insurrection.This 12-minute video covers three points: 1) On the 6th, we saw the emergence of an unprecedented kind of violent anti-federalism, whose adherents come from all regions and classes of American society. 2) These elements pose an ongoing threat to the rule of law. Most of the people who perpetrated and participated in the violent attack on the Capitol, and federal government itself, have not been called out or held accountable. 3) The Republican Party has chosen to harbor and defend these elements, thwarting every effort to identify seditious people and temporizing when it comes to the threat that militant anti-federalism poses.
We can’t sit on the sidelines waiting to see what new horror the Republican Party sanctions. We must encourage the formation of a new centrist third party to draw off support from the Republican Party and hasten its demise.
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In December 2017, about a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, high-school student Nicole Plummer came to me with some questions about critical elections and the 2016 election that brought Trump to power. Our exchange highlights the role of retrospection in determining whether an election has been critical. A critical election leaves the party system changed by reconfiguring party ideology in a lasting way.
Here, without further preamble, is my exchange with Miss Plummer.
Q: Can certain tell-tale signs be observed in the time leading up to a critical election?
A: Typically, critical elections occur when the nation faces an underlying problem that the existing parties can’t admit to or solve. The problem is big enough to influence all society and the nation’s future. In a critical election, the problem is not only admitted, but an approach to it is offered that the majority of people assent to in an enduring way.
Critical elections happen when people are bored with prevailing political ideas or ambivalent about what candidates are offering. So I imagine that if you looked back at periods before a critical election, you might find lackluster voter turnout, a rise in the percentage of unaffiliated voters, and perhaps also new splinter groups (which are trying to find the right formula for mobilizing the electorate in a new way).
During the campaign leading up to a critical election, one might observe the following: 1) appeals to previously neglected blocs of the electorate; 2) campaign planks (i.e.talking points or principles) that are truly new or innovative; 3) iconoclastic individuals, whether candidates or, in rare instances, their managers, espousing a new vision of society; 4) signs that the political ideas being promoted are being wholeheartedly adopted not just by a cadre of leaders but by a wider swath of society.
Remember that the concept of a critical election is something observers have made up to help differentiate among elections and distinguish their results. Many election cycles feature some of the characteristics above, but it ends up being a matter of degree. For example, the Tea Party succeeded in bringing a new cadre of conservative opposition leaders into national politics during Obama’s presidency, but this faction failed to broaden its appeal to the extent needed to become a dominant party. Likewise, Bernie Sanders is iconoclastic and has articulated several goals new to mainstream politics, but so far he hasn’t converted all Democracy to his way of thought.
Q: Why are critical elections important for a functioning democratic society?
A:Critical elections refresh the identification that should exist between leaders and the people. When a leader (or group of leaders) capable of mobilizing the political structure around new and more relevant ideas comes along, the populace benefits. That’s because the dominant party will then mirror, and do all it can to meet, the American people’s needs and desires. What bothers many people about today’s Republican party is that its actions don’t correspond very well to the needs and concerns of the populace (who don’t want to see their insurance premiums go up or their health coverage disappear, for instance). Similarly, many Americans don’t care about the protection of union workers that is a hackneyed Democratic theme.
Q: Was one of the six critical elections that you identified more influential than the others?
A:The election of 1860 prompted states to secede, triggered the Civil War, and put slavery on the path to extinction (which directly affected millions of enslaved people), so I would say that election had the most profound effect on America, both subsequently and on those who were alive at the time.
Q: Are Democrats and Republicans here to stay? Will these two parties just keep evolving their policies or will they eventually give way to new groups based on changing ideologies in the U.S.?
A: I don’t know. Ironically, it’s hard to say which of these parties is more messed up. The Republicans are in a state of inner crisis despite holding almost all the power. The Democrats have ideological unity but are indifferent to the fact that millions of Americans find their message unpalatable.
The two major parties are not just vehicles for ideas; they are also bureaucracies that do not want to be extinguished. In the 2016 election, both Trump and Sanders decided it was more to their advantage to work from within these structures rather than go out and find enough likeminded people to start an effective third party. To start a new party, one would have to assemble and coordinate a group of like-minded peers working to organize similar parties in a number of states. Will Trump’s climb to the top of the Republican party actually change it into a more salient party, though? It’s hard to say.
Q: If you had to pick one almost critical election from U.S. history, what would it be? (i.e. an election that was monumental but didn’t quite meet the criteria)
A:Barack Obama had the opportunity to change the Democratic party into something new in 2008 but failed to do so because his ties to the party establishment were too slight. He became president at too early an age–if he had stayed in the Senate longer, he would have ended up being a much more effective party leader.
Obama was a centrist looking to find a way beyond big New Deal-type governance. His major achievement, creating universal access to health care, was significant in that it sought to benefit every American, not just those in need. His presidency eschewed identity politics. His second inauguration envisioned a nation that was republican, enlightened, and fully inclusive.
Q: Do you believe that critical elections need to coincide with social, economic, or political upheaval?
A:No, they bring change to the society afterward. Critical elections often follow periods of staleness, stagnation, or cultural drift.
Q: Why do you think reforming our parties is so difficult at this moment in political history?
A: Historically, politicians did not have the “tools” of social science (polling, marketing techniques, etc.) so their sense of what would work with the electorate had to be more instinctive. They took up positions that were shaped by their direct knowledge of and intuition about the people. Also, once in office, they were more confident in using the powers delegated to them, without needing to consult their constituents on every little thing. Trump and Sanders were both remarkable during the campaign, in that each had a few fervently held beliefs that they truly believed in, and that they held to despite what anyone else (e.g., the media) thought. They each were taking a risk that Hillary Clinton was incapable of taking. If you want to be a leader, you’ve got to lead, not just obey your constituents, your paid consultants, your political friends.
Q: What is your opinion on how politics and campaigns are currently run? Was it better back in the “good-old-days” or has campaigning simply evolved with society to meet the needs and interests of the general populace? Is this evolution good or bad?
A:The people have the power to effect change. When their will is aroused, change does occur. (Look at the drastic change that’s followed from the 2016 election.) American politics swings back and forth like a pendulum. Critical elections occur when effective leaders channel the popular will into effective results. When the right kinds of leaders come up, the reigning ideology changes in a “good way” and the political system becomes endowed with a positive (if also scary) new dynamism.
As recent partisan conflict testifies, the falling away of an old ideology and the birth of a new, widely supported one can take an excruciatingly long period of time. In Lincoln’s time, escalating sectional tensions ate into the regnant parties for more than a decade before the iconoclastic anti-slavery party he was part of broke through. Initially a “fringe movement” that recast its message to broaden its mainstream appeal, the Republican party scored an electoral victory that put Lincoln in power.
Q: Does the 2016 election have the potential to become the 7th critical election? Is it too soon to tell?
A: In a critical election, the character of the entire party changes in a lasting way. Will Trump’s ideas really gain traction with establishment Republicans? I have a feeling that many on Capitol Hill loathe the president and are just waiting him out.* Some of Trump’s ideas—his concern about the quality of life for displaced and forgotten American workers and his understanding of how this issue is associated with immigration, domestic security, and the specter of our country’s hegemony giving way to that of China—define potent fears that other US leaders should countenance and address in a more palatable but still firm way. We urgently need a slate of federal goals the whole nation can embrace—otherwise, society will keep deteriorating, and social goods we all prize will be lost.
* Liz Cheney’s ouster from her leadership role in the House yesterday confirms that 2016 was “critical” in that Donald Trump shattered the bland traditionalism of the Republican party, replacing it with a cult of personality. Those who remain in the party in 2021 overwhelmingly support Trump and his dangerous lies. His vicious character and indifference to the Constitution have driven away millions, weakening the party and forcing many of its former leaders out. Where will this disaffected part of the polity go? Will the coming year will see the birth of a constructive centrist party, perhaps under the leadership of the redoubtable Mitt Romney?
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New Year’s Day in my corner of the world was wet and grim. The temperature was in the thirties, and rain fell on the unmelted snow. The freezing mix formed big slushy puddles, glazed the steps seditiously, left icicles on the downspouts. Gradually the trees and bushes sank under the weight of the ice forming on their boughs. The patio grew too dangerous to cross.
Then, after night fell at around 4:40, the ugly grey day morphed into a snowy night. The tree boughs, now brilliant with snow, arched lower. By 10pm, the branches of a birch tree taller than the house had drooped to within just a few feet of the ground! It was weird and beautiful. Stressful for the trees. I photographed them before going to bed, knowing I might never see the like again. At night, I heard a few too-heavy branches fall from somewhere, landing on the roof of the house with a thud.
I want to say “happy new year,” but it would be insincere. It’s impossible to greet this January with optimism, to pay lip service to the notion of “being better.” Mortal and political dangers lie immediately ahead, threatening to push the US, already battered from the numerous crises of 2020, into a state of irremediable catastrophe. What 2021 immediately demands is stamina, renewed vigilance against the coronavirus, and the guts to face down Trump-related threats to our government and national security.
Just as I went to bed the other night wondering whether the birch tree would snap in the night, so I wonder whether the government of the US will survive the week. Extraordinarily, in the next few days the pressures that have been building on the nation will culminate.
This week, we will see whether Congress will allow Trump to destroy the United States or whether it will at last defy him, uphold the Electoral College, and be true to the will of the people and the Constitution.
We will see whether Trump will win his struggle to control the Republican party or whether his efforts will produce an all-out schism.
Will Mitch McConnell find a way to prevent the challenge to the Electoral College from going forward? Only if anti-Trump forces in the Senate find a way to avert the EC challenge will the Republican Party, as we know it, survive this week.
Donald Trump’s conniving to hold on to an office he knows he lost is a self-interested quest that has nothing to do with his Constitutional duties. He is a criminal and a grave threat to national security. With the prospect of an ugly showdown in the House and Senate looming, calls for Trump’s impeachment or resignation are likely to grow.
Will the forces of good be strong enough to keep the nation from buckling under this week? The answer will come in the next 36 hours.
What are your thoughts on hearing of the unexpected illness of a president who has pitted his fortunes against those of a majority of the American people? After flouting and dismissing measures known to protect the public against COVID’s spread, Trump has gotten the disease himself. He’s in the hospital and said to be doing well, but any outcome is possible. He could recover after just a slight case, or he could worsen; he could die.
Many in Trump’s Republican party mimicked his cavalier approach to the disease. Just as he became sick, so too have a passel of his Republican allies taken ill with COVIDat the same time: GOP party chair Ronna McDaniel; First Lady Melania Trump; Senators Thom Tillis (NC), Ron Johnson (WI), and Mike Lee (UT); Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s close aide Hope Hicks, his campaign manager Bill Stepien, and former Governor Chris Christie, who, with several others listed here, helped Trump prepare for last Tuesday’s debate.
The White House approach to COVID protocols was lax, leading to an outbreak that threatens the stability and security of the United States by sidelining, distracting, and disabling too many of its influential figures at once.
Yet one’s overall impression is how little any sick or healthy Republican cares. It doesn’t matter much to Republicans that the White House can’t do the work of the people, because that long ago vanished as top priority. The Republicans’ main focus since Trump tested positive has been on his suddenly changed situation and what it might mean for them. The party’s agenda consists of two main items: rushing Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court and making sure (by any means) that Trump wins re-election. No one cares whether Trump misses a few days of work at the White House, because, in all his tenure there, he’s avoided the chore of serving the people.
This has become clear as his schedule over the past week or so has been scrutinized for the bearing it might have on Washington’s contagion. Jetting around to campaign rallies, schmoozing at fund-raisers, preparing for the presidential debate, putting in a ghastly showing in it, and hosting a GOP love-fest for Amy Coney Barrett in the Rose Garden: such are the events that engross Trump most.
In the meantime, millions of Americans are out of work, running out of funds, and going hungry. Many are worried about losing their homes and access to medical care, even as winter comes on and the virus lingers and spreads. Businesses are folding, wildfires rage, and the bright possibilities of vibrant, solvent cities have evaporated. Cities like New York and Chicago, which represent some of the nation’s greatest concentrations of human and real capital, are barely holding together. Some vast piles of money that Congress set aside to help with these problems remain unspent or were spent improperly, attesting to Mr Trump’s ineptitude and indifference when he’s taxed with helping anyone but himself.
Under Donald Trump, the White House has become an empty shell. While he receives Cadillac treatment at Walter Reed, Americans can’t help but notice how little Trump and his ilk care about them.
Image: Currier & Ives print of the White House (1877), from this source.