Restoring political stability in the US depends on defeating individual Republicans at the ballot box in states. As long as Trump remains at large and the Republican Party remains his instrument, the rest of us who care about the survival of self-government must join together to defeat candidates still loyal to the so-called Republican brand. 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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The nauseating staleness of partisan politics is a disgrace to the American intellect and a nation fond of thinking it’s great.
Whether one ponders the intransigence gripping the Capitol or the never-ending corruption strangling government at every level in Illinois, one sees the evils of a too-entrenched party system—a system that can only be shaken up by innovative third parties, bringing with them new ideological visions and the threat of competition.
Much of what appears on Our Polity springs from the conviction that our political parties are poorly positioned for the challenges the US faces. The parties are entrenched bureaucracies, most concerned about their own futures as institutions, with the fate of the Republican Party, in particular, now overshadowing its members’ patriotism and concern for the country.
Our political system need not remain in this state. Throughout time, the electorate’s loyalties have been organized around many other platforms, goals, and ideas. In the early part of our history, firm party loyalties didn’t even exist. Instead, coalitions of voters formed and re-formed dynamically around the most promising ideas and leaders. In the seventy-some years before the Civil War, many political parties and factions came to life, fluidly combining and recombining with others to advance some vital cause or interest, catapulting their standard-bearers to prominence before they died.
Many of our greatest statesmen, including such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Charles Sumner, and Abraham Lincoln, rose to power as the stars of parties that no longer exist. Instead, parties of adherents amassed around their far-seeing talent and ideas, giving them the political power and authority that they needed.
When I’m despondent about the state of American politics today, I think back to these other by-gone parties, which bespeak other ideological visions around which American politics could be organized.
What about the short-lived Whig Party, for example, which flourished in the early 19th century and was a bridge between the too-aristocratic Federalist party (d. circa 1820) and the anti-federal Republican Party (b. circa 1860) we have today? The Whigs were a progressive party: they were pro-business, but they saw federalism as a positive force necessary to bind up the wayward states into a nation that was both powerful and refined. Whigs were sophisticated and cosmopolitan. They stood in opposition to the Democrats, who were the states-rights, laissez-faire proponents of the time. The Whigs championed independence and personal prosperity, but they thought that individual opportunity could be best safeguarded and maximized through the agency of an active federalism. Yet they differed from present-day Democrats in being the foes of corruption and a patronage state.
The constellation of ideas that animated the Whigs is only one instance of a different ideology that Americans could be using to reorganize their politics now. The purpose of political parties is to organize large masses of voters around constructive and unifying national goals. Since both the Democrats and Republicans have lost their power to thrill, rising talents would be wise to conjure up new parties now.
Image: Friedrich Graetz’s 1882 lithograph, “The Political Sodom and Gomorrah Are Doomed to Destruction,” shows the angel of a new party leading political honesty and wisdom out of the fires of public condemnation consuming the Republican and Democratic parties.
From this source.
Can corporate models teach us anything about political change? One of the problems politically active Americans face today is that the Republican and Democratic parties are organized around outmoded ideas (a topic I’ve written a lot about already). Yet what do we know about how to bring new political ideas to market? How do we introduce better ways and ideas to a political marketplace that, for over a century, has been dominated by just two parties?
I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading a smart article by Nick Bilton about Instagram, the digital photo-sharing start-up that Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire. The hallmark of an Instagram is its resemblance to an old-fashioned Polaroid.
What interested Bilton was why a start-up had brought this idea to market, rather than an old-line camera company like Kodak or Polaroid. These were, after all, the towering pioneers of innovative film processing. Polaroid, in particular, had made its name developing a camera and film process that allowed people to make and share their photographs instantly. For decades, Kodak and Polaroid were cash cows, dominating the markets that sprang up around their own innovative technologies.
Yet, amid the onslaught of digital technology, neither proved able to change enough. Though the market for their products had been dwindling for decades, neither company managed to make the transition to digital. Today, both companies are teetering on the brink of death, while Instagram has grown rich and famous on the strength of images with a “Polaroid feel.”
Bilton concluded that the success breeds constraints that make established companies hesitant to embrace the next new idea. Companies become wedded to the ideas that brought them to the top. They develop cultures aimed at perpetuating the gains that have already been made. Having once brought a new idea to market, the resulting business rightly views the next new idea or technology as disruptive.
A company dependent on profits from an existing technology will have trouble compromising that in order to capitalize on the next new thing. As one of Bilton’s sources observes, “It’s tough to change the fan belt when the engine is running.” (And didn’t Bill Gates once admit to being terrified of the next unknown, tinkering with a new idea in his garage?)
The analogy applies to the political scene
This is exactly how I think about the political scene, whose very landscape the Democratic and Republican parties have shaped. These two parties became dominant because, at crucial points in our history, they supplied ideas and platforms that were right for the time. The visions and forms of action they proposed were ones around which millions of citizens could organize.
Support for the major parties is dwindling because they rely on outmoded ideas. They sell products many of us have no interest in buying. An estimated 30 percent of voters are not aligned with either party, making each “major” party a minority.
Yet, structurally, the parties deter competition. Though ideologically moribund, the Republican and Democratic parties are vigorous institutions. They are known entities. They have millions of adherents, and familiar brand names. They’re well capitalized. And they sit atop vast hierarchies of state and local organizations that penetrate into every ward and district of the country. Every political event in the US is understood and described in terms of these two entities, a sure sign of their authority.
These behemoths are more interested in maintaining market share than in changing their offerings. Too much newness carries risk, just as it did for Kodak and Polaroid. There may be a broad constituency out there, clamoring for new political leadership, but the major parties will view as a disruption any force hoping to reinvigorate politics by espousing a new ideology.
The calcified rhetoric of our politicians and their parties is strangely at odds with the political ferment of the time. All around lies evidence of amazing levels of political activism and concern, whether on the left or the right, whether in populist movements like Occupy or the Tea Party, or in the billions of comments, tweets, and posts that Americans generate in political conversation every day.
Unlike in business, how ideas move from the bottom to the top of the political hierarchy is incredibly murky. Yet anyone who wants to get this country into better political shape needs to take an interest in the how of political change.
Image: A Polaroid Land Camera 1000,
courtesy of the photographer, Chris Lüders, from this source.