American Politics for the 21st Century

Published June 4, 2018 in Warp & Woof

American Politics for the 21st Century
Making the Old New Again
William Sundwick
Something has happened to the American political order in the last few years – both before and since the last Presidential election. Neither major political party is “your father’s” Democratic or Republican Party. Partisans in both parties are convinced that the nation they were taught to love and cherish is in grave danger. Yet, no clear signs of a path forward are visible. Is the reality of party politics so different from past elections? Or, are differences merely more amplified now, since the political center seems to have collapsed? How much time do we have to get our house in order? Does it even matter? And, if it does, what can we do?
I maintain that it does matter, and time is short enough that we must begin now to cement our legacy. We need to prepare the next generation of Americans for their ultimate responsibility — saving the Republic!
What happened?

It’s a fuzzy timeline, but sometime during the Carter administration (late ‘70s), the Democratic Party started its long, slow disintegration. At first, it was mostly about Democratic voters disenchanted with a lot of semi-amateurish pols clumsy at maneuvering the machinery of government and diplomacy (Hamilton Jordan, Zbigniew Brzezinksi).  Only when Carter lost his re-election bid, after a primary challenge from Ted Kennedy, did it become clear that bad things were happening in the Party. Ronald Reagan was given the undeserved gift of an opposition increasingly embroiled in its own internal dissensions. Those only increased in intensity through the 1980s. A three-way election in 1992 allowed the ultimate Democratic assassin, Bill Clinton, to emerge as the unlikely party leader. His “Third Way” centrist cabal, touted as the Democratic Party of the “future,” amounted to the Party’s surrender of principles going back to the New Deal and Great Society.
Meanwhile, a new ideology was growing in America. It was an ideology from the right. As the Cold War waned, all those John Birch Society anti-communist hawks needed a new target. They had money, mostly from oil. Their money was behind Goldwater in the sixties, too, but wasn’t as well-organized then. The Koch brothers became the new czars of the movement. They bought influence and politicians. They even bought academic institutions (like the Libertarian economics department at George Mason University here in Virginia).

Simultaneously, perhaps due to some of the same money (no evidence here – just my conspiracy theory), many religious denominations — including factions of the College of Cardinals — found success by touting fundamentalist, very conservative social interpretations of America. Protestants called themselves “Evangelical” – as in spreading the Gospel – but were, in fact, spreading a quite different theology than other Christian and Jewish religious traditions.
Both groups shared a common seething anger at the established social order. They became obsessed with a radical “burn the house down” apocalyptic vision. Only true believers would be lifted up in the “shining city on the hill” that President Reagan referenced. The others be damned!
Thus, the conservative “revolution” had two legs – Libertarian-oriented billions from the Koch’s and others, and devoted religious followers of many denominations, especially in the heartland and the South. Only the third leg was missing — an appealing messenger. Reagan was soothing, George W. Bush was folksy – but, it took Donald Trump to make the message visceral!
Hadn’t Obama’s two terms undone any of this? Nope. He, and the Democratic Party, were far too devoted to compromise. His “Kumbaya moments” with Republicans continued to seal the fate of progressivism in the Democratic Party that began in the Clinton years.
Are We Really in Decline?

Many Americans are in a political funk these days. They feel separated from the power structure and are resentful of it. Democracy as an ideology seems to be in decline– not just in the U.S., but around the world. Much of it has to do with the colossal growth in the power of multinational corporations. They seem to be a higher sovereignty than the nations that host them. And, they are not necessarily public, either.  They may be closely held, even family owned. The Trump Organization and Kushner family enterprises are not atypical around the world. Still, much of the world’s population is now focusing its hopes and aspirations on these corporate powers, not their own country. It’s called “globalization.” And, it has its own political ideology – known as “neoliberalism.” Neoliberals have no national allegiances, but only worship the global market. True enough, this ideology promotes international peace, but tends to exacerbate class and race warfare. It may even have created a counter-ideology, “neo-Marxism,”
While much of the world is now experiencing a great expansion of their economies, largely because of the new global order, it’s notable that they are mostly countries with non-whitepopulations (not Europeans and white Americans). Racial conflict ensues. White folks don’t generally have rising expectations these days.
But, if we remain objective about the world’s condition, we must acknowledge that the bulk of the world population improving its lives is a net plus, right? It’s just that in a zero-sum game some will be losers. Even if it’s not a zero-sum game, people may be hard to convince. After all, their own experience hasn’t given them much hope, lately. Also, powerful interests outside the global power structure want to take advantage of these fears. They include some members of the military class, who would benefit from armed conflict, some religious groups who would also benefit from that “us vs. them” rubric, and political demagogues who win by inflaming the emotions of self-perceived “losers.”
American politics is now at the point where we need to give a sober assessment of what we really want to preserve about our society. Is it participatory democracy? Civil and human rights? Freedom of expression? We may need some targeted priorities for the next few election cycles.
Whatever happened to third parties in America?

Politics in the United States has been dominated by two parties since the earliest days of the Republic. When either of the two main parties loses too often, so that a large portion of their supporters feels they must leave, third parties emerge. This happened to the Federalists, who died and were replaced by Whigs, who later cast off their anti-abolitionist constituencies and emerged as Republicans. Socialists, influenced by Marx and others, popped up in the late 19th century, then were co-opted by Democrats in the New Deal era.
In the mid-twentieth century, a traditionally Democratic constituency of white folks in the South (Democrats since Andrew Jackson) split off from the New Deal national Democratic Party when it became too concerned about racial equality. Dixiecrats, and George Wallace’s American Independent Party, were third parties until co-opted by Nixon’s national Republican Party.
Meanwhile, other Republicans, alienated by this new direction in their party, bolted to form a Libertarian Party (in 1992, Pierrot’s Independent presidential bid was Libertarian without the name). Ralph Nader formed a Green Party for the 2000 election, which never achieved a coherent ideology, mostly co-opted by the Democrats.
 Depending on the strength of the group bolting from the major party, the third parties either replace the old party, or are co-opted by a major party. This is American political history. The 2016 election campaign was another chapter in this saga. The Republican Party was captured by an outsider, who had no long association with the Party, and the Democratic Party was once again rent by internal disaffection. The ultimate losing formula for them was the product of a bitter primary fight – reminiscent of the 1980 rift between the “Carterites” and “Kennedyites.” In both cases, the strength of the insurgents was enough to sap the ultimate nominee of the support needed to win. The Republican Party had the good sense to avoid such open warfare — the “NeverTrumpians” voices didn’t rise to the same pitch as the Democrats’ divisions.
Now, Donald Trump’s Party, despite being only the party of white people, commands all those who wear the Republican label. It is not too fringy, nor too racist, nor too extreme by any measure, if you are intent upon avoiding voting for a Democrat. There are no significant third parties in America today.
The Wave Theory of Politics

Americans like divided government, checks and balances seem to have historical appeal. That’s why off-year midterm elections generally favor the opposition party. Voters don’t have enough trust in either party to put all their eggs in that one basket. In recent memory, 1986, 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2014 all support this hypothesis. 
The idea of a pendulum swinging, always seeking equilibrium – the middle ground – works in physics but is questionable in politics. The alternate model of politics is that the pendulum swings proportional to force applied, not necessarily seeking the middle. It’s not gravity that determines its motion. This model allows for anger and frustration of voters, and simple boredom — what do we have to lose? Let’s burn it down and see what happens!
Which model you choose depends on your assessment of how much time we have. If we are racing toward the Apocalypse, putting a finger in the dike may have limited value. But, if we place our faith in social engineering solutions — tuning here and tweaking there — we may avert the total collapse of civilization, even if forced to choose which features we really care about saving. Planetary disasters from climate change, mass extinctions, and nuclear war may be avoidable with the proper attention to engineering, either technological or social.
Then, there is the position of social resignation, the apocalyptic vision. Yes, civilization as we know it may come to an end sooner rather than later, but in the fullness of God’s plan, something will replace it. All empires have finite lifespans– the Roman Empire lasted only about 400 years, the British Empire barely 200. How much more time can we reasonably expect for the American Empire? We typically see American Evangelical Protestants subscribing to this position but insist THEY will be the ones to prevail in the end.
The youngsters

When I look at the world, and especially American politics, I see a future populated by people younger than me. I see my kids in charge. I think they have what it takes to make that old optimism new again. Their idealism surpasses my own. It comes from knowing what they want, and how things should be, and in part from their innocence. That’s not a bad thing. Their clarity of vision correctly identifies obfuscation as an excuse for compromise.
I’ve seen them in action in political campaigns. They are willing to put in the hours and the shoe leather needed for grassroots support of candidates they believe in. Of course, all this is subject to change once they find themselves in power. Compromising their principles will become a matter of survival, and quid pro quoarrangements will sap their youthful energy. Getting their candidate into office may prove to be a lesser challenge than staying there!
But, still, their values appear to be those I’m proudest to pass on. After all, they have a lot more at stake in the future than I do!

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