Monday, January 25, 2016

Climate of Change

“I was there. In 1992, Bill Clinton promised such reform but once elected didn’t want to spend political capital on it. In 2008, Barack Obama made the same promise (remember the Employee Free Choice Act?) but never acted on it. Partly as a result, union membership sunk from 22 percent of all workers when Bill Clinton was elected president to fewer than 12 percent today, and the working class lost bargaining leverage to get a share of the economy’s gains. In addition, the Obama administration protected Wall Street from the consequences of the Street’s gambling addiction through a giant taxpayer-funded bailout, but let millions of underwater homeowners drown.”
—Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, writing on on Thursday
Back in primary school, when I first began learning about political systems, we were taught that the United States was superior to countries like the Soviet Union because they had one-party rule and in America it was possible for “anyone” to become president.

The reality is, of course, that while some countries may have one-party rule—thereby severely restricting the possible paths to leadership—the U.S. has two-party rule. So rather than one party having a monopoly on power, two parties have a duopoly. That means the path to leadership is still pretty restricted—just not as much as in a one-party system.

Some Americans actually believe that the two-party system is enshrined in the Constitution. It is not. But it is easy to see how people could get that idea. Journalists and commentators invariably speak of the two-party system in the same way as they would of any of the institutions that are actually defined in the Constitution. But that document does not address political parties at all. The fact that the only viable avenue to the presidency is through either the Democratic or the Republican party is entirely the work of the country’s political class.

In other western democracies, political parties come and go. For example, for many years Ireland had a rather vibrant Green Party which very quickly hurled itself into oblivion when it made the disastrous decision to go into coalition government with Fianna Fáil, one of the two center-right parties that have dominated Irish government since the founding of the modern nation. Fianna Fáil itself has very nearly gone into oblivion because of its handling of the previous decade’s financial crisis.

There has never been much chance that the U.S.’s Democratic or Republican party would go out of existence or be supplanted by a new party. The last time that happened was in the early 19th century when the anti-slavery Republicans consigned the Whigs to oblivion. Since then years of an ever-growing edifice of election laws have pretty much guaranteed that no new movement could realistically challenge the two quasi-official parties. There have been attempts at independent and third-party candidacies, but at the presidential level they have never stood a chance.

So when a new political movement is born and grows, its only realistic path is to begin by taking over one of the established political parties. At the moment that is what seems to be going on to some extent in both parties. The country seems to be aligning itself into new categories of political, social and cultural thinking and, in the process, individual citizens are trying to figure out where they fit in the current political system as it exists. To the national media, which always takes a top-down view of politics, this looks like each of the parties going through its own sort of identity crisis. What is really happening, however, is that various currents of political thought are playing a game of musical chairs where the rules have been rigged to provide only two chairs.

Way back in August (yes, this campaign has really been dragging on exactly as long as it seems to have done) I confessed to having no idea where all those Trump supporters were coming from. I am still not certain whether I have a clear idea, but I do have a definite impression based on reading what people who are supposed to know about these things have discerned. Despite the media’s tendency to treat both political parties as stable, finite groups of people, the reality is that many individuals do not participate in the political process at all and quite a few of those that do can shift between one party and the other. What seems to have been happening (if what I am reading is accurate) is that much of the support Donald Trump has been amassing has come from people who had not been that active politically. Or, in the terms used by the media, he is attracting “new” voters to the Republican party. And who are these new voters? By and large they seem to be the same people that many of us assumed were Republican voters already, that is, white blue-collar types. This is roughly the group that once were referred to by Democrats as labor voters and, more recently, were dubbed “Reagan Democrats” because they switched to supporting the GOP in the 1980s.

We should stop pretending (as journalists and political operatives like to do) that the two parties are cohesive organizations with narrow ideological boundaries. They are both fairly broad and diverse coalitions. Increasingly, the Democratic coalition has comprised minority groups, affluent well-educated types and intellectual/academic types, including students. It used to also include union workers, but increasingly that segment has dwindled to mainly government employees since private sector unions have shrunk drastically. And because, frankly, labor has not really done that well under the Obama administration. African-Americans have not done that well economically under Obama either, but at least they are not at risk of defecting. They are at risk, however, of turning out in fewer numbers on election and caucus days.

So who does that leave for the Republicans? Well, basically the aforementioned white blue-collar types as well as small and medium-sized business people, rural residents and generally people who are ideologically conservative. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s enough for the GOP to have been dominating Congress and state and local offices for the past several years. Democrats have had the White House for the past two terms only because Barack Obama was able to motivate members of the Democratic coalition who are not always reliable voters.

The oft-repeated conventional wisdom has been that only someone really conservative could get the Republican nomination anymore. But Trump’s positions do not always map consistently with conservatism as we usually understand it. (See how Ted Cruz’s debate jab about “New York values” fell flat.) Moreover, it was always assumed that someone who outraged whole groups of people, as Trump has done, would be understood instinctively by Republican voters to be un-electable and therefore disqualified. But those assumptions made sense only in the media-fed view of static political parties. They have turned out to be false because the Republican party is not static. Because of the Trump phenomenon, the GOP is changing and potentially growing. And the so-called “establishment” (really, the donor class and professional conservative thinkers and writers) is doing its best to stop this change.

Meanwhile, changes within the Democratic party are less severe but no less striking. There actually seems to be a growing rift between the sub-coalition of minorities and the political establishment (read the Clintons and other professional politicians who mainly just want to win elections) and the white affluent/intellectual/academic wing of the party. The latter group have surprised themselves by actually falling more and more in love with Bernie Sanders or, rather, in love with the feeling of liberation that comes with actually standing up unequivocally for their desire to see the U.S. become more like social-democratic Europe. For them, that feeling of liberation is akin to what Trump supporters feel when they hear their candidate say things that send network anchors and pundits into a tizzy.

Intra-coalition stresses are generally normal during a primary campaign, and in the end everyone usually comes together with the motivation of keeping the other guys out. That is probably what will happen with the Democrats again this time, although this time around the stresses do seem fairly pronounced. As for the Republican party, it is hard to see how it comes out of this primary season without becoming seriously transformed. But will the Trump faction actually gain control of the party or will the party fracture?

Looking further ahead to the general election in November, given the increasing polarizaton between those who are Sanders-minded on one end of the spectrum and those who are Trump-minded on the other, it is hard to see how a large portion of the electorate does not come out of it feeling extremely alienated and completely uninvested in the success of the next administration.

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