Cynicism is probably the most common response to politics these days. It’s difficult to defend one’s one political party as it struggles with scandal, bad decisions or failed leadership. A common response is to assume the other political party is no better. This is precisely what happened in the Trump/Clinton election. Both candidates carried significant political baggage, but a large number of voters simply refused to rank one against the other. Some opted out and others voted for marginal third party candidates. Still others just threw their support to their party, hoping the party leadership would constrain the worse impulses of the candidate. From this cynicism and a lot luck, we now have Trump.
Now with Trump’s victory, the mutual blame continues. Republicans control all three branches of government, but democrats share the blame of government inaction, corruption and bloat.
First of all I don’t agree with this assessment. I believe it’s important that we dive deeper, adapt more sophisticated analysis and be open to the possibility that one party at different times behaves worse than the other.
Just some quick table-setting first. All institutions are problematic, corrupt to degrees, and flawed. It’s a truism that none of us are perfect, so obviously the institutions we lead are not going to be perfect either. This isn’t an all or nothing analysis. There are degrees and degradations. We must be willing to dive deeper. We will always vote for the lesser of two evils if we admit that all of us have a bit of evil within us (or the greater of two goods for the optimists among us).
Second, given the nature of our constitutional system, we are stuck with two main political parties. Given this, the ideology of one party tends to dominate at certain points in our history. The other party tends to act as a moderating pragmatic force, tempering the majority party’s excesses. Even as the government’s control alternates, the nation’s political center tends to move the country forward in a fairly consistent direction, prompting some to believe there is no real difference between the two parties, further cementing some of the assumptions outlined above.
To lay this out a bit, let me give a very brief, very high level political history. In the first half of the twentieth century, as the United States transitioned into a global power, helping to lead and win two devastating world wars, culminating in the defeat of European fascism and large parts of the world’s transition to communism. In addition because of the devastating effects of a global depression, the US political center shifted toward globalism, communist containment and the expansion of the safety net. Roosevelt and then later Johnson brought us social security, medicare, medicaid and other government programs that are now broadly popular and have helped alleviate the worse effects of poverty, especially among the elderly. Meanwhile, communist containment and democratic European alignment has been the central strategy of our foreign policy from Roosevelt to Reagan. So, our policies and general political direction stayed on a relatively consistent course as we moved through Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.
But the devastations of the Vietnam War, the gains of the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and political scandal started to wear down that consensus. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were weak attempt to maintain the status quo.
But it was Ronald Reagan that led the country into a new era, moving the political center in a conservative direction. During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the marginal tax rates for the highest bracket was at 70%, the economy was experiencing both high inflation and slow economic growth. Significant tax cuts, especially at the highest marginal rates, regulatory rollbacks, increased global trade, and a decreased concern for our national debt helped increased market supply, decrease inflation, and move the country out of recession. The Soviet Union’s collapse and the end of the cold war basically eliminated communism as a global concern.
Further, gains in black civil rights lowered the temperature on that issue while the 1970’s excesses of the sexual revolution placed cultural war issues front and center. Ronald Reagan represented a return to patriotism, free markets, and family values. Being accused a liberal became an insult.
This move to conservatism hurt George Bush Sr. losing a second term primarily because he momentarily worried about growing debt and raised taxes after promising he wouldn’t. Bill Clinton in his first two years, tried to expand access to health care, tried and failed and then lost Congress in a wave election in 1994. America would not tolerate a step back to pre-Reagan liberalism. Not yet. He spent the remaining six years of office with the strategy of triangulation, keeping tax rates relatively low while rolling back, if only moderately, the social safety net with welfare reform, then siding with the conservatives on the cultural wars with don’t ask/don’t tell, and tacking to the right on crime, with his crime bill.
In the new century, the world shifted yet again and quickly. Globalization, automation, increased global wealth, wealth inequality, and an increased dependence on consumer debt. In this new century, a dot com bubble led the world right into the real estate bubble which led to what could have been another great global depression.
The political history in this new century has been a difficult one. The Republican party so far has been holding tight to Reaganism even as its relevance in this new world seems less obvious. How far can you keep cutting marginal tax rates for the rich? How much does this continue to make sense in an era of massive inequality? How much debt can a country really take without serious consequences. Our security threats have become decentralized. All the super-powers are more or less on our side. China’s economy has modernized as its markets have become freer.
Bush’s presidency was marked by 9/11, the single biggest terrorist attack on US soil, pulled off by a ragtag set of terrorists set up in the failed state of Afghanistan. The reaction mired our military ever since in both Afghanistan and then Iraq, setting off tribal war that has engulfed much of the middle east, burning brightly in Syria today.
Obama tried to respond to the new realities with new ideas. Riding high on a momentous victory in 2008, with super-majorities in Congress, he tried to move the country left, proposing a solution to the problem of rising health care costs and decreased access to it with what he felt was a market-based solution. The blow-back was immediate. Although, Obama got a first version of his healthcare passed, a Republican Congress take-over in 2010, halted further progress, and then a Trump victory in 2016 crippled it further.
In summary, given the electoral college map, the concentration of liberals on the coasts and in cities, giving rural areas more relative power than their populations would indicate, Reagan economics and 1960’s style religious conservatism is still political center slightly right. But the data isn’t good in this regard. Debt is growing; economic inequality is growing; automation, trade and globalization has cut into job security; and the demographics of our country is trending less white, less protestant, less religious and more secular. The political center is slowly moving left.
The Trump presidency is a reflection of that. In some sense, Trump’s presidency and the rise of the alt-right comes from a sense of a looming loss. Trump’s version of “Make America Great Again”, seemed much less about strengthening our country to meet its current problems, and more about trying to make America look a lot more like it used to look in the 1950’s – white, protestant, with large factories and mines re-employing the working class who increasingly are finding themselves with few employment options.
His presidency wasn’t really won on Reagan principles at all. Trumpism is national and tribal. He ran on trade wars, strong borders, and more prisons. He felt that the US was in decline and was being played as a global sucker. But Reaganism is the central guiding philosophy of the RNC. So, they made a wager. The RNC would support Trump, as long as Trump appointed conservative judges and signed their legislation.
So, where does this lead my judgment of the two parties? In many ways, it’s still a work in progress. Some hoped Obama would be the Democratic Reagan. Permanently moving the political center left. This could have happened if the Democrats would have won in 2016. Trump was a hail marry to stop it. And its worked for a while as the Republicans are doing all they can to reverse most of what Obama spent 8 years building.
But it’s a reactionary, impulsive desperate attempt to not think about the world as it actually is.
I’m not saying the DNC is in great shape. In some sense the Trump presidency is hurting the DNC as well. But it’s not clear yet. The DNC has two choices. To wait the current moment out. Continuing Obama’s first steps toward a soft turn left, finding ways to address global and domestic problems with a safety net, a tax code and a government designed for the modern day.
I’m not sure how this will end up. But as it stands, the RNC is in worse shape than the DNC, but there is more work on both sides.