Lessons You’d Have Thought We’d Learned By Now

“In work relating to the electoral behavior of geographical units… one needs to bring into the equation every scrap of evidence to be had.  V.O. Key, Jr.

The countdown to the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States is now measured in hours, and national polling shows that Donald L. Trump will take office with the lowest popularity rating of any president since Richard Nixon. The months of post-election of second guessing, blamestorming, desperately maneuvering to find some way to stop this inevitability now lie in ruins. Donald Trump, for good or ill, is about to be handed the reins of virtually absolute political power, sitting atop an ideological ziggurat supported by Republican control of both branches of Congress, and poised to soon seize ideological control over the US Supreme Court. Taken together, this is an absolute repudiation of liberal cultural and social values trending back to before the days of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The depth and degree to which this political “revolution” will affect ordinary Americans is completely unknown, but early actions by the Republican Congress point to a potential rescission of virtually every social and economic justice measure enacted in the last forty or more years.

For those of us who are of a different persuasion than the president-elect, this is a defeat theoretically comparable to ancient Middle Eastern wars where the victors destroyed their defeated opponent’s arts and cultural icons -defacing, toppling, and desecrating sacred and cultural artifacts; actions like that of Taliban fanatics in Afghanistan where ancient Buddhist statues were reduced to rubble by artillery in a matter of minutes. Such analogous circumstances are now in the offing for every aspect of our national government; and it will be only a matter of days or weeks before regulations governing environmental protection, health care management, worker safety, minimum and prevailing wage laws, financial industry dealings, minority business opportunities, dispute and conflict resolution, and even weather monitoring and reporting will either disappear or be shifted into the corporatist realm of “privatization.” Congress, through the arcane practice of “budget reconciliation” has already entrained the extinction of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), derisively called “Obamacare,” and in so doing threatens to put between eighteen and twenty million working Americans back to where they were eight years ago, in fear for their livelihoods and families, when they once again become uninsured and uninsurable.

Further, the president-elect has signaled his intentions by appointing billionaires as cabinet secretaries; “Old Guard” apparatchiki as gate keepers and defenders of privilege; family members as ferrets to root out scientists and government workers who propose social and governmental solutions based on science and logic, and not some ideological litmus test; and has installed a white supremacist as his chief policy strategist. Of course, as liberals and (D/d)emocrats we are all appropriately horrified, but the plain fact is that this day of populist reckoning has been long in the making.

In 1969, Republican strategist and academic Kevin P. Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority, called by Newsweek magazine the “Political Bible of the Nixon Era,” in that it recognized and articulated the growing disaffection of Southern and Midwestern states with the direction and policies taken by the Democratic Party. The resulting “Southern Strategy” created new alliances between cultural groupings in the “Heartland” – the Midwest and Central US – and the newly converted Republican South.  During this same period, the Democratic Party came to focus more heavily on urban concentrations in the Northeast, parts of the “Upper Midwest” Great Lakes States, and the Pacific coast, essentially surrendering territory just as normative cultural values shifted permanently from “Yellow Dog” Democratic racism to an archly conservative Republican militarism.

Concurrent with Phillips’ book, other academics and cultural commentators weighed in on the implications of these shifts in cultural values. Theodore Lowi’s 1969 and 1979 (2nd ed.) polemic The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States described and challenged “interest group liberalism” as a factor undermining the United States’ historical patterns of capitalistic, self-interested governance, asserting that the shift gave give rise to a fractured society where collectivist special interests would be able to demand special treatment for real or alleged grievances. Lowi’s criticism included the rise of the “Imperial Executive Presidency,” and relegation of both Congress and the Court System to merely advisory roles, and the attendant disregard for formalistic and stabilizing judicial and juridical rules. The upshot, he argued, was that the shift to resolving issues for individual interest groups as opposed to ruling more disinterestedly and broadly would undermine citizen confidence in their government and result in an open distrust of the institutions.

Lowi offered a four count “indictment” of interest group liberalism:

  1. Interest group liberalism as public philosophy corrupts democratic government because it deranges and confuses expectations about democratic institutions.
  2. Interest group liberalism renders government impotent.
  3. Interest group liberalism demoralizes government, because liberal governments cannot achieve justice.
  4. Interest group liberalism corrupts democratic government in the degree to which it weakens the capacity of those governments to live by democratic formalisms. (Emphasis added.)

By the mid-1980s, Phillips’ Southern states forecast had become a reality as partisans shifted from historical segregationist and “Jim Crow” policies of the pre-Civil War and post-Reconstruction Democratic Party, to the “softer” racism of the GOP. In 1984 political scientist Alexander P. Lamis published The Two-Party South that examined critical shifts in political attitudes in the eleven states that made up the Confederate States of America; and while each reacted in subtly different ways to the changes brought about by passage of the Civil Rights Act and related laws, the underlying shift in values was uniform in rejecting the federal government’s attempt to create a level socio-economic and political playing field for disenfranchised African-Americans. Other changes to the political landscape – the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade (1973), the rise of Christian identity politics, America’s apparent loss of the Vietnam War, and Ronald Reagan’s truculent spending war with the Soviet Union – added emotional fuel to an already disaffected white society and enabled what would become, in 1994, the “Angry White Man” vote that swept the GOP to congressional power and ushered in the era of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”

In 1986, another political scientist and avowed Democrat, Ralph M. Goldman, released Dilemma and Destiny: The Democratic Party in America, an insightful and critical analysis of the scattered and disorganized nature of the party as it sought to recast itself as a relevant social and economic justice entity. Goldman’s conclusion pointed to the need for the Democrats to reconcile their disputes or risk becoming a fragmented coalition of Lowi’s interest group liberals. He called for an aggressive party recruitment effort that recognized the disparate nature of emergent groups from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s – feminists, people of color, environmental activists, the LGBTQ communities, alternative religious and/or lifestyle groups, – and creation of mutually agreeable goals and objectives and making a clear statement of fundamental values. Goldman further recommended that platform and Democratic Party policies and programs should become an on-going grassroots effort, not just something done at two and/or four year intervals. He concluded his analysis with an almost prescient statement:

“Democrats will continue to fight like hell among themselves…. Factional battles will be marked, as usual, by inadequate information and ideological rigidity. The greater risk here is not the scars of the internecine fighting but rather the prospect that the factional winner will be unrepresentative of the Democratic electorate.”  (Emphasis added.)

In 1996, then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking in defense of her husband on a nationally televised talk show, said that there was a “vast right wing conspiracy” to attack and discredit Bill Clinton’s presidency in the aftermath of the GOP’s efforts to impeach him. Subsequently, Clinton himself said that the same conspiracy, albeit in a “weakened” form, was trying to do to Barack Obama what had been done to him. That conspiracy, already understood by most political observers, has proven to be fiercely effective given their ongoing efforts at “disinformation,” false narratives, Russian state and independent criminal hacking of partisan electronic data, and unparalleled lies that became part of the everyday discourse of the 2015-2016 campaign season. Secretary Clinton’s conspirators are known to be a small handful of very rich individuals – the Koch Brothers, Sherman Adelson, Richard Mellon Scaife, Roger Ailes – and considering the anonymity guaranteed by the SCOTUS Citizens United decision granting “personhood” to faceless corporations, conceivably even some of the men and women the president-elect has chosen as his cabinet secretaries. In one sense, it is already too late to protest these hidden manipulators who have deployed their wealth and dispatched their minions to discredit liberal and progressive politicians, and even liberal ideas, and in so doing have built entire political machines from the faux news industry to “alt-right” movements grounded in extreme interpretations of biblical scripture and the Constitution of the United States. By stoking the fires of the last forty years of “Cultural Warfare,” these individuals have been able to sway entire regions of the country to their extreme social and ideological world views, and have built a remarkable list of political forces that includes control of thirty-three (33) governors’ chairs, thirty-one (31) state legislatures, and seven (7) with split Republican/Democratic control, compared to the Democrats’ seventeen (17) governors, and eleven (11) state legislatures.

Pointedly, given the mounting tide of hostile GOP legislators, lobbyists, and phony propaganda outlets, and in following Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s “triangulation” on corporatist issues in order to keep their presidencies meaningful, the Democratic Party bought into corporatism and neo-liberalism as an alternative to its post-World War II record of fighting for equality of opportunities for those less well off in society. That significant change resulted in campaign and financial standards and practices that tipped the scales against non-corporatist candidates, and denied them opportunities to fairly compete against establishment figures.  Those same practices eliminated new ideas and approaches to governance, and marginalized the Party’s historical constituencies – including a significant percentage of Democrats who voted for the president-elect.

The point of this essay should be apparent to any of us who still hold to the “old” liberal traditions. We saw this coming (or should have given the painfully obvious maneuverings and body of electoral data) and frittered away our chance to counter these trends, preferring to operate, as Lowi condescendingly calls us, as interest group liberals, picking and choosing the causes we favored and becoming marginalized “Five Percent” voters, narrowly applying our own litmus tests, and opposing competent politicians unless they were one hundred percent behind our narrower goals and objectives, and who, when not satisfied with a solution to an issue, stayed home on election day.

In the days following the 2016 election, much was made of the “populist” uprising that brought Donald Trump into power, with pundits and pollsters alike being “surprised” at the angry backlash of millions of Americans who shouted out their anger, frustration, and open distrust of their government. Subsequent thoughtful discussion from the political left and center has called for a better understanding of that angry multitude, and the forces that gave rise to their hostility. While a better appreciation for this casus belli is certainly necessary, in the months since the election it has become increasingly clear that while many Democratic legislators will stand in opposition to the new president’s dangerous agenda, the Democrat Party establishment has not and will not engage in that kind of introspection, preferring instead to seek ways to “work with” the incoming regime; and this is where the party will ultimately fail.

The reactionary anger of Trump voters’ has been inculcated, deliberately cultivated over several decades, and is made the more dangerous because that political class lacks the education and political sophistication to understand the ramifications of its actions, and because the groups have shown a genuine willingness to tear down the current, flawed system so that it can be replaced with “simpler” nationalistic solutions; and it is here that the Democratic Party must recognize the damage done because of their disengagement from their rank and file, and renew efforts to make direct, meaningful contact with those who now feel disenfranchised once again by the “Angry White Men’s vote.”  Failure to move quickly and effectively to counter that challenge will either result in the demise of the party itself, or the far greater disappointment if becomes a mere satellite of antigovernment corporatism or its more terrifying big brother, fascism.

At this point in history I’m not convinced that the Democratic Party in America can change sufficiently to save itself. Broadly written, the Party is a day late and a dollar short, and in temporizing over issues arising from the GOP’s lopsided control of all branches of the national government, it will only become weaker and more irrelevant. If it cannot refocus on building grassroots organizations from its historic constituencies in the next two years, to absolutely dominate the mid-term elections and take back voter apportionment control, it will leave the field wide open for other interests to build competing organizations that will likely be little more than Lowi’s “interest group liberals,” and Goldman’s factionalized internecine warriors.

There may be an alternative, however, for others to build what Goldman suggested in the 1980s – a genuinely transnational political party. Such a multinational/regional partisan organization, willing and able to work across national boundaries by sharing common agendas dealing with global climate change, natural resources management and environmental protection, international human rights, guest worker and immigrant inter- and intra-national trade, e-commerce and information sharing, public health and pandemic disease management, and other such circumstances might serve to rebalance the scales for resident workers, the socially and politically disenfranchised, and refugees fleeing economic and environmental disasters.

And for the scoffers out there, it’s useful to reflect that the pending Trades in Services Agreement (TiSA) and its companions, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) treaties are corporatist versions of what Goldman originally proposed. Some international and trans-border agreements already exist, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that opened US boundaries to the transshipment of oil, grain, imported steel, and a host of other products manufactured in low-wage countries, and others of a far more beneficial nature (i.e., NATO, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the European Space Agency (ESA), etc.) that already provide the impetus to organize workers, small businesses, technology experts, and even academics into a partisan force capable of advocating in its own interest and not subject to the string pulling of corporatists and an increasingly dysfunctional federal government. Who knows, perhaps a North American Transnational Party might serve to rebalance the scales for worker and citizen equity and justice?

Above all, whatever form the new political party takes, it will have as its first priorities confronting entrenched racism, classism, and the deliberate “dumbing down” of American voters. The task is daunting, but it is critically important if we are to relight the lamp of American freedom and justice – for all.

Postscript January 22, 2017

The overwhelming success of the Women’s Marches in Washington, DC , nationwide, and globally, point to the greatest possible means of reversing the threat of the “Novus Ordo Profanum,” if the women return to their communities energized and prepared to take action on a community, regional, and statewide basis.  Rebuilding the Democratic Party or building a new political organization that aims at taking back state legislatures, governors’ offices, and control of the apportionment processes by 2018 means that following the 2020 census, new lines can be drawn that are just and equitable and enfranchise all voters.  What is central to regaining responsible control of our society must be a hardcore pragmatism that requires discipline, compromise, and an end to what Merwyn Ambrose (Mark Grober) calls “Litmus Liberalism.”