From our earliest days, the American political system has been both burdened with and challenged by a dynamic tension. Much of this tension was - and still is - between those who greatly prefer a strong central government and those who strongly contend that, with few exceptions, power should always reside within the individual states - that the closer power is to the people, the better it is. This tension was largely responsible for both the establishment of our bicameral legislature - in which all states have equal representation in the Senate but proportional representation in the House - and our idiosyncratic, rara avis Electoral College.
In the beginning, it was the conservatives - the "Federalists" - who favored a strong central government, while the more liberal - who called themselves "Democratic Republicans" (also known as "Jeffersonian Republicans") - who greatly preferred decentralization of power and authority. Today, of course, it is mostly the opposite; conservatives favor decentralization ("States Rights") while liberals have a tendency to prefer a system in which power radiates from Washington ("Federalism"). Ironically, the modern "Federalist Society," while like their eponymous forebears are deeply conservative, are ideologically far closer to the original Jeffersonian Republicans who, as mentioned above, were in their day quite liberal.
Throughout history, old parties have morphed into new; names have changed, and various geographic sections and groups have changed allegiances. From time to time a new party will arise, elect a few people running under their banner and then disappear into the historic vapors. "Know Nothings," (a largely-anti-immigrant party) "Socialist Labor," and the "America Labor Party" come to mind. A merger between the "National Republicans" and the "Anti-Masons" in post-Jacksonian America resulted in the Whig Party, which supported the supremacy of Congress over the Presidency; within twenty years (and four presidents), they would be replaced by the anti-slavery Republican Party. When my Southern grandparents were born in the late 19th century, their part of the country was firmly Democratic, while the North was largely a Republican ("Party of Lincoln") stronghold. That was then . . .
When LBJ signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Medicare Act in 1965, the "solid south" began leaving the Democratic fold in droves, finding a new home in the party of Nixon, Reagan, Bush (I and II) and now Trump. Then too, for at least three generations, urban blue-collar workers and members of labor unions were joined at the hip with the party of FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson et al. As of 2016, many blue-collar workers are voting for Republicans, feeling that their former party has been taken over by coastal elitists who cannot - and do not - feel their fear, share their values, or understand their frustration. Some groups - Jews, recent immigrants and people of color - have remained largely in the Democratic column for at least a half century. But if there is anything American political history teaches us, it is that nothing is forever; alliances and preferences can and do shift. Sometimes the movement is evolutionary; sometimes it is revolutionary. Uniquely, 2016 has been a combination of both.
Depending on where one sits, Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton was either a stunning or a chilling upset. But regardless of the adjective - and I can come up with a couple of dozen others - it was a victory which caught virtually every pollster, pundit and politico (myself obviously included) by surprise. As with last week's essay, this one is certainly not meant to be a forensic autopsy; that's really not in my skill set. What I do know is that both Donald Trump and Senator Sanders did a better job of tapping into the psyche of America than did Secretary Clinton. Of course, their methods and manners were decidedly bi-polar: Trump, on the one hand, inflamed a substantial portion of the electorate by pushing buttons marked "fear," and "frustration" while blaming political insiders and migrant newcomers for making America unrecognizable, all the while making faces, calling people names and promising to "Make America Great Again." Nowhere, of course, did he mention what "again" meant; to what time, year or era he was referring. The Reagan years? The time of Ozzie and Harriet? The days of Jim Crow?
Senator Sanders, on the other hand, stayed both on message and above the fray, energizing a new emerging generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings wanting not a hand-out (as warned Mr. Trump), but a hand up. Trump's abrasive boastfulness was as attractive to some as was Sanders' rumpled avuncularity to others. And yet, for all their differences, they both did manage to strike a resilient energizing chord.
I've spoken and corresponded with a lot of people from both sides of the political aisle since November 8th. It goes without saying that most, if not all Democrats are stunned, depressed and fearful for the future of the country. Few of the Republicans feel like dancing in the streets. They are under no illusion that President-elect Trump is the real deal; in fact, most seem to sense that he is a one-trick pony - a blowhard who knows precious little and appears to be without curiosity. About all they can say in a positive way is "At least he's not Hillary Clinton!" In other words, few people are satisfied, let alone optimistic. And, seeing who the President Elect has already named to his team - 5 while males, one of whom is an anti-Semitic misogynist, one an out-and-out racist, and one a war monger who still believes going into Iraq was the right thing to do - see this is giving the shakes to those who held their nose and voted for him. Precisely how well - or poorly - Congressional Republicans will work with a Trump White House remains to be seen. Many are looking at the calendar, hearing the tick, tick, tick of the political clock and worrying about their own political fate.
Among Democrats, there is already an understandable scramble underway to reshape the party in time for the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections, which will take place in respectively, 685 and 1,419 days. In my opinion, there are several things Democrats must do in order to have a chance to save the country:
First, Democrats must get away from a politics that is based on groups or identity ("we need to get more Millennials; we a higher percentage of women; we must revive support among union members; we must hold on to the support of Jews, Hispanics and African Americans . . .") and get back the politics of message ("It's the economy stupid; we must save the planet; we will push even harder for universal healthcare; we will not go gentle into that good night . . .").
Second, Democrats must broaden their approach and appeal to everyone - regardless of party or lack thereof - everyone who fears Trump's immature demagoguery and convince them that repairing a broken system requires a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. It is my firm belief that a few months of living in Trumpland, of having this maniac be the face of America, will make more and more people long for leaders who are measured, mature, classy and professional.
Third, and this is perhaps unthinkable to many, we should all consider the possibility of creating a new political party; not a third party, but a new second party - one which will encompass those who supported Bernie Sanders, those who respected and supported the maturity and accomplishments of Hillary Clinton, those who cannot abide Donald Trump and those who are fed up with leadership by conspiracy theory, fear, threats and a total disregard for decency. Secretary Clinton was absolutely correct when she said "We are stronger together." Expanding our understanding of who the political "we" is may be the answer.
I know it's both heretical and unthinkable, but seriously consider this: perhaps the time has come to (re) party. It wouldn't be the first time.
What do you think?
Copyright©2016 Kurt F. Stone