America's two-party system served it well in the past. The Constitution says nothing about political parties, but they emerged soon after the Revolution to provide peaceful channels for the young nation's conflicting energies. As long as the new Constitutional protections remained in force, parties helped keep political strife within manageable bounds until the middle of the nineteenth century, when everything broke down and blew apart in civil war. War, as it usually does, settled matters for a time, and the United States entered into a period of sustained economic growth during which people on all sides and sectors recognized how much they had to gain from developing America's rich economic potential. There were ups and downs, but political differences once again for the most part took a back seat to the pursuit of wealth, expansion, jobs and progress.
Our current political parties had their origins during this period. Oddly, from a contemporary perspective, it was the early Republicans who postured on the moral high ground, making much of their role in humiliating the racist white South and putting an end to slavery. Blacks at the time identified almost entirely as Republicans. The Democrats initially were the party of the revanchist Old South and it's Northern sympathizers, but segued this position into one of representing the interests of the downtrodden in general. War-broken Southerners, bristling under the heavy hand of Reconstruction, found common cause with Northern factory workers who were fighting the same rising industrial class which the Southerners saw as the power behind Reconstruction.
America's Reigning Twentieth Century Ideology
This was the uneasy coalition that Franklin Roosevelt inherited in the early middle years of the twentieth century. But the liberal Northern blueblood entered into a Faustian bargain with the rednecks, gaining their political loyalty in return for his willingness to look away from Jim Crow. The Republicans, for their part, had emerged from the Civil War years with a triumphalist momentum that prevailed for a while but then smashed against a stone wall decades later in the Great Depression.
The Republicans' moral posturing about slavery had, of course, for the most part been little more than that. What they really valued was economic development and the wealth to be derived from it. When economic development suddenly appeared doomed, the Republicans had nothing positive left on which to stand, and Roosevelt's emotional pitch to the downtrodden gained sway. His uneasy coalition solidified and his liberal capitalist mantras became America's reigning twentieth century ideology. The existential threats of World War II and later the Cold War honed this ideology into an irresistible force that turned the United States into a superpower.
When America's economy righted itself and resumed its spectacular growth after the War, Republicans and Democrats all realized they had a good thing going and assumed their complementary roles in making the most of it. Republicans, in their own minds, stood for responsible hard work, self-reliance and economic freedom. Democrats emphasized inclusiveness and the application of government power to ensure everyone got a fair share of the nation's growing prosperity. A natural tension existed between these two sets of ideals, but they were by no means mutually exclusive and both parties were committed to working out the differences through compromise. The two parties both embraced American patriotism and knew they needed one another.
The National Consensus Cracks
But not anymore. It's hard to pinpoint the start of the breakdown, but it certainly long predated Donald Trump's rise, regardless of what today's ADHD-afflicted Democrats seem to be imagining. Trump is in my judgment more a symptom of the problem than a primary cause, and he would never have gained a foothold if the nation's dysfunction were not already well afoot by the time he made his freakish political appearance two years ago. America's two parties in their heyday might be compared to partners in a successful marriage who work hard and sometimes scream to bring out the best in one another. These same parties today are more like partners in a failing marriage, where each fertilizes the other's ugly side through non-stop carping and belittling.
Chronic bitter enemies morph into self-caricatures when confronted by nothing but their own flaws. Accordingly, Republicans are becoming cold-hearted and stupid and Democrats shrill, frivolous and hysterical. Both sides are hateful and neither seems interested any longer in negotiation or serious problem-solving.
Our Parties Have Slipped Their Moorings
As a Republican, or perhaps soon-to-be former Republican, I can no longer explain to myself or anyone else what my party stands for. It seems for the time being to have resolved into three broad factions: the Bush traditionalists, the Cruz Tea-partiers and, now, the prevailing Trumpists. These factions all hate one another as badly as they do the Democrats, and the only ideology common to them is a limp remnant of Ronald Reagan's formula of deregulation and lower taxes.
These guiding principles, in my opinion, were constructive in Reagan's day and contributed to the national renewal that occurred in the 1980's and gained momentum in the 1990's as even Democrat Bill Clinton partially embraced them. They have little utility today, however, if for no other reason than that the ham-fisted Republicans are likely to do more harm than good in applying them.
The Democrats have sunk into an even fouler miasma. Even though lavishly funded by hedge fund billionaires, tort lawyers and Hollywood moguls, the Democrats have seemingly lost their ability to win elections. Having let the presidency and both houses of Congress slip away, they also control a mere 16 of the nation's governorships and a distinct minority of state legislative seats. Furthermore, despite Donald Trump's much-vaunted unpopularity, they keep losing the special elections that have occurred since he's been in office. A couple of victories on November 7 of this year were trumpeted with giddy rapture in the liberal press but did little to change the overall pattern.
America's Spiritual Cul-De-Sac
It's not hard to see what their problem is. The once-dominant Clinton wing of the party, having just managed to blow a supposedly sure-thing presidential election, is now collapsing under the dead weight of its own corruption, hypocrisy and failure. What remains in its wake is a motley array of pressure groups defined by angry identity politics or by the various phobias and dogmatic enthusiasms to which our Democrats are given nowadays. The electoral appeal of such a political posture is limited.
The degenerate state of our two parties reflects the breakdown of the broader political culture. Keith's recent posting to these pages ("Democracy Self-destruction", American Counterpoint 10/19/17) speaks to this issue but seems to reflect the assumption common among today's Democrats that everything would somehow be OK if only Donald Trump had stayed in the hotel business.
Always prone to hero-worship, the Democrats have for generations kept FDR and John Kennedy on pedestals, and they're currently in the process of elevating Barak Obama to an even more exalted position. In fairness, of course, the Republicans have done much the same with their own sainted Ronald Reagan, although this kind of behavior is more to be expected from reactionary types than it is from those billing themselves as forward-looking Progressives. Excessive obeisance to the past is characteristic of people who are dissatisfied with their present and afraid of their future. Increasingly, Americans of all political leanings seem to be wandering into this spiritual cul-de-sac.
With our political parties thus losing their grip, the public arena has ceased being a place for rational discourse and a constructive airing of competing visions. Our omnipresent and omnivorous media is filling all the empty space with noise and ranting. Reporters have morphed into pundits, and celebrity pundits have become kingmakers, anointing new heroes, destroying old ones and thus subverting the role once played by political parties.
Fake News Is The Defining Meme Of Our Era
"Fake news" has rapidly become the defining meme of our era, and characteristically even that started changing shape almost as soon as it appeared. As best I can tell, the term was coined initially by liberals, who took furious note of stories being invented out of thin air and disseminated as God's truth via the rightwing press to stir up yahoos in the hinterlands against President Obama or Hillary Clinton. Fake News has been credited as a key factor in Donald Trump's rise, and it's ironic although perhaps typical of this new era that Trump himself has now co-opted the term and turned it around on his detractors, albeit with a somewhat different meaning.
What he's getting at is the approach to news now common to the mainstream media of carefully screening stories down to a select few that fit a preferred narrative and then drumming these loudly and endlessly 24/7 until no other version of truth seems admissible. Stories that don't fit never see the light of day. News distorted is this fashion is not quite "fake", because it's not completely invented, but the element of truth makes it perhaps even more insidious because the slant is more resistant to "fact checking". It thus lingers corrosively for longer in the national dialogue.
The most effective lies are 90% true, as the accurate stuff entices us into swallowing the poison along with the food. As an accomplished liar himself, Donald Trump is good at spotting similar talent among his enemies and calling it out.
Fake News Becomes Fake Reality
It is a frighteningly short step from fake news to fake reality. The events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12 of this year are a case in point. Billed as a march for white nationalists protesting the removal of a Confederate memorial located in the town, the rally quickly revealed itself more as surrealist theater than any kind of serious political event. The national media descended on the small college town and imposed their own construction of the day's proceedings. Anything to do with the endangered Confederate memorial vanished from the story right away, and the political take-away for us was meant to be the image of Hitler's fiery heirs arriving in the town to ravage the American homeland, opposed only by a brave and lonely band of counter-protestors.
I studied news reports carefully at the time for serious crowd estimates and could find none, although multiple YouTube videos of the affair made it clear that this thing was truly small, numbering no more than maybe a couple of thousand. Of those, the majority seemed to be curious onlookers and counter-demonstrators. There couldn't have been more than a few hundred white supremacists, who looked like a gang of aging bikers and opioid-addled teenagers in town for a beer party. A few swastikas and KKK-hoods were sprinkled around like stage props.
A young woman was killed at the event when a car appeared seemingly out of nowhere and swerved into a crowd of counter-protestors. The videos show the car being immediately pounced upon by helmeted guys wielding clubs, and it was at this point the real carnage started because the panicked driver threw his car into reverse and blindly hit the gas. Where did the clubs come from, and how did they show up so quickly at exactly the right place? How is it they were applied with such military precision?
The Charlottesville affair had an air about it of being staged. A few days later an attempt was made to replicate this macabre media circus on much larger scale in Boston. However, the "white supremacists" there claimed to be nothing more than free-speech advocates and disavowed any connection to the crowd down South. Also, they were met with such an overwhelming counter-demonstration that they abandoned their march before it even got underway. Still, there was some minor violence and a few arrests as breakaway bands of leftists took to the streets like a hopped-up army releasing tension after being denied a promised battle.
Who's Pulling The Strings?
At the risk of sounding like one of those idiots always quoting themselves, I'm going to quote myself here. On November 8 of last year, the day following the Presidential election, I posted on these pages:
"There's no telling where all this goes now, although foreshadows of the likely future could be seen already in the early morning hours in the radical fever swamps of Berkeley and Oakland, where gangs of protestors emerged as though on the search for riot police with whom to engage. The ranks of these people are likely to grow in the months ahead, and it seems only a matter of time before some of the nastier elements among Trump's supporters, themselves also now newly energized, choose to come out of hiding to offer battle." (American Counterpoint 11/9/16, "What Just Happened, and What's Next?”)
It's my belief that we're likely to be in for more of this sort of thing in the time between now and the next presidential election. It seems not at all co-incidental that incidents of staged violence, media manipulation and electoral fraud are occurring in the midst of allegations that Vladimir Putin somehow stole the American presidency away from Hillary Clinton and handed it to Trump.
Mr. Putin cut his pointy teeth in the old Soviet KGB, where he would have learned a lot about the arts of staged violence, media manipulation and electoral fraud in democratic societies. Our Democrats today are working in feverish overdrive to determine what he has been up to more recently and to find proof of collusion that might facilitate impeachment proceedings against Trump. Despite the fact that the massive investigation seems so far to have turned up embarrassingly little, I have felt from the beginning that there is probably something to the charges. They are all too consistent with Putin's nature, training and personal history. His motivation would be not supporting Trump but subverting American democracy.
One has to wonder as well what George Soros is up to in all this. Having made his multi-billion dollar fortune through sharp trading and currency manipulation, he pours his money into leftwing causes through a labyrinth of front organizations complex enough to have made Meyer Lansky blush. I'm pretty sure he's not a philanthropist in any normal sense of the term despite what his billing on the Forbes billionaire list reads. But what he is and who he's really allied with is anybody's guess.
Money in high enough volume corrupts everything it touches, and it pretty much all flows through invisible channels.
Modern Media Undermines Political Parties
And where are our political parties in all this? It used to be their role to give edgy factions voice behind the scenes and then assimilate enough of their issues to coax would-be supporters into more constructive positions. Thus has our two-party system in the past largely succeeded at marginalizing extremists. However, the modern media, now with the Internet front-and-center, has re-shuffled the deck in a such a way that fringe players can bypass party discipline and gather supporters directly. The parties are reduced to relative passivity, producing gobbledegook platforms that speak to no one by trying to speak to everyone and offend no one. Any faction with hurt feelings can embarrass the party by taking its case to Fox or CNN or releasing angry swarms of like-thinking bloggers and web trolls. The only reliable unifier for each party seems to be hatred for the other.
It's hard for me to see a happy outcome for what's underway right now. Conspiracy theories are circulating on all sides, and one measure of our current instability is how many people seem ready to believe them. What's worse, some of the creepy theories seem poised to unfold in real life. There certainly is a "deep state" at work in some sense - there has to be in any complex system - and some commentators have speculated that the discord we see every day in fact manifests a civil war already underway in semi-secrecy behind the scenes. This almost certainly goes beyond Vladimir Putin. The operative metaphor would be jangly ripples on the surface of an ocean beneath which an earthquake is building.
Trump's Likely Demise Will Fix Nothing
In his 10/19 posting, Keith tried to paint a hopeful picture. However, his optimism stems from a belief that Donald Trump's crude missteps are giving rise to a counter-movement that will take him out of power by the next election if not sooner. I actually agree with this forecast but take no comfort from it. Keith retains what I consider to be a misguided faith in the virtue and good intentions of his own party. However, in my view, so complete is their sense of electoral impotence right now and so hot and blind is their rage at Trump, that if given back the reins of power, our Democrats will stop at very little to make sure they never again fall into such unhappiness.
In recent decades our college campuses have emerged as incubators for radical and sometimes bizarre thinking that has a way of creeping into the mainstream as students graduate and enter society. I find this to be an ominous thought today. Students seem to be losing faith in democracy and in the ideals of free speech and open debate that undergird it. Conservative and sometimes even open-minded liberal speakers are routinely shouted down and sometimes physically attacked by leftwing students and professors. These people are intent on converting their environments into "safe spaces" where discordant ideas are forbidden.
The bitter left wing of the Democratic Party today is populated by people who have in recent years been trained in such environments. And with the implosion of the Clinton faction, this bitter left may be about all that remains of the Party.
I consider Bernie Sanders to be an honorable and decent man, albeit one given to foolish thinking, but he is clearly a transitional figure. The people coming after him will be given to even more foolish thinking and will be unlikely to share his respect for democratic norms.
Is There A Constructive Way Forward?
I am still a registered Republican, but in my mind I've pretty much abandoned the party, since I don't know what it stands for anymore and don't respect many of its leaders. At this point I would encourage my blog partner Keith perhaps to start reconsidering his own political allegiance too, since his Party has already fallen into corruption and is probably on the verge of becoming dangerous. Furthermore, it seems to me possible that both of these parties are beginning to disintegrate and may well be gone within our lifetimes. It's time to prepare for what's coming.
The United States needs a new centrist party that would represent the best of what Democrats and Republicans used to hold in common, updated for the 21st Century. In his 10/19 post Keith quotes a Ms. Anna Grzymala-Busse giving homage to the threatened virtues of "civil discourse, respect for the opposition and freedom of the press, and equal treatment of citizens". I don't know anything about Ms. Grzymala-Busse or her politics, and while these sentiments are not really a big enough foundation upon which to build a party, they sound to me like a pretty good place to start.