As I argued in Remaking Democracy in America, the 2016 national election ushered in a shift in our political system comparable to the nascence of the Republican Party in the 1850's, the social democratic turn that led to the New Deal and the Great Society, and the "government-is-evil" philosophy of the Reagan Revolution. To be elected, Donald J. Trump harnessed the deep-seated resentments of poorly educated Americans socialized by Fox News, the deep-pocketed interests of 21st Century capitalism, and the deep-held distrust of politicians after more than two decades of increasing partisanship. He was helped along by an opponent who catastrophically thought only in terms of her own destiny and mocked her adversary's supporters.
The Trump administration has gutted programs meant to address issues like responding to the current pandemic, pandered to autocratic leaders and rebuffed old allies, used every means possible to enrich the businesses he owns, produced lie after lie in characterizing actions and lack of action, and pressured the members of the GOP into subservience lest they be subjected to a barrage of tweets defaming them and thus reducing their chances of re-election. The result has been the solidification of a political revolution with its roots in the response to the 9/11 attacks. Meanwhile, the people who talk about a progressive political revolution have been sidelined.
Bernie Sanders talks about a political revolution. He has not been able to get it off the ground in five years. His base isn't taking any action other than supporting his presidential aspirations (and not doing that very well, since they aren't showing up to vote for him). Occupy Wall Street made a lunge at revolution only to die from terminal leaderfulness. Laudable efforts resulted, but no coherent movement arose. Now, Andrew Yang has created Humanity Forward to offer direct cash payments to demonstrate the need and value of universal basic income, which is a step in the right direction by keeping some of the Yang Gang together. The progressive revolution may still have chance if that organization takes root. Regardless, a different political revolution has led to and been solidified by Trump's election without its proponents needing to openly state they wanted to transform our political system.
The old model was created by the Reagan Revolution. Reagan ended the vision of government as a benevolent actor in domestic affairs. Support for communities dwindled. We had two political parties that differed very little from each other. The President and Congress worked together on legislation regardless of which part controlled what branch. The President was very much the lead in most matters, but congressional oversight could redirect policies. Foreign policy was about spreading democracy. We talked about conservative and liberal judges, but they generally upheld stare decisis and could surprise us with progressive decisions as much as with originalist opinions. Aside from Fox News and a few other outlets, political reporting didn't skew one way or the other.
9/11 initially had little impact on the political system. But Dick Cheney and others started to use those attacks as a means of exploiting the presidency for personal gain and creating an ideological platform that made GOP solutions absolutes. They worked with conservative organizations to lay the groundwork for Republican gains in state legislatures prior to redistricting after the 2010 Census and to find judges who would actively look for business-friendly arguments. They approved litmus tests such as "no new taxes" pledges. Jingoism became relevant again. The announced War on Terror provided an excuse to restrict civil liberties. The Tea Party movement demonstrated there were people willing to support libertarian ideals.
President Obama was a lightning rod for Republican opposition. His administration galvanized the right-wing, nationalist orientation of the GOP. While Democrats argued among themselves about strategy and policy, Republicans united. That unity played out in the 2016 election. We now live in a political system in which party loyalty is paramount, the judiciary can no longer be deemed reliably unbiased, the executive can do as it pleases pretty much, money is identified as a form of protected political speech rather than as a means to influence politicians, gerrymandering and barriers to voting are entrenched, and Congress is only capable of passing the most necessary of bills and unable to oversee the actions of the executive. We essentially have one fully functioning branch of government, one paralyzed branch of government, and one increasingly rubber stamp branch of government.
Policymaking lies firmly in the hands of a plutocrat-in-chief and big business. That is not going to change regardless of who is elected in November. Even if Bernie Sanders is elected POTUS, he will still be working in a political environment in which corporate welfare, the unending election cycle in which politicians spend more time looking for donors than doing the people's business, and partisan minds remain caged in their own perspectives. As the primaries have shown so far, Sanders has no appeal to anyone but his base, and that is a minority within the party he wants the nomination from. A Sanders presidency would be a repeat of Obama's failure to get much of anything done. And it would be a lot grumpier.
The most likely winner remains Donald Trump. He is supported by an unwavering 42% of voters and virtually every elected Republican. Trump's election signified the realization of the oligarchic government prepared for by Citizens United, voter ID laws, the Patriot Act, the 2008 bank bailout, and the Iraq War. The Democrats talk about swinging suburban, female voters and battleground states into their column to make a difference on Election Day. That assumes folks are energized enough to actively do something to get Trump out of office. Half the people I spoke to asking for signatures to put Andrew Yang on the New York ballot said they no longer care about politics. Trump's antics and the impeachment proceedings have made people more apathetic. Pundits who continue to analyze the political landscape as though we still had a party duopoly vying for independent voters are living two elections behind the current situation.
The one thing that has done more to change our public sphere than anything else is the failure of those with the knowledge and capacity to steadfastly contest the calumnies, slanders, and outrages put forward not only by President Trump, but also by almost every Republican officeholder in the last twenty years. The most heinous were the lies told to win approval for action against Saddam Hussein. The Democrats have not only ignored the lies they have even used them as bargaining chips. Then-Senator Clinton traded her vote to support the Iraq war resolution in exchange for more money for New York State to recover from 9/11. Yes, the Democrats are as much to blame as the GOP.
One glaring example is the failure of the Senate Democrats to do anything in response to Senator McConnell's disregard of Judge Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court. McConnell's justification was unspeakably anti-democratic. Yet, he got away with making it sound democratic. The Democrats ought to have gotten onto every platform available, made clear that Obama was still president, and asked people to use common sense that a president is elected for a full four-year term. They ought to have shut down the Senate. The fact that nothing was done to counter this atrocious attack on reason demonstrates how cowardly and lame the Democratic leadership had become.
The Fourth Estate also has assisted in fulfilling the revolution. Trump takes "no responsibility" for there not being a team in place to respond to a pandemic in the federal government even though he is the one who disbanded that team. He claims instead that his administration has quickly responded to the spread of the novel coronavirus. What were those reporters thinking when he blew off that question in the Rose Garden? Where is the outrage at these naked assertions deliberately offered to confound listeners repeated so often that they drown the voices of those telling the truth? Are reporters afraid they will have their WH correspondents' privileges revoked? What will it take for the people who know better to force the issue when Trump lies? Why are news networks even continuing to provide Trump's unfiltered pressers when they can see the damage his words are doing to providing a coherent response to COVID-19?
A large part of this new political system is the refusal of people in responsible positions to take responsibility. It is not just the president denying responsibility for the spread of the coronavirus and stating instead that he led a quick response. It is the people who are giving him the platform to say these things and not holding him accountable on the spot. It is people who are pursuing their own interests without regard to the impact on others. It is people who are failing to organize a coherent strategy to define exactly how Trump is crossing the line.
Speaker Pelosi, as usual, demonstrated her lack of leadership skills in not pressing for more witnesses like John Bolton while impeachment proceedings were underway in the House. She allowed a half-assed attempt to move forward. Would a subpoena have dragged matters out? Yes. But the House wasn't (and still isn't) getting anywhere with its legislative agenda in the face of McConnell's obduracy. Fear of looking bad is causing decisions that make the Democrats look bad. Before the concern was that impeaching Trump would lead to tit-for-tat impeachments of future Democratic presidents. Now, impeachment has been hollowed out as a means of counteracting a dangerous occupant of the White House.
Impeachment conclusively demonstrated that the shackles of party loyalty are in place in the GOP. The demands of party loyalty also are being felt in the Democratic presidential primaries. Despite unequivocal evidence that Joe Biden has cognitive problems, the Democratic Establishment and most true-blue voters are swinging behind him. Bernie Sanders is, and has always been, a difficult candidate to envision as president, although his policies are what the country needs. But then, Trump didn't seem to fit the image either. Unfortunately, Sanders has lost momentum and can only hope to influence the platform on which Democrats will run. Biden seems to be open to the idea of merging his opponents' policies with his own. The key question is who Biden taps as a running mate. It needs to be someone who injects some energy into a campaign premised on the assumption that Biden is not Trump is a winning strategy.
The pandemic could skew the election toward the Democrats based on its deleterious effect on the economy. But we can't expect the old rules to apply any longer. Trump is actively building a case that the coming economic downturn will be the result of the medical community's and Democratic governors' insistence on putting life on hold for a few weeks. Trump's mishandling of the novel coronavirus problem won't lose him voters because his supporters believe what he says. Just as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush got away with a lot of questionable actions (Lebanon, Grenada, Iran-Contra, Iraq, Afghanistan), Trump is not going to be held accountable by his followers for the resulting deaths and devastation. It is way past time to believe that Trump's outrageousness is one of his strongest assets among his followers.
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