Sunday, December 20, 2015

We should embrace political messiness, not fear it

That's the theme of an op-ed in the New York Times by Kevin Baker. It is a lesson on American history and a lament for the demise of practical politics. It was prompted by the most recent debate among Republican presidential candidates. Below is the result of my effort to fashion a shorter narrative, but you should take the time to read the whole article.

It is impossible to imagine any of these [Republican] candidates working hand in hand with a Democratic administration in the best interests of America. It would be tempting to say that all this marks a new low in the annals of our democracy, save for the fact that this is how it has functioned, or failed to function, for much of its existence.

Political analysts attribute our current stalemate to a number of likely factors: the corrupting influence of big money; the fall of the old party bosses and the advent of primaries; and now the rise of a social media that is centered on forming virtual communities of like-minded people. All true, but the heart of the matter is this: The system is not supposed to work.

The founding fathers built a system based on distrust of power, hence the numerous checks and balances. And then they resumed physical conflict on the floor of the House and even murder by duel. What eventually resulted was a system not based on two parties but four.

Both major parties ... had their own liberal and conservative wings, creating what were in effect four major parties and a national legislature full of ever-shifting coalitions, usually across party lines.

It prompted Roosevelt to approach Wilkie and propose a coalition of liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats.

Roosevelt elaborated: “We ought to have two real parties — one liberal and the other conservative. As it is now, each party is split by dissenters.”

He was wrong. The idea of two ideologically consistent, European-style parties that offer voters clear-cut choices may sound logical. But our federal government has always worked best when our major parties were instead messy, exasperating contradictions, sprawled across many different regions. In fact, that’s almost the only time our government has ever functioned well.

The former opponents’ dreams of one big liberal party were soon dashed by both men’s deaths, but what Roosevelt and Willkie wanted has largely come to pass. The Republican Party has shifted hard to the right on virtually every issue and moved its base to the South. The Democrats remain more ideologically diverse, but are increasingly isolated along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, plus a few sections of the Midwest and the Prairie States.

The fruits of this realignment were on display last week, in the latest Republican debate. The candidates focused solely on a serious foreign threat, much like Roosevelt and Willkie’s 1940 race, which was combative but civil. By contrast, the Republicans’ nine top candidates offered almost nothing beyond ceaseless vituperation of President Obama and the leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.

But we digress to the future. Back to the functionally 4-party system.

This arrangement defied pretty much every civics textbook, every political theorist’s idea of how government should function. It was also when our national government began to work. From roughly 1900 to 1990, when this “four-party system” was in existence, the United States emerged as the world’s leading power and reached its economic zenith. We fought and won two world wars and the Cold War; built a social welfare state; established a stable national banking system; won the vote, and then equal rights for women, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans; rebuilt Europe; constructed a formidable national infrastructure; instituted environmental safeguards and preserved millions of miles of wilderness; and generally created the freest, most prosperous, major multicultural nation the world has ever seen.

So what unraveled?

Yet if it was imperfect, this era of practical democracy created or enabled so much of what we think of as the best in America today. It ended in the 1990s, as Republican political leaders and strategists like Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove deliberately emphasized party differences. They encouraged their candidates to adopt language that referred to the opposition as un-American and maneuvered to suppress Democratic turnout or render it ineffectual.

They have succeeded, perhaps a little better than they intended. Voter turnout in the 2014 midterm was the lowest since the end of World War II — and general disgust and disillusionment with the entire political system has spawned the likes of the Tea Party, and now the wretched candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

Our elections are once again fought out in ways that seek to demonize the opposition. Where once unscrupulous demagogues used to try to draw voters to the polls by invoking secret plots by the Masons, or the pope, to take over America, we now find ourselves right back in the demon-haunted world, deluged with conspiracy theories about Shariah law, Planned Parenthood or Benghazi. It’s no longer enough, for instance, to criticize President Obama’s policy on Syria and the Islamic State. Instead, as nearly every Republican candidate asserted in last week’s debate, he doesn’t want America to lead or be strong.

Such rhetoric is, for starters, horribly dangerous. It is not far removed from the sort of invective Joe McCarthy used to fling around — or the sort that was flung at Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, before his assassination in 1995. But it makes one wonder, as well: After such bile, what cooperation?

These days, the alternative to politically messy cooperation looks suspiciously like a totalitarian regime.

Kevin Baker is an essayist and the author, most recently, of the historical novel “The Big Crowd”; he is at work on a book about American history between the world wars.

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