Growing up during the divisive Vietnam War era, political discussions at the dinner table were the norm. True to their North Carolina farm roots, both my parents were socially conservative, but their views on politically charged topics varied greatly.
Prior to Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office, much of the American South was solidly Democratic. Politicians such as North Carolina’s ‘country lawyer,’ Senator Sam Ervin, who served from 1954 to 1974 and famously chaired the US Senate Committee that impeached Richard Nixon, supported policies with benefits that reached far beyond their provincial constituencies. Years later, another North Carolina senator, Republican Jesse Helms, made an art of conducting mud-slinging campaigns and using the senate filibuster to promote his own personal agenda.
Even given that background, neither of my parents would recognize today’s American political landscape. Despite my mother’s Democratic leanings and my father’s closet Republican mind-set, they both valued the shared truth that our nation’s government was designed to work for ALL the people, and not just any select few.
They believed that just as successful personal relationships involved inevitable struggles and a great deal of compromise, so did a properly functioning government.Their values of honesty, integrity and respect for human dignity seem completely out of fashion now, having been replaced by verbalized hatred and the belief that unethical and immoral behavior is to be tolerated as long as someone’s narrow agenda is being fulfilled.
While I certainly don’t idealize the flaws of past eras, specifically the racial segregation and prejudice that was codified in law and still exists in many forms today, there was a time when Republicans and Democrats were more intent on successfully passing compromise bills than on shutting down the system for personal political gain. It seems the Republican party has become particularly afflicted by the latter since Newt Gingrich and the 1994 Republican Revolution swept through Congress.
Gingrich and his colleagues set the stage for the Tea Party of Ted Cruise and the eventual enthronement of Donald Trump as head of the party’s chaos-creation unit. The hysterical performances of some Republicans during the Trump impeachment hearings have shown just how frightening primary elections are to Republican incumbents threatened by this new breed of maverick warfare.
While the Democratic Party has gone through it’s own changes, it hasn’t been subject to the same level of fragmentation, or should I say implosion. However, the 2020 election cycle is just revving up and there are already Democratic candidates complaining about the kind of hard-line purity tests that many Republicans have been subjected to over the past two decades.
Money, Party Loyalty and Radical Individualism
Let me be clear here. I personally feel no loyalty to either of America’s polarized political parties. The Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the entities that fund-raise and steer each party’s agenda are nothing more than major corporations, beholden to large donors in much the same way other corporations are influenced by their largest shareholders. However, my lack of party loyalty hasn’t blinded me to the fact that I share far more affinity with Democratic policies than with the GOP.
Even though I pride myself on being an individual, I also recognize that rampant individualism has been instrumental in creating the kind of hyper-partisanship we see today. When one individual can shut down the government for 16 days, as Texas Senator Ted Cruz did in 2013, purportedly costing the US $24 billion dollars, then radical individualism is taking it’s toll on the democratic system. Party loyalty, the glue that seemed to hold the system together (as flawed as it may have been) has been exchanged for individual ego-stroking which is then disguised for the masses as moral principle.
If radical individualism is allowed to go unchallenged, Robert N. Bellah writes in the 1985 book Habits of the Heart, “what results is a society of atomized individuals who really can’t operate a democratic system and therefore will fall back on some kind of an administrative authoritarianism to keep things going.”
The Grand Old Party is barely recognizable
While the idea that American politicians are controlled by special interests rather than serving the citizenry was around long before Donald Trump broke the election mold in 2016, his rise to power seems to have been enabled by the same anti-government venom espoused by Ted Cruz and other Tea Party members. Theirs is the ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater and then burn the house down’ line of reasoning. And then, even though we don’t have a plan or a new house to occupy, we’ll just wing it and see what happens. Based on the Congressional gridlock of the past decade, this scorched earth policy would appear to be a poor strategy for finding solutions in a country desperately in need of them.
During the 2016 election campaign, Trump constantly repeated two mantras to whip up his emotional political rallies: 1) “Build the Wall”–an anti-immigrant message that appealed to the racist fears of many white Americans, and 2) “Drain the Swamp”, a reference to corrupt politicians in Washington, D.C. who are beholden to the outside interests of big money–corporate lobbyists and the kind of anonymous vast-sum donors allowed to influence both elections and legislation since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United vs FEC decision.
By succeeding in tapping into a vein of deep discontent within his targeted groups, Trump was able to out-maneuver the RNC and become the Republican nominee. In doing so, he also managed to control the ‘there is no truth’ narrative being fed to his followers. What is now obvious to those who can still see beyond the end of their own noses is that Donald Trump is quite possibly the most corrupt president America has ever produced.
Somewhat prophetically, one of Trump’s rivals, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, put it succinctly in a 2016 Republican debate. “Donald is great at the one-liners, but he is a chaos candidate and he would be a chaos president.” Chalk one up for Bush’s predictive skills.
While Americans and their elected representatives argue and Trump continues to grandstand and gaslight, China’s and Russia’s authoritarian leaders are working within systems that allow them to make lightening fast decisions without any of the limitations faced by a gridlocked American Congress.
One of Trump’s standard lines that he has continually repeated since 2016 is “you’re gong to get so tired of wining.” Well, Mr. President, I’d say that China and Russia are surely the ones winning due to the chaos you’ve encouraged in Washington, D.C. from your very first day in office. Simply put, chaos is NOT a formula for winning!
Even though Trump is merely a symptom of the greater problem of the partisan divide within the US political system, at every turn he has seized on the opportunity to manipulate and fan the flames of division. These fires are deliberately set in order to distract US citizens while important checks and balances on executive power are being dismantled behind the scenes.
While Trump and his Republican counterparts create chaos, problems such as man-made climate change and inequality continue to grow and Americans continue to be slaughtered in mass shootings. Chaos is a prescription for failure and decline, not for problem solving and strengthening our democracy and citizens’ well-being.
Header Image: Agence France Presse