How Both Major Parties Lost Control

Former Republican Senator John Danforth complained recently that Donald Trump is not a Republican.

He stands in opposition to the founding principle of our party — that of a united country.

We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, and our founding principle is our commitment to holding the nation together. …

… To my fellow Republicans: We cannot allow Donald Trump to redefine the Republican Party.

I don’t know if you remember John Danforth, who left the Senate in 1995. He’s what I’d call a standard old-school Republican — white, patrician, traditionally conservative, financially comfortable; not a bad sort but oblivious about some things. He probably fervently believes that the Republican Party stood for unity right up until the moment Trump was installed in the White House.

But of course, it’s been the party of division for a long time. Its candidates win elections through wedge issues and dog whistles. You can trace the politics of appeals to racism and scapegoating of “liberal elites” backward from the Tea Party and birthers to Karl Rove, Lee Atwater, Reagan’s welfare queen, Nixon’s Southern strategy, etc.

The Republican base, well trained to respond to the toxic stew of propaganda that replaced any semblance of a governing philosophy, grew crazier and crazier and finally voted in the candidate who seemed to fulfill what Republicans had promised for years but never delivered — Donald Bleeping Trump.

See Max Boot, of all people, “How the ‘Stupid Party’ Created Donald Trump” (July 2016; note that Boot still hadn’t figured out that Paul Ryan is dumber than a box of rocks); John Nichols, “The Republican Party Created This Monster” (October 2016); and Dan Balz, “How the Republican Party Created Donald Trump” (March 2016)  — Balz wrote,

The sight of establishment Republicans recoiling at Trump strikes some analysts, particularly on the left, as ironic. These GOP critics see Trump’s appeal as the logical result of decades of efforts by the GOP to discredit government and more recently of the party leadership’s passive acceptance of virulent and in some cases racially tinged opposition to President Obama. Having sown the wind, the argument goes, the party now reaps the whirlwind.

Others, however, say that Trumpism, no matter how much it threatens the existence of the modern-day Republican Party, is a broader manifestation of the uneven impact of globalization on a significant segment of the population, a rejection by these voters of institutions and elites in both parties, whom they see as having failed to listen to or respond to their plight.

In reality, it is both, a problem that has had implications for both major parties over a period of years but that has become particularly acute for the Republicans at this moment because the party so badly needs those voters to win in November.

Globalization had become a more acute problem for Democrats than Balz realized. We’ll come back to this.

Anyway, the Max Boot article linked above is particularly interesting, with the caveat that it’s written from Boot’s hard-right perspective. Boot admits that a lot of what Republicans were selling was a con —

William F. Buckley Jr. famously said,” I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.” … Here’s the thing, though: The Republican embrace of anti-intellectualism was, to a large extent, a put-on. At least until now.

The Republican embrace of “small government” was a put-on; it was always about disconnecting government from the people so that it could better serve special interests. Ordinary Americans clearly got the message, don’t expect government to do anything for you. Republican embrace of “freedom” was a put-on, since “freedom” to a Republican is divorced from civil liberty and is more about national defense and the protection of privilege. We could go on.

The thing is, though, that a lot of those folks disadvantaged by globalism didn’t know it was a con. By now, even a lot of people being elected to office, especially to state government and the U.S. House, didn’t know it was a con. They internalized the message that government, gays and racial minorities are the source of all your problems. They’d been electing politicians for years who told them that, yet nothing changed. So here comes Donald Trump, who promised them that he and he alone could charge into Washington, knock heads, and set things right. And they believed him.

In short, Trump isn’t redefining the Republican Party; he’s the logical consequence of its own messaging going back many decades.

Basically, the Republican establishment lost control of its own party because the base internalized the GOP’s own messaging all too well. And Trump, the ultimate con man, played the GOP’s own game and beat them at it. Trump won’t be able to deliver on the promise, either, but he’ll tear the government apart as he thrashes about trying to accomplish something.

The Democrats have an equal but opposite problem. Matt Stoller has a nice piece at The Atlantic (published October 2016; I’m just now seeing it) called “How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul” that takes us back to the post-Watergate era. Very briefly, way back then there was a struggle within the Democratic party between the remaining New Deal Dems who wanted to keep banks and corporate power in check, and another group that simply didn’t have a problem with banks and corporations doing whatever they wanted. The latter group won.

Indeed, a revolution had occurred. But the contours of that revolution would not be clear for decades. In 1974, young liberals did not perceive financial power as a threat, having grown up in a world where banks and big business were largely kept under control. It was the government–through Vietnam, Nixon, and executive power–that organized the political spectrum. By 1975, liberalism meant, as Carr put it, “where you were on issues like civil rights and the war in Vietnam.” With the exception of a few new members, like Miller and Waxman, suspicion of finance as a part of liberalism had vanished.

To be fair, suspicion of finance as a part of liberalism was always peculiar to American-style liberalism, and in particular that part of liberalism headed by the two Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin. It’s not an intrinsic feature of liberalism per se. But let’s go on …

Over the next 40 years, this Democratic generation fundamentally altered American politics. They restructured “campaign finance, party nominations, government transparency, and congressional organization.” They took on domestic violence, homophobia, discrimination against the disabled, and sexual harassment. They jettisoned many racially and culturally authoritarian traditions. They produced Bill Clinton’s presidency directly, and in many ways, they shaped President Barack Obama’s.

The result today is a paradox. At the same time that the nation has achieved perhaps the most tolerant culture in U.S. history, the destruction of the anti-monopoly and anti-bank tradition in the Democratic Party has also cleared the way for the greatest concentration of economic power in a century. This is not what the Watergate Babies intended when they dethroned Patman as chairman of the Banking Committee. But it helped lead them down that path. The story of Patman’s ousting is part of the larger story of how the Democratic Party helped to create today’s shockingly disillusioned and sullen public, a large chunk of whom is now marching for Donald Trump.

At close to the same time Democratic Party leaders began to be distrustful of the judgments of its own voters. As the presidential nomination process was taken out of smoke-filled rooms and given to the people, via primary elections, Dems began to see landslide defeats — first McGovern in 1972, then Carter in 1980. Of course, it hadn’t helped that the party establishment itself gave those two men only lukewarm support. But to cover its ass in the future, the party created the superdelegate system to be sure party elders could put a thumb on the scale in case an “undesirable” candidate got too popular.

And then, seems to me, by the 2000s the party establishment had come to be pretty much dominated by Clinton loyalists, and Barack Obama did nothing to change that.

Thus it was that by the time we got to 2016, the leaders of the Democratic Party establishment plus its network of big-ticket donors (many of whom would end up working with the Trump Administration) saw nothing wrong with presenting the voters with its own preselected, prepackaged presidential candidate before primaries even began, and it cleared the path for her nomination. And then they were confounded and outraged that a large part of its base refused to play along.

But the Democratic Party, like the Republicans, also had lost sight of the “uneven impact of globalization” on its base, and didn’t see how a lot of young people in particular were done with being patted on the head and told that what they wanted from government just isn’t practical. Don’t expect government to do anything for you, my dears.

At least the Republicans still pay lip service to being the party of Lincoln. When was the last time an establishment Democrat paid homage to FDR? Never mind.

This is how both parties came to have big problems with their own bases; just not exactly the same problem. Republicans are in trouble because they’ve been running a con and got out-maneuvered by a con man. After years of thumping their chests and promising they had a better plan, they got put on the spot to produce, and couldn’t. And now to get their party back from Trump they’re going to have to disavow their own con, which is likely going to piss off a lot of the voters who were taken it by it.

Democrats are in trouble because, after years of promising a Democratic majority as the population grew more racially diverse and liberal, they managed to alienate the very people they need for a better future by being out of touch with their concerns. Their aging leaders have over-managed and controlled political processes to the point that many voters and activists just plain feel shut out. And as we approach the midterm elections, the DNC itself is nearly shut out as donors send their money elsewhere and activists work outside the party to support candidates.

IMO over the next couple of election cycles we’re going to see some major shifts in the political landscape in the U.S. I just hope it’s all for the better.

George Caleb Bingham, “Stump Speaking”