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”

12 thoughts on “How Both Major Parties Lost Control

  1. As a former contractor, I know what it is like to lose a contract to an inferior contractor, then watch him struggle and finally fail to produce. We have a big problem with not only Trump, but with the anti intellectualism the Republican party has nurtured for so many years. I think you hit all of the points, now I’ll read Max Boot’s article.

  2. Ten years ago, upon Hunter S Thompson’s death, I wrote:

    we dropped the balll, my generation did… we stopped The War!

    Our War.

    Viet Nam.

    But we didn’t stop War.

    We forced Nixon to accountability. Whoopee! Nixon quit, The War is Over! Let’s finish our law degrees, cut our hair, and buy beemers and half-million dollar houses on the high desert!

    We stopped The War. Our War. Viet Nam. But we didn’t stop War. We finished our law degrees and bought overpriced McMansions, and left the machinations in place, notably Bush/Carlyle, Cheney/Haliburton and Rumsfield/etal, that led to the Authoritarian State – Fascist State – we are about, if not have, to become.

    We dropped the ball.

  3. I appreciate the sentiment in this article, but I think it misses the role of the voters and a whole lot of other important stuff, especially 1984, the election that slammed shut the last vestiges of the New Deal coalition. The Bernie Sanders of 1984 wasn’t a progressive, but a young Senator from a mountain swing state running on what many would term a “neoliberal” platform today. Hart was a “new” Democrat who nearly knocked off the establishment labor-backed Democratic candidate, Mondale, in a heated primary much closer than what we saw in 2016. After the party was thrashed in 1984 by an openly anti-labor, anti-environment, militant cold warrior conservative, the party shifted towards the direction of its youth. The much vilified DLC, which gained influence after that election, was made up of folks who worked for Hart’s campaign or were inspired by it. Like Sanders recently, they criticized identity politics but also the party’s old labor-focused politics. Given the shellacking Mondale took, and the fact he was nearly knocked off by an upstart “new” Democrat, moving the direction of voters was a matter of survival.

    I think we are in a similar place now, but with the party moving the other direction. As you say, we will see how things shake out.

  4. For some reason, I woke up this morning with this on my mind:

    S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
    A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
    Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
    Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
    Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
    Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

    I suppose the imagery and the sombre tone evoked our situation.

    If I thought my answer would be
    to one who might return to the world,
    this flame would shake no more,
    but, since none who reach this depth
    ever return alive, if what I hear is true,
    I will answer you without fear of infamy.

    (“Inferno” Canto 27, lines 61-66)

    But, of course it doesn’t quite fit. We must answer with a deep fear of infamy, because we are still in the living world, and our answer will shape that world.

    Trump is displaying his “Godfather” persona. He dispenses gifts and fear to those who are equivocating, and they find excuses to stay in his camp a bit longer. Most will gradually become habituated to the nagging voices of morality and justice. They instinctively know that they will live a lot longer if they learn to ignore them, and they have already been tuning the voices out for decades.

    We have to stay strong, even with the stink of mortality in the air.

    Whoa, sorry guys, I guess I’m not feeling so rosy this morning.

  5. “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”…you say.  Such a finely tuned phrase demands repeating.  When Nixon resigned and the party virtually replaced him with Gerald Ford, no one really voiced much objection, as it seemed at the time that most any Republican (other than Nixon) would do.  The party had a governing philosophy and a range of ideas and respected voices.  A wise teacher and small town newspaper owner said to me during the later part of that era that he had always identified as a Republican, as they had a history in the state as generally being the more progressive party.  Oh have times changed.  At that time one could take a comment like that as a serious statement.  Today one’s only sane response to a statement like that would be uncontrolled laughter.

    Today that party needs no writers using anything but emoticons.  The totally indoctrinated base will collect around any one of a bevy of propagandists, and hoot support for a tired batch of phrases or even single words long detached from any cogent discourse.  A governing philosophy or even an idea is long abandoned, replaced by grandiose promises and the illusions of solutions.  Sometimes the illusions of solutions are to problems themselves which are illusions, such as voter fraud.  No educated base would fall for this ruse, but an indoctrinated one would.  No educated base would be so easily conned but an indoctrinated one has.  Now that once respectable party has to try to find a way to enlighten a base trained to respond in a primitive emotional way or remain a slave to what it has created, a hopeless, reflex guided, dystopia. 

  6. Sigh. Our culture is screwed up. I saw it working as a grunt corporate engineer. I saw it in my local state representatives, both parties. It’s in my medical clinic. It’s in the inferior house paints we have to deal with. And quite obviously, in the highest levels of government. Everybody talks higher platitudes, some grand cause for the betterment of us all. But too many would rather enrich themselves on the sly, fuck everybody else. I know many who are in complete denial that they do this. A few honest ones have told me “well everybody does it” like you’re some kind of fool if you don’t. There are organizations that want to fight trickle down sociopathy, but do people have the time?

  7. “a hopeless, reflex guided, dystopia”

    This phrase (H/T Bernie) recalls something that was a recurring theme a while back on the kindred site, “Alicublog.” Roy Edroso related the tales of the “Libertarian moment” that were buzzing around Randian sites. Shortly, after Trump took office, it became possible that the buzz had been correct. The “Never Trump” crowd seemed to cave almost immediately and people like Paul Ryan saw the possibility of realizing the Randian dream, and jumped on board, with some lame attempts to salvage plausible deniability.

    In my lazy way of thinking, Libertarianism has, for a long time, seemed to be a a repackaged fascism, a kind of fascism-lite or feudalism-lite. If anything, recent history has reinforced this view. (Indeed, there may be nothing “lite” about it.) Especially since the Libertarians were enamored of the idea of running the government “like a business.”

    We’re seeing how tragically absurd that notion is.

  8. As we realize Houston can never be rebuilt as it was before, the US will never be what it was before the Trump/GOP carnage. Both disasters lead to the future. As a Realtor I watch on TV talented people buying a fixer in Italy where they can live on their computers. I know buying within “the grid” is now risky if we do not evaluate the effects of global warming. Individuals need to make new choices. Nations may be too easy to capture turning the people into slaves. Hard to imagine what faces my Grandchildren.

  9. Maybe they both did loose control, but the Repugs have the Frankenstein monster to contend with. I imagine when Trump gets done shitting all over the stage there will be a lot of people eager to run back to the Democrat’s side regardless of what they represent as a political entity.
    I’m reminded of the outrage that Hillary Clinton generated by referring to Trump supporter as “deplorables”. But when you see those same people still clinging to Trump it becomes more evident that her words were not misplaced.
    To me there is an even more important consideration. It’s the spiritual aspect that appears to be eroding our nation. When someone of Trump’s despicable character with his pathological lying, blatant racism, extreme narcissism, and selfishness can manage to hold onto power for as long as he has.. it says something about the state of our political and social values as a nation. And it’s not a good something that it is saying.

  10. This seems like an excellent analysis. What’s missing is a solution, which I think is going to just be muddling through. Another way to see where the Democrats went wrong is Al From’s book, “The NEW Democrats and the Return to Power.” The whole thing is astonishingly anti-New Deal. The New Democrats/Third Way/Blue Dog/DLC/Clinton Loyalists are so committed to their ideology they openly called for their Republican candidate choices to lie about their actual opposition to health care. I can’t think of a more obvious way to alienate your voters than that, and I expect the Republicans in every county are going to be advertising that statement widely. Same way they did with Wossisname Gruber, who had no hand in the actual passage of the actual PPACA. It seems their whole point is to get elected. That’s it. They don’t want to get elected because that’s how to get some particular program enacted, they just want to get elected. Now it’s true we aren’t going to get any good programs passed unless we get our people elected, but getting elected is a means, not an end. Schumer and Schultz and Bazile and Podesta and Clinton don’t seem to understand that. Well, maybe Clinton does, but she’s allied with the pro-War neocons, which pretty much undercuts her devotion to health care.

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