In the July/August issue of The Atlantic Magazine, Jonathan Rauch’s “How American Politics Went Insane” is well worth reading.  His thesis goes thusly:  Over the past couple of decades, liberals and progressives have pushed for a whole range of political reforms and, in large part, they (we) have succeeded.  No more smoke-filled back room deals selecting a party’s presidential candidate; primary delegates chosen democratically rather than by political hacks, no more pork barrel goodies attached to must pass spending bills; no more Party rule by establishment dinosaurs. 

Pretty solid progress, right?  Well, not according to Rauch.  And he might just have a valid point.  He argues that by reforming  - stripping – power from the power brokers who mediate between the real power wielders at the top (Governors, Senators, Representatives, State party loyalists) and the rest of us, the reforms have unleashed a torrent of uncontrollable explosions of populist power that has undone whatever mediating functions Republican and Democratic structures previously had in preventing a wholesale decline of political processes.  Thus, the revolutionary emergence of Bernie Sanders for Democrats and the nativist Donald Trump for Republicans, the appeal and impacts of each were unable to be modulated by their respective Parties. 

Here are Rauch’s basic elements of his arguments:

Immunity:  Rauch argues that party elites and party machines who were responsible for organizing campaigns, vetting and recruiting candidates, building bases of donors and supporters, mediating intra-party disputes and brokering compromises have been reformed out of the process thereby leaving no "middlemen," as he terms them, to do the quotidian dirty work of grooming and promoting candidates who represented their respective party interests and would continue to reward those who made his or her election possible by actively promoting the party platform and party leaders while in office.  These “middlemen” stick around and provide insurance against renegade and insurgent political opportunists who have no loyalty to anyone but their own self-interests and can severely damage party structure and credibility.  This is aptly illustrated by the insurgent campaign of Tea Party devotee David Brat (R-VA) who shockingly ousted House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor back in 2014.   Brat, with no seniority or influence in the House of Representatives, is a "rogue" Congressman who, with no seniority, no ties and no experience cannot “power broker” anything for his Virginia constituents. 

Vulnerability:    Party dominated nominating processes, soft money, Congressional seniority, closed-door negotiations, pork barrel spending have all been virtually swept away as progressive reformers have pushed to open political processes to transparency and openness.  A carryover from the 1970’s  the Nixon era, such reforms appeared long overdue and an unmitigated no-brainer.  But, as Rauch points out, the result has been that the people’s business in Congress is simply not getting done at all.  These 40 years of reforms have favored political amateurs and outsiders over professionals and insiders and privileged populism and self-expression over mediation and mutual restraint by stripping middlemen of the tools they need to organize the political system.  This atomized model of politics highlights the direct connection between individual politicians and their voting base, a situation that isn’t always in the best interests of the nation as a whole.  The Founding Father’s recognized the mediating function of layers of political interaction.  Without them, it is highly likely that slavery would still be the law of the land.

Pathogens:   By the beginning of this decade, the political system’s defenses against the pathology of insurgency, populism and nativism, were on display with the rise of the angrily anti-establishment Tea Party.  In a 2013 Pew Poll, fully 70% of Tea Partiers disapproved of Republican leaders in Congress.  (Thus the defeat of Eric Cantor.)  Another pathogen, as named by Rauch, is the rise of what he calls “Politiphobes,” folks who believe that policy should be made not by politicians and through messy compromise, but by ENSIDS, "empathetic, non-self-interested decision makers" who can be scientists, technocrats or autocrats – whichever works.     This outsider, untainted by political deal making and back room bargaining, persona perfectly describes Donald Trump’s appeal. 

Symptoms:  Rauch maintains that it’s not that political disruptions happen or that insurgent chaos suddenly bursts through into politics, but that it’s becoming more and more impossible to “govern through them” in today’s anti-establishment atmosphere.    It’s why John Boehner could not get the 2011 budget compromise with Obama through his own caucus and ultimately led to his resignation as Speaker.  Two years later, as if to hammer home the idea that the political compromise was simply dead, Ted Cruz(R-TX) was able to shut down the Federal Government, the very last thing that old line Republicans wanted to happen knowing full well that it would be Republicans who would invoke the ire of the populace.  Ohio Governor John Kasich summed up this problem:  “The people want change.  Then change doesn’t come… because we’re putting people in that don’t understand compromise.”  Disruption in politics and dysfunction in government reinforce each other.  Chaos becomes the new normal.

Nearly everyone panned party regulars, writes Rauch, for not stopping Trump much earlier, but no one explained just how the party regulars were supposed to have done that.  Stopping an insurgency requires organizing a coalition against it, but an incapacity to organize is the whole problem.  The reality is that the levers and buttons parties and political professionals might once have pulled and pushed have long since been disconnected.

Prognosis and Treatment:  As Rauch puts it, quoting s Trump supporter, “I want to see Trump go up there and do damage to the Republican Party.  We know who Donald Trump is, and we’re going to use Donald Trump to either take over the GOP or blow it up.”  This anti-establishment nihilism deserves no respect or accommodation in American public life, Rauch says.  Populism, individualism, and a skeptical attitude toward politics are all healthy up to a point, but America has passed that point.  Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.

My Take:  Rauch indeed makes a strong case.  But I think he minimizes both the despair and hopelessness that so many Americans feel as their standard of living declines, as the cost of living continues to climb, as the American Dream is so far out of reach for ordinary Americans as to be a charade.  It is  a pretty long list of issues that this discontent stems from, thus the underpinning of today's populism is both wide and deep.  This is the genesis for both the election of Barack Obama – his 2008 hope and change campaign was a precursor to the Democratic Socialism of Bernie Sander’s this year – and the rise of the Tea Party.  And while Rauch may capture the frustration of so many Americans that have given rise to Donald Trump as disenchantment with a political system that does not work for them, he neglects the patently racist appeal of the Tea Party against Barack Obama which is equally apparent in Donald Trump’s popularity.   And, I might add, establishment Republicans who vowed to make Obama a "one term President.  

While such antipathy may be irrational, illogical, and misguided, (and it’s nothing new) it and its effects are as much a part of real political dynamics as is the anti-establishment sentiment sweeps the country.  Rauch would credit the latter with the more influence, but for me, I would credit the former especially as amply illustrated by the Brexit vote in Great Britain last week.  Trump is appealing to his base's emotional and irrational fears, Whites who see themselves cut off from the political process, in concert with Bernie’s supporters, but additionally see themselves as being passed by, fading into multi-cultural oblivion, and no longer wielding the kind of political power they have enjoyed since the founding of America all the result of illegal immigrants and liberal social policies.

In the current situation, the Democratic Party has more adeptly accommodated the Sander’s explosion than has the Republican Party with their concomitant Trump explosion.  Hillary Clinton, arm and arm with Senator Elisabeth Warren, has shifted to the left moving the party to re-attach itself to what had been its natural base, America’s working and middle classes. 

In the end, Rauch is absolutely correct.  Both parties have simply ignored the growing signs of dissatisfaction and disenchantment for decades now, even when party structures could have been employed to "govern through" this discontent.  But with the election of Barack Obama, conservatives and the Tea Party essentially told the rest of us to "go fuck ourselves" effectively creating an impenetrable firewall to cooperation, compromise and coming together.   Like the "Know Nothing Party" back in the 1850's who were adamantly opposed to immigration and Catholics, believing that immigrants were taking jobs from white, Protestant Americans and that Catholics were plotting to install the Pope as America's ruler.  (Sound familiar?  The "Rule By The Pope issue would re-emerge as an issue in the 1960 Kennedy campaign.)

The term "No Nothings" came about from party secrecy since when questioned about their beliefs, No Nothings responded with "I Know Nothing."   It was the Civil War - actually the arguments about slavery leading up to the Civil War and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision supporting the continuation of slavery - that ended the Know Nothing Party's reign.  The similarity to today's situation is joined by the fundamental depth and seriousness of the issues on the American mind today.  Our dysfunction, our divisiveness comes from a deep seated dissatisfaction that, I think, parallels the lead up to the Civil War and the divisive question over the issue of slavery.   I doubt whether reforms or not, our Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump populist explosions could have been contained.

Have A Good Day!


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