One of the lessons learned from the 2016 presidential election is that of the dominant power of an asymmetrical actor in a crowded field of conformists. The larger the field and the more conforming the conformists, the more susceptible it is to disruption. Discussions of merit aside, one certainty was that Donald Trump disrupted early 21st century American politics. And since his election, there’s been a feverish effort to explain that disruption. Historical comparisons abound.
Trump is Nixon. Trump is Andrew Jackson. Trump is Hitler.
In reality, Trump is Trump. And the world is a complex system in which comparison of individuals from different times and places for comparison sake yields little useful insights. Comparing the patterns of political outcomes is more useful.
Thinking about the inflection points of national level politics, patterns do arise. Value systems present in population bases and cultures show some consistency. The media has leaned liberal for some time. Big business has leaned conservative for some time. Urban and Rural America rarely move together. Through history, parties have emerged, died out and flipped their constituencies wholesale.
If we think about the last two major inflection points for how our parties have organized, we see a fracturing of the Democratic party, twice over. The first was during Roosevelt’s run up to his unprecedented third term. The defection of his Vice President, Cactus Jack Garner, the Texas Democratic stalwart (there once was such a thing) who chose to run in a primary against Roosevelt as an alternative to a continuation of New Deal liberal policies best highlights the divide.
While the New Deal government programs aimed at helping working class America resonated in depression era rural America, growth of the federal government for growth’s sake personified in a third term for Roosevelt, did not. As a result, Garner left, and took with him some of the non-liberal strain of the democrats focused on state’s rights.
The second inflection point was that of Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic party of the 60’s and the expulsion of segregationist southern democrats. Passage of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago depended on a vote that broke along regional lines, not party. And so the democratic party fractured again. Nixon’s much discussed “southern strategy” was less a diabolical effort to continue to subjugate marginalized populations and more of a politically logical on-boarding of disillusioned democrats from the previous two decades of party demographic shifts.
Intentional or not though, the outcome was clear. A political debate that broke neatly along culture lines. And so the political and cultural divide has grown in the decades that we’ve fed it.
If we try to see the rise of Donald Trump as another pivot we might find that, in reality, no such pivot is obvious. President Trump’s first term accomplishments have been a massive cut in corporate tax rates and a shrinking of government institutions and regulations. No new ideas. No departure from the GOP of the last hundred years. And so one is left to search for exactly what the asymmetry of the Trump candidacy was and is left with realization that it was nothing more than the same culture war, accelerated by the Trump brand, along already existing party lines.
Trump was willing to pour gas on the cultural divide. Not only would the party of the old ways not apologize for who they were. They were going to go on the offensive to show why America was still theirs.
The 2020 Democratic field is taking shape in response. And if there is one hope I have for the upcoming election, I hope we get something else to argue about than whose culture is better. Or who’s way of life is more American. It’s a debate of impossible philosophical arguments and imagined crises.
Abortion. Immigration. The Second Amendment.
All issues that if we insist they are central problems for which the government solving (or re-solving) will do little to make America a more livable place for the next 100 years. They’re simple re-treads of decided or undecidable law that aim only to energize a political base. Issues that don’t enable substance only compel candidates to blow dog whistles loud enough for their bases to respond to.
If there is a beacon of hope on the horizon, it’s the introduction of the New Green Deal. Not because it’s a good idea. Admittedly, I simply don’t know enough about it yet to make that decision. But it’s something to discuss. It’s a platform that isn’t aimed at winning a culture war. It’s something to say you are for, or against.
Infrastructure investment. Higher Education Reform. Sustainable Healthcare Reform. Economic Development. Climate Change.
There are problems to solve in those domains to make America a better place for the next 100 years. If debating the Green New Deal gets us kick started out of muck of the culture war we’re in now, I’m for it.
Even if I’m against it.