The Struggle to Control America’s Identity

A rightly criticized element of a share of media coverage of American politics is its tendency to focus on processual, superficial or dramatic elements or frames in lieu of serious and substantive information and analysis. A recent column in The New York Times provided an example of such commentary and I share an excerpt below. I do so not to echo that well-founded concern, but to point up that such writing reinforces a deeper pernicious trend evident in our nation’s politics today. The paragraph below is what Maureen Dowd, a writer for The New York Times, concluded in her column on June 24, 2017, a few days after the Democratic Party’s candidate did not win a special election for a Georgia House seat. That position had been occupied previously by Tom Price, now serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services. As you read her comments, keep in mind that a GOP incumbent had served that Atlanta metropolitan area district continuously for more than 40 years before the recent election contest:

The Republicans have a wildly unpopular, unstable and untruthful president, and a Congress that veers between doing nothing and spitting out vicious bills, while the Democratic base is on fire and appalled millennials are racing away from Trump. Yet Democrats are stuck in loser gear. Trump’s fatal flaw is that he cannot drag himself away from the mirror. But Democrats cannot bear to look in the mirror and admit what is wrong.[1]

I am struck by three things when I read this sort of argument from journalists and political commentators, whether it concerns the GOP or Democrats. First, these tautological analyses address process issues and strategy alone, and they typically suggest that if only candidate X or party Z had argued such and such, or run a better campaign or been “better” generally, the outcome could have been different. The answer these writers provide does not treat substance or context, but instead focuses on partisan and rhetorical positioning. These concerns are not necessarily trivial, but they rarely constitute all, or even the most important factors or questions in play in elections. For example, Price’s district has long included a substantial majority of traditional Republican voters and the Democrats had an uphill climb to win it after several decades of GOP dominance, whatever they may have argued and irrespective of who bore their flag. Moreover, it seems clear in the current period of high polarization that the largest share of Republican partisans vote for their Party’s standard bearer regardless of issues, and only a party’s strongest supporters are likely to turn out for such special contests in any case. Polling suggests this committed group of Republican devotees simply cannot bring itself to do much more than abhor the symbol(s) of those with whom they disagree (the other party candidates). This is also true of Democrats in slightly diminished measure in our current venomous political climate.

Second, Dowd’s column, like many others, suggested that those organizing the campaign simply did not get “it,” although what that “it” may be was only broadly or vaguely intimated. The Party and its candidate and mobilization tactics blew “it” nevertheless, since their preferred individual did not win. Again, reality is more difficult than such simplistic conclusions which, however elegant they appear to be, are almost always insufficient and/or wrong, or both. But this sort of claim undoubtedly makes those who offer it feel superior to those they criticize, and Dowd’s sardonic tone in this piece surely places her in that number.

Finally, and most significantly, this form of argument both trivializes and instrumentalizes democratic politics to solely what can mobilize voters and ensure or display the power attained thereby. The dangers in this view of governance are unfortunately already well known in our society. Indeed, the Republican Party has largely turned to this conception of politics in recent decades and now routinely activates its base with appeals to the most basic and base of human instincts, rather than even pretending to appeal to the prudence that deliberative democratic choice-making demands. Consider, for example, that Donald Trump won office by:

  • Blaming minority groups, immigrants and “foreigners” more generally (direct appeals to xenophobia) for the dislocating economic effects of globalization.
  • Blaming government institutions in the abstract as the wellspring for citizen fears of demographic and economic change.
  • Embracing his Party’s inherently elitist redistributive ideology by supporting its proposed revamp of the nation’s health system in a way that would deprive 22-23 million citizens of access to health insurance, a substantial share of them individuals who voted for him, so as to provide a tax cut to the nation’s most wealthy. He did so after telling his supporters repeatedly he would not and claiming, without foundation, that the present system was failing catastrophically and could not be repaired.

Contemplate, too, that in 2016 Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ignored Constitutional language and regime tradition by refusing to consider a qualified Supreme Court nominee, because the nominating President was not of his party. He did so on the basis of the fact that he possessed power in the Senate to do so, and to serve his Party’s perceived partisan advantage and for no other reason.

In sum, we are now witnessing Republican Party elites, including the President and Congressional leaders, employ rhetoric designed to enflame and to appeal to animus and fear of others who are different than oneself or who might not agree with one’s views. These officials do not tell citizens the truth when they adopt their positions, but instead, continue to denigrate “others” (the opposition, immigrants, minorities and so on) as responsible for what are, very often, the negative outcomes of their own policy choices. In this sense, a large number of GOP elected leaders are reveling in the process and strategic exercise of power to gain their personal or ideological ends, irrespective of the implications of their actions for their individual supporters, the broader population, the character of democratic politics or for the health of the nation’s governing institutions. All of this is “justified” as appropriate and necessary to gain the perceived “wins” to obtain the campaign funds and retain the power necessary to serve a market enshrining ideology that so far, across four decades, has stalled national class mobility, created massive and growing income and social inequality, deepened social insecurity and contributed to the impoverishment of millions of Americans.

This is striking as an indicator of the moral and ethical bankruptcy that follows adoption of a view that any rhetoric that gains one’s ends is acceptable. But its implications for millions of GOP enthusiasts who have been persuaded to support such positions by appeals to their fears and worse are deeply paradoxical. As sad as this may be for Republican partisans, the consequences of the GOP’s political turn to demagoguery and faux populism for the polity at large are yet more unnerving and concerning. President Trump and the current congressional Republican majority appear intent on mobilizing voters on the basis of fear-mongering and intemperate “othering” of their fellow citizens, and doing so to exercise power on behalf of corporate elites and the nation’s most wealthy. That is, these officials repeatedly have demonstrated their willingness to employ race baiting, fear, scapegoating, outright lies and much more to galvanize voters to gain and maintain power to reward corporate shareholders and the wealthiest, irrespective of the broader social and political results of doing so or, indeed, whether their actions harm those supporting them.

Americans of all partisan persuasions should be deeply concerned at this display, but many millions are either not aware of it or are willing instead to bask in the hatred and blame-casting persistently offered them. Likewise, millions are deeply aware and concerned, and they will need to remain engaged and active and must add to their number if they are to change our politics’ prevailing tendencies. The current reality cannot lead to any good, and looks set only to divide the nation further on the basis of race, national origin, educational level, ethnicity and religion—an outcome that is, or ought to be, anathema, to all citizens, whatever their professed partisanship. As I ponder this ongoing reality, I am reminded that analysts have lately begun to explore afresh the legacy of the gifted Jesuit scholar, William F. Lynch (1909-1987), who wrote nine books during his lifetime. In his book, Images of Hope, published in 1965, Lynch captured the stark choices that he foresaw American politics could take at that time. Aided and abetted vigorously by an ever more radical GOP, our nation’s politics has clearly embarked on the second path Lynch sketched as a possibility. While his language is dated, Lynch’s insight into where ideological absolutism, fearmongering, scapegoating and devotion to power for its own sake could lead the United States was profound:

We can decide to build a human city, a city of man, in which all men have citizenship, Greek Jew and Gentile, the black and the while, the maimed, the halt and the blind, the mentally well and the mentally ill. … Or we will decide to build various absolute and walled cities from which various pockets of our humanity will always be excluded. They will pose as ideal cities, and will exclude … the Negro, the sick, the different.[2]

Plainly, the United States, in any traditionally accepted understanding of its Constitution, cannot stand if a majority of its elected leaders are guided by a vision that systematically excludes major swathes of the country’s population on whatever basis, nor can democratic self-governance. These are perilous times.

Notes

[1] Dowd, Maureen. “Donald Skunks the Democrats,” The New York Times, June 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/24/opinion/sunday/donald-trump-jon-ossoff-democrats.html Accessed June 25, 2017.

[2] Lynch, William F. Images of Hope, Baltimore, MD.: Helicon Press, p.26.