Sunday, October 23, 2016

What Happened to the Party of Lincoln? Can We Get it Back?

The short answer is no.

And although I will be looking at what I see as a “bright spot” in his political message, let me be clear in stating up front that Mr. Trump is a thoroughly despicable, untrustworthy, and psychologically unhinged individual.

The Two Party System is almost certainly the two faces shown to the public by a single oligarchy.  The oligarchy benefits from providing the public with an illusion of choice.  The precedent for this is found in the former Soviet Union, where voters could choose between candidates but all of the candidates hewed to the same party line.  Evidence that the two parties share a single pro-oligarch agenda is ample, but some of the more salient examples are (1) the complete absence of political effort to overturn Citizen’s United, (2) the continuing favorable tax treatment of corporations, (3) policies which subsidize the replacement of American jobs with low-paid foreign labor, either through foreign outsourcing or “insourcing” immigrant labor to replace Americans, and (4) an unforgivably laggardly performance with respect to raising the minimum wage. 

Nonetheless, it is worth thinking about the possibility – however fanciful -- that, even within the constraints offered by the Two Party System, the will of the people might find expression.  The occasion for this musing is that question posed up front, “what happened to the Party of Lincoln?”
As even the casual student of history knows, the Republican Party that Abraham Lincoln represented was the anti-slavery party.  Lincoln’s adversaries were pro-slavery Democrats.  A series of unfortunate political events ensued.  In time, leaders of the Republican Party latched onto a “Southern Strategy” which relied on overt and covert race-baiting and racial antagonism to win the loyalty of White Southern voters.  The Democratic Party started to champion the aims of the Civil Rights Movement and leaders such as FDR, JFK and LBJ took concrete steps to address racial inequality, facing staunch resistance by Republicans. 

The Republican Party that Abraham Lincoln represented was also the party of Protectionism.  One of the more fascinating developments of the 2016 election cycle is the emergence of popular support for changes in policy to better protect American labor from the predations of low-cost foreign labor.  We saw this emerge among Bernie Sanders’ supporters and among Trump supporters.  We have also seen the political establishment rise up with startling ferocity to quash both of these candidates.  The Democratic Party turned against one of its own.  The Republican Party turned against one of its own. 
And yet, millions of Americans seem to have awaken to the fact that Protectionism is a good idea.  These same Americans are undoubtedly the Americans who have been most severely and most directly affected by the closure of American factories or by the resulting decline in the revenue of cities and states that have lost large numbers of jobs.

Sure, many learned academics have told us the Protectionism is folly.  They used to tell us that so-called “free trade” policies will ultimately benefit the American economy.  Nowadays, they are a little less willing to make that assertion, but they will say instead that “there is no alternative.”  If the United States is not on board with “free trade” and globalization, it will fall behind.  

The lie revealed: Globalization has not benefited U.S. GDP.

The big surprise of the 2016 election cycle has been the waking up of millions of Republican voters to the reality that “free trade” policies have harmed them.  Rank-and-file Republicans have the reputation of being staunch defenders of business interests and staunch defenders of the holy principle of “free market economics.”  They still are.  But they’ve clearly caught wise to the fact that “free trade” belongs in scare quotes.  It is a misleading label for U.S. trade practices.  It is a way of disguising the fact that trade agreements are earmarks for a small group of large, multinational corporations.  These large, multinational corporations are anathema to free markets because they are very simply the modern expression of Gilded Era trusts and monopolies.  Heads of said corporations also contribute lavish sums to certain effective, influential, and acquiescent politicians.  And so, mirabile dictu, it is on conservative-friendly sites like the Drudge Report and Breitbart that one sees expressions such as “crony capitalism.”  That’s the sort of turn-of-phrase that belongs in the mouths of persons who have studied Karl Marx and are smart enough to recognize that, for all the rubbish he said, Marx made some valid points.  

Rank-and-file Republicans appear to have evolved intellectually.  It’s sad to say that many Democrats – specifically, supporters of Hillary Clinton – have not shown a similar evolution in thinking.  Some of her supporters might have qualms about trade agreements but are content to believe Secretary Clinton when she tells voters reassuring things about her positions on foreign trade.  They’re more concerned with what they see as more pressing issues such as which bathrooms transsexuals are allowed to use.  Others among her supporters believe what the learned academics have been saying about the benefits of globalization.  They’re the ones who were shocked and appalled by the results of the Brexit vote (by the way, the powers in Great Britain are busily engaged in devising a strategy for overriding the will of the British voters who chose the Brexit source).  

The sticking point is race.  The ugly truth is that many Trump supporters are unabashed virulent Confederate flag-waving racists.  As long as the racists put a face on the Republican Party, the party that was once the party of Lincoln is doomed to failure.  The demographic reality is such that non-whites are becoming an increasingly large constituency and white, economically disadvantaged blue-collar Republicans will less and less of an impact on future elections.  As one republican leader pointed out with unusual candor, “The demographics race we're losing badly,” according to senator Lindsey Graham. "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."

The Republican Party of today is not a party that African Americans could ever embrace.  And maybe that’s for the best.  Today’s rank-and-file Republicans haven’t completely figured out crony capitalism, after all.  

Republicans came out strongly in support of projects such as Keystone XL based on the false idea that the oil flowing through that pipeline would have benefited Americans (in fact, that oil was intended for export to China).  Support for Keystone XL has a lot to do with the fact that many Red States are also states which benefit economically from the onshore oil extraction industry.  Just as blithe “keep the oil in the ground” sloganeering comes from blue states which do not benefit economically from the onshore oil extraction industry (there’s a lot to be said for keeping the oil in the ground, but that argument would probably be more effective if blue-staters acknowledged the fact that there are Americans whose livelihoods depend on oil extraction, and were prepared to discuss what to do about people whose livelihoods depend on that industry and who aren’t trained to do anything else).

A couple of pleasant surprises, but also more of the same-old.

Republicans also continue to adhere to the specious “small government is better” argument.  Now, to the extent that government is in the thrall of bankers and multinationals, I can’t be entirely unsympathetic to the idea of reining in government.  And yet, that Reagan-era slogan doesn’t hold water anymore.  Even the most basic and essential and uncontroversial of public services, such as clean drinking water and infrastructure maintenance, are imperiled because cities and states invested public money with Big Banks and are now impoverished by the usurious interest payments imposed by the likes of Goldman Sachs.  And because good-paying jobs are being systematically taken away from Americans, the old way of Republican thinking, “get a job and pay your own way” has lost its currency.  We need good schools now more than ever. 

Pardon my digressions.  The point is that the Democratic Party, of the two major parties, is in a very strong position to court and retain African American voters.  Moreover, there are millions of white voters who are passionately concerned about race relations and abhor the racism that is all-too-characteristic of the Republican Party.  

The tragic irony is that the Democratic Party answer to racial inequality is not all that effective.  African-American scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Sheryll Cashin have provided compelling arguments to the effect that affirmative action only benefits a relatively few African Americans – specifically, the handful who are (1) unaffected by neighborhood racial inequality (for example, the affluent African Americans who benefit from affirmative action for no good reason) or (2) somehow manage to overcome the adverse effects of neighborhood racial inequality and apply for college or apply for good-paying jobs, only to find themselves unprepared for success.  Nor can one seriously argue that fronting an African American candidate for president has ameliorated the problem of racial inequality in America.  But such is the desperation of the African American community that its members will respond with enthusiasm to even the emptiest of gestures on their behalf.

So, to answer my own question, the Party of Lincoln won’t come back until we as a people rediscover the courage of our Founders.  When the Founders were faced by oppression, they did not respond the way people usually respond to fear and anxiety.  They did not close their eyes.  They did not stop using their brains.  They did not bury their heads in mindless entertainments.  They stood up.  They took the measure of their oppressor.  They acted.