Caught In Mega-Trends: Economics And Diversity

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

For me, REM provided the soundtrack for the 2010s: “It’s the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine.” I have probably listened to that song 500 times since Donald Trump became the Republican nominee.  The world is coming apart, but hey, I feel fine, right?

Now Rick Wilson, one of the leaders of the Never Trump conservative tribe, has published a piece that says most of what I am thinking and feeling as the 2010 come to an end.  Most, but not all.

Wilson begins with a reminder that catastrophe is sometimes gradual:

History‘s greatest trick is that our innate human bias toward normalcy always lures us into complacency. You wake up in the morning and the coffee still tastes largely the same, the water runs, the lights come on. It feels almost ordinary. You walk the dogs, check the news, and while on some rare days it’s a 9/11, even the biggest moments in history are hard to see up close.

The idea of change coming in sharp, traumatic, explosive moments is largely an illusion. The signs are always there before the moments that make the history books and the “where were you when?” times.

He goes on to list all the ills afflicting America:  the growing divide between rich and poor, the rise of intolerance and hate crimes, falling life expectancies, the breakdown of our political system.  It’s not a pretty picture.

The bottom line is we live in a world being torn apart by two mega trends.  First, the unparalleled era of post-world War II economic growth ended over 30 years ago, but it created an expectation – an “American Dream” – that was never realistic. The boomer generation came to expect that even people without college degrees were entitled to an upper middle-class lifestyle, and we passed that delusion onto our kids and grandkids.  The harsh reality is global economic competition means that you need an advanced education, or advanced technical training in order to do well today — as was true before World War II. Millions of Americans are not able to match the living standard achieved by their parents and they are looking for someone to blame.

Second, immigration and differing birth rates among racial groups are making America more diverse. We will soon be a majority-minority nation.  Americans have always been divided about the whole “melting pot” theory of America. High tides of immigration have always caused stress.

Economic angst layered on top racial or ethnic tension — that mixture has always been toxic. We went through similar turmoil in the 1850s and the 1920-30s.  We are once again two nations, divided by race, culture, and education.

None of this is new.  I am now reading Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America, in which he writes about similar periods from our past.  The rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was pure MAGA.  Huey Long sounded just like Bernie Sanders. But here’s the difference:  the South lost the Civil War, the Klan and the John Birch society were suppressed, Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy never became President.  But during the 2010s the bad guys won more than they lost.

These forces have broken our political system.  Tribal partisanship has paralyzed Congress. The minority wins elections.  And the election of Donald Trump, a man whose message, lack of experience, and appalling lack of character would have made his election laughable any time in the past, signals that something has gone terribly wrong in our body politic.  Millions and millions of Americans know exactly who and what Trump is and support him anyway. That alone is terrifying.

Which brings us to the most significant and dangerous development of the 2010s:  the collapse of Reaganism, and the rise of the TrumpGOP. Our two-party system only works if both parties are responsible and capable of governing.  The Republican Party’s embrace of nationalist populism has made the party of Lincoln a threat to the Constitution.

We are in the midst of a historic and perilous realignment of our party system.  As I wrote recently:

The election of 2016 started, or perhaps accelerated, the movement towards a seventh party system. Reaganite elites lost touch with the Republican base, and lost control over their party. Republican base voters support Trump because they agree with him. They are instinctively protectionist and isolationist. And their nativist passion to restrict immigration is now the driving force of the new “conservative movement.”

The Republican Party of the sixth party system is gone. The GOP has lost college educated voters, especially women, and with them, the suburbs they used to win. The party now is made up primarily of white, evangelical protestants — which is a huge voting bloc — and non-college educated whites. And those in control of the GOP now are content to double down on this coalition, rather than try and take back moderate suburbanites.

The Democratic Party was nearly also transformed in 2016, but Clinton/Obama elites held off the rise of Bernie Sanders and Democratic Socialism. But that battle continues. 2020 will likely settle things. Either the Ds will remain a center-left party dedicated to perfecting the New Deal structures, or it will become much more liberal, much closer to European social democratic movements. This is what the American left has long wanted.

We are now in the seventh party system. The question is, what will that system ultimately look like?

So, where do we go from here?  Job 1 is the defeat of Donald Trump and his party.  Healing and progress are not possible until Trump is out of office. Conservative independents, and current and former Republicans need to do what was once unthinkable and join forces with the Democrats.  We need to go out and actively work for the defeat of Trump and Trumpism. The newly announced Lincoln Project is the first manifestation of this effort.

Of course, this will be much easier if the Democrats nominate a centrist, rather than a socialist.  Much now depends on what happens in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the Super Tuesday states over the next two months.  

Going forward America needs to return to traditional, centrist One Nation policies.  (What do I mean? Read this earlier essay I wrote.) Ideally the Democratic Party will expand, taking in disaffected former Republicans, and become a broad center-left coalition that can actually govern.  If, however, the Ds move too far left a new centrist party will become a necessity. America will not long tolerate being limited to choosing fascism or socialism.

The center must stand up and fight.  Our victory is not guaranteed, but neither is defeat.  The world we knew is gone. This decade we need to create a new one.

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