Dis­so­ci­at­ing from gov­ern­ment

The Standard Journal - - COMMENTARY - David M. Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib­[email protected], 412 263-1890). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manPG. By David Shrib­man NEA Con­trib­u­tor

Not check­ers. Not Chi­nese check­ers. Chi­nese check­ers in three di­men­sions. In zero grav­ity. That is as good a sum­mary as any of the Byzan­tine Amer­i­can pol­i­tics of 2018, with midterm con­gres­sional elec­tions loom­ing, with ma­jor is­sues freighted with im­por­tant cul­tural over­tones un­re­solved, with a pres­i­dent both on the at­tack and un­der at­tack, with a nuclear cri­sis in East Asia, with vi­tal trade pacts sur­rounded by un­cer­tainty and with mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions un­der­way.

Or­di­nar­ily, midterm con­gres­sional elec­tions — and in­deed, all the pol­i­tics pe­riph­eral to them — come down to ba­sic core ques­tions: Is the econ­omy sound? Is the na­tion safe? Is the pres­i­dent han­dling his du­ties rea­son­ably well? Does cul­tural re­bel­lion or so­cial un­rest cloak the land­scape?

Here’s the co­nun­drum at a glance: An im­por­tant Gallup study re­leased last au­tumn found that “Amer­i­cans’ views of gov­ern­ment re­main neg­a­tive.” In an or­di­nary time that would mean, among other things, that the pub­lic is im­pa­tient with the head of the gov­ern­ment, the pres­i­dent, and to some ex­tent that is true. But wait. This pres­i­dent, Don­ald J. Trump, may head the gov­ern­ment, but he also may be its big­gest critic. His view of the gov­ern­ment re­mains neg­a­tive.

That study also showed that barely one Amer­i­can in four says he or she is sat­is­fied with the way the coun­try is be­ing gov­erned, which is a slightly dif­fer­ent cri­tique. That goes di­rectly to the pres­i­dent and the Congress, whose mem­bers in large mea­sure don’t like the way the gov­ern­ment is be­ing op­er­ated, ei­ther, even though they are the prin­ci­pal op­er­a­tors of it.

First, the Repub­li­cans. The pres­i­dent is nom­i­nally one, though from time to time he ex­co­ri­ates his own al­lies on Capi­tol Hill. Those con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans give some, but of­ten not enough, sup­port to their own pres­i­dent to pur­sue his campaign pri­or­i­ties, which in­cluded re­peal­ing Oba­macare (not ac­com­plished), low­er­ing taxes (ac­com­plished with­out a sin­gle Demo­cratic vote), and tight­en­ing im­mi­gra­tion (not re­solved). But there are sev­eral wings to the mod­ern Repub­li­can Party, so many that, to ex­tend the metaphor, it can­not quite fly straight.

There are Repub­li­cans who think of them­selves as Ed­mund Burke con­ser­va­tives (wor­ship­ful of tra­di­tion, crit­i­cal of fash­ion, skep­ti­cal of ex­cess). There are Repub­li­cans who think of them­selves as Ron­ald Rea­gan con­ser­va­tives (op­ti­mistic in out­look, ded­i­cated to a small gov­ern­ment). There are Newt Gin­grich con­ser­va­tives (fo­cused on fu­tur­ism, fa­vor­ing small busi­ness over big). There are Jack Kemp con­ser­va­tives (con­ge­nial to mi­nori­ties, con­vinced that growth is the key to free­dom). There are the new Free­dom Cau­cus con­ser­va­tives (con­temp­tu­ous of tra­di­tional GOP lead­er­ship, es­pe­cially those with a taste for com­pro­mise). And there are con­ser­va­tives (many of them in­tel­lec­tual-ori­ented, such as Wil­liam Kris­tol and David Brooks) who be­lieve Trump is no con­ser­va­tive at all.

Now, the Democrats. They’re in no bet­ter shape, united only by their op­po­si­tion to Trump. That was enough to op­pose the tax bill, but not enough to have any in­flu­ence upon it. And the party, at the top, is frac­tured, though in the fa­mil­iar Demo­cratic way — a pres­i­den­tial party for a party out of power and a non-pres­i­den­tial party for a party that hopes to re­gain the pres­i­dency in 2020.

An ex­pla­na­tion: There are sev­eral Democrats — Kirsten Gil­li­brand of New York, El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, maybe Ka­mala Har­ris of Cal­i­for­nia, per­haps even Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont (79 by Elec­tion Day 2020) and Joe Bi­den of Delaware (78 by In­au­gu­ra­tion Day) — ag­gres­sively po­si­tion­ing them­selves for pres­i­den­tial runs. Their fo­cus is on 2020, not the leg­isla­tive de­tails of 2018, ex­cept to the ex­tent that the fights of this year will po­si­tion them for the pres­i­den­tial fundrais­ing blitz of next year. They don’t call money the first pri­mary for noth­ing.

Then there are all the per­mu­ta­tions: Demo­cratic sen­a­tors run­ning in states car­ried by Trump (which ac­counts for last week’s fis­sures on ex­ten­sion of the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals, or DACA, is­sue). Repub­li­cans wor­ried about chal­lenges from the right (Steve Ban­non may have been ban­ished, but his power is not ex­tin­guished.) Repub­li­cans wary of Trump’s per­son­al­ity and char­ac­ter but gen­er­ally sup­port­ive of his pri­or­i­ties (more than you might think, on both sides of the “but”).

The re­sult: Repub­li­cans aren’t talk­ing to each other, nor to Democrats. Democrats don’t trust Repub­li­cans, and some of them are angling for per­sonal ad­van­tage, per­haps to the detri­ment of the party’s long-term in­ter­ests. Large num­bers of Amer­i­cans don’t feel they are be­ing lis­tened to by the small num­ber who do all the talk­ing, of­ten in a preach­ing tone.

Is there any hope? There might be, if you con­sider how a trio of dis­tin­guished Euro­pean his­to­ri­ans eval­u­ates the un­in­tended con­se­quences of the Re­for­ma­tion: “a re­li­gious move­ment that con­trib­uted to Europe’s sec­u­lar­iza­tion.”

This pe­riod of po­lit­i­cal hy­per­ten­sion, po­lit­i­cal alien­ation and po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion just might con­trib­ute to some kind of new equi­lib­rium, where, to ap­ply the Re­for­ma­tion prece­dent, the su­per- par­ti­san­ship of the cur­rent era may lead to bi­par­ti­san­ship. Mem­bers of the po­lit­i­cal elite — even the pop­ulists among the elite — can­not af­ford a fur­ther de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of our civic life, and to save their own rep­u­ta­tions they may move to save the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem they com­prise. In sav­ing them­selves, they may save the rest of us. Other­wise we may be con­signed to play Chi­nese check­ers in three di­men­sions in zero grav­ity for a long time, with no win­ner.

David Shrib­man

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