Tuesday, November 3, 2015

This Time Next Year

Being in our nation's capital (for our annual Paulist Fathers' pastors and Superiors Meeting), makes the mind more aware of politics or perhaps makes politics seem more salient. Or so it seems. And, of course, the November 8, 2016 election is now just a little over one year away. It seems like it has been going on forever, of course, since even government has increasingly become all about campaigning constantly more than about governing. 

The chaotic condition and diminishing appeal among non-white, female. and younger voters of the Republican party is well known and obvious even to the most disinterested - or uninterested - observer. But the Democratic party is not without problems either. Thus, last week, Church and State blogger Stephen Schneck (Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America)  posted "Under the Radar: the Democratic party is in Dire Straits," in which he highlighted the disconcerting fact that "nationwide the number of elective offices held by Democrats is at its lowest since Herbert Hoover was president. That bears repeating: The strength of the party as measured by seats held across the country is at its lowest point since the 1920s. The tremendous Democratic coalition fashioned under Franklin Roosevelt—a coalition nurtured through the 1980s—is now in its final stages of collapse." (http://www.uscatholic.org/blog/201510/under-radar-democratic-party-dire-straits-30431#sthash.A3zyuytr.dpuf).

Now, I am old enough to have remembered the old FDR Democratic coalition in its sunset, to have watched it traumatize itself in the necessary but costly battle over civil rights, and then unexpectedly unravel completely in the national and cultural divisions over the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, and subsequent identity politics. I have watched the whole process, of which our contemporary political crisis is the unhappy heir. The result, as Schneck notes so well, is that what he calls the Democrats' current issue profile "has shifted in our time from one about the working class and economically disadvantaged to one that emphasizes the professional classes and the special interests of identity politics. ... It’s said so often as to seem trite, but it really is true that with this shift the party has allowed itself to be choked by a fundraising process dominated by a handful of special interests—at the expense of the party’s future and, frankly, at the expense of America’s public interest. Wherever one stands on a host of issues at the center of America’s identity politics, from abortion to same-sex marriage, surely the interest groups associated with such issues should not have effective control over candidate development and the fundraising mechanisms of the party. To effectively contest elections, the party needs to field candidates who reflect the issue profiles of their local constituencies. More importantly, if it is to again become the governing party, the Democratic Party must embrace a big tent coalition of constituencies with a public interest—and not special interest—vision."

As Schneck says, this has been said before - many times before and so seems trite. But it is at the heart of much of our national political dysfunction. In fact, both political parties have become captives of the special interests that dominate the intra-party conversation and have little incentive to reach out beyond there. That's a process problem, but even worse it is also a substantive problem, in that each party has become captive to what one might call its extremist libertarian wing. In the case of the Republicans, the party has become captive to an anti-tax, anti-government, anti-society mentality that, by inhibiting governmental action to repair our fractured society, serves instead the interests of the already very rich and powerful. On the Democratic side, a cultural libertarianism that enshrines the most morally and socially destructive consequences of the sexual revolution has inhibited the party from addressing (or even acknowledging) the moral and cultural causes contributing to contemporary social breakdown, which especially hurts those at the bottom of the social pyramid (the people the FDR coalition once identified with and sought to serve), serving instead the interests of a different elite of rich and powerful.

A major challenge going forward will be whether either party (or some as yet non-existent alternative) can break out of this current trap and recover the social solidarity (and the accompanying economic prosperity for many) that the older Democratic party once stood for and imperfectly but still very successfully promoted and advanced.

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