It seems that with every presidential election cycle we hear that, “this is the most important election we’ve ever had”. Having been said so often in recent years that may be seen as “crying wolf”, something to be ignored. Yet once again, I find myself not merely wanting to say but to shout, “this is the most important election ever”. Why is that so? The simple answer is that the major parties have become so distinct from one another that elections do matter more than before. Make no mistake; the country’s future direction will be on next November’s ballot. There will be consequences.
Consider the drama currently playing out on Capital Hill and, most especially, the dysfunction in recent years. No, it isn’t that we have a president of one party and a congress of the other. That has happened often, including in fairly recent history. What makes this time different is that the two parties who were once distinguishable only at the margin — both had a range of opinion and philosophy within — are now more sharply ideologically divided than they have been in many years, certainly in our memory. And ideology is the right word, especially on the Republican side. The GOP has moved hard right. The current House speakership battle is all about institutionalizing that shift.
The shift — transforming the Republican Party into the “Conservative Party” — has been building for years with Tea-driven primary voters systematically turning out non-conforming office holders. That there is a question about Paul Ryan’s conservative bona fides (what else is he) or whether the 2016 presidential wannabes are sufficiently pure tells you all you need to know. The only fly in their ointment is the continuing interference of the “money class” which has been in control for so long, and still weighs heavily. Office seekers want their financial support, but seem to be pushing back against the attached strings. That tension continues, especially relative to the presidential contest, the race that still counts the most.
The contrast between Republican and Democratic presidential debates couldn’t have been sharper. Beyond the obvious, that one party has a clear front-runner and the other has a contest that remains in flux, the ideological divide was as conspicuous as I’ve seen it. Democrats and Republicans don’t’ simply differ on approaches to national security, education, healthcare, voting rights, gun control and economic/tax policy; they often hold diametrically opposed positions, seeing life and the country through totally different eyes. If FDR, who faced similar political forces in the 1940s, was known as “the happy warrior”, today’s Republicans seem wedded, as David Remnick put it in the New Yorker, to “the politics of perpetual fear”.
When I moved to North Carolina just nine plus years ago, Democrats controlled the governor’s chair and legislature. Today, Republicans hold both. The change has been dramatic with, for example, huge cuts to both public schools and higher education. The UNC system, long regarded as a national model, is now being starved of cash and deeply politicized; the state ranks close to the bottom in public school teacher pay and support. The legislature has made a systematic effort to suppress voting, especially among minorities and university students (assumed Democratic voters) under the guise of preventing non-existent voter fraud. Thanks in part to the Supreme Court essentially gutting the Voting Rights act, this is happening all over the South.
North Carolina changed hands and it had consequences. Certainly it mattered from where I sit as a liberal. George W. Bush was elected president and it mattered — taxes were cut, deficit ballooned, Wall Street went wild and we got ourselves into two major wars with disastrous outcomes. Perhaps more consequential, we got the conservative business-friendly Roberts Court. Barack Obama was elected and that too had consequences. We averted a potential depression, saw our economy (albeit selectively) recover and got the Affordable Care Act. We began the long and messy process of unwinding ourselves from unwinnable conflicts, though that remains an elusive and unresolved struggle. Perhaps most important, we finally began to seriously address climate change and saw two liberal women jurists join the Court.
With the Republican hard right turn something has also happened to Democrats — the beginnings of a notable contrary shift left. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are manifestations of that, but they only reflect a more widespread reaction to the harsh realities and consequences of present day conservatism. The turn left was the big take away from last week’s debate, one in which long time centrist Hillary Clinton, embraced the progressive label. That was in sharp contrast to her husband’s preaching back in 1992. His approach to besting Republicans was to offer a complementary Democratic approach, tokened by “ending welfare as we know it”. That ultimately led, among others, to the repeal of Glass Steagall, a landmark of the party’s New Deal years. Such centrism is out of sync with today’s party, which seeks to keep this progressive generation of young people along with women, African Americans, Latinos and other immigrants under its tent. Gun control wasn’t only on the table in Las Vegas; it was vigorously supported. That alone speaks to the great divide.
Republicans have long advocated limited government. Now, as they’ve moved to the far right, their agenda seems aimed at choking off any government at all — except of course when their state faces a disaster or perhaps wants its endangered waterfront properties rebuilt with taxpayer funds. It’s hard to observe Republican “rule” on the Hill without coming to the conclusion that they truly want to immobilize government — read that “Democrat government” — altogether, the consequences be damned. That has taken us from brink to brink.
But, as others have pointed out, this obstructionism is transparently clear. The cries for smaller or no government really are intentionally targeted at the disadvantaged not the affluent and more specifically at programs or activities with which they disagree. As Hillary Clinton said during the debate, “They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood.” She continued, “We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain, ‘big government this, big government that.’ ” Simply put, their ideological commitment to smaller government, not to mention deficit reduction is, generously put, highly selective.
Perhaps watching disarray in the House, some Democrats are happily projecting its advantageous impact on 2016. Hold your glee. For one thing, problems on the Hill rarely, if ever, predict how a presidential election goes. That you or I may think the GOP majority members are acting like buffoons doesn’t mean that others — especially their constituents in heavily gerrymandered districts — agree. More importantly, who becomes Speaker won’t really factor into who is elected president. What happens in Parliament might determine who becomes Prime Minister in the UK, but we have an altogether different system. Presidential candidates, the Electoral College notwithstanding, face a national electorate. Separation of Powers is more than just a mode of governance. That’s precisely why we can have a Democrat in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress. So, while we certainly have to look at the presidential race in some larger political context there are limits.
The outcome of the election ahead, as always, will depend in large measure on the two party nominees and how they stand up against each other. And let’s not forget the nuts and bolts mechanics of gaining votes — the effectiveness of the ground operation and access to sufficient money. How voters feel about the current president and if they think eight years of a Democrat in the job is enough is likely to play as well. But this year, it is possible that the more clearly defined differences between Democrats and Republicans will mater eve more. I hope so. In that regard, there may be no more important long-term issue at hand than the balance of power on the Supreme Court. Yes, the Court may matter more to our future than the wars overseas or the economy at home. The next president is likely to have multiple appointments to make. That really will have long term consequences.