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This was published in the Roanoke Times on Thanksgiving, 24 November 2016. It is available at this link: http://www.roanoke.com/opinion/commentary/rush-a-thanksgiving-prayer/article_e8cd4298-e6ef-5ba0-9eb0-e21711b8c600.html
I served as dean of a college in the Middle East for three years. It was impressive to see and hear the United States discussed so frequently in critical terms by denizens of a part of the world in which anti-western sentiment is common.
Questions about the USA frequently focused on our politics. Over there, it didn’t matter if the president were a Democrat or a Republican. American military presence in the region had endured under both parties and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bore the imprimatur of Democrats and Republicans. From this perspective, it was never difficult for an observer to identify the contradictions in our political rhetoric, to find reason to cast aspersions on the performance of our political system or, simply, to be angry with the United States.
This same sort of visceral anger has rendered this election year perhaps the most regrettable, divisive, dangerous, ominous… (the list of adjectives goes on) in our history. The tenor of presidential debates was debased as the candidates spent as much time trading insults as they did addressing the pressing economic problems and growing economic inequality that generate fear and anger among voters of all races and walks of life.
In retrospect, it is horrifying to see that our political system is now as adept at generating anti-Americanism at home as it has been abroad.
It was, at first, a great challenge to try to explain the beauty of the USA to people whose views of our politics and culture are shaped by the same media that has taken sides in this election. As long as an observer focused on our contemporary politics, it was difficult to convince him or her to look further or more deeply.
As an antidote to this outlook (or perhaps, as a distraction), I would encourage angry observers to look to another American tradition that transcends and predates our politics: Thanksgiving. No, not Christmas or the 4th of July…no presents, fireworks, flag waving or gifts that had to be returned. Instead, I encouraged folks to look at the holiday on which Americans put aside politics, join hands in thanks and share a meal that symbolizes the celebration of the harvest.
This is, I would argue, American culture at its best. It was not an exaggeration, I would tell them, that even mortal enemies’ hearts would soften if they knew that someone was spending Thanksgiving alone. Better to share a meal and fall asleep watching football than to expend energy on divisive politics. Life is better if enemies pause occasionally to find common ground (and acknowledge that it exists). It was amazing and heartwarming to see that even the most visceral critics of our politics would soften at the thought of our Thanksgiving tradition.
It is serendipitous that Thanksgiving comes just a couple of weeks after Election Day. This year, more than ever, the country needs to rediscover its common ground in the wake of an election that has exposed and rubbed salt in virtually every political wound imaginable. Despite occasional acknowledgments of accord (Kaine and Pence agreed that our communities and police need to heal wounds and work together) and respect (by God, Donald Trump is a good father and Hillary Clinton is a tenacious fighter) our presidential candidates have done little to suggest that the country can move forward together to solve the economic problems that divide it.
Despite the damage done to the electorate by the septic rhetoric of the presidential campaign and the fallout of the election, Thanksgiving looms once again as a chance to demonstrate to ourselves that there is more that unites the nation than divides it. In ancient Greece, city-states would pause wars and put down their weapons to celebrate the Olympics. Maybe the country can put this election behind us in a spirit of Thanksgiving…Amen.
If you want to understand what’s going on in American politics, look around the world. Whether we Americans like it or not, American exceptionalism is and always has been a myth. The country is subject to the same forces that shape the world. It is just that, throughout out our history, geography, economics and wealth have protected us.
No more. Technology has overcome geography. Financial crises that begin in Thailand end up destroying our real estate markets. The Occupy Wall Street movement and the occupation of public lands in Oregon are echoes of the Arab Spring. The nation is wealthy, but not as wealthy as it was when, in the mid-20th century, much of the nonwestern world lived in relatively desperate conditions. Now, the wealth in Asia and the Middle East rivals that in the west.
Global politics has changed. The wave of change that began with the fall of the Berlin wall now manifests itself around the world as the far right and the far left challenge politics as usual.
We saw this in the Spanish election of 2015. For decades, Spain was the poster child of democratic transitions. It seemed to prove that a nation could escape the oppression of a Francoist right wing dictatorship and transform into a modern, liberal polity. Of course, it helped that Spain was located on the western frontier of the European Union. Spain wanted access to Europe’s markets and vice versa.
It is easy to transform peacefully amidst wealth.
But, 40 years after Franco’s death, Spain experienced an electoral earthquake. New, populist parties on the right and the left arose and destroyed the center-right Popular Party and the Center-Left Socialists. Podemos (“we can”) challenged the Socialists’ antiquated notions of European welfare and the Citizens’ Party expressed impatience with the Center-Right’s inability to challenge the increasingly antiquated Socialists. So, the young rose up on the right and the left and challenged the comfortable centrist status quo that their political parents and grandparents had created.
In the United States, we feel the repercussions of this same impatience with politics as usual. Trump is succeeding because his many GOP rivals will not yield in favor of a stronger, party organization that has lacked a coherent ideology since Ronald Reagan challenged the Soviet Union. The GOP rivals are playing a dangerous game of chicken in which, it is clear, no one is likely to swerve. The most likely result will be a brokered convention.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders embodies the anger of the Occupy Movement and the youth who have no loyalty to the Democratic Party status quo. Sanders’ undoing will be that he must challenge the Clinton political machine. Whereas Trump can play a cautious game in which he seeks only to ensure a brokered political convention (a virtual certainty as long as he has double-digit rivals), Bernie must look to defeat Hillary Clinton one-on-one. That is unlikely to happen so long as she has Bill Clinton campaigning for her.
What will come of this election? It will not be the revolution that Bernie Sanders seeks. But, we can expect that the GOP will seize this opportunity to reform its nomination process and the political party structure. Presidential candidates must endure a lengthy, expensive nomination process that was designed in response to Richard Nixon’s campaigns. Reacting to his reliance on great sums of money and insider politics, the Democrats opened up their presidential primaries to let the people chose their nominee. The process as designed to ensure that virtually anyone could run for president and win.
As we see in 2016, anyone can and does run. “Anyone” was supposed to be a peanut farmer from Georgia who is able to challenge the political party establishment by taking principled stands and running as an outsider. As we see in 2016 (and saw in 2012), “Anyone” includes the wealthy as well as the commoners. The result is a GOP that has not had a coherent, central ideology (try to triangulate Sarah Palin, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump) and a Democratic Party that is torn between a weakened, wishy-washy middle and an angry populist left wing.
The reforms of the 1970s have begotten unbeatable, gerrymandered incumbents, skyrocketing election costs, political parties with no ideological core, and presidential candidates who struggle to govern alongside an entrenched Congress. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump may not be the ideal presidential candidates for their parties or the United States. But, they manifest the deep-seeded discontent that the people have for their political system. Sanders may not win. The best Trump can hope for is to force a brokered convention at which he will not win.
The result will be a move towards stronger, more ideologically coherent political parties that guard their nominations from pillaging by outsiders such as Trump and Palin. We will not return to the smoke-filled rooms of yore. But, not just anyone will be able to hijack the nomination process and leave the people with a choice among candidates that really represent neither political party.
The 2016 election will go down in history as a watershed election that brought the political revolutions from across the globe into U.S. Politics. It’s impact will be felt far into the 21st century.
The recent survey by Pew (http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/) has folks wondering about the direction U.S> Politics is taking. America has a very moderate political tradition. It embodies an institutional and historical rejection of European party politics. During the Founding Era, James Madison wrote his celebrated Federalist 10 in which he lamented the evils of faction. Alas, they are necessary to politics and include the notion of political parties. (Madison later acknowledged the necessity of political parties).
But, the American political system is designed to make it difficult for third or minor parties to succeed. In recent decades we have seen independent presidential candidates such as John Anderson and Ross Perot rise and fall. The winner-take all electoral system is designed to defeat small ideological parties because it is nearly impossible for them to win.
Some scholars celebrate this. It prevents the proliferation of narrow, ideologically distinct political parties (such as those that might spring from right-wing movements like the Tea Party) and forces such movements to join the ranks of the two larger parties, moderate their views and form successful governing coalitions under the umbrella of the Democrats or Republicans.
Unfortunately, there is no doubt that the major parties have atrophied as a result of the lack of true challenges outside of the duopoly they operate. Campaign finance laws favor the major parties. Legislative and congressional districts are gerrymandered to ensure that only Democrats or Republicans can win. And, the winner take all electoral system dooms third parties to failure in the long run.
We could change all this. American cites use and experiment with alternative electoral systems that enable small parties to grow. Europe has had multiparty systems for some time and European democracy flourishes.
Alas, as we have seen in the wake of the defeat of Eric Cantor, as soon as the major parties perceive a threat to their duopoly, they can look to close ranks (or, in this case, the nomination process) to prevent small parties from gaining power. Ironically, in the land of the free market, the political marketplace has the highest barriers to entry.