Whenever Donald Trump asserts a position that he held on the campaign trail, the pundits all join in a chorus: “He’s playing to his base.” What is Trump’s base? A scruffy gang of alt-right trolls led by Bannon? A flock of button-down investment bankers like Mnuchin? The sea of middle-American working-class people stretching from the rust belt to the corn belt to the Bible belt? The doe-eyed innocents who lined up with cash for Trump University, hoping it would lift them from the mire?
Trump once boasted that his base consisted of people so loyal to him that he could go out onto Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and they would still vote for him. They are among those who view him favorably in the polls, a number that hovers around 40% of the electorate in polls, and thus amount to a minority of eligible voters. Only 55% of those eligible actually voted, and the “base “is less than 40% of that. This minority—fewer than 1 in 5 eligible voters(do the math) –is driving radical policy change today in Washington.
Curiously, in the 2016 presidential elections, the least popular candidates captured the nomination of each party on the national stage, and in the general election, the less popular of the two won the electoral vote with a decisive margin, though he narrowly lost the popular vote. This is not how a democracy is supposed to work.
I think the problem arises from this: the process of our elections had taken precedence over the issues. The news media spew statistics, probabilities, and projections where once facts and opinions held sway. Even the “debates”, when reported in the media, are parsed into “sound bytes” of a dozen words or less, and are presented as if who “won” was more important than what the candidates actually said.
Pop culture figures–Ronald Reagan, SonnyBono, Fred “Gopher” Grandy, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Al Franken, to name a few, have huge electoral advantages that have nothing to do with any political competence they mey or may not bring to office. Both parties have become far too beholden to the large the contributions of donors whose identities are kept secret, known only to the pols themselves. Well funded organizations like the AARP and the NRA, have disproportionate influence, over officeholders
The GOP is paralyzed by hidebound ideological sectors—the Freedom Caucus, Neoconservatives, Paleoconservatives and the Tea Party, for instance, while at the same time being nearly homogenous in its whiteness, maleness, and advanced age.
The Democrats have rendered themselves irrelevant by abandoning their working class roots for the easy money in finance and industrial/entertainment behemoths. Procedural rules in Congress have become an instrument, not to protect the voices of minorities, but to suppress dissent or obstruct the process of governance. This is no longer government. It has become blood sport.
The very democracy of our republic is at dire risk, but it is not too late to save it. I offer some ideas which may help. My Democratic bias shows through here. While the Dems are enfeebled by their fundraising zeal, the GOP is moribund from its hidebound ideologies. The failure at the top of government is a bipartisan thing, but right now the Dems are better positioned to recover and set us back on the right track.
1) The Democrats must field candidates with fresh ideas, who are true to the progressive, middle-class values that once drove the party. They must run on ideas and grass-roots cash, forsaking the triumvirate of secret corporate boardrooms, old-school backroom power politics, and a Wall Street that raises oodles of cash for them while their souls atrophy, but repels the middle class voters who have traditionally propelled Democratic candidates into office.
If the Clinton-Sanders experience taught us anything, it is that when cash and ideology clash with fresh ideas and idealism, the energy of the latter can knock the former out of the ring. Do you remember when audacious young Cassius Clay knocked out older veteran Sonny Liston in the first round? And Sanders has shown us that watching ideas flourish can be much more fun than simply watching money flow.
Leaders must lead, but direction and power flow from the bottom up. Fresh ideas and grass-roots funding, propagated by social media, must infuse Democratic campaigns for the White House, Congress, legislatures, state houses, and city halls across America.
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2) Republicans in office, including Mr. Trump, must be encouraged to bluster and fret about healthcare coverage and tax reform, continuing to propose their programs to shift wealth to the already immensely wealthy segment that funds them. At the same time they must be restrained from actually enacting these programs, or dismantling too much of the regulatory infrastructure that protects the middle class from plutocratic predation.
Come election time, Democrats must have the insight and courage to expose these programs for what they are: instruments of the wealthy and powerful to consolidate their wealth and power. They do this at the expense of the working people and the poor, who are ill-equipped to resist. If you want to wield power, there must be someone for you to wield it over.
Fresh ideas must replace the stale ideology of old white men in both parties, and a tide of diverse young faces must flood city halls, statehouses, and Congress. Votes, not cash, win elections, and ideas win votes.
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3) The mechanics of our elections must be fixed. The toxic effect of dark money must be eliminated. All foreign influence, but especially influence with malicious intent, must be expunged. The fixed biases introduced by partisan gerrymandering must be eliminated. The insidious remnants of the political machines must be ferreted out. The obstacles to voting that employ things like voter ID and poll taxes must not be allowed. The usefulness of the Electoral, College in today’s elections needs to be examined. The old goal of ‘one person, one vote’ is still the target to shoot for.
Electronic social media have introduced challenges never faced before. The voters barely feel or understand the invisible hand that pushes them in a certain direction, gently but inexorably. Our very choices on line—websites visited, goods purchased, entertainment views, and so much more—go into the algorithmic hopper and come out as tailor-made “online experiences” designed to nudge our real-world behavior, without our being aware of it, toward goals decreed by others: commercial goals to make us buy a certain product. Political goals to make us vote a certain way. Foreign goals to advance the interest of sovereign governments, like, say, Russia’s? Because this problem was born in technology that can spread ideas across the globe in microsecond, it will probably require a technological fix, which may be different from company to company and country to country. However, we must find that fix, and find it fast.
America has much to be proud of in its elections systems, but it was never perfect. Now it faces challenges from within and without. We must find them and answer them before our democracy evolves into something else. Oligarchy, plutocracy, and autocracy are all waiting in the wings.
4) The biggest challenge facing our democracy is to understand and accept our diversity–of skin colors, faiths, gender identities, ethnic backgrounds, and more. The 20th century idea of the “melting pot”, where everyone, regardless of background, would simply homogenize into a bland uniformity with white, cis-male, Protestant “American” values, will not work. Nor should it. It is good to be proud of your blackness, your Muslim faith, your gay lover, yourself just as you are. Hate and intolerance poison the process. Cooperation and compromise enable it.
Phenotypic diversity in animal populations strengthens them. A fat zebra is less able to outrun a lion than a lean and nimble on, but when famine comes that leanness becomes a liability, and obesity prevails. The species survives both predation and drought because of its diversity; zebrahood lives on.
Populations, too, draw strength from their diversity. To make it work requires not integration, but acceptance. We must see the humanness in people, and not dwell on their Jewishness, or gayness, their accents or the melanin levels in their skins. It must be normal to say, “I believe Jesus Christ is my personal savior, and you believe in the prophet Muhammed, and that’s okay. Right now we are debating tax reform, though, so let’s get to work.” We must listen to, the others who touch our lives, even tangentially, and understand them even if we do not agree. Their views may be informed by their and experiences that differ from yours, but then your ideas spring from your faith and experience, too. Whether your name is Yitzchak, Chiaoxiang, or Mary, we still need to agree on a world that treats all of us fairly.
That is how Democracy works. Diversity makes the process messier and more difficult, but it makes the end result fairer, and more stable. If we really listen to one another, if we can keep intolerance and hate out of the process, if we respect the checks and bzlances and if we can find within ourselves the strength to compromise without abandoning our own interests, diversity will make our country a stronger, better place to live.
That was the gift the Founding Fathers gave America when it was born. It has served us well for nearly two and a half centuries. Let’s not squander it now.