Hillary, Bernie and American Politics

By Jack Russell

Maine citizens will caucus on March 5 and 6 to consider the Republican and Democratic candidates for president. We gather in lively times for both parties. Republicans roil through a rude race that may rend their party beyond repair. Democrats debate with ardor how to define, defend and deepen the Obama legacy. These contests froth up the best political TV since Watergate.

Opportune cynics whose religious wardrobe, money and free-market myths have been a rising influence in the Republican Party since before the “Reagan Revolution” are ascendant – but their long steady stream of waste-messaging has formed some currents they cannot now control.

The candidates atop polls of Republican primary voters define the challenge. Trump’s dog-whistle nationalism calls out to the racist residuum of an alienated white working class stressed for a generation and the middle-class nativist flank of the Tea Party. “The Donald” dribbles in just enough safety-net status quo to pitch populist to the gullible.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a more disciplined whistler, may ride his evangelical and reactionary right constituencies to the Cleveland convention, where frantic keepers of the Republican Party would decide if he is a Cruz they can bear.

Bubble Boy Sen. Marco Rubio will rise in the polls inflated by Right Establishment huff-and-puff now that the wheels are off the Jeb Bush-wagon. But both The Donald and Unbearable Cruz have flush piggy banks that buy them rights to mud-wallow all the way to the convention.

On the Democratic side, the TV is less entertaining, but the contest more consequential. Many Hillary Clintonistas see Sen. Bernie Sanders as a promise-all penny-piper playing a few program notes with no plan to pay for what he proposes. Clinton, to her credit, has been less harsh in her critique, but her loyal long-knives came out post-New Hampshire.

Many who are “feeling the Bern” brand Clinton as a spent voice irrelevant to an America whose working majority has had no share in the new wealth they have created. Sanders, to his credit, has shown sincere respect for Clinton and admonished his supporters to rally for the eventual winner, him or her.

Both major political parties are rapidly realigning. One marches right. Ever since the civil rights movement and legislation of the Johnson-King years opened Dixie to Nixon’s southern strategy, the party of Lincoln has moved right, riding the Reagan-Bush presidencies toward Karl Rove’s illusive vision of a permanent Republican majority based on military fiat abroad, a free-market hymnal at home and sun belt solidarity against a rising racial tide.

In 2009, Republican revanchists rolled into adamant opposition to the Obama presidency, rehearsed a revival with their Tea Party reveille in 2010 and now presume their return to full power in 2016 through mobilization of the nascent right-center silent majority they know is there. But does this majority exist? Could Republicans muster a winning right-center electoral coalition? One bridged by callow Rubio? Led by The Donald? Bearing Cruz?

During these same decades, the Democratic Party wrecked the Great Society on the lee shore of Vietnam, drifted disoriented through the erosion of the New Deal coalition during the Reagan ascendancy, and then followed “Slick Willie” Bill Clinton through two terms of Third Way triangulation that sacrificed the poor, jailed black youth, trashed trade protections and cut financial regulations as the party of FDR slithered to the center.

But with the turn of the century and the supreme apostasy of Bush v. Gore, Democrats turned leftward. Appalled by Iraq, the American people gave them congressional control again in “Shrub’s” second term. Financial collapse, Great Recession and the arc of a brighter American rainbow brought forth Barack Obama, who achieved commendable progress against implacable Republican opposition – economic recovery, broadened health care, some Wall Street regulation, a constrained Iran and the Paris accord.

Political party realignment right and left was dialectic. Republicans drove moderates from their tent and claimed sun belt congressional seats from Blue Dog Democrats. The Northeast and West Coast turned deep blue and the South deep red (save for seats gerrymandered for blacks to constrain their electoral weight). The Republican Party of today is well to the right of its Reagan-years ancestor.

Democrats won new seats in the north and were set free from the conservative drag of their historic Southern flank, an impediment for FDR, LBJ, and Slick Willie. The Democratic Caucuses in the House and Senate are now the most progressive in decades.

The 2016 electoral contest between these realigned parties brings a political moment of danger and promise. The nominees must muster a majority from a people driven by class anger and riven by racial tension.

Since the Reagan Revolution began in 1980, the real income of the American working class has not grown. Prospects for their kids seem grim. For a generation, working people gained little while the top 1 percent gobbled grotesque shares of the growth pie. The Great Recession wasted working class assets and stoked anger. Millions of hard working people know they have been screwed – but by whom? And how to fight back?

Race remains the fundamental pathology of American politics. In 1960, the American people were 85 percent white; in 2050, America will be 54 percent people of color. This profound passage will shape the American future. We may devolve into a garrison nation of gate-protected haves, resentful and restive producers, and a large underclass with a growing illegal cohort. Or we may evolve toward the promise of a productive and harmonious multiracial, multicultural society able to afford security and opportunity for all. At the end of the Obama years, vistas to each prospect open from the 2016 fork in the road.

The Republican pitch to conjure a right-center majority from this turmoil is still in play in the end-game contest between Trump, Rubio and Cruz. If The Donald prevails (Trump/Rubio?), their pitch would include some of his right populist gestures dissonant with neo-conservative orthodoxy (e.g. social security status quo, nationalist trade muscle). But whoever their nominee, this stressed Republican Party will excoriate immigrants, loathe Obama, rattle sabers, demean government, delay the Scalia succession, and pimp a tax-cut freighted fiscal plan founded on fairy dust.

On the Democratic side, the Sanders-Clinton contest could become a spirited but mutually respectful dialog between the two main currents of the Democratic Party going forward from 2016, each representing an important political capacity needed by a dynamic party. Healthy parties need both enduring vision that illuminates to the horizon and practical political strategy and tactics to contend for the most progressive outcomes from rough-and-tumble partisan legislative contests.

Sanders offers a disciplined and compelling vision: universal health care, free public college, expanded social security, reduced incarceration. Clinton offers credible, broad experience and several viable, well-vetted proposals for the looming fights of 2017-18. To simplify, Sanders speaks for some of “What,” and Clinton speaks to some of “How.” Neither message is complete, but their dialog could move toward a unity of deep strategy and current program that would drive our politics.

I believe that a dynamic unity of these currents can mature to a political moment in the not too distant future (aka my lifetime!) when a powerfully supported vision and a strong congressional majority can move America forward to a much more progressive future, as happened in 1933-37 and 1964-65.

When I caucus on March 6, I will raise my hand for fellow democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in solidarity with his remarkable contribution to our political discourse. Come summer and fall, I expect that hand will write checks and words in strong support of Hillary Clinton, who will lead the next possible passage forward in America.

A retired community activist and seasoned political observer, Jack Russell is a resident of Mount Desert.


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