I am of the age at which I can occasionally begin a sentence with “In my day …”
Don’t judge me: the decades since I was born on an Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1958 have been turbulent, and I feel that simply having lived so long entitles me to a pompous moment now and then. Vietnam, Watergate, Stonewall, the Civil Rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Reagan, two Great Recessions, two Iraq wars, two Arab-Israeli wars, the birth of Justin Bieber and the death of David Bowie, the rise of China, the fall of the Soviet Union … A lot of water has flowed under the bridge I stand on.
Many great names in American political history have also come and gone as I watched: William Fulbright, Strom Thurmond, Shirley Chisolm, George Wallace, Jesse Helms, and Ted Kennedy, among many others. Good or bad, these were men and women whose names will be forever tied to an idea or an ideal, to something bigger than the offices they held, bigger than they themselves could ever be.
This summer I find myself watching the successors to these giants dealing with one of the most baffling presidential elections to face this country during my lifetime. Powerful men like Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and John McCain are suddenly hapless passengers on a runaway train, unable to direct or deflect the momentum even as they realize that the train may be headed over a cliff.
In my day, the political greats would have known what to do. Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond switched parties when they felt the wheels starting to slip on the tracks — Arlen Specter even did it twice. George Wallace jumped off the train entirely and founded his own party. Others created new constituencies in segments of the population that had previously been politically inert, such as the working poor, minorities, or disaffected rural whites. Dwight David Eisenhower, a retired general and a revered war hero, delivered dire Jeremiads on the threat of the military-industrial complex. Ted Kennedy, a Gatsby of wealth and privilege with a personal life that did not bear close scrutiny, became a champion of the underprivileged, the weak and the ignored. All were willing to set out in new directions, through unexplored territory, without the benefit of party support.
Unlike their predecessors, McConnell, Ryan, McCain, and their colleagues have not built their careers on any overarching dedication to a particular set of ideals or social causes, but rather on loyalty to party, party above all, sacrificing achievement, historical legacy, and personal pride on the altar of the collective goal of turning the United States into a one-party state. These folks clearly detest – and are detested by – their party’s current candidate for President: they repudiate his statements, apologize for his extremes, yet they can’t turn away. He may be a monster, but he’s their monster, and they will oil the wheels of the party train with their own political life’s-blood if he demands it.
One of the struggles that the Democratic party has faced since WWII arises from its commitment to the “Big Tent”, the mission to include (and sometimes totally consume) every cause, every sub-group, every interest or identity. Perhaps because of this drive to embrace everybody, for the rank-and-file Democrats loyalty to such a promiscuous mistress rarely runs deep: Democrats are more likely to vote across party lines than Republicans, and are more likely to vote against their own party’s positions on the basis of a specific issue in which they are emotionally invested. The Republican party, with its simpler and less inclusive ideology, has a narrower, more homogeneous base, allowing them to expect a degree of obedience that simply isn’t possible with the more fractious and broadly-based Democrats. Until lately …
The current crop of Republican leaders, unlike those who came before them, prefer to lead from behind: tone-deaf to ideology themselves, they have assembled an ideologically-driven army that they can use as cannon fodder in their drive to win at any cost. House Speaker Ryan, Majority Leader McConnell and their colleagues have alternately starved and coddled this army, rousing its passions, dulling its awareness, and stifling its ability to question it own motivations. Such armies, however, are almost always easier to create than to control: this one has become dedicated, passionate, notably ill-informed about issues and history – and increasingly convinced, to the dismay of its creators, that change at any cost, even complete destruction of the American democracy that has brought those leaders to prominence, is better than the status quo.
Election day is coming up in a matter of weeks. Senator McCain might not be returning to his job in Washington after the holidays; several other Republican Senators and members of Congress are also vulnerable – not necessarily to Democratic opponents, but to challenges within their own party that threaten to either cripple them in November, or place deeply flawed protest candidates on the ballot in their place. The Republican presidential candidate is already declaring that the elections may be “rigged”, suggesting that any outcome other than his own victory may be met with fire and bullets.
The train hurtling toward the abyss has made a lot of stops during the last several decades. There have been many opportunities for passengers such as Mr Ryan and Senator McCain to regain control, to unmake the monster they’ve built and begin reaching for a purpose, a reason for their party to exist other than simply its own perpetuation. They haven’t done it: instead they’ve continued to shovel in the coal, believing somehow that as long as they win, everything else will come right in the end.
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