The Failure Of 2016
This has been a very dissatisfying year from a political point of view. And I don’t know what to do about it. I remember saying the same thing four years ago and another four years before that. So I guess I have had quite a few dissatisfying years.
Let’s just get this out there: I am, and have been for quite a long time, a conservative. So, I can hear some asking, “why are you so dissatisfied? Conservatives have been rolling all over themselves to become President since the days of Barry Goldwater, and quite a few of them have done it.” Well, . . . maybe not.
None of the candidates running this year has really scratched me where I itch. And up until now, I had been having trouble putting a finger on just why. And then I listened to it again.
“It” is the speech that Ronald Reagan gave in 1964 on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated campaign. Goldwater got nowhere in that election year, but Reagan hit the big-time that day. If you have a half hour (like I did as I ate lunch at my desk) you should Google and watch it.
You might agree with what he said or you might not. But here is what is indisputable: Ronald Reagan espoused a conservatism that was all about what he genuinely believed to be good for the common man. He was a man who grew up without much besides good looks and a gift for gab. He had studied economics at a little college in Illinois and later became an ardent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. He knew that he had been fortunate, but he also knew that he was a regular Joe, not unlike most everyone else. But as he got older, his views on the relationship between ordinary citizens and their government began to change.
Reagan spent years thinking about and talking about what he believed. He spent years, decades even, thinking about what those beliefs meant in the lives of ordinary people. By the time he reached national prominence as a politician, Ronald Reagan had a core set of beliefs that went all the way down to his bones. And agree with him or not, everyone knew what those beliefs were.
Even Reagan detractors have acknowledged his gift as “The Great Communicator”, and his oratorical skills were never better than in that speech from 1964. But I think that Reagan’s appeal went beyond his ability to communicate his beliefs. What set Reagan apart was the nature of conservatism as he understood and explained it.
Most of us may never have thought so much about the beliefs that Reagan held, other than to be fairly certain that we either agreed or disagreed with them. But the candidates of recent election cycles have shown how Reagan was different from most of the presidential aspirants who have come since.
To Ronald Reagan, a conservatism that was about nothing more than some legislative program or some wrong in the world was not worth the effort. To Reagan, conservatism only mattered if it served to better the condition of the average person and that of that person’s family and community. And conservatism was never to be a used as a club to attack honest people who were trying to improve their lives.
Reagan could explain his philosophy by citing examples that resonated with ordinary people, and he invited ordinary people of good will to stand with him. And when he tore into that with which he disagreed (something he could do with some vigor), he tore into ideas that he saw as wrongheaded. If he attacked people, it was almost always on the basis of the ideas that they held and not their character or their career or their station in life.
Perhaps conservatives in general have been spoiled by being allowed to build on the intellectual foundations supplied by the likes of Reagan and William F. Buckley. These and others like them gave us a deep framework of ideals and beliefs that were grounded in the freedom of the individual and a wariness of the power of the State. They saw the American Constitution as a great protection against tyranny, something that had been all too much in evidence during their lives in the fascism and communism that affected so many of the world’s peoples. Even if you disagreed with them, I think it could fairly be said that their positions were arrived at in good faith and not as opportunistic calculation over some isolated issue of the moment.
Maybe this is why it has been so easy to slip down the slope to where what passes for thoughtful conservatism today starts with an incendiary sound bite, followed by a chorus of “Damn Right!” Sadly, this is what seems to pass for thoughtful discourse on the left as well. Have we all become so lazy and intellectually flaccid that we can no longer articulate what we believe and why we believe it without meanspirited attacks on those who disagree with us? Is it too much to ask that each of the candidates come to us in an honest attempt to tell us what they see that is wrong, what they see that is right and how you and I can be a part of making life better for ordinary people? Not something that polls well, but something that the candidate truly believes as shown by the way he or she has lived life.
And THAT is what I have missed this year. The only candidate I currently see who even remotely displays a coherent set of core beliefs is Bernie Sanders. Say what you will about Sanders, it certainly cannot be said that he has come to his views recently or for political gain. But aside from Sanders’ sunny view of socialism (a view which I do not happen to share) my biggest problem with his world is the way in which life is a zero sum game. For someone to win, someone else has to lose. In speech after speech, he rails about the morally defective nature of those who have not lived in harmony with his worldview. His world is a world of “us” vs. “them”, and “we” are going to make “them” pay for their transgressions once we have the power to do so. I don’t see myself as one of those on his side of the fence, which makes me wonder if I am one of the “them.”
In Donald Trump (and, frankly, in most of the candidates) I hear the same thing, only the “us” and the “them” are made up of different groups. And coming from the political place I inhabit, it concerns me when either you or I might be an “us” or a “them” depending on who wins an election. This, it seems to me, is what has separated the United States from the many small countries that have been led by a succession of “strong men” over the last century or two. Is Banana Republic too strong of a term? Perhaps modern politics really is just a gang war where sides are chosen and where the winners get to pillage the losers. But I hope not.
In my day job, I practice law. Our legal system is an adversarial one, where each side tries to demonstrate to the neutral judge why my client’s side has the better argument. Just as in politics, there are lawyers who treat each dispute between clients as a blood sport, where the only possible ways to disagree is to be stupid, dishonest, or maybe even evil. To a person of that mindset, there is no such thing as a disagreement between people of good faith and good will who just see things from different perspectives.
There are some big issues in our Nation, and deep disagreements over how to address them. Is it too much to ask that our candidates build a coalition by persuading us into their worldview rather than by dividing us into smaller groups and walling out those of us seen as undesirables? I hope not.
Politically, I’ve always been in the middle. There are some things I agree with folks from both sides of the aisle. I think that over the last 36 years that I’ve been able to vote in elections, my thoughts and reasoning has stayed largely the same, but the nature of politics in our country has made me feel that I’ve become a right winger, without even trying.
I just had a similar discussion with a high school friend of mine. She opined that there were no candidates she could really support and I concurred. I’ve felt this way for several elections and noted that I lost my interest in national politics. She asked if I still voted and I do, but I have held my nose while voting in some elections.
I think the short attention span nature of our lives demands a killer sound byte, that “drops the microphone” moment that folks will remember. Ironically, for all of Ronnie’s thoughtful consideration, I think this style of politics started in the late Reagan term and the first (elder) Bush term. Stir and simmer for about two and half decades and here we are.
I remember hearing this observation somewhere: We get the government we deserve. Or, the politicians we elect are a reflection of our society.
I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate, but I feel like parts of it are.
I pretty much agree with your analysis. Reagan had the gift for creating those “sound bite moments”, but they were always incidental to what was really a moral argument for the conservative position. Today, it is the sound bite for its own sake, or to show how clever or tough the candidate is.
Nice discourse there JPC. I’ve been discussing my befuddlement as an observer with Jason.
When I was in Mexico the other week I was watching some debate highlights at breakfast and I said to my co-worker “I think the problem now is that the skillset required to get elected is not the skillset you want in office” and I did get an “Amen” from an American in the room.
A good observation.
Great article. I believe that our nation is at another critical point in history, just like it was in 1860 and again in 1930. The old consensus, built on our victory in World War II and resulting industrial supremacy (which lasted until about 1980), has been breaking down for years. Things tend to get nasty when this happens. The political debate was vicious in the 1850s, with violent, florid rhetoric and even a case of one senator beating another on the floor of Congress with a cane (resulting in life-threatening injuries). There was guerilla warfare in what became the state of Kansas between pro- and anti-slavery settlers. In the early 1930s, real, live Communists and Socialists were openly seeking converts and there were several bloody strikes. Let’s hope we’re not going to witness that level of violence and nonsense. The next few years are going to be tough no matter who wins. In some ways, our nation is like General Motors during the 1990s and early 2000s. Top management still thought that the American automotive world revolved around GM. A mindset that anyone who had ever driven a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry (or even a Ford Focus) knew was ridiculous. We can’t spend money recklessly any longer, because we’re no longer automatically the top dog. Unfortunately, after so many years of being on top, too many members of both parties, and too many people dependent on the government teat, simply can’t or won’t understand this.
A good observation.
An interesting point. It has seemed to me that Republicans in particular have been coasting on the continued assumption that the post WWII orders and attitudes still hold. But even Reagan is something in history books to millenials, who are more open than past groups of young voters to something new. Your analysis covers a much longer timeline, so you may be right that we are preparing for a new framework of what constitutional representative democracy looks like (or doesn’t look like.)
My political views have evolved over the decades, and taken a number of turns, which included voting for Ronald Reagan. At the time, I was a Yuppie and caught up in the spirit of the time, and didn’t bother to take a deeper and more honest look at the man, although I should have, since Stephanie’s family were Californians and had lived through his governorship.
I’m not going to attempt a proper analysis of Reagan here, but here the crucial point: What is happening now in the Republican party, especially the bursting forth of blatant racism, jingoism, xenophobia, etc., has always been there in the Republican Party since 1964, and most certainly since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”, which was a cynical but madly successful initiative to shift Southern whites to vote Republican.
Ronald Reagan cynically chose Neshoba County Fair Grounds (Mississippi) as his first campaign stop in 1980. Neshoba County was a white supremacist/KKK stronghold, and in 1964, the KKK had fire-bombed a black church and beaten the worshippers. A few days later, three civil rights organizers were killed there. These killings are the most outrageous ones of the whole civil rights campaign era. And it gave quite a reputation to Neshoba County.
Reagan choosing this spot as his kick-off for his campaign, and talking about “states rights” to the white crowd, as well as other “code”, is a huge stain on his reputation. Reagan apologists have tried to white-wash this event, but it’s just not possible. And Reagan went on to repeatedly refer to “Welfare queens” and other code for his attack on the War On Poverty.He opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As president, he tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed the MLK National Holiday. Etc. etc….his record is all too clear and obvious.
My point is that the Republican Party, starting with the event you cite, has played the race card consistently since 1964, often in the “code” that white folks understand all too well. And now it’s boiling out into the open; the “code” is more than cracked. The endless attempts to deify Ronald Reagan, who also left a massive deficit and left the government substantially larger than when he found it, I find to be quite problematic on many levels. But yes, he was a gifted communicator, especially to the folks at Neshoba. They knew exactly what he was communicating. As did the rest of the whites in America.
It’s the problem with all the Republicans and their party, because Trump is just saying what they all have been feeling, or saying in code, for over 50 years. And now it’s all spilling out into the open. The veil has been rent. And I don’t think it’s ever going to get put back together again.
Race and politics – now there is a minefield, if ever there was one. And it was not one that I had really planned on entering with this post. My point was that Reagan had well-defined beliefs (unlike most of those running this year) and he did not make the kinds of personal attacks we are seeing now.
“Reagan as Racist” is one of those things making the rounds these days, and I think it’s a more complicated subject than that. What constitutes “racism” has changed a lot in the past two or three generations. For a man of his era, Reagan was remarkably free of racial animus. He did, after all, receive endorsements from well known veterans of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. Would he be considered a racist by some today? Apparently so, particularly those who tended to disagree with his worldview in general. This view of Reagan as racist does not seem to have gotten much of a foothold until that column by William Raspberry after Reagan’s death.
As far as the Republican Party being populated largely by racists today, isn’t this a little simplistic? After all, I remember that Republican enthusiasm and turnout dropped in 2008 and 2012, quite the opposite of what I might have expected if the goal were to prevent “the black guy” from getting elected. And as for Trump, he seems to be having trouble breaking through a 35% ceiling in Republican primaries, many of which have been in places like Maine and Iowa, hardly places longing for old Jim Crow. I am not denying that some racists are Republican. But to say that most are seems to be quite a generalization.