Core Constituency

American institutions like political parties or the Supreme Court may be too damaged to save us

By the early nineties... Men from all walks of life, already shaken by an incomprehensible world, responded to any new upheaval as an immediate threat. They had no alternative, they felt, but to select an enemy and fight. Many of them had no natural line of battle, and much of the nation's story between the mid-eighties and the mid-nineties concerned the nature of their forced decisions: Whom they would oppose and how they would fight.

The American middle class flourished after World War II, when the United States dominated the world economy. By the 1970s, wages were stagnating and inflation seemed out of control. Then the serious nosedive began under the regime of trickle-down Reaganomics. By the '90s, inequality in America had reached the highest levels in the industrialized world.

Frustrated and frightened, many decided to fight against the system, to cast their votes as an expression of hope against hope. Democrats opted for Bill Clinton's neoliberalism; Republicans chose much darker stuff.

But then those "break-the-glass-ceiling" Democrats marginalized Bernie Sanders, which may have made the difference in the 2016 election. The "Lock her up!" Republicans voted for Donald Trump in much the way a goldfish begs for crumbs, swimming around hoping to catch a morsel.

Now for the punch line: The quote above doesn't refer to the 1980s, or even the 1990s. It doesn't refer to our era at all; it's written about the post-Civil War period of 1877-1920. It's déjà vu all over again.

Historian Robert Wiebe, in his 1967 book The Search for Order, argues that following the end of Reconstruction, America "was a society without a core." The New Deal and World War II gave us a middle class, which bought us time, but what we've seen over the past three decades is a replay — the re-emergence of a society without a core.

To meet these challenges and realities, America needs its institutions more than ever. All, alas, are in bad shape.

Let's start with our two major political parties. The Republican Party just gave America Donald Trump, at a terrible time to have a president who disdains institutions.

As for the Democratic Party? It seemingly can no longer decide what it stands for. Hillary Clinton's campaign slogan — "Stronger Together" — was as vacuous as Trump's outrageous lies and slanderous claims.

Then there's the Supreme Court, a core institution by the Founding Fathers' design. It's become ideologically divided. The net effect has been that the moral suasion the Court needs to guide us sits at an all-time low. It didn't used to be this way.

Consider the issues of school desegregation, freedom of the press, reproductive rights and gun rights.

Question: Who wrote the majority opinion in the first three landmark cases and the minority opinion in the fourth? Answer: All were written by justices nominated by Republican presidents — Earl Warren (nominated by Eisenhower) wrote Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; William Brennan (Eisenhower), wrote The New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964; Harry Blackmun (Nixon) wrote Roe v. Wade in 1973; and John Paul Stevens (Ford) wrote a scathing rebuttal to Antonin Scalia's flawed Heller decision in 2008. The point is, it wasn't that long ago that justices' allegiance was more to the Constitution than to a set of partisan orthodoxies.

The Democratic Party has wallowed in manifest political incompetence. Some of my Democratic friends try to put a good face on things by pointing out that Hillary Clinton would have won the presidency had she received just over 100,000 more votes in three states — and by the way, she beat Trump by 3 million votes in the popular tally.

Come on! Clinton was running against the weakest candidate either party had ever put up — ever! — so, for crying out loud, why was the outcome even close?

Still, today's Republican Party is worse; they make the post-Civil War radicals seem rational and caring by comparison. The scary thing is that unless the Democrats get their act together, Republicans could soon control enough state governments to force constitutional changes through the convention option, a process that could produce truly draconian proposals such as a balanced budget mandate, the specification that zygotes are entitled to all the rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, or the right to open-carry AK-47s in public parks.

"Yum! Please pass the Kool-Aid," you can almost hear them say. Glug, glug.

Neither Republicans, who seem almost allergic to social and scientific reality, nor Democrats, who set aside the lessons of FDR and JFK to whine about losing, seem up to the challenge.

Then there's our foreign policy establishment, and don't get me started on the media. Oh yes, did I mention Donald Trump? That he really is President of the United States? And that central institution — the executive branch and the president — shows absolutely zero signs of carving out a new core for our fractured society to build upon. ♦