Cool It! The US Is, Was–and Always Will Be–a Messy Experiment


When those wise revolutionaries, the Founding Fathers, created our government, they referred to it as an “experiment,” admitting to its potential for chaos and failure. Churchill’s comment that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, applies directly–and significantly to today’s conflict regarding Trump within the Republican party.

The reality, however, is that the US, unique among nations, has a long history of self-correction. Indeed, you may be surprised to learn that about every 30 or 40 years we have had similar messes–followed by long-term, state, regional or national realignments. These critical elections include agitation, reform, correction and some forward movement. Here’s the fundamental historical list:

  • The defeat of John Quincy Adams by Andrew Jackson (1828), in one of the dirtiest elections in American history, brought the Democratic party into existence.
  • With the election of 1864 and the conclusion of the Civil War, the South shifted from enlightened Republican to nearly permanent segregationist Democrat.
  • The election of 1896 included labor strikes, unemployment and the Democratic farmer’s championing of the gold standard. With the exception of Massachusetts, a Democratic split turned the presidency over to the Republicans for nearly 20 years. However, Massachusetts, which had been Republican, became Democrat and with the exception of its governorship, has remained so into the 21st century.
  • The election of 1928, resulting in a New England defeat of Republicans by low-income, Catholic, urban voters of immigrant stock, kept the entire region in the Democratic party for most of the 20th century.
  • The defeat of Goldwater by LBJ in 1964 resulted in the support of school integration and the rejection of conservative ideologies.
  • The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan turned the nation to the right, away from Democratic policies, but brought in a pragmatic Conservative orientation unacceptable to Tea Party Conservatives today.

Like those previous critical elections, Trump breaks strongly from the past, and, to quote Fareed Zakaria: The modern Republican Party has been devoted to free markets and free trade, social conservatism, an expansionist foreign policy and fiscal discipline, especially on entitlements. Remember that the speech that launched Ronald Reagan’s career was an attack on Medicare. On every one of these issues, Trump either openly disagrees or — as with abortion — has a past track record of disagreement.

Over the past decade, Republican support for immigration and free trade has been collapsing. But Trump’s nomination would transform the party into a blue-collar, populist, nationalist movement with a racial element — much like many others in the Western world. This would be a very different party from Reagan’s or Ryan’s.

Legislatively, practically none of this has the slightest possibility of happening. And so the most appropriate term for Trump is stealth candidate. He’s slipping a big lie over his followers. Yet, it’s important to understand that Trump doesn’t need to win the election to impact big change in the country. The Democrat, William Jennings Bryan, lost against William McKinley in the election of 1896, mobilized millions of his Democratic populists, but split his own party, giving the presidency to Republicans for nearly 20 years. Trump could give the Presidency and perhaps the Senate to Democrats for years more.

Recognizing how these critical campaigns sometimes fall out, I suggested to some friends that it would be wise to toss the baby (Trump) out, but not all the bathwater. (You can figure that one out from the list above.)

The point of all this is to provide my readers with data on the similarity between today’s politics and past critical elections. Alexander Hamilton was wisely prescient about what the Founding Fathers have done: It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men (and women) are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. Obviously, the evidence is not yet in.

In effect, if you’re worrying about Trump, cool your jets. I certainly don’t like all this, but. . . we’ve been there. Done that before. The sky is not falling.


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