Columnist Don Robinson: Big changes possible in American politics

  • In this Aug. 30, 2017, photo, President Donald Trump talks to reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, for a trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md. AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 1/24/2018 6:48:23 PM

Donald Trump’s first year in office ended with the federal government shut down. The president was benched, sidelined at his resort in Florida. He could not convincingly pretend to be involved in solving the Rubik’s Cube involving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals “Dreamers,’ the border wall with Mexico, the children’s health insurance program and who knows what else.

It is distracting to dwell on who, or which party, is to blame for the shutdown last weekend. The deeper question is whether our constitutional system can survive the current and ongoing challenge to its very existence.

Let’s go back to the sources. James Madison argued in The Federalist Papers that democratic politics tend naturally to be turbulent, passionate and vulnerable to demagogues. The framers built a system designed to counteract these suicidal instincts. Their main reliance was on what is commonly called the separation of powers.

Richard Neustadt more precisely described it as a system of separated institutions sharing powers. When working properly, it frustrates schemes put forward by any faction. It requires politicians across the branches to cooperate.

Parties developed during the 19th century. The architects of this newfangled set of institutions (national conventions, urban machines, patronage and, later, primaries) were determined to outwit the framers.

But Madison’s system did not go away. It fought back. It developed institutions and practices to frustrate those ambitious for power: committees in Congress allying with agencies to form virtual sub-governments; filibusters to block action in the Senate; courts taking a more active role in overriding legislation.

What Trump has demonstrated is that a determined president can disrupt even this deeply ingrained system. When the nation needs comfort (Puerto Rico) or unity of purpose (Charlottesville, Virginia), he blows an uncertain trumpet, full of self-contradictions. When we need firmness toward Russian meddling in our elections, Trump vacillates between words of admiration for Vladimir Putin’s leadership and defensiveness about his own victory in 2016 in the electoral college.

Trump’s record in office has not been uniformly bad. Republicans in Congress often wish he would just shut up. They fail to respect his insistence on reaching the people directly, without the media acting as interpreter and sanctifier. We should expect future presidents to build on his example in this regard.

Some of the worst patterns of his presidency are not new. He seems addicted to government by executive order. But Barack Obama also resorted to such actions frequently in his second term, and especially toward the end of it.

Similarly his robust exercise of the “war powers” is not new. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker took him to task in The New York Times earlier this week for going to war without a congressional declaration. Booker has a point — but unfortunately, the abuse of presidential war powers is by now an old story.

What are we to make of Trump’s use of the Republican Party? Can it be reformed?

In the early 1960s, a journalist named Sam Lubell had a big impact on the study of electoral trends. Lubell studied microcosms, precincts, looking for harbingers, districts with a record of backing winners. When he found them, he would go there to interview folks to find out what was on their minds and which way they might be swinging. He built a reputation for uncanny insight into looming political trends.

In his best known book, “The Future of American Politics,” Lubell presented a theory of how political change occurs in this country. A party system, he suggested, is like a political galaxy. At its center is a sun, the dominant party. It generates heat and light by the friction of its elements, constantly in tension.

Think, for example, of the New Deal coalition. Its major elements were a) liberals, urban bosses and trade unions leaders in the Northeast and Midwest, and b) conservative Southerners who still, well into the mid-20th century, passionately blamed the party of Lincoln for the suffering inflicted on their region during the “War Between the States.”

During its heyday, FDR’s Democratic Party looked like easy pickings. Circling around the sun was a moon, the other party in the American political universe, always on the lookout for opportunities to pick up enough loose pieces to replace the sun.

Lubell warned that this is not the way political revolutions happen. Revolutions occur and suns are displaced not gradually, but when the universe sustains a major blow — the rise of an explosive, charismatic outsider like Andrew Jackson, or an earthshaking civil war or a major economic depression.

It was not until the civil rights acts of the mid-1960s shook the regime’s foundations that the solidly Democratic South began to crack up and fall into the Republican camp. The sun exploded, but the moon did, too. Gradually the system evolved into a new configuration. Sometimes such change can take decades.

This is what may be happening now, something of this magnitude.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, writes a regular column published the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be reached at drobinso@smith.edu.


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