Clinton or Trump for president: What that says about America

Fracture.

There are as many ways to say what this means for America as there are Americans, though most people are baffled and couldn’t answer the question of how the primary season of Election 2016 began and ended as it did.

To recall (it seems so long ago now), that long season started out with a wide field of Republican candidates of different strengths and weaknesses entering primary season many months ago, and wound up with perhaps the least likely one of all as the party nominee. And the Democratic Party’s two candidates were longtime Washington insiders in an anti-establishment climate, though Sen. Bernie Sanders convincingly represented himself as the oustsiders’ candidate.

On the final primary day of 2016, Hillary Clinton prevailed to become the Democratic nominee, and Donald Trump had already arrived as the Republican candidate weeks ago. This is about as unlikely as it gets.

Of all the commentaries and analyses out there to date, one of the most incisive and clarifying accounts comes from Yuval Levin and his new book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.

Some highlights from his book, and the conversation I had with him on radio this week…

One of his main themes and central points is that American party politics is stuck in nostalgia for an earlier time when each party believed things were good, or as they should be, and should be again now. For the Democrats, he says, it’s 1965, for Republicans, it’s 1981.

“There’s a sense that everything is breaking down, that America doesn’t work like it used to,” he told me. “The defining theme is that America is not what it used to be. The middle of the 20th Century is the time most people in politics are most nostalgic for now.”

I asked him about his book’s reversal of the perception that we’re in the start of a new phase of American politics, whereas he contends we’re experiencing the end of the last one. “It is the last gasp of an exhausted and nostalgic baby-boomer politics”, he claims.

“So now we have this political situation with two 70 year old candidates yelling at each other over the best way to go backward,” he told me. “And it’s very hard to imagine that as the beginning of the next phase of American politics. In this election we’re seeing the crashing of the baby-boomer centered approach to political life. The question is really what comes next.”

Well put.

Levin continues: “Our problems are distinct to this moment. We would do much better to empower problem solvers throughout the country instead of looking to one leader or a handful. Power has been flowing upward toward Washington. But we have a better chance of addressing problems if we allowed power to flow through communities and institutions. Family, community, church, school, civic institutions.”

Refreshing ideas, and proven to be true from the past, ironically. “The more public policy can be decentralized, the better the hope that it’s going to be more effective, more in line with our Constitution, more in line with what’s going to work better,” he continued. “Most people are persuaded that the way our government works now is not working.The way politics have been handled results in absurdities like the president of the United States deciding who should use which bathrooms in schools.”

Solving problems at the most local level is known, in social teaching, as subsidiarity, and Levin points to that as the ideal. “One thing we do now is embody this idea that the solutions are going to come from our communities,” he said. “Take care of our own problems directly, not wait for someone else. Take, embody and populate institutions that take on problems directly. There’s a great passage in Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville that says ‘When there are problems to be solved, Americans don’t fold their arms and wait for an official to show up, they take it upon themselves’. That’s the spirit we need to have in this election.

Levin says the struggle for religious liberty is central for subsidiarity in this society. “There’s such resistance from the government to allow institutions that embody the moral impulse to take care of things in this country” he said. “This must be fought at the local level.”

However, a convincing pragmatism helps. “It’s important that we who think we have solutions need to make them attractive to political leaders and our fellow voters,” Levin added. “In order to make them politically powerful, you first have to make them attractive to your neighbors. And then your political leaders.”

Start now, if you haven’t already. There may be months left, but they’re going fast. And the year has proven that anything can happen. Even, and especially, the unforeseen.

Does America suffer a malaise?

Or is it the consequence of a crisis of government?

There is certainly a dis-ease here and it has spread for quite a long time. Justin Dyer makes the attempt to diagnose.

On a stage in St. Paul, Minnesota (in 2008), the first-term Illinois senator (Barack Obama) positioned himself as a visionary leader ushering in a new era of American politics, shedding past partisan divisions and uniting a generation around the promises of hope and change.

So what went wrong?

Perhaps we were just not willing to work for that vision, to fight for it and believe in it. Or perhaps—as James Piereson suggests in Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order—Obama misread the moment, trying to make it into something it was not. In his new book, Piereson, president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that the Obama presidency marks the end of a political era rather than a beginning.

Intriguing. So far, Piereson posits, American political history can be divided into three major chapters, up to the present time. But now we’ve arrived at a grave turning point.

A major premise of Piereson’s book is that broad consensus “is required in order for a polity to meet its major challenges”; his thesis is that “such a consensus no longer exists in the United States.” (emphasis added) Without a consensus on basic priorities, Piereson predicts, our “problems will mount to a point where either they will be addressed through a ‘fourth revolution’”—ushering in a fourth major chapter in American political history—“or the polity will begin to disintegrate for lack of fundamental commitment.”

At the moment, a “broad consensus” is unimaginable. America is more divided and polarized and at odds than it has seemed to be in a very long time.

Simply put: we have a greying population with fewer workers and no consensus about the purpose and mission of our vast military infrastructure. At the same time, many of our state and local governments face unsustainable pension obligations born of the same demographic trends and short-term political calculations…

One thing both parties generally agree on is maintaining those government programs—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security—that require massive amounts of money we don’t have. As Piereson suggests, the blueprint for a successful political order in the twenty-first century will require meaningful entitlement reform, pro-growth economic policies, regulation or elimination of public sector unions, and a reinvigorated American federalism. To this we undoubtedly must add a vibrant and healthy civil society.

How to get from here to there? Can anyone running for president right now, among other elected offices, aspire to envision such a plan, embody the leadership to execute it and inspire the necessary consensus so people will really invest in the growth of civil society to something once again healthy and vibrant? Really?

Or, as some people ask, can anyone inspire true hope for positive change?

In Reagan’s 1980 nomination-acceptance speech, he cited a “community of shared values.” He repeatedly paid homage to the power of individuals, in voluntary community, to overcome obstacles. He ran on a platform of bold new tax cuts (when tax cuts were not yet fully Republican orthodoxy), energy development, domestic spending cuts, a devolution of power to states and localities, and a bolstered military. The Republican platform that year called for a firm re-commitment to protecting private property from government intrusions…

Reagan’s announcement speech in November 1979 described an America that was “a living, breathing presence, unimpressed by what others say is impossible, proud of its own success; generous, yes, and naïve; sometimes wrong, never mean, always impatient to provide a better life for its people in a framework of a basic fairness and freedom.”

…Reagan said America could be great again not because he himself was a powerful magician who could make it so, but because the people themselves were resourceful and would succeed if only the government didn’t hamper them. As he said in his 1980 convention speech, “’Trust me’ government asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what’s best for us. My view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties. The trust is where it belongs — in the people.”…

All of this — and more — should be promoted in terms of unlocking vast human potential, and especially American potential, not by administrative command-and-control but through the incentives and dynamism of ordered liberty in a strong, voluntary, civil society.

These visions are closely related. But how do people feeling adrift and unmoored from once shared principles recover the courage of conviction and motivation to speak out, encourage others and try to re-order liberty together, for “a strong, voluntary, civil society”?

Robert Royal at least offers some sobering thoughts to start this consequential election year.

In 2016, the disproportion between the magnitude of our problems and the smallness of the candidates who claim to be able to fix them is large, perhaps larger than ever before in our history.

(His respected and considered opinion. I don’t entirely share it all. It’s a taller task than in recent memory. One or two candidates may be up to it, “may” being the operative word.)

And here it gets, in his word, “interesting”.

The central difficulty is our core doubt about what America and Western civilization are – or might be – anymore. This is no mere policy question. The feeling is widespread and non-partisan. People across the political spectrum – and, I’ve found, in other developed nations as well – complain that they “don’t recognize” their own countries anymore. An extraordinary, almost unprecedented thing.

We’re like the Israelites in exile, except we haven’t gone anywhere…

Striking line.

Does anyone think that if we only get taxes right, or immigration, or foreign policy, or healthcare, we’ll be back on the right road? Important issues, to be sure, but singly or together don’t address the real problem: a failing national vision…

And we ourselves are deeply troubled. Many particulars need fixing in America, but the thing we lack, the thing no political candidate currently seems to be able to give us, is a renewed and realistic sense of ourselves – something that has to be rooted in a truth deeper than economics and politics, in the “Creator” our Founders invoked and the condition of the American people. Without that spirit of confidence about the foundation, reforms won’t mean much.

So maybe take heart from that Reagan address so filled with hope and inspiration, because inspired, hopeful people can overcome considerable challenges.

I have seen the human race through a period of unparalleled tumult and triumph…

I have not only seen, but lived the marvels of what historians have called the “American Century.” Yet, tonight is not a time to look backward. For while I take inspiration from the past, like most Americans, I live for the future. So this evening, for just a few minutes, I hope you will let me talk about a country that is forever young.

There was a time when empires were defined by land mass, subjugated peoples, and military might. But the United States is unique because we are an empire of ideals. For two hundred years we have been set apart by our faith in the ideals of democracy, of free men and free markets, and of the extraordinary possibilities that lie within seemingly ordinary men and women. We believe that no power of government is as formidable a force for good as the creativity and entrepreneurial drive of the American people.

Those are the ideals that invented revolutionary technologies and a culture envied by people everywhere. This powerful sense of energy has made America synonymous with opportunity the world over. And after generations of struggle, America is the moral force that defeated Communism and all those who would put the human soul itself into bondage.

For a host of reasons, we seem to be seeing a lot of human souls in bondage again, in one form or another.

A fellow named James Allen once wrote in his diary, “many thinking people believe America has seen its best days.” He wrote that July 26, 1775. There are still those who believe America is weakening; that our glory was the brief flash of time called the 20th century; that ours was a burst of greatness too bright and brilliant to sustain; that America’s purpose is past.

My friends, I utterly reject those views. That’s not the America we know…Whether we come from poverty or wealth; whether we are Afro-American or Irish-American; Christian or Jewish, from big cities or small towns, we are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans, that is not enough, we must be equal in the eyes of each other. We can no longer judge each other on the basis of what we are, but must, instead, start finding out who we are. In America, our origins matter less than our destinations and that is what democracy is all about.

So, wrapping up that moment in time and hopefully inspiring future generations…

I want you to know that I have always had the highest respect for you, for your common sense and intelligence and for your decency. I have always believed in you and in what you could accomplish for yourselves and for others.

And whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty’s lamp guiding your steps and opportunity’s arm steadying your way…

May each of you have the heart to conceive, the understanding to direct, and the hand to execute works that will make the world a little better for your having been here.

Does that sound outdated considering the times we’re now facing, and all that’s gone on since then, and all that fills the global news cycles now? We face an existential threat, we’ve grown so diverse (it was inevitable and can be good) and splintered (which is always bad) that recovering such values expressed not that long ago, but a lifetime ago, is daunting for some and undesirable for others.

However, as Justin Dyer wraps up his diagnosis of Our American Illness:

Now—before the next revolution—it is time to think on a practical level about what it will take to restore health to the American political system.