These are tense days with a volatile eight months ahead. Indications are that the 2020 presidential campaign will be the most bizarre in anyone’s memory, spouting unparalleled amounts of disinformation.
Neither national major political party is in fine form these days. Democrats are in disarray. They cannot afford to duplicate the crowded early days of this month if they wish to win back the presidency. In the space of eight days came the Iowa caucus that flubbed the vote count. Such incompetence shocked everyone. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan voiced what Republicans will repeat a thousand times between now and November: “They can’t run a tiny caucus in a tiny state but they want us to believe they can reinvent American health care?”
The day after Iowa brought President Trump’s State of the Union speech; filled with wild distortions and easily checked factual errors, its reality show flourishes scored well with the public. Trump broke custom in refusing to shake Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand before speaking; Pelosi responded by omitting the customary words “high honor and privilege” in introducing the president, and when he had finished, theatrically tore up the speech.
The following day brought President Trump’s acquittal of impeachment charges, and less than a week later the New Hampshire primary brought further confusion in that Bernie Sanders, having won the most votes in Iowa, did so again. But his count was below that of 2016 and far below the total garnered by moderate candidates. Highly popular a year ago, Elizabeth Warren came in fourth place and former vice-president Joe Biden, who before Iowa and New Hampshire was widely understood to be the Democratic front runner, fell to a dismal fifth.
Although popular, Bernie Sanders, having lost the delegate count in Iowa and lacking a substantial vote margin over Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the Granite State, enjoys the status of an Independent, but regularly votes with Democrats, whose majority, however, is centrist. Insisting that he is a democratic “socialist,” does he not know that the term is toxic in American politics?
It’s unclear whether Democratic moderates can unite in nominating one of their own. An additional concern is the entry into the presidential race by former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, the multibillionaire who envisages that spending hundreds of millions of dollars instead of entering the earliest state contests will bring him the prize.
Republicans have political problems of their own. A majority of the public believes President Trump acted inappropriately in pressuring a foreign government to intervene in American politics by investigating former vice-president Joe Biden, who Trump guessed would be his toughest opponent in November. With their majority numbers in the Senate, Republicans acquitted the president, legitimizing his pursuit of private rather than public interest.
Last week Trump shocked the nation’s capital by objecting to Department of Justice federal prosecutors’ decision to seek a seven to nine year jail term for his longtime confidant and criminally charged fixer, Roger Stone. Within hours, U.S. Attorney General Barr publically overruled the sentencing recommendation and placed the matter under further review. A mutiny began when four career prosecutors who had worked the case against Stone resigned their positions, an eruption in a system for which even Republican legal experts could find nothing analogous in U.S. history.
Barr also has ordered a reexamination of the criminal case against former Trump adviser Michael Flynn, hoping to spare him prison time. Upon learning of Barr’s increasing interference in the fair administration of justice, over 2000 former Department Justice officials publically urged him to resign. Taken together with Trump’s post-acquittal behavior, Republicans are facing a backlash against signs of growing authoritarianism in the Trump administration.
These are tense days. A volatile eight months lie ahead, and we seem “locked into our political identities,” writes Ezra Klein in his analytical new book, “Why We’re Polarized.” Split-ticket voting is in decline, as voters are motivated more by hostility to the other party than by accord with their own. Today our most powerful identities are political rather than religious, in ways resembling the Protestant-Catholic partisan warfare a century (and less) ago.
How do we move beyond our political dysfunction? As a beginning, two reforms are indispensable. Twice since 2000 the elected president lost the popular vote. Klein draws attention to a startling demographic: Present trends indicate that in twenty years “70 percent of America will be represented by only thirty senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by seventy senators.
That gathering Electoral College reality, together with gerrymandering in the states, demand reforms to incentivize both major political parties to stitch together winning combinations of diverse voters, rather than relying on narrow coalitions to win electoral victories. Short of that, we risk our democracy.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.