The Trump team seems to be having some difficulty reaching agreement on key positions, making it impossible to determine exactly what the Trump administration will try to do. I shall have more to say about that when we learn more. But whatever they do, Trump's election and reactions to it show that we are experiencing the greatest political crisis in our history since 1860-1, when southern states seceded and civil war began. The nature of the crisis, however, is different, and in some ways, even deeper. We fought the civil war because the political leadership in both the North and the South enjoyed popular support. Now, as I have recently been reminded by two separate incidents, our political class has almost entirely lost popular support, and I have no idea how to regain it. What follows will be anecdotal but I think it is still significant.
Recently a social media friend of mine provided me with a copy of a questionnaire that his father, a retiree, had filled out. They both live in one of the states whose loss by the Democrats was so shocking, that is, Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin. His father apparently received the questionnaire in the mail because he was once a registered Republican, although he is now an independent. He filled it out, but he made clear from the beginning that the party no longer enjoyed his allegiance because it "has changed since I joined."
The gentleman agreed that the Republican party had to do a better job appealing to minorities, women and young voters, although he also thought it should stick to its principles of low taxes, less government and free enterprise. But he did not think the Republicans should focus on "the disastrous policies of Barack Obama's presidency" or that it should emphasize social issues, which he thought had become "too divisive." He did not think the national media misled the public about the Republican party's positions. More importantly, he spontaneously mentioned that he had received insurance through Obamacare, and although his premiums had increased, he strongly opposed replacing it. He said that he belieed climate change was a major threat to the nation, but on the other hand, he did not trust the federal government to act in the best interest of our citizens, and he thought "political correctness" had indeed gotten out of hand.
Asked which party would handle various issues better, he gave the Republicans the nod only one, a strong military, and preferred the Democrats with respect to health care, gun control, and reducing the federal deficit. (That in my opinion was one of his best-informed responses.) But on everything else, from the war on terror, the economy foreign policy, entitlements, immigration reform, crime, and appointment of Supreme Court justices, he checked the boxes for "No opinion," but crossed out "no opinion" and wrote "neither." On foreign policy, he felt the United States should be more a model to the world than a policeman, and he thought we should do more to defeat ISIS, but opposed military action to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons. He favored admitting refugees from the Middle East "with proper vetting."
The picture all this gave me was of a concerned and quite well-informed citizen who took sensible positions on most issues, foreign and domestic, and who was not caught up in the bitter ideological divisions of our time. And it seems to me that such people could very reasonably have been expected to vote for Hillary Clinton, who was the more experienced, calmer, and more sensible candidate, and with whom he did not express any really big divisions on issues. But--he didn't. He expressed his intention to vote for one of the minor party candidates, and his son reports that that is what he did. Now as I have been writing here for 12 years now, the Democrats remain the party that essentially believes in government and does its best, when it power, to keep it going and make it work, while the Republicans try to tear it down. This gentleman obviously doesn't want to tear government down, but that wasn't enough to get him to vote to keep the Democrats in power. That is a measure of the mess we are in.
My second piece of evidence came from a conversation with four young people in their early thirties, three of them educators, and all of them Clinton voters. They spontaneously began talking about who the next Democratic presidential candidate might be. But like their Republican counterparts this year, all their interest was in a non-politician, some one with no electoral experience, whom they thought they would be able to trust and who might have broad appeal. The three names that immediately came up were Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Jon Stewart. If I had pressed them I am sure they would all have admitted to some admiration for Elizabeth Warren, and at least some of them had favored Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, but both of them, alas, will probably be too old to run for President in the future. There was not one younger Democratic politician whom these four very well-educated young adults actively wanted to run as their next candidate or serve as their next President. When I said to one of them that I was depressed that their opinion of the whole political class was so low, he replied that they were judging them based on what they had seen them do, and I could not argue very hard against that.
This widespread disaffection has many causes. Nearly all our politicians are indeed heavily beholden to moneyed interests. The Republicans have successfully kept government from functioning effectively at all levels to a surprising extent, and that has in turn discredited government. The Democrats have, in my opinion, been much too focused on identity politics, as this article in last Sunday's New York Times effectively argued. The general distrust of authority that has been growing for the last 50 years has worked against any kind of party loyalty, especially, it seems, on the left and among the young. But if you believe, as I do, that modern society cannot function without effective governance and that democracy crucial to human happiness, then it seems to me that you must agree that this almost complete lack of confidence in our leadership class is a very serious matter indeed. And it does not seem at all likely that our new President, who was elected largely because he was outside that class, will be able to do very much to restore confidence.