But in developing a cohesive ideological platform with top-down leadership, the Democrats had to pay respect to the Sanderistas and their version of “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” Just because Bernie Sanders played the good soldier and compromises were made for the sake of party unity, Democrats as well as Republicans are faced with the fact that leadership in both parties has bubbled up from the disaffected masses. Attention must be paid.
However, as much as vox populi—the voice of the people—presents a problem for Democrats, for a real nightmare let’s take a look (reluctantly for me) at the Republican Party, circa 2016.
Given the debacle that characterizes the current state of the Republican party, one is left to wonder if anyone is in charge or if it is a perfect personification of what the late Jimmy Breslin titled his book on the Nixon administration, “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” Nobody seems to be in charge. There is no cohesion among Congressional Republicans, let alone a unified voice of support for Donald Trump. In fact, both House and Senate Republicans standing for reelection have been told by their congressional leadership that they are released from any bonds of party loyalty in their efforts to stay afloat amid the high level of political disdain for Trump. Daily, increasing numbers of Republicans rebel with revulsion at the prospect of supporting, much less voting for Donald Trump. Among the intellectual elite occupying the suites of conservative think tanks, non-support of Donald Trump is the badge of honor worn by most. And while finding a viable third-party true conservative candidate continues to resonate with these ABTs, “Anyone But Trump,” intellectuals of the Right, the reality is that the next President is going to be either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
So, while the causes of the leadership vacuum are many, the result is a party in free-falling chaos. Split between “movement conservatives,” guided by the fading but still vibrant echoes of the Goldwater and Reagan mantras of individual responsibility and constrained government, and the simplistic populism of the tea partiers and their demagogic leader Donald Trump, the party has, in effect, ceased to be a party. In the simple, homespun language of Will Rogers, who when asked in the 1920s to which political party he belonged, he answered, “I don’t belong to any political party. I’m a Democrat.” Substitute Republican for Democrat in 2016, and I think you have an accurate reflection of the chaos of present day Republicanism.
But what caused this disaffection with the leadership of both parties? In this age of instant communication is there a need for recognizable party leaders? Is the “establishment” such an anathema in both parties that identification as a leader of the establishment an automatic disqualifier for a leadership role? Do the anti-establishment wings of both parties have something to say that is important and worthwhile? Populism of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries sprang from the disaffected “Grange Movement” members of the mid-west whose champion was William Jennings Bryan and from the poor whites of the south who were championed—I would say, used for political advantage—by demagogic politicians such as “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina, Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, and Eugene Talmadge of Georgia.
The disaffected of today, I’m sad to say, bear a resemblance to their forebearers of a hundred years ago. On the left are the struggling members of the lower middle class and the poor whose good-paying blue collar jobs which sustained their fathers have disappeared overseas. College is a pipe dream and a nice home and a car increasingly becoming one. Who to blame? Politicians, trade deals, banks, globalization, and a technological revolution that has eliminated the need for unskilled labor.
On the right are the same struggling members of the poor and lower middle class who lost their jobs and can’t find new ones with dignity and fair pay. They see as bleak a future as their counterparts on the left and blame many of the same politicians and institutions, but with the added poison of xenophobia abetted by Donald Trump. It’s not just the corrupt establishment, it’s the “illegal” Hispanics flooding America from the south. It’s the dangerous, murderous Islamists, both beyond our borders and homegrown. It’s the Chinese, beneficiaries of unfair trade deals. It’s the African-Americans who take more from the treasury than they give. It’s anybody and everybody who are easy targets of blame for those who no longer accept individual responsibility for their plight.
In short, there is a combustible polity in America that must be addressed. It is a problem that is bigger than one party or one President. It must be addressed by both parties and the American people working together for the common good. It is certainly a problem that cannot be subjected to the simplistic gingoism of Donald Trump. America experienced its anti-immigrant Know Nothing party in the insular 1840s. Today’s America cannot suffer such ignorance and hatred. That is why I, a lifelong conservative, am voting for Hillary Clinton. I wish she were more conservative. I wish she were as conciliatory as her husband and as open to compromise, because America will not be brought together by someone who has all the answers. I wish that she were deemed more trustworthy by her fellow Americans. I wish that she was Ronald Reagan and that Tip O’Neill was the leader of the Democrats and that partisanship ended at 6pm over cocktails. But if only one wish comes true, it will be that Hillary wins the election and that Donald Trump is consigned to the dustbin of history with all of his preceding demagogues.
Richard L. Claypoole served in a variety of leadership positions for the National Archives, including being the Director of the Office of the Federal Register and the Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries and Museums. He was an editor of the Public Papers of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and editor in chief of the Public Papers of Ronald Reagan.