This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in February, 2022
How is the darkening of American politics — to the point where the very survival of American democracy is in jeopardy – to be explained?
A variety of developments have contributed to our current peril — in both political parties, in the news media, and in the consciousness of large segments of the American electorate.
Here I’ll describe but one part of the answer to one question: “How did the Party of Ronald Reagan and the First Bush get transformed into the Trump Party we see today?”
One important factor, I suggest, was a significant political realignment that has occurred within living memory.
Here’s the background:
If one asked which political forces – operating in the United States from the Civil War well into the 20th century — most interfered with our nation’s living up to its idea of “Justice for All,” two such forces would dominate the answer.
One would be the force that – for centuries — has fueled the unjust treatment of one race by another. From the beginnings of slavery even into our times, that force (of White Supremacy) has generated a great deal of cruelty. (Foreign observers regarded racial oppression to be America’s “original sin.”)
The second was the corrupting force of greed, operating through those economic powers that came to dominate the American economy – especially as industrial capitalism took off following the Civil War. A Money Power warped American politics, enacting policies – and concocting constitutional interpretations — that gave more wealth to the richest and more power to those already mighty.
It was against these two forces of Brokenness – White Supremacy and Corporate Greed, each representing immoral forms of self-interest – that American politics have fought its two main moral battles.
Fortunately for America, these two forces were divided between the two major parties.
- From before the Civil War up until the mid-1960s, the Force of the White Supremacists operated politically as a component of the Democratic Party, which protected white oppression of blacks (in the South) to hold its coalition together.
- Meanwhile, it was the Republican Party that was the “Party of Big Business,” advancing the interests of the corporate world (at the expense of other components of the society).
That division of the two Forces of Brokenness between the two parties was fortunate, because it meant that, in the political struggle for power, the two forces would largely cancel each other out.
And because neither party’s most broken element was that party’s main spirit, the more benign elements of each Party could mostly call the shots. Consequently, the United States had two political Parties that generally played by the rules, and mostly worked to move the nation forward.
But something happened in American politics that undid that balance: In the mid-1960s, the Democratic President (LBJ), aided by most of the Democrats in Congress, passed Civil Rights legislation, putting an end to legal segregation.
That achievement may have represented the greatest advancement of justice in American history but, as LBJ said privately upon signing that legislation, the result would be that the Democratic Party would lose the South. (The Republican attempts to capitalize on that development began with Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1968, and variants of that strategy have been used in Republican politics since.)
When the Democratic Party changed from “the Party of the White Supremacists” into the Party of Civil Rights, the Solid (Democratic) South began changing into the Solid (Republican) South.
(And the “Party of Lincoln,” the Great Emancipator, became the Party of Strom Thurmond, defender of segregation.)
We can now see that the consequences of this development further were still more profound, because as a result, the two main forces of brokenness in American politics were joined in the same Party.
Forces of brokenness that had cancelled each other out now formed an alliance, and over time the mostly decent elements of the Republican Party were gradually subdued – or squeezed out – by the combined power of the brokenness of unbridled greed and the brokenness of racial hostility and oppression.
(The darkened Republican Party then turned to brilliant propagandists to bring the Republican base along to support such a party– like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, joined by the FOX network and “Bush’s Brain,” Karl Rove.)
But that takeover of the GOP could not have happened just because of that malignant alliance and the clever propagandists that served it:
- Had the Democrats not proved so incapable of making sure that destructive Republican conduct got punished, rather than being politically rewarded; and
- Had so many Americans not proved so vulnerable to propaganda that fed their worst impulses;
- Had the American news media been so long so unable to see, and/or so unwilling to show the American people, what was happening right before our eyes to one of America’s two major parties;
perhaps the better parts of the GOP could still have prevailed.
So it was the systemic devolution of the whole system (including both parties, the wider public, and the press) that enabled the joining together (in one political party) of America’s two most destructive forces — Racism and Greed – to open the door to the powerful Force of Brokenness that besets us now.