Bifurcation of the Voting Public
The most immediate consequence of the populist movement afoot, propelled as it is by unabashed anti-immigration sentiment, is a near-total bifurcation of the voting public. For whereas it is true that a great part of that public (about 45 percent, if we’re to go by a number corresponding to the undiminished size of the president’s steadfast base) stands united in its unwavering support of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration stance, it’s equally true that an even greater proportion of the public is dead-set against it. For reasons more or less apparent, this situation is also most impactful on the business of governing, the status of our democracy and the state of the union overall.
For one thing, our political parties are no longer the same as they were, especially the GOP. In particular, the near-total bifurcation of the voting public is being mirrored nowadays by a nearly-identical bifurcation within the House of Representatives and the Senate, so much so that the Republican Party of old had become in effect the Party of Trump. Forget the old distinction between the establishmentarians and the Freedom Caucus (nee the Tea Party): it’s virtually nonexistent today. There has emerged instead unilateral support for the president no matter what, so unilateral, in fact, that Mitt Romney, the only dissenting voice during the Senate impeachment hearings, is being regarded now by most of his Republican colleagues as a pariah.
Clearly, given this climate of constant butting of heads, when even facts themselves are in dispute by a novel concept of “alternative facts” (and news. likewise, by a corresponding concept of “fake news”), the very business of governing, and of legislating for that matter, of reaching a consensus on even the most rudimentary of issues such as infrastructure reforms or healthcare, had become well-nigh impossible. It would seem that only a catastrophe, such as the one presented to us by the current COVID-19 pandemic, has gravitas enough for our governing bodies to act swiftly and in unison for the benefit of all, but that’s an exception we’d rather do without. And even in this respect, in light of the faltering economy, there have emerged voices calling for loosening the prudent restrictions designed to control the outbreak, thus putting the American way of life ahead of life itself.
In the final analysis, it all comes down to the public, the voting public. But what public, you may ask? Given the seemingly irrevocable rift along the immigration divide, a rift which happens to spill over and affect nearly every aspect of public debate, there is no longer any public to speak of – which, in effect, renders all legislative and governing bodies as good as useless. For indeed, the notion of the common good, the very aim of responsible legislation and sound government, is made obsolete by the fact that the public, such as it has become, no longer has much of anything in common.
Populism as Hallmark of Democracy
Steve Bannon, for one, happens to disagree, and his sincerity on the subject is beyond question (see, for instance, Bannon’s 1st and 2nd interview on PBS’s Frontline, “America’s Great Divide”). He thinks, in fact, that ours are times of democracy at its finest for having generated a robust dialogue across the entire nation, a dialogue concerning the most existential question of all: who we are and whither we’re going. The degree of engagement is what matters to Mr. Bannon the most, and there’s no question that the populist movement at hand, coupled with a virulent opposition to it, have brought that engagement to unprecedented levels. But for Mr. Bannon, so it seems, any kind of populism, whether from the Right or the Left, is the hallmark of democracy; the stronger the populist movement afoot, the more vibrant the state of our democracy. Ultimately, he argues, it will all be decided come election time, and voters will have their say. Thus, everything will revert to “normal,” is the implicit assumption.
Are we to accept this prognosis at face value? What assurances do we have that the anti-immigration sentiment at hand, rabid as it has become, will somehow dissipate once, say, a Democrat gets elected to the White House, bolstered, besides, by a Democrat majority in both Houses? Even given this best case scenario, will a political solution mandated from top down suffice to quash what’s deeply rooted in the heart?
If history is to serve as a guide, the answer is no. And here, the Civil War era may be instructive. Granted, in the immediate aftermath of North’s victory, there ensued a rather hopeful period of Reconstruction, but it was short-lived. Soon thereafter, there followed Jim Crow Laws; and although slavery was officially abolished and the Union restored, in all other respects it was business as usual in the good ole South. The passage of the Civil Rights Act a century or so later, which most Southern Democrats vehemently opposed, was only a letter of the law insofar as the South was concerned. The spirit remained unchanged, as evidenced, for instance, by Nixon’s Southern strategy and the ongoing suppression of voting rights to this very day.
Perhaps the Civil War example is too far-fetched to serve as a reliable object lesson, although some of the current president’s rhetoric hints at times at the present divide in precisely those terms. Be that as it may, the point remains that emotions on both sides of the divide, whether in Congress or within the electorate at large, run nearly as hot nowadays as they did in the days of yore and show no sign of cooling down anytime soon. My prediction is that with his uncompromising anti-immigration stance, Mr. Trump opened Pandora’s Box; and once open, it will be next to impossible to close it again.
Concluded in Part IV.