Rathke: When political parties lose control, welcome to crisis

New Orleans   Big ideas and popular demands move political parties, pro or con.  Politicians have to put their fingers in the air and see how the wind is blowing, especially if they lack core principles and convictions.  How do they navigate the cultural issues of guns, gays, and abortion?  What’s with Medicare for All and the Green New Deal for the Democrats?  What happened to free markets, free trade, and no deficit spending for the Republicans?  The president seems to want to rebrand his outfit as the Trump Party and might be thinking of a name change where half the country will live in the United States of Trump and rest of us will live in misery and pain to hear him tell it.

A recent issue of the Atlantic seemed to wonder if we were on the verge of civil war and the end of democracy.  One article began by stating that for a democracy to survive it “depends on the consent of the losers.”  It seems hard not to note that the Republicans under Senator Mitch O’Connell’s leadership did exactly that in Obama-time, most pointedly in refusing to allow him to appoint a Supreme Court Justice.  Trump certainly is obsessed with the fact that the Democrats and the resistance have never fully conceded the legitimacy of his election.  What happens when as a country we’ve “lost that loving feeling” that allows us to live and listen to each other?

Cedric De Leon addressed some of these questions on Wade’s World recently while talking about his new book, Crisis!  When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule.  As both a historian and a professor at the University of Massachusetts Labor Center, he takes the long view and marries it to a bottom-up, rather than elite perspective in addressing the proposition.  He notes that there is a “crisis sequence” at play, and it is often triggered by parties’ “failing to deliver on the promise of white privilege.”  When the Whigs’ success in taking peoples’ eyes off the ball demanding abolition of slavery to focus on manifest destiny and getting land in the west broke down, it led to the end of their party, the rise of the Republicans under Abraham Lincoln, and eventually the Civil War.  De Leon argues that political parties use a strategy of “absorption” to sponge up the peoples’ demands and interests. When elite and party reabsorption didn’t work after the Great Depression, in his argument it pushed Franklin Delano Roosevelt to deliver the sweeping changes of the New Deal.  Getting closer to today, he argues that the party establishments were able to coopt President Obama’s New New Deal and herd him back to the mainstream successfully, but not enough to avert the crisis sequence exploited by Donald Trump and his candidacy.

De Leon argues that there are three paths in such crises: “Caesarism” or looking for the one authoritarian leader, no doubt the path Trump is offering; absorption or “sleight of hand” by the elites and establishment to coopt the demands; or, finally, a new political program.  De Leon votes for door number three, and believes a revived labor movement is central to making this happen. In our conversation I couldn’t stop myself from noting the current weakness and division within institutional labor, but he’s absolutely correct that we can’t envision change without working people being part of the frontline making the demands.

We’re all facing hard questions in tough times, but with De Leon, we have to conclude there’s no escaping the fact that in this crisis we’re going to have to choose a path and get on with it PDQ.