October 2016. In the middle of October the race for the White House appears to be Hillary Clinton’s to lose. Her rival, Donald Trump, has been the only serious contender since he obtained enough delegate votes to win his party’s nomination. Despite the active campaigns of the Green and Libertarian parties, the United States is still a two party political system at the national level. Nor has the dual nature of American politics been significantly altered by the appearance in recent years of the so-called Tea Party. Nevertheless the situation of the Presidential race has been very dramatically changed within both of the major parties.
Of the two the Democratic Party has been changing in ways that are easiest to see, even if not easy to understand. A quick review of party history will show that party has undergone several revolutions in modern times.
The party Democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt was composed of two very stable pieces and one that was in flux. First there was “the Solid South”, that part of the country that favored business owners over workers and consumers, was hostile to the political and civil rights of African Americans, and always followed white Anglo- Saxon men with Baptist and Methodist attitudes and beliefs. Solid South component had been very stably and predictably in place since the Civil War. A second and fairly stable piece of the Democratic Party had come along in the latter part of the 19th Century in the Midwest. It was the populist movement of William Jennings Bryan and the agrarians. Usually opposed to foreign adventures and always opposed to desegregation, the populist movement gave vent to the angers of poor and middle class rural white folks who distrusted the Republicans’ defense of protectionist tariffs and big businessmen and Eastern intellectuals. Until the Franklin Roosevelt revolution the Democrats were not much more trusted by labor unionists and immigrant minorities than the LaGuardia Republicans in New York or Republican progressives associated with Bob Lafollette in the Midwest and Theodore Roosevelt in the East.
After the New Deal, Democrats tended to represent all of those groups previously described as “in flux”. To these were added anti-war activists and African Americans in the civil rights and Vietnam War era of the 60s, sexual preference minorities and “right to choose” advocates in the 70s and liberal internationalists throughout the last half century. All of these constituencies and other minorities have generally subscribed to the Democratic tendency to show distrust for big business and faith in the exercise of social and personal freedoms tied neither to economic individualism nor evangelical religious conformity.
The Republican Party has been reasonably coherent in philosophy and action since the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1965. That unsuccessful candidacy succeeded within the party of bringing in large numbers of white Southerners and others who resented desegregation and federal efforts to help the poor at the expense of the wealthy and of white social cohesion. With the Nixon candidacy the Republican Party adopted dog whistle codes for putting Black folks and defiant intellectuals in their previous roles within the larger American culture—subservient to the interests of business, Christian social conventions and the perceived needs of the country to root out dissent and deviance. Efforts to achieve sexual equality in the workforce and marketplace were beaten back whenever the Republican party prevailed—although the party’s front burner issues were usually about such symbolic matters as flag burning, school prayer, loyalty to soldiers fighting in the Persian Gulf, anti-communism, and the personal sex interests of candidates and Presidents. Not until the Tea Party emergence very recent years has the Republican Party experienced any real organized effort to revitalize conventional conservative positions on taxes and deficits. Usually the focus has been on passions to stop abortions, sanction sexual departures from convention, punish drug use and glorify patriotism.
Now we have a race between the wife of the President whose sexual indiscretions led to his impeachment and a flamboyant business man with a succession of trophy wives, allegations of sexual assault and a history of talking about women in ways most Americans would have found at least crude not long ago. It is surely not surprising that the wife is the Democrat, but has surely been a shock to many that the business man is the Republican candidate. Modern Republicans from Goldwater and Nixon to Reagan and Bush could hardly have been imagined to be sharing the presidential spotlight with the likes of Donald Trump. The Grand Old Party has frequently appeared to be rather stiff shirted and prim; it has never been openly crude and vulgar.
In the closing weeks of this presidential campaign there will still be time for more surprises. The avalanche of spending will dwarf that of prior races. A weird topsy-turvy of some issues will continue to be strangely unfamiliar—such as the Democrat’s closeness to financial fat cats and the Republican’s self-proclaimed championing of industrial workers. There will be more Trump attacks on the press, the leadership of his party and the electoral process itself. But in the long run the one thing that has always characterized the Republican candidate for President will remain absent. Trump completely lacks that one thing—the patina of decency, common ordinary personal decency. I must believe that the lack of common decency will be the decisive issue. After three quarters of a century of watching presidential campaigns I can remember almost every conceivable twist and turn except one. I have never seen Americans elect a candidate for President that most of us would not feel comfortable introducing to our spouse or pastor because of that candidate’s unapologetic assertion of taking pleasure in the sexual humiliation of other people. Such a person could not win the support of the majority of ordinary citizens voting for a candidate for alderman or mayor in their home town! How could we possibly give him our highest and most powerful office?