Not checkers. Not Chinese checkers. Chinese checkers in three dimensions.
In zero gravity.
That is as good a summary as any of the Byzantine American politics of 2018, with midterm congressional elections looming, with major issues freighted with important cultural overtones unresolved, with a president both on the attack and under attack, with a nuclear crisis in East Asia, with vital trade pacts surrounded by uncertainty and with multiple investigations underway.
Ordinarily, midterm congressional elections — and indeed, all the politics peripheral to them — come down to basic core questions: Is the economy sound? Is the nation safe? Is the president handling his duties reasonably well? Does cultural rebellion or social unrest cloak the landscape?
Not this time, not with this president, not with this Congress, not with this foreign and domestic landscape.
Here’s the conundrum at a glance: An important Gallup study released last autumn found that “Americans’ views of government remain negative.” In an ordinary time that would mean, among other things, that the public is impatient with the head of the government, the president, and to some extent that is true. But wait. This president, Donald J. Trump, may head the government, but he also may be its biggest critic. His view of the government remains negative.
That study also showed that barely one American in four says he or she is satisfied with the way the country is being governed, which is a slightly different critique. That goes directly to the president and the Congress, whose members in large measure don’t like the way the government is being operated, either, even though they are the principal operators of it.
If Tom Lehrer weren’t 89 years old, he might cut a record with the reprise line, “And everyone hates the feds.”
Find this confusing? That’s because this is an immensely confusing, probably unprecedented, passage in our country’s history — and that very condition explains the confusion of last week’s politics, conducted amid talk of “shithole” countries, government shutdowns and immigration crackdowns.
First, the Republicans. The president is nominally one, though from time to time he excoriates his own allies on Capitol Hill. Those congressional Republicans give some, but often not enough, support to their own president to pursue his campaign priorities, which included repealing Obamacare (not accomplished), lowering taxes (accomplished without a single Democratic vote), and tightening immigration (not resolved). But there are several wings to the modern Republican Party, so many that, to extend the metaphor, it cannot quite fly straight.
There are Republicans who think of themselves as Edmund Burke conservatives (worshipful of tradition, critical of fashion, skeptical of excess). There are Republicans who think of themselves as Ronald Reagan conservatives (optimistic in outlook, dedicated to a small government). There are Newt Gingrich conservatives (focused on futurism, favoring small business over big). There are Jack Kemp conservatives (congenial to minorities, convinced that growth is the key to freedom). There are the new Freedom Caucus conservatives (contemptuous of traditional GOP leadership, especially those with a taste for compromise). And there are conservatives (many of them intellectual-oriented, such as William Kristol and David Brooks) who believe Trump is no conservative at all.
Now, the Democrats. They’re in no better shape, united only by their opposition to Trump. That was enough to oppose the tax bill, but not enough to have any influence upon it. And the party, at the top, is fractured, though in the familiar Democratic way — a presidential party for a party out of power and a non-presidential party for a party that hopes to regain the presidency in 2020.
An explanation: There are several Democrats — Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, maybe Kamala Harris of California, perhaps even Bernie Sanders of Vermont (79 by Election Day 2020) and Joe Biden of Delaware (78 by Inauguration Day) — aggressively positioning themselves for presidential runs. Their focus is on 2020, not the legislative details of 2018, except to the extent that the fights of this year will position them for the presidential fundraising blitz of next year. They don’t call money the first primary for nothing.
Then there are all the permutations: Democratic senators running in states carried by Trump (which accounts for last week’s fissures on extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, issue). Republicans worried about challenges from the right (Steve Bannon may have been banished, but his power is not extinguished.) Republicans wary of Trump’s personality and character but generally supportive of his priorities (more than you might think, on both sides of the “but”).
And let us not ignore the ambient resentment, not a new phenomenon but a potent one still. The best explanation of this condition is two-thirds of a century old, from the pages of “Witness,” the 1952 memoir and cri de coeur of Whittaker Chambers. In its pages, he wrote of what he called “the jagged fissure” that separated “the plain men and women of the nation and those who affected to act, think and speak for them.” This from a onetime communist and Soviet spy educated at Williams and Columbia.
The result: Republicans aren’t talking to each other, nor to Democrats. Democrats don’t trust Republicans, and some of them are angling for personal advantage, perhaps to the detriment of the party’s long-term interests. Large numbers of Americans don’t feel they are being listened to by the small number who do all the talking, often in a preaching tone. And the Tom Lehrer Factor: Everyone hates the feds.
Is there any hope? There might be, if you consider how a trio of distinguished European historians evaluates the unintended consequences of the Reformation: “a religious movement that contributed to Europe’s secularization.”
This period of political hypertension, political alienation and political polarization just might contribute to some kind of new equilibrium, where, to apply the Reformation precedent, the super-partisanship of the current era may lead to bipartisanship. Members of the political elite — even the populists among the elite — cannot afford a further deterioration of our civic life, and to save their own reputations they may move to save the political system they comprise. In saving themselves, they may save the rest of us. Otherwise we may be consigned to play Chinese checkers in three dimensions in zero gravity for a long time, with no winner.