By Jack Pearce
In his analysis “Prospects for a Partisan Realignment: Lessons From the Demise of the Whigs” in the 19th century in the United States, for the Brookings Institution, Phillip Wallach has made a timely, and possibly seminal, contribution to coping with the political disorientation, and need for reorientation, evident in the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Brexit, and “nationalist” movements in Europe.
In his article, Wallach recalls the urgent issues of the period leading up to and through the Civil War in the United States -- largely but not exclusively whether the country would be ‘freeholder’ oriented or slavery oriented, as it expanded Westward, and how it would react to waves of immigrants with some characteristics differing from its white Anglo Saxon protestant core at that time (including but not limited to Catholics). The societal tensions involved forced dissolution and reorganization of the national political parties.
So let us attempt to capsule the major issues which raise the question whether one or both of our two major parties will or should be dismembered and reformulated today. I suggest three.
One is how this country, the USA (and others, in Europe) will cope with the “rise of the rest” -- the impending explosion of the economic weight, and the rise of the Middle Class, of Asia and Africa. This puts us in close global competition with people who differ from us in a number of respects.
Another is the necessity of transitioning to ‘renewable’ and sustainable energy sources. This is a complex and century-long project, requiring us to learn to lean less on the fuels which have created the wealth we have today.
And the third, peculiar perhaps to the United States, is whether and how we will acknowledge the ubiquity and necessity of an “administrative state” which provides a reasonable level of health and education for its populace throughout, while efficiently facilitating a complex and dynamic economy capable of coping with the first two challenges.
These are not trivial challenges. It is quite possible that they will require a significant period of domestic and international adjustment, in which we will have to work harder and smarter to make our way. Perhaps we should not be surprised if in facing them our incumbent parties are showing internal stresses and contradictions, in the United States, and we see worryingly ‘nationalistic” (or ultra-nationalistic) parties rising to some degree in Europe.
After the most recent election in the USA, the internal schisms of the Republicans here are becoming starkly evident. Donald Trump campaigned on providing social safety nets and protections from competition for those who elected him. But the Republicans now steering Congress want profit from international engagement, preferences for the wealthy, and breadcrumbs for the poor and disadvantaged.
Reconciliation is made more difficulty by Trump having brought into his White House some who do not understand why there is or should be a tightly integrated international system, or why there is an ‘administrative state’. And Trump has brought into his cabinet representatives of those in our society who see the world as it was when America was more economically dominant and less respectful of the Earth, rather than as it is today, and needs to be in the future.
But the Democrats are not presenting a compelling vision of the Party of the Future either. Barack Obama managed a reasonably close approximation. But democrats have tended to shrink from international competition. Their recent ‘populist’ candidate, Bernie Sanders, did not project a deep understanding of the capitalist system. They did not convince enough of the populace that that we can and should “stay the course” in international and domestic affairs, and can thrive thereby.
So if a reconfiguration of parties were to happen in the United States, one might ask what the United States needs in the way of a political party, and the leaders thereof? Are the same requirements currently applicable to leaders in other polities?
In this writer’s opinion, we need leaders, and parties, who are committed first and foremost to the necessary energy transitions, in the United States and worldwide. Such leaders may not be too hard to get. The need is evident, and even a Republican oil man like Rex Tillerson can see it. (Of course, he is a man of unusual integrity and experience.) But we do need leaders with a long vision and a grasp of how to draw on fossil resources to get the more sustainable resources of the future.
Secondly we need leaders who can project an understanding of social safety nets, medical and otherwise, within affordable dimensions. In the United States, the health franchise should be expanded, but not made unnecessarily expensive, too rigid, or uncompetitive. Much of the current Republican leadership is disqualifying itself, either because it does not understand why the franchise is beneficial for the society as a whole, or because it does not want to help fund it for the poor and disadvantaged. The Democrats, on the other hand, seem always to want their hands out for more, whatever the cost or long term affordability. (These characterizations are not necessarily apt for each Republican or each Democrat. I am addressing central tendencies.)
Thirdly, in the United States, we need leaders who can engender confidence in Americans’ ability to meet the great challenges of the day, and the century, based on competence, sound understanding of the realities of the world, and courage. The American people need to be reminded and reassured that they can compete, and they can assimilate as well. They can have borders, and security checks, and not be overtaxed with refugees. But they can and must also have trade, in a peaceful global trading system, and attract international talent to our team. European leaders seem unavoidably to have a similar task before them.
And there is the matter of character. The American people, as do any people, need leaders who combine their confidence with honesty, competence, sturdiness of character, respect for beneficial civic institutions, and the modesty to know that they serve, not dictate.
The Party or Parties of the future need also to embody honesty, competence, respect for beneficial civic institutions, courtesy, dignity, and modesty, whether the party symbols are those of the Donkey, the Elephant, or an Eagle clasping a sheaf of optic fiber. In the United States, many observers report, the Republicans are falling distressingly, and conceivably fatally, short right now, especially as to honesty, sufficiently broad public responsibility, and competence. And the Democrats seem to need considerable sharpening.
As to other countries, such traits would of course be constructive. But how to translate them into reality in each Nation must be left to each nation.
Jack Pearce has served as Assistant Chief of United States Justice Department’s Antitrust Division's ‘Public Counsel and Legislative’ Section, Assistant General Counsel of Agency for International Development with responsibilities in Near East, South Asia sector, National Insititute of Public Affairs fellowship at Cornell, Deputy General Counsel, White House Office of Consumer Affairs, law practice relating to pro-competitive regulatory reform, and innovator of virtual office system for attorneys and others.