MLK became a Christian teacher for me through his writings when I was a young lawyer and a newly adoptive Mississippian in the 1990’s. I also learned a lot of the history of Civil Rights and the South through Taylor Branch’s voluminous King biographies among my other more Mississippi-specific reading. I used material from Rev. King to guest teach a couple of my Sunday School classes in Mississippi.
This was not that long ago by the timeframes of my life but before smartphones and “social media.” Also before any of us knew of Barak Obama, before my year in Kenya, and while I was still a “lifelong” Republican if drifting away in part because of some of the demands of my own faith.
King’s ministry and leadership had a long arc with a slow rise. We have learned that the FBI tried to stop him at an intermediate point but failed. His influence in some important respects peaked over years after his murder. He did not convince the majority of Southern whites in his lifetime that he was substantially right about the biggest things, but eventually he did.
Now he is a statute off the mall in Washington and a great source of quotes for all occasions and whatever purpose but we can hardly stop and think and/or pray and talk through the differences in how we see our country around us.
I am afraid that today someone like King would be delegitimized and marginalized long before he or she could lead us to change.
Likewise, the less currently “popular” parts of his message might further overwhelm those that were eventually heard. And we could not hear a Christian minister today as we eventually came to hear him.
Today, it would not seem feasible to pass morally challenging legislation like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act with bipartisan support and against bipartisan opposition because we do not allow ourselves to accept leadership of that type from outside politics and the people that we elect are not leaders at that level.
And now we find ourselves beset with contentions and backlash after years in which many of us assumed that continued steady if slow progress was assured. We have what seems to me an extraordinary partisan divide in which the vast majority of Republicans see racial discrimination against African-Americans as mostly a solved issue and “reverse discrimination” as more salient while the vast majority of Democrats see it in a more “traditional” frame.
As a moderately conservative white adoptive Southerner, “my people” are now very much oriented to the Republican side of politics but I cannot understand my day-to-day world in a way that inverts the racial discrimination burden and it is a struggle for me to know how to address myself to this gap of perception. We made tremendous progress during my lifetime and it is vital to recognize that–and to recognize the toil, sacrifice and courage of those like King that were necessary for the country to accomplish that. But you cannot just declare “peace with honor” and pretend that things cannot come apart because you do not want to deal with the challenge any more.
This is a quote from an email bulletin I received today from the Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. She is an impressive woman I knew back in the local Republican Party in Nashville during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations when I was in law school:
Earlier this month, I announced the formation of an Opioid Abuse Task Force to combat the epidemic of opioid addiction in Tennessee. In 2015, more than 1,400 Tennesseans died from opioid abuse and there are currently more opioid prescriptions in our state than there are people. We cannot let this problem get any worse, and that’s why I am proud of my colleagues for working swiftly to come up with solutions to this problem.
Back then in the late 1980s the state government was run by Democrats with Republicans gaining ground in federal offices and presidential campaigns, as in most of the South. East Tennessee, where my mother grew up on a family dairy farm on the outskirts of a small town, had a Republican tradition as upland area that had been pro-Union or at least non-successionist in the Civil War, whereas the Confederate areas stayed fairly Democratic. For this reason Tennessee had an unusually competitive two party system with genuine efforts to sway overlapping groups of potential voters.
In more recent years, although I have not had the opportunity to be around much the GOP seems to have gradually consolidated control and the Democrats have receded into the cities. The GOP has simultaneously moved steadily to the right from being a center-right/right coalition back 25ish years ago and power has devolved from the party organizations to voters in open primaries (as in most Southern states voter registration in Tennesssee is not by party). As politics has moved right, the culture has moved “left” as in the rest of the country and much of what we “conservatives” thought we wanted to conserve is not so much in evidence anymore, as reflected in part in the dislocations associated with things like the opiod epidemic.
The opiod epidemic is a pretty fascinating story of policy, political and cultural failure–needless to say it’s embarrassing as hell to talk about and that much harder to solve.
Fortunately Donald Trump, leader of his new Republican Party spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Greater Washington today and promised a huge military build up to go along with the pre-existing program of paying pharmaceutical companies for the opioids. So not to worry–next week back to our regularly scheduled programming about elections for Africans.
We have a hegemonic two party political system in the United States. Neither party attracts the identification of a consistent majority of voters, yet most “independent” voters primarily vote for one party or the other rather than choosing between candidates on a case-by-case basis. During the period of their hegemony the Republican and Democratic parties have changed their regional, ideological, cultural and racial make-up without losing their shared control of substantially all of government at a federal and state level.
At present, American politics is primarily about culture, which is reflected in what political scientists identify as an ideological separation in which the two parties in Congress no longer substantially overlap, especially due to the defeat of liberal and then moderate Republicans especially in the Northeast and Midwest and the success of “tea party” and other movements and political funding mechanisms that have moved Republican representation well to the right. At the same time, the Democratic Party has to a lesser but perhaps growing degree moved left and does not seriously try to compete in large swaths of the country that were its traditional strongholds.
The specific policy issue that constitutes a near absolute “litmus test” divide between the parties remains abortion, which is primarily determined in the courts and is little legislated on at the federal level. While each of the parties has reinforced the rigor of the divide on that issue in recent years they have moved to “sort” across a whole diverse range of issues– most any issue that arises really.
This divide between the parties, culturally derived, then generates reverberation back into the broader culture. While most Americans don’t care that intensely about politics and politicians as such, we seem to me to be becoming more disputatious about issues that come to the fore in politics and governance, more suspicious of each other, less willing to accord legitimacy to opinions we don’t reflexively agree with, and less inclined to listen and learn in a way that would support mutual persuasion and/or compromise.
Shortly after returning to the United States from Kenya in the summer of 2008 I remember being struck in reading Rick Perlstein’s then new sociopolitical history Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America how glad I was to have been too young to have had to really deal with the depth of divisions of “The Sixties” and the “culture wars” and “generation gap” of that era. Unfortunately these divisions have been gearing up since that summer.
Some of this is surely just the ordinary social cycle, some of it is the inevitable stress of an unprecedented era of seemingly permanent war, along with economic trauma from globalization and the finance crisis, but just as the political strategies of Richard Nixon and George Wallace and others had broader consequences of historical import from the late 1960s and 1970s, the decision of so many leaders and elected officials in the Republican Party to actively or passively indulge and humor the bizarre conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya and somehow smuggled into the country as an infant is to me a factor that future historians may view as quite profound.
Obama was a candidate of thin experience with significantly opaque aspects to his background with some legitimate controversies–this was always fair game politically for the Clintons and for Republicans. But, when you are mute or noncommittal when conspiracy theorists turn the basic facts of what could be seen as a uniquely American success story aside from divides of policy, party and ideology into a sinister, evil conspiracy resulting in a wholly illegitimate and unlawful usurpation of the White House by the clear winner of the election you cannot expect to easily manage the impacts over time. Surely any upstanding, patriotic citizen who actually believes the conspiracy is duty-bound to oppose the usurper?
Most senior Republicans could never have believed any of this–I am afraid they just did not have the courage to confront it because they knew it had profound traction at the grassroots as consistently confirmed by polling. John McCain as Obama’s GOP opponent (and International Republican Institute chairman) was notably above the nonsense personally but he was also notably outside the cultural mainstream of the party even by 2008 and more so now. The problem was not so much the campaign as the deligitimization of the elected President.
Thus now we have Donald Trump, unapologetic carnival barker of the birther conspiracy from its revival in 2011, as the dominant front runner for the Republican nomination for President to the chagrin of probably most people of his generation who have actually been involved in the party over the years. Whatever happens from here on out in this particular election campaign which remains partially in flux, the nature and trajectory of one of our only two parties, at the least, has been profoundly impacted. And the consequences will continue to play out well after the next President takes office.
This is a post I started a few years ago and let sit. I usually avoid writing about things that directly mention the International Republican Institute other than as specifically necessary in regard to the 2007 election in Kenya and some advocacy for people arrested in Egypt. It’s awkward for a lot of reasons to write about IRI, the most personally important of which is my deep affection for people that work there. And to the extent I have criticisms it would be my desire that they become better rather than that they be harmed.
Nonetheless, I think the structure of democracy assistance is something we need to think about and almost everyone who is in a position to be engaged is also in a position to feel constrained from speaking freely or has an unavoidable conflict of interest. And its is an especially challenging time for the effort to share or support democracy so I am going to suck it up and proceed:
In an era of hyperpartisanship in the U.S. we are also faced with a divided government and a real question about our collective ability to do the basic business of governance in terms of passing budgets, for instance.
More specific to democracy support, the old notion that “politics stops at the water’s edge” is long dead. Every issue anywhere is contested space between Democrats and Republicans in grappling for power. [The attack on the U.S. government facility in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 being perhaps the most conspicuous example.] There are profound divisions in a few areas of policy and culture between the Republican and Democratic base voters. Nonetheless, it is also clear, ironically perhaps, that in the present moment there is not any clearly identified and coherent policy difference between the parties on foreign affairs as such. Now in the early stages of the 2013-16 presidential campaign, Republican Senator Rand Paul appears to be his party’s front runner for the nomination. The traditional Republican foreign policy establishment has less disagreement on specific points of foreign policy with the Obama Administration than with Senator Paul. And much of its membership would presumably in private vote for a Democrat seen as somewhat more hawkish and interventionist than Obama, such as for instance Hillary Clinton, than for Paul. Some piece of the base of the Democratic Party might well feel obligated to vote for Paul over Clinton in a general election if it came to it.
Referencing the policies of the most recent Republican Administration, which was in office when I worked for IRI in East Africa, there is no reason to think that Jeb Bush, for instance, believes in the “Bush Doctrine” and certainly Ron Paul doesn’t. Foreign policy was important in the 2008 Democratic primaries and in the 2008 general election and there was at that time a sharp perceived difference between Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin over the aspects of foreign policy that were important to most voters and that difference was essential to Obama’s election. Not so much in 2012 in either the Republican primaries or in the general election. All presidential elections matter with great intensity for Washington foreign policy people because they decide who gets what jobs (like do you go to the State Department or stay at IRI or NDI or some think tank) and in general everyone is either Democrat or Republican and either wins completely or loses completely, heads or tails, each time. For most American voters the relationship of parties and elections to foreign affairs is completely different.
The traditions of the Democratic and Republican foreign policy establishment in Washington are based on the Cold War, like the structure of the National Endowment of Democracy itself, with IRI and NDI along with the overseas arms of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO as its “core” “private” institutes. Relatedly this tradition and structure is also critically Eurocentric. Going on a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union the terms of the contest between a democratic Washington and an authoritarian Moscow are very different in Europe itself today–and much less of immediate relevance in, say, Africa. The old days of the American Democrats supporting the democratic left in Europe and the American Republicans supporting the right–both as a pro-American alternative to Soviet-aligned Communists–are interesting history that we should learn more from, but they are history. And we are not nearly so Eurocentric now in our policies and relationships in Africa, Asia and Latin America, so we have different types of opportunities to support democracy and its related values in those regions rather than dividing everyone up as pro-Western Bloc versus pro-Eastern Bloc.
In practice today, I don’t see the Democratic Party in power in Washington really aligned with the “democratic left” in other countries, given the lack of need to shore up against Marxist/Communist forces (among other reasons) nor much particular interest in the Republican Party in supporting more rightist or conservative parties abroad per se. Generally Republican and Democrat campaign and media consultants, like lobbyists, seem to work for whoever they come to terms with commercially in any given emerging or frontier market rather than on the basis of some coherent party related framework.
Formally, IRI and NDI are completely overlapping as they are both non-partisan. Occasionally they are said to be “affiliated” with their respective parties, but more frequently they are said to have “no connection” to parties. Ultimately this is simply confusing and unclear–and not really consistent with the principles that the organizations are trying to teach to others. In Germany where the government funds overseas institutes of the parties, the law is different and the government provides funding for the parties themselves in a way that would presumably be unconstitutional in the United States. So you don’t have a counterpart to this strange melange of “nonpartisan Republican” or “nonpartisan Democratic” even though the German organizations are said to be a model for setting up IRI and NDI back in the early 1980s.
In my personal experience, I had the clear impression that IRI was quite serious about being legally compliant in terms of the 501(c)(3) nonpartisan formalities [and this was noteworthy in an a organization that did not have an overall compliance component at that time–I am not going to be a whistleblower or even a public critic on this but have noted that they have gotten in at least a little difficulty with the government for ignoring cost accounting regulations that I told them they shouldn’t ignore when I worked for them]. I have no reason to assume that NDI is not equally serious. In the case of IRI, with the chairman running for president two different times during his tenure, they know that the Democrats have had incentive to catch them if they were to get tangled with a Republican campaign; and of course everything is potentially tit-for-tat in that regard for the other side.
At the same time, both parties have an incentive to make as much use of “their” respective unaffiliates as permissible on a mutally backscratching basis. While there are certain cultural and stylistic differences in how this plays out–as any observer of the current American political scene can well imagine–I don’t think this warrants the whole separate infrastructure of two duplicate organizations. For instance, unaffliliated Republicans could still do programming at the Republican National Convention and unaffiliated Democrats could still do programming at the Democratic National Convention even if it was under the umbrella of one unaffiliated nonpartisan organization instead of two separate unaffiliated nonpartisan organizations. And the unaffiliated Republicans could apply a conservative orientation to have programming that is solid, on-message stuff supporting the party line; and the unaffiliated Democrats could be liberal-minded and have a “soft power” approach that involves people on both sides at the convention of their side.