Donald Trump did not cause the economic crisis in industrial and rural America, which began in the 1980’s and was deepened by the 2008 economic meltdown, nor was he responsible for long-standing efforts to transform those real hardships and anxieties into rage and hate based on race and religion. Yet it took Trump—with the continuing help of Vladimir Putin and media outlets like Fox News—to elevate “white nationalism” into a Republican crusade against our country’s defining aspiration toward equal rights for all.
To what extent do our two major Parties now embody that conflict between “liberty and justice for all” and “white nationalism”? In the 2018 elections, the percentage of white men within the Democratic caucus dropped from 41% to 38%, while the percentage of white males in the Republican caucus rose from 86% to 90%. Of the 197 Republican members of the House of Representatives, only one is African-American, and he has chosen not to run for re-election. Yes, one of our major Parties is approaching zero African-Americans in the House.
What we are seeing is a Democratic Party coming ever closer to matching the national proportion of women, blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, while the Republicans increasingly resemble a coalition of white men elevating cultural identity over our Republic’s–and the Democratic Party’s–commitment to equal rights for all.
That makes a Democratic sweep of the Presidency, the Senate, and the House a precondition for national reconciliation across that divide. Even should that occur, progress would require long and dedicated effort.
Big steps are needed to reach across the geographic and cultural barriers that have left most of the white working class feeling alienated, entrapped in a media bubble that seeks to intensify their sense of threat, and deepen their misplaced reliance on an authoritarian strongman to defend them. They have been fed on propaganda that associates their economic decline—and often despair—with the aspirations of people of color and an “invasion” by immigrants. Renewed progress on minority and women’s rights must recognize the long-term need to defuse their anger, and to abandon their fantasy of security based on white solidarity.
What can be done?
- Fight for Economic and Civil Rights. Democrats already join in a commitment to address the economic roots of our national division, to combat the opioid crisis, and to renew the drive for inclusive prosperity that our Party has championed since FDR during the Great Depression. That campaign goes hand-in-hand with the struggle against racism, which means fulfilling the vision of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960’s, and with the future passage of the Equal Rights Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing legal gender equality for women and men.
- Rebuild and Expand Civic Education. Legislation alone will not be enough. Our national appreciation for the miracle of the American experiment has frayed. Too few Americans understand how our Republic—as Jefferson put it—offered humanity an alternative to rule everywhere by “wolves over sheep.” Jefferson rightly believed that high standards of national education covering our history and values was essential to inoculate our citizens against the temptations of demagogues, and would be the “keystone in the arch” of enduring democracy.
We must now launch a renewed nation-wide commitment to civic education, directed at rebuilding understanding and respect for the fundamental principles, norms, and institutions that sustain our democracy. Federal funding should be one major source of resources for enabling states and localities to make civic education a priority at all educational levels. School boards, principles, parents, and teachers must rise to the challenge of developing powerful educational programs that enable a new generation to understand and defend our Constitution.
- Greatly Expand National Service. A second priority should be a greatly expanded program of national service. AmeriCorps now offers 75,000 Americans a chance to join in addressing a wide spectrum of domestic challenges. That program should be vastly expanded, with an added emphasis on bridging all of our divisions: rural/urban, racial and gender-based, supplanting mutual suspicions and exaggerated differences with mutual respect and the reality of a shared destiny. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s plan for expanded national service offers a useful foundation for national dialogue on how to expand that mission, which should be transformed into a legislative priority in a Democratic House and Senate in 2021.
Democracy is based on the reality—and the desirability–of endless debate. As James Madison put it, “liberty is to faction as air is to fire.” Our Founders understood that limiting the dangers of factional strife was at the heart of the “American experiment,” and the Constitution we adopted offered history’s most enduring path toward elevating the “general welfare” over all the narrow interests that divide society. Better educating all of our citizens on that history, and linking civic education to civic engagement, will be crucial to narrowing the stark divide that now threatens our Republic.