Welcome to 2017. This promises to be, for lack of a better word, an interesting year. We just ended one of the most contentious elections in American history, and a nervous nation awaits the inauguration of Donald Trump and the possible dismantling of a half century of progressive legislation.
Or maybe not. “The Donald” is unpredictable, so your guess is as good as mine until we receive his twitter edicts.
But the real question of the year is: how will we function as a nation when the divisions between left and right continue to widen?
Families aren’t speaking to each other. Some are boycotting businesses they have frequented for decades, solely because of politics. States are threatening to secede. Gun and ammunition sales are skyrocketing.
You’d think we are on the verge of civil war, as implausible as it sounds.
I’ve been covering politics as a cartoonist for the past thirty five years and witnessed first hand how the so-called Great Divide slowly simmered to the point where it threatens to boil over. Some would say that the divide has always been there, but the situation really accelerated in our era with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.
It began with the second Republican revolution, most notably when Rush Limbaugh and talk radio replaced the eastern establishment types like William Buckley and George Will as the voice of disaffected conservatives. It was the year that Pat Buchanan mounted a serious challenge against George Bush the first. That, coupled with the independent Perot campaign, scuttled what was left of the Reagan revolution.
It was the moment when the right decided that compromise amounted to the boiled frog analogy, that their values and rights were slowly being cooked away by the progressive socialist agenda. Even though it would take another twenty-odd years, they began to weed out the moderate wing of the party, election by election.
Democrats, on the other hand, embraced compromise. They were still smarting from the trouncing they received after the disastrous Carter presidency. (Yeah, I know hard core Democrats worship him now, but they overlook the Iranian hostage crisis, his inability to work with his own party leading to a 1980 challenge from Ted Kennedy, and the malaise economy with double-digit interest rates.) The smooth talking Clinton wanted to pull voters away from the Republicans by offering “the third way,” of a supposedly conservative approach to economics with a liberal social agenda.
It worked, for a short time anyway. Hillarycare, more taxes, the social stigma of political correctness and increasing environmental regulation scuttled his agenda and his congressional majority, but even with the Lewinsky affair Republicans couldn’t dislodge him from the White House.
The new century brought Bush II, 9/11, two wars that have yet to be resolved, and the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Americans overwhelmingly elected Barack Obama in the hope that the internal wounds could be healed. It might have been, except that Obama couldn’t identify with rural conservatives. Maybe if he had spent a week on a ranch on the border, or in a West Virginia coal town he might have been able to feel what they were feeling.
No, I’m not so naive to buy into that. Republicans made up their mind from the beginning that it was all or nothing. There would be no grand compromise on anything that originated from the White House or the Democratic congress.
By the beginning of 2015, conventional wisdom and most pundits agreed that Hillary Clinton would not only break the glass ceiling by becoming the first female to head a major party ticket, but she would mop the floor with a weak Republican field of candidates. This prediction would only be bolstered by the ascendancy of reality show real estate tycoon Donald Trump to the top of the Republican heap.
Almost everyone (including yours truly) didn’t see the Trump train coming. Anyone who publicly endorsed The Donald was publicly vilified, so most voters kept quiet until November 8. And only then did we see just how pronounced the divide had become.
The same church-going conservatives who were horrified by Bill Clinton’s oral office affair in 1998 voted in droves for a man who was on his third marriage ( to a foreigner no less ) and bragged about crotch-grabbing his female victims, a loud-mouthed bully who stiffed his creditors and sicced armies of lawyers on his detractors. Good God, he voted for Democrats!
Meanwhile, those Democrats were involved in their own inner identity crisis. For the first time since the 1940’s, many openly identified themselves as socialists and rejected the compromising Clintons in favor of Bernie Sanders. In the end, just enough of them stayed home on election day to turn the electoral tide to Trump.
And now, here we are. The same Democrats who complained that the opposition never gave Obama a chance have vowed to build a wall of their own to stymie any Trump initiative. The same Democrats who decried the slurs on Michelle are slut-shaming Melania with glee. The same Democrats who were shocked when Trump announced he might not accept the outcome of the election are refusing to accept the outcome of the election.
No matter what spews forth from the White House, I’m fairly certain that the Republicans in Congress and the statehouses will forge ahead with their own reactionary agenda. You have only to look at legislation coming from the red states to see that they will do what they can to restrict voting rights, overturn anything resembling gay rights, criminalize Islam, gut the social safety net, including Social Security and Medicare and generally ignore the democratic process. (See North Carolina) They can’t help themselves. They’re Republicans.
Both sides are convinced that they will win it all, eventually, and that is where the real problem lies going forward. Do they really believe the opposition will fade away? I’ve been hearing that line for twenty years. It’s not going to happen in my lifetime.
Why is it so hard to live by the notion that we all have inalienable rights that the government has no business monkeying with? The libertarian in me still believes that as long as I don’t harm the rights of others, I have the right to live in the pursuit of happiness as I please. E Pluribus Unum.
As I asked in the beginning, how can we continue to function as a nation when we are so divided? Despite what some pacifists and isolationists might think, there are other countries and entities who would love to see our Grand Experiment fail. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. You might not like the alternative.