SHRIBMAN | It's the end of politics as we know it - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SHRIBMAN | It's the end of politics as we know it

Updated:

By David M. Shribman
Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The prize for the most important book with the most misleading title might go to "The End of Liberalism," published in 1969 by Theodore J. Lowi, who died less than three months ago. In the second edition of that book, published 10 years after it first was released, the Cornell political scientist sets forth in 11 enigmatic words why he once was named by his peers as the most influential political scientist in the country:

"The most fundamental political problem of our time is our politics."

That sentence -- actually, it is the back end of a sentence -- was written in the Jimmy Carter years, a reminder to liberals that their remarks about recent failed presidencies ought not to include only Richard Nixon, who is enjoying a mini rehabilitation, and George W. Bush, whose rehabilitation may be a decade or so off. The Democrats have presidencies -- James Buchanan, for example -- they'd rather forget, too.

One of the tenets of Lowi's book is that the two parties are the captives of their respective interest groups: "Congressmen are guided in their votes, presidents in their programs, and administrators in their discretion by whatever organized interests they have taken for themselves as the most legitimate; and that is the measure of the legitimacy of demands and the only necessary guidelines for the framing of the laws."

That notion may still be true in certain corners of the Capitol, but may no longer be true in the White House, for whose call exactly -- besides perhaps the wealthy, who, as the Bill Clinton years showed us, includes many Democratic masters of the universe -- does Donald J. Trump respond to?

Not, except marginally, to the austerity tradition of the Republican Party of Robert Taft and Robert Dole; Trump is girding to spend billions on an infrastructure initiative that Democrats will embrace and that Republicans will accede to in the hopes that their districts will get newly paved roads and reinforced bridges. But when, early last week, he broached the notion that he might entertain raising the gasoline tax to pay for this spending, he made it clear he wasn't a doctrinaire tax-cutter in the Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp tradition.

Not, except rhetorically, to the blue-collar constituency that helped make him the 45th president; his tax plan, fortified by reductions in corporate levies and the elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax and inheritance taxes, is not aimed at them.

Trump would be the first to say he is a force without precedent in American politics, and it isn't only his innovative interpretation of the origins of the Civil War that suggests he is right. Republican presidents traditionally bow to the past, which is what Edmund Burke conservatism is all about. Reagan hung a picture of Calvin Coolidge in his office, and George W. Bush fashioned himself a 21st-century extension of Ronald Reagan.

There is no such worship of the past in Trump, who in fact broke all historical barriers by embracing Andrew Jackson, arguably a populist like Trump but ordinarily regarded as the midwife of the modern Democratic Party. (Reagan's onetime romance with Franklin Roosevelt was born from experience. Trump has no experience with Jackson, and the $20 bill that for a short while more will bear the Jackson face is not exactly Trump's favorite banknote.)

If Lowi was right that the most fundamental political problem of our time is our politics, did Trump cause that problem, or did he reflect it? Did the Freedom Caucus of the contemporary Republican Party cause it, or did it reflect it? Is the increasingly leftist Democratic Party a cause or a reflection of that crisis?

The short answer to all three: Yes.

In a few decades, historians will have a longer answer, just as they did in the decades after the Civil War, when some regarded it as an inevitable conflict, or the result of a "blundering generation," or that it was, variously, about the preservation of the Union, or the stain of slavery, or even a collision of rural and urban, the old agrarian way of life and the new urban way of life.

But right now, in the middle of the muddle, we can only try to see through a glass, darkly. And what we see is that nothing is quite as it appears -- and nothing is as it was in the past.

Look, for example, at the spending compromise that emerged from Capitol Hill last week, shaped as much by the urgency of preventing a government shutdown as by any coherent ideological test. It doesn't have many of the Republican priorities and is so loaded with notions repugnant to them that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California was able to issue a press release bragging that the bill "reflects Democrats' values to protect health care, environment and education."

Which party did you say controls Congress today?

The Republicans, who campaigned to repeal Obamacare and whose president is determined to build a wall at the Mexican border, aren't close to being in charge of the so-called Republican Congress. But more than that, the new Republicans are conducting themselves as no rump group has behaved before. There have been substantial rifts in parties before; in the 1950s and 1960s, conservative Democrats collided with liberal Democrats, and conservative Democrats often voted with conservative Republicans while liberal Democrats voted with moderate and liberal Republicans.

But those permutations no longer exist, and as a result the Freedom Caucus is not like ideological factions that came before. "Not only do they disagree with the rest of their conservative colleagues, they also are not 'playing' with the other party," said Laura Blessing, an authority on Congress at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. "That makes them historically very unusual."

At the same time, Trump may not really be the populist that commentators sometimes say he is.

"Like anything -- liberalism, fascism -- these kinds of definitions are broad," said Sheri Berman, a Barnard College political scientist specializing in American populism. "There is a difference between Trump's rhetoric, which is classic populism, and his policies. He's governed in a fairly traditional way."

So in all this confusion, perhaps only two things are clear. The first is that we no longer have the language to describe our politics. The second is that the most fundamental political problem is our politics.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)

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