The nation, after the 2016 elections, is now overwhelmingly
a Republican governed country at the state and national
levels. If there is any ambiguity about this, it is at the U.S.
supreme court, where there is a very temporary tie between
liberals and conservatives. This tie, and the direction of the
lower federal courts, however, will soon lean to the right as
the new president has promised to name conservative judges
for the next four years.
The U.S. house and senate, most governorships and state
legislatures are now in Republican hands, and appear likely to
remain so for some time. Only in large U.S. cities (and a few
states) are there islands of dominant liberal political control,
and these are, or have, urban centers facing continuing high
unemployment, growing crime, and rapidly increasing local
taxes to pay for fixing decaying infrastructure and expanding
Only eight years ago, it was almost the opposite. Then,
President-elect Barack Obama could look forward to a
Democratic Congress, many more Democratic governors and
state legislatures, and the eventual prospect of naming three
(and seating two) members to the supreme court --- and lots of
liberal judges to the lower federal courts. Books were written
smugly predicting an endless era of Democratic and liberal
majorities and control by “progressive” governments.
The first major domestic reform act of this liberal hegemony
(and it turned out, also its last) was the Affordable Care Act, also
known as Obamacare. But instead of the traditional ritual of
negotiation and compromise with the political opposition to
ensure widespread acceptance of a major reform, the new
president and his congressional leadership allies chose to push
the legislation through without even reading their own fine print.
It was an enormous mistake, and the opposition to Obamacare
did not ever go away. In the mid-term elections of 2010 and 2014,
the conservative opposition made large gains, and although
Mr. Obama won re-election in 2012, his party did not regain
domestic control as the federal government settled into
stalemate. As foretold even before its enactment, Obamacare
crashed and burned just before the election, and contributed
notably to the Democrats’ 2016 defeats.
At the same time, numerous conservative state governors and
legislatures took over and seized the agenda for domestic
reform. Their local successes stood in powerful contrast to the
stalemate in the nation’s capital.
Only through executive orders and unending new federal
regulations was the liberal Obama administration able to hold
any grasp on U.S. domestic policy, but these acts were also
very unpopular and contributed further to a growing antipathy
to progressive government and its philosophy.
This historic ideological failure and its brevity should be a
cautionary tale to the new president, his administration and the
Congress. No matter how right conservatives believe their cause
is, and how successful they are confident their policies will be,
there is no substitute for building and maintaining strong and
enduring grass roots support. The careful construction of this
support will require negotiation and consultation not only with
the opposition party, but within the conservative coalition itself.
This coalition finally came together for the 2016 elections, but
as we all now know, it could easily come apart when the hard
work of governing takes place after the election.
Speaking of cautions, the Democrats, now reeling from their
historic defeat, seem poised to choose a radical member of
Congress to lead their party. I suggest they take a hard look at
what happened when their equivalent British party, Labour,
chose a radical member of parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, to lead
them. Labour subsequently saw themselves marginalized in
British politics as the new leadership advocated unpopular
policies and measures that most British voters simply could not
accept. For the Democrats to marginalize themselves now, at a
moment when they are weakest, seems to be more suicidal than
There are no permanent conditions in the politics of a democratic
republic, Today’s victories can, and often do, lead to tomorrow’s
defeats. Rhetoric and ideology are easy matters when compared
to the hard work of actually governing. At the beginning of a new
era, and the end of another, both sides might well profit from
thinking themselves carefully through what they will do next.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.