America Divided: Trump a symptom, not the cause

Michael Barone -- political historian and principal author of the “Almanac of American Politics” -- discusses America's history of domestic battles, real and rhetorical, ahead of the 2018 American midterm elections.

On November 6th, American voters head to the polls for what both President Trump’s supporters and opponents, and even the president himself, say is a referendum on his drama-filled, first two years. Are Democrats on the cusp of taking control of Congress? Will Trump soon face Articles of Impeachment? Is the US Constitution, itself, headed for major revision?

Michael Barone tackles all of these questions. The distinguished historian, pundit and journalist wrote the first "Almanac of American Politics" half a century ago. The 2000-page, annual tome is considered the "definitive and essential for anyone writing seriously about campaigns and Congress."

In the current high octane environment, Washington’s gris eminence of politics offers calm objectivity and reassuring perspective. 

Political culture: We have seen a bitter fight over Chief Justice Kavanaugh. We have seen an activist mob hunting down Republican senators in the halls of the Capitol. Hillary Clinton recently said: “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.” And former Attorney General Eric Holder added: “When they go low, we kick them.” Are rogue politics of this sort the new normal?

Because politics tends to divide Americans along cultural lines, with differences over issues that involve personal moral choices which are very important to people, political activists, especially those on the left, tend to have very strong feelings. The recent reports of apparently fake bombs being mailed to prominent Democrats and Obama administration appointees has inspired some on the left to blame Donald Trump’s rhetoric and some on the right to speculate that the devices were sent by a leftist bent on discrediting Republicans—all before any conclusive evidence was available.

Divison: Over the past number of years, the world has observed a deepening split in American politics and society. Apart from the Civil War, has America ever been as divided as it is today? And how much of the divide is of Trump’s own making?

The United States has been frequently divided over political or governmental issues, with the most prominent example being over the issue of slavery, and specifically slavery in the territories, that led to the Civil War. In the 1790s two political parties—Federalists and Republicans—developed over differences in which side the United States should take in the world war, which lasted with one pause from 1793 to 1815, between royal and mercantile Britain and revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Charges of treason and disloyalty were common. In the 1930s Americans were divided sharply on economic issues, leading at some places to pitched battles between workers seeking unionization and managements seeking to prevent it.

How much is due to Donald Trump’s particular divisiveness? Certainly some, but at the same time Trump would probably not have won the Republican nomination or the general election without his willingness to disregard the rules of “political correctness” as well as generally observed political courtesies. So the blame must be shared between Trump and the widely disdained forces he attacked.

Transformations: You are the author of the famous “Almanac of American Politics” and an outstanding authority regarding data and statistics of the American political scene. What are the most remarkable transformations in the US society and politics you have observed over the past 50 years?

Old divisions in American politics, rooted in the Civil War, in the 1930s differences over the New Deal and economic redistribution, between ethnic groups (for example, Protestant Yankees and Irish Catholics in Northeastern states, particularly New England), which were still reflected in voting behavior and differences in opinion on issues when I was writing the first Almanac of American Politics in 1970-71, have largely disappeared. Instead we have political alignments based largely on personal moral values and lifestyles, with the demographic factor most highly correlated with political behavior being religion, or degree of religiosity in each sectarian group, with the more devotional (Mass-attending Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews) voting more Republican and those more secular voting more Democratic.

Demography and the political map: The demography in the US is rapidly changing. Hispanic American voters are having a growing impact on the outcome of elections. Some states boast large, and growing Asian immigrant communities. How will this change the political landscape of the US?

Hispanics have been increasingly, but only slowly, as a percentage of the electorate. But their turnout rates have been low and, unlike blacks, they have not voted the same way across the nation, but rather differently depending on their country origin and regional destination. In addition, it’s not clear that the children and grandchildren of Hispanics—who have a high rate of intermarriage with people classified as whites—will result in a mass of people with a high degree of Hispanic identity or a sense of grievance at mistreatment by people in the majority.

The category of Asians includes people from very different societies and traditions. They tend to have higher incomes and degrees of education than Hispanics and are concentrated in states and districts that vote heavily Democratic. At the same time, they tend to oppose racial quotas in higher education, which work against their interests.

Migration: In your book “Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics”, you explain that most of the migrations to the US were not predicted, and that they ended abruptly for reasons that were not understood until some time after their end. Does this mean that the current immigration form Latin America into the US might abruptly end? And, consequently, that a wall along the US-Mexican border is unnecessary?

I think the massive migration from Mexico ended abruptly—and unpredictedly—in 2007, with the financial crisis and housing price crash, which was especially large in places with many Mexican-origin people (California, Nevada, Arizona). Mexicans had a dream of advancing economically by buying a house with a low- or zero-cost mortgage and making hundreds of thousands of dollars when prices went up, as almost everyone thought they inevitably would. When housing prices crashed, this dream became a nightmare. The surge of Mexican migration of 1982-2007 is over, and lasted just 25 years, the same duration as the massive internal migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North in 1940-65. Migration from other Latin American countries has risen somewhat, but today the United States gets more immigrants from Asia than from Latin America.

The wall therefore seems to have been rendered obsolete, or may only be necessary to stop the migration, like the current caravan, of people seeking entry into the United States and fanning out into the country as is possible under the current laws and court decisions relating to amnesty.

Democratic agenda: We hear that Democrats are fired up and ready to stream to the mid term polls in historic numbers. They seem to be driven by anger and frustration about the 2016 election, and by Trump’s conduct in office. They campaign “against” Trump. Is this intensity enough to take back the House, perhaps even the Senate? Do they have any other trump card?

We have seen vigorous Democratic turnout in special congressional and legislative elections, and also a very large number of Democrats inspired to run for Congress and state legislature or to contribute money to such candidates. Only lately, in September and October, has Republican enthusiasm risen to or toward such levels. Much, I think most, of this is inspired by hatred of Donald Trump and apprehension (raised by some of his campaign statements, but unjustified in my opinion by his actions in office so far) that he will be dictatorial or authoritarian. And of course many of these people fear he will be dreadfully wrong on important issues.

The proliferation of plausible and amply funded Democratic candidates is the primary reason they are likely to gain 23 or more House seats and win a majority in the House. It seems unlikely that they will gain seats in the Senate, in which they are defending 26 seats while Republicans are defending only 9. Current polling suggests to me that Democrats’ attempts to gain Senate seats in Tennessee and Texas are falling short, while Democrats’ chances in the two other Republican-held seats which are conceivably vulnerable, Arizona and Nevada, are receding. Republicans appear to be competitive in five or six, possibly even seven, Democratic-held seats.

Change of power: What are the potential consequences of a Democrat takeover of the House of Representatives? Will Democrats try to impeach Trump? Will there be deadlock again?

If Democrats win just a small majority in the House of Representatives—a possibility that seems greater than it did two months ago--they are unlikely to seek the impeachment of President Trump. Too many Democrats would be reluctant to vote for it, and Nancy Pelosi (who I assume will be Speaker) has been publicly very cautious about initiating a process that cannot possibly succeed in the Senate, where Republicans are likely to gain seats, leaving Democrats very far short of the two-thirds vote needed to remove him from office.

Democrats under transformation: The Democrat party seems to move ever more to the left. During the primaries, some flamboyant candidates successfully campaigned on an explicitly Socialist agenda. Until now, Socialism has never been openly embraced by a mainstream party. Is the Democrat party increasingly similar to a European Socialist or Social Democratic party? Do you expect the Democrat party to split between a Socialist left wing and a moderate center? And what kind of candidate will it take to beat Trump in 2020?

Avowed Socialists are likely to remain a minority in Democratic ranks in the House and Senate. Democrats will surely face some divisions on policy, but House members are likely to be reluctant to vote for policies that they believe are unpopular and which will have no chance of passage in the Senate.

I am not ready to make prognostications about the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Let’s wait till after November 6.

Party of Trump: Are the Republicans now the Party of Trump? Or will a classic moderate conservative Republican, a person like Bush father or son, return from the living dead once Trump is gone?

Trump has led the Republican party to positions on major issues—trade, entitlement reform, some aspects of foreign policy—which are sharply different, and intended to be perceived as such, from the policies of George W. Bush. I don’t expect the party will return to those policies any time soon. Assuming Trump is re-nominated in 2020, and especially if he wins the general election that year, the next occasion for Republicans to consider its stands is in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. I decline to speculate about this at this time.

End of Patriarchy? Fury is a political weapon. We saw it with the Tea Party. We see it now with #TimesUp and #MeToo. Will these high profile movements change the political landscape permanently? Some political activists like Steve Bannon say that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the Patriarchy. Do you agree?

The political landscape—the dominant personalities, the issue contrasts between the parties—changes all the time. What’s been remarkable in recent times is that it has changed so little since the 1992 and 1994 elections. Republicans and Democrats, politicians and voters, have been split over similar issues; electoral alignments have stayed remarkably similar for a longer period than at any time in American history, and altered less by the Donald Trump phenomenon than current conventional wisdom would have you believe. Voters are closely divided between the parties, with Democrats winning four of seven presidential elections starting with 1992 and Republicans winning House majorities in 11 of 13 congressional elections starting in 1994. Nothing in politics is permanent, except perhaps the competition between our two parties, the oldest and third oldest in the world.

As for Steve Bannon, he backed the candidacy of Roy Moore in the December 2017 special election in Alabama. Moore’s predictable loss in one of the nation’s most heavily Republican states left Republicans with a bare 51-49 Senate majority. Who cares what Steve Bannon thinks about the patriarchy?

Institutional change: In presidential elections – 2000, 2016 in particular -- the ultimate victor lost the popular vote. There is talk of changing the voting system to elect the president by a simple, popular majority. There is also criticism that the Senate gives small states with small populations outsized influence over large states like California or New York – both home to an overwhelmingly Democrat, urban, progressive population. There is talk about changing the Supreme Court by, for example, giving the justices fixed terms instead of an appointment for life, or adding justices to the bench. What about schemes to split up a large state like California into several states? Is this all just talk, or is there a chance of real Constitutional change?

The Constitution is not going to be amended in response to gripes from Democrats about losing elections that they thought they were going to win. Constitutional amendments must be approved by two-thirds of each house of Congress and by three-quarters of state legislatures. (There is a provision for a constitutional convention, but that is not about to be invoked.) In addition, Article V of the Constitution says that no state shall be deprived of its equal representation in the Senate without its consent, which means that reapportioning the Senate requires approval by all 50 states.

The Democratic party has managed to live with the Electoral College and equal Senate representation for each state for 186 years. It has always been aware that presidential candidates need a majority of electoral votes, not a plurality of popular votes, to be elected. It is obviously easier for the Democratic party to adjust its political appeal, to win more states outside California and the Northeast than it is for it to amend the Constitution. It has made many such adjustments over the last 186 years and can do so again.

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