For decades after the U.S. withdrawal from the Viet Nam War, Americans pondered what it meant. We’d entered a war 10,000 miles from our shores that went on and on, killed millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, etc., plus 58,000 American servicemen, cost enormous sums of money and ripped the social fabric of the U.S. Over the years, millions of Americans demanded that our involvement end and eventually, it did. Ruling elites caved to the pressure.
Many commentators noticed perhaps the most important outcome of the war for the U.S. – that its terrible costs and dubious justifications had precipitated an unwonted “outbreak of democracy.” We the People had forced an end to an elective war preferred by elites. Those elites weren’t happy at having to answer to the people, but, tellingly, the U.S. hasn’t entered into a war of remotely similar magnitude since.
Much the same has been happening of late, but across a broader spectrum of elite policy-making. The truckers’ convoy in Canada is clearly another outbreak of democracy and, predictably, elites in government and the news media are, by turns, spooked and outraged. Still, unlike the Prime Minister, provincial premiers are curtailing their policies on masks, vax mandates and passports.
Other outbreaks of democracy, like the Brexit vote, have cropped up recently.
British political elites risked the Brexit referendum only because they were sure of the outcome. They were certain that people would vote to remain in the EU and were enraged to learn otherwise. They then gave us three years of frank efforts to undo what the British people had so pointedly done. All of that was accompanied by the most outrageous insults to the intelligence, patriotism and goodwill of the British electorate, plus end-of-the-world predictions should the vote take effect.
Ditto the election of Donald Trump. To the extent that democracy involves the power of the people to overcome the will of elites, Trump’s election was, yet again, an outbreak of democracy. Trump’s main appeal was his status as an outsider. He’d never sought political office and wasn’t part of the inside-the-beltway system, so loathed by everyday Americans. His promise to “drain the swamp” was one not voiced by other candidates and spoke loudly to broad swaths of the electorate. Against all the odds and predictions, he defeated that quintessential insider, Hillary Clinton, whom elites had all but anointed the next president.
Much like elite response to Brexit and Trudeau’s tantrums about the truckers’ convoy, Trump’s four years in office were characterized by outrageous efforts to reassert elite power. The effort began immediately after the election, continued with the appointment of a special prosecutor who, it was hoped, would uncover impeachment-worthy wrongdoing. When that failed, impeachment went forward anyway. Twice.
For four years, the leftist press kept up an unceasing narrative of Trump wrongdoing that, time and again was found to be either misleading or false. Liberal Andrew Sullivan was just one of many to point out that what the leftist press called “errors” all went one way, i.e., anti-Trump, and so were less errors than agitprop. Elites, used to having things their own way, were not amused by Donald Trump, his election, his presidency or his supporters. The result? Trump lost the next election, but received 11 million more votes than in 2016.
Whatever one thinks of the truckers’ convoy, the Viet Nam War, Brexit or Trump, the point is the chasm between the opinions of the ruling classes and those of the ruled, plus elites’ dismay at not, for a few fleeting moments, having the game to themselves.
Then along came COVID and elites slammed us with extreme, and often illegal, restrictions on our freedoms. In case we missed the point, the very people who told us we couldn’t go out to eat gathered at restaurants. The same ones demanded that we wear masks, but were/are routinely photographed maskless. They told us to social distance, but refused to do so themselves. And it was all supposedly done in the name of “the science,” which changed from day to day, was contested by highly qualified scientists and was ignored by elites in government when it didn’t suit their purposes. At a time when we knew that the elderly were uniquely at risk of death from COVID-19, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered nursing homes to accept COVID patients. That outrage brought mostly yawns from elites in government and the media.
One of the core tasks of any two-party system of governance is to marginalize the extremists, their rhetoric and ideas. Party bigwigs decide which candidates to direct money and resources to, or not, in order to enhance or diminish the chance of electoral success. Once elected, office holders soon learn the fine art of going along to get along. If you don’t, you may find yourself with a primary opponent and potentially looking for a new job. Don’t believe me? Ask Kyrsten Sinema.
But of late, both major parties have been failing at that core task. Donald Trump was far from the choice of the GOP movers and shakers, but in 2016 he won the nomination and the prospect of another Trump bid in 2024 strikes terror into the hearts of Republican mainstreamers. Meanwhile, over at the Democratic Party, the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Notions that, as recently as the Obama presidency, were considered beyond the fringe are now central tenets of Democratic policy. Parents concerned about their children’s education may be domestic terrorists, climate change will destroy the world by 2030, etc. The truckers’ convoy is “violent,” the 2020 riots were “mostly peaceful.”
Republicans hope to turn blue-collar unrest to their benefit and to continue to siphon off the votes of middle-income, culturally-moderate blacks. Will they succeed? What is the Democratic strategy for getting progressives back on their medication? Do they even have one? American politics are in flux. The approval rating of Congress approaches the vanishing point. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have neither the inclination, the vision, the drive nor the intelligence to lead Americans toward unity.
The stage is set for a realignment of political allegiances. Exactly what that means, including the possible breakup of the two-party “duopoly,” remains to be seen. Whatever happens, we look to be in a time of political upheaval not experienced in decades.