LONDON – In Britain these days, one can’t avoid hearing and seeing more and more about the wretched campaign to spit in the face of the world (and of reality) and quit the European Union. Visiting the United States, as I recently did, provides some relief. But it comes at a price: wall-to-wall coverage of the presidential primaries.
The Republican contest is almost egregiously distasteful, with the exception of the performance of Governor John Kasich of Ohio. Unfortunately, he is not going to win. His problem is simple: He is recognizably a normal human being. Watching the incendiary, invective-filled campaigns of his opponents – Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz – makes one mourn for the Grand Old Party.
The first election campaign that I got involved in was some 50 years ago, in New York, where all of today’s candidates – Republican and Democrat – recently traded blows, with Trump and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton emerging triumphant.
Republicans in the past
In the mid-1960s, the leaders of the state and city, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay, were Republicans, as were New York’s two senators, Kenneth Keating and Jacob Javits. These political moderates, and many other Republicans in the 1960s, still reflected the party of Abraham Lincoln in readily defined ways.
For one thing, they were internationalists. For another, they believed in a partnership between government and the private sector (think of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s record, say, in building the U.S. interstate highway system). Above all, they understood and identified with the integrationist project that remains the country’s continuing civilizing mission (reflected in the words – E Pluribus Unum – on America’s seal).
One cannot imagine those Republicans from the 1960s campaigning alongside the two leading GOP candidates today. Cruz is an ideological bruiser; Trump is just a bruiser, with no discernible ideology at all.
On the other hand, I don’t imagine those former Republicans would have had any difficulty endorsing Kasich, a successful conservative governor whose primary motivation is plainly not hating people, whether in his own party or in the Democratic Party. And that appears to be the source of his weakness as a candidate. He doesn’t froth at the mouth. He seems – what a crime – blessedly sane.
Apparently, normal isn’t good enough in today’s Republican Party. The party is paying the price for surrendering in panic over the years to Tea Party zealots backed by disgracefully large treasure chests of billionaires’ loot. Acquiescence in heavily bankrolled, fearsome prejudice has left the rational and electable parts of the Republican Party in moral and political ruin.
So now there is a late-in-the-day scramble by the party’s establishment to convince themselves that Cruz, an arrogant, bullying extremist, is not as ghastly as they have always told people he is. They fear him less as the party’s presidential candidate than they fear Trump.
On the Democrats’ side, the battle between Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State (and U.S. Senator) Hillary Clinton is nowhere near as grubby. It exposes some real issues of social equity and hostility to globalization that need to be addressed. But the rest of the world will hope that the result is not to give way to protectionism and to turn America’s back on the leadership that only it can give in tackling global problems.
Watching all this close up could encourage despair. But we should not forget that, especially in the U.S., all politics is local. And, at the state and city level, there are still plenty of sane, decent, and intelligent elected officials trying to provide sensible leadership. And some will move on to the national stage.
For example, in Los Angeles, where I spent a few days, a clever, well-educated young mayor, Eric Garcetti, combines energy, good looks, and common sense in a way that will almost certainly take him further. There must be a lot more like him, genuinely committed to public service, not to the self-aggrandizing antics of some of today’s dangerous clowns.
But what is required in America, as in Britain these days, is for the normal and the moderate to stand up, make more noise, and be counted. Almost a century ago, in his anguished and all too prescient poem “The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats wrote: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” The reason the center could not hold is as relevant today as it was then: “The best,” Yeats argued, “lack all conviction, while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity.”
It is time in Western democracies for the best to show more of that “passionate intensity.” Without it, there is always the danger of the birth of what Yeats called the “rough beast” slouching toward Bethlehem. There are at the moment rather too many “rough beasts” around, in U.S. and British politics alike – indeed, almost everywhere in the democratic world.