The Trump presidency shows how the United States is trapped by its own
political walls and tradition, creating a problem both for the Democratic and Republican parties. The problem is that the current range of political options to address many of the most entrenched policy issues in the United States is caught between failed fundamentalist market solutions of the Republican Party and the neo-liberal regulatory proposals offered by the Democratic Party.
Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America is a classic book often forgotten. It describes a country that was born of a liberal tradition indebted to the political philosophy of John Locke. This is an ideology of limited government, protection of individual rights, and a belief in the centrality of private property. Hartz contends that the American political tradition demonstrates a core political consensus around these values, with historians such as Richard Hofstadter, Daniel J. Boorstin, Clinton Rossiter, and Henry Steele Commager argue the same, alleging that there is a powerful core ideology in the United States favoring these liberal values, along with a commitment to market capitalism. Hartz once correctly argued that the reason there is no viable socialist tradition in the US is because of the strong consensus and support for market capitalism. McCarthyism and disdain for truly progressive politics are both a product of the liberal consensus and xenophobia and the paranoid style of politics that historian Richard Hofstadter described. In effect, there is a left wall to American politics beyond which is appears no politician can go, with market fundamentalism describing the right wall.
At its core, American politics has that of a liberal capitalist (representative) democracy. Markets are presumed good, government bad, and government intervention into the economy to address market failures is a last resort, not a first policy option. New Deal and Great Society regulation is the exception and not the preferred first approach to solving social, political, and economic problems. Contrary to what many may think, both the contemporary Democratic and Republican parties ascribe to this belief, with the latter clearly favoring more market fundamentalist solutions while the former endorses more regulatory approaches at times.
How its political tradition affects politics in the United States is playing out now under the Trump presidency. In many ways the reason why Trump got elected and his message resonated so well with so many is that the political-economic institutions have not benefitted the majority of Americans for the last 40 years. It is not necessary to recount here the statistics pointing to the widening gap between the rich and poor since the 1970s, producing what is today the most maldistributed US economy since the 1920s. Many feel they are no longer living the American Dream, and there is ample evidence to support that. In part, the reason why so many have been left behind is that American public policy since the 1970s has not favored the middle class or the poor, working instead to the advantage of the already most affluent.
Both the Democrats and the Republican Parties have been guilty in not addressing the needs of the former, but the Republicans clearly have pursued policies more supportive of the rich than the working or middle class. And now under Trump, Ryan, and McConnell, their embrace of market fundamentalism will do little to help those who voted for them. Instead, if the history of the last 40 years has shown anything, less regulation and more markets fail to address issues such as economic inequality, health care, the cost of higher education, and the loss of jobs overseas. There is little evidence that even if the Trump-Ryan-McConnell agenda gets enacted, it will help those who most need help. The right wall of American politics–market fundamentalism–cannot solve many of the most entrenched problems the United States confronts.
But conversely, the Democrats are trapped by a different wall. In many ways the crisis of this party is all about the limits of regulation. The timid regulatory politics that mark Democratic politics from Carter to Obama had limited benefit to the poor, working class, and the middle. At some point, minor redistributive politics and limited market regulation is not enough. Bolder and broader solutions may be required. Yet there is a left wall–the wall that defines the limits of progressive politics– as political scientist Charles Lindblom calls it, which imprisons what the Democrats can offer as policy solutions.
The irony of the Trump era is that his call for a wall is a wonderful metaphor for the limits and poverty of American political solutions offered not just by him and the Republicans, but also by the mainstream Democratic Party now.