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Henningsen: Repairing The Damage

Here’s my Inauguration nightmare. One night it’s Clinton-related; the next Trump, but otherwise it’s identical. At the end of the inaugural address, the House Speaker asks, “Mind sticking around? We’re starting impeachment.” True, presidents are impeached only for offenses in office but, given the poisonous nature of our current political polarization, it shouldn’t take Congress long to come up with something.

We’re completing a journey that began in the 18th century, when the Founders brought America out of political chaos into a form of political organization that served us for almost two centuries. But today, as essayist Jonathan Rauch recently argued in The Atlantic, we’re reverting from political organization back to political chaos. In our post-Watergate zeal to reform a sleazy political culture we changed the nominating process, revised campaign finance, cut political pork by eliminating earmarks, and brought most political processes out of smoke-filled rooms. Ironically, those well-meaning reforms hastened the collapse of party organization and party discipline, the disappearance of moderates and the rise of extremists. The self-restraint, compromise, and accountability that characterized our two-party system – however messy and inefficient – gave way to today’s carnival act.

The result is nominees who often seem less candidates than caricatures – displaying attributes that range from Silvio Berlusconi and W. C. Fields to the late Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. This political devolution is indeed what the Founders feared.

Trading self-restraint for self-indulgence, we’ve surrendered our capacity for the hard work of governing ourselves; we’ve colluded in creating a politics of contempt and intimidation; and we’ve inflicted irrevocable damage on our democracy at home and credibility abroad. Along the way, we’ve exposed the dark side of America: the mean-spirited, frustrated anger underlying our usual warm generosity.

The road back will be difficult, as it was for the Founders long ago. We must re-build a functioning political culture: rejecting anger and returning to ideas. That’s difficult: we don’t change because other people tell us to, but because we tell ourselves we must.

It’s hard to know if we’ll actually do that, but we must try. For if we don’t, one thing seems clear: though it may be difficult to tell who’s going to win this election, it’s obvious who’s going to lose.

We are.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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