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Michael Gerson: The two parties' existential crises

Michael Gerson: The two parties' existential crises

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WASHINGTON — It is the dubious achievement of American politics that both its major political parties have entered existential crises at the same time.

The GOP crackup is the more obvious, pathetic and dangerous. The party has seen litmus tests before, related to ideology (i.e., conservatism) and to policy (i.e., opposing abortion). But it is quickly becoming a requirement of GOP loyalty to believe that a nationwide conspiracy of election fraud — implemented both by urban machine politicians and by red-state Republican officials — elected Joe Biden as president. This criminal enterprise is evidently so brilliant and efficient that it tampered with election machines, offloaded bushels of fake ballots and repeatedly recounted the same Democratic votes without leaving a single trace of its existence.

This is the litmus test of lunacy. The affirmation of demonstrably false statements has long been one of President Donald Trump’s loyalty tests. His followers must agree that his inaugural crowd was larger than Barack Obama’s. Or that the Ukraine call was “perfect.” Or that hydroxychloroquine was a “game changer.”

But this instance is far more ambitious. The allegation of widespread and concerted electoral fraud is groundbreaking in its absurdity — more like contending that Obama’s entire inaugural crowd was computer-generated imagery, or that Ukraine is actually a fictional country, or that hydroxychloroquine is the long-sought elixir of eternal life. Trump is no longer asking his followers to believe the implausible. He is insisting that they accept a story as incredible as Pizzagate or the CIA assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Implausibility, however, is the least of this conspiracy theory’s problem. It entails a belief that the constitutional order — the whole American system of government — has failed. Some conservatives have criticized woke liberals for asserting that the problems of the criminal justice system are “systemic.” But Republican and populist wokeness now demands a belief that the American form of self-government is systemically corrupt. And this, according to a post shared by Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, may require the president to “temporarily suspend the Constitution” and declare martial law.

The ultimate explanation for such subversion? Many Republicans have ceased to serve a higher cause and instead have become the servants of a single damaged man.

The problems of the Democratic Party, at least, don’t involve the overthrow of the republic. Its leader, President-elect Joe Biden, is decent, qualified and mainstream. But Democrats are undergoing an identity crisis of their own.

Trump’s two elections solidified Republican dominance among White voters without a college degree. (He won nearly 70% of them in November.) This is what has driven GOP gains in the upper Midwest and allowed for Trump’s 2016 victory.

When Democrats talk fearfully or dismissively about the Trump’s political base, they may think of fanatical evangelical Christians. But, viewed from another angle, the Trump base includes an awful lot of blue-collar Whites.

Forgive the question of an outsider, but what can it possibly mean to be a Democrat without appealing to the working class? At least since Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democrats have identified themselves as the party of those who work with their hands — on farms, in factories and on construction sites. At their best, Democrats have combined a passion for civil rights with a concern for working-class struggles. They resonate in both African American churches and union halls.

Today, that political model is broken. Trump’s successful working-class appeal has been cultural rather than economic. He has shown almost no interest in public policies that would specifically benefit blue-collar workers. Instead, he takes their side in various cultural arguments against condescending elites — opposing kneeling during the national anthem, or imposing tear-gassed order on leftist agitators. He publicly embraces religion and nationalism — even as he corrupts true religion and deconstructs the nation’s institutions. Trump has a limited mastery of spoken English but communicates fluently in cultural iconography.

The most powerful political question from a citizen to a politician is not: How will you benefit me? Rather, it is: Do you value me? It is on this test that Democrats have failed in dealing with many working-class voters.

Trump’s coalition is nothing close to a majority of Americans. In 2016, he won with 46.1% of the popular vote. In 2020, he lost with 46.8%. But these votes are located strategically if your goal is to win in the electoral college, in which the slightest breeze of fate can determine the outcome.

The Republican Party has a hard task if its goal is to win a majority of votes in a national election (something GOP candidates have achieved once in three decades). It must disentangle itself from Trump’s tentacles and expand its appeal without alienating Trump’s legions.

The Democratic challenge is less urgent but equally complex: A party led by college-educated Whites must gain and hold the trust of working-class America.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com

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