Last week I attended two events which did not appear related at first glance yet turned out to offer synchronous perspectives on America’s continuing political crisis. First was the opening of another Colorado office for Mike Bloomberg’s nascent Democratic primary campaign. Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb persuasively defended his decision to endorse Bloomberg as the party’s best bet to defeat Donald Trump in November. It was evident those in attendance had reached the same conclusion. Bloomberg’s honesty was contrasted with the "never admit, never apologize" braggadocio broadcast from Trump’s White House — whatever the subject.
Bloomberg has the advantage of successfully facing voters three times in New York, but his debate performance in Las Vegas demonstrates that running for president isn’t quite as easy as it appears to someone for whom everything else comes easy. We’ve wandered into some weird dead end in our political life when we may witness a presidential contest between a pair of New Yorkers who were members of the other’s party just a decade ago. Many Democrats are queasy at the prospect that the people’s party might be willing to embrace a billionaire for what will surely prove to be the short-lived satisfaction of abruptly terminating the Trump apostasy.
Our democratic processes and institutions have been crumbling for several decades. Colorado unwittingly led the way when the state’s Republican Party jumped the rails in 2010, nominating the unqualified, untalented and inept Dan Maes for governor. This was the year of the national Tea Party revolt when Republicans swept to victory across the country. Just four years later, during another Republican wave election, Colorado Republicans nominated an Air Force Academy power-lifting champion, Darryl Glenn, to challenge Michael Bennet for the U. S. Senate.
Donald Trump’s insurgent thrashing through a field of uncommonly skilled presidential candidates in 2016 brought with his nomination the demise of the traditional Republican Party. Unexpectedly, rank-and-file Republican voters were willing to abandon their opposition to budget deficits so long as they weren’t funding Democratic programs. Neither were they all that exercised by trade deficits, which have jumped 50%. Whether Trump wins a second term or not, an organization named the Republican Party will remain, but where it goes without Trump is unpredictable. Democrats need to ask themselves whether a Bloomberg presidency would produce a similar collapse, not out of malice or intent, but simply as a result of surrendering principle for a bag of money.
The second event featured Danielle Allen at the University of Colorado addressing the challenge of developing “A Supermajority for Democracy.” Allen arrived with impeccable credentials, including degrees from Princeton, Cambridge and Harvard. She teaches political philosophy at Harvard and co-chairs an initiative in Massachusetts public schools designed to revive civics education. In December she authored an essay in Atlantic magazine titled, “The Road from Serfdom: How Americans can become citizens again.” The Benson Center is funded by former University of Colorado President Bruce Benson to encourage the presence of conservative voices on the Boulder campus.
Allen is conservative only in the sense that she doesn’t believe we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Arguing that American culture is broken, she classified retail marketing today as grounded in selling either sex or contempt. Although African-American, she refuses to summarily reject the wisdom of our founding fathers merely because many of them were slaveowners. She is particularly impressed with George Washington and his concerns regarding the threat posed to a democratic republic by factionalism (political parties). “This slaveowner knew something about liberty and its preservation. It is a paradox that … slavery at the nation’s founding — its original sin — schooled early Americans in the lessons of freedom and equality,” she observed.
Professor Allen traces the breakdown in civic faith to the 1970s, when, “An age of burden sharing gave way to an age of burden evasion…” and then evolved into “…an environment of intense partisan warfare (where) each side believes it has a claim to lead the nation based on its own set of values.” She is hesitant to discard the owner’s manual that came with our independence. She believes Americans must relearn how to plan and compromise together. Civics education has vanished, in her view, because, “What isn’t tested, isn’t taught.” I was fortunate to have an American government teacher in high school, who had served a single term in Congress. Elected as a Republican from Maryland in 1928, he returned to the classroom for 33 years. That choice is unimaginable today.
Allen again, “Over the course of the past decade, Americans on all sides have learned how to organize when organizing is about securing power. When organizing is about governance, though, we no longer know how to do it,” a worthy admonition for both Democrats and Republicans. Low-information voters present no obstacle for demagogues.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former legislator. He can be reached at email@example.com.