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Phil Power | Reflections on a rainy Michigan Election Day

I'm writing this at 2:20 p.m. on Tuesday, Election Day. Obviously, I have no idea how the election will turn out. But I do think a part of the fundamental story of American political institutions is being written today.

My thought was suggested by a piece by David Brooks, a consistently thoughtful columnist for the New York Times. "Here's the central challenge of our age," Brooks wrote. "Over the next few decades, America will become a minority-majority country. It is hard to think of other nations, down through history, that have managed such a transition and still held together."

After a couple decades of dabbling with multiculturalism, a lesson from this election is that the emotional appeal of ethnic solidarity still snaps at the ties of our national solidarity. The big question that has lurked behind all the windy campaign rhetoric this year is how the nation will manage to execute this transition without making a mess of it.

Republicans had a chance to build an emotionally solid nationalist coalition but wound up instead with a version of white identity politics. Their relatively homogeneous demographic makeup - mostly white, male, conservative (whatever that means) - made that a likely outcome.

The Democrats have spent lots of energy celebrating diversity but so far have muffed the chance to show how out of our differences we can forge a spirit of national unity. E pluribus unum - out of many, one - reads the national pledge on the great seal on our greenbacks. But the Democrats have failed to develop a compelling, emotionally satisfying narrative of our distinctive history and diverse national make-up.

After all, the Democratic Party is an uneasy coalition of working-class whites, minorities and miscellaneous liberals (whatever that means). It's a lot to expect a coherent narrative emerging from such a diverse demography.

So the unanswered question remains how are we going to manage the transition of our national demographic reality?

This won't be easy.  

We'll need a politics and a set of policies that don't just celebrate diversity but work to meld differing groups into one coherent nation with shared priorities, a distinctive common culture, clear borders and a sense of how we all fit together.  In this context, Identity politics, while beguiling, is at the end of the day self-defeating.

Both parties should have succeeded in developing reciprocal narratives that tell the story of how we hold together as a nation. The GOP version, so far, essentially ignores the demographic transition that is sure to come. The Democratic version of happy talk ignores the profound power of emotional differences built on differing racial and historic identities.

Both versions are self-limiting and therefore inadequate to the purpose.

At the end of the day, we must erect a national narrative that emerges naturally from our national history: Our culture arises from the pluralistic American dream that if we all work hard, play by the rules and respect our fellow countrymen (and women), we'll have the opportunity to create something truly magnificent in human history. This is a unifying narrative, one that has plenty of room for the poor, the minority, the dispossessed.

And it's the only thing I can think of that has any chance of erasing the partisanship, rage and narcissism of today's excuse for a system of democratic governance.

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