When I was growing up, Independence Day was a time for celebration, for red-white-and-blue parades and patriotic speeches by various notables, for family and lemonade and hot dogs. By and large, our July Fourth celebrations were times when Americans could kick back with a certain measure of contentment. That included – to a high degree – a sense of confidence in the workings of our democracy.
These days, not so much.
Our politics are in turmoil these days to a greater extent than I can remember. To a degree, this reflects deteriorating public confidence in the economic and political elites that have managed the country for decades. In this context, it seems unsurprising that the two presumptive nominees for the presidency – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – are the most unpopular candidates in recent history.
Whether folks think Clinton is a long-time crook or think Trump is totally unqualified, the candidates’ miserable standing in the public mind ultimately has got to reinforce a lack of confidence in those who manage our country.
Skepticism bordering on contempt for elites isn’t confined to Americans. Consider the stunning June 23 vote in Great Britain to leave the European Union, where both those who normally vote Conservative and those who traditionally side with Labour chose “Brexit.” An English friend took to Churchillian prose to write that, “never have so few so unthinkingly damaged the economic security of so many with such little consideration for the consequences.”
For a country with a deeply ingrained class structure, it’s hardly surprising that grandees in London are calling the Brexit vote a “peasants’ revolt” against a European Union bureaucracy that itself is deeply elitist, largely unaccountable, and tone-deaf to complaints within and outside the EU.
Episodes of tone deafness continue to rile American politics as well: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of her private email server for sensitive public business and last week’s stinging criticism of the practice by the head of the FBI is only one of a series of confidence-sapping episodes. If Trump wasn’t so vulnerable on so many counts himself, her campaign might be doomed.
In another example: We saw in Washington late last month a nearly unprecedented sit-in by Democrats who took over the House of Representatives’ chamber to protest Republican failure to do anything substantive about gun control even after the June 12 Orlando massacre in which a gunman killed 49.
Something like 90 percent of Americans think people who are on the government’s no-fly list shouldn’t be allowed to buy firearms. Yet many political elites, whether National Rifle Association top-siders or GOP House leaders, continue to hold firm against a step overwhelmingly supported by ordinary Americans.
Closer to home, in Flint we see an entire community with thousands of its children poisoned by lead in the drinking water, something brought about by wholesale incompetence and failure to listen by elites in government at all levels. As a result, you have to look hard to find anybody in Flint who trusts any elected representative or governmental official.
Why? Chris Kolb, the co-chair of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force, explained that “Citizens had no ability to influence decision-making” under a series of emergency financial managers. Snyder’s own chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, dispatched to go to Flint in July 2015 to assess the local situation, reported back by email that Flint residents were getting more and more angry that their concerns were basically being “blown off” by Lansing.
Then the state kept blowing them off for another three months, until it could no longer be denied that there was lead in the water.
The basic argument for a democracy as a political system is that it forces elites to listen to ordinary people. When they fail to listen -- or fail to take account of the people’s grievances – such a system is designed to toss elites out of office and replace them with folks who will listen.
But when that doesn’t work, history teaches that frustrated and aroused citizens often take things into their own hands. The English “peasants” who voted to leave the EU revolted against a foreign, unaccountable elite that crammed regulations and immigration policy down countless throats. The dynamics are similar in America, where political parties are complex organizations that in many ways are responsive to powerful interest groups.
But when those interest groups (such as the NRA) stand immobile against a long-time, substantial majority of citizen opinion, history teaches there’s trouble ahead.
Citizens in Flint had decision-making power taken from them by a series of state-imposed emergency managers. Citizens found their repeated valid concerns about poisoned drinking water ignored.
Should we be surprised at citizen discontent and growing lack of trust in “the system?”
Working-class Americans, especially white males without college degrees who have seen their incomes stagnate over recent decades, think the system is rigged against them. Guess which candidates got their support? Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, both originally scorned as “populists” by the media – and the political elites.
In the aftermath of World War I, the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, wrote his terrifying The Second Coming, which included these lines:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. …
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
When the center cannot or does not hear what is being said on the ground, things do fall apart.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one outcome of this year’s troubling and deeply flawed politics will be to accelerate wholesale change in the two-party “duopoly” that has run this nation for well over a century.