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Is America hopelessly ungovernable?

Americans seem hell-bent on slicing our population into smaller and ever smaller groups of them and us. From our very beginnings, 400 years ago, we have split our ranks over just about every possible disagreement. But now, another sorting is underway — a parting of politics and attitudes between new America and old America, one that will change the country slowly but inevitably. And some people do not like it.

In his new book “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable,” Bill Schneider – for nearly 20 years CNN’s political analyst and now a professor at George Mason University — argues that the shift is petrifying our political parties and the lawmaking bodies that are supposed to be governing us. And where other presidents talked about uniting the nation, Donald Trump is making political hay from cracking open the divides even wider.


I'm assuming from the book’s title that you think America is ungovernable.

Yes, it is. Although I do argue in the book that there's one condition that enables us to really become governable, and that is a crisis — a real crisis such as the sort of thing we had, God forbid, on 9/11, or the financial crash in 2008.

Any kind of crisis, then suddenly we become governable, because the public says: “Do something right now or you're going to be all thrown out of office!” And they snap to attention and get things done.

You write about how our government was structured to be like molasses in winter — it’s not supposed to do much. Why is that?

Because the founders who wrote a document creating checks and balances, separation of powers — they didn't like strong government. They had just fought a revolution against tyranny, against the king of England. We believe in limited government.

Limited but workable government. They limited it, but didn’t leave much to work with.

Well, they didn't. Because in the Constitution, they didn’t talk at all about the one thing that makes the government work. That’s public opinion. In fact, when they wrote the Constitution, they tried to insulate the government to limit the power of public opinion, with the electoral college. Senators were elected by state legislatures. Federal judges never had to face the voters.

They wanted to limit public opinion and its impact. But public opinion is what makes it work. When there’s an overwhelming urgency out there, and people demand that something be done, suddenly the checks and balances disappear, all the blockages don't mean anything, and things happen.

I'm surprised that they didn't trust public opinion, because it was public opinion that really tilted things in favor of a revolution separating us from Mother England. Why didn’t they trust us, the people who made the revolution in the first place?

What they trusted were the aristocracy. They were the only ones who could really vote; you had to be a white male property owner. That’s the only public opinion they trusted, and it was an elite opinion. One thing that is not in our Constitution is populism, and I say in the book that the United States of America is the most populist country in the world. Next to the United States, the rest of the world is Saudi Arabia. It was true then, and it’s true now.

Populist in the sense of popular opinion mattering?

And not trusting elites. We don't trust any kind of elites — business elites, financial elites. We don’t want them to have too much power because they'll abuse it, so we divide the [political] power and we limit the power.

Talk about the new America and the old America; a lot of it seems to be pushed by demographics. It isn’t so much that people are checking a box saying, I’m part of new America — it’s that a new America has been emerging since the ’60s.

It has been, and I’ve outlined 10 groups that make up the new America. Since the ’60s, we've had the emergence of two movements: a movement on the left I call the new America, and a movement on the right, the old America. They have basic differences of values. The old America values limited government, traditional values, and especially religion, which is uniquely important in the United States. We are the most religious advanced industrial society in the world.

The new America believes in diversity and inclusion, something that the old America does not like. This conflict between these two visions of America — it's a basic conflict of values. Politics used to be about conflicts of interest, like business versus labor. Conflicts of interest can be compromised, they can be negotiated. You can make deals. That's how our government is supposed to work, with all the divisions.

Who belongs to the new America?

I’m talking about immigrants; gays, who have become politically conscious and have emerged as a force in American politics; working women, which has only been in the last 30 years or so. It includes single mothers of all races; it includes educated professionals, who you wouldn't think of as being an outgroup, but they never felt as if they had any influence or power, but now they do.

And includes one group that nobody talks about much — the unchurched. A lot of Americans — now about one in four — belong to no organized religion. That’s been growing slowly over the last few decades. The unchurched are now a force, and they don't accept the same religious and cultural values as Americans who are deeply religious. All of these are the new America — and young people, of course.

Donald Trump is the antithesis of traditional values. Yet he's the leader of this old America.

That's right. He made a deal with conservatives and with the old America and with the religious right. He could hardly be called a member of the religious right. He's not much of a churchgoer. And his values and his lifestyle really don't fit what they admire. But the religious voters and Donald Trump and the traditional old America voters’ deal was, we will support you if you deliver for us. They were desperate to have someone who could deliver. And they saw Donald Trump as someone who really could do that.

This split — we see confrontations literally in the streets now between new and old America. In the ’60s and ’70s it was the hardhats and the Vietnam protesters. Is there not this conflict every generation or two in the country?

I would argue that we’re the most divided we’ve been since the Civil War, and the division is real and it has been growing since the 1960s, when the new America began to emerge. Now, a lot of Democrats say, “Well, the demographics is on our side, our people are increasing,” and all the groups that make up the new America are in fact growing in size, and as part of the electorate — every group except Jews and blacks, which are staying about the same.

There’s a rule of thumb that I'll share with you: Demographics is long, politics is short. Demographics takes a long time to realize itself in politics. But politics is something that can happen overnight. Just like Donald Trump seemed to come out of nowhere.

The situation we're in now is that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote and to be a Republican. Mitt Romney, he was the prince of wealth. The better educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. That was Barack Obama, the prince of education.

Education versus wealth — that's the basic division in our elite right now, and it's really shaping American politics.

I always have a student who raises his or her hand and says, “What if someone is wealthy and well-educated?” A lot of people are. Then they’re cross-pressured; they’re pulled in different directions. If they vote their economic interests, they're going to vote Republican, like Mitt Romney. If they vote their cultural values, they're going to vote Democratic, like Barack Obama.

I was interested in what you said about the educated professionals feeling that they've been sidelined. If the founding fathers were elites and put power in the hands of the elites, what happened to that model?

The founding fathers were elites. They were well-educated, and they held themselves above the ordinary people. That's why the electoral college was supposed to be made up of local notables who were well-educated and sophisticated. That didn't last very long. Populism took over, and they overthrew that electoral college system and turned power over to the people. Once the people have power, they ain’t going to give it up. And that’s part of our populist tradition.

[Americans] want people who are competent in doing their jobs. But in this country, historically, there’s much more resentment of education than there is of wealth. Wealthy people are often admired by ordinary Americans. There’s a lot of resentment of education in this country — it really overshadows resentment of wealth.

Another way of dividing us that you wrote about is that we're becoming more like Europe, socialists versus nationalists.

This is recent. Socialism has become more respectable in the United States, principally among young people.

Who are not terrified of it the way that the Cold War Americans are.

Exactly. Young people didn't live through the Cold War, they didn't live through McCarthyism. They have no memory of any of that. So it’s not a scare word the way it is to older generations. Therefore you get a lot of people, including political candidates, who talk openly about socialism, socialist values. They usually say “democratic socialism” because they don't want people to think they're communists. But it's now become a fairly respectable term.

Nationalism has always been very respectable on the right. Fascism is not, of course, but nationalism has always been powerful in this country.

What does this mean for the two major political parties if we have socialists and nationalists? If we have the values versus the interests voters?

What's happened is the parties have become calcified. Their support has become solid and people don't switch parties very much. People are growing up as Republicans. They have Republican values and they don't really change. And Democrats grow up with Democratic values so they don't really change. That’s why people are suddenly taking demographics very seriously, because there doesn't seem to be much of a middle way.

Is Donald Trump an experiment, or is he the future?

I don't think he's the future of the country, but he is an experiment among those on the right to put their trust in someone they really don't agree with, and many of them don't trust or like, to deliver for them. The idea was that the Republican Congress would pass a lot of right-wing laws. He would sign them into law and he would keep his mouth shut. The problem is, he won't keep his mouth shut. And every time he opens his mouth, I think he horrifies more and more people, including some of those who are his hard-core supporters.

He's not like Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan exuded generosity of spirit. No one has ever used that word to describe Donald Trump. A politician once said, in politics you have to have a base. Your base are the people who are with you when you're wrong. Bill Clinton had a base during Monica Lewinsky. Ronald Reagan had a base during Iran-Contra.

Donald Trump has a base: He has his own army. And frankly, it's terrifying elected Republicans all over the country. They're terrified that his base will come out and defeat them in a Republican primary. It just happened with [Congressman] Mark Sanford in South Carolina and they are terrified of being what they call Sanforded.

We'll see what happens in the November election. I expect this to be the anti-Trump election, just like the 2014 midterm I called the No-bama midterm, when people rebelled against President Obama.

One thing that’s different about Donald Trump from any other president we've ever had — he's a divider. Even Abraham Lincoln was not a divider. He came at a divided time, but he tried to reconcile the country. He ended his second inaugural address with the words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Donald Trump saw the division in the country and, like a shrewd businessman, which he is, he said, I can make something of this division. I can use it to promote myself. And that's exactly what he did.

Donald Trump, as we know, is a reality television star. Every television show ends up going off the air, getting canceled. The ratings sink. People lose interest. Is that going to happen with him as a political leader?

Oh yeah. But the question is, could he be reelected for a second term? I tend to be doubtful, but it very much depends on whom the Democrats put up. But the 2020 election will be defining in that respect. A lot of people, myself among them, believe that’s the election when Donald Trump will be forced into retirement. But again, we have to see what the Democrats come up with.

Patt Morrison’s new book is “Don’t Stop the Presses! Truth, Justice and the American Newspaper.”

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