A Yankee Notebook

October 24, 2016


MONTPELIER – To Messrs. McConnell and Ryan; Greetings from the paradise of northern New England, former home of the staunchest and most thoroughgoing Republican majority in the United States. I know you’re pretty busy at the moment, and that the busyness is not about to slacken in the coming months. But if you’re willing – I won’t keep you long – permit me about 1000 words.

Your present condition reminds me irresistibly of a road trip that some friends and I made in the mid-50s, from Syracuse, New York, to Mount Orizaba, an 18,400-foot volcano in the coastal range between Mexico City and the Gulf. To minimize confusion, we pooled our resources and bought an elegant, but rather elderly Cadillac hearse, which carried us in great style to our mountain and back.

We drove straight through, alternating drivers and stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks. It was before the days of the interstates, and it wasn’t long before we noticed that the purple plush passementerie that pulled down the shade between the cockpit and the back swung back and forth as we rounded curves to left or right. We weren’t really daredevils, but after a while we started keeping track of which driver could make it swing the farthest, which soon became a competition. A competitive swing was disqualified if we could hear the tires squealing.

But I digress, and apologize. My point is that, by the time we finally got back to Syracuse, that poor old Cadillac, though still elegant, was really tired. Her streamlined figurehead still split the breeze, and her aggressive chromed grille still screamed her quality, but she was played out. The best we could get for her was $400; the buyer said he planned to strip her for parts.

Back in the 1950s, about the time my friends and I were flogging the blue highways toward Mexico, the mood of the country was shifting. A Republican majority in Congress, still smarting from almost twenty years of Democratic occupancy of the White House, managed to snag an undecided Dwight Eisenhower as its presidential candidate. Ike wasn’t a conservative in the traditional Republican vein, and managed the office with a loose rein and a bag of golf clubs.

Meanwhile, the Cold War gradually warmed up in Europe, and Senator McCarthy, building on the paranoia of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, pursued real and imaginary Communists he claimed to be as thick in American society and government as raisins in a muffin. William F. Buckley articulated the conservative vision, and even supported McCarthy’s witch hunt for a while, till it became obvious the senator was but an obsessive beagle digging at a smelly, but empty burrow. Buckley returned to the airier regions of philosophy.

Neither of you remembers all this personally; Mitch was only about seven years old when it happened, and Paul was born about sixteen years later. But it was the beginning of a divide which has not only persisted, but has grown deeper in the past seven years, till now it looks to many to be unbridgeable. Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 predicted the switch in the nation’s political polarity, and the two Democrats who followed Eisenhower furthered it with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Integrated Southern public schools were left half-empty and fiscally forlorn as white students switched to “private academies” set up in their place. Traditional Southern Democrats committed to racial segregation became the Dixiecrats, and morphed into Republicans, as the Grand Old Party, failing to look ahead, took the side of white privilege. Ronald Reagan cemented it with tax cuts for the wealthy and the most mischievous comment in many years: that government wouldn’t solve our problems because it was the problem. Meanwhile, he expanded the federal government by over 300,000 positions and tripled the national debt. I remember writing a column at the time suggesting that the damage to the nation’s economy might be irreparable.

It’s impossible to tell which of many factors in recent years have been most important in transforming your magnificent old Cadillac of a party into the wreck it is today. It could have been the shortsightedness that either didn’t see or failed to credit the demographic shift made inevitable by the immigration of nonwhite folks who were willing to scrabble for their share of the bounty that so many of us have taken for granted. It could have been the appearance of the Internet, which permits the unlimited exchange of ideas among people formerly isolated from each other’s influence. It might have been the growing sense of empowerment among African Americans finally beginning to demand their share of the dream articulated by Doctor King. Or it might be that, in order to secure your base of voters, you welcomed the Tea Party firebrands into the tent, gerrymandered their districts to protect them, and discovered too late that they’re not housebroken.

You also realized too late that you would be overwhelmed by people you used to be able to write off as insignificant. But rather than change the substance, you’ve been tweaking the message – to little avail, I’m sure you’ve noticed. I don’t trust my prognostications – I’ll never forget that I once lost ten bucks betting on Michael Dukakis – but I’m guessing that the next month isn’t going to be the most enjoyable of your lives. With your old stalwart pal John McCain vowing that the Senate won’t confirm any Supreme Court nominees advanced by a President Clinton, I have to wonder what y’all are thinking – or if anybody is thinking at all down there.

You’ve pretty well wrecked that old Caddy, and it’s not good for much at the moment but parts. Yet in that may lie your salvation. It’ll be a chance for the disparate elements of the Party to get together in their own groups and redefine and refine just who they want to be.

Photo by Willem lange