This year’s presidential election will be an odd fight — and possibly one of historic proportions. The Democratic and Republican national conventions made clear that a strange kind of inversion has taken place, as if the two parties had swapped uniforms.
I’ve been covering politics for nearly 40 years — and fascinated by the subject for at least a half-century.
During that time, our two major parties’ identities were fixed and unchanging.
The GOP was the party of affirmation — the one that celebrated America’s greatness, that wrapped itself in the flag and presumed that it had a monopoly on taking pride in being an American. The Republican Party was the party that championed opportunity over fairness and argued that all was right in a nation in which the race went to the swiftest, even if others fell behind.
It was no accident that Ronald Reagan, the leader Republicans still celebrate as their guiding star while ignoring much of what he actually stood for and did, famously affirmed that it was “morning in America” and declared this nation “a shining city on a hill,” echoing Puritan John Winthrop and making a case for American exceptionalism in a single phrase.
Democrats were the party of grievance, the ones who spoke for those Americans who found the American Dream to be slipping away from or hovering behind their grasp. They argued for fairness and indicted any system as corrupt that favored some citizens while ignoring or punishing others. They focused not on the doors of opportunity that opened but instead on those that remained closed or even locked, no matter how hard the disenfranchised or dispossessed knocked on them.
Republicans partied whenever the flag unfurled.
Democrats did the victory dance when a barrier — electing the first African-American president — fell.
Yet at this year’s conventions, Democrats were the ones chanting “USA, USA, USA,” praising police officers and the military, touting the institutions that create opportunities for millions of Americans, wrapping themselves in the flag and proclaiming — again and again and again — that America was great, the one indispensable nation in a troubled world.
And it was the Republicans who complained about “rigged” systems, who railed about a political process and culture that shut too many people out, who indicted rather than celebrated America. Donald Trump, the GOP’s new standard-bearer, even said at times that America lacked the moral authority to lecture the rest of the world, an assertion that would have made Reagan shudder with revulsion.
Much of the attention devoted to this year’s presidential election understandably has been focused on its negativity, even nastiness. We have the two most unpopular presidential nominees in American history, two candidates about whom massive numbers of voters have grave doubts. Those two candidates are about to spend hundreds of millions of dollars demeaning each other, which only will add to the already toxic levels of distrust within the political world.
All this nastiness, though, may have obscured the historic forces at work in this election.
It is at times like these — when Democrats rather than Republicans become the party of racial inclusion, when Republicans rather than Democrats become the party asserting international leadership responsibilities — that the course of the country is altered. At moments like these, the way we live, the kinds of national discussions we have and the way we make our decisions as a country is changed, generally for at least a generation.
That makes the stakes very high for the two political parties and the people who lead them.
When the shifts are this fundamental, this history making, one party gains much of the public’s trust and the other loses it. The party that gains that trust will have the opportunity to shape American institutions and culture for years to come.
The party that loses it will have a long hard climb to come back.
I don’t know which party will prevail this year. Moments such as these are like earthquakes — they alter the landscape so much that even experienced guides can lose their way.
All I know is that it’s likely that someone in this race is going to win big.
And someone is going to fall hard.
Let the battle begin.
Let the battle begin.