If I had to sum up the election of 2016 in one clause, I would say it has been a sociological revolution, a moral warning and a political summons.
Sociologically, this campaign has been an education in how societies come apart. The Trump campaign has been like a flash flood that sweeps away the topsoil and both reveals and widens the chasms, crevices and cracks below.
We are a far more divided society than we realized. The educated and less educated increasingly see the world and vote in different ways. So do men and women, blacks and whites, natives and immigrants, young and old, urban and rural.
We like to think of democracy as a battle of ideas and a process of individual deliberation, but this year demography has been destiny. The campaigns have pushed us back into our tribal bunkers. Americans now seem more clannish, and more incomprehensible to one another.
This year a legitimate social uprising has been twisted to serve destructive means. During the past 50 years, most of us have benefited from feminism, the civil rights movement, mass immigration, the information age and the sexual revolution. But as Charles Murray points out, one class has been buffeted by each of these trends: white workers.
The white working class once sat comfortably at the core of the American idea, but now its members have seen their skills devalued, their neighborhoods transformed, their masculinity delegitimized, their family structures decimated, their dignity erased and their basic decency questioned. Marginalized, they commonly feel invisible, alienated and culturally pessimistic. This year the workers overthrew their corporate masters and grabbed control of the Republican Party.
That would be progress and even inspiring, but – maybe because of the candidate who is leading it – the working-class revolt has been laced with bigotry, anti-Semitism, class hatred, misogyny and authoritarianism that has further rent the American fabric.
Our partisan divides now menacingly overlap with our racial and class divides, threatening to form a trinity of discord with horrendous consequences.
The moral health of the polity is in even scarier shape. Any decent society rests on codes of etiquette and a shared moral ecology to make cooperation possible, to prevent economic and political life from descending into a savage war of all against all.
But this year Donald Trump has decimated the codes of basic decency without paying a price. With his constant, flagrant and unapologetic lying, he has shredded the standards of intellectual virtue – the normal respect for facts and truth that makes conversation possible. With his penchant for cruelty, bigotry, narcissism, selfishness and even his primitive primate dominance displays, he has shredded the accepted understandings of personal morality that prevent the strong from preying on the weak.
Most disturbing, all this has been greeted with moral numbness. The truest thing Trump said all year is that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes. We learned this year that millions of Americans are incapable of being morally offended, or of putting virtue above partisanship.
And that brings us to the summons. The events of 2016 represent a watershed and a call to do politics differently.
Personally I’ve always disdained talk of a third party, mostly because the structural barriers against such parties are so high, no matter how scintillatingly attractive they seem in theory. But it’s becoming clear that the need for a third party outweighs even the very real barriers.
The Republican Party will probably remain the white working-class party, favoring closed trade, closed borders and American withdrawal abroad. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, is increasingly dominated by its left/Sanders wing, which offers its own populism of the left.
There has to be a party for those who are now homeless. There has to be a party as confidently opposed to populism as populists are in favor of it.
There has to be a compassionate globalist party, one that embraces free trade while looking after those who suffer from trade; that embraces continued skilled immigration while listening to those hurt by immigration; that embraces widening ethnic diversity while understanding that diversity can weaken social trust.
There has to be a patriotic party that understands that the world benefits when America serves as the leading and energetic superpower.
There has to be a party that unapologetically emphasizes public character formation. It’s not clear that our political culture is producing individuals capable of exercising freedom wisely. But citizenship is a skill that can be nurtured – by a party that insists on basic standards of decency in its candidates; that practices politics in humble, honest ways; that strengthens trust and institutions by playing by the rules, by confirming appointees and the like.
The problems go deeper than the jobless rate and the threat of ISIS. The underlying social and moral foundations of the nation have been weakened. Today a rancid chapter ends. Tomorrow let’s start with fresh ground and a new party.