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The 2016 election year is shaping up to be America’s most serious constitutional crisis since the Civil War — and the most important partisan re-alignment since 1932 or maybe since 1860. To appreciate what’s at work, it’s important to understand these two trends, and how they interact.

The essence of the constitutional crisis is that one of our two parties, the Republicans, has stopped conceding the legitimacy of the Democrats. This has been building for decades, but it went critical under Obama.

The Republican leadership, and most of the 2016 presidential field, basically don’t concede that Obama is a legitimate President of the United States. You see this in charges of his alleged Muslim religion and foreign birth and his supposed radicalism (Obama is basically a centrist and instinctive compromiser — well to the right on key issues of such presidents as Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and even Nixon and Eisenhower.)

The Republican refusal to even consider a presidential nominee to the Supreme Court is only the latest example, and it comes on the heels of several threats to shut down the government or to refuse to roll over the national debt if Obama did not give in to Republican demands, a scorched-earth tactic that dates back to the Speakership of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.

This degree of permanent partisan obstruction is something new and menacing, and it interacts poisonously with the vision of America’s founders. They wrote a Constitution with lots of checks and balances to promote compromise, not on the assumption that one of the two parties would simply refuse to play. But the checks and balances create paralysis if one of the parties proceeds in bad faith.

In political science, the concept of legitimacy is essential to a functioning democracy — in two senses: Legitimacy means that the authority of the government is accepted as earned rather than being a function of brute force; and it means that one party accepts that the other is loyal. For one party to deny the legitimacy of the other has not happened since the Civil War, when Southern Democrats were literally traitors to the Union, and the South viewed Lincoln’s Republican Party as an occupying army to be resisted by every means including force and assassination.

Republican obstructionism today operates against the long-term erosion of American democracy, and it leaves government paralyzed in the fact of mounting national problems. That further erodes legitimacy and democracy itself.

The hollowing out of democracy is reflected in the loss of confidence in public institutions, in the fact that big money has been crowding out citizen participation. Republicans have contributed to this trend by their money-is-speech ideology and by sponsoring measures that make it more difficult to vote — reversing a two- century trend of expanding democracy. Meanwhile, ordinary people feel more and more alienated from both the economy and the system of government.

So we have a constitutional crisis — one party destroying the ability of the government to govern, combined with a crisis of our democracy at a time when we need government to act.

Republicans, as far-right corporate conservatives, have pursed this strategy knowingly and cynically, in the hope of weakening government and its capacity to regulate and to collect taxes. They have perfected a dog-whistle strategy in which appeals to racism are couched as a rejection of political correctness, producing support by working class voters for policies that don’t really serve their interests.

But be careful what you wish for. This vacuum of functioning democracy in the face of mass frustration was ready-made for the emergence of a demagogue. And for Republicans, the appalling thing about Donald Trump is that he is no conservative.

He is far to the right on immigration and on national defense — well to the right of most of the corporate elite; but he is surprisingly leftwing on trade and on corporate exports of jobs. He doesn’t hate government, and would defend such programs as Social Security. You could imagine him expanding public works. And he is a lot more tolerant of gays and reproductive rights than most of the Republican base. He is also dangerously reckless as a potential commander-in-chief.

The emergence of Trump has so upset the Republican elite that there is serious talk of running an independent Republican against him, with the full knowledge that this would surely throw the election to Hillary Clinton, another centrist Democrat who has more in common with mainstream Republicans than Donald Trump does.

Many Republicans would rather see a Clinton presidency and continue their familiar tactics of obstructionism than a Trump presidency in which they could lose control of their party to a populist. Republicans would still likely control the House, and most governorships. The crisis of government authority, legitimacy and deepening popular disaffection would only deepen, and they would hope to pick up the pieces in 2020.

The great political scientist, Walter Dean Burnham, wrote of “critical elections,” in which major partisan realignments took place because of shifting socio-economic needs and demands that neither major party had addressed. The year 1932 saw such an election. Franklin Roosevelt turned the Democrats into a progressive party, and mobilized large numbers of voters who had either not been participating or who had been voting Republican. To a lesser degree, 1980 was a realigning election, as many white working class voters turned to Reagan, either because of his social conservatism, his nationalism, his optimism, or all three.

But what kind of realignment will we see in 2016? If, say, Elizabeth Warren rather than Bernie Sanders were the prime challenger to Hillary Clinton, we might have seen the Democrats once again as a full-throated progressive party, capturing the broad economic disaffection and turning it into a governing majority. But at this point, Bernie Sanders is fighting the good fight but is a long shot; meanwhile, it is the Republican primaries where turnout is increasing, pulling in large numbers of disaffected people to vote for Trump.

If Clinton beats Sanders for the Democratic nomination, and Republican elites manage to deny Trump either nomination or election, all of that bottled up frustration still will have to go somewhere. In 1933, Roosevelt managed to turn the economic and political crisis in a constructive direction. In 1860, the constitutional crisis was resolved only by a war, one that many in the white South are still fighting.

In 2016, it’s hard to see a path that will restore either a government with broadly accepted legitimacy, or one capable of governing, much less one capable of solving the festering economic injustices that have brought our politics to such an angry boil. It is a recipe for more demagoguery and more permanent crisis.

Sometimes in circumstances like these, leaders rise to the occasion. We surely need such leadership now.



Co-founder and co-editor, ‘The American Prospect’ Professor Robert Kuttner teaches at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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