2016 may go down in history as divider between two eras

The campaign season of 2016 has been appalling, but it has also been educational. This election year may go down in history as a divide between one era and the next. Old issues have faded, new divides have emerged, and new alignments are taking shape before our eye.

Here are some of the important lessons of the election year of 2016:

The end of the culture war.

From the 1960s until recently, right and left have been defined by their sides in the “culture war.” Many culture-war conflicts have been those involving sex and reproduction, like abortion and contraception and gay rights, with religious-right conservatives on one side and social liberals on the other.

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The culture wars are over — and the religious right lost. The Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage throughout the U.S. was its final defeat.

Michael Lind

Michael Lind

Not only American society but also the Republican right is becoming more secular and socially liberal. Indeed, in 2016 the Republican Party nominated as its presidential candidate a trash-talking, thrice-married billionaire indifferent to religious-right issues who welcomed gay and lesbian support.

Even so, Jerry Falwell, Jr. endorsed Donald Trump and the Reverend Pat Robertson, the once-influential leader of the defunct Christian Coalition, announced that God in a dream showed the casino magnate “seated at the right hand of our Lord.” Few paid any attention.

The culture war is being replaced by “the border war” as the chief division in American politics. As it has become the party of the white working class, the Republican Party has begun reflecting the economic nationalism and hostility to large-scale immigration of its new blue-collar base.

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Meanwhile, the Democrats, whose white voters are increasingly upscale, have moved in the opposite direction, adopting positions formerly associated with country-club Republicans like support for mass immigration and free trade. Nationalism versus globalism is replacing religion versus secularism in defining right and left in America.

The end of American exceptionalism.

A generation ago, scholars and pundits and politicians were fond of speaking of “American exceptionalism” in contrasting the U.S. with Europe. America, it was proclaimed, combined high religiosity with a high birth rate.

Not anymore. The number of religiously-unaffiliated Americans is growing rapidly, while mainline Protestant and Catholic churches are in decline. And the U.S. birth rate has fallen to its lowest point since records were first kept a century ago. Even among immigrants to the U.S., birth rates are falling.

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While America looks more European — that is, more secular and grayer — Europe is becoming Americanized in some ways. One is the transformation, by immigration, of formerly homogeneous European nations into multiracial and multi-ethnic communities. Another is the adoption of American-style informality and lack of deference throughout the Western world. Yet another is the rise of American-style candidate-centered politics in Europe.

The culture wars are over — and the religious right lost. The Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage throughout the U.S. was its final defeat.

The culture wars are over — and the religious right lost. The Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage throughout the U.S. was its final defeat.

(Jay Paul/Getty Images)

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The convergence of American and European politics is symbolized by the fact that Donald Trump owes much of his celebrity to reality TV — a European invention. As a celebrity turned populist politician railing against the establishment, Trump has followed a trail blazed by two Italians: former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate, and Beppe Grillo, a comedian.

The insider-outsider divide.

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Another dramatic lesson of Election 2016 is the depth of the division in America between insiders and outsiders. This is a division that runs, not between parties, but within them. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton were the insiders, and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were the outsiders.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. endorsed Donald Trump.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. endorsed Donald Trump.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The insiders in both parties represent what is sometimes called the “permanent government” in Washington and affiliated economic interests — the Pentagon and defense contractors; Congressional committees and executive branch agencies and particular industries; and an increasingly influential class of billionaire donors.

Insiders who are not born rich have many opportunities to grow rich as a result of public service, by means of book contracts, speaking engagements before banks, corporations and trade associations, corporate board memberships, sweetheart stock deals or joining investment banks or lobbying firms, or being one half of a power couple.

Well-connected, well-organized and mostly sharing the same opinions, whether they are nominally Democratic or Republican, the insider elites dislike the interruption of business by bothersome elections and prefer that candidates be limited to a few familiar dynasties, like the Bushes and Clintons.

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In different ways, Trump and Sanders in 2016 represented insurgencies by the outsider wings of the two parties against the two insider wings. The insiders, including most of the Bush family, responded by rallying around Hillary Clinton, suggesting that there is really only one insider elite after all and that partisan differences at the top are mostly make-believe.

Pro-abortion and anti-abortion protestors rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington in January 2014 during the March for Life.

Pro-abortion and anti-abortion protestors rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington in January 2014 during the March for Life.

(Susan Walsh/AP)

In much of the American South, politics for generations took the form of demagogic tribunes of the disadvantaged like Huey Long attacking the local ruling families. The same pattern is familiar in many “banana republics” of Latin America. This year’s election campaigns hold out the ominous prospect that a similar pattern of complacent oligarchs versus fiery populists may be emerging in American national politics.

The decline of legislative democracy.

Further evidence of a drift toward Latin American-style banana republicanism is the dwindling power of elected legislatures on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, many decisions once made by national legislatures accountable to voters have been transferred to unaccountable supra-national bureaucrats — a fact that helped to inspire Britain’s “Brexit” revolt in favor of British popular sovereignty.

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In the U.S. in the last half century, in one after another area of public policy, legislation by Congress and the state legislatures has been replaced by other kinds of decision-making-presidential executive orders, agency regulations, and Supreme Court decisions.

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In addition, most so-called free trade treaties have little to do with removing actual barriers to trade. Instead, drafted with secret input from corporations and banks, they create rules for entire areas of national economies that were formerly governed by statutes enacted by national or local legislatures. In some cases, like judicial usurpation of lawmaking about abortion and gay rights, the result has been an expansion of individual liberty at the expense of political democracy.

This gradual, piecemeal transfer of decision-making power from accountable legislatures to mostly-unelected elites with close connections to the corporate and financial sectors has produced a feeling of powerlessness among voters in America and Europe.

They have noticed that no matter how they vote, policies hardly ever change. And when the preferences of voters and donors conflict, the donors frequently prevail.

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Outbursts of angry populism on both sides of the Atlantic like the one that fueled the Trump movement are a response to a real phenomenon: the cumulative disfranchisement of ordinary voters, to the benefit of insider elites.

These trends preceded 2016, but this election year has made them impossible to ignore. The pessimists on left and right who have viewed this year’s bitter presidential contest as the beginning of the end are wrong. It has been the end of the beginning-the beginning of a new and troubling era in American politics.

Lind is a fellow at New America and author of “Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.”

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