RIPON-RIPOFF: knowing nothing and promising everything

The immigration Trigger

Observers of the current Presidential campaign who are familiar with American political history cannot ignore the striking parallels between this election and the electoral scene of America in the mid 1850s. In that pre-Civil War period, the Whigs and the Democrats were torn apart over the issue of slavery while the country was also deeply troubled by large flows of Catholic immigrants coming to the United States from Germany and Ireland. The decades prior to the Civil War also featured significant reductions in shipping and communication costs that stimulated large movements of foreign direct investment as well. It was a period similar to our recent era of globalization. Capital from Europe flowed into railroads, coal mining and many new factories accompanied by a plentiful supply of labor willing to work at what seemed to the existing work force to be low wages. While international trade and finance expanded, there was a rapid rise in discontent from both the labor and middle class over the new immigrants that in turn caused huge political upheavals.

Beginning in the 1840s, the anti-immigration wave coalesced in a number of political parties. By 1843, these nativist sympathies coalesced into the American Republican Party and spread into Pennsylvania under the name of The American Native Party, even sending a representative to Congress in 1844. Perhaps the best known was the No-Nothing party. Stimulated by anti-Catholicism and nativism, local and state elections were heavily impacted in the 1840s and 1850s. . The No-Nothings swept state elections in Massachusetts and were influential in a number of other states. Secret orders were started that reflected these prejudices and the feelings of disenfranchisement threatened by the flow of cheap labor.

The Anti Slavery Movement and the new Republican Party

The more vocal issue in the 1850s was of course slavery and the anti-slave movement weakened the Whig Party (the major alternative to the Democratic Party). By the 1850s the surge of immigration had quintupled the immigrant flow of a decade earlier. It wasnt outsourcing that aroused the political passions of the day. It was the in-sourcing of cheaper labor fleeing disturbed conditions in Europe while American industry expanded through foreign capital inflows and cheap European labor. Inflamed passions riled the traditionalAmerican political parties, leading to the view that the extant Party structure no longer reflected the needs ofAmerican voters. To respond to these passions effectively, however required political leadership.

The split in the Whig party over slavery irrupted in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854 culminating in the formation of the Republican Party and the early emergence of Abraham Lincoln as a national politician. In 1856, the Republicans unsuccessfully ran a Presidential candidate, General John Fremont. The die was cast for the struggle over the Union. While Lincoln lost his seat in Congress, he became a growing force in the new Republican Party through speeches and press coverage. His famed debates with Senator Stephen Douglas in the Illinois senatorial contest of 1858 increased his national prominence.

In a democratic society, Politics often reflects the passion rather than the insight of voters. Consequently, the true leadership quality of a candidate is frequently obscured until after the votes are counted. It is a danger that the Founders recognized, but never were able to totally circumvent. Rational politics begins with a more careful assessment of both abilities and plans laid out by the candidates. The endgame is measured by electoral success.

The Republican Party was very clever. It needed mass and in order to gain sway over a larger portion of the voters, it allied itself with the Know-Nothings (in spite of their nativism) as well as other parties (e.g. the Free Soilers) that did not share many Republican views on other issues. With the breakdown of political amity in Washington, the election of 1860 was the quintessential fragmenting experience for America. Lincoln became President, but he but did not represent a majority of voters. He also didnot disavowed some of the more extreme nativist sentiments of the Know Nothings. He was a thoughtful politician who didnt want to make enemies. He won by focusing on what he stood for and ignored extremist views of his own allies. He won in the electoral college where it counted, letting ambiguity rule over extremist views of his allies. In 1861, his leadership gifts allowed him to take each of his principal rivals for the Presidency into his cabinet. He was a living realization of the old Mafia shibboleth about keeping ones friends close but ones enemies even closer.

Nativism and Immigration in the Current Campaign

This campaign illustrates what can happen to more traditional politics in a time of great economic dislocation. Trump expresses a kind of nave nativism in his tortured presentation of Muslims migrating into America masking the entrance of potential Jihadists. Even when called out for his nativism, he identifies Islam with terrorism, slipping away from a more careful and nuanced delineation that is needed between a religion and terrorism.

Great leadership could make that distinction, but itt appears Trump is not interested or not capable of drawing a fine line between the two. He appeals to more base sentiments. He relishes his nativism as if it really pointed to solutions for America as a whole. Similarly, he espouses a modern form of America First, jettisoning more than a century of American tradition to be a banner for liberty and the bearer of the torch of freedom internationally. He disdains European allies as weak and unable to carry out their mutual defense burdens with the United States. He even goes so far as to praise the leadership of Americas former Cold War enemy. His slogan make America great again, is devoid of any practical content. He waves the flag, but is unclear what his flag stands for. Careless phrases and potentially divisive sloganeering are his daily script. Who can sit under his flag today in America: the disgruntled; those who seem to have fared less well in our rapidly globalizing economy; those who feel theyhave been disadvantaged by Americas attempt to right its blighted racial history. Were he to be elected, it is unclear what his policies would embrace. His tax and spending plans are as mysterious as his unrevealed tax returns. He promises nothing to our modern-day Know Nothings.What about his opponent

Mrs. Clinton seems to have a program for every claimed ailment in America. She evidently believes that by changing the law or the administration of the law she has a fix for every minority. On the economics front, it is a return to Keynesian spending but ignores the fundamental forces that promote growth: incentives to invest in both physical and human capital. This may be a winning political strategy, but it is an economics strategy that can only lead to disaster. Without growth, even the current commitments of our Federal system cannot be supported.

Her most well known economist advocate, Larry Summers, has recently written about the necessity for the Democratic Party to pay attention to measures that will improve our growth rate. That said, one is not sure that anyone in the Democratic Party is listening or even recognizes the difference between Keynesian spending and curing the disincentives that militate against revived economic growth. Nine tenths of the iceberg is beneath the water. Without growth, even when you cant see how it is going to occur, the Titanic of Federal Expenditures will overwhelm us all in the next two decades. Democrats tend to think of Big Government as the equalizer for the disadvantaged, but fail to see the conflict with proper incentives for economic growth.

Big Government has neither achieved the sought for equality or the economic growth that are cardinal elements in an enlightened Democratic view of contemporary economic problems. Clinton bashes Wall Street, setting up the straw man that Wall Street banks are the enemy of the people while running away from the inferences that the Clinton foundation trades access for donations. A plan for all problems is not a plan. A plan means choosing between competing alternatives while paying attention to the national budget constraint. A program to fix everything provides a rhetorical excuse to fix nothing. The great irony of the 2016 campaign is that it has become a contest between knowing nothing and getting nothing important done.

The present contest fits a sad historical pattern of America in the middle years of the 19th century. We have seen it before. Our inability to reach a political settlement between North and South resulted in the worst casualties of any war in our history. It left a legacy of disenfranchisement and ultimately an attempt to make Government provide what economic progress had not.

What is the likely outcome of Nothing vs. Everything A failure to deal with the root causes of slowing economic growth and diminished opportunity. Blame replaces insight, but blame doesnt cure. It just provides a rhetorical excuse for empty-headed policy making. We have heard this music before. It is not the sound of a lively march into the future. It is a dirge that memorializes our failures. Every band and every parade needs a leader, not just followers. What the election of 2016 represents is a massive leadership deficit, a turn to the past and a very clouded future. A modern day Lincoln we do not have,

The disorganized crime of this election is the disorganized politics of its two candidates and its two disheveled Parties. Despite our need, another Lincoln is not waiting in the wings. Neither Nothing nor Everything will work. Its time for a new Ripon for the Republicans. Its time for the Democrats to stop Ripping Off the tax paying electorate by promising both bread and circuses to its sliced and diced voting minorities. Leadership is what we badly need and do not have.

The Upside of the Downside

The election is a bitter pill for Americans looking to end the dissonance and hoping for a government that does what it can and should while recognizing the limits that Big Government presents. If, as is likely, the Democrats not only win the White House but recapture the Senate, many things will change, not all of them beneficial to a resumption of growth or the defeat of excessive inequality. In fact, low growth really means even less equalitarian outcomes are on the horizon. Rapid growth is the best weapon against poverty.

The downside of a Republican defeat is the likely hood of larger tax burdens on the rich, on corporate profits, the collapse the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement and the strong likelihood of an activist Supreme Court that further unbalances our politics. But surely, after themassive defeat thatseems to be likely, there will be strong forces to re-make the Republican partyto end its flirtation with nativism—and to develop a comprehensive program of tax reform.

Above all else, defeated Republicans should look for a new Ripon based upon competitive and free markets, free trade, muscular internationalism and constitutional restraints on the actions of the Federal Reserve. The Republican Party has to open its doors to all races and religions by stressing its desire for equal access not equal outcomes. The incentive to improve is the sine qua non of rapideconomic growth. Republicans need to march away from their own cronyism and open the tent. They must not be afraid to deal with environmental or infrastructure problems. They need to reaffirm their faith and support of free, competitive markets here and within the economies of their trading powers. Above all, they need to constantly renew their focus on creating the right incentives for human capital and physical capital improvements. Their narrative must shift from the condemnation of certain minorities toa re-assertion that America welcomes those who can contribute to its citizens well being. Not every great idea or innovation is American, but an American economy free of the vast constraints now imposed and now projected can provide the bountiful harvest needed to satisfy our many residents. Its time to go back to work.

Ripon revisited cannot come any too soon. Maybe the new slogan should be A Positive Program for American Progress. A great deal can change from January 2017 toNovember 2020. Its time for vision and great leadership. If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, it is time to realize how necessary it is to create a new, progressive American conservatism open to all and focused on all. On to Ripon II.