Long Division

If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How it Might Be Saved Michael Tomasky. Liveright. Hardcover, 288 pages. $27

Michael Tomasky wants his readers to understand right up front that If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved isn’t just another liberal screed provoked by anguish at Donald Trump’s presidency. “Chapter for chapter, most of this book could have appeared just as it now stands” if Hillary Clinton had won the White House, he tells us, and he began mulling the project in the full expectation she was going to do just that. Since Tomasky has written generally favorable books about both her and Bill, it’s a safe guess that she’d have been his beleaguered heroine in that case, not “the Republic’s” answer to Maleficent.

At best, one imagines, a President Hillary might have induced Tomasky to cook up a less alarmist subtitle. But as it is, who knows what qualifi es as “alarmist” anymore? That’s why it doesn’t hurt If We Can Keep It’s potential appeal that, as Tomasky well knows, “there’s a level on which no political book released during his presidency isn’t about Trump.” He’s the unforeseen—but not, in 20/20 hindsight, unforeseeable—disrupter whose “huge, inescapable, hectically coiffed, frantically browbeating” presence gobbles up America’s cysts for breakfast and spews them into the discourse. Thanks to him, political conflicts and impasses that long predated his 2016 victory have been upgraded from our system’s chronic condition into a cataclysm.

That take is very much in the spirit of what we may as well call Trumpology 2.0. In the shocked days when we were first absorbing the reality of a Trump presidency, the hue and cry outside a newly exultant MAGA-land was dominated by hysteria at how outrageous and incongruous this let’s-put-the-pol-back-in-poltergeist’s ascent to the White House was. The average pundit made it sound as if forty-four retrospectively placid high school productions of The Sound of Music had suddenly given way to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Hellmouth. That was also the era when abject think pieces lamenting the Democrats’ neglect of the Forgotten White Voter were nuzzling every liberal masochist’s sweet spot, at least until Charlottesville turned them obsolete.

But then—as contempt bred familiarity, for a change—the revisionist argument began to gain traction that Trumpism, in fact, had been a long time in the making. After all, we’d had almost fifty years of Republican dog-whistles aimed at slyly fostering (while containing) heartland racism and anti-elitist resentment. Other curtain-raisers included the Clinton era’s culture wars, Newt Gingrich’s bumptious conversion of Capitol Hill into nature red in tooth and claw—or red in tooth and caucus, anyhow—and, of course, the advent of Fox News, with Rush Limbaugh and his fellow talk radio provocateurs pointing the way. Even if the rise of a Trump-like POTUS to crystallize the malignity wasn’t quite inevitable, it’s nonetheless true, as Tomasky puts it, that “the mess Trump makes couldn’t have happened without the mess that preceded him—a mess that has deep historical roots, and that seems, most days, completely and utterly unfixable.”

He isn’t kidding about those “deep historical roots,” either. His book’s title comes from Benjamin Franklin’s famous reply to a woman who’d asked him whether the newly concluded 1787 Constitutional Convention had created a republic or a monarchy: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Our current red state–blue state standoff might be a lot less intractable if not for one of our founding document’s most undemocratic, neither-fish-nor-fowl patch jobs: the allocation of two US senators (and Electoral College votes) to every state, regardless of population.

Over two centuries later, this has come to seem like the natural order of things. So it’s nice to be reminded that the provision only passed by one vote and that more than a few delegates thought it was nuts. But “they had no Plan B,” Tomasky writes, “so they punted.” Exacerbating the problem was the eventual codification of winner-take-all elections in the House and Senate alike, as opposed to the proportional representation that all but a handful of other Western democracies’ parliaments opted for.

Partly as a result, Tomasky contends, polarization became the norm rather than the exception as soon as the two-party system emerged in the wake of George Washington’s singular ability to convert his unchallenged stature into the new nation’s unifying unguent. Hamiltonians vs. Jeffersonians, urban states vs. rural ones, or, in one of Tomasky’s more enjoyable phrases—not least because both terms are put-downs—“the Swells vs. the Rubes”: All these describe variations on a conflict that’s still with us today. The immeasurably complicating factor was that it also pitted slaveholding states against free ones until the Civil War came along and . . . well, actually didn’t settle that issue quite as decisively as optimists thought.

For a long time, however, both of our parties were ideologically motley enough to accommodate their share of reactionaries and progressives alike, making polarization a largely intraparty affair—unlike their “ideologically coherent” European equivalents, traditionally defined along a simpler spectrum from right to left. Only in our own time have the Republicans and the Democrats both congealed into a similar homogeneity, and Tomasky seems somewhat undecided as to whether that’s a good thing or not.

Unsurprisingly, his pocket history of “how we got here” takes more than a few shortcuts on two wheels. (At one point, he zips from the 1856 presidential election to the 1862 Civil War battles outside Richmond to Lincoln’s assassination in under a page, which is a little dizzying even if Tomasky has other fish to fry.) But he chooses some interesting pivotal moments to linger over, particularly Martin Van Buren’s often overlooked role in devising the durable prototype for political parties as we still know them today. Tomasky’s at his most useful in reminding his readers that nostalgia for a time when our system “functioned properly”—that is, without polarization gumming up the works—is, if not misplaced, ahistorical in its assumption that such interludes are ever more than temporary reprieves from our usual appetite for fisticuffs.

The longest of them was what Tomasky terms “The Age of Consensus,” stretching approximately from World War II to Ronald Reagan’s election. (Since its later decades, at least, are still well within many Americans’ lifetimes, we might be forgiven for the misperception that this was how things had always worked, or at least were supposed to.) Styling it as such involves more or less leaving out, among other nuisances, the 1960s, whose turmoil created a massive schism within the Democratic Party that Tomasky largely papers over—even though the donnybrook ultimately produced the feckless, corporate-friendly Liberalism Lite that became the party’s brand under Clinton, and which went virtually unchallenged until Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign.

In this context, “consensus” mostly means that both parties accepted the basic tenets of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal at home and, Vietnam aside, the post-WWII United States’ essential role in countering communism abroad. It also meant that, for a couple of generations, Capitol Hill legislators and presidents could work together across party lines to tackle government’s basic tasks. That midcentury atmosphere’s relative cordiality is something even Tomasky—who, given his own book’s premise, should really know better—can’t help getting sentimental about.

At times, he verges on mawkishness in invoking the shared sense of national purpose fostered by the Great Depression and the war. That’s a Hallmark-card version of events even if, not unlike Hallmark cards, its panaceas aren’t invented from whole cloth. At his worst, Tomasky is capable of moping that “I used to think that a new depression and world war would return us to a state of some harmony.” Of course, he quickly disclaims any wish to have that theory put to the test.

Tomasky the political vivisectionist is much more bracing company. If Reagan’s election provided the psychological benison of freeing people from the “responsibility of introspection,” which Tomasky sees as vital to modern-day conservatism’s appeal once the 1960s liberal project devolved into a guilt trip promoted by killjoys, the real story of the right wing’s rise happened largely out of public view. One tectonic shift was the creation of well-funded, ideologically aggressive right-wing think tanks whose ability to reframe debate caught the Democrats flat-footed: Weren’t they supposed to be the egghead party?

Another was the Reagan administration’s little-noted 1987 repeal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, which had compelled broadcasters to provide platforms for opposing points of view; if it were still in force, Fox News and right-wing radio couldn’t exist in the form they currently do. Then along came Newt Gingrich, rightly appraised by Tomasky as “the most influential Republican of our time.” An expert at “defining down the standards and norms of whatever institution he was associated with,” Gingrich junked even the pretense of Capitol Hill comity in favor of all-out, unrelenting partisan war.

Tomasky’s most ambitious chapter wrestles with what he considers a fateful change in Americans’ civic identity. No longer primarily citizens, we define ourselves as consumers instead, meanwhile turning consumption into ever more convoluted forms of competition. At one level, this is a trite critique, right down to the tired wheeze that we’re “amusing ourselves to death.” But Tomasky deserves credit for trying to assess how this has reconfigured our political identities as well, seizing on the moment after 9/11 when President George W. Bush told us that the most patriotic thing we could do was go shopping. It’s not all that big a leap from there to Trump’s blinkered elevation of transactional profit-and-loss calculations to the sole basis of US government policy.

Because a liberal without a laundry list might as well do without clothes entirely, If We Can Keep It wraps up with Tomasky’s proposed remedies to our current “Age of Fracture,” from doing away with partisan gerrymandering to putting pressure on corporate America to accept more civic responsibility. Even Tomasky acknowledges that he’s “tossing pies in the sky,” but he’s not wrong to stress that expecting our politicians—of either party—to take the lead is a nonstarter unless they’re reacting to pressure. “Politics changes after social conditions and expectations change,” he writes, repris-ing a point he’s made multiple times before.

It is, however, a point that can’t be made often enough, which is why this erratic, frequently exasperating book is also a useful one. Early on, Tomasky makes it clear that he isn’t writing for his fellow insiders and politics junkies: “I hope to reach the schoolteacher in Akron, the bank vice president in Chattanooga.” Even though that aspiration may be the most Capraesque hunk of pie in the sky on display here, something in you can’t help wishing him well for making the attempt.

Tom Carson is the author of the novel Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).