It seems the two-party system is alive and well now that the political pendulum has swung back again, this time much to the Democrats' delight and the Republicans' despair. They tell a story about an old farmer up in Kansas who emerged from his cyclone shelter after a storm had swept away everything in sight -- the house, the crops, even the topsoil, leaving behind nothing but dust and debris. And he burst out laughing. "Pa!" cried his son, "Why are you laughing? Everything's gone." "Why, son," the old man replied, "I'm laughing at the completeness of it."
The whole country seemed in an insurgent mood in this year's elections, and maybe the no longer Grand Old Party should join it. For the natives have grown restless, yet again, and it showed in the election returns this month. And who can blame voters for throwing caution to the ever-shifting winds and going with their impulses? For the country now has a nominally Republican president in Donald Trump, who acts as if he were a political party of one whose tweets reveal a deeply shallow character. He sounds anything but presidential. As he flits from subject to subject and continent to continent, an observer can only wonder at his abundance of energy and absence of judgment.
In the best of all possible Republican worlds, the country would have a president who combined Ronald Reagan's old-time conservative religion and populist allure. Now, this president offers his country and party both in fits and starts, unable to settle on just one dependable approach to politics. While the Democrats seem to have the opposite problem. They may have an appealing mix of promises to offer the American public just now, but no single leader, no presidential hopeful to lead their headless party.
And so Democrats wander among the ruins their opposition has left strewn about, picking up the spoils of their transient victory. To the victor belong the spoils, but what are those spoils worth if that victor doesn't know quite what to do with them?
American politics remains a great circus with many more than three rings--a fascinating spectacle to watch. But is it any way to govern? Let's just say our politics lack definition at the moment. For when someone says he's a Democrat or a Republican, what does that mean? Your guess is as good as ours, Dear Reader, and probably a lot better. Our politics lack the ideological clarity of the European brand, thank goodness, for there is such a thing as following ideology right over the nearest cliff. But that doesn't mean ours are any more intelligible.
American politics remains a great circus, but there is no ringmaster in sight. Which party one is inclined to root for is no simple matter of economic determinism but a complex admixture of family history, geographical roots, and maybe just impulse. When a European visitor to this country was told her hostess' father was a Republican, she asked if that meant he was a captain of industry, owner of a small business, a reactionary type, or all or none of the above. Our visitor could only snort in response to the assumption that her own father was a Republican. "My father," she haughtily declared, "is a royalist."
They are fragile things, words and politics, which can shift from left to right and back again at a moment's notice. But there's often less to these dramatic shifts than meets the eye. There's no need to follow the news every day; to be sure, it'll just repeat itself in time. At the moment, everything is in flux. And there's no sense in assuming it has to make sense here and now. If you missed a late development, there's no point in regretting it. For it will be repeated soon enough.
So to the winners of this season's elections our congratulations, and to the losers our condolences. But no sweat. This merry-go-round will be swinging back around soon enough.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)