- - Sunday, July 31, 2016

The two major-party conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia seemed on the surface to be pretty standard affairs in the tradition of these events of recent years — the nominee known far in advance; abundant coronation-like ceremonies and speeches; efforts to assuage lingering political tensions and consolidate disparate convictions; attacks on the opposition; and plenty of pomp, music and balloons. Below the surface, however, these conventions marked a major turning point for America. An era is ending. Something new — we don’t know what — will replace it.

The old era, which began in 1945, was characterized by a remarkable degree of political consensus. In foreign affairs, the country for decades embraced a resolve to wage and win the Cold War. That commitment could lead to enervating difficulties and national tensions, most notably in Vietnam, but the general consensus remained intact until victory was in hand. Domestically, the two parties certainly represented different views on the proper degree of governmental size and intrusion into the private economy, but the range of debate actually remained relatively narrow. There was no serious push for socialism, even of a mild European variety, or to dismantle the New Deal. The country comfortably absorbed the liberalism of Lyndon Johnson and the conservatism of Ronald Reagan when those two outlooks seemed most appropriate for their particular times.

When the nation embraced racial-justice legislation of historic dimension in the 1960s, it absorbed the profound change without lasting or malignant civic disruption. That was a testament to the country’s general comfort with its underlying governmental consensus.

Now the consensus is gone. The range of debate — and the range of rancor — are widening with inexorable force.

Consider the rise of Bernie Sanders, the most successful socialist politician in the country’s history, with 12 million votes cast for him in the Democratic primaries. This is unprecedented. Even at the height of the Great Depression, when communism and socialism enjoyed strong intellectual support throughout the West, U.S. Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas received only 884,685 votes in the 1932 election, while communist William Z. Foster picked up another 103,000 votes. By 1940, with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal assuaging leftist angers and fears, the Thomas constituency was fading fast, and it ceased to exist after 1944. Throughout the long political era that began about that time, socialism never gained a significant beachhead in American politics. The country’s political consensus was too strong — and hence impervious to such blandishments.

In foreign affairs, the internationalist elites forged what it thought was a post-Cold War consensus based on American global hegemony and the prevention of other powers from gaining regional sway. Elements of Wilsonian humanitarianism crept in as well. Soon it led to “preventive war” doctrines, a “responsibility to protect” beleaguered peoples whose fate had nothing to do with America’s national interests, and promiscuous regime change in Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, Egypt and Yemen. Now, in the wake of major fiascos under these rubrics, the voters aren’t buying the elite consensus. This is reflected in the primary-season votes cast for Mr. Sanders and Republican nominee Donald Trump. Both rejected this elite framework — and pulled in more than 25 million votes between them. Thus can we see that the old Cold War consensus and the establishment’s replacement doctrines are both dead. Something new will have to fill the gap.

Other fundamental elements of the post-1945 consensus also face severe political challenge, including free trade, NATO, relatively open borders, hostility toward Russia, crony capitalism and faith in the country’s leadership class. All this portends a fundamental shift in the direction of the country, reflected in the fact that the anti-establishment candidates in the recent primaries — Mr. Trump, Mr. Sanders and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — together pulled in nearly 33 million votes, compared to around 25 million for the establishment candidates, including the Democratic winner, Hillary Clinton.

The conventional way of looking at the current campaign year yields a perception that the status quo is under attack by “outside” forces represented by Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders. But a Clinton victory over those forces, in this view, will keep the status quo intact, and we can go back to something approaching the old consensus. Not possible. The status quo can’t survive because the old consensus is gone. Hence the status quo is crumbling of its own weight, and that has opened the way for the politics of creative destruction represented by this year’s anti-establishment rebels. A new consensus will have to arise.

We can’t know at this point precisely what that consensus will be, how it will emerge, or what kind of civic turmoil we will have to endure through its emergence. We don’t even know if it will be leftist in the vein of Sanders socialism or more of a fusion approach as put forth by the politically eclectic Mr. Trump — or, perhaps, something else entirely. But it seems safe to predict that if Mrs. Clinton wins, as most political observers consider likely, she will be the last president of the old consensus, struggling to hold it together against inexorable anti-establishment forces.

If perchance Mr. Trump wins, he will have to forge a governing coalition based on a new consensus. If he succeeds, the country slowly will find its way through the thicket of change. If not, the turmoil will continue until a leader arrives on the scene who can do the job. Democracy is a messy business for any nation in search of itself.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.

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