Perspectives on Presidential Politics
April might not be the cruelest month, despite T.S. Eliot’s famous claim, but in academic circles, it tends to be the busiest. Many a Springfield College professor faces teetering piles of papers on the desk, a cup of cold coffee at the ready, the fuel light on low.
Still, on an April afternoon, Tom Carty is animated. Looking far younger than his 46 years, the professor of American Studies and history and chair of the Department of Social Sciences, Carty is energized by the topic on the table: the presidential campaign.
“The more you get into the weeds of this,” says Carty, “the more amazing it is.”
On Carty’s desk sits a dog-eared copy of a text for class, American Destiny: Narrative of a Nation. He acknowledges the surprises brought by the caucus and primary season thus far: the rise of the polarizing Donald Trump on the Republican side; the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders giving Hillary Clinton a robust challenge on the Democratic side; and the raw, divisive climate, coupled with surging populist crowds on the campaign trail.
Carty is Springfield College’s residential presidential scholar. He teaches a class on presidential elections. He is the book review editor for the New England Historical Association and the author of two well-received books touching on the presidency: A Catholic in the White House? Religion, Politics, and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign (2004) and Backwards in High Heels: Faith Whittlesey, Reagan’s Madam Ambassador in Switzerland and the West Wing (2012).
Trying to make sense of the wacky world of 2016, Carty suggests that for all the sound and fury, the election might just represent one of the recurring cycles of politics in the 240-year history of our republic.
He says the turbulence within both major political parties is, in a sense, nothing new. He notes historic shifts that have often occurred between generations. These have included the rise of “Jacksonian Democracy” in the 1820s and 1830s; the emergence of the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln in 1860; the progressive era of Republicans in the early 1900s; the shifting of the “Solid South” from Democratic to Republican domination with the civil rights movement in the 1960s; and the rise of “new Democrats” going back toward the middle with Bill Clinton in 1992. So, Carty says, it is possible that in 2016 a new realignment might be in the air.
Then he smiles, almost whimsically, and adds, “But I can’t predict what the realignment would be.”
The march toward Election Day is equally compelling, if baffling at times, to a pair of Springfield College graduates who have waded deeply into the political surf, Craig Shirley ’78 and Matt Fenlon ’09.
To Shirley, a history and political science major back in the day, the 2016 campaign has hardened the mold of America against compromise.
“The founders warned against the party system … what came about was exactly what they didn’t want. They didn’t want factionalism in America. They wanted no political parties and a lot of commonality. They knew the genius of America was compromise.”Tom Carty
“There used to be more common ground because there used to be more liberal Republicans, and there used to be more conservative Democrats,” Shirley asserts. “They could talk to each other. The liberal Republicans could talk to the Democratic Party. The conservative Democrats could talk to the Republican Party. And then they would hammer out compromise. There is no compromise anymore. They don’t talk to each other. They’re basically from two different planets.”
Shirley has mostly orbited around the Republican planet. At age 8, he canvassed door-to-door in support of the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964. As an adult, he has been a prolific political writer with a particular passion for Ronald Reagan. His published books include Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All (2005); Reagan—Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America (2014); and Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan (2015).
Still, Shirley pushes partisanship aside when putting forth his view on the origins of political division in America.
“The founders warned against the party system,” he says. “What came about was exactly what they didn’t want. They didn’t want factionalism in America. They wanted no political parties and a lot of commonality. They knew the genius of America was compromise.”
He then ticks off a list of compromises woven into the fabric of American history.
“The Constitution was a compromise,” he says. “The Compromise of 1828. The Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Missouri Compromise. And Henry Clay, ‘The Great Compromiser.’ We had a politician who was called The Great Compromiser!”
In Shirley’s view, recent history suggests the spirit of compromise is not apt to resurface.
“I think we’ve made a permanent move away from it,” he says.
Still, he believes that a functional democracy is possible without it. “Not all is dark,” he asserts. “America has always been divided. This idea that we’ve been united is ridiculous. We were divided over the Revolution. Even George Washington’s mother was a Tory sympathizer. The Civil War was all about division.”
That pattern, Shirley says, continued to cut through the 20th century with debates about entry into World War I—and then again years later. “The Cold War produced divisions in America,” he says. “Civil rights produced divisions in America. Tax cuts. We’ve always been divided as a country. There’s only one time in our 200-year-plus history, one time when we were united as a nation. And that was the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941 (after the attack by the Japanese military on Pearl Harbor).”
Shirley believes our future democracy might require something more akin to the Parliamentary system in Great Britain. “In order for us to function (effectively),” he says, “one party must control the legislature and the presidency.”
Fenlon has worked hard to have the Democrats be that party. Until recently the executive director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, Fenlon (now director of economic development and corporate outreach at UMass Boston) has been a political rocket ship launched on Alden Street. A dual major in communications/sports journalism and English, he caught the political bug after his first year when he attended the commencement of his brother, Justin Fenlon ’06. The commencement speaker was U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, longtime leader of the national Democratic Party.
“It just kind of clicked,” Fenlon recalls. “When he talked about public service, it meshed really well with Springfield College and our mission. Shortly after that, the light switch went on. It opened my eyes to a lot of other things that were happening.”
Fenlon would intern with Kennedy the following summer, and then go to work for the person he still considers his greatest political mentor, Congressman Richard Neal. Even now, Fenlon refers to Neal simply as “the Congressman.”
Through Neal’s connections, Springfield College was able to host a campaign stop for Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 prior to the Massachusetts primary—which she would win—before ultimately losing the Democratic nomination to then-Sen. Barack Obama. Fenlon recalls the Clinton visit as another turning point: “That helped open a lot of students’ eyes to the importance of the process,” he said. “It helped engage a lot of folks who would have otherwise written off the election.”
The night of that election, when Obama defeated John McCain, was one Fenlon will never forget. He watched it on campus and felt a sense of “soaring idealism.” He remembers that, “Much of the campus was glued to the results that night because they just knew it was an historic election.”
Since that time, Fenlon believes, the idealism has produced some genuine progress for the democracy, though not as much as he had hoped. The primary reason, for that, he says squarely, is “Republican intransigence.” Another factor in producing the sharp divisions, he believes, is the way modern media has evolved. With reduced reliance on large media outlets that—at least in theory—provide a measure of balance, many people these days absorb their own media through partisan outlets in broadcast and print, and direct their social media feeds to messages that align with their pre-existing views. “The confirmation bias is a problem,” he says. “I can turn on Fox News, or I can turn on MSNBC, and see something that reinforces what I already believe.”
With the election still months away at press time for Triangle, all manner of change remains possible. Among this small sampling of politically savvy Springfield College folks, there was an atmosphere of unease jostling with hope.
“Both parties are going through—I just get this image of somebody violently throwing up,” says Shirley. “Both parties, both the Democratic party and the Republican party are…becoming unwell, let me put it that way, over the state of American politics.”
“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” says Fenlon. “At some point people are going to realize that if we are going to actually have government working for the people, like it’s supposed to, we need to elect people who are willing to work for the government.”
[Carty] says the turbulence within both major political parties is, in a sense, nothing new. He notes historic shifts that have often occurred between generations … it is possible that in 2016 a new realignment might be in the air.
“The founders warned against the party system … what came about was exactly what they didn’t want. They didn’t want factionalism in America. They wanted no political parties and a lot of commonality. They knew the genius of America was compromise.”
Carty, at his office in Blake Hall, says, “Predictions are not my bag.” There are moments when he admits to being concerned about that American destiny, that narrative of a nation. But there are other times when he is buoyed by the energy of the electorate.
“In that optimistic phase,” he says, “I do see this as, ‘Wow, people are voting in unprecedented numbers’”—laying waste to cynicism about the insignificance of an individual vote. “Here’s an election where our votes can make a difference.”