(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The cheerleading began before dawn. At the corner of 4th and Locust streets in downtown Des Moines, a dozen partisans of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, many wearing scarves and hats with their yellow Pete shirts, held signs aloft. “Honk 4 Pete!”
Their cheers were echoed on other corners around town, by knots of supporters of other Democratic candidates dancing, shouting and smiling in the morning cold. A total of 14 presidential hopefuls are on the speaking program Friday night at the Wells Fargo Arena here. This event used to be called the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. It’s now the Liberty and Justice Dinner.
Outdoor campaigning before the big event is politics as college-football tailgate — about as goofy and innocent (and generally youthful) as politics gets. While the campaigns are eager to collect names of potential supporters and convey momentum to the large press corps in town for the dinner, some of the public displays are simply enthusiasm for enthusiasm’s sake. Go, Team!
There’s something endearing about it. At the same time, it seems wildly incongruous with the sinister state of American politics in 2019. The 2020 presidential campaign is going to be a vicious national battle that sharpens the division between two camps of Americans and highlights their incompatible visions of, and for, the nation. But this weekend in Des Moines, cheerful and high-spirited Democratic activists appear determined to campaign in pre-Trump America. At a party Thursday night, an amiable and intelligent young Democrat spoke to me of his sincere hope for bipartisanship in the next administration and Congress. Still in his 20s, he is living in a past that no candidate, or president, has the power to recall.
In Washington, Democrats are well on the way to impeaching a president they believe to be a criminal, and Republicans have taken the position that if a legislative body exercising its constitutional powers is run by Democrats, the exercise is illegitimate.
The partisan gulf is often described as cultural. Impeachment will reveal that it is far more than that. After a panel discussion Friday featuring Iowa Democrats and journalists discussing rural America, I asked Robert Leonard, a journalist and author in rural Iowa, whether his neighbors perceive democracy itself to be on the ballot in 2020. His answer was a qualified yes — with the qualification being that there are two irreconcilable versions of what is happening to democracy in America.
“My Republican friends think Democrats are pulling the country apart,” Leonard said, “and my Democratic friends think Trump is shredding the Constitution.”
In a powerful essay in Politico, Thomas Pepinsky, a professor of government at Cornell University, describes the transformation of typical partisan conflict into an increasingly pitched battle over the shape and meaning of American democracy.
It’s called “regime cleavage,” a division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself — in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions and laws may be ignored, subverted or replaced.
You can see the cleavage in real time. President Donald Trump shatters norms of fair play and constitutional balance on a regular basis. (When he sought to withhold congressional appropriations for Ukraine until the government there met his demand to smear an opponent, he subverted both fair play and congressional authority.) Yet with each new transgression, one side of the cleavage simply redefines the conduct as acceptable. In a new Washington Post poll, 65 percent of Republicans say Trump has acted in a way that’s “fitting and proper for a president of the United States.” Only 6 percent of Democrats agree.
Driving around Des Moines, seeing the activists’ coordinated colors and hearing their syncopated chants is at once heartwarming and a little unnerving. The forms and rituals of our traditional politics are there. In the young faces on the street corners, the optimism is real, and valuable. Yet I can’t help thinking that these energetic young Democrats are completely unready for the battle to come.
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Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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