IN THE United States, where I saw in the New Year, it was rare for conversations at parties not to return, sooner or later, to the country’s woeful political predicament. It was echoed in some measure, I hastened to assure my new friends, by our own situation in the UK. This they refused to believe, maintaining that English politicians were civilised, well-informed, and invariably desirous of the common good. By English they meant British: few people I met had heard of Wales.
Not wishing to be plunged into the Brexit conundrum, it seemed preferable to steer the conversation back to the more interesting — and, possibly, optimistic — scenario of the 2020 US elections. There was a slight feeling at the New Year’s Eve party that I attended, and in the media in general, that 2019 barely counted. With a presidential election looming next year, we are mentally already in 2020. One cannot help sensing that Americans, of all political persuasions, are impatient to fill the present embarrassing leadership vacuum.
ALREADY, we have a willing candidate for the Democrat nomination for the presidency: Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Her softly spoken manner has nothing of the brash hubris that Americans have grown used to under the present administration, but it also belies her political mettle.
Dubbed by Time magazine “The Sheriff of Wall Street”, and credited with being the brains and energy behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she is no stranger to the world of finance, tax, and corporate greed. In this, and in the campaign line that she is already dreaming up, she resembles her earlier predecessor, Barack Obama.
But Mr Obama, for all his wisdom and brilliant rhetoric, failed to watch his back politically, leaving himself open to the political opportunism of Donald Trump, who “played” to his own ends a whole swath of the population for whom the American Dream had simply never happened. These are the poor of Middle America. He failed them, of course.
It has to be said, however, that Mrs Warren has already been caught off guard by proving herself to be of Native American origins. She had a DNA test done, which was immediately interpreted by leading Native Americans as pure political opportunism. She will need to regain ground quickly if she is to survive this ill- considered act.
In the wake of President Trump’s failing of the poor of Middle America, would Mrs Warren be able to regain their trust and compensate them for the lies that they have been fed, such as the jobs promised from the revitalisation of the coal industry? Mrs Warren will need to learn lessons from both Mr Obama and Mr Trump if she is to win the Democrat ticket, let alone the presidency.
From Mr Obama, she will need to learn to develop her own pre-emptive skills: how not to fall prey to populist power-mongering politics while maintaining her integrity and the kind of truthfulness which people recognise for what it is. From President Trump, she must already know that promises and intentions need to be thought through, and the right advisers sought out and trusted, before the promises are made.
SHE is very much about unity, which is perhaps her greatest strength. But the road back to unity, in confronting the seething hatreds and bitter divisions that one cannot help feeling lie just beneath the surface of everyday life, will be a hard one to travel for whoever wins the Democrat nomination, and, hopefully, the presidency.
The hardest task for President Trump’s successor — and people I met were willing and praying that there would be a successor sooner rather than later — will be to finish the work that Mr Obama began, while gaining or retaining the trust of disenchanted Republicans and Democrat voters alike.
Mrs Warren sees herself as a centrist. But before she can pick up where Mr Obama left off, she will need to help the nation address a fundamental question. It pertains to the political will of every single American voter: does the nation want to be healed of the ugly divisions and hatreds promulgated by President Trump? Is it willing to ignore the blandishments of politicians who offer short-term solutions (or no solutions at all) to very long-term problems, including, and perhaps especially, climate change? Is the nation prepared to relearn trust — not only in its leaders, but in one another as a free society?
In a sense, Mrs Warren’s task would be to restore the nation’s faith in freedom itself.
The Revd Dr Lorraine Cavanagh is a priest in the Church in Wales and the author of In Such Times: Reflections on living with fear (Wipf & Stock).