A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked several colleagues the following question: “What does it tell us about the state of political discourse, or, indeed, of the state of the country itself, when the largest issue of the week between the two officially nominated major candidates for the presidency of the United States is whether or not former Miss Universe gained too much weight?
It seemed the presidential campaign had hit rock bottom. Then, just when we all thought we had seen Trump do it all, he outdid himself and the videorecording was uncovered. Are there any apologists left for US politics?
Trump is a symptom. Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo, was right: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Political scientist Morris Fiorina’s observation about congressional elections applies as well to presidential elections: Candidates will avoid discussing real issues at any cost and will happily discuss red herrings instead because this avoids accountability and controversy. As H.L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Mencken could have left out the adjective “common.” The fact is, in the early 1970s, the American people called for so-called “reforms” to the electoral process in response to numerous events: 18 year olds could not vote, yet the country sent them off to Vietnam; In 1968 and 1972, neither party addressed the Vietnam war with any seriousness despite the protests of our young people; minority voting rights were still imperiled; Richard Nixon had been elected and had relied upon a small number of powerful, wealthy campaign supporters; Congress was controlled by an oligarchy of ageing, powerful committee chairs (most of whom happened to be conservative southern Democrats) that obstructed social and racial justice legislation. The list goes on.
So, what did we do? We “democratized” the political process by decentralizing its process of control. We passed campaign finance legislation that emasculated the party organizations. We replaced the traditional convention system of nomination with the direct primary. Congress replaced a small number of committee chairs with dozens of subcommittee fiefdoms.
The result? We suffer endless, increasingly costly primary and general election cycles; a proliferation of the number of candidates vying for the presidential nominations; an inability of the party organizations to control who represents them (so, characters such as David Duke and Donald Trump are able to hijack the nomination process); unbeatable congressional incumbents who are gerrymandered into office essentially for life; abysmal voter turnout; an, presidential election processes that become mired in discussions about how much weight Miss Venezuela put on…or worse.
Perhaps the best summary of this process and the mess it got us into is by Jonathan Rauch in the July/August Atlantic Monthly. In an outstanding piece called “How American Politics Went Insane,” Rauch documents the small-d democratization of our political system that led us to our current situation. In short, we destroyed the political middle-managers such as political party chairs who are necessary for good politics
Millennial critics might poo-poo this in favor of the mass, democratic models of politics embodied in the Occupy movements, the Arab Spring or, more recently, protests on college campuses. But, how effective were they? Such movements have proven to be better at dismantling political systems than building or repairing them.
There is no doubting the sense of justice and/or frustration that informed small-d democratic impulses running from the American reforms of the 1970s to the Arab Spring, contemporary campus protests and, perhaps, the Brexit revolt in the UK. But, absent strong, wise leaders, populist impulses can lead to disastrous, if not unintended consequences. Thus, the Brexiteers awoke to discover that they had won the referendum, but had no plan or strategy to implement the exit. Americans now suffer costly, unending election cycles that produce candidates with terrible approval ratings and governments that are unresponsive.
One shortcoming to Rauch’s analysis is that he offers little in the way of concrete suggestions for repairing American politics. In part, this is extraordinarily difficult because it is hard to advocate reforms that would be based on a call for less democracy. But, in reality, less democracy is what the U.S. political system is all about. This is a constitutional democracy. The people’s power—however final–was supposed to be attenuated.
Alas, the 9/11 attacks did not inspire us to improve our politics; nor did Hurricane Katrina. One wonders what sort of political disaster it will take. Is the 2016 election close enough to work?