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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?
If you want to understand what’s going on in American politics, look around the world. Whether we Americans like it or not, American exceptionalism is and always has been a myth. The country is subject to the same forces that shape the world. It is just that, throughout out our history, geography, economics and wealth have protected us.
No more. Technology has overcome geography. Financial crises that begin in Thailand end up destroying our real estate markets. The Occupy Wall Street movement and the occupation of public lands in Oregon are echoes of the Arab Spring. The nation is wealthy, but not as wealthy as it was when, in the mid-20th century, much of the nonwestern world lived in relatively desperate conditions. Now, the wealth in Asia and the Middle East rivals that in the west.
Global politics has changed. The wave of change that began with the fall of the Berlin wall now manifests itself around the world as the far right and the far left challenge politics as usual.
We saw this in the Spanish election of 2015. For decades, Spain was the poster child of democratic transitions. It seemed to prove that a nation could escape the oppression of a Francoist right wing dictatorship and transform into a modern, liberal polity. Of course, it helped that Spain was located on the western frontier of the European Union. Spain wanted access to Europe’s markets and vice versa.
It is easy to transform peacefully amidst wealth.
But, 40 years after Franco’s death, Spain experienced an electoral earthquake. New, populist parties on the right and the left arose and destroyed the center-right Popular Party and the Center-Left Socialists. Podemos (“we can”) challenged the Socialists’ antiquated notions of European welfare and the Citizens’ Party expressed impatience with the Center-Right’s inability to challenge the increasingly antiquated Socialists. So, the young rose up on the right and the left and challenged the comfortable centrist status quo that their political parents and grandparents had created.
In the United States, we feel the repercussions of this same impatience with politics as usual. Trump is succeeding because his many GOP rivals will not yield in favor of a stronger, party organization that has lacked a coherent ideology since Ronald Reagan challenged the Soviet Union. The GOP rivals are playing a dangerous game of chicken in which, it is clear, no one is likely to swerve. The most likely result will be a brokered convention.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders embodies the anger of the Occupy Movement and the youth who have no loyalty to the Democratic Party status quo. Sanders’ undoing will be that he must challenge the Clinton political machine. Whereas Trump can play a cautious game in which he seeks only to ensure a brokered political convention (a virtual certainty as long as he has double-digit rivals), Bernie must look to defeat Hillary Clinton one-on-one. That is unlikely to happen so long as she has Bill Clinton campaigning for her.
What will come of this election? It will not be the revolution that Bernie Sanders seeks. But, we can expect that the GOP will seize this opportunity to reform its nomination process and the political party structure. Presidential candidates must endure a lengthy, expensive nomination process that was designed in response to Richard Nixon’s campaigns. Reacting to his reliance on great sums of money and insider politics, the Democrats opened up their presidential primaries to let the people chose their nominee. The process as designed to ensure that virtually anyone could run for president and win.
As we see in 2016, anyone can and does run. “Anyone” was supposed to be a peanut farmer from Georgia who is able to challenge the political party establishment by taking principled stands and running as an outsider. As we see in 2016 (and saw in 2012), “Anyone” includes the wealthy as well as the commoners. The result is a GOP that has not had a coherent, central ideology (try to triangulate Sarah Palin, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump) and a Democratic Party that is torn between a weakened, wishy-washy middle and an angry populist left wing.
The reforms of the 1970s have begotten unbeatable, gerrymandered incumbents, skyrocketing election costs, political parties with no ideological core, and presidential candidates who struggle to govern alongside an entrenched Congress. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump may not be the ideal presidential candidates for their parties or the United States. But, they manifest the deep-seeded discontent that the people have for their political system. Sanders may not win. The best Trump can hope for is to force a brokered convention at which he will not win.
The result will be a move towards stronger, more ideologically coherent political parties that guard their nominations from pillaging by outsiders such as Trump and Palin. We will not return to the smoke-filled rooms of yore. But, not just anyone will be able to hijack the nomination process and leave the people with a choice among candidates that really represent neither political party.
The 2016 election will go down in history as a watershed election that brought the political revolutions from across the globe into U.S. Politics. It’s impact will be felt far into the 21st century.