In an airport bookshop, prior to a flight, I bought a copy of a book by P.J. O’Rourke, entitled “How the Hell Did This Happen?” It is a very funny laugh-out-loud book about the 2016 national election. He starts with a paraphrase of the Preamble to the Constitution:
“We the people of the United States, in order to dissolve what unity we have, establish injustice, insure domestic idiocy, provide for the common offence, promote the general despair, and secure enmity toward ourselves by our posterity, do ordain and establish this obnoxious political spectacle, the election of 2016”.
It is remarkable how close to fulfilling his words the last national election would come.
What does this say about the state of our national politics? To me, it says several things. First, the two national parties are unable to field candidates for the Presidency that are exceptionally competent, that want to represent a maximum number of citizens (rather than just their core supporters), and that can provide leadership to a great nation that is in danger of going adrift.
How has this come about, and how likely is it to continue? Can it reverse itself without outside impetus? I believe the inability to field the right candidate has come about because the experienced party elders have lost control of the nominating procedure. Primaries and caucuses have made the national convention a symbolic rubber stamp. Those primaries and caucuses are dominated by the party activists, who, almost by definition, are the folks at the left end of the Democratic party or the right end of the Republican. People are passionate at the extremes, moderate at the middle. Most people over the age of 40 remember that communism and socialism don’t work well for people, and many understand that the nanny state and over-regulation has its ill effects. And most people over 40 realize that laissez-faire capitalism has its drawbacks, too, and that isolation and prejudice aren’t good ideas either.
It is easy for a Progressive Democrat to revile a Mike Huckabee or a Newt Gingrich, just as it is for a Tea Party Republican to revile a Nancy Pelosi or a Bernie Sanders. In the smoke-filled rooms in days of yore, the party elders chose a candidate who they thought could win, which always meant not only inspiring the faithful to vote, but also attracting a majority of the independent, swing voters, who are typically in the middle. For better or for worse, those days are gone forever.
This condition is likely to continue, mainly because of the influence of the media, especially the new media. It is now possible to absorb news, and opinion cloaked as news, 24 hours a day, from sources who will only echo what a person already believes. Whether it is Fox News or MSNBC, Huffington Post or the Drudge Report, more and more people refuse to listen to the other side of a debate. And universities are amplifying this tendency, with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and selective outside speaker policies. It is far easier to “sell newspapers” (remember them?) by highlighting a contest of wills, a competitive winner-take-all contest, than it is by urging compromise, looking for ways of bridging differences. And the media is in the business of “selling newspapers”. The more combative and extreme candidates will thus get the free PR.
Can the current state of affairs be altered to a better position? I think it can only be done by the establishment of a third party, one that represents the large number of Americans who are politically in the center-left, absolute center, and center-right. Third party Presidential candidates who emerge in election year create a party as an after-thought, and always fail. Only by forming a party that takes the long view, one of building membership, grass roots support, and financing will the movement have some permanence. Only a party that fields winning candidates in state legislatures, the House, the Senate, and governors’ mansions, will find it possible to field a viable Presidential third party candidate. Think 2024. Remember, the newly created Republican Party was in existence for 7 years before it nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency. On the way, as third party candidates for lesser office win elections, the two mainstream parties will understand they have to listen to this voice, or die themselves. Four to six senators can have enormous leverage on the Senate, as 100 senators are usually closely divided, but they will only have that leverage if they are of one party, speak and vote with one voice.
Who can do this? If not us, the ordinary people of this nation, it will not get done.