“Politicians fascinate because they constitute such a paradox — they are an elite that accomplishes mediocrity for the public good.”
The American experiment in self-governance was brilliantly innovative in its own time. It may rightly be argued that no subsequent political achievements can compare with this application of democracy to a vast nation populated largely by the former subjects of monarchs. Yet it is hardly right to argue that there have been no worthwhile innovations in politics since the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written. After all, if that were true then the most liberated of modern societies would still limit voting to male landowners conforming to a particular racial profile.
While our nation has generally moved forward politically, it could be said that Presidential elections have seen more than a little retrograde movement through the years. Originally the President of the United States was selected by an arcane process with each state utilizing its own methods of selecting delegates to the Electoral College. In some instances these delegates were appointed by state governments. Generations of increasingly populist politics in America led to selection of the President through a modified popular vote. At this point the Electoral College still has some influence, effectively amplifying the votes of citizens in lightly populated states.
Even so, the state by state nature of effective campaigning is an increasingly subtle overlay to the broader challenge of rallying (or in less ethical circles, undermining) popular support. Given a quick simple look, the idea that the President is elected by single nationwide popular vote seems like it would be a good thing in efforts to translate the will of the people into the policies of the nation. Perhaps generally speaking that actually is the case. In the American particular, this mechanism of democracy seems to function poorly.
There is no accounting for the full extent of the forces that suppress outsider challenges to the political establishment in the United States. Yet the popular nature of Presidential elections is clearly one of those forces. If those races involved many well-known candidates, each supported by a thriving national party, the process could only unfold as a contest of ideas. In order for the politics of personal destruction to be effective, practitioners must work in races where discrediting one contender translates directly into increased success for another. In a contest of many factions, underhanded attacks are more likely to backfire and much less likely to generate victory.
This does not explain how most of these elections are reduced to a de facto binary choice, but it does explain why educated professionals ostensibly dedicated to a life of public service are so hostile to letting the public be served by a diverse marketplace of political ideas. Barriers to outsider challenges have been mounting from the time of Adams and Jefferson. For the entire span of my life they have been so intense that only billionaires intent on running self-financed campaigns are not automatically given the dark horse label.
Unfortunately, the contest to determine a nation’s leader invariably dominates political discussion. Voter participation and public interest are both heightened as compared to other federal elections, never mind state and local politics. Many other democracies, framed by younger documents than our Constitution, employ procedures that encourage challenges to the political establishment. In parliamentary democracies, it is often the case that there is no majority party. Executive leadership follows from the formation of a multiparty coalition. Even where majorities emerge, they cannot easily marginalize other groups capable of getting candidates elected into legislative bodies.
Some think that the role of the America’s strong executive results in “stronger” national leadership. It is true that the result is less restraint on the exercise of Presidential power. Yet can this really be described as “stronger?” Was Winston Churchill a wimp for needing the support of the House of Commons to maintain his position? Is George W. Bush a more effective leader because extraordinary action in both chambers of our federal legislature is required to remove him from office? Perhaps more limits on the power of an office do not insure less flawed humans will be drawn to it, but fewer limits provide no guarantee of excellence either.
In a society where outsiders are systematically marginalized by organizations in firm control of government institutions, public unrest often fails to produce influential results. In 2004 who were Americans to vote for if they sought a real solution to the problem of limited access to health care? In 2000 who were Americans to vote for if they wanted to link free trade initiatives with fair trade issues? Whenever was there a viable Presidential candidate Americans could vote for in order to replace the War on Drugs with sensible responses to the public health problems posed by drug use?
Retirement security, prison overcrowding, unconditional funding of the Israeli Defense Force — these are just a few of the issues never explored in the most influential arenas of American political debate because Democrats and Republicans are essentially of one mind when it comes to many subjects. Howard Dean aptly focused on this problem when he spoke of “God, gays, and guns” as the only areas of real clash between the two entrenched parties. He expressed a longing to see more discussion of bread and butter issues rarely made prominent by Presidential politics. Not long after this longing started to gain popular resonance, a lone non-verbal utterance became the pretext to sideline the outgoing Governor of Vermont.
In an ideal America, deep concern about a particular issue would translate into greater national attention paid to that issue. Advocacy groups and outsider political parties could concentrate on the realistic goal of claiming a few legislative seats. This concern would then be given much more effective voice on the national stage. In the absence of a majority party government, effective leadership would require outreach to some of these issue-oriented groups in order to build a coalition. The end result is better politics (incumbents face greater challenges to holding office, negative campaigning is much less likely to produce a win, and civic discourse focuses much more keenly on matters of governance) and better policies (bad ideas face much stronger resistance, proposals are evaluated from more diverse perspectives, and greater levels of expertise are applied to pressing issues.)
It is an old military truism that, “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had.” To some degree it is also the case that Americans must go to the polls with the political system we have, not the political system we wish we had. Yet going to the polls is, save for an elite group of insiders, a citizen’s only way to have a direct influence on possible changes to that system. Even in the early 21st century, when differences between Democrats and Republicans are especially pronounced, similarities remain strong. A vote for a candidate from either party is, like it or not, also an endorsement of the vast array of positions upheld by the bipartisan oligarchy.
Even more than sporting events, national elections tend to have unpredictable outcomes. It is understandable that an informed citizen in a closely contested state might choose “the lesser of two evils” over the endorsement of an outsider candidate with an agenda that is not generally evil. Yet I am inclined to believe this behavior fails to be ethical even if it is understandable.
A system so obviously and extremely dysfunctional finds its false justification renewed by every surge in support for mainstream candidates. It also finds its false justification challenged by every surge in support for third party candidates. Perhaps in this cycle, or even in this lifetime, you do not see an outsider mounting a successful Presidential challenge to the establishment. Does that warrant giving the establishment the strongest form of support private citizens can convey? Widespread belief in the validity of that thinking paints of picture of America not as a pluralist democracy, but as a schizophrenic autocracy. Can any earnest patriot knowingly further our national march down that dark path?