Critical Elections: An Exchange

In December 2017, about a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, high-school student Nicole Plummer came to me with some questions about critical elections and the 2016 election that brought Trump to power.  Our exchange highlights the role of retrospection in determining whether an election has been critical.  A critical election leaves the party system changed by reconfiguring party ideology in a lasting way.

Here, without further preamble, is my exchange with Miss Plummer.


Q: Can certain tell-tale signs be observed in the time leading up to a critical election?

A:  Typically, critical elections occur when the nation faces an underlying problem that the existing parties can’t admit to or solve.  The problem is big enough to influence all society and the nation’s future. In a critical election, the problem is not only admitted, but an approach to it is offered that the majority of people assent to in an enduring way.

Critical elections happen when people are bored with prevailing political ideas or ambivalent about what candidates are offering. So I imagine that if you looked back at periods before a critical election, you might find lackluster voter turnout, a rise in the percentage of unaffiliated voters, and perhaps also new splinter groups (which are trying to find the right formula for mobilizing the electorate in a new way).

During the campaign leading up to a critical election, one might observe the following: 1) appeals to previously neglected blocs of the electorate; 2) campaign planks (i.e.talking points or principles) that are truly new or innovative; 3) iconoclastic individuals, whether candidates or, in rare instances, their managers, espousing a new vision of society; 4) signs that the political ideas being promoted are being wholeheartedly adopted not just by a cadre of leaders but by a wider swath of society.

Remember that the concept of a critical election is something observers have made up to help differentiate among elections and distinguish their results. Many election cycles feature some of the characteristics above, but it ends up being a matter of degree.  For example, the Tea Party succeeded in bringing a new cadre of conservative opposition leaders into national politics during Obama’s presidency, but this faction failed to broaden its appeal to the extent needed to become a dominant party. Likewise, Bernie Sanders is iconoclastic and has articulated several goals new to mainstream politics, but so far he hasn’t converted all Democracy to his way of thought.

Q: Why are critical elections important for a functioning democratic society?

A:  Critical elections refresh the identification that should exist between leaders and the people. When a leader (or group of leaders) capable of mobilizing the political structure around new and more relevant ideas comes along, the populace benefits.  That’s because the dominant party will then mirror, and do all it can to meet, the American people’s needs and desires. What bothers many people about today’s Republican party is that its actions don’t correspond very well to the needs and concerns of the populace (who don’t want to see their insurance premiums go up or their health coverage disappear, for instance). Similarly, many Americans don’t care about the protection of union workers that is a hackneyed Democratic theme.

Q: Was one of the six critical elections that you identified more influential than the others?

A:  The election of 1860 prompted states to secede, triggered the Civil War, and put slavery on the path to extinction (which directly affected millions of enslaved people), so I would say that election had the most profound effect on America, both subsequently and on those who were alive at the time.

Q:  Are Democrats and Republicans here to stay? Will these two parties just keep evolving their policies or will they eventually give way to new groups based on changing ideologies in the U.S.?

A:  I don’t know. Ironically, it’s hard to say which of these parties is more messed up. The Republicans are in a state of inner crisis despite holding almost all the power. The Democrats have ideological unity but are  indifferent to the fact that millions of Americans find their message unpalatable.

The two major parties are not just vehicles for ideas; they are also bureaucracies that do not want to be extinguished.  In the 2016 election, both Trump and Sanders decided it was more to their advantage to work from within these structures rather than go out and find enough likeminded people to start an effective third party. To start a new party, one would have to assemble and coordinate a group of like-minded peers working to organize similar parties in a number of states.  Will Trump’s climb to the top of the Republican party actually change it into a more salient party, though?  It’s hard to say.

Q:  If you had to pick one almost critical election from U.S. history, what would it be? (i.e. an election that was monumental but didn’t quite meet the criteria)

A:  Barack Obama had the opportunity to change the Democratic party into something new in 2008 but failed to do so because his ties to the party establishment were too slight. He became president at too early an age–if he had stayed in the Senate longer, he would have ended up being a much more effective party leader.

Obama was a centrist looking to find a way beyond big New Deal-type governance.  His major achievement, creating universal access to health care, was significant in that it sought to benefit every American, not just those in need.  His presidency eschewed identity politics.  His second inauguration envisioned a nation that was republican, enlightened, and fully inclusive.

Q:  Do you believe that critical elections need to coincide with social, economic, or political upheaval?

A:  No, they bring change to the society afterward.  Critical elections often follow periods of staleness, stagnation, or cultural drift.

Q:  Why do you think reforming our parties is so difficult at this moment in political history?

A:  Historically, politicians did not have the “tools” of social science (polling, marketing techniques, etc.) so their sense of what would work with the electorate had to be more instinctive. They took up positions that were shaped by their direct knowledge of and intuition about the people.  Also, once in office, they were more confident in using the powers delegated to them, without needing to consult their constituents on every little thing. Trump and Sanders were both remarkable during the campaign, in that each had a few fervently held beliefs that they truly believed in, and that they held to despite what anyone else (e.g., the media) thought. They each were taking a risk that Hillary Clinton was incapable of taking. If you want to be a leader, you’ve got to lead, not just obey your constituents, your paid consultants, your political friends.

Q:  What is your opinion on how politics and campaigns are currently run? Was it better back in the “good-old-days” or has campaigning simply evolved with society to meet the needs and interests of the general populace? Is this evolution good or bad?

A:  The people have the power to effect change. When their will is aroused, change does occur. (Look at the drastic change that’s followed from the 2016 election.)  American politics swings back and forth like a pendulum. Critical elections occur when effective leaders channel the popular will into effective results.  When the right kinds of leaders come up, the reigning ideology changes in a “good way” and the political system becomes endowed with a positive (if also scary) new dynamism.

As recent partisan conflict testifies, the falling away of an old ideology and the birth of a new, widely supported one can take an excruciatingly long period of time.  In Lincoln’s time, escalating sectional tensions ate into the regnant parties for more than a decade before the iconoclastic anti-slavery party he was part of broke through.  Initially a “fringe movement” that recast its message to broaden its mainstream appeal, the Republican party scored an electoral victory that put Lincoln in power.

Q:  Does the 2016 election have the potential to become the 7th critical election? Is it too soon to tell?

A:  In a critical election, the character of the entire party changes in a lasting way.  Will Trump’s ideas really gain traction with establishment Republicans?  I have a feeling that many on Capitol Hill loathe the president and are just waiting him out.*  Some of Trump’s ideas—his concern about the quality of life for displaced and forgotten American workers and his understanding of how this issue is associated with immigration, domestic security, and the specter of our country’s hegemony giving way to that of China—define potent fears that other US leaders should countenance and address in a more palatable but still firm way.  We urgently need a slate of federal goals the whole nation can embrace—otherwise, society will keep deteriorating, and social goods we all prize will be lost.

* Liz Cheney’s ouster from her leadership role in the House yesterday confirms that 2016 was “critical” in that Donald Trump shattered the bland traditionalism of the Republican party, replacing it with a cult of personality.  Those who remain in the party in 2021 overwhelmingly support Trump and his dangerous lies.  His vicious character and indifference to the Constitution have driven away millions, weakening the party and forcing many of its former leaders out.  Where will this disaffected part of the polity go?  Will the coming year will see the birth of a constructive centrist party, perhaps under the leadership of the redoubtable Mitt Romney?

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The Second of Two Thoughts (Bernie Sanders and Turnout)

I watched Judy Woodruff interview Bernie Sanders on the PBS Newshour last night and saw something different in his demeanor.  His speech was just as direct as ever, just as ardent, but he was unusually composed and calm.  Maybe it was the heart attack that changed him, or maybe it has occurred to him, “I can win this thing.”

New public opinion polling shows Sanders’ popularity among likely Democratic voters beginning to exceed that of moderate front-runner Joe Biden.  In addition, Sanders is an unmatched powerhouse among Dems when it comes to fund-raising.  He is estimated to have raised $100 million in 2019, roughly forty million dollars more than Biden, and far surpassing even the enthusiastically backed Pete Buttigieg, who reportedly raised about $75 million last year.

After years of being a long-shot candidate, Bernie suddenly seems a lot more viable—even more mainstream.   His talking points haven’t changed, but the political atmosphere and the wishes of the American people have.  To a citizenry weary of the bizarre outbursts and imbroglios President Trump is so fond of, Sanders’ consistency and plain speech are almost soothing.  He comes across as an aging hippy uncle who has mellowed and acquired good manners over the decades by rubbing elbows with people of wildly different persuasions on Capitol Hill.  His views are reassuringly humane and, from his having repeated them over and over, no longer sound as crazy as they did at first.  He is a peacenik who believes that the US can figure out how to be fairer and deliver national health care and education more affordably.

His remarks on the Newshour zeroed in on the issue of voter turnout and political energy.  Sanders argues that he is the Democratic candidate best suited to oppose Trump because he’s most capable of energizing voters, especially young voters, and getting them to turn out.  “To beat Trump,” he was saying, “you’re going to need a massive  voter  turnout. And the only way you do that is through a campaign of energy, of excitement. You have got to bring working people. You have got to bring young people into the political process.”  In short, the nominee must inspire voters to get involved.

A crucial point.  Candidates’ varying ability to galvanize voters in the general election is a factor completely left to the side in primary polling.  A positive excitement, a charismatic appeal: precisely the ingredients missing in the Hillary debacle.  This time around, I hope to God Democrats will refrain from choosing a “meh” candidate who can’t rouse the electorate to go to the polls.  If the Dems make this mistake again—a mistake they have made innumerable times, as they did with Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and Hillary—Trump and the Republicans will almost certainly prevail.  Then a disappointed nation will be feeling the burn.

Bernie Sanders: Not Leading But Misleading

A dwarfed candidate slinks off as the world smirks at a campaign poster declaring him 'the people's choice.'

Yesterday, some two million Americans cast their votes for Bernie Sanders, in addition to the 10.5 million who had voted for him in earlier Democratic primaries.  But Hillary Clinton has simply out-polled him, garnering an estimated 13.5 million votes even prior to yesterday’s final set of state contests, the most populous of which (CA, NJ, and NM) she easily won.  In terms of  pledged delegates awarded on the basis of the primaries, Clinton won a total of 2,203 delegates, while Sanders racked up just 1,828.  Yet Sanders cannot bring himself to concede defeat: to acknowledge that she, rather than he, is ‘the people’s choice.’

All along, Hilary has had an advantage stemming from the fact that she enjoys the favor of many Democratic super-delegates, who do indeed wield an out-sized influence when it comes to determining the party’s presidential nominee.  The super-delegate system is a holdover from the days when party officials were entirely free to select at the convention any candidate on whom a majority of them could manage to agree.  Senator Sanders claims that this is undemocratic and unfair; but he would not make this claim if more of the party officials were inclined to favor him.

He is, in fact, exactly the kind of interloper whose self-interest is at odds with the communitarian nature of a political party, which requires internal discipline, compromise, and self-sacrifice, to remain ideologically coherent and unified.  Whereas Hillary Clinton has spent her entire career working within the network of the Democracy, Senator Sanders joined it only when he declared his candidacy, no doubt realizing that it would benefit him structurally.  But, having never given anything of himself to the party per se, he can hardly be surprised that its most influential members don’t feel they owe much consideration to him.

Sanders has little in common with his arch-rival, Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee.  Yet the two men are the same in failing to grasp the huge role that manners play in the presidency.  The president is the face of the nation, and sometimes that face is obliged to wear a gracious smile despite inward longings to sport a frown.  When, many months ago, I asked a friend her impressions of Sanders, she replied that he behaved as though he were still in college.  He does indeed resemble those intense young disciples we knew back then, with their no-frills backpacks and doctrinaire ideals.  Now in his 70s, Sanders has gained a fervent following, by feeding voters a vision that, without the support of a party, he would have no means of realizing, even if he were to rise to the presidency.

Ultimately, Sanders has deceived his followers, both by professing an imagined injury at the hands of Democracy and by perpetuating a fantastically exaggerated conception of presidential power.

Image:
‘The Day After: Licked, and the World Laughs at You’
(Puck Magazine),
from this source.