Why The Parties Don’t Die

  1. They are mature bureaucracies.
  2. Incumbency: the desire of those in power to remain in power.
  3. Monied interests support and reinforce the existing structure.
  4. The absence of good alternatives (no viable insurgent parties that look like winners).
  5. At the state level, hostile conditions, along with sheer lassitude, prevent new parties from forming.
  6. The specialized intellectuals (editors, ideologues, strategists) needed to create new parties have grown up with the existing parties and are loathe to abandon them.  Professional loyalty to party interests perpetuates their power.
  7. Candidates know it’s easier to get votes through one of the two major parties: this is what Trump and Sanders both discovered.  So grass-roots/breakaway movements that might formerly have chosen to build something new from the ground up are instead aspiring to rehab the old parties from within.  Both major parties are living off of the parasitic energy of actors who are cannibalizing them (e.g., the Tea Party, the current-day progressives).
  8. Parties used to coalesce around outstanding individuals and their ideas (e.g. Jacksonian democracy; “radical Republicans”) but this customary way of organizing politics, which was risky and instinctive, has been superseded by methods that are bureaucratic and “scientific.”  Dependence on a bureaucratic establishment tends to become a substitute for reliance on the public will.  The monolithic character of the Republican and Democratic establishments and their tendency to thwart political innovation has become an open target of frustration and rage on both the right and left (embodied in Trump and Ocasio-Cortez).
  9. The old parties, burdensome though they are, stabilize national politics.  Americans are accustomed to the order and the limited choices they provide.  So we resist acknowledging that we should abandon these parties.  The parties no longer harmonize sentiment: they no longer stand for a single set of non-negotiable goals.  Ideologically, both parties are fractured.  Their tents are so big, what they stand for is no longer clear to the people.  They struggle to exert discipline over their supposed standard-bearers.  Iconoclasts overwhelm them.  Nonetheless, they live on because politics without these parties would open up new realms of possibility, giving American both more to hope for—and more to fear.

A Stress Test for the Constitution

Soon after the election, a friend envisioned Trump’s presidency as “a stress test for the Constitution and all of its institutions.”  This is proving to be the case, for reasons that are both collective and peculiar to Trump and his administration.

Collectively, his presidency has halted, and aspires to reverse, the direction American government took under President Obama, a direction decried in some quarters but one charted in careful accordance with the law.  The Affordable Care Act, which some Republicans so revile, was nonetheless “ratified” after a protracted but open struggle by both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In other areas, President Obama’s use of executive power, though politically unwise, was legally defensible.  His approach to reducing carbon emissions, so hated and feared in some quarters, took shape only after a long period of public comment and after his legal team was certain the new guidelines could withstand a Constitutional challenge.  President Obama exercised discretion in whether and how to enforce immigration laws, but, as Richard Lugar, a former US Senator from Indiana, has observed, every president has done the same, since all have lacked the means to see that the laws on the books were fully enforced.  Lugar, a moderate who was one of Capitol Hill’s most influential Republicans before a member of his own party “primaried” him from the right, driving him from office, wrote in the New York Times that, given the howls of outrage over Obama’s immigration policies, one would never guess that his administration had “vastly exceeded the deportations under President George W. Bush,” just as Bush’s had vastly exceeded those of President Clinton.

President Obama sought to move the nation and the Democratic Party in a new direction, but he was not a party leader, and he did not wait for a bipartisan consensus that he knew was never coming to emerge.  In his second term, he focused increasingly on what he could do without Congress–but to the extent that his victories lacked Congress’s active assent they were unsustainable.  They were simply too far ahead of the collective political will.  In the meantime, Obama’s dogged pursuit of his own grand vision hid the senescence of the Democratic Party.

As the first person of color to occupy the presidency, Barack Obama symbolized the America we are fitfully becoming–a nation that is truly inclusive and color-blind.  As a symbol and agent of that change, he aroused a lot of resentment and fear, emotions that candidate Trump and some other Republicans inflamed to their benefit in the campaign.

The stunning political triumph of a charismatic outsider, the shattered GOP’s success at hanging on to power, and the dangerous eclipse of the Democratic party: these are the three huge interrelated events whose consequences are shaking the political community, from the nation’s most powerful institutions to its polarized citizenry, united only in its demand for responsible governance.

Image: “Save yourself”
@2017 Susan Barsy

Day 6: The Election Is in Play

Florida (aerial), © 2016 Susan Barsy

Political observation is partly instinct.  My instinct has begun to insist that Donald Trump will win the presidency.   Since Friday, the chance of his winning has been rising and now stands, according to FiveThirtyEight, at just above 30 percent.  Despite the flaws of political polling, the polls’ general direction is significant.  They’re showing a movement in favor of Mr. Trump, a decline in the number of states Secretary Clinton can count on, and a bulge in the number of states in the ‘toss-up’ column.  RealClearPolitics shows roughly the same pattern, with several crucial swing states now expected to go for Trump rather than Clinton, or too close to call.

The polls have probably always underestimated support for Mr. Trump, whom many respectable figures have been excoriating.  When I went to see my eye doctor last week, he mentioned the near-total absence of presidential yards signs around Chicago.  Whereas in most years, such signs proclaimed support for candidates openly, voters’ choices are more opaque in 2016.  Jake Novak of CNBC has argued that the same may be true of many polls: they may suffer from a systemic bias, caused by respondents refusing to participate out of a reluctance to admit support for a controversial candidate whose fortunes are down.

Meanwhile, articles out by Ryan Lizza and Thomas Frank identify the disillusionment that Hillary Clinton is battling.  James Comey’s announcement last week that the FBI would investigate a newly discovered cache of Clinton’s emails, found on the laptop of the disgraced husband of one of her top aides, added powerfully to the public’s gathering impression of misconduct, whether on the part of Clinton or of her circle.  This is freeing ambivalent voters from the obligation of voting for her as ‘the lesser of two evils.’  It will likely galvanize heavier voting on the Republican side.

The stock market has been declining markedly in advance of the election, and gold stocks have risen, moves suggesting that investors are bracing for a possible Trump win.

Image: Aerial of Florida, a key battleground state,
@ Susan Barsy