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“radical Republicans”) but this customary way of organizing politics, which was risky and instinctive, has been superseded by methods that are bureaucratic and “scientific.”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

Day 7: Yes, It’s Scary, But Is It a Critical Election?

stereopticon image of a crowd gathered around a train to hear Roosevelt speak.

For all its drama and dismay, the election of 2016 might not end up being a ‘critical election,’ in the sense of marking a permanent change in the makeup or ideology of one or both of the parties. Whether the election ends up producing such change depends on which presidential candidate wins and how his or her party establishment behaves afterward.

If Hillary Clinton wins, her victory will mainly mark a continuation of the Obama years and of the centrism that has prevailed among Democrats since Bill Clinton’s presidency.  Secretary Clinton adopted a progressive platform at the time of the 2016 Democratic convention to placate Sanders’ supporters, but the Democratic establishment in general has given few signs of having adopted a dramatically new constellation of ideas. Instead, the tenor of the campaign on the Democratic side has been defensive, couched in terms of defending past accomplishments and promising to advance along the established lines.

If Donald Trump wins, it remains to be seen whether his victory translates into a broad and permanent change in the philosophy and direction of the GOP.  There is no question of 2016 being a critical election if Trump succeeds in getting his party to move in the direction he is charting: if he succeeds in associating Republicanism with a more inward-looking, pro-citizen, and anti-global ideology. In order to do this, Republicans would have to renounce their history of support for big business, which is now typically a transnational enterprise. Republicans would have to take the lead on reforming trade, recasting themselves as protectors of American workers and American industry. Hawkish Republicans would have to get in touch with their isolationist side. And the issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives would likely take a back seat to those having to do with the economy.

In most cases, a critical election is the culmination of broad and concerted changes already occurring within a political party, often in connection with the emergence of a charismatic standard-bearer. In 1860, for instance, Abraham Lincoln’s election was merely the capstone of a decades-long effort to incorporate anti-slavery into a broader platform of economic empowerment that would appeal to mainstream voters (who were white).  In 1828, Andrew Jackson’s election signaled the emergence of a new kind of party that combined a desire for retrenchment and austerity with an unwavering democratic appeal.  And, in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s election signified the arrival of a new kind of economic philosophy (henceforth known as ‘Reaganomics’), along with a newly potent faith-based conservatism intent on bucking certain types of modern secular change.

Trump is an outsider whose ideas the GOP mainstream has not embraced.  If he is elected, it’s unclear whether, or to what extent, other leading Republicans would feel pressed take up his agenda and ideas. Republicans in the House and Senate could act in contradistinction to him.  Were this to happen, the GOP as a whole would continue in a state of fragmentation and confusion.  Governmental paralysis, rather than lasting partisan transformation, would be the result.

Image: From this source

Political change

Walk the walk (DNC 2016) screenshot by Susan Barsy
A return to ‘normalcy’ after the US presidential election is unlikely.  Many of us are tired of the campaign, tired of the endless opining, poll numbers, and tweets.  Tired of the candidates and the unpleasant prospects they embody, we long for the closure of election day.  Election Day!  What then?

Underneath the candidates is an undeniable weakness in both parties.  Over a hundred GOP leaders have said they will not support their party’s nominee.  Yet Mr Trump was chosen through a much-contested primary, in which voters failed to coalesce around any of Mr Trump’s numerous challengers, rejecting both moderates and conservatives.  Moreover, disgruntled Republicans subsequently failed to rally around an alternative, despite a protracted explicit attempt that Mitt Romney led.  Leading Republicans know what they’re against.  But what are they for?

The Republican problem isn’t a lack of talent.  It is a lack of a unifying, majoritarian ideology.  This is why disaffected Republicans have proved unable to bolt (as they did, for example, in 1912, when the Progressives, disaffected with President Taft, broke away to support Teddy Roosevelt’s effort to retake the presidency).  Republicans as a group don’t agree on what they stand for, having honed their identity as the party of ‘no.’  Should leaders who can’t govern their party govern the country?  I don’t think so.

Less remarked on is the disturbing weakness of the Democratic party.  In an election cycle playing out as an epic battle of personality, the idea that the Democrats are just as beleaguered as the Republicans is inadmissible.  Yet the Democrats are arguably as benighted.  They bank too much on identity politics, while relying on a concept of the role of government that has scarcely been updated since the 1960s.

Besides the staleness of their ideology, Democrats are turning people off with their record of poor governance in some cities and states.  Here in Chicago, corruption and egregious mismanagement are synonymous with Democratic rule.  I personally have grown disaffected with the state’s Democrats, who as a group have not come out in favor of reform and government efficiency.

At the national level, Democratic leaders like Donna Brazile want citizens to think that the practices of the DNC and the Clinton Foundation are nothing to be concerned about; yet this is the very attitude that voters find unacceptable and disillusioning.  Who believes that, if elected, Hillary Clinton would ‘run a tight ship’?  The Obama Administration has been a model of probity; but a Hillary Clinton White House?  Hardly.

Besides winking at corruption and coasting along on a raft of outdated and expensive ideas, the Democrats suffer from a striking dearth of junior leadership and grass-roots organization.  When will their next generation of leaders appear?  It’s appalling to consider that Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Rahm Emanuel were, until lately, their brightest stars.  The most admirable and powerful figures in the party are all senior citizens, which augurs well from the point of view of experience but augurs a bumpy leaderless period ahead.

Thus, despite the all-but-extinguished condition of the Republican party, it is doubtful whether the Democrats will win control of the Senate, let alone the House.

The systematic weaknesses plaguing both major parties indicate that the nation is heading into, but scarcely concluding, a period of partisan re-alignment.  The ugly factionalism that is so distressing for citizens to witness and that poses a grave threat to stable federal governance is likely to continue for some time.  When major parties die, it can take a while.  In the short-term, the parties’ problems will cause widespread anxiety and confusion.  Ultimately, reorganization awaits the emergence of clean new leaders with viable modern ideas.

Image: “Walk the Walk” (DNC 2016).
Screenshot by Susan Barsy.

Note: this post has been modified from its original version.