How can the US improve on the way it selects a president? What process could the nation use to move toward a system that is more efficient, less disruptive, and that produces presidents of the highest caliber?
Personally, I would be in favor moving away from our current system, which essentially abdicates most of the decision-making to extra-constitutional bodies, a. k. a. the political parties. I would love to see a movement to increase our reliance on the electoral college. That is, let political delegates selected at the state level get together in the electoral college, consider a range of their favored candidates, and vote until one attains the Constitutionally mandated number of votes.
Over the centuries, Americans have moved farther and farther away from the nation’s original method of presidential selection. We have moved toward an ever greater reliance on the two major parties and on the results of direct votes in the primaries. The results on the Democratic and Republican side this time around have hardly been satisfactory. On the Republican side, the winner is a figure who has never held public office and will not command much influence with other national politicians. On the Democratic side, we have a more seasoned candidate who might well have been supplanted were it not for the machinations of the national party committee, which makes direct voting seem like a sham.
If the states’ citizens delegated this power to electors, could they not perform the work well on the public’s behalf, perhaps producing a better and more efficacious result?
Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has often promised that, if elected, he will recruit the very ‘best people’ to improve the federal government. To those who favor a smaller, smarter federal government, it’s an appealing idea. It also appeals because our need for ‘the best people’ to run the republic is old and enduring. Representative government is only as good as the people in it: if people of low character become prevalent, the quality of representation suffers and the power delegated to officials ends up being misused.
Yet Trump is in a poor position, politically and morally, to bring the best people to government. Politically, he has set himself up as an antagonist of the establishment. For more than a year, he has railed against the political class, not limiting his attacks to issues of policy, but assailing the character and achievements of many people who have painstakingly built up a reputation for public service. Remarkably, Trump has not confined his attacks to members of the opposite party. He has also insulted many within the GOP, his own adopted party, which could normally be expected to supply talent for a Republican administration. Serving in a Trump administration would be politically risky. Many leading Republicans, in and out of government, have openly repudiated him, leaving one to imagine a Cabinet populated by hangers-on like Chris Christie, Trump’s own children, or his loyal lieutenant Kellyanne Conway.
It’s difficult to recruit ‘the best people’ without belonging to the best class oneself. Here Trump’s cratering social reputation will be felt. Last week, the media’s focus shifted from the implications of Trump’s political positions to his personal conduct and mores. Allegations of his sexual misconduct are multiplying, sparked by a leaked tape in which Trump boasted of his indecent behavior toward women in lewd and contemptuous terms. Whatever claim Trump had to personal decency has been destroyed. Respectable people are censuring him loudly.
The issue of social integrity is distinct from the issue of Trump’s politics. Who would care to sit next to him at a dinner party? Who would feel honored to shake his hand? Until lately a popular celebrity, Trump’s own words have supplied grounds for branding him a pariah. Were he to win in November, he would make a poor figurehead for a country whose creed is the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights.
To summarize: Trump arouses political and moral aversion in people who might otherwise be his supporters and colleagues. The aversion is not just to Trump’s views but to his very personality. Yes, Trump’s tactics and policies arouse aversion, but so do Ted Cruz’s. Cruz, though, combines political iconoclasm with some personal probity. In this, he resembles the antebellum radical John Calhoun, whose ultra pro-slavery views combined with a cold rectitude and formality that impressed even his political enemies. How different is Donald J. Trump, whose claims to social respectability are evaporating.
Were voters to catapult Trump to the top of the government, it’s difficult to imagine his improving on the caliber of the talent it attracts. How many able, forward-looking people of good character would decide that serving Trump is something worth doing? Shunned by the ‘best people,’ President Trump could find it tough to deliver on the promise of better government.
Today the signs of institutional chaos within the Republican Party are growing. The fragmentation of the party is more open and unscripted. The party is being called on to dump its nominee, which would be unprecedented. It appears more certain that Trump will lose the election. Afterward, the GOP itself is more likely to break apart than to survive.
The immediate precipitant is an ‘October surprise’: nasty footage capturing Trump boasting of his crude sexual behavior back in 2005. The tape is causing a flap, outraging a whole new constituency of people who were not openly speaking out against Trump before. Many GOP candidates and voters are suddenly loudly denouncing Trump, demanding that he quit the race or be forced out by the RNC.
Moreover, I agree with this darkly compelling article by Rick Wilson that the troubles of Republicans in Congress are just beginning. The constituency that catapulted Trump to the nomination and continues to back him in the general campaign is fundamentally anti-establishment and will not mesh with either the Party’s conservative or moderate wing. The support flowing into the GOP presidential race is thus a force antithetical to the success and cohesion of the GOP in Congress.
Leading Republicans, whether moderates like the Bushes or conservatives like Ben Sasse, know they cannot cooperate with Trump without his damaging them. Were Trump to be elected, the ideological divisions among Republicans in Washington would be unlike anything modern Americans have ever seen. (The closest parallel might be the ‘accidental presidency’ of Tyler back in the 1840s, or the dark-horse ascendancy of his successor James Polk.)
Given that figures like Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and Ted Cruz have been badly damaged by attempting to work with their party’s ostensible standard-bearer, other GOP leaders are bound to begin strategizing about how to keep their distance and distinguish their branch of Republicanism from Trump’s. I would not be surprised to see the party break into three.
The painfully long GOP primary season reached its climax Tuesday, as real-estate mogul Donald Trump secured a victory in Indiana that scuttled his two remaining opponents and all but gave him the presidential nomination. In recent contests, Trump has scored lopsided victories, finding support in suffering areas of the Rust Belt, as well as among the residents of northern cities and coastal states. In New York and Pennsylvania, for example, Trump carried every county except his own Manhattan Borough.
Trump’s emergence as a political force is engendering widespread irritation and dismay, even alarm. Trump has a vicious streak; he is not a gentleman. He affronts the Republican establishment by upending their principles; he affronts everyone else by eschewing the etiquette of statesmanship. At rallies, he turns on the crowd by stoking base tendencies, insinuating that it’s okay to be violent; it’s okay to hate. In a stagnant political moment, Trump promises radical and stark action on middle-American issues. On policy, he’s cagey. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to separate the message from the man. He’s driving a stake through the heart of the parties and feeding on identity politics’ innards, horrifying every decorous conservative and liberal. Donald Trump is free speech at its worst.
Last night, CNN’s large panel of political experts squirmed in their chairs, their very skirts and suits discomfited as they contemplated the magnitude of Donald Trump’s triumph over a field that once included 17 talented and determined rivals. This morning, the New York Times ran an editorial, ‘GOP Steps Deeper Into Darkness,’ essentially skirting the dilemma of millions of voters and lamenting that ‘Instead of rejecting what Trump stands for, the Republican Party is falling in line behind his nomination.’ Meanwhile, Donald Trump subliminally responds, “It’s the economy, stupid,” in every one of his victory speeches. In truth, we have no way of knowing what part of his crowd is evil and what part is wise.
Beating Trump will depend on honing in on the part of his message that’s constructive and co-opting it. Trump is unique in his focus on the downside of unbounded global capitalism. He’s winning because of his prescriptions for the American economy, prescriptions unpalatable to an upper-class establishment that shrugs off evidence of declining US prestige and lower-class suffering. Trump is winning because he has a consistent perspective on a few key issues, expressed in a compellingly urgent way. He’s winning because the complacency that has allowed our infrastructure to decline and industries to decay must end.
Trump is rising despite lacking the virtue that republican government requires. His election would further dim the light of American ideals. If only Trump’s opponents were equally gutsy in acknowledging and promising to redress the nation’s ills. Ultimately, their failure is why Trump wins.
Have you heard of this? Americans Elect is an online method for nominating and electing a president without the aid of a party. It’s an intriguing if problematic experiment that’s gotten a lot of press this election season. Thomas L Friedman praised it as a well thought-out initiative that could demolish our “two-party duopoly.” As late as last week, an enthusiastic Douglas Schoen of The Daily Beast proclaimed “it’s not too late” for Americans Elect to produce November’s winning ticket. (Wikipedia identifies Mr Schoen as a paid consultant for AE.) Supporters expect AE’s momentum to build in the next few months, as the remaining Republican candidates are winnowed.
The idea of Americans Elect is so seductive. Just visit its website: it’s as simple and pristine as a new Apple computer. With its childlike graphics and cheery colors, it makes politics seem so uncomplicated and straightforward. You will be walked through the steps of political participation. All you need to do is supply your email address (every trust relationship begins with that these days), check a few boxes regarding your political values, fill in the blanks regarding your favorite candidates, and—wah-la!—you have circumvented everything you loathe about the parties and pushed the country one step toward a brighter future. Or have you?
The premise of Americans Elect is that “the voice” of “the people” is being distorted and disregarded, and that the nation will be better off if we eliminate all political intermediaries. Americans Elect aspires to get rid of parties (which it pictures as impeding the rise of the best leaders) by crowd-sourcing the nominating process and the (snakier) task of platform-building. Leave behind the mess of face-to-face politicking! We can achieve a better outcome impersonally, with the aid of quantification and the newest technology. This is the gist of Americans Elect’s appeal.
To my mind, AE’s fails to identify our system’s real demons. We do not need “more democracy.” I’m not sure we even need better leaders. We do need better ideas and a reining-in of excesses in the way political candidates and partisans campaign. In the meantime, Americans Elect is a legitimate expression of frustration: a way for voters to threaten the security of the Democratic and Republican Parties, which have turned into such behemoths that it’s hard to imagine how to supplant them or get them to change. The difficulties of creating a competitive new national party are daunting. It could be done, but it hasn’t—not for the last 150 years.
Nonetheless, isn’t building that party better than embracing the alternative Americans Elect is offering, which is to elect a president dependent on—nobody? Whose only debt is to the electorate, considered abstractly? Parties constrain the executive by placing him or her under obligation to a brokering community. Historically, presidents have been constrained—in a good way—by a large community of peers, who are party statesmen. Americans Elect aims to create an executive untrammeled by any such obligation. “Pick a president, not a party,” its slogan proclaims. This atomized notion of leadership would make the Founding Fathers, who were all members of the political elites of their states, turn in their graves.
Will AE be the wild card of 2012? And what kind of ticket will it field? Despite its non-partisan stance (apolitical, really), Americans Elect must itself become a party or fail. Even as it effects a technological end-run around this eventuality, outside forces require its transformation from the virtual to the real. The process has begun already. The organization has been engaged in a massive signature drive (using paid organizers) so that, once its presidential ticket has been selected, its choice will appear on ballots nationwide. Meanwhile, questions regarding AE’s personnel, financing, field operations, organizational status, and lack of transparency are swirling. No matter how they are resolved, this intriguing experiment forces us to think again about why we need parties and the work we count on the parties to do.