Our Broken Polity, and How To Fix It

As we stagger toward the finish line of one of the most dismaying election campaigns in American political history, one thing is clear: that our political system as it now stands is broken.

As we stagger toward the finish line of one of the most dismaying election campaigns in American political history, one thing is clear: that our political system as it now stands is broken. We reached for the machinery of democracy, and what it gave us was, to use the adjective-turned-noun of one of the contenders for president, the most deplorable candidates ever put up for the job. We are invited to choose between an inveterate liar who turned the U. S. Department of State into a cash-and-carry store, and a pompadoured buffoon who can’t even be called a liar because he seems so blithely unaware of contradicting himself on an almost daily basis. A crook or a clown: sweet dreams, USA.

We should consider first how we got here. The American electorate in 2016, across the political spectrum, was in all-but armed revolt against the elites which had betrayed them. In some cases, the revolt was in fact armed: in the seizure and occupation of federal lands by gun-toting ranchers, and in the snipers who have begun to retaliate against unchecked police violence in their communities. Meanwhile, the slow-burning fuse under the eviscerated working and middle classes exploded into a populist revolt against the two dominant political parties that, nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, have arrogated to themselves the right to determine those presented to fill our public offices from dogcatcher to president. Bernie Sanders, who would in fact almost certainly have defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination but for a primary process stacked against him and a corporate media that trivialized where it did not ignore him, was a political independent who had spent a thirty-five-year political career outside any party (though he had latterly caucused with Democrats in the U. S. Senate). Donald Trump, who did win the Republican nomination to the consternation of party bosses, was a rogue figure who seems to have gravitated toward the GOP chiefly because the Clintons had apparently sewn up the other party’s ticket. He prevailed because he shrewdly recognized the incipient rebellion of erstwhile Reagan Democrats infuriated by the exodus of their jobs under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

A campaign that had pitted Sanders against Trump would have been a revolutionary event indeed, and it was precisely the event voters wanted. It wasn’t that both men represented the best our politics offered, although in Sanders’ case this was probably true. It was that they were both perceived as populist insurgents, and therefore as hammers to smash the establishments of both parties against the wall.

Épater le bourgeoisie—“Destroy the Bourgeoisie”: This old nineteenth-century socialist slogan, if applied to the careerists and professionals of both political parties, now reflects the deep-settled mood of the American public. For years, the hacks of both parties have run for office by promising to clean out the Augean stables of Washington. This year it hasn’t worked; now you have to campaign not against a vaguely defined Establishment but against your party itself. That is precisely what Donald Trump has done: his whole campaign has been a running battle with the Republican Party he nominally leads, and that battle is the basis of his support with his hardcore loyalists. Trump, they think, can be trusted, because he hates the same people they do. In this, in fact, they are not entirely wrong.

Trump will probably leave the Republican Party in tatters—win or lose. The Democrats, though, are experiencing a similar if not as visible a crisis. A Clinton presidency will divide the party, very likely as it was divided in 1968 but this time with possibly even more lasting results. Both Sanders and his Massachusetts colleague, Elizabeth Warren, have promised to hold Clinton’s feet to the fire if she fails to implement the reforms promised in the Democratic Party platform, rewritten as a sop of the left. This will get them nowhere, of course, since platforms are written to be ignored, and Clinton would be spending her time begging favors from the right while not indulging the already-hawkish instincts that have promised us an expansion of our Middle Eastern wars and the worst confrontation with Russia in decades. The question is whether Sanders and/or Warren would then do what a defeated Donald Trump would almost certainly do, namely form a new political movement if not party. If they do not, it may well be that other, younger leaders will arise to do so.

Perhaps the moment is ripe for what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction. The particular objects of destruction would be the two major political parties as they now stand, for if anything has been made clear in the present election it is that neither of them under present management is capable of addressing the major questions before our society: rapidly advancing climate change; an economic system manipulated by megacorporations and banksters and fueled by deliberate cycles of boom and bust; an existential and not merely an economic crisis of labor in which the very concept of work is at stake; a divestment in infrastructure that has left our shockingly obsolescent energy and transportation grids vulnerable to extreme weather events, terrorist threat, and even the hazards of ordinary operation; political and media systems that disenfranchise the public; unaccountable technocracies given free rein to tamper with our air, our water, our food, and, in short order, our genetic codes as well. Democracy is a messy system at best, but when it is run s badly as this, all bets must be off.

Early modern governments distrusted organized parties as “factions,” but they have become the operating system of all states in which even the pretense of representative government is kept up. It is hard to imagine an alternative, at least in mass societies. The problem with two-party duopolies is that they tend to converge and offer, ultimately, no choice at all; the problem with multiparty systems is that they result in polarization as well as diversity. If we are going to get two parties that represent anything but the deepest pockets of those who fund them, then, insofar as they represent electoral mechanisms, we must begin by taking social control of them. That begins with public funding of elections. The most important—and the only heartening—result of the 2016 campaign was Bernie Sanders’ demonstration that a national political campaign could be crowd-funded with no corporate or institutional monies. Up to that point, the general assumption had been that no politician could run for office without selling his soul. That the Sanders campaign was scuttled in the end did not disprove the point: that the people can field their own candidate when they want to.

Of course, they shouldn’t have to, and even Sanders supporters had to have some spare change to give—not everyone does. Politics should not be an auction, and political parties should be treated as public utilities rather than private entities. Electoral campaigns should be limited to a few weeks, and political advertising should be barred.

That’s only a beginning, of course. The Electoral College should be retired forthwith. It has not only resulted in the election of several presidents outpolled by their rivals, most recently in 2000, but has bizarrely distorted the political landscape. Candidates now focus exclusively on a few battleground states whose voters and the interests ascribed to them are endlessly pandered to, the vast majority of the country being treated as essentially disenfranchised. Effectively, a Florida or a Pennsylvania voter will have ten times the voting power of a New York or a California one, simply because the electoral votes of the former two states are in play and those of the latter two are not. This is absurd.

Obviously, too, we need an end to gerrymandered election districts, such as the one that has given me an indicted felon for a Congressman. All districts should be as geographically uniform as possible. The French did that in 1791, when they redrew the boundaries of their Old Regime provinces to create equal-sized departments. We can do it too.

It goes without saying that we need to end revolving-door arrangements between politicians and private employment by the entities they notionally regulate, and to define bribery and corruption far more strictly than the Supreme Court now permits us to do. Speaking of our High Court, it is the one institution—other, perhaps, than the imperial presidency—that most needs redefinition. The Roberts Court has done its best to erode our democracy, from gutting the Voting Rights Act to opening the floodgates of corporate money in Citizens United, but the Court’s mischief goes back effectively to its beginnings, from declaring slavery a property right in Dred Scott to legalizing segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson to blessing Roosevelt’s internment camps in Korematsu to throwing out a presidential election in Bush v. Gore. For every brief period of liberalization it has given us generations of reaction; for every useful decision, a dozen baneful ones. The Court has an unaccountable power for which the only proper name is judicial tyranny; its functions need to be completely overhauled and its power to overturn statutes voided.

This isn’t all that ails us. Neither we nor anyone else on the planet can tolerate the dominance of multinational corporations and runaway capitalism. Even with the best institutions possible, too, we are a spoilsome, quarrelsome species that has fouled its nest and regularly stifles its few honorable instincts. But you have to start somewhere, and, absent heavenly guidance, the political process is where change must begin. Let’s not waste more time in fixing it.

About Robert Zaller 54 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

1 Comment

  1. Spot on Dr. Zaller, overturning Citizens United is possibly the singular most important step in the reclaiming of our democracy!

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