WHERE DID AMERICAN POLITICS GO BAD?
By Paul Merkley.
***A Brief and Inadequate History of the Primaries.
Throughout most of my adult years I earned my bread teaching the History of the United States — in California for four years (1964-1968) and thereafter in Ottawa at Carleton University. I have always prided myself on my knowledge of the American political system — how it works now and how it worked in the past. But now there has come a moment of panic-fear that I never understood it at all. Perhaps it serves me right.
***The Primary System: Where It Comes From and How It Works.
From the year 1840 until the first decade of the Twentieth Century, the major parties chose their candidates for the Office of the President at National Conventions where all the delegates were active card-carrying members; these had previously had won the right to attend the National Convention in contests at district and state meetings of the parties. (This is virtually the system that obtains in Canada today.) Very late in the Nineteenth century, certain “Progressive” politicians agitated for establishment of state-wide popular elections of the delegates to the National Conventions; by the 1910s, this mechanism had morphed into the Presidential Preference Primary.
There is a strange up-and-down rhythm to this history: by 1920 there were 20 states with primaries, but some states then abandoned them and went back either to the convention model or to the caucus model. Still, by 1960 enough states had Presidential Preference primaries that a candidate for the job of President could not reasonably hope to win the nomination at the National Convention without presenting a record of victories in these popular contests. (The choices in that memorable year were John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.)
Now all states have primaries or caucuses – the latter being a hybrid form, rapidly declining, somewhat less open, but still affording the participation of all seriously interested people. The Parties have so arranged matters that the season begins with Primaries or caucuses in mostly very-small states. Behind this is something akin to the off-Broadway notion that investors can try out possibilities on lesser stages before risking going broke on the biggest and most-expensive stages. A major anomaly here is that some states having the largest number of delegates – notably New York and California — do not hold their primaries until very late in the game: New York on April 19, California on June 7. To get their primaries moved to an earlier post would require some heroic lobbying within the Party as well as some big-time legal battles.
It is essential to keep in mind throughout this exercise that it is delegates to a convention that are chosen in this process, not candidates. Although there is much ambiguity, both in the legal documents and in informed commentary, the basic ground rule is that the delegate is bound at least morally to deliver his ballot at the Convention to the person to whom he was committed publicly at the time of the Primary or Caucus; but this applies no further than to the first round of voting.
Since 1960, the first round has been the last round; but it remains at least possible that a new path will open up this year, if it is found that no candidate has a clear majority of loyally-committed delegates. Here is where commentators bring up the possibility of “brokered convention.” This is a misleading term, as what is meant is a convention as in the days before 1960, where most of the wheeling and dealing had to be done in the open.
***Review of the Process So Far.
Typically, politicians with enough stamina and self-esteem to risk announcing candidacy for the Office of President will test themselves and their product at least two years before the next Presidential Election. (The risk of ridicule is very high when the announcement comes early: Governor Jimmy Carter’s mother asked out loud, “President of what?”) An early sign that formal announcement is coming will be a series of visits to diners and living-rooms in small towns in Iowa (which holds the first caucus) and in New Hampshire (the first Primacy.) The audiences for these will be small, unless the putative candidate is already famous — as is Hillary Clinton – in which case million-dollar Guest Speaker fees as well as proceeds from book-signing events will be garnered – some of which will go to the campaign chest.
The first of the candidates of 1916 to step forth with formal announcement was Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas (March 23, 2015.) (Hillary Clinton’s announcement on the Democratic side came on April 12.) Sixteen other Republicans stepped forward in time for the first national debates: former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, neurosurgeon Ben Carson of Maryland, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, businesswoman Carly Fiorina of Virginia, former Governor Jim Gilmore of Virginia, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Governor John Kasich of Ohio, former Governor George Pataki of New York, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, former Governor Rick Perry of Texas, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, businessman and reality television host Donald Trump of New York, and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. It was the largest presidential primary field for any political party in American history.
Prior to the Iowa caucuses on February 1, Perry, Walker, Jindal, Graham, and Pataki withdrew, in response to low polling numbers. While leading many polls entering the Iowa caucuses, Trump came in second to Cruz in that Caucus – the first of the clues that led us all astray. Huckabee, Paul, and Santorum drew single-digit numbers, and withdrew; following Trump’s victory in the New Hampshire primary, Christie, Fiorina, and Gilmore withdrew. After a second victory for Trump in the South Carolina primary, Bush withdrew. Ominously — the most senior and experienced of the candidates had been the first to fall.
On March 1, or Super Tuesday, Trump won seven and Cruz won three of the eleven states voting, while Rubio won the caucus in Minnesota (of all places!) The swift abandonment of their own causes by Christie and then Carson and the shameless manner in which they announced their discovery in him of all the best virtues raised a great stink and was widely taken as proof that the causes of the others, their quondam comrades, singularly and collectively, was hopeless. Then on March 15, 2016, Senator Rubio, after losing his home state of Florida withdrew.
***Unanticipated Excitement on the Democratic Side.
Long before the season began in about the middle of last year it was evident that, on the Democratic side, no live politicians dared to risk alienating his party’s next President. The exception that proved the rule was Bernie Saunders, a lifelong “Democratic socialist,” 75 years old, whose purpose in entering the race was, evidently, to secure a larger footnote for his name than he could ever hope for as Senator from Vermont, the 49th State of the Union in size of population. None of the pundits anticipated his becoming the idol of the youngest cohort of voters by dusting off the soak-the-rich rhetoric that brought Franklin Roosevelt to power. Because he was the only other horse in the race, Sanders benefitted from discontent caused by the impression that the establishment had precluded real choice by rallying to the heiress-presumptive. Sanders has clearly gone as far as he can go, and so it is safe now for other Democrats to say nice things about a man whom, until the day before yesterday, they heartily despised as a viper at the bosom of the Democratic Party. The Party stands to gain from its evident willingness to accommodate dissent in its ranks.
***A Pause to Survey the Wreckage So Far.
As I write (March 21), Trump has 673 delegates, Cruz 411, Kasich 143 with 1,237 needed for nomination. On the Democratic side, Clinton has 1639 assured delegates, Sanders has 859 of a total of 4,765. (These numbers include “super-delegates – essentially, delegates ex officio.) Experts are agreed that the gap in the Democratic contest cannot be closed.
I am stuck with the conviction that the American system is to be admired because it is the most thoroughly democratic one around. This puts me in fundamental agreement with Churchill’s famous dictum – that democracy is the worst system of government except for all the others. I have never believed that this thoroughly democratic system necessarily delivers first-rate leaders – people of the highest rank in matters of personal morality, and solidly-grounded in the Judaeo-Christian moral system that we were once so proud of.
Most Canadians and likewise most residents of Western democracies are appalled by the results so far of the American primary and caucus season. During the very long American election process, abundant opportunities occurred for Canadian commentators, including the television network reporters, to get off snide asides on the vulgarity of the process.
Get over it, Canada! The process gets vulgar because it is profoundly democratic. In terms of the evolutionary process from plutocracy to full democracy, we in Canada are still back at the pre-Primary stage — roughly one hundred years back. But our right to brag is utterly cut off when we consider that fossil called the Senate of Canada – a scandal from every point of view. The leaders of both of our major parties —the only two that have ever got the opportunity to form a government — have been promising during election season for about a century now to make the Senate responsive to the people’s will; when the election is over, they discover that after all it is a useful means for the government party to reward the candidates that the public tried to rid themselves of at the polls. The U.S. Senate became partially democratic by the early Nineteenth Century and became totally democratic by amendment to the constitution in 1912. All this time, our Party leaders have been pretending to be serious about “reforming” this fossil, appointing one commission after another to study the problem – in itself a process that provides large opportunities for the granting of Government contracts to friendly academic experts.
***The End of Civility.
I continue to believe that Donald Trump can be defeated while everyone stays within the rules. I shall return to this theme in a few days, when the path should be clearer.
It is already clear, however, that irreversible damage has been done to American public life. On both sides of the Trump-divide, leading voices are resorting to rhetoric that is reminiscent of European politics in the age of Mussolini and Hitler. The front-runner is leading the pack. He can be seen and heard calling on his followers at his rallies to “smash the faces” of persons daring to shouting out against him.
Before bowing out from this contest, which had begun so hopefully for him, Senator Rubio summed up well what is happening: “We have a culture today — what used to be wrong is now considered right… My whole life I have been told no matter how you may feel about someone, you respect everyone because we are all children of the same God. America is in the middle of a real political storm, a real tsunami, and we should have seen this coming.”