The 2016 presidential election heightened an on going debate on the power of the “establishment” in the electoral process in the US. As populists on both sides surged in popularity, both the Democrat and Republican party establishments tried to weave up support for the mainstream candidates. This, ultimately, only furthered the divide between the party elites and the grassroots political activists, who felt their interests were not represented by the mainstream of their parties. In this article, Nick Sage and James Dail argue upon the importance of establishment politics and its future.
Record numbers of Americans view the country as going down the wrong track, and many nostalgically remember a time in which political affiliation did not put an end to friendships. Day to day politics in Washington seems constantly gridlocked. Even with the House, Senate, and Executive all being controlled by the Republican Party, they are still having trouble passing substantive legislation. What happened, and how did we get here? Things were not always this disheartening--Once upon a time, the budget was passed routinely without a hitch, political participation in and enthusiasm for the government was far higher, and the major political parties were able to forge compromises on issues critical to the public, for the benefit of the public. What changed is the growing democratization of the electoral process. The evolving chaos in Washington and the eroding confidence that goes along with it are symptoms of this problem.
Consider President Trump. His approval rating started out low when he assumed office, and it has plummeted further. According to Gallup polling, his approval rating started out at 46%, and three months into his administration, it is 36% . Interviews with many Trump voters found that substantial numbers lost faith in him after his bombing of Syria . These actions directly contradict the rhetoric he put forth on the campaign trail. How could the American people nominate a charlatan who sold out his base? The crippling blow that paved the way for Trump was introduced with the advent of the primary system. One of the initial goals of political primaries was to provide for increased voter participation in elections, but in this endeavor, it has failed miserably. During the 2016 primaries, turnout never reached above 55%, and the states that even approached that number were outliers. Most states had drastically lower turnout . Additionally, they exclude the political center from a key part of the political process while catering to a tiny sliver of the electorate on the party fringe. The moderate voices in the parties are shut out in favor of the extremists. This ensures that the voices of most Americans are not heard until the general election. As such, an outsider could conceivably convince a decent fraction of party members who are frustrated with the establishment to elect him. Most of the country would not have a say in the matter.
The alternative to political primaries would be to strengthen party leadership and allow them to decide who the party nominee should be at a party convention. As much as this smacks of elitism, it actually proved to be quite efficient when it was in use. Political parties have a vested interest in winning elections, and therefore, they are likely to choose a nominee that will appeal to both the greatest number of people within the party, while also having an ability to draw in people from the center. Once again, consider the recent presidential election. Third party turnout was the highest since the last time Ross Perot ran in 1996 . If the Republican and Democratic Party were given more expansive powers, then a sustained effort would be made in order to bring these third party voters back into the fold, while standing by the candidates that they selected. Even if this meant some adjustments to party platform, then so be it. Winning elections trumps rigid ideological purity.
" Even if this meant some adjustments to party platform, then so be it. Winning elections trumps rigid ideological purity."
Possibly the greatest advantage of having strengthened political parties is that they are both unified and transactional. Realistically, no political party is going to achieve their desired results all the time. True governance requires the ability to compromise. As a consequence of making our elections more democratic, our politics has become more emotional. Polls indicate that a higher percentage of Americans than ever before doubt the morality of those who have differing political views . The situation has deteriorated to the point that, whenever the federal government has been divided between the two parties, no substantive legislation can be passed. During President Obama’s last three years, no major legislation was passed, and the parties could not even work together to pass a mundane budget . This sounds disastrous enough on its own, but it gets worse. Party factions have begun to fight with each other, making it difficult to pass legislation even when one party controls both houses of the legislature and the executive. Look no further than the recent healthcare debacle. A strengthened political party would have been able to keep the Freedom Caucus in line by forming a unified front through the use of a platform. The platform, which was decided during party nominated conventions well into the twentieth century, had a more prominent role than it does today. It was meant to keep all of the party factions in line by demonstrating a unified party stance on issues. If parties were strengthened anew, there would be no party infighting between factions. If a faction posed a threat to its party, the party would either discriminate against and attempt to destroy the unruly faction in future elections, or the party would introduce a separate piece of legislation at a later date that the faction would find favorable. The process of introducing and crafting the bill would also have been completely different. There would no longer be any amateur congressmen who act purely out of their own self-interest and put forth deeply flawed bills. If a party had control over its members, then time would be spent carefully crafting legislation that advances the party’s goal on a national scale. If our situation has gotten so dire that legislation cannot be passed even when one party controls all of the facets of government, then strengthened political parties might be the only way that the American people can get the government to work for them again.
Now to be fair, the United States did weaken its political parties for a reason. They were cesspools of bribery and corruption, and I am not advocating that parties should resort to illegal activity. However, thanks to the zealotry of political reformers, parties were stripped of important powers that they had spent decades cultivating. Today, parties are hollowed shells of what they once were. Their influence is now incredibly weak, and they may s well not even exist. Between selecting nominees and providing a cohesive, unified position on legislative issues, strong political parties were what kept our government running smoothly. These necessary functions can be restored without giving way to open bribery.
The federal government has become dominated by rookies. They have stopped being public servants and have begun to serve themselves. Things need to change, and the government needs to function properly. It has been said that the United States is the world’s laboratory for democracy. Strengthened political parties would return us to what works, for the benefit of every American.
The 2016 election was unlike any other in recent years in that it saw two prominent outsider candidates—one of whom went on to win the presidency—who ran campaigns that were rooted in populist sentiment. Both Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, and President Donald Trump appealed to swaths of economically disadvantaged whites living in rural areas across the country. This strategy allowed Trump to win the elections in November, despite failing to secure the popular vote.
The outcome of the election remains controversial, and many Americans are outraged at the outlandish and proactive behavior of President Trump. Citizens and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized the idea of outsider politics, blaming it for the rise of Trump. What many of these people forget is that outsider politics exists as a direct response to the destructive and polarizing behavior of the political establishment. In both parties, a small circle of politicians has an inordinate amount of power and influence within the government. To be clear, when I refer to the establishment I mean the people with the most influence over party platform and policy. They could be a part of the congressional leadership, recognized political families—like the Kennedys, Bushes, or Clintons—or major lobbyists. Immense wealth can buy an individual political power; billionaires like Michael Bloomberg or the Koch brothers have enormous sway over elections on every level of government . The Koch brothers alone planned on spending 889 million dollars in the 2016 election, more than the fundraising of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee combined  . This vast quantity of hard cash can allow donors to launch massive media campaigns and attack ads, as well as influence the number of debates in an election. When money becomes the foundation for a political party, it can stray from its duties to the American people.
"When money becomes the foundation for a political party, it can stray from its duties to the American people."
Polarization is a word that is often thrown around in today’s political conversation. One common effect of a growing political establishment—especially within each party—is that it breeds divisiveness among politicians. Since 1950 the average number of filibusters per congress has shot up from an average of one to 52. Today, certain experts estimate that nearly 70% of major legislation must overcome targeted debate and deliberation obstacles in congress before either being scrapped or signed into law . As establishment politicians accumulate more and more money from interest groups and billionaires, the more likely they are to fulfill the agenda of those entities. Politicians no longer act adequately enough in the interest of common Americans—too often they do not even act based on their own principles. Especially for newer public servants who have not solidified their position in their party, there can be significant pressure to comply with senior party leaders.
The political climate that develops from petty party politics is very unappealing to many Americans, as people feel they do not have a voice in their government. This feeling of being ignored by the establishment makes an outsider candidate far more appealing to average Americans. Many studies, articles, and op-eds published after the shocking election results last November concluded that Trump tapped into the anger of many voters in more rural states throughout Middle America . President Trump’s rhetoric targeted not only his opponents in the Democratic party but also many leaders within the Republican party as well. Voters in Middle America wanted someone who would stand up for them at a time when they felt nobody else was . Even if you are opposed to president Trump, it is hard to discount this sentiment.
It is important to recognize that outsider candidates are not always bad public servants. In fact, two presidents who are largely responsible for shaping the modern direction of their parties were thought to be outsiders by many. Harry S Truman was a relatively unknown senator from Missouri when he was tapped by FDR for vice president in 1944. Truman never intended to run for the presidency, but suddenly thrust into the position with the death of FDR in April of 1945. Despite the fact that he was not even college educated Truman proved to be an exceptionally effective president, ensuring the survival of Roosevelt’s progressive reforms, pushing forward a number of civil rights reforms—including the desegregation of the armed forces. He also managed an extraordinary underdog victory in the 1948 election. All 50 of the nation’s top political analysts believed that Republican candidate Thomas Dewey would sweep the election. By shifting his campaign focus on appealing to everyday Americans living in not just urban, but also rural communities, Truman’s infamous “whistle-stop campaign” won him the hearts of the American people and the presidency . Though he was not a part of the establishment, Truman continues to go down in history as one the nation’s greatest presidents. Today is consistently ranked in the top ten greatest presidents by historians and political experts.
On the other side of the aisle there is Ronald Reagan, one of the most beloved Republican presidents in modern American politics. Many seem to forget, however, that he too was an outsider candidate when he ran for Governor of California in 1966 and for President in 1976. Reagan gained exposure through a successful television career that allowed him to break into politics. One key component of the Reagan campaign was breaking the Republican establishment platform. The result was the creation of the foundation of the Republican party we know today. Fewer taxes, increased military spending, and more conservative trade and foreign affairs agreements . Reagan may not stand as high as Truman in presidential rankings, but he remains a major source of inspiration for current Republican leaders.
Reagan and Truman show that regardless of party affiliation, outsider candidates are capable of effecting meaningful change in the country. Though there are some dangers to populism if it is left unchecked, it is important to remember that the American people often demonstrate good judgment of character, even when the political pundits and establishment politicians tell them otherwise.
REBUTTAL - AGAINST
Mr. Dail makes a series of ill-supported claims that strengthening political parties will miraculously eliminate congressional gridlock and the people’s general dissatisfaction with their government. This assertion glosses over the ways parties directly contribute to the America’s disheartening political climate.
Some may claim that the parties are weaker than ever, but they fail to take into account the unofficial power the establishment wields. The political elite are extremely influential when it comes to the distribution of campaign funds within the party, allowing them to demand the utmost loyalty from their members. Men and women chosen to represent their communities instead cater to their party, for fear of losing their funding and with it hopes of a reelection. When public officials are threatened to comply with the aims of their party and act against the best interests of their constituents, the fundamental ties that hold together the idea of American democracy begin to fray. This, too, encourages polarization on the hill, because any attempt to reach across the aisle is now seen as an act of betrayal. As Mr. Dail fairly points out, this is one of the main reasons there are so many disgruntled voters in the country today. Many people feel that their elected officials no longer represent them, but a handful of party leaders and wealthy campaign donors.
"Many people feel that their elected officials no longer represent them, but a handful of party leaders and wealthy campaign donors."
Mr. Dail’s “solution” of eliminating primary elections would only fuel this sentiment. While in the short term doing so may prevent outsider candidates from being elected, it would further alienate swaths of Americans, and only drive them to become more radical. Over time, outsider candidates would still wheedle their way into elections, whether it be through 3rd-party independent campaigns or pressuring the establishment to the point it caves in fear of a full-blown mutiny. Any such attempts to eliminate primary elections/caucuses would only create a deeper rift both within political parties, and the country as a whole.
REBUTTAL - FOR
Unfortunately, Mr. Sage misdiagnoses the problem plaguing the current state of American politics. While on the surface it may seem as if “petty party politics” are the source of Congress’ inability to pass substantive legislation, it is the partisanship of the voters themselves that is causing politicians to become obstinate. Bill Clinton was able to work with Republicans to balance the budget, establish work requirements for welfare programs, and establish the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Bipartisan compromise in Congress is possible, but only if voters want it. A report by the Pew Research Center found that 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans are afraid of the other party . Members of Congress obviously desire to hold on to their political power, and they will effortlessly respond to their constituents’ desires in order to retain it. If voters distrust members of the other party, then Congress will reflect that distrust.
"If voters distrust members of the other party, then Congress will reflect that distrust."
In addition to this, his portrayal of outsiders being wildly successful in politics is quite shaky. Reagan’s presidency was a far cry from a golden age for the US. Trickle-down economics is a failure by any measure. Between 1979 and 2007, 88% of all economic gains in the United States have gone to the top 1% of earners . Reagan lined the pockets of the rich while ransacking the middle class. While it is true that outsiders can have tremendous political success by tapping into popular anger, governing is significantly harder. Much like anyone who obtains the presidency, outsiders will have their share of successes and failures.
Not only does Mr. Sage fail to make a convincing case, but he also makes my argument for me at one point, stating that Trump won the election because he was able to tap into the anger of rural voters who felt left behind by the politicians who were representing them. The political parties have been taken over by extremists who are motivated just as much by hatred for the other side as they are of advancing their own agenda. This leaves a gaping void at the center where people always feel left behind. Furthermore, when both parties fight and achieve nothing, then all Americans, not just the center, feel that their government does not care about them. We need to put an end to this divisiveness. Politicians will throw a bone to every political faction in order to compromise and pass legislation that is for the benefit of the people. It is time to cede some power back to the establishment.
Sources and Notes
Featured Image Source: "Donald Trump Signs the Pledge" by Michael Vadon— Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons — https://www.flickr.com/photos/80038275@N00/20957300328/in/photolist-xVVDfh-xVZTbM-ydyegc-ydxPup-xW3Jsi-xVWfWC-ycAMfb-yed78K-yeeef8-xW3SWx-xW2vR8-ybd7WS-xgugku-QavEaV-SuNdJ7-RauRDh-RkJLHJ-xgvr4q-xVWTEs-yeceYg-xVU8aE-xgvPLE-DR6wfk-xznkrJ-xiMjix-xzmpsb-xAhCsk-xiK4Uf-xBG4gr-xAf4AT-xzkH33-xARfEU-xiBYM5-xxUGSu-wDjXWV-xxSTHG-xzo3h1-xkcQiD-xASyLv-xkbkj8-xBEF3k-wDsBJp-xARBHV-xiJk9q-wDra8a-xiFrzY-xk3Dhj-xCku1D-xk7J4J-xiHPjL