Politics & Policy

Our Sick Body Politic

Senator Elizabeth Warren answers questions from reporters in Sioux City, Iowa, January 5, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Elbridge Gerry in 1787: ‘The people do not want virtue’ and are duped by ‘pretended patriots.’ Was he right?

The presidential election of 2020 is 665 days away, but that did not stop Elizabeth Warren — the first major candidate to declare for the Democratic nomination (sorry, John Delaney) — from making appearances last week in Iowa. Her campaign account tweeted a picture of her stumping in the Hawkeye State, with the tagline “Democracy is restorative.”

Is it, though?

Sure, democracy itself is restorative, or at least it can be. But strictly speaking, democracy under the Constitution happens only once every two to six years, during regularly scheduled elections. Nearly everything else in between these democratic moments is really just more politics — which can be restorative but just as easily may not be.

I do not think I am going out on a limb by declaring that our politics is not restorative. It is vacuous, mean-spirited, Manichean, and omnipresent.

We are approaching the point where candidates for the presidential office spend more time campaigning for the White House than actually occupying it. If we factor in all the behind-the-scenes jockeying that candidates undertake before formally declaring, we may have already passed that point.

This is in the interests of campaign consultants who can charge more for their services, news outlets that have a “story” to cover, and egotistical candidates who enjoy basking in the glory of adoring crowds. But the permanence of the campaign has not elevated our civic discourse. Far from it. It has divided and polarized us. After all, most of the campaign is spent speaking to primary voters, many of whom are on the ideological poles and absolutely detest their political opponents.

Think of about it: If Warren wins the presidency in 2020, she will have spent about 18 months campaigning for support among her fellow Democrats and just four months campaigning among middle-of-the-road voters. The same dynamic happens in the Republican party, where GOP candidates absolutely loathe leftists and must win over conservatives who disagree quite a bit with average voters.

This undermines the ability of the president, once he or she is finally elected, to serve as the head of state, i.e., the representative of the national interest. Every candidate makes rote statements about how we are all Americans and must come together, but to win, candidates must spend most of their time genuflecting to many voters who do not honestly believe that, who think of the country in terms of us versus them, and whose only idea of coming together is for the political opposition to be permanently defeated. The opposition, having watched the preceding 20 months of partisan nastiness, sees the new president as an existential threat to its interests. So it digs in its heels.

This problem is magnified by the extreme powers we have handed the president. Rather than installing a representative of the whole nation, with the unilateral authority the modern chief executive now possesses, we elect a person who clearly has taken sides with certain factions of society over others.

No, there is nothing restorative about this. The modern presidency, with its overgrown power and the endless power struggles to acquire it, has sickened our body politic.

What can we do about this? I have spent much of the last several years thinking about institutional reforms that could improve the nomination process. But lately I have been wondering whether either side even wants that at all. The anger boiling on the left at Donald Trump reminds me of the anger that boiled on the right at Barack Obama four years ago. Maybe both sides just wish to take vicarious enjoyment in the splenetic partisanship that is on display during the very lengthy primary season. They want somebody to really stick it to that guy!

I am reminded more and more of an ominous comment that Elbridge Gerry made in 1787, at the very beginning of the Constitutional Convention. In opposition to popular election to the House of Representatives, he intoned:

The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots. . . . They are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men.

Gerry was obstreperous and hyperbolic (which makes him quite a character to read about), but he was still on to something — that we are not necessarily the victims of a terrible politics but rather the agents of it. We have been deceived, but only because we do not want virtue.

Surely this idea does not hold at all times in all places. Even a cursory scan through American history demonstrates the frequent triumph of our better angels. But what about 2019? Do we really want a government that represents the true national interest, or do we prefer to enjoy the cathartic release that comes from pretended patriots and designing men who blame all our problems on our political enemies?

These are questions both sides need to ask of themselves, and a truthful and candid evaluation will probably reveal some uncomfortable answers.

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