We need stronger candidates, not stronger parties

National Political Columnist
Yahoo News
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2), AP
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2), AP

So here we have another typical week in the capital: President Trump humiliated his own United Nations secretary, Nikki Haley, who announced to the world that the administration was handing down new sanctions against the Russians without realizing that Trump had decided not to do that, because by now it’s clear that he’s way more protective of Moscow than he is of anyone in his administration.

(A little free advice for the president: If you’re going to undermine a member of your Cabinet, maybe choose Pruitt or DeVos, or someone else who wouldn’t completely dismantle you in a Republican primary if she woke up one morning and thought to herself, “Ah, what the hell.”)

But let’s leave the daily drama of Trump’s Washington there for now, and let’s talk instead about the much larger question of how we got here and where we’re headed.

As you may have seen, my colleague Jon Ward, who’s one of the best political reporters anywhere, published a thoughtful and provocative mini-treatise this week about the decline of parties over the last half century or so.

I know how it feels to have your complex ideas distilled down to CliffsNotes, so I hope you’ll read Jon’s piece for yourself rather than rely on my summation, but essentially the argument goes like this: Reforms that were meant to transfer power away from party establishments to individual voters, beginning in the 1960s, have had the perverse effect, over time, of obliterating a crucial buffer between the voters and all manner of extremists or charlatans.

With weaker parties comes not the idealized form of democratic participation that reformers had envisioned, but rather a riotous process that allows someone like Donald Trump to pretty much walk in and take over the entire operation with a plurality of reactionary supporters.

To be clear, I don’t think Jon is suggesting we return to the days when a handful of party bosses could effectively choose or veto the nominees. He’s saying that the system has tipped too far now in the other direction, and that the only way to save our political system is to rediscover a balance that gives party elites more control — something more along the lines of the superdelegate system Democrats instituted in the 1980s.

(Jon’s also launched a fun podcast around this subject, which I’ll take a moment here to plug.)

It’s hard to argue with the diagnosis here. The system for selecting candidates we have now is too easily overwhelmed by passionate minorities and digitized mobs, and I’m betting that Democrats who felt smug about the implosion of Republicans in 2016 are about to find out just how perilously unruly the process can get for them, too.

But when it comes to the remedy, I arrive at a slightly different, and maybe more optimistic, place.

For one thing, I’ve never been a fan of political parties, generally. As party structures have grown weaker over the course of my lifetime, and as more of us have chosen to remain unaffiliated, the parties themselves have become increasingly dogmatic, homogeneous and intolerant of dissent. Most often, they reflect the impulses of their most cloistered constituents.

I can’t imagine that giving those party establishments more control over our politics would actually have any kind of moderating or ennobling influence, even if we could.

More to the point, we can’t, or at least not without a well-equipped DeLorean. Parties haven’t lost their influence because we changed the rules; we changed the rules because big institutions everywhere were beginning to lose their influence.

That’s not a trend we can just decide to reverse. It is, as I’ve written often over the past two decades, the central reality of our time.

Americans aren’t going to cede more power over their public affairs to politicians and local chairmen, any more than they’re going to trust priests or bankers or paid endorsers to decide what’s good for them. The more sway you give party leaders over the process, the more of an uprising you’ll see.

So what are we supposed to do? Are we destined to watch our nominating system devolve into a quadrennial reality show for demagogues?

Not necessarily.

From the time I started writing about politics, I’ve been fascinated, and often inspired, by growing ripples of independence in the two-party fabric. I’ll never forget watching Jesse Ventura, the former wrestler and newly installed governor of Minnesota, stride through the capitol in St. Paul in 1999, while crowds of visitors (and more than a few bureaucrats) spontaneously applauded.

They were cheering for themselves as much as for Ventura, who talked in those days of “doing the people’s business with joy in our hearts.” They were cheering the idea that the status quo was theirs to change.

Ventura turned out to be an imperfect vehicle for that change (although he built a solid and truly bipartisan administration). But I remember thinking: This is how politics ought to make people feel. This is how reform happens.

The Trump phenomenon has certainly tested my faith in this ideal. Here’s a successful outsider who took over a national party and overturned the order. But the nature of his reform isn’t uplifting or modernizing; it’s dark and relentlessly nostalgic. It’s theater masquerading as service.

It would be a mistake, though, to then assume that this is what political disruption has to look like, that we’re better off walling off the system from outsiders and stationing the two moribund parties at the gate. For every Trump, there’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Mike Bloomberg out there too, waiting to test a more thoughtful and inclusive governing vision.

I don’t know who that is right now. Maybe the Rock reads history. Maybe James Comey is entertaining ideas. Maybe the pilot who landed that Southwest plane has loftier ambitions. (After hearing the audio, I’d vote for her.)

The point is that it’ll be a long time before we see another presidential field populated solely by career politicians. But that’s not something we should necessarily fear. That doesn’t mean that only hucksters and populists will apply.

Whether the challenge comes from within a major party or without, I still believe that an unconventional campaign — a candidate respectful of governing expertise, but determined to rethink how we use it — can be the thing that restores our faith in public life.

We should encourage candidacies like that, rather than try to make them less viable. And as journalists, we should subject them to serious scrutiny.

Perhaps, many decades from now, historians will talk about Trump’s election as a necessary, transitional moment, when party structures were fast being eclipsed by personal narrative, but before we’d figured out as a nation how to discern between genuine reformers and crass opportunists.

From here on out, presidents won’t always be establishment-approved, whether we like it or not.

But they won’t all be charlatans, either.

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