Saturday, October 15, 2016

Maybe The Old Way Was Best

This year’s presidential election would challenge the patience of Job, or Saint Anthony, or even God himself, if God there be. It has certainly challenged my meager store of patience, challenged it and overmastered it, I’m afraid. It’s enough to make one rend one’s clothes. A good question is: how did we get to this point? Something has obviously gone wrong, but what was it? I got a clue recently.

I have been cursing the primary system for decades already, but in a very unfocused way. I had a feeling that the primary system was giving the Democrats candidates like Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis, candidates that were unelectable in a general election with a strong opponent. Back in July I read an article that put it all into a nice perspective for me. It was “How American Politics Went Insane,” by Jonathan Rauch for The Atlantic Magazine.

It turns out that it’s not just the primary system; it’s a whole catalog of rules and procedures that add up to a whole new way of doing things in American politics, for everything from primaries to governing. Before the mid-1970s there was an Old Way that had been in place for over one hundred years. Then everything rapidly changed. It was all well intentioned, and if you are reminded of that old saying about the road to hell, you are very close to the truth.

The Old Way

The Old Way took place in smoke-filled rooms. There was zero transparency. The power brokers were mostly unelected. They were “middle men,” greasing the wheels of cooperation between the political parties and the houses of congress. They included:

1. Party organizations, both Federal and state;

2. Congressional committees and sub-committees in Washington; and

3. Convention delegates and bundlers.

Party organizations sought out electable candidates directly. They looked for people who would be cooperative in general and who would do as they were told. Mostly, they had to be electable.

These individuals were put forward in a party-dominated nominating process.

If they were elected, to congress, let’s say, everything that happened there went according to the same kind of smoke-filled-room process. If they played ball, they received soft money from their party; congressional seniority assured that the most cooperative members of congress became committee chairmen; playing ball would get a younger congressman appointed to a high-profile sub-committee; closed door negotiations were the norm, so there were no pesky public votes to upset the voters back home; cooperative senators and congressmen were rewarded with pork-barrel spending.

The Old Way favored electable politicians who were team players. There were compromises after a free discussion of differences. Parties could help members with personal alliances, financial contributions, promotions, political perks and endorsements. It made the politicians dependent on the parties, and it made it virtually impossible to succeed as a maverick or a rogue.

This system was eventually held to be reprehensible, but in retrospect it was a system that featured remarkable levels of cooperation. Members benefited from loyalty and got along with each other. Things got done.

“Parties, machines and hacks may not have been pretty, but they did their job—so well that the country forgot why it needed them.” (Rauch) Their job was insuring stability, centrism and compromise.

The New Way

Then came the big reform movements of the 1970s.

The old party-driven nominating process was replaced by primaries.

Congressional seniority and the committee system were simplified and made more transparent.

Soft-money was eliminated and campaign finance rules caused the money in politics to become privatized and chaotic.

Budget appropriations became more transparent and pork-barrel spending was almost eliminated.

By now we have more mavericks and rogues in American politics than we have of team players. Parties can’t help members anymore, and members no longer benefit from loyalty. Most of the members of our present congress are incapable of cooperating even with members of their own parties, and many of them are afraid of primary challenges from their own party. Cooperation is impossible, and compromise is a dirty word. Where compromise had been necessary for career purposes, by now it is just the opposite. All sides have thoroughly demonized the others, and any compromise with demons will get you unelected in a hurry.

This year we have seen two individuals wade into the nominating process unbidden and unwelcomed. This was the nominating process for the presidency, no less. Each of the major parties suffered such an intrusion. One was a very experienced politician who suddenly became a Democrat for the purpose of running in the primaries. That would be Senator Bernie Sanders, a once and future independent, who did well enough in the primaries against Hillary Clinton to put the Democratic National Committee into something of a panic.

The other one wasn’t a politician at all. That would be Donald Trump, who actually defeated a field of about twenty Republican candidates. The losers were themselves mavericks and rogues, with maybe one team player among them. (Governor Kasich, very far down in the field.)

This new way of electing our public officials has its worst effect on the congress at the Federal level. The Senate and the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., can no longer function in any meaningful way. Republicans in both houses have spent the last eight years with only one desperate goal: to obstruct and block anything that the elected president tries to do. That’s it in a nutshell. Nothing else is important, no wish-list, not wanting to help anyone in particular (unless you count corporations and the super-rich). Just make the president look bad. Those are the kind of people that the New Way has given us. 

I’d give serious thought to returning to the Old Way as soon as possible, if it were possible, that is. History can’t be unwound like an electric motor. But something must be done to restore our ability to get things done, politically and economically. Whatever forms that restoration should take, we should look closely at the way things were done back when compromise was desirable, loyalty was rewarded, and the business of the people came first in the minds of politicians (more or less).

1 comment:

Marina Grande Halifax said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. No one is actually working for the people any more. Term limits for Congress could help. I think PAC's and lobbyists need to be outlawed. If we need primaries they should be held the same day. After that, let the candidates debate unencumbered by moderators. Or better, have a real town hall, not the fake one we just had. The electoral college is also outdated. It was never meant for a 2 party system in the first place. The thought was always that no one would get the majority and the HR would select the president. At one point, the Pres and VP where not connected and stood on their own.