Political parties in the U.S. were crushed by twin hammer blows.
First, they lost control of the primary system. In 1968, anti-war protests during the Democratic convention in Chicago turned violent when police responded with brutality. The anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy, had won the most votes in the primary. But Democrats inside the convention hall nominated then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey because he was favored by party leaders.
“The primaries didn’t mean anything. What mattered was delegates, and who the delegates were for,” said Elaine Kamarck, a historian of the primary process at The Brookings Institution.
But after ’68, the Democrats adopted recommendations from the McGovern-Fraser Commission and changed their system to transfer power from party bosses and delegates to whoever shows up in primary elections. It was intended to democratize the system, but it’s ultimately had the opposite effect.
Primary elections are supposed to allow political parties to debate—among themselves—who should represent their ideals and values in a general election. Over time, primaries have become tribal councils of war. Opposing factions gather in respective corners and choose nominees based on one criterion: Which combatant is most likely to bludgeon the other side into submission?
About two-thirds of the country is an “exhausted majority.”
Today’s average voter doesn’t understand the role parties play in organizing people to push for achievable change rather than fantasizing about perfect solutions. About two-thirds of the country is what a recent study called an “exhausted majority.” These voters “share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation” and have “a willingness to be flexible with their political viewpoints.” But primaries produce candidates who are not from that group. Nominees — not just in presidential races but in campaigns for Congress as well — end up representing the minority of extreme voices on both sides.
The second shoe to drop was campaign finance reform. Most critics of the current system point to the Supreme Court’s 2015 Citizens United decision, which ruled that the government could not impose limitations on corporate political donations.
But this decision merely poured gasoline on a fire that started in 2002, when Congress passed the McCain-Feingold Act. This was supposed to reduce the role of money in politics by imposing limits on how much money political parties could receive. The practical effect, however, is that money now flows directly from people to politicians, rather than to parties. And, with that, parties lost even more power to keep politicians from coloring too far outside the lines.
This is a large part of why Trump was able to win in 2016. Of the 17 Republicans who ran for president, at least five of them—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Scott Walker—would have won the nomination if they had been the only establishment candidate in the race.
But GOP leaders had no way to force all but one to drop out and support the consensus pick. In the past, the parties’ control of the money was a primary way to do that. Now, any candidate can find all the money they need from just one or two wealthy donors. So, these five candidates canceled each other out, giving Donald Trump an opening to win the primary with only a third of the vote.
It was all centrifugal force with no centripetal force. The party wasn’t able to force these candidates to act in a way that put the party and country first, so ambition had the run of the place.
There is no passion for unifying Americans, for overcoming divisions, for making a brighter future by reconciling the citizenry.
As we look ahead to 2020, Avenatti’s flirtation with the Democratic primary has offered our clearest glimpse so far into how Democrats could fall prey to a Trump-like candidate. Avenatti has already flamed out after a raft of stories about his compromised personal life, but he was able—without any real qualifications—to gain remarkable traction by taking positions that signaled he would be a take-no-prisoners fighter for the left, such as increasing the size of the Supreme Court and appointing reliable left-leaning judges to those positions.
Avenatti was all about enforcing purity in the party. His main qualification was that he could effectively battle with Trump in the modern media circus. Avenatti’s mindset is responsive to the way modern politics works, but it will do little or nothing for the good of the country. There is no passion for unifying Americans, for overcoming divisions, for making a brighter future by reconciling the citizenry. There is no memory here of President Lincoln, who said to his fellow Americans: “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
If the Democratic field is crowded—as looks likely—candidates who want to differentiate themselves will look for novel ways to do so. This leaves the door open for unscrupulous candidates and demagogues, who are willing to tell voters what they want to hear regardless of whether those things are based in reality.
Primary voting is dominated by the most partisan, hard-line voters. When party leaders cannot step in to keep demagogues from whipping up the passions of primary voters, more responsible candidates have no choice but to follow the demagogue. This happened time and time again in the 2016 Republican primary, and we’ve already seen small signs of it in early 2020 jockeying among Democrats.
Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District by running on a promise to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It’s an easily understandable hard-line position that would do little to solve any problems, be they family separation or border security. But prominent Democrats who will likely run for president in 2020—such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand—quickly sought to capitalize on Ocasio-Cortez’s popularity by adopting the position.
The #abolishICE crowd is a mirror image of the hard-line Republicans who followed Sen. Ted Cruz during his 2013 crusade to defund Obamacare. Cruz also made a promise based more in partisan fantasy than in reality. President Obama was never going to sign a bill defunding his signature accomplishment. Cruz argued Republicans could do it if they just fought harder. Cruz took voters who were already suspicious of the government along with him for a ride. After failing to deliver, they were even more frustrated. But Cruz was well-positioned to run for president.
This is how to run for president now: Take simple, easy to understand positions that stoke the passions of the most energized and often extreme voters, left or right. These simplistic, bumper sticker positions help get attention and build an email list. The email list helps raise money from these same voters who give online in small dollar amounts—and voila, you’re off to the races.