When this miserable but revelatory election is finally over, the country’s most serious need will not be national security or economic. It will be political: Repairing the near total erosion of public trust and confidence in American government and leadership.
The political sector of society has ignored or bungled this job since Watergate. But now, after Donald Trump, returning a modicum of dignity to government has become urgent. Sensible and forward-looking decisions on economic policy, national security, social welfare and public safety will be nearly impossible unless our political system can get itself out of the gutter.
This is a job so enormous it is invisible. It is a task so daunting that it is ignored.
The institutions assigned to this sort of project, the two political parties, are neither up to the task nor interested in it. They are bad guys in the story.
However, and this will seem starry-eyed, there may be a brief moment of epiphany and opportunity after the election if – and only if – members of the political class have been so traumatized by Trump that they are fearful for their careers and, maybe, their country.
After a steady decline since the Vietnam War and Watergate, the legitimacy of our government institutions crashed and burned this year in the public’s view. Trust and confidence in other broad sectors also have eroded — big business, the news media, political parties, the clergy and law enforcement, to name just a few. This is a reality throughout American culture.
This year we have mistakenly pigeonholed profound political alienation into the “angry white voter” slot. Deep mistrust of government, however, is universal in America for all practical purposes.
If the dire and unlikely happens, if Trump wins, simmering alienation easily could boil over into full fracture and intensified civic war.
If virtue and justice triumph and Trump loses, we’ll probably muddle through as we have. We will have a president in Hillary Clinton who doesn’t have the credibility or temperament to tackle the amorphous and quixotic mission to improve political culture and systems.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that Trump did the country a favor by finally directing the full, justified fury of citizens on to “the system.” Trump’s mindless raves that the system is “rigged” are puerile excuses and revenge fantasies. They do, however, obscure real problems such as voter suppression, gerrymandering and the crazy length of campaigns. His false charges are acid poured on an old wound.
Also, do not make the mistake of thinking that this political and civic problem — this crisis of legitimacy — will be solved by a boom economy. Broadly speaking, Americans since the 1970s have enjoyed peace, prosperity, health, safety, expanding liberty and political stability almost unheard of in human history. Yes, many communities were left out and economic inequality grew to unprecedented and inexcusable levels. This is one of many causes of our political and cultural disenchantment.
A growing and fairer economy might be a necessary condition for improving our political situation, but it is not sufficient. We face a political problem that needs a political solution.
“Crisis of legitimacy” is a useful phrase in political theory classes but not political campaigns. Nonetheless, the campaign finance reforms of the 1970s were a genuine effort by Congress to repair the crisis of legitimacy brought on by Watergate. In the short term, they helped boost civic morale even if the Supreme Court would eventually dismantle them.
Jimmy Carter was probably the last sitting president to try to address this kind of political-existential question full frontal. But his 1979 “crisis of confidence” is now lampooned as the classic example of what happens to a president who gets too angsty and egg-headed. Presidents Clinton and Obama did both try to restore the reputation of government and government service after years of Republican attacks and aggressive small government ideology. Now it’s time to tackle the bigger job. We’ve gotten a sharper taste of what can happen if public trust bottoms out: Trumpism.
But what to do?
Liberals and conservatives will have very different answers. Republicans of the old Burkean school, of which there a only a few roaming the land, are suspicious that political engineering — reforms, new laws, fresh party rules — can change attitudes and behavior in predictable, constructive ways: tradition, culture and leadership are what matter. I am inclined to agree, but this is a helpless, defeatist position.
Mainstream Republicans, if they still exist, have opposed political “reform” because they think it is code for anti-business and anti-GOP. On a deeper level, as free market worshippers, Republicans generally argue that a strong economy and constricted government are the best cures for any political illness.
Democrats, liberals and Sandersites still look at campaign finance as the holy grail of reform; tame big money and special interests, our elected representatives will do the right things and trust in government will return. Hillary Clinton, ironically, gives this lip service.
Continuing to ignore the vilification of government would be self-destructive, but individuals and organization do self-destructive things all the time. This is a slow-growing condition that became fully malignant in 2016. Trump got closer to the White House than any know-nothing demagogue or nut job in our history partly because so many Americans have believed for a long time the whole corrupt system needs to be blown up. Who knows what could come next?
One very practical consequence: too many smart, ambitious young people and successful professionals in their primes have avoided politics and government service. This will get worse and exacerbate a vicious cycle — the worse an institution’s reputation, the worse the talent it can attract.
I have come to believe that campaign finance is the wrong target, more symptom than cause. I believe the starting point must be breaking the cycle of the “permanent campaign.” This entails two Herculean challenges: radically shortening primary and general campaigns to come in line with every other democracy; amending the Constitution to lengthen terms in the House to four years.
As a more realistic starting point, however, I’ll settle for defeating Donald Trump on November 8. After that, political reformation could be a perfect mission for former president Barack Obama.