But I think everyone from all sides can agree: Let’s not do this again.
How can we arrange our political system so that we don’t get what nearly everyone has said are the two worst presidential candidates in history?
There is much that needs to be done, because the roots of what brought us to this point are many, but my prescription has two parts: We need to fix the primary system and we need to create a viable third party.
One of the reasons we got Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is because the primary system gave them to us. The drawn out process of selecting delegates to the national conventions, taking place over the course of many months, lets individual candidates and the media manipulate the process. The debates make solitary mistakes fatal. Candidates who perform poorly drop out and voters in later primaries don’t get a chance to vote for them.
Instead, we should have all our primaries on one day, just like we do for Election Day1 And when the smoke clears we can have a handful of frontrunners in each party who can then go to the convention and broker a result. As it is now, it’s those who can gin up the most media coverage (Trump) or who have control of the party apparatus (Clinton) who get the nomination. And this isn’t the only election year where the primaries have been a problem. Why else would we have had a succession of dynastic candidates (Bushes and Clintons), candidates from small northeastern states (Kerry, Romney, Dukakis), middling moderates who don’t really represent the party (McCain, Dole) or anointed successors to term-limited presidents (Bush I, Gore).
In a system as I propose, we could maybe find a real diamond in the rough, like Carly Fiorina. We could also surface some duds. But let’s sort it out at the convention like we used to do decades ago instead of making it a big coming-out party for the foregone conclusion.
The second part of my solution may seem contradictory, but we also need to start building a viable third party (or parties). Yes, we have third parties now, but let’s be honest, they’re a joke. They only show up on our radar screens every four years when they shoot for the moon as spoilers in the presidential race. Sure, there’s always a few Greens or Libertarians in local and state races and a few even find office, but they’re still just fringe movements espousing extreme views that appeal to few Americans.
We need real mainstream third parties that embody the principles and ideas that the Republicans and Democrats have abandoned. We need parties that can replace them. That sounds like Pollyannaism to some, but the reality is that US history is littered with political parties whose time came and went as they were eventually replaced by new parties with new blood and new ideas.
But such parties don’t arise out of a longshot presidential run. They begin by organizing locally, getting elected to school committees and city councils, then to state legislatures and constitutional offices, to congressional house and senate seats. By the time, you’re trying for the White House, your party should have at least solid minorities in both houses of Congress.
This is how you build a future that doesn’t devolve ever more into deeper and deeper ideological fissures or raise up demagogues who play on people’s emotions, especially fear, as a way to gain power for themselves.
There are still statesmen out there among us. I’m sure of it. But the current system muffles their voices at best or actively discourages them from making themselves targets at worst.
If we want a future for our country that doesn’t look like the downward spiral from the 2016 election it means we have to go beyond opining and sharing obviously fake news stories of outrageous behavior by the other candidates on Facebook and getting out there to get something done.
- Or we used to do. The widespread use of early voting only exacerbates the problems that we have with the primaries. ↩