What Happened to Presidential Politics?


Many of us have been confused, baffled, amused, or even enraged by the 2016 Presidential race. So, how did we get here?

Somehow again, it seems the most unsavory elements of both major parties have made it to the conventions as front-runners and our choices are a curmudgeonly old white man inciting borderline class warfare, a conniving senator from a family of career politicians, or a xenophobic egotist with a bitchin’ comb-over (I guess the creepy conservative uncle just dropped out of the race. Better luck next time, Teddy).

But if you stop to think about it, this phenomenon is not confined to this election, or the last two, or even three. For many election cycles we have seen the discourse devolve from respectable and universal discussions about the philosophy of freedom, the nature of personal liberty, and the dangers of government power to emotionally-driven, reactive, and identity-based discussions where the populace is constantly split into warring tribes and pitted against each other in a fight for resources/respect/minimum wage/safe spaces/whatever. We’ve stopped asking what is right and good for all human beings and started asking “how can my in-group get what it deserves or keep the out-group at bay”.

Consider these historic Presidential quotes on immigration, economics, and liberty:

“It is now true that this is God’s Country, if equal rights—a fair start and an equal chance in the race of life are everywhere secured to all.” -Rutherford B. Hayes

“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” -John F. Kennedy

“Wealth can only be accumulated by the earnings of industry and the savings of frugality.” John Tyler

“Whoever controls the volume of money in any country is absolute master of all industry and commerce.” – James A. Garfield

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” G Washington

“That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.” -Thomas Jefferson

as compared to these gems from the 2016 Presiential race:

“They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us,” Trump said of immigrants coming from Mexico. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” -Donald Trump

“If people are bringing — pregnant women are coming in to have babies simply because they can do it, then there ought to be greater enforcement[…] so that you don’t have these, you know, ‘anchor babies,’ as they’re described, coming into the country.” -Jeb Bush

“Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” -Hillary Clinton

“Many of you are well enough off that the tax cuts may have helped you. We’re saying that for America to get back on track, we’re probably going to cut that short and not give it to you. We’re going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good.” – Hillary Clinton

So what is happening to American politics? Brain Drain.

As the ideological gap between the Democratic and Republican parties widens, it is swallowing up anyone in the middle who has a reasonably balanced political  philosophy and social outlook. Both parties have pursued increasingly extreme methods seeking very different ends, and have alienated many people who have trouble accepting their overzealous policy packages.

The Pew Research Center has an amazing body of work on political affiliation in the U.S. spanning 70 years based on historical data and their own polling, and a review of their data reveals some fascinating trends:

First, the partisan divide is the widest it’s ever been. To quote the Pew study “Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era”: “Across 48 value questions asked consistently over the past 22 years, the average difference between the opinions of Democrats and Republicans has grown from nine percentage points as recently as 1997 to a new high of 16 points today.” Democrats have a higher opinion of government intervention/effectiveness than ever, while the Republicans’ views are more negative. The Democrats are losing support from those who are wary of government intervention in the economy and Republicans are losing anyone who has a liberal social policy. Put another way, most Independents are socially liberal and non-militaristic but resent the overreach of recent Dem administrations vís-a-vís militarism and personal liberty/privacy, and as classical-liberal-style Republicans defect to the Independent group or social issues they bring more conservative economic views.

Second, the Independent/non-affiliated cohort has exploded in the last ten years. Since 2004 the number of people reporting as Independent grew from 30% to 39%. In the same period, the percentage of Republican respondents dropped from 30% down to 23%. Democratic numbers have been more steady at 32-33% with a spike in 2008 of a few percent. But the very next year something very interesting happened…

Thirdly, as of 2009, there are more Independents in the U.S. than Democrats or Republicans. That’s right- whether you knew it or not, for seven years we have been a country with an Independent majority. In 2009, 34% of respondents identified Democrat, 24% identified Republican, but 35% reported being Independent. This isn’t the first time in recent history this has happened (in 1992 there were more Independents but the Dems matched them the very next year), but it is the first time that the trend has continued unabated for several election cycles- As of 2014 data, 39% of respondents are Independent with just 32% Democrats and 23% Republicans. This could be the single greatest indicator of American political disaffection today: a majority of citizens have essentially voted “no confidence” in either major political party- and many have stopped voting period as a consequence. But the tide is still turning.

Finally, Democrats still maintain an opinion advantage. Despite the growing number of Independent-minded citizens, most Independents still report that they “lean” toward the Democratic platform than versus the Republican (48% versus 39%, a lead they’ve held since 2002). It seems there are still more liberally-minded Independents out there than conservatives, even if they can’t bring themselves to officially identify with the Dems in their current incarnation.

For all the data, see this interactive chart and this article at the Pew Research Center.

Did anyone see this coming?

In retrospect it’s easy to see trend of the growing Independent class in the United States, but it’s much harder to spot year-to-year when you’re standing too close to it. Still, some previous Presidents have warned us of the dangers of political power and office-seeking, as far back as Washington himself:

“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.” -George Washington

“Nothing brings out the lower traits of human nature like office seeking.” -Rutherford B. Hayes

“I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” -James Madison

“If the rabble were lopped off at one end and the aristocrat at the other, all would be well with the country.” -Lyndon B. Johnson

This last quote from Johnson is particularly prophetic. He might have intended the statement as a prescription for equality or centrism, but it turns out to have been a grim prediction: The entire American political discourse has turned into the rabble versus the aristocrat, as embodied by the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. How did this happen? It’s called “identity politics”: arguments based on the perspective and desires of the groups people identify themselves with. It’s been used to divide and conquer the American populace throughout the 70-year period covered by the Pew study, pitting minority special-interest groups against each other for control of public policy which will affect an entire nation once made into law. The effects of identity politics warrant discussion in a dedicated article, but for now it is amusing to note how well the problem of the growing partisan divide was captured by two very different Presidents, despite both holding office while the process proceeded unmitigated:

“We need a spirit of community, a sense that we are all in this together. If we have no sense of community, the American dream will wither.” -William J. Clinton

“Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you. Those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” -Richard M. Nixon

So much for those ideas. It seems most people these days agree with William H. Taft:

“Politics, when I am in it, makes me sick.” – William H. Taft

What does this mean for the future of the U.S.?

It’s impossible, of course, to predict the future- but one can identify current trends and make inferences. One insight comes from Andrew Jackson:

“Internal improvement and the diffusion of knowledge, so far as they can be promoted by the constitutional acts of the Federal Government, are of high importance.” -Andrew Jackson

This may be the key: “diffusion of knowledge”; but it hasn’t been due to acts of government. It’s come from technological innovation and those who employed it to defy a government increasingly tightening its grasp on power as it feels its support slipping away. It seems that the ready availability of information ushered in by the IT age has done much to pull back the curtain on the real behind-the-scenes dealings of governments, banks, businesses, and institutions- and the ugly truth of partisan politics is now too much to ignore. The people are recoiling away from what they can all increasingly agree is a broken system, but have yet to identify a common way forward toward fixing or replacing it.

So the U.S. partisan discussion today is, at best, akin to a gymnast who has stumbled but hasn’t yet recovered her footing, or at worst, a comet hurtling toward the sun, casting off all but the most stubborn of material before meeting its final demise. But that doesn’t mean we should fear. The first step toward restoring sanity in this world is accurately identifying, bringing to light, and discussing even the most heinous of problems with the status-quo.

Perhaps this will mean the rise of a viable third party within the next handful of elections. Maybe this growing mass of Independents will eschew identity politics en masse and become the new center for political discourse; and the two parties will simply see participation dwindle to zero. Perhaps, ultimately, information technology will make it possible to entirely replace party politics with a tech-enabled version of a more direct democracy, bulletproof government accountability, or competing decentralized systems of law and commerce.

For now, one thing is clear: the American people have seen more and more of the partisan circus, and the more they see the less they like. But there is a light on the horizon as technology empowers the populace. Let us turn to the wisdom of the very first President:

“Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.” -George Washington