When the Athenians invented democracy about 2600 years ago, they took it straight, no chaser. Every citizen represented himself. The Athenian Assembly was the full citizen body. Since it was impractical for every citizen to attend to public business every day, the required quorum was rotated. If you didn’t like what the quorum had done when you weren’t part of it, you could try to fix it when your own turn came. Votes were cast, and offices were typically filled by lot. There were no elections per se in our understanding of the term, and no class of professional politicians. Some Athenians, of course, took more of an interest in politics than others, and some politicked, then as now, on behalf of their own or their friends’ interests. It was a lively, fractious scene. But everyone had a direct voice for himself, and, when the Assembly turned itself into a court, there were no public prosecutors or defense attorneys. Citizens made and answered charges against each other. It was democracy, if you like, for adults.
In a republic of 320 million, this kind of direct democracy isn’t very practical, although we do occasionally submit referendums to the citizen body as a whole, at least on the state and local level, and we could in theory have direct voting on major public questions through, say, iPhones or similar gadgets. But our Founding Fathers didn’t trust democracy as such, and created numerous impediments to its exercise. The professional political interests that run our government today, and the interests behind them, don’t want much sunshine on their activities, and no inTterference by amateurs. Amateurs, are of course, ordinary citizens, or, as our current President likes to call them, “folks.” I’ve never been sure what the President means exactly by this term, but it seems to exclude political participation except on the most ritual of occasions. Folks live their private lives, pay their taxes, and salute the flag when required. What they don’t do is bother their heads about matters beyond their competence, and certainly their control.
It was once a little different. Children were supposed to be educated, at public expense, for “citizenship,” and to this end to learn some of the rudiments of their national history and the theoretical workings of the Constitution. These exercises have now gone by the board. Jay Leno, when he was hosting the Tonight Show, used to quiz people on the street about such matters as who fought the Civil War or how many states were in the Union. The ignorance he found made him laugh, but his interviewees, no whit embarrassed, laughed too, and so did his audience. The idea that Americans should know enough to be self-governing, or at least to give informed consent to those who actually governed, had somewhere along the line become a big yuk.
About the only civic function Americans perform these days, apart from jury duty for those who can’t get out of it, is to vote. Not many of them do that, except in national elections, and when they try to they increasingly find the most remarkable obstacles in their path. At the same time, the presidential selection process has become staggeringly long and complex. No other country in the world picks a national leader as we do, as a protracted spectacle that gets nastier and uglier as it goes on, and leaves the victor pretty thoroughly covered in mud.
I’ve seen a few election campaigns, and, unless this one is your first, I’ll be telling you nothing you don’t know to say that it is about the strangest and most dismaying one in memory. Which is also to say, the most interesting and instructive.
The two major political parties seem poised to nominate as their candidates for president the two least-liked and least-trusted political figures running for the job. The Republican Party, for its part, is trying to avoid this by looking for a way, any way, to keep from nominating Donald Trump. This makes sense, because 68% of the national electorate indicates that it doesn’t like and won’t vote for him, which would be a disaster for the entire Republican ticket. The trouble is that Trump keeps winning primaries and amassing pledged delegates. This doesn’t seem to make much sense, except that the middle-aged white working-class males who do like Donald Trump turn out in heavy numbers for him in primaries, and what they like most about him is that he tells them they have been gypped and conned by establishment Republican politicians, including the sainted Ronald Reagan, for the past forty or fifty years. Which, of course, just happens to be true.
As for the Democrats, their king, or in this case queen makers are bound and determined to nominate Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy failed spectacularly in 2008 and whose national unfavorability rating, at 58%, is nearly as bad as Trump’s. Her competitor is Senator Bernie Sanders, a political Independent and avowed “socialist” who has run a grass-roots funded campaign and regularly draws rock-style crowds. Of Sanders’ 45 Democratic colleagues in the Senate, only one, Jeff Merkley, has endorsed him, and the rest of the Democratic establishment—elected officials high and low, and various party functionaries, fundraisers, and sachems—have likewise avoided him like the plague, although he has a 20 point favorability advantage over Clinton and regularly outperforms her against all potential Republican nominees by a decisive margin.
So, what gives with the two parties and the quadrennial circus by which, otherwise all but invisible to voters in the electoral cycle, they offer themselves like the proverbial princess whose hand can be won only by solving a riddle, with death as the forfeit? Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both insurgent candidates who have taken their respective parties by storm. Republicans complain that Trump isn’t a Republican; that is, that he hasn’t paid his dues of party fealty (or been, until this past year, a politician at all), and that his policy positions are wildly at odds with Republican “principles,” insofar as they can be gleaned through the fog of his demagogic rhetoric. These complaints are correct, but the conclusion that is drawn from them is wrong. Trump is actually an anti-Republican, whose success has been based on his ability to channel the pent-up fury of a core party constituency that has finally awakened to the consciousness of having been duped by an establishment, now as ever, in the loving embrace of Wall Street. Trump’s populism may be phony, but it contains the first whiff of truth these voters have had in years. And truth, in politics, is a very dangerous thing.
As for the Democrats, their story is a little bit different. Bernie Sanders is the Ghost of Democrats Past, no radical but an old-style New Deal Democrat who wants to recall the party to its progressive roots and to the unfinished agenda of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his epigones, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the younger Kennedy brothers. Theirs was the liberal mantle conferred on Barack Obama in 2008 by the dying Ted Kennedy, which Obama shed from his first day in office. If one looks at what Sanders wants to do, it is to beat a return to the past. He wants to break up the big Wall Street Banks, much as Teddy Roosevelt—a Republican, no less—broke up U.S. Steel and Standard Oil more than a century ago. He wants single-payer public health insurance, a central plank of the 1948 Democratic Party convention. He wants free tuition at public universities, which is exactly what we had 50 years ago before those universities started charging for it.
The Democratic Party backtracked from these goals after the disastrous defeat of George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election. In the mid-1980s, the so-called New Democrats completed the party’s reinvention as Republicans Lite. In the presidency of Bill Clinton, they sponsored a ruinous, job-killing trade bill; mass incarceration as a response to social ills; the evisceration of welfare services; and the discarding of the barriers between banking and investment that had held off the unrestrained, Gilded Age speculation that had brought us the Great Depression, and the New Deal to begin with. Speaking of ghosts, you can still see Bill Clinton, now 15 years out of office, hoarsely talking up the preferred candidate of party professionals in the last two contested campaign cycles: his wife, Hillary.
I wouldn’t believe it if I weren’t actually seeing it.
The rap against Sanders is that he isn’t a true Democrat, but a self-professed independent who has held himself aloof from party affiliation for thirty-odd years. This charge is correct, but what it also means is that the Democratic Party has been disconnected from itself for that same time. The question Sanders poses for it is whether it wants to offer itself again as an alternative to Wall Street politics. The fact is that, in terms of his own political roots, he is not only the one Democrat in the race, but one of the very few in the party.
It may be—it appears to be—too much to ask the Democratic Party to reinvent itself in a single electoral cycle, although that was what was also being asked of it (and spuriously promised) by Barack Obama in 2008. If the Democrats don’t do this soon, however, they risk, as do the Republicans, their supersession as a major party. Sanders has been an Independent; more Americans now identify themselves as Independent than as partisans of either major party. This large, disaffected plurality will look elsewhere if neither party can satisfy it. It is hard to see the Republicans going back to the Teddy Roosevelt-style progressivism they repudiated more than a hundred years ago at their 1912 convention. The Democrats have a more recent and more genuinely populist tradition, but they have strayed far from it. If they nominate Hillary Clinton, they may be kicking that can too far down the road to retrieve it. Both parties, in short, are on suicide watch this year.
Maybe the Athenians still have something to teach us about being a democracy after all. Maybe politics is really too important to be left to the politicians.