America will shortly limp across the finish line of the 2016 general election. This has been an unprecedented campaign season, and no matter whom you support, no matter whether you are an American or a concerned friend of America abroad, I am sure you will not say that it went well or that it reflected well on America.
This election has reminded me that the great political psychologists of the past, including “our wise and pious ancestors” (to use a phrase from the Massachusetts Constitution, there applied to the Puritans, to describe the Founding Fathers) knew much about the problems that could beset a democracy or a democratic republic, and that there really is nothing new under the sun. Go down to your cellar and find the box of paperbacks you saved from college, and re-read Book 9 of Plato’s Republic, on the psychology of the tyrannical man and how he develops from democratic man, and reflect. Re-read Madison’s Federalist No. 10 on the danger of demagoguery and the need to have institutions to check demagogic tendencies. Be a little more daring and dig out your copy of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire from the box of books that you’re not really supposed to look at once you’re out of grad school and think about political leaders appealing to the down-and-out lumpenproletariat but coming to power to advance the interests of big business rather than workers or the middle class. And when you think about the institutional machinery of one our two political parties falling into line behind a candidate that most people in that party thought and said was unacceptable before he was nominated, think about—well, I do not want to violate Godwin’s Law! But Hannah Arendt has something to tell us, too.
So I think there’s nothing new under the sun and that there’s a lot that we can learn from the past about our present predicament. But there’s a lot that is new about our times—problems that need new answers. To me, one challenge we face is the irresponsibility of our news media. I’m not just talking about Breitbart and other purveyors of nonsense that voters believe. I’m talking about the supposedly elite press that on the one hand treats political news like entertainment news and, on the other hand, has difficulty saying “this is true” and “this is false” when saying so might lead to “unbalanced” coverage. I don’t entirely blame the press, since the situation the press faced in this election was unprecedented. Still, there were few if any profiles in courage in the mainstream media this year. Nor were there many profiles in courage among leading Republicans who spoke out very strongly about Mr. Trump’s unacceptability and then endorsed him. Democrats have lessons to learn, too. Now that they have looked “unacceptable” in the face, they should treat future opponents, the Mitt Romneys or George Bushes of 2020, less apocalyptically.
I think we also need to deal with the very concerning news, late in the campaign, that factions within the FBI, our national domestic law enforcement and intelligence agency, were intervening politically in the election by selective leaks. Obviously the laws meant to prevent this kind of thing didn’t work this year. We need a housecleaning to make sure that in the future our civil servants do not abuse their power in this way. Of course, we also need to make it clear to foreign powers—I’m looking at you, Russia—that interference in our electoral process is unacceptable. Last, in my opinion we need to strengthen party infrastructure and party discipline, including by means such as so-called “superdelegates,” so that there is less chance that a major party is hijacked by an unacceptable, non-mainstream candidate. The movement towards open primaries and the like is a mistake, in my view. On the other hand (and perhaps at odds with my last comment), we should try to find ways to use the parties to drive American politics towards the center even as our increasing geographic segregation along party lines drives candidates towards the extremes—perhaps by rolling back what seemed like sensible good-government reforms at the time and renewing the age-old practices of earmarks and logrolling, which used to grease the wheels of bipartisan cooperation in Congress.
This is not a political blog and I am not going to make any political endorsements or tell you how I voted (yes, I voted early—the psychic strain was too much to bear!) If you’re an American citizen, be sure to vote today if you haven’t already and express your political will in this most important election. And let’s hope for the best!