Next month Americans return to the polls to elect a president and vice-president, members of Congress, and host of state- and county-level officials. They do so at a time of unprecedented crisis for the country. What happens on 3 November will have an impact on its future as we enter the third decade of this century. The issues range from the government’s inept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, an economy crippled by months of quarantine, the consequent spike in unemployment rates, racial division, unrest in the streets of several major cities, and a vacuum in effective leadership at the top. But above all, the United States will have to deal with a party system that is broken and a constitutional tradition whose edges are beginning to unravel.
Checks and balances
First, the party system. Because America is a two-party system, it is entirely dependent on the Democrats and Republicans smoothly functioning as collective representatives of the people. If one of the parties fails to do this on a consistent basis, the U.S. risks becoming a one-party-dominant system, similar to Mexico and our own province of Alberta throughout much of its history. The danger is that, without a credible opposition, the one functioning party will become complacent and pursue unwise policies that it could not otherwise get away with.
Half a century ago the two parties, beginning with the Democrats, sought to democratize more thoroughly the internal candidate selection process, empowering a series of caucuses and primary elections to name especially a presidential candidate. However, as philosopher Yves René Simon has correctly observed, a democracy needs nondemocratic elements in order to remain healthy. Empowering “the People” at the expense of ordinary office-holders does not improve a political system, because “the People” is too nebulous an agent to hold anyone to account. Above all, a chief executive officer needs to be held responsible to other office-holders in his or her own party who know how the system works and have some policy experience.
This has implications for the second factor, the erosion of a constitutional tradition. Ever since Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Americans have embraced a romantic view of the untutored but well-intended outsider going to the nation’s capital and shaking up a corrupt system dominated by self-serving elites. The reality is much different. Excessively democratizing a political system typically produces Napoleonic personalities who believe their dependence on “the People” permits them to bypass ordinary processes and officials to achieve their goals. This leads to a politics of personalities in which voters place their loyalties behind supposed redeemer leaders rather than a system of constitutional norms and the rule of law.
Accordingly, Republicans, who once supported a strict adherence to the Constitution, have thrown their support behind an unhinged would-be autocrat virtually incapable of unifying the country beyond his own support base. Many of his followers are so reflexively loyal that they attribute plausible reports of his failings and his inattention to constitutional niceties to a hostile press peddling “fake news.”
The Democrats have so thoroughly bought into a politics of identity and what I have called the “choice-enhancement state” that they are willing to allow an overly broad non-discrimination regime to override the differing standards of nonstate communities, including such overtly faith-based organizations as the Little Sisters of the Poor. Recent and current Democratic candidates have narrowed religious freedom to a mere “freedom of worship,” unwilling to acknowledge that a genuine religion is an entire way of life, not simply what one does in church, synagogue or mosque.
Given that neither Republicans nor Democrats can offer a positive alternative for voters next month, most Americans will likely vote for the party they hope will be less harmful to the public interest. Over the long term, Americans will need to renew their commitment to the rule of law and the constitutional order, giving it priority over personalities and dubious ideological agendas.