Our Political System Is Still Hanging in There

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Halfway through the year, it’s time to step back and make sure we’re still functioning reasonably well as a democracy … are we?

By Seth Masket

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Democrats in the House of Representatives take the floor to begin a sit-in demanding gun safety legislation on June 22, 2016. (Photo: Public Domain)

House Democrats, led by John Lewis, take the floor to begin a sit-in demanding gun safety legislation on June 22, 2016

The long Independence Day weekend is actually a good time for the nation to pause and take stock. We’re halfway through the year. Are we doing OK? Are our governing institutions functioning reasonably well? Are we in decent shape to handle the remainder of the year and whatever comes after?

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. But I’d like to offer some hopeful suggestions here. Below is an incomplete list of signals that our political system is actually still pretty healthy.

  1. DONALD TRUMP IS UNPOPULAR: I say this not to sound like a partisan hack, and I say it conceding that Hillary Clinton has rather high unfavorability ratings. But one of the major concerns from the primaries and caucuses was that it didn’t matter what Trump did — no matter how bombastic or offensive or even racist his statements were, he was still gaining supporters. And yes, that was true among the Republican primary electorate. But now he’s running nationally, and it turns out his statements have hurt him. People overwhelmingly see him negatively, and view him as unqualified for the presidency. They didn’t necessarily have these views a year ago. The takeaway is that, even in an era of hyper-polarization, words and actions still have consequences. Insulting people, demonizing minority groups, dismissing people based on their heritage, religion, or gender … these things will eventually turn voters against you. Candidates and parties would be wise to avoid such things.
  2. MONEY CAN’T BUY YOU LOVE: One of the more notable features of this year’s presidential race is the failure of money, as Jennifer Victor has noted. The candidates in the Republican contest with the most money didn’t get very far, while the nomination was won by someone who has spent — and raised — almost nothing. Perhaps more importantly, the Koch brothers, who had promised to spend fortunes to get their way in the Republican nomination contest, came away with nothing. None of this should suggest that money doesn’t matter in politics. Of course it does; it plays a huge role in determining who gets to run. But the race doesn’t necessarily go to the richest or the spendiest. And people who spend millions on elections are often yielding a pretty poor return on the investment.
  3. JOHN LEWIS ORGANIZED A CONGRESSIONAL SIT-IN: Maybe you agreed with his policy approach and goals, maybe not. But the encouraging signal here, on the floor of the House of Representatives, was that ideas and issues of importance to the American people can still make themselves heard in the national government, even if it requires unusual procedures to pull them off. For those who see the federal government as out of touch and deaf to the concerns of real people, this was a reminder that their voices can still be heard. And it wasn’t a small thing to see a man who got beaten up at a march before most of us were born still using his power and skills to point out problems and address wrongs.
  4. THE BIGGEST MUSICAL IS ABOUT A SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY: Not to get all Hamilton fanboy here, but the success of that musical, both critically and commercially, is very encouraging from the perspective of American politics. It shows that it’s still possible to generate interest in the Founding Fathers and the debates at the heart of the American experiment, and in a way that doesn’t sugarcoat the material. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a wonderfully complex character — scheming, ambitious, and unfaithful, while brilliant, sympathetic, tragic, and, on many things, right. Perhaps even better is the portrayal of Thomas Jefferson, every bit Hamilton’s equal in intellect, passion, and eloquence, yet even more of an arrogant prick, and, of course, a slaveowner. And the play beautifully shows these fierce rivals arguing and conniving and building something important and lasting. The musical reminds us that politics, in all its ugliness, doesn’t undermine government; it creates it.
  5. A MAJOR PARTY NOMINATED A WOMEN FOR PRESIDENT: Clinton’s gender seems, in many ways, like one of the least notable facts of this year’s presidential election. But it’s no small thing! Surely that’s one of the main lessons our children and grandchildren will be reading about when they study the 2016 election in the decades to come.

Anyway, criticize the American political system all you want — there’s plenty of material���— but I remain encouraged by what I’ve seen this year. And I think we’re ready to play the second half.

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