31 May 2024

Trump's verdict and the American political crisis

Yesterday we received word that the jury in the Trump hush money trial has found the former president guilty on all 34 counts. Every media outlet that I've read or heard has pointed to the unprecedented nature of the conviction of a former president and current front runner in a presidential election campaign. We are in uncharted territory, as Trump is scheduled to be sentenced shortly before his party is expected to nominate him for president. Sad to say, the Trump verdict and its predictable fallout highlight nothing less than a serious crisis in America's political institutions.

In a well-functioning republican constitution with a supportive political culture, citizens should be public spirited and prepared to defend their political institutions. Why? Because, if Sir Bernard Crick (1929-2008) is correct that politics is the peaceful conciliation of diversity within a given unit of rule, our ability to live at peace with our fellow citizens requires that we work to maintain the health of the very institutions enabling us to do so. The alternative is a power struggle in which our side's aspirations justify any means to their achievement—in short, a no holds barred conflict. Faithful citizenship is facilitated by a consensus favouring the rule of law and the supremacy of legal and constitutional procedures. To be sure, fidelity to procedure sounds rather bloodless and unexciting, with flesh-and-blood human beings easily competing with this principle for people's affections. Unfortunately, presidential politics only exacerbates this problem, as the typical election has increasingly taken on the character of a popularity contest rather than a necessary and informed verdict on alternative visions of public life.

If a would-be leader succeeds in gaining the support of a huge portion of the electorate, and if he is willing to hold his country's political institutions hostage to his own outsized ego, this will inevitably have a negative impact on the political system as a whole. People will come to doubt the efficacy of these institutions and will follow the person irrespective of what he says and does. During his 2016 campaign, Trump famously boasted that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose votes. At the time many people scoffed at such bluster, but since then it appears that he was largely correct. Four years later, his refusal to admit that he had lost an election led his followers to attempt violently to derail Congress' ratification of his opponent's victory. That virtually an entire political party supports him unquestioningly and that so many are willing to indulge his infantile ravings does not speak well of the health of the country's political institutions.

I will repeat something I wrote two years ago that has continuing relevance to the current crisis of leadership and political life in the United States:

A would-be office-holder 

  1. must respect the rule of law above his or her own ambitions;
  2. must be loyal to the country's constitution and abide by its provisions, even to his or her own disadvantage;
  3. must not abuse the office to advance personal financial or other interests;
  4. must honourably concede to his or her successor when defeated in an election;
  5. must refrain from divisive rhetoric and undertake, where possible, to unite the nation around a common task of doing public justice;
  6. must unwaveringly adhere to the truth and refrain from self-justification to cover missteps;
  7. must be generous and charitable to opponents and supporters alike.

In the real world, no leader perfectly conforms to these standards. But Donald J. Trump is conspicuously lacking in every one of them, without causing so much as a ripple in his support base. This indicates that the crisis besetting the United States is due less to Trump himself than to the large numbers of Americans willing to pander to his pretensions no matter what.

At the same time, I think there are structural changes that could lessen somewhat the current divisive character of American politics.

First, the political parties need to undo the reforms of half a century ago that excessively democratized the internal candidate selection process and bring back the old smoke-filled rooms. This is not to say that I have a penchant for tobacco. I do not. But prior to the 1970s, local and state officials within each party would play a more decisive role in determining who would be allowed to stand under the party's label, and they would generally do so behind closed doors. They would first vet prospective candidates to see who were most qualified and most likely to appeal to the public. At that time party conventions actually determined who the candidate would be rather than simply rubber-stamping the winner of the primary elections. This enabled deliberation over the merits of a candidate. The process was not perfect by any means, but it was considerably better than the current arrangement.

Second, the United States should adopt some variety of proportional representation (PR), especially for members of the House of Representatives but perhaps for the Senate as well. At the presidential level, this would see electoral votes distributed proportionally to the candidates rather than an entire state's electoral votes going for the plurality winner. Under PR, if 45 percent of voters opted for Republicans, the latter would receive 45 percent of seats in the legislature. If 20 percent voted for a libertarian party, 20 percent of seats would go to libertarians, and so forth. In my forthcoming book, I make a case for adopting PR. Why? Because it would more easily allow parties that no longer function well to fade away and die. In my view, Republican and Democratic Parties have become diseased parodies of their former selves. When so many Americans are disaffected with these parties, it's time for them to go. The current first-past-the-post electoral system artificially props them up, effectively preventing other parties from making their own contributions to the common weal.

Third, court judges and district attorneys should not be affiliated with political parties at all. I have long questioned the appropriateness of judges being subject to popular election, as that might compromise their independence and impartiality. The same might be said of district attorneys as well. If partisanship were removed from the judicial process, it could lessen popular distrust for judicial proceedings, especially in a high-profile case such as this.

None of these by themselves are likely to solve the current crisis in America's political institutions, but they could remove significant impediments to their continued functioning.


Bruce C Wearne said...

Well formulated, David.
In reading a comment on the BBC yesterday - https://www.bbc.com/news/articles/ck77xpkr0x8o
"Attack Trump verdict or be exiled"
I was impressed by the way in which some of those interviewed merged membership of the Union as a citizen with membership of their party. This leads to a view of political parties in which members voluntarily enslave themselves to the edicts of those controlling the party's levers.
Your reference to the turn to the democratising of political parties some time back suggests to me not only the malformation of what a political party is - in the case of a Federal Constitution with its own federal structuring - but it constitutes an implicit challenge to the constitution's framing of political life for the entire Union.
We have seen similar kinds of challenges within the Australian polity over half a century and the dominant parties - in a two-party system of electoral politics - in their crises concerning their own proper task are then transferred over to the constitution itself.
This is further exemplified by the (you are right with the term) childish manner in which the convicted felon says that this verdict will be subservient to the verdict in November. Weasle words from political parties do not show the way out of a constitutional crisis generated by political parties that no longer know their proper place.
Sorry to go on but thanks.

David Koyzis said...

The two American parties haven't really functioned as genuine political parties for decades. They have no power to approve or disapprove candidates apart from popularity contests, that is, primary elections, in the several states. And even then people remain dissatisfied with the resulting candidates. Excessive democracy does not serve democracy well.


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