WASHINGTON, April 11, 2016 — The 2016 presidential campaign is proceeding in a strange manner. Each party’s front-runner is viewed in negative terms and considered untrustworthy by the majority of voters. Why Clinton or Trump is a front-runner is difficult for a thinking person to understand.
Donald Trump has insulted Muslims, Mexicans and all of his primary opponents and has called for a variety of policies, such as the U.S. withdrawal from NATO and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which have clearly not been carefully thought out.
Hillary Clinton has reversed herself on almost every one of her previous positions that have been challenged by her opponent, Bernie Sanders. She now opposes the trade agreements she previously supported, she now is critical of big banks who support her campaign, and she now finds fracking objectionable. She boasts of her achievements as secretary of state, but President Obama says that failing to prepare for the aftermath of the ousting of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was the worst mistake of his presidency.
A mistake presided over by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Most of our candidates seem to consult public opinion polls to decide what they think about the major issues of the day. Leadership and vision for the future seem to be absent. Commenting of the view that a representative’s opinion should always be consistent with the views held by 51 percent of those registered and voting in his district, William F. Buckley Jr. once said:
If the latter were truly desirable, we could have running democracy without any difficulty at all by simply plugging in Dr. Gallup to a big IBM machine and turning the dial. Do you prefer Johnson or Nixon? If the answer on Monday is Nixon 51, Johnson, 49, we could simply flash the helicopter to jettison Lyndon and pop up to New York to fetch Nixon … and so for all the senators … Why have any elected officials at all. Why not just constantly submit questions about everything to the voters, and let them decide directly?
This, of course, is the age-old question faced by political representatives: Is their role to represent the transitory opinions of their constituents or to represent their interests as determined by the best judgment of the men and women chosen to assume leadership?
In the 1830s, a citizen of Massachusetts suggested to John Quincy Adams that his job as congressman was to register exactly their views on public matters. The ex-president replied that for such a job clerks were available, and that the idea of representative government was that the person sent to Washington was to represent not the transitory view of his constituents but was to exercise the judgment in which such constituents had shown confidence be electing him.
If the constituents disagreed, he argued, they could turn him out of office at the next election.
And what of the broader view of representation? Is a representative merely the spokesman for those registered and above the minimum age in his district, or is he representative of a broader constituency?
In his book “Orthodoxy,” G.K. Chesterton discussed what he called “the democracy of the dead”:
If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history…Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes,,our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.
The Founding Fathers believed in the kind of representative government in which representatives would be statesmen, not mere reflectors of the popular will. It was Edmund Burke who noted that in making a decision such an individual must take into consideration not only the views of the current majority, but the views of all those who have come before and all those who are yet to come. To do otherwise would be to enshrine neither democracy nor freedom, but the rule of the mob and the passions of the moment.
When we ask ourselves why the level of political leadership has declined, why Congress has in many respects abdicated its role, the answer is clear. We no longer seek leadership, we seek men and women who are so devoid of judgment and opinions of their own that merely expressing what we tell them to express is no hardship.
Our political parties seem to stand for only one thing: getting elected. Republicans say they are for free enterprise, but embrace the corporate welfare of “crony capitalism.” Democrats say they are interested in the welfare of the poor, but they raise their campaign funds on Wall Street and vote, along with Republicans, to bail out failing banks with taxpayer funds. Both parties supported a war in Iraq which, we now know, was based on false premises that leaders in neither party questioned. The party out of power wants to become the party in power.
That’s what most of what passes as “debate” is really about.
The question of whether a political party should stand for something more than victory is rarely considered. Disraeli lamented in 19th century England that the Conservative Party had abandoned any semblance of principle. In “Coningsby,” he gives counsel to search for something more meaningful: “hold yourself from political parties which from the necessity of things have ceased to have distinctive principles, and are therefore only factions.”
One of Hillary Clinton’s frequent criticisms of Bernie Sanders is that he is not “a real Democrat.” In fact, this is viewed by many as a compliment—as are similar statements about Donald Trump not being “a real Republican.”
Our political life is filled with men and women who can echo the words of the James Russell Lowell poem:
“Ez to princerples, I glory
In hevin’ nothin’ o’ the sort
I ain’t a Whig, I ain’t a Tory
I’m jest a canderdate in short.”
And we keep electing them over and over again.
Many thoughtful historians have expressed the fear that democracy would not survive in the long run because people would give away their freedom voluntarily for what they perceived as greater security.
Thomas Babbington Macauley, writing in 1857 to an American friend, lamented,
I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization or both … Either the poor would plunder the rich, and civilization would perish; or order and prosperity would be saved by a strong military government and Liberty would perish. … Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reigns of government with a strong hand; or your republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians … as the Roman Empire was—with this difference—that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your institutions.
As the 2016 campaign proceeds, we should remember Winston Churchill’s observation about democracy: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
An observation worth pondering.