WASHINGTON, May 18, 2015 – The emerging candidates for president in 2016 are already busy at work collecting money for their campaigns and staking out their positions on issues from gay marriage to government spending to whether or not, knowing what we know now, the Iraq war was a mistake. Often they consult with their pollsters to determine which position would be more useful for victory in Iowa or South Carolina or New Hampshire, for this year’s position on issues may be different from positions held in the past. After all, times change.
Recently, this writer reread an article written in 1970 for the Yale Review entitled, “The Irrelevance of American Politics.” Sadly, the arguments I made at that time seem even more true today.
I wrote, for example: “Over a period of time it has become increasingly evident that the two major political parties have become nothing more than vehicles for power. Their general philosophy about government cannot really be defined, and their points of difference are even more obscure.”
This article notes, “For many years, we have had two parties which seemed to be different only in name. Each party has considered itself more as a vehicle to power than as a repository for a particular approach to the business of government. Candidates present themselves as potential leaders not because of their ability, experience or policy, but simply because ‘they can win.’ The Democrats and Republicans have, however, played somewhat different roles…The Democrats, by and large, have proposed. The Republicans have, by and large, first opposed and then accepted the proposals of the Democrats…The public senses no difference between them except that each would like to be in power.”
Republicans like to say that they are for “small” government and fiscal responsibility. Yet when Republicans are in power, government continues to grow, as do deficits. Under George W. Bush, deficits reached an all- time high. Republicans who say they believe in free enterprise and free markets bailed out Wall Street and General Motors with taxpayer dollars.
Even under Ronald Reagan, government continued to grow. And Republicans used to refer to the Democrats as the “war party.” After all, it was Democratic presidents who presided over World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam. Now, the parties seem to have shifted. George W. Bush invaded Iraq and Republicans now speak of sending U.S. troops to fight ISIS and seem prepared to scuttle any agreement with Iran and move toward war instead.
Benjamin Disraeli lamented in the England of the 19th century the fact that the Conservative Party had abandoned any semblance of principle. In “Coningsby,” he wrote: “The Duke talks to me of Conservative principles, but he does not inform me what they are. I observe indeed a party in the state whose rule is to consent to no change until if is clamorously called for, and then instantly to yield: but those are concessionary and not Conservative principles.”
He gives counsel to search for something which is both lasting and meaningful: “…hold yourself aloof from political parties which from the necessity of things have ceased to have distinctive principles, and are therefore practically only factions; and wait and see, whether with patience, energy, humor and Christian faith, and a desire to look to the national welfare and not to sectional and limited interests; whether, I say, we may not discover some great principles to guide us, to which we may adhere, and which, then, will ultimately guide and control others.”
The Yale Review article concluded: “If democracy is to continue to work, if must provide an arena within which the real problems of society are discussed and debated by those who have some serious intentions of solving them. Today’s Republicans and today’s Democrats are addicted to the liberal formula which entered our political life at the time of the New Deal. That formula has been tried to its utmost, and has now been found wanting. Today when we are in need of a Conservative party to help us to preserve the values which really matter in the midst of a society in danger of destroying all values, we have no such party. Today, when we need a Liberal and innovative party to meet new problems with new solutions, we find no such party. Parties, as men, become frozen in time and place. In a peaceful period, this is a luxury we can afford. But in this time and place irrelevance is a cardinal sin.”
What passes for political debate seems more like a recitation of right-wing and left-wing cliches that have little to do with the real problems we face. Perhaps this is why young people seem increasingly alienated from political life. A recent poll of young Americans by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that only just over a quarter called themselves either strong Democrats or Republicans, while 40 per cent claimed to be politically independent.
Many younger Americans seem to be losing faith in electoral politics as a way of tackling society’s problems. In the 1972 presidential election (Nixon vs. McGovern) half of eligible 18-to-24-year-olds cast ballots. Only a third of that age group voted in 2000. Now researchers are considering a related question: if young people cannot be bothered to vote, will they see any point in running for office? Early in May, political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox published “Running From Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off To Politics,” a book analyzing the political ambitions of more than 4,000 high school and university students. Overall, only about one in nine young people in their study could seriously imagine running for public office. Youth disdain was sharpest when contemplating Congress and the federal government. Asked to pick three possible jobs from a list of 20, students ranked “mayor of a city or town” 17th: above “member of Congress” but below even such disliked trades as journalism.
The Economist has said, “The young were not always so jaundiced. A 1973 study of high school students is instructive: back then, most youngsters thought that folk in government knew what they were doing. Today a minority trusts the government to do the right thing most of the time. In the 1970s almost three-quarters of students regularly talked politics with their parents. Now three-quarters seldom do. The subject is deemed distasteful. The professors quote a student who says that among friends politics ‘kills the mood.’…The danger is that modern politics seems to be repelling most young Americans as rarely before.”
Today’s candidates are busy raising large amounts of money from those who seek to influence their policies on particular issues. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for example, is an opponent of legalizing gay marriage, yet he attended a fund-raising event at the home of a gay couple who are strong proponents of gay marriage. What they sought was to influence Cruz’s support for Israel.
And if you want money from Sheldon Adelson, as Chris Christie found out, never refer to Israel’s control of the West Bank as “occupied” territory. Christie did so at one Adelson audition, and then was forced to apologize. On the Democratic side, labor unions and many liberals oppose the trade agreement President Obama has negotiated. Hillary Clinton, previously a proponent of the trade agreement, has been silent on the subject now—and won’t take any questions from the press.
Americans observe the machinations of the candidates and see that they have little to do with the real problems confronting our society. The primary objective is gaining power, not to implement a well thought out agenda, but simply to have it. They will, it seems advocate any program necessary to achieve this. Hence the title of that 1970 article, “The Irrelevance of American Politics,” seems as valid today as it was then, perhaps even more so. As the too-long presidential campaign season gets under way, this will become increasingly clear to more and more Americans. Shrill political cliches will substitute for serious debate about the future, and all of us will be the losers.