“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” asked Mrs Powell, a resident of Philadelphia, as Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention taking place in Independence Hall. It was 1787.
“A republic, if you can keep it,” replied Franklin.
Last night, 575 days after she launched her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton brought it to a close on the streets of Philadelphia. It was no accident that she chose Philly. She needs to mobilise the city’s voters if she is to win the state of Pennsylvania and withstand Trump’s strong support among its rural blue-collar workers.
It’s also no accident that she pitched her rally in the shadow of Philadelphia’s most famous landmark: Independence Hall. Joined onstage by two presidents, past and present, the historic backdrop added a powerful message. Today Americans are not just choosing someone to be Obama’s successor, but a successor to the forty-three individuals who, since Washington, have been entrusted to preserve, protect and defend America’s Constitution and its democracy.
So far the media, pundits and voters have focused on the horse race between Clinton and Trump, looking at who’s up and who’s down. And what a horse race it has been. For all the mud that’s been trodden through, one of them will win tonight. Both will be licking their founds after a bruising, unedifying campaign. But the winner won’t have much time to recover; he or she faces the daunting challenge of leading a wounded nation.
So, thinking about the future of American democracy, what can be done to help prevent another 2016? What political changes could help a wounded nation restore confidence in its electoral democracy? I have three suggestions.
- Change the primary system
American elections are long. Ridiculously long. They don’t have to be. There was a time when the rest of the world looked at America’s primaries and caucuses with envy. It all seemed like such a healthy, democratic exercise. Instead of political hacks and party insiders having control over who they nominate, what could be more democratic than opening up the process to the people themselves?
However, there are two big problems with this process. The first is that a tiny minority of voters have a huge degree of influence. These voters, especially those in Iowa and New Hampshire (the first states to vote in the primary process), are unrepresentative of America as a whole. No matter how seriously they take their job in vetting candidates for the presidency, it’s just not fair that several hundred thousand voters in these disproportionately white, rural states can play such a significant role in selecting the leader for their 320 million fellow citizens.
The other main problem with primaries is that because voters are choosing between candidates of the same party, they can no longer rely on party labels to give them a good policy-based guide as to who they should vote for. This encourages candidates to appeal to the party ‘base’ and voters to levitate to candidates running the best campaign, not necessarily the one with the best policy platform.
The Republican and Democratic parties themselves can change the nomination process. It’s probably unrealistic to abolish primaries altogether, but two small first steps could be at least to shuffle the order in which states vote, giving greater prominence to those that are more representative of the country as a whole, and to condense the duration of the primary season. So, in 2020, instead of starting with the Iowa caucuses in January, why not start with a Florida primary in March?
- Change campaign finance laws
American elections are expensive. Ridiculously expensive. They don’t have to be. As of today, it has been estimated that $6.6 billion has been spent on the 2016 election. You read that right: billion. The cost has skyrocketed in recent cycles.
One of the unhelpful factors behind these obscene costs has been the US Supreme Court. In 2010 it ruled in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission that spending money on elections effectively counts as free speech, and that corporations have a right to spend unlimited money in campaigns.
There is, of course, some regulation of campaign finance, but there is relatively little regulation to minimise the overall cost of elections. The result? The election cycle becomes longer and longer each time, corporations gain undue influence over the electoral process, and the candidates who put themselves forward for office either have to be really rich (Donald Trump) or really well-connected (Hillary Clinton).
The good news is that campaign finance reform could be on the political agenda. Hillary Clinton has made it one of her key priorities, and Donald Trump has himself been critical of the role of corporate money in elections. Moreover, the balance on the US Supreme Court could shift once the next president fills a vacancy, meaning that the controversial Citizens United decision could be reversed and spending restrictions upheld.
Until the cost of elections is brought under control, it will be difficult for any president, Democratic or Republican, to claim much credibility in dealing with America’s alarming levels of inequality.
- Change the atmosphere in Washington
American politics is polarised. Ridiculously polarised. It doesn’t have to be. Of these three suggestions, I have to say, this one will be the hardest to put into practice. This one doesn’t require the changing of a rule or the changing of a law. It is about changing the attitudes of American people and their lawmakers.
For the last two decades, Democrats have become consistently liberal and Republicans have become more consistently conservative. Whenever one party holds the presidency and the other controls Congress, as has been the case for much of the Obama administration, we have gridlock. For Washington to work effectively, it requires both sides to negotiate and compromise.
Instead, a polarised climate has produced a stand-off. Instead of working with the Obama administration, Republicans in Congress initially made it their mission to be a ‘one-term’ president. When he was re-elected, they didn’t see any point in making his second term any more pleasant. The trouble is, when the driving motivation of political representatives is simply to prevent the other side from claiming credit for anything, the whole country loses.
Gridlock and inertia have created a dangerous vacuum. It’s not that Washington doesn’t work; it’s that too many politicians don’t want it to work. That helped to stoke up anger against ‘career politicians’ and ‘Washington insiders’, and it helped someone like Donald Trump to come along as the ultimate anti-establishment candidate. The Republican Party, often not helped by the stubbornness of some Democrats, has spent so long feeding obstructionism in the political system that its establishment figures can’t be surprised that Trump ended up as their party’s nominee. They created the conditions in which he could thrive. They created this monster.
It’s in both parties’ interests, America’s interests and, ultimately, the world’s interests for Republicans and Democrats to find a way of working together again. They may have different ideas for the direction of the country, but they need to start appreciating the fact that they share a stake in it and that their opponents remain worthy of respect. That, sadly, is likely to remain a tall order.
Philadelphia’s city motto is Philadelphia maneto: “Let brotherly love endure.” Tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, America’s going to need some brotherly – and sisterly – love to keep its republic in order. There are only so many 2016s it can take.