We are now in the early phases of selecting the president of the United States. Vast amounts of money are being raised, plans are being laid, opposition research is underway and the first significant scandal has broken with the discovery that Hillary Clinton used a non-government email account for government business. Ahead of us is an extended series of primaries, followed by an election and perhaps a dispute over some aspect of the election. In the United States, the presidential election process takes about two years, particularly when the sitting president cannot run for re-election.
This election process matters to the world for two reasons. First, the world’s only global power will be increasingly self-absorbed, and the sitting president — already weakened by the opposition party controlling both houses of Congress — is increasingly limited in what he can do. This is disturbing in some ways, since all presidential elections contain visions of the apocalypse that will follow the election of an opponent. During the U.S. election season, the world hears a litany of self-denigration and self-loathing that can be frightening emanating from a country that produces nearly a quarter of the world’s wealth each year and commands the world’s oceans. If Honduras were to engage in this behavior, the world would hardly notice. When the United States does it, the public discourse can convince others that the United States is on the verge of collapse, and that perspective has the potential to shape at least some actions on the global stage.
Tempering the Passions of Politics
The United States sees itself as the City on the Hill, an example to the world. But along with any redemptive sensibility comes its counterpart: the apocalyptic. The other candidate is betraying the promise of America, and therefore destroying it. Extreme messages are hardwired into the vision that created the republic.
The founders understood the inherent immoderation of politics and sought to solve problems by limiting democracy and emphasizing representative democracy. Americans select representatives through various complex courses. They do not directly elect presidents, but members of the Electoral College.
Likely an archaic institution, the Electoral College still represents the founders’ fear of the passions of the people — both the intensity of some, and the indifference of others. The founders also distrusted the state while fully understanding its necessity. They had two visions: that representatives would make the law, and that these representatives would not have politics as a profession. Since re-election was not their primary goal, they were freed from democratic pressures to use their own wisdom in crafting laws.
The founders saw civil society — business, farms, churches and so on — as ultimately more important than the state, and they saw excessive political passion as misplaced. First, it took away from the private pursuits they so valued, and it tended to make political life more important than it should be. Second, they feared that ordinary men (women were excluded) might be elected as representatives at various levels. They set property requirements to assure sobriety (or so they thought) in representatives and at least limit the extent to which they were interested in politics. They set age requirements to assure a degree of maturity. They tried to shape representative democracy with standards they considered prudent — paralleling the values of their own social class, where private pursuits predominated and public affairs were a burdensome duty.
It is not that the founders regarded government as unimportant; to the contrary, it was central to civilization. Their concern was excessive passion on the part of the electorate, so they created a republican form of representative government because they feared the passions of the public. They also feared political parties and the factions and emotions they would arouse.
Parties and Party Bosses
Of course it was the founders who created political parties soon after the founding. The property requirements dissolved fairly quickly, the idea that state houses would elect senators went away, and the ideological passions and love of scandal emerged.
Political parties were organized state by state, and within state by counties and cities. These parties emerged with two roles. The first was to generate and offer potential leaders for election at all levels. The second was to serve as a means of mediation between the public — for multiple classes, from the wealthy to the poor — and the state. The political machines that dominated the country served as feeders of the republican system and ombudsmen for citizens.
The party bosses did not have visions of redemption or apocalypse. They were what the founders didn’t want: professional politicians, not necessarily holding office themselves but overseeing the selection of those who would. Since these officeholders owed their jobs to the party boss, the boss determined legislation. And the more powerful bosses populated the smoke-filled rooms that selected presidents.
This was a system made for corruption, of course, and it violated the founders’ vision, but it also fulfilled that vision in a way. The party bosses’ power resided in building coalitions that they could serve. In the large industrial cities where immigrants came to work in the factories, that meant finding people jobs, securing services, maintaining the schools and so on. They didn’t do this because they were public-spirited, but because they wanted to hold power. Even if companies that kicked back money to the bosses built the schools or the brother-in-law of a party boss owned the company that paved the streets, the schools got built and the streets got paved. The political machines were very real in rural areas as well.
Every four years, party bosses gathered at the party convention with the goal of selecting a candidate who would win. They would allow the candidate his ideological foibles, so long as they retained the ability to name postmasters and judges and appoint federal contracts in their areas. The system was corrupt, but it produced leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, as well as some less illustrious people.
The Boss System Breaks Down
Starting in 1972, following Richard Nixon’s presidency, the United States shifted away from a system of political bosses. This was achieved by broadly expanding primaries at all levels. Rather than bosses selecting candidates and controlling them, direct democratic elections were used for candidate selection. Since the bosses didn’t select candidates, the candidates were beholden to the voters rather than the bosses. Each election year, the voters would select the candidates and then select the officeholder. Over time, the power of the political machine was broken and replaced by a series of elections. The founders did not want this level of democracy, but neither did they explicitly want the party boss.
This change had two unanticipated consequences. The first was that the importance of money in the political process surged. In the old system, you had to convince bosses to support you. That took time and effort and required that promises be made, but it did not require vast amounts of money. Under the primary system, apart from the national election, primary elections take place in almost all states. Candidates must build their own machines in each state and appeal directly to voters. That means huge expenditures to create a machine and buy advertising in each state.
As the bosses’ corruption was curbed but money’s centrality soared, the types of corruption endemic to the political system shifted. Corruption moved from favors for bosses to special treatment of fundraisers, but it was still there. Reformers tried to limit the amount of money that could be contributed, but they ignored two facts. First, a primary system for the presidency is fiendishly expensive simply because delivering the message to the public in 50 states costs a fortune. Second, given the stakes, the desire to influence government is difficult to curb. The means will be found to donate money, and in some cases it will be done in the hope and expectation of favors. The reforms changed the shape of corruption but could not eliminate it.
The second unintended consequence was that it institutionalized political polarization. The party boss was not a passionate man. But those who go to the polls in primaries tend to be. Turnout at American elections is always low. The founders set the election for a Tuesday rather than a weekend as in many countries, and it is a work day, with children to be picked up at school, dinner to be cooked and so on. The founders designed politics to be less important than private life, and in the competition on Election Tuesday, private life tends to win, particularly in off-year elections and primaries.
The people who vote in primaries tend to be passionate believers. The center, which holds the largest block of voters in the general election, is not a passionate place. The kids’ homework comes first. Passion exists on the wings of both parties. This means that in the primaries, only two types of candidates win. One is the extremely well funded — and the passion of the wings make funding for them even more important. The other is the ideologically committed. The top fundraisers face the most passionate voters, and the contest is whether the center can be turned out with money. Frequently the answer is no. The result is that the wings, although likely a minority in the party, frequently select candidates in the primary who have trouble winning the general election. From their point of view, winning means nothing if you give up principles.
All of this applies equally to elections to the House and Senate. It has been said that there has never been less bipartisanship than there is now. I don’t know if that is true, but it is certainly the case that the penalties for collaboration with the other party, or for moving to the center, are extremely high. The only ones who can do it are the ones who can raise sufficient money to draw the center out. And that is hard to do. As a result, everyone must run to the extreme in the primary and run to the center in the general election. The reforms have institutionalized hypocrisy and outsized strength for marginal groups, though they succeeded in breaking the party bosses.
Since 1972, the United States has elected presidents like Ronald Reagan, the two Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I will leave it to the reader to determine how this compares to the boss-generated leaders. However, I would argue that the ombudsman system has broken down. Bosses, because they were corrupt, could provide an interface for voters with employers (who wanted contracts) and government. I suspect that the collapse of the boss system made it easier for the Italians, Irish and Jews to integrate into society, and harder for blacks and Hispanics. There are pockets of bosses, but they are not the norm, and they cannot offer as much without going to jail.
This is not meant to romanticize the bosses. We are, on the whole, better off without them, and we can’t resurrect them. I am trying to explain why our elections have become so long, why they cost so much money, and why the wings of the parties get to define agendas and legislative and executive behavior.
The Geopolitics of the U.S. Elections
There is a geopolitical side to this as well. The internal political process of the leading global power is always a geopolitical matter. The structure and method whereby leaders are selected shape the kinds of leaders who govern and define, to some extent, the constraints placed on governments. Geopolitics, as Stratfor uses the concept, argues that the wishes and idiosyncrasies of individual leaders make little difference in the long run. This is because leaders are constrained by global realities. It is also because internal political processes define what must be done to take and hold power. Those internal political processes have their own origins in impersonal forces.
There has been a long struggle between the founders’ vision of how politics should work and the reality of the process. The party boss was, in a weird way, an implementation of the principle of representative government. He was also a symbol of corruption and anti-democratic behavior. His demise has created the primary system, which carries with it its own corruption. Moreover, it has systematically limited the power of the center and strengthened the power of the most ideological. It has also caused U.S. elections to put the world ill at ease, because what the world hears in the Georgia, Vermont or Texas primaries can be unsettling. The American Republic was invented and it is continually being reinvented on the same basic theme. Each reform creates a new form of corruption and a new challenge for governance. In the end, everyone is trapped by reality, but it is taking longer and longer to enter that trap.
This situation is not unique to the United States, but the pattern differs elsewhere. Over the centuries, the U.S. public has been shaped by immigration, and the U.S. government was consciously constructed out of the theoretical constructs of its founders. It was as if the country were a blank slate. It was in this context that waves of reform took place, all changing the republic, all with unintended consequences.
I have tried to show here the unintended consequences of the post-Watergate reforms to illustrate why the American political system works as it does. But perhaps the most important point is that redrawing the government is endemic to the kind of government the United States has, and that the United States both absorbs change well and is frequently surprised by what change does. In other countries, there is less room to maneuver, and perhaps fewer surprises and standards of success. The political parties emerged against the founders’ intentions, because political organization beyond the elite followed from the logic of the government. The rise of political bosses followed from the system, and simultaneously stabilized and corrupted it. The post-Watergate reforms changed the nature of the corruption but also changed the texture of political life. The latter is the issue with which the United States is now struggling.
China, Russia and Europe are all struggling, but in different ways and toward different ends, frequently because of problems endemic to their cultures. The problem endemic in American culture is the will to reform. It is both the virtue and vice of the U.S. government. It has geopolitical consequences. This is another dimension of geopolitics to be considered in the coming weeks and months.
George Friedman is the Chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996 that is now a leader in the field of global intelligence. The Paradox of America’s Electoral Reform is republished with permission of Stratfor.