- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
When I started this blog, I wrote that I was a Democrat. That’s because I had been one all my life, having both served in a Democratic administration, worked for a Democratic member of Congress and identified more closely with Democrats on the vast majority of issues over the years. But in doing this blog now for over a year, it has caused me to scrutinize the political process in Washington in a way that I have not before even though I have lived and worked here for almost two decades. The result is that I no longer feel comfortable identifying myself with a political party.
That’s not to say I suddenly feel greater sympathy for the Republican Party. Quite the contrary. They have never been more out-of-touch, insensitive, or odious to me… and that’s saying something given that I have lived through the incompetence of the George W. Bush years, the vapidity and excess of the Reagan years and the corruption of the Nixon Administration.
I just feel that both political parties in this country are intellectually bankrupt and, fortunately, increasingly irrelevant to the politics of the Internet era. Old styles of organization and management of interest groups — of which political parties are a vestigial artifact — will, I believe and hope, be gradually superceded by new mechanisms to identify affinities, promote dialogue and mobilize action that are less rigid and adapt more rapidly to circumstances.
Some pundits, citing the record levels of disgust and distrust that dominate the views of the American people toward their political system, have started to write that now is the time for a third party. While I would welcome such a development, my sense is that given the way federal and local election laws are currently written and election commissioners typically rule, the deck is stacked against such possibilities. This is something that urgently needs to be fixed. That said, I wouldn’t rule out a new against-the-odds push in this direction even before needed changes are made given the justifiable levels of contempt for the masters and misdeeds of the current American political duopoly.
How much better off would the country be with a three-way Obama/Biden vs. Romney/Pawlenty vs. Petraeus/Bloomberg election than we might be with just painfully predictable two way race the political parties are counting on? (You can insert your own third party candidates in there. I’m not sure Petraeus or Bloomberg would be ideal or even willing to do it… but I raise them as the type of candidates who could develop a national constituency and even have a shot at being a factor in the election.)
But frankly, before we get to reform of the political system from within Washington (hugely unlikely) or among the political elites that make campaigns happen (more likely but still not a good bet for producing an electoral win), how about the kind of reform that can happen instantaneously? What if disaffected Americans said, "Wait a minute, this system is broken, you guys broke it, I don’t owe you an ounce of loyalty. Quite the contrary. You lost my loyalty when you sold out to special interests or when you placed a premium on your own reelection rather than serving the electorate. Now you have to win it back. Until then, I’m an Independent. I’m going to remake the system from the grassroots up."
Don’t vote the party line. Don’t buy the party line. Demand new ideas and vote for results not slogans.
I’ll admit, it sounds too logical to ever happen. But we’ve reached such a crescendo of dysfunctionality abetted by each and every leader of both parties, that something’s got to give and this is a place each of us could start right now.(And honestly, if you hate the way the system is currently running, doesn’t that obligate you to try to change at least your little corner of it?)
This approach doesn’t require a move by anyone in a Washington. And it might remind them that the real position of power in the American system lies not with politicians but with their bosses, us. (You might want to note that point, Mr. President. Your frequent references in public fora and private meetings to your status as president and the prerogatives to which it entitles you don’t do you a bit of good. It might be better to remember that in our system, the president is not above the people but rather works for them.)
Further, I am under no illusion that simply having Americans take a step back from the broken political system will produce instant results in Washington. Not only is the system too carefully designed to protect the interests of insiders (political parties, big donors, congresspeople who neglect to pay their taxes or follow election laws), but the system is presented through an extraordinarily distorted lens.
By that of course, I refer to the media. Now, I know it is all too cheap and easy to blame the media and much of the opprobrium that politicians heap on them is nothing more than desperate deflection. But there are real problems in the way the media covers American politics that are exacerbating our systemic defects.
For example, there is an advertisement for the new MSNBC show starring the really first-rate team of Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie in which Todd says that he loves political campaigns and wishes that every day he were covering one. Whoever made the advertisement — and I don’t blame Todd — clearly doesn’t recognize that as much as his enthusiasm for the beat is a plus, the reality is that the commercial demonstrates in a nutshell precisely what is most wrong with American political coverage. It’s all about the game of politics and not at all about the business of governing.
In fact, over the years, political coverage has moved down the spectrum away from the admittedly idealized yet nonetheless objective, thoughtful analysis of say, The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and headed rapidly and dramatically in the direction of say, ESPN’s Sports Center. (And you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s doing a disservice to Sports Center and that the real direction they are headed is much more like, say, the constant fighting, cheap histrionics and intellectual bottom-feeding of say, Fox’s "Temptation Island" or "The Jerry Springer Show.") It’s all about the score, all about winners and losers, all about the contest…and not at all about the reason we’re supposedly playing the "game" in the first place.
Just as over-focusing on having elections has distorted our democracy promotion efforts around the world, so too has an over-focus on elections diverted our attention from the issues of the culture of democracy and the objectives of governance here at home. Evan Bayh hit the nail on the head when, in announcing he would not seek another term in the Senate, he wrote that the system had been debased since his father’s day when a Senator might spend two-thirds or more of his term able to focus on the business the people sent him to Washington for and only a year or two a term dealing with the distraction of campaigning.
The media’s obsession with daily polls and who’s in and who’s out and the cage match aspects of politics, has also unsurprisingly made it impossible (in a time of shrinking news department resources) to cover what should be covered. When was the last time you saw an in-depth thoughtful analysis of what’s going on in the Office of Management and Budget or how funds were actually being spent or where the waste is in defense appropriations or what was actually working for students in schools? How about, say, a follow-up on how U.S. aid efforts were working in Haiti or the Middle East? Want a good example of the importance of the mundane stories? Chile just suffered an earthquake 500 times more fierce than that felt in Haiti. But the devastation in Chile, however epic in scale, has cost a fraction of a fraction as many lives because Chile put into place some fairly basic building codes. Who talks about building codes on the nightly news? No one. How could they possibly hold up in comparison to the political dogfighting that makes it look like Michael Vick is the Commissioner of American Politics?
The system is broken. And since I can’t rely on the people in power to fix it, all I can do individually is to try to reclaim my little piece of that power structure. I can say: "I won’t be defined by old labels. You don’t have a call on my vote. Come and get it. Come and win it. And while you’re at it, please note that real alternatives will be welcomed sooner rather than later."