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Could we Trump?

So. As the Other Party’s presidential campaign appears to descend into madness and chaos, I have been wondering about my own Party, and the state of our politics. As leaders of the Other Party are faced with the choice of repudiating their candidate or supporting an abhorrent and uncontrollable maniac, there have been a raft of articles in Left Blogovia asking what we would do in such a position. Largely, we are able to smugly but correctly conclude that we would never be in such a position. The question is, why not?

The answer is largely that as a matter of ideology our Party supports governance and largely (if sometimes ambivalently) honors public service in elective office, so conventionally-qualified candidates start out with a positive record to run on, rather than a negative one. The anti-government ideological stand on the right has, in this view, combined with the Tea-Party rejection of deal-making and thus of the Party’s political leaders who are responsible for making deals to make any candidate’s conventional qualifications a burden. You can, if you like, add as another contributing factor the financial incentive in the conservative marketplace to have a President from My Party, and probably a majority in at least one legislative chamber as well. This magnifies the drawbacks of being actually qualified, in terms of drawing support from that marketplace.

Another view (not necessarily contradicting that one, but placing different interpretation and emphasis) is that their Party has had difficulty drawing lines between The Party and The Fringe. Alex Jones is an example often given; Pat Buchanan is another. There is a fringe on both sides, of course, but my Party is often slow to allow it any sort of legitimacy. Too slow, perhaps, in the case of Black Lives Matter or even the Occupy movement, but in general for a Democratic politicians to pal around with conspiracy theorists or revolutionaries gets them shut out of the money and spotlight, and sometimes of support for re-election. Or, of course, not, depending on how you feel about BDS or Acorn (may their memory be a blessing) or even Planned Parenthood. There are certainly people who consider Planned Parenthood some sort of fringe activist group. They are wrong, but they exist. So maybe that question about delineating The Fringe is harder to see from one side than the other.

A third explanation (again connected with the others) places the blame on previous candidacies by unqualified dilettantes, or more particularly, the Party (broadly defined) treating such candidacies as if they were legitimate. In this reading, it’s Herman Cain’s fault, or the fault of people who gave Herman Cain a seat at the debate table. Or Alan Keyes. Or Steve Forbes. Or Pat Buchanan (again). Or Pat Robertson, back in 1988. The idea essentially being that if, in election after election, a Party’s leaders treat someone who lacks the slightest qualification as if he were a legitimate candidate, there is no reason for the Party rank and file to believe that conventional qualifications matter. And even in this election, it wasn’t easy for anyone to articulate why, in debates that had Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina on the stage, Donald Trump was not a legitimate candidate.

Digression, or rather a sort of Lemma: I should take a moment and say that I do not mean to equate a lack of conventional qualifications for the Presidency with uncontrollable and abhorrent mania. I do think that, on the whole, few uncontrollable and abhorrent maniacs manage to win federal or statewide offices and perform in them to a level that gets them any Presidential support. This is clearly untrue in the private sector. For a strong version of my claim: Dr. Carson, Ms. Fiorina and Mssrs Keyes, Forbes, Buchanan, Robertson, Cain and Trump were unlikely to ever win races to be Senator or Governor, and if they had, they would either have failed in those offices spectacularly enough to leave public life in disgrace, or they would have gained a certain measure of control—or the Party would have found a way to control them, which in a Madisonian system is just as good. You may wish to question this step of the argument separately, possibly referencing John Corzine. At any rate, it is both empirically the case and makes a kind of sense that filtering for conventional qualifications tends to filter out uncontrollable and abhorrent maniacs, even as it also filters out lots of perfectly sensible people. End Lemma.

Footnote to the above: Bernie Sanders is, I hope obviously, a conventionally qualified candidate, being a Senator with a long history of public service in elected office. End footnote.

The problem with this argument is that my Party has in fact had candidates who were lacking in conventional qualifications, but who were invited to debates and treated like legitimate candidates. Not quite as many, it’s true, but they exist. Let’s look at them.

Wesley Clark was treated as a completely legitimate candidate in 2004, despite never having held elective office and having no ties with the Party. His campaign was, predictably, a disaster, but that’s neither here nor there: the point is whether the average person who is influenced by my Party’s elite would be inclined to think that similar candidates should be treated as legitimate. I think we can pass on this one. While military leadership is not, strictly speaking, a conventional qualification for the Presidency, it isn’t unprecedented, either. I wouldn’t call it a good thing that his candidacy was treated with such deference, as there’s no question that it lowers the bar for what constitutes that level of military leadership. I mean, I don’t think General Clark would consider himself on the level of an Eisenhower or a Grant. Zachary Taylor or Winfield Scott… I think there’s an argument there, but I personally don’t think that Old Fuss and Feathers is what our Party should be aiming for. Just me, perhaps. Anyway, our Party is, in fact, vulnerable to a military-hero candidate who lacks conventional qualifications. Let’s not imagine that it isn’t.

I’m going to skip back to 1984 and 1988, and the Presidential candidacy of one of the greatest Americans of my lifetime, Jesse Jackson. There is no question that Rev. Jackson lacks conventional qualifications for office. There is no question that he was treated as a legitimate candidate. He participated in debates. He received (some) support from the party apparatus. Although his qualifications were questioned (as any candidate’s are) by his opponents, his policies and positions and his person were taken seriously. While in 1984, at least in the beginning, many in the Party saw his candidacy more as a tool for organizing the minority vote and influencing the platform, in the 1988 campaign, which was my first as a voter, he was clearly running to win the nomination. For which, as I say, he was not qualified.

Unless it turns out that there is a third kind of qualification, in addition to political office and military leadership. It is possible that leadership in the Civil Rights movement constitutes a real qualification for My Party. This would explain, for instance, treating Al Sharpton as if he were a legitimate candidate in 2004. I think a lot of people in My Party largely forget or ignore that that happened, and it totally did: Al Sharpton ran for president and was treated like a legitimately qualified candidate. Now, obviously he didn’t win or come close to winning, or come close to being even a longshot contender. But he did more or less what Steve Forbes or Herman Cain did: form a campaign, raise money, get onto the debate stage with the conventionally qualified candidates, and have no-one point out that he didn’t belong there by any stretch of the imagination. If there’s an argument that the Other Party treating Herman Cain as if he were qualified led to Donald Trump’s nomination, then Our Party treating Al Sharpton as if he were qualified was equally dangerous.

Unless, as I say, we accept that leadership in the Civil Rights movement is a qualification along the lines of being a U.S. Representative. I want to be clear that I don’t mean advocating for civil rights. I mean leadership within the Civil Rights movement, understood as the movement of the 1950s and 1960s spearheaded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This is, if you agree with me at all, a one-time and singular event, as if there were an understanding that military leadership in the Civil War was a very different thing than before or after. If that’s the case, then Al Sharpton has got to be just about the last person who slips in under the SCLC rule. (We could call it the Selma rule, which would be awesome, but Al Sharpton wasn’t at Selma, so.) If that’s the case, then we don’t need to worry about the signals the Party is sending about who can be taken seriously as a legitimate candidate.

Until the next time. Because in truth the reason why Our Party wouldn’t treat Warren Beatty or Michael Moore or Kanye West as if they were qualified candidates is because we don’t want to. If we start changing that, it changes. It’s foolish to think that Our Party is invulnerable. It is vulnerable to the same sorts of stresses that have broken the Other Party, and it is vulnerable to other stresses that I don’t know anything about. We could turn on our leaders as untrustworthy and then struggle to replace them for any of a variety of reasons, and then throw up our cultural hands in disgust and fall prey to an outsider. We could provide electoral incentives for our leadership to work against each other, rather than with each other. We could reject compromise as selling out and then fracture into competing interests. We could cultivate anger and fear for short-term political gain and then be unable to let go of the tiger’s tail. We could do something I can’t even imagine now, under stresses that don’t yet exist—millions of climate change refugees, the collapse of the international financial system, another economic depression, cultural disruption of one kind or another.

In other words, it’s not because My Party is filled with people who are fundamentally ontologically and morally different from the people in the Other Party. There are real cultural and ideological differences between the tribes, yes. And if we don’t want to be a broken Party that lets itself be hijacked by an abhorrent and uncontrollable maniac, we need to look to that culture and ideology, and see that it doesn’t take us there.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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