What matters in an election? Chiefly, one thing—the policies the winner will implement. The United States faces grave long-term problems in economics, in foreign policy, and in terms of cultural cohesion. Yet our political system is poorly adapted to face these challenges: the leaders of both major parties share responsibility for the loss of good jobs in Middle America, the hypertrophy of government regulation at all levels, disastrous wars, feckless diplomacy, and the surrender of America’s sense of itself as a nation, republic, and people—with considerable differences among ourselves, to be sure—to globalism and multiculturalism.
Basic policies need to change if America is to salvage itself from the wreckage of the last 20 years. The past two decades have shown that while America remains secure and prosperous relative to almost any other country at any other time, our security and prosperity can give way at a moment’s notice to terror, war, recession, and stagnation. But because the fundamental rot in our institutions runs so deep, grows so slowly, and oozes into the daylight only on occasion, it is easy for our media and political leaders to ignore the disease and only bemoan the symptoms.
Voters have begun to feel a sense of urgency—thus Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and Donald Trump’s success in taking the GOP nomination—but the wealthy, powerful, and well-connected have insulated themselves from what the rest of the country suffers. They have little incentive to change their ways: for them, the policy formula of the Bill Clinton era still works.
And if the people, or at least a growing segment of them, really do want serious reform, where can they turn? The problem is not just with the parties but with the entire media-political complex, which keeps the bounds of policy discussion as narrow—and shallow—as possible. A politician’s career and reputation are safe as long as he or she plays along, adhering to an assigned role as “conservative” Republican or a “moderate” or “progressive” Democrat.
The risk of punishment that comes with stepping out of line—with being branded an extremist or having one’s character destroyed—is real. But the more powerful control the system exerts lies simply in the fact that there is safety in numbers. If every member of the establishment is guilty of the same failings, none can be singled out for comeuppance—but for the occasional luckless scapegoat. George W. Bush has bled for more than just his own sins, considerable though those are.
To break with the Washington consensus is vital for the good of the country. Yet the psychological qualities needed to make such a break are not necessarily attractive. Ideological fervor or sheer personal arrogance can give a leader the strength to defy party and press; those same traits are apt to be dangerous when it comes to wielding power. Our constitutional order, however, still puts restraints on what any singular figure can do—and anyone breaking with the establishment’s ways would be checked by plenty of resistance in any event.
Imagine if Ron Paul had somehow become president in 2008 or 2012. Would the result have been exactly what he wanted, an end to most federal agencies and global commitments? No: the result would have been a balance somewhere between Paul’s views and those of the rest of Washington. And the same is true for Sanders or Trump or others who present stark, even shocking, alternatives, which would inevitably be diluted in practice.
Grassroots Republicans seem increasingly inclined to take a risk on such outsiders. Most Democratic voters, for now, are not. But Hillary Clinton may be surprised to discover that the dead center is losing its hold on the left as well. The people do have a voice, and sooner or later they will make Washington hear it.