Yesterday’s debate will get into the literature about Presidential campaigning as the weirdest, dirtiest, and dishonest discussion ever held by two candidates to the White House. Yet Hillary Clinton remained as presidential as she could, Donald Trump’s provocations made it quite hard for her to hold it together. The GOP candidate threatened, no less, with a special prosecutor over the email issue, and stated that if he would have been President, Clinton would be in jail. He also said that if he would have held the Oval Office, Captain Kahn –the Muslim soldier who died in Iraq and whose parents were insulted by Trump– would still be alive, meaning that President Obama is unable or unwilling to avoid military casualties, which is one of the worst assumptions ever made by a nominee for President.
All of it, of course, leaving behind that the debate started with one of the contenders being questioned about the most disgusting conversation ever recorded from a top-ranking American politician –namely, one who is running for President–. Secretary Clinton, understandably, wasn’t even able to shake hands at the beginning of the debate with a man who disrespects women to a shocking extent.
The question that almost all of us have asked these last weeks is, of course, how did we get here.
Well, certainly the voters are to be held responsible of their own and free decisions; all of them, those who vote and those who, freely, abstain. When an elected politician is a fraud, the voters have the ultimate responsibility of taking him out of office; but if they fail to do so, we might need to point someone or something else. That something seems to be the political system.
In short summary, the American presidential election works as follows: the parties nominate one candidate, then they run a campaign until the Election Day, when each State gives all his electoral votes to one nominee, and the one who gets more electoral votes is elected President. The current breach? The very first step: parties do not elect their nominees anymore.
Trump and Clinton are the most unpopular candidates in History: eight out of ten Americans have «nothing positive to say» about any of them. No matter how untrusted or disliked they are, both won the nomination. Clinton’s case seems more understandable, as far as she is a well-known politician with a very long record of public service, despite her remarkable mistakes and shadows –the attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi when she was Secretary of State and her use of a non-secure email server with classified material.
But Trump’s nomination cannot be considered normal. He is, however, neither the first nor the last one. Non-partisan candidates have held significant role in American politics for the last decade and that is the main point of the problem: the parties don’t control their own candidacies anymore. They did so since the very beginning of the US political existence. And it was one of the most important tools of the check-and-balance system established by the Constitution. If a Representative was elected with his party’s support but he failed to develop the party’s policies in the House, in the next cycle he or she wouldn’t get the nomination on his district, and consequently, most likely, he would not get re-elected. That was an incentive to keep the order and the Congress working in predictable frames. But since the candidates run their own fundraising, their own campaigns and –most important– their own program, the parties have lost their influence on the primary outcome. And when this kind of representatives get elected, they are not bound by the party which they represented in the election, because, actually, it doesn’t matter. Trump has been Republican, independent, Democrat, and then Republican again, because as he stated many times in the past, «it really doesn’t matter». Bernie Sanders was not a registered Democrat until three months before the Convention –and he’s a member of the US Congress since 1991– and he is, again, an independent Senator by now. Ted Cruz is another example of a politician who belongs to a party but does as he wishes in the floor, knowing he doesn’t need GOP’s resources and support to run once and again in his State.
At this point, the leadership in both Houses become powerless, and that is the main reason for the stuck Congress we have witnessed the last ten years: the legislation does not pass because several Representatives or Senators simply disobey their parties’ strategies or policies. As an example, any budgetary decision agreed by both leaderships and the White House is useless, unless those politicians, who respond only to themselves and their constituencies, are willing to deliver. They are likely not going to do so, and there we have, every two or three years, a threat of shutdown of the Federal government because of the lack of a budget. The political parties, thus, ceased to have any sense of existence.
Parties and partisanship have always been considered as negative things. A political party is always suspicious of conspiracy theories, of turning things to its own hidden, selfish interest. Not only in America: it happens, every day more often, in Europe and in general, in Western democracies. But they are necessary. We cannot get rid of the political parties until we develop an alternative institution. Parties are not substitutable as institutions, yet they do have been displaced in their primary and vital function: the recruitment of leaders.
It has already happened in the United States. Donald Trump’s candidacy owes his success to the wide media covering of every single word said or tweeted. The media have filled the place left vacant by the parties, and that is not a good idea. The media is neither prepared nor equipped to develop a candidate selection process or to rule a country. It does not respond to anybody and it is not democratically elected. I does not have any counterpart to balance its actions. And yet, it’s selecting the voters’ menu on Election Day.
Democratisation is not always good. The turnout in primary elections has been historically low; that means that only the more engaged voters participate in the selection of the candidates, and the most engaged voters are usually the most radical ones, and probably, the most exposed to media influence (because voters mainly consume the news they want to read). This means that the radical minority actually selects the candidates who are supposed to attract the moderate voters in the general election. Is this desirable?
This is how we got here. Trump is a media product, a new brand which generates hate and passion. He built an image fit to attract a very precise section of the American electorate. The media followed him all along his path and now it’s obviously too late to step back. Now, the Republicans are facing the most difficult time in their long history because they were unable to control the mechanisms designed by themselves. Since Friday, when the Washington Post published the sexual comments, leaders like John McCain or Paul Ryan withdrew their endorsement to their own party’s nominee. They already lost the White House, but they should be interested in keep what remains of their party’s dignity. They have to take Donald Trump’s name out of the ballot where it should have never been written. And, of course, all of them should start to think about the measures to take in order to avoid this to happen again.