For political junkies, presidential nominating conventions are destination television. It’s ritualistic theatre as, almost without exception in living memory, the presumptive nominee has been confirmed. Yes, officially winning a nomination warrants “Breaking News Alerts,” but the conventions are more about marketing than decision-making.
The 2016 conventions had a different sort of intrigue because the two nominees are as much distinguished by their unpopularity as their credentials. Internal party opponents telegraphed their intentions to disrupt the convention, but the discontent was mostly managed. Outside the conventions, voters may differ as to which is the worst of the choices, but relatively few are celebrating their preferred candidate as a virtuous choice.
So beyond the question of whether you dislike Hillary or Donald more rests a bigger question. How did we get here? Are these really the best alternatives that can be provided to the voters of one of the world’s leading democracies?
There’s valid debate about the strengths and weaknesses of the party and primary system, but one point I haven’t noticed mentioned is how the effectiveness of the political party structure is simultaneously challenged in several western democracies at present. In Great Britain, both leading parties faced internal divisions relating to the Brexit vote. In Australia, party squabbles have produced four Prime Ministers in six years. Even in Canada, while the intensity and consequences are of a very different degree, the Conservatives and are engaged in leadership and identity soul-searching. The Liberals are in the midst of doing away with their historic party structure, getting rid of memberships and trying to market the party as a movement rather than an institution.
While the degrees and consequences of these various circumstances differ widely, is the incapacity of the political party to survive the absence of coherent foundational ideas at least part of the problem? Canadian journalist Susan Delacourt wrote a book a few years back documenting the shift from thinking of political parties as families – held together by a certain bond even if they sometimes yelled and fought – to thinking of them as marketing organizations. Politicians are “shopping for votes” and democracy has been reduced to voters engaging in a quadrennial shopping expedition. The net result is that the political party is a very different institution than it was a relatively short-time ago.
Is this a logical consequence of our post-ideological age? For the past generation, the debate has shifted from differences in ideas to identity politics. We no longer engage as conservatives or liberals participating in political debate. Instead, we are dividing more along the lines of a progressivist – nativist continuum. That logic leads to an us-them mindset. Progressivist purists aren’t very accommodating to those they view as intolerant, while the nativists are very stark about excluding people, even if that means building walls and using blanket bans. Where the political party once served as a mediating institution coalescing diverse opinions into a manageable set of coherent options for voters to choose between, identities can’t be mediated in the same way.
In this context, the political party becomes impossible. Real dialogue – engagement between those who disagree – is impossible. Elections are no longer a contest of ideas but rather competing marketing campaigns as to who gets to control the state’s levers of coercion.