The Republican presidential primary spectacle is the beginning of a brave new world of electoral anarchy. The same disruptive conditions and forces that are bedeviling Republicans this primary season are likely to discombobulate future Democratic presidential primaries and to morph inevitably into general election anarchy.
Anarchy generally means no obedience to authority. In the electoral context, it means no accountable candidate selection process, no constraints on who or how many can run, no pretense of decorum among candidates, no rules for the media, and no party allegiance. Electoral anarchy means that if you have the personal money, the financial backers, the national celebrity and the unbridled gumption to go for it, you can throw your hat in the ring and run for President. There are no accepted, authoritative, intra-party barriers to entry.
Electoral anarchy expands exponentially the number of candidates in the presidential primary process. It advantages the most flamboyant candidates and disadvantages the most contemplative in a crowded field. And, it increases the potential for splintering constituencies, spawning multiple independent general election candidates, and alienating the voters necessary to building winning general election coalitions.
Of course, the history of American elections is sprinkled with marginal and independent candidacies. And, we may find - as some already believe - that electoral anarchy is an improvement on the closed two party system that intermediated the candidate selection process throughout the 20th Century (and for the first twelve years of this century), and generally limited the field to candidates with a broader voter base and stronger party appeal.
But, we also might discover that it is deeply disconcerting that we are untethering the presidential selection process from the norms, rules, talent, civility and curated choices that party disciplines enforced. And, in due course, we might become horrified that we have produced a presidential selection process, fueled by unlimited contributions from the wealthiest among us, that rewards the rhetoric of anger, extremist positions, unfettered name-calling, demeaning denigration of opponents and wanton callousness to the nobility of the Presidency, itself.
The Seeds of Anarchy
There are multiple legal, political and cultural reasons that our presidential electoral process is devolving into anarchy.
The legal reasons include the McCain-Feingold 1999 campaign finance "reforms" (Congressional action) which weakened the two national party committees by eliminating unlimited contributions ("soft money") that they used to support coordinated state party building activities on behalf of all of their candidates; the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision (Judicial action) which encourages the nation's wealthiest donors to contribute unlimited sums to "independent" political and electoral advocacy; and the failure of the Federal Elections Commission (Executive Branch inaction) to define or regulate coordination between independent electoral expenditures and candidate operations.
Over the past sixteen years, these actions and inactions by the three branches of government under both parties have significantly weakened our political parties and have dramatically empowered wealthy donors to choose candidates and dominate elections. This toxic combination has produced a presidential selection process with no structure, no barriers to entry, no intermediation, and no means to moderate itself.
There also are political reasons we are devolving into electoral anarchy. These include an electorate that is increasingly anxious and fearful about its future, that is fractious and angry at politicians, that is prone to dismiss party labels and to splinter into narrow political camps, that is polarized into intransigent positions on virtually every important policy debate, and that is mistrustful of existing government institutions and officeholders. These destabilizing political realities are expanding the number of presidential candidates and contributing to the anger and shrillness of their candidacies.
The cultural contributors to electoral anarchy include the incessant partisan ranting of cable news commentators, the increasingly mocking comedic trivialization of politics, the harsh dehumanization of reality TV, the de-contextualized instantaneity and ubiquity of social media that elevates every outrageous statement and mis-statement to global visibility, and the unending drone of hyper-articulate pundits who make mountains out of molehills and blur the boundaries between the seriously relevant and the absurdly irrelevant. Together, these cultural factors turn elections into stagecraft, candidates into showmen and the electorate into a numbed audience.
Permanent Presidential Electoral Anarchy
We should brace ourselves. Matters are very likely to get much worse; the contributors to electoral anarchy are accelerating. The electorate is becoming more fearful and fractured. Our two political parties have limited power or legitimacy to intermediate. Oligarchs are frantically trying to buy candidates and elections. And, a surly, cacophonous Fourth Estate is ramping up its mindless analysis of the increasingly unruly antics of the electoral process.
No political party is immune. While the current primary anarchy is only affecting the Republican camp, there surely will come a time - 2020 or 2024 - when Democrats also will experience electoral anarchy. When that happens, the cattle call of Democratic candidates will be large and boisterous, every major Democratic constituency will field their own candidate, the Democratic oligarchs will have favorites, the Democratic primary electorate will splinter, and the media will be obsessed with the foibles and fragilities of the field.
And, while we have not yet experienced the ravages of anarchy in Presidential general elections, we surely will, and soon enough. The day is coming once again, perhaps next year, when in addition to the Democratic and Republican candidates competing head to head in the general election, one or more "independent" candidates will challenge the two major party nominees.
It frequently is argued that "independent" or "third party" candidacies, while possible (e.g., John Anderson, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader), are difficult to execute, and therefore, generally unlikely. However, in a world with significantly weakened parties, empowered activist oligarchs, a super anxious and angry electorate, and a trivia obsessed, sensationalist media, the potential for multi-candidate Presidential general elections increases dramatically.
And, if and when our Presidential general elections become competitions among four, five or more well financed candidates, we may deeply regret that development. Forty percent or less of the popular vote could elect a President under those circumstances. Or, with no candidate able to achieve the 270 electoral votes necessary to be certified a winner, we would have to hand the decision over to the House of Representatives.
While these prospects may please some, either outcome would likely elevate the power of celebrity, money or angry partisanship over popular will, democratic process, experience, competency and/or quality of leadership.
The Dangers of Electoral Anarchy
In his prophetic 1986 book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman warned that:
"When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility."
Electoral anarchy represents a dangerous, anti-democratic devolution and is a terrible national risk.
We certainly can imagine solutions to the problems of electoral anarchy. Parties could be strengthened, modernized and reformulated. Citizen's United could be overturned or its effects mitigated. The FEC could regulate political behavior more vigilantly and aggressively. And, both the electorate and the media could demand a more mature and democratic process for selecting candidates.
However, in the interim, the causes and consequences of the electoral anarchy that we have created could continue to haunt us for many years, could frustrate our hopes any time soon of finding common purpose through collective action, and could seriously endanger the vitality of our democracy.
Rob Stein is the founder of the Democracy Alliance. Opinions expressed in this column are his alone.