Recently, I read Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton (on which the musical is based), and I found that it had a lot to teach about our current political climate—specifically, Trump’s rise.
Hamilton featured prominently in the disputes between (and among) Federalists and Republicans that characterized the really tough political life of the early United States. Both Hamilton and fellow Federalist John Quincy Adams warned that our democracy could very easily slip into chaos and the tyranny of the mob.
Their fears have never seemed closer to being realized.
George Saunders’s recent New Yorker article on Trump paints a picture of chaos on the campaign trail—violence at rallies, invectives rallied between supporters and protestors, a country divided on both philosophy and fact. But what comes through his piece above all is the sheer magnitude of human feeling. People connect to Trump—or reject him—based on huge, powerful emotions. (Of course, the same is often true of Clinton, though these emotions often manifest in different ways.) This hardly seems a sound way to elect a president.
Our democracy has never been perfect. That is no secret. But the enormity of all its current flaws cast a new light on its former failings.
Early American democracy —thanks in no small part to Hamilton and Quincy Adams—was deeply undemocratic. Steps were taken at every opportunity to insulate government from the untamed will of the masses. The Electoral College, the Senate, and early suffrage limitations were all designed to prevent an emotional mob from steering the country towards disaster.
For reasons both moral and practical, I do not want to recommend that we walk back these changes. However, it is clear to me that we can and should do better.
While our British friends are currently gripped by a crisis (caused by a misguided attempt at direct democracy), we can still learn something very useful and important from the way they hold elections.
When British parties hold major elections, candidates are people whom the party members know well because they served together in Parliament. As a result, candidates are (with rare exceptions) properly equipped to serve as the leader of a nation. While they may not always be popular, British Prime Ministers have tended to be safe.
In contrast, the modern American primary system allows anyone with sufficient financial resources to run for President. Meanwhile, the rise of social media has (with the help of traditional media) turned what should be a contest of serious people and ideas into a reality show, which has finally given us a race between two of the most unpopular candidates in our history.
Perhaps we ought to have the leading political parties serve as nominators. They could choose primary candidates who serve or have served in the Congress to compete in the primaries. As long as there is a way to ensure that a wide variety of positions and ideologies are represented, voters would really have very little to complain about.
We could be almost guaranteed competent leadership, a diverse array of views would be represented, and the people of America would still have their choice in primary and general elections.
While there can be no guarantee that all such candidates would be perfect, no one who is taken seriously in that way by colleagues would likely lack all (or even most) of the basic qualities essential for leadership.
Democracy can never be without flaws, but we can and must still work towards—in the words of the Founders—a more perfect Union.