The Democrats’ Clown Car

A man fills out a presidential preference card at the Democratic caucus in Kellogg, Iowa, February 3, 2020. (Brenna Norman/Reuters)

The United States needs functioning political parties.

As of this writing (early afternoon on Tuesday) the results of the Iowa caucuses — the Hawkeye cauci, as Rush Limbaugh calls them — remain unknown.

How in hell is that possible?

Because the intellectual titans who insist that they can (if only we give them sufficiently uncontested powers of official coercion) impose expert rational “scientific” management on everything from health care to global energy markets in reality cannot organize a two-car parade in Toeterville. Our would-be managers and planners are, in fact, useless as teats on a boar hog.

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How incompetent are the 2020 Democrats? Incompetent enough to make the 2020 Republicans look . . . sort of okay by comparison — and that is saying something.

Populists and pseudo-populists Left and Right sniff at the idea of political parties, at the idea that there should be some mediating layer — they call it “the Establishment” — standing between the People and power. From time to time, there are calls to abolish the parties or to supplant them with “nonpartisan” procedures, for example the “nonpartisan” primary rules in California that help to ensure no Republican ever wins an election west of Barstow.

Opposition to parties is a deep current in U.S. politics — one that precedes the existence of organized political parties, in fact.

It is an error.

The United States needs functioning political parties.

Institutions are important for a pretty straightforward reason: They do things that need doing.

In the case of political parties, that means organizing primary elections, for one thing, but also recruiting and screening candidates (bitch all you like about “the Establishment,” a Democratic party with a functioning leadership would not let Bernie Sanders get within smelling distance of the presidential nomination, not least because he is not a member of the Democratic Party), helping to build and connect politically engaged organizations (consider the many intersections between abolitionist and Republican groups in the 19th century or pro-life and Republican groups in the 21st), maintain organizations (such as the National Federation of Republican Women), etc.

What the parties are not there to do — when they are functioning properly — is to act as mere aggregators. Unhappily, that is largely what the two major parties currently do.

They have gone from being organizations with standards, procedures, and interests of their own to being “a vehicle that anyone can drive,” as Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report puts it. In the case of the goat rodeo in Iowa, she notes, “these changes were driven by representatives of a candidate who does not define himself as a Democrat.” Senator Sanders, a professing socialist, is formally an independent. “This isn’t unlike Donald Trump’s ability to completely hijack the GOP,” she adds. “The party does not have an identity outside the president.”

Max Weber, the great political theorist, worried about a habit he called “caesarism.” Mass democracy, in his view, was no bulwark against authoritarian and dictatorial strongman rule — it is closer to being a guarantor of such rule. Caesarism, in Weber’s formulation, is the result of power shifting from a parliament to a supreme leader who acts, in theory, as a tribune of the people. Gerhard Casper in his 2007 lecture on Weber and caesarism identifies the major tenets of the creed as: “plebiscitary elections, disdain for parliament, relying on the legitimacy of the monarchy for cover, preference for governing with the help of emergency legislation, nontoleration of any autonomous power within the government, [and] failure to attract or suffer independent political minds.” For “monarchy” we may substitute “presidency” and find ourselves with an excellent characterization of presidential politics in 2020.

That is not a synonym for “the politics of President Trump.”

President Trump is at times dismissive of Congress, but as a matter of substance he is if anything less contemptuous of the legislative branch than was President Barack Obama, who embraced the imperial presidency under the slogan “If Congress won’t act, I will.” Senator Sanders, in his quest for the presidency, takes an equally caesarist view: “We cannot accept delays from Congress,” he says, not as a matter of mere rhetorical urgency but by way of justifying his proposal to govern by executive order and usurp the powers of the legislative branch. He will be cheered if he does so, just as Obama was before him and, to a lesser degree, as Trump was cheered by Republicans in a similar context.

In the same way the division of powers in the government is designed to forfend the worst kinds of popular passions and transient enthusiasms, the persistence of autonomous powers such as political parties also works to prevent government from descending into a kind of elected dictatorship. But that only works when the parties are working.

Have a good look at the high pomp of tonight’s State of the Union address and ask yourself if this is a country immune to caesarism. And then ask yourself how such caesarism might be contained in the current political context.

The Democratic pratfalls in Iowa may be good for a laugh today. But there’s tomorrow to think about.

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