Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
The Not-So-New Presidential Campaign
Three candidates who have not held public office have risen to prominence in the pre-primary phase of the 2016 Republican presidential campaign, posing a dilemma for political analysts. Does the accumulated wisdom and established patterns from past campaigns provide a sound enough basis to explain the present campaign? Is the Trump-Fiorina-Carson phenomenon bound to yield to those older dynamics—or will it go down as something new, the campaign by which future campaigns will be interpreted and predictions made, consigning conventional wisdom to the ashes?
I would argue that this dilemma is more imagined than real, and we can understand the Trump-Fiorina-Carson phenomenon within existing analytical parameters. These candidates’ appeal lies well within a traditional frame that links the evolution of our modern presidency to longstanding cultural antipathies towards government.
Campaigning Amidst Political Storms
Let’s begin, however, on a theological note, seemingly distant from the dynamics of presidential politics. Writing of the beginnings of Christianity, N.T. Wright describes Jesus’s life and ministry as located amidst a trio of political, theological, and psychological storms.i The first was the storm generated by the Roman occupation, stirring up a predictable hostility to the colonizing power, hostility all the fiercer for the blasphemous manner in which Roman emperors styled themselves “Son of God” and generally threw their weight around. The second storm was generated by the Jewish expectation that God would deliver his people, an expectation placed excruciatingly out of reach by the same Roman occupation. The third, and fiercest, was the desire, found in groups like the Zealots, to dispense with the despised Herodian monarchy, throw off the Roman yoke, and be ruled directly by God.
In an analogous way, a trio of political storms engulfs contemporary American politics, two of which have been generated by the culture wars. For one, the onset of an increasingly confident progressivism as a ruling public philosophy causes conservatives in general and evangelical conservatives in particular to circle the wagons, unsure of the right and effective response. Issues like the contraception mandate or the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling pose similar challenges: What are the options? Fight back? Exit? Practice faithful presence?
The second storm is American conservatism’s internal friction that has become a powerful political force whose goal is to shrink government. Conservatives enjoy considerable power but are frustrated by that power’s reach and are conflicted about how to use it. The power of elected office has not achieved the goal of shrinking government, especially in the context of the Obama Administration, which, despite strong opposition, has prevailed on economic stimulus, health insurance, a nuclear deal with Iran, and very recently, a budget deal. The Supreme Court has not proven reliably supportive of conservative principles either. So conservatives have found themselves conflicted about the role of government even as they hold majorities—and with them power and responsibility—in both houses of Congress. Yet they still cannot check the growing progressivism.
The desire to be ruled directly by God—the fiercest of the three storms— has its parallel in the concerns generated by the conflict between the first two in my political analogy. Halfway through President Obama’s first term, the Tea Party emerged, a mix of libertarian, conservative economic, and social conservative forces, which sought to transform the Republican Party without yielding to its status quo modes of operating. Tea Party members stormed into Republican primaries to oust incumbents and threatened to shut down the government over the funding of the Affordable Care Act. They resisted their own party’s leadership on issue after issue. Even when victorious in seeing some of their number elected, they have remained frustrated, loyal as they are to an anti-institutional longing for the direct rule, if not of God, then of the market or of themselves.
The polarization that stokes these storms in Congress has settled into the electorate as well, and as the presidential election campaign for the 2016 nominations got under way this summer, the storms have left a predictable mark. Like the Jews seeking to reject both Roman rule and the inept and corrupt house of Herod, Republican primary voters have spurned any and every candidate with political experience in favor of outsiders with none: two CEOs and a neurosurgeon. They have gravitated to new visions of political leadership: In Donald Trump, vulgarity postures as proof of authenticity. In Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the outsider is the professional. And in the soft-spoken moralism of Dr. Ben Carson, voters have found increasing room for another version of direct rule sans- or trans-politics.
In what sense is this not new?
The Outsider Appeal
Outsiders have often held a strong appeal in American politics. Nineteenth century party politics had a penchant for elevating former generals--the five presidents from Andrew Johnson to Chester Arthur had all held that military rank, with Ulysses S. Grant only the most prominent. Dwight Eisenhower’s trans-political appeal in the mid-twentieth century spanned both parties. The 2016 outsiders are simply coming from further away than usual. Their appeal traces its origins to the popular style of presidential leadership pioneered by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson early in the last century: the President as Leader of Public Opinion.ii
Wilson the political scientist found in this model of the presidency a partial escape from the confining bounds of the system of checks and balances. As the sole public official who could claim a mandate from the entire nation, he would articulate the people’s wishes, fears, and aspirations as a coherent program. I write “partial” because even as the president seized control of the political agenda in this way, party support in Congress remained vital to the passage of legislation. Nor was the new model of the presidency without its pitfalls. If it allowed presidents to claim a new leadership role, it also ensured that popular expectations of the office would rise. Many a president struggled to meet these expectations.
In Franklin Roosevelt, the popular democratic leader became the Personal President,iii whose bond with the people transcended politics. FDR enjoyed large Democratic majorities. He built the Executive Office of the President, expanded the scope of the unelected bureaucracy, and saw power converge on the presidency courtesy of overlapping domestic and international crises.
But at the same time, expectations for presidential accomplishments grew in tandem with the expansion of the office. Few of Roosevelt’s successors could hope to experience the fortuitous circumstances he enjoyed. This did not prevent them from trying to break free of the check-and-balance realities of the constitutional system, however. Ronald Reagan’s goal was the shrinking of government. His principal means to achieve budget cuts and deregulation was his personal popularity. Bill Clinton ran as a New Democrat, rhetorically opposed to the era of big government, but his response to the confinements of check-and-balance was to master their dynamics in the most impressive articulation of presidential power as the power to persuade. George Bush sought to transcend check-and-balance in conventional ways as a president presiding over crisis, post 9/11.
Barack Obama returned to the outsider theme. Only a third of the way through his Senate term when he ran for president, Obama offered the trans-political themes of hope and change as his way of identifying with a public fed up with political infighting, anxious about the lack of resolution in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and ready to see in the first black president a substantive and symbolic alternative to the status quo.
Placed in historical context then, the rhetoric and personalities of the 2016 Republican campaign harmonize with, much more than they diverge from, the century-old transformation of the presidency sketched here. Citizens expressing support for Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina combine frustration at the political process with optimism towards the candidates who may resolve those frustrations. If they imagine the president in an image of non-political decisiveness and efficiency, able to command, competent to wield a surgical scalpel, they do so only at a short remove from the imaginings of the past.
This year’s outsider candidates complement their public’s hopes and dreams, and in doing, so pay homage to the same tradition of invoking trans-political presidents who will sweep away the ordinary political process and rule by direct command, with a cheering public at their backs. They, too, seek to dispense with the checks and balances that will threaten the realization of their political goals.
The Reality of Democratic Elections
But what will be the outcome, I hear readers asking? Let me suggest that the realities of democratic elections will, soon enough, gain traction. Sooner, rather than later, the transcending of politics gives way to the counting of probable votes. To understand how this might unfold, let’s examine what is going on in the Democratic campaign.
On the Democratic side, the party is at ease with government as the principal instrument of social change. Theirs is the incumbent, and probably ascendant, political vision. As the incumbent party, the Democrats are seeking, in effect, a third Obama term as their preferred strategy, frustrations with the president notwithstanding. While the candidates share the desire of all modern presidents for greater independence from the obstacles to realizing their political goals, there are no accompanying incentives for the party to look outside the political process for a candidate. The challenge to the third Obama term comes from a revived left wing inside the party that is steeped in political know-how. To be sure, the disaffections of that wing towards its establishment echo some of the populist flavor of the Republican outsiders. But there the resemblance ends. Senator Sanders is a professional politician who has fought his battles from the inside, making his accommodations with the party—he caucuses with the Democrats in spite of his democratic socialist credentials.
As for the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is running a centrist campaign along the lines of the progressive ideology her party embraces. If she appears to be concerned chiefly with not rocking the boat as it navigates the deeper regions of the campaign ocean, that appears to be the prudent strategy for a front-runner offering more of the same.
Looking across the political divide, Republican voters may in time decide that the desire for trans-political leadership will not carry them to the White House. These considerations will compel comparative questions about who can beat Hillary Clinton. And with the emergence of the actual primary electorates, composed of citizens who may have paid little heed to last summer’s or this fall’s enthusiasms, those more traditional questions may come to the fore. Then, the outsiders still in the race—and one assumes Trump is well-funded enough to persist and Carson may do well with Iowa’s evangelicals—will have to respond to more political specifics. If their debate performances are anything to go by, both fall silent in the face of political specifics. And then even the insiders may find themselves with new energy, provided they have managed to remain in the race.
Welcoming the resurgence of experienced public servants over and against outsiders without such experience won’t sit well with those outsiders’ supporters, but to do so is to welcome the reassertion of politics over fantasy. Politics is inevitably frustrating—a place of clashing views and goals—but its purpose is to do as much justice as is feasible to those who hold them. The staggeringly difficult tasks of the president are to defend the nation, to give direction to policy, and to administer laws that respect such breadth of perspective. In choosing a nominee, and later a president, experience in government is paramount. Government is an irreducible expression of the stewardship God calls human beings to practice. To cooperate with that divine vocation is the first step towards being ruled directly by God.
As we think on this, we may do no better this Advent season than to consider again the birth of Jesus, “who came to visit us in great humility,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. For here is the archetype of political leaders, his power perfected in his weakness as both helpless baby and willing sacrifice for the sins of human beings.
Questions for Reflection:
- How different is this presidential campaign in your experience from previous campaigns? Do you accept the author's contention that there is more continuity than change?
- How are your fellow Christians responding to the 2016 campaign? Are their frustrations leading them to consider a different kind of candidate this year?
- What do you think is the best way to maintain appropriate expectations for the presidency and for government in general, in the midst of campaign rhetoric?
- Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.
i N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus (HarperOne, 2011)
ii See Jeffrey Tulis, “The Two Constitutional Presidencies,” in Nelson, The Presidency and the Political System 10th edition (CQPress, 2014)
iii See Theodore Lowi, The Personal President (Cornell, 1985)
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”