Now that Donald Trump’s charges of election fraud have failed in the courts; and his plan to persuade (or bully) state officials to overturn the results is hitting a wall, the end of his presidency may finally be in sight. It’s up to Joe Biden to see that nothing like this ever happens again.
Biden views this as a crisis in values. And he is right, of course, but that doesn’t say nearly enough. If Biden is to fix Americans politics, he must be more specific about what is wrong. We think Donald Trump is the logical conclusion of at least three transformative ideas that have been injected into Americans politics over a generation, and that now must be checked.
- Newt Gingrich and the Permanent Campaign
The first of these ideas comes from Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House, who can be credited with inventing the permanent campaign.
Before the Atlanta congressman was elected in 1992, bipartisan initiatives in Congress were common, and members of Congress still believed that their highest duty was to the institutions, not their party.
Gingrich saw things differently. Politics, he declared, is a “war for power” and bipartisan initiatives were viewed as fraternizing with the enemy. His plan was to create an air of crisis, corruption, and incompetence around the Democrats. The media would convey that message to Americans, who would then vote the Democrats out of office.
In the lead-up to the 1994 midterm elections, these ideas were put to the test. Gingrich and his band of followers seized every opportunity to obstruct Congressional business, impugning Democrats, attacking their policies, and paralyzing the legislative process.
The strategy worked brilliantly. Congress ground to a halt and as predicted, the public blamed the Democrats. Political observers watched in awe as Republicans took control of the House and Senate, leaving Bill Clinton looking like a wounded, one-term president.
The lesson was clear to everyone: collaboration doesn’t pay. It is far easier to defeat a government through a campaign of outrage, character assassination, and polarized positions than thoughtful criticism and constructive cooperation. If hyper-partisan politics is now the norm in many democracies, including our own, we have the congressman from Atlanta to thank.
- Bill Clinton: Winning is What Matters
Our second transformative idea focuses on why people engage in democratic politics. Is it about power or values?
When Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, he had lofty plans to reduce poverty, promote education, and expand health care. Unfortunately, Gingrich’s success in the ‘94 mid-terms stripped Clinton of the power to legislate. Fearing he would be a one-term president, he reached out to his longtime confident and friend, pollster Dick Morris, for advice.
Morris’ innovative polling methods (triangulation) aimed at finding policy options that appealed to swing voters. He advised Clinton that a second term was within reach, but only if the president was willing to abandon his progressive policies and champion those that appealed to swing voters (in The Century of the Self). Ideas mean nothing, he told Clinton, if you don’t win.
Clinton put his fate – and his principles – in the pollster’s hands. As a result, he quickly found himself sponsoring a list of now-infamous, right-wing bills, including welfare reform, which made people work for their welfare cheques; the three-strikes provision, which left American jails overflowing with African Americans; and deregulation of the banks, which contributed to the economic crisis of 2008.
However, he also won a second term in the White House – and in the eyes of many Democrats that was enough. Indeed, by accepting Morris’ offer, Clinton changed one of the most fundamental norms of democratic politics. He not only made it okay to choose winning over values – he made it respectable. The real losers, it seems, were those who still thought democratic politics was about improving society.
- Karl Rove: Rejecting the Reality-Based Community
Our third idea is about the status of truth and facts in politics. In 2004, President George W. Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, allegedly told a New York Times reporter that the Bush Administration viewed facts as secondary in policy-making. Reality, he declared, is created by people with power; and those who search for facts work within the realities that these more powerful people create.
In other words, perception is reality, and in Rove’s view powerful political leaders don’t waste their time searching for facts to guide them. They use their power to establish their preferred story – or ideology – as the authoritative one. If they succeed, they define how the public will view reality and truth, at least for a time. This “reality” effectively shapes what people view as facts.
It is an extraordinary claim that effectively reduces truth to a combination of power and conviction. It also throws open the door to skepticism about the value of experts, such as a professional public service. Why believe the experts’ version of truth if you can have your own?
The view has gained enormous currency since Rove’s day, legitimizing the rants of skeptics and conspiracy theorists from talk radio to Fox News to the echo chambers of social media. The contempt for facts and elites drives much of the thinking behind populism.
Biden’s Challenge: Putting Values to Work
We believe that these three ideas have not only transformed American politics (and democracies around the world) but defined the political context in which Donald Trump’s politics make sense:
- Like Gingrich, he sees politics as a war for power, and has no interest in accommodation or respect for the institutions of democracy.
- Like Clinton, he has abandoned the pursuit of ideals and his sole objective is to win power.
- Like Rove, he thinks that getting people to believe what he says creates his own reality and that facts can be ignored.
The founders of American democracy, of course, would have been scandalized by these views. As Joe Biden rightly says, they offend against basic democratic values; indeed, they are driving Americans toward autocratic government. Can the trend be reversed?
Biden’s commitment to restoring the right values is crucial, but it would be a mistake to think this will be achieved by a change in political style or intentions, alone. As the examples above show, the traditional checks and balances have been eroded and must be restored.
Our concluding point is that this requires an ambitious program of reforms where, first and foremost, the goal is to increase transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. These “process values” play a critical role in protecting basic democratic values, such as freedom and equality.
Progressives and conservatives may differ on policies but if they cannot work together to establish the rules and mechanisms needed to ensure that our democratic institutions and processes are resilient and working well, democracies the world over are in mortal danger.
That is the lesson from Donald Trump’s presidency.
Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.com
Andrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.