Once upon a time in the United States, political parties ruled the political landscape. They internally nominated candidates, mounted campaign operations, and were held collectively responsible for the successes and failures of government. In recent decades, however, the relevance of the traditional two-party system has steadily declined.
In 1985, political scientist Theodore Lowi chronicled this decline in his book 'The Personal President.' In the time of Reagan, the Presidency had become what he called a "plebiscitary" office, with an occupant who speaks directly to the public without the mediating influence of Congress or the political parties. For different reasons both parties had worked to portray the Presidency as a supremely powerful office: Republicans wanted to give the impression that Reagan could fulfill his sweeping promises, Democrats wanted to remove any potential excuse for his failures. But as Lowi argued, the result is a dangerous cycle of increasingly unreasonable expectations for the President with few or no means to reach them, followed by increasing disillusionment among the public. As early as 1946, the United States Political Science Association realized what such a dynamic could mean for the nation: "It favors a president who exploits skillfully the arts of demagoguery, who uses the whole country as his political back yard, and who does not mind turning into the embodiment of personal government."
With the election of Donald J. Trump, America has entered the era of an Ultrapersonal President. As a result of luck, circumstance, and at least some electoral acumen, Trump's campaign took full advantage of the public's profound disenchantment with the two-party system, as well as the "status-quo" ethos imputed to his opponent. Going into the 2016 election cycle, record numbers of Americans already identified as politically independent, with fewer and fewer considering party affiliation as a convincing reason to vote for a candidate. This disdain was compounded, particularly among young people, after revelations that the DNC had conspired to subvert the Presidential bid of Bernie Sanders (the longest serving independent in the Senate). On the other side came a candidate with an unfiltered message of death to the political establishment. With promises to "drain the swamp," "lock her up," and to bring an end to a "rigged system," Trump masterfully channeled the public's discontent with Washington. His assurances have secured him a ticket to the White House together with a full complement of Senate and House. Of course, President Trump will not be all-powerful, even within the monolithic bloc of a unified Republican government. We will all soon learn that his quixotic and potentially unconstitutional plans are unlikely to come to fruition.
It is time for a revitalization of the traditional party system in the United States, as well as for Americans to get real about the power of the President. A multi-party system, coupled with specific electoral reforms, including runoff elections, the declaration of election day as a national holiday, and the abolition of the preposterously antiquated electoral college, would make the major parties more responsive to voters, and give a voice to millions of Americans seeking a new standard in the wake of 2016. At the same time, may Donald Trump be a lesson to us all that the Personal President is nothing more than a pipe dream. We can only hope that the current devastation felt by so many Americans will be converted into action through a new progressive movement. The unexpected and far reaching success of Bernie Sanders' campaign in galvanizing millions of young Americans has shown that such a movement is feasible. Through it, the desperately needed renewal of the party system could be made manifest.
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