American Political Decay or Renewal?

The Meaning of the 2016 Election

Trump holds a rally with supporters in Anaheim, California, May 2016.    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Two years ago, I argued in these pages that America was suffering from political decay. The country’s constitutional system of checks and balances, combined with partisan polarization and the rise of well-financed interest groups, had combined to yield what I labeled “vetocracy,” a situation in which it was easier to stop government from doing things than it was to use govern­ment to promote the common good. Recurrent budgetary crises, stagnating bureaucracy, and a lack of policy innovation were the hall­marks of a political system in disarray.

On the surface, the 2016 presidential election seems to be bearing out this analysis. The once proud Republican Party lost control of its nominating process to Donald Trump’s hostile takeover and is riven with deep internal contradictions. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, the ultra-insider Hillary Clinton has faced surprisingly strong competition from Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old self-proclaimed demo­cratic socialist. Whatever the issue—from immigration to financial reform to trade to stagnating incomes—large numbers of voters on both sides of the spectrum have risen up against what they see as a corrupt, self-dealing Establishment, turning to radical outsiders in the hopes of a purifying cleanse.

In fact, however, the turbulent campaign has shown that American democracy is in some ways in better working order than expected. Whatever one might think of their choices, voters have flocked to the polls in state after state and wrested control of the political narrative from organized interest groups and oligarchs. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents who once seemed the inevitable Republican choice, ignominiously withdrew from the race in February after having blown through more than $130 million (together with his super PAC). Sanders, meanwhile, limiting himself to small donations and pledging to disempower the financial elite that supports his opponent, has raised even more than Bush and nipped at Clinton’s heels throughout.

The real story of this election is that after several decades, American democracy is finally responding to the rise of

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