“Why is populism growing?”

In the fall of 2013 I conducted an unscientific poll in my neighborhood. I asked one question: “If two people were running for Congress, and the only significant difference between them was that one had never been in politics before and the other had been in politics for years, who would get your vote?” The most common answer was, “the one who had never been in politics.” In fact, that position earned some seventy-five to eighty percent of the responses, while the second-most common response was, “I would examine their positions to decide my vote; I wouldn’t pay any attention to whether or not they had been in politics before.”

I was conducting this poll to see whether or not I had a shot at getting elected to Congress. My banker urged me to run; she wanted to vote for me. My barber urged me to run; he wanted to vote for me. The police officer getting his hair cut—a man I had not met until that conversation—wanted to vote for me. One store clerk told me that he would vote for me in the next election, but then he would vote for someone else the next election. “You’ll have been corrupted by then,” he said. Only when I began looking into fundraising did I learn that the wealthy donors in the party had already committed their donations and their votes to “my good friend” (as they described him), a businessman who had been involved in politics for years, although this was the first time his name would appear on a ballot.

Because of this brief experience with populism, I was less surprised than most Americans by Donald Trump’s success in last year’s elections. American voters are increasingly disgusted by the way government goes about its business, and they blame Democrats and Republicans equally for the problems they see. The campaign of Bernie Sanders also drew strength from populism. Both the Tea Party Movement and the Occupy Movement were populist expressions of displeasure over the decisions and actions of those in power. For that matter, the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom is equally a populist expression of distrust in government and in those serving in the government. The more recent losses by the Conservative Party are part of the very same package of populism.

Populists distrust the government. They also distrust the news media, although they generally describe their distrust in terms of conservative or liberal biases in various media organizations. Populism is not new—in the twentieth century it led to the direct election of Senators (rather than United States Senators being chosen by state governments) and to laws allowing referenda created by citizens to be placed on the ballot, giving voters power to decide matters usually left to elected officials.

Populism scares the elite. “Why is populism growing?” they ask. The answer is simple: people no longer trust the elite to make decisions for everyone. People increasingly believe that the elite make decisions that serve themselves without regard to whether those decisions help or harm the rest of the people in the country.

Consider this: between the 1952 Presidential election (Eisenhower-Stevenson) and the 2008 election (Obama-McCain), twelve elections were held in which one of the two major candidates was either the incumbent President or the incumbent Vice President. In each case, the opponent was either a Governor, a Senator, or a former Vice President. If that doesn’t sound like government by the elite, I don’t know what does. Campaigners regularly presented themselves as outsiders who were going to fix the government, but somehow the government never seemed to be fixed. Symptoms of populist revolt were felt in the late twentieth century—the campaigns of Ross Perot, for example. Tax protests in the 1980s used the tea party theme well before the official Tea Party movement was organized. Americans have long considered themselves to be populists, even though they generally reelect the same leaders or replace them with extremely similar leaders.

The presidency of Donald Trump has been sponsored by populism. Democrats and members of the media are astonished by the continuing power of populism to support the President. Efforts to maintain a spirit of crisis, efforts to mock and disparage the President, and efforts to show that he is rejected by a majority of Americans all fail to shake his true support. They wanted an outsider in the White House, and they are delighted that President Trump continues to speak and to act as an outsider in Washington.

Talk of impeaching the President is terribly premature. Any attempt to impeach Donald Trump for something less than a blatant and obvious crime will fail, and such an attempt would end the political careers of those who participate in it. Insulting the President’s supporters—calling them racist, out-of-touch, and deplorable—only sharpens the divide between the elite and the populists. As they demonstrated last summer and fall, when challenged and inspired, America’s populists can be a powerful force in politics. J.

A government of our peers

The foundation of American democracy is the belief that, when a government is not working, citizens have the right to change their government. The time has come to consider such a change. My proposal would require a constitutional convention whose decisions would have to be ratified by the various states, but I think approval will happen, given the problems with our current system of choosing leaders.

I propose that we choose our President and members of Congress in the same way we choose our juries, providing a government of our peers rather than a government of expert politicians.
The best leaders are those who do not seek power. In ancient Athens, governing officials were selected by lot for one-year terms. In the early Christian Church, new leaders were selected by those already in office—often the best of them declined their nomination, since they did not feel qualified to lead. They just wanted to learn more about Jesus. They were forced into office against their will, and they proved to be qualified all the same.

Imagine that in each Congressional district of the United States, the names of all registered voters are placed into a pool, and twelve names are randomly selected. A board of attorneys (consisting of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents) reviews the twelve citizens, researching their lives and removing the names of those who are not qualified for a place in Congress, but leaving a list of five nominees for the position (even if a further drawing of names is needed after the first twelve are exhausted). During the summer, information on the five candidates is sent to all voters at public expense. They debate one another in public, but privately funded campaigning is discouraged. On the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, voters choose from among the five. If none of them receives more than half the votes, the two who received the most votes are placed on a second ballot which is presented to voters on the third or fourth Tuesday of November.

The members of Congress would meet in Washington as is done now. They would be guaranteed the right to return to their former jobs after their time in office has ended, just as jurors and reserve military personnel are guaranteed now. A provision could be made for incumbent Representatives to be reelected if the voters so choose, although they would not run unopposed. Once the system proves itself in the House of Representatives, we will begin selecting Senators in the same way. Eventually, the President of the United States will also be chosen in this manner.

The writers of the Constitution did not trust voters to make good decisions about their leaders. The Constitution allowed voters to select Representatives, but it had state governments choose Senators. (An amendment to the Constitution changed that in 1913.) The Constitution still does not allow voters to choose a President, but only to choose electors who will choose a President. (Electors promise in advance who they will choose, so voters have confidence that they are choosing their President.) The Constitution says nothing about political parties, because the writers of the Constitution were opposed to the idea of political parties. For most of American history, party conventions chose candidates for office with little participation from the average voter. Often candidates were chosen by compromise in “smoke-filled rooms.” When Hubert Humphrey was nominated by the Democrats in 1968 without having won a single caucus or primary election, both major parties changed their rules to hold caucuses or primary elections in each of the fifty states. Both parties still seat additional delegates not chosen by the voters, and these so-called “super delegates” can still swing a nomination away from the choice of the voters.

Perhaps this idea should be tested in several states before a constitutional convention meets to propose this change for the entire nation. If four or five states selected their legislators and state-wide officials in the same way that juries are selected, we would see whether or not this idea works. The final change would be many years away, but the pain of this year’s presidential election might be remembered long enough to fuel a drive toward this change.

Our form of government is designed to change, responsive to the will of the people. Changes have succeeded in the past, so changes can succeed in the near future. Surely we can do better than we are doing this year. J.

President Trump?

I have not posted much about the current election cycle in the United States. However, my most-read post in the first year of this blog asked and answered the question, “Is Donald Trump the Antichrist?” My statement that Trump is not the Antichrist is probably the nicest thing I have said about him this year. I do not want Donald Trump to be Commander in Chief of the nation’s armed forces. I do not want him to represent the American people in the eyes of the rest of the world. I do not want him to have one more success for which he can boast.

But I can imagine worse things happening than Donald Trump being elected President this November. If Trump wins enough delegates in primary elections to be nominated by the Republican Party, but then is denied the nomination through legal procedures by the party’s leaders, the Republicans will bring severe trouble upon themselves. Whether Trump runs as a third-party candidate or not, the people who have voted for Trump in the primaries are unlikely to support the Republicans in the general election. Some of them might not vote at all in November, but others are likely to vote—and probably not for Republicans, especially not for incumbent Republicans. Even if Trump falls slightly short of the necessary 1,237 delegates in Cleveland, his failure to win the nomination will confirm the beliefs of those who voted for him—and beliefs of many who did not vote for him—that American democracy is a sham and that the American government is no longer (in the words of Abraham Lincoln), “of the people, for the people, and by the people.”

I do not want Donald Trump to be the next President, but I would prefer him in the White House over the disillusionment and anger of his supporters should he lose the nomination. Indeed, if Donald Trump is nominated by the convention delegates, supporters of Trump are more likely to vote for other Republicans, granting the party control of the Senate and the House of Representatives as well as the White House. Control of Congress for the next several years might be worth the headache of President Trump.

I do not fear a President Trump because I still believe in the Constitution of the United States. Its system of checks and balances can prevent a bad President from causing much harm to the country. The President cannot create legislation (except when his proposals are adopted and proposed by members of Congress). The President can only approve or veto legislation, and a supermajority of Congress can override the President’s veto. Even the officers appointed by the President to serve in his Cabinet of advisors must be approved by Congress. Only Congress can declare war, and treaties made by the executive branch of government must be approved by the Senate. If the President tries to use his authority to work against the will of the Congress, the court system exists to correct the imbalance. Perhaps because of Donald Trump the practice of issuing executive orders that counter legislation passed by Congress will finally be challenged; then this aspect of executive authority will be clarified for present and future leaders.

Past Presidents have learned that they cannot even control their own branch of government. Thousands of career government workers fill offices in the executive branch; they continue doing what they believe is best no matter who sits in the Oval Office. Cabinet secretaries and sub-secretaries change, but the department workers continue in their jobs, often doing the same things no matter who is supposed to be in charge. The inertia of bureaucracy will stifle any President’s efforts to make large changes to government—even if that President is named Donald Trump.

Of course Christians do not put their trust in kings and princes. No President can save the world, and no President can destroy the world, no matter what is said in political debates. All authority comes from Above, and all who gain power must ultimately answer to the Source of their power. Meanwhile, godly people respect those with authority in this world because of the Source of their power; we respect them even when we disagree with their opinions, and we respect them even when we dislike their personalities.

We live in interesting times. I realized this weekend that, when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debate one another this fall, they are likely to sound like a political debate between Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd in an early episode of Saturday Night Live. Perhaps the prayer of every American Christian needs to be: “May God not grant our land the leaders we deserve.” J.

Looking at an election

The success of Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the early presidential polls does not surprise me. In fact, the enthusiasm shown for these non-politicians matches what I felt in my brief foray into politics two years ago.

I was at the dentist’s office getting my teeth cleaned when I heard a news item on the television related to the United States Congress. The thought entered my mind that someone like me would do as good a job as the current members of Congress are doing. The thought did not merely cross my mind; it remained embedded there for the rest of the day. I would certainly vote for someone like me rather than vote for a career politician, but how many people are like me? For the rest of the day I pondered that thought, and at the dinner table I asked my family how they felt about the possibility that I might run for Congress.

Since the family’s reaction was generally positive, I decided to ask a few other people who didn’t know me as well as my family does. I started at the barber shop. While waiting my turn for a haircut, I asked this question: If two candidates are running for Congress, and the biggest difference between them is that one is a career politician and the other has never held a political job, who would get your vote? Both the barber and the police officer getting a haircut said they would vote for the newcomer. I told them that I was thinking about running, and they both approved and promised their support. Over the following days, I had similar conversations at the grocery store, at the bank, and at church. The most common answer was that people would vote for the newcomer. A few people said they would consider only the issues and not care about experience. One man said he would vote for me once, but he would vote for someone else next time–he figured two years in Congress would be enough to corrupt anyone. No one said to me that they would vote for an experienced politician rather than a newcomer.

Thus prepared, I contacted several officials of one political party. Several of them ignored me, and one made it plain to me that he considered me a nobody, not someone to take seriously. Others were cordial, though, and I was invited to address a meeting of county officials of the party, along with any other candidates that were interested. By the time of that meeting, three candidates had announced that they were running for the party’s nomination to serve in Congress. Two of the three were at the same meeting. One of them was a member of the state legislature. Like me, she showed up early to meet people and stayed for the entire meeting. The other was a wealthy man who had been appointed to various political positions but had never run for office. He came late, made his statement (taking considerably more than the three minutes we each were allotted), and left soon afterward. In my three minutes, I explained that I was still thinking about running, introduced myself, and commented that my barber and my banker both thought I should run. I made it plain to them that my political positions match those of the party, but that I would run a unique campaign, one designed to draw independent voters as well as the party faithful. The reactions during and after the meeting were generally positive, with just one woman phoning to recommend that I not run, because she felt that the other work I was doing was more important than serving in Congress.

During the following weeks I attended several diverse events, some directly sponsored by the political party, and others more removed from the party. I met the party’s eventual nominee for the United States Senate at the opening of his campaign headquarters I even attended a tea party meeting. Sometimes I spoke to the entire group, but other times I merely mingled and met people. These weeks were my peek behind the curtain, my chance to see how politics are really run.

The next step was to see if I could raise money to support my campaign. I began contacting the wealthy people I know who are connected to the party. This was the stumble of my campaign, as potential donor after potential donor said, “Well, J., I’ve already promised my support to my dear friend,” who turned out to be the wealthy man who was running. I had hoped to run a campaign painting him as the ultimate insider, with me as the true outsider to politics. On the other hand, as the ultimate insider, he had captured the financial and personal support of the people who meant the difference between a viable campaign and a campaign that would be ignored.

By Christmas I knew that I was not running for Congress. Some people in the party urged me to seek a more local position, as they had an opening on the ballot they wanted to fill. I looked into the position, spoke to a few more people, and thought and prayed for a while. Then I had to admit I just wasn’t interested in that job. I thought I could win the campaign if I put my heart into it, but getting my heart into it was not easy. When some of the people supporting me began fighting with other people supporting me over a state-wide issue, I decided not to get involved in any campaign. Since I had strong feelings about the state-wide issue, I gave my support to those people in the legislature that felt as I did. This meant drawing further away from those who supported the opposite position. I heard one of a pair of good friends say that their friendship had ended as a result of this dispute. I knew that if I was heading into a career where friendships are torn apart by professional disagreements, I would not be happy there.

Donald Trump and Ben Carson may be outsiders to the political process, but they enter their campaign without the financial handicap that I faced. One year before the general election, I am not surprised they are doing well in the polls. Voters in this country are hungry for new leadership, for a new approach to politics and government. Whether Mr. Trump or Mr. Carson would be able to keep their promise to change the system, Americans are glad to hear of someone, anyone, who is willing to try to change things. If enough people like me chose to become involved during some election cycle, things could begin to change. As long as no one tries to make any changes, things will stay the same.

I tried once. I’m not ready yet to try again. But I do agree with the many who say that the system can be improved; it can be made workable again. Anything else I can do to bring that change closer, I will do. J.