Sectarian Networks and Big Personalities Will Decide the Presidential Election

At the same time, Americans have lost their trust in the two political parties

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The rapid unraveling of US political parties in the present century raises a question: what is replacing them? Obtaining an answer is tricky business in a fractured information environment. Retweets must not be mistaken for voter intentions, for example. Luckily for all concerned, America has arrived at a moment of inescapable clarity on this question: the presidential election season.

I find it remarkable how firmly Americans cling to conventional labels when thinking—and writing—about American politics. One must be either a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent who “leans” to one party or the other. That is how Gallup has measured US public opinion since time immemorial. But two decisive trends call this long-established way of looking at the political landscape into question.

First, the public’s trust in both parties has suffered a catastrophic collapse. Despite the media’s obsession with the dangers of partisanship, most polls show that between 40 and 57 percent of Americans believe that a third party is needed to “fix” the current system. Among millennials, the number spikes to 71 percent. This loss of trust is in line with similar declines afflicting every political institution in the US—notably, the presidency, the federal government, Congress, and the news media.

Second, the number of voters who identify as independents has steadily increased relative to those who remain loyal Republicans or Democrats. By December 2019, according to a Gallup poll, independents accounted for 41 percent of the electorate, with the two major parties each holding on to a 28 percent share. Defection from the party fold is accelerating, and while the data are mixed, millennials once again appear to lead the mass migration of the discontented.

Evidently, these trends are examples of cause and effect. A hemorrhage of trust in an institution must necessarily place in question its authority and legitimacy. Simply stated, voters are bailing out on the two major parties and heading for alternate centers of political action. And one way to understand this altered reality is to measure the surge in the number of independents.

A glimpse at the landscape of American politics today should suggest the need for a new descriptive language. The tidy institutional arrangements of the 20th century are flying apart in the 21st. The center cannot hold. The parties have disintegrated into sectarian networks that resemble nothing so much as the war bands of the barbarian age: they roam the land in search of combat that will bring them undying fame (or its equivalent in the digital age: fleeting attention). These networks often operate under the cover of party politics, but their loyalties are attached to vaguely conceptualized forms of identity or ideology.

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), for example, is entirely Democratic in membership, but its goals are only incidentally partisan. The CBC exists to promote African-American identity and representation. Similarly, every member of the House Freedom Caucus is a Republican, but the group is held together by its advocacy of a sort of constitutional fundamentalism, and it has manifested an indifference bordering on hostility to the party establishment. In fact, the House Freedom Caucus was first organized in opposition to a Republican speaker of the house, John Boehner.

The networks, I noted, are thoroughly sectarian in character. If they often assume a party label, it is because the US political system remains mostly binary, and, with few exceptions, candidates still need an (R) or a (D) next to their name to get elected to office. But the zealous faith and true believer’s energy that the networks tap into are invested in factional rather than partisan objectives—and there’s a peculiar eagerness to engage in conflict with rival networks of the same denomination. The Justice Democrats, for example, who can boast of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as their star attraction, are quite openly in the business of subverting rather than supporting the Democratic Party.

Congress today hosts over 850 caucuses attended by the 535 members of both houses, according to the Congressional Research Service; in 1993, the number was barely 100. This fragmentation mirrors the reality of current American politics more faithfully than the stiff Republican-Democrat-independent straightjacket. Yet the caucuses are by no means representative, for the paradoxical reason that they are gatherings of elected representatives:  the sectarian mind ultimately disdains conventional politics as a source of injustice and corruption.

The natural home and epic battleground for the networks is the web. There, ferocious splinter groups endlessly confront one another in elaborate rituals of rage over real or imagined deviations from true doctrine—a Hobbesean struggle for the public’s attention that, as the tragedy in Charlottesville demonstrated, can translate into real-world strife and blow up American national politics all the way to the White House.

Online political warfare is asymmetric: its weird dynamics can place powerful officials at the mercy of marginal and intemperate factions. The CBC, for example, must take into account the words and deeds of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, which is much more radical. In the same vein, the House Freedom Caucus must pay attention to cantankerous Tea Party networks, as well as to “alt-conservative” groups whose views on race might be described, generously, as provocative.

Powerful political officials are often at the mercy of intemperate outside factions. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

The public’s flight to sectarian networks has shattered the mold of national politics. The parties now wield little effective power. Yet one cannot govern a democratic nation of 328 million based on the principle of the rant. So America seem to have stumbled into a time of tremendous turbulence and confusion, in which the plot and the players on the political stage have become largely incomprehensible.

The Fall of the Institutions and Rise of the Big Personality

Enter the great clarifier: the constitutional mandate that, every four years, Americans must choose one of the 328 million to serve as president of the United States.

People tend to interpret presidential politics through the lens of the institutional past. The chaos of the last decade has been frequently understood by political scientists to be a “realignment” of forces, in which one party or the other somehow gained a permanent advantage. The rise of Barack Obama, for example, was supposedly “powered” by an “emerging Democratic majority” composed of professionals, women, and minorities. This coalition, wrote Ruy Teixeira, “could be here to stay.”

Possibly because he lost the popular vote, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 has inspired fewer claims of realignment. Nonetheless, I can find without difficulty any number of assertions that the “Trump coalition”—sometimes characterized as “fragile”—must be “the future of the Republican Party.”

The theory of realignment predicts that a given electoral majority will be pocketed by the party to be deployed in future elections. Institutions, which are enduring, matter much more than candidates, who are ephemeral. This is an interesting proposition that happens to be totally wrong, as a glance at recent history should prove. Barack Obama won handily in 2008 and 2012, but the Democratic Party endured crushing defeats in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014. Famously, the baton was not transferred to Hillary Clinton. Trump defeated her in 2016—but the Republican Party then lost the House in the 2018 midterms. The pattern is clear: the voters have zigged and zagged, but there has been no realignment.

Such instability in voting outcomes, however, is consistent with a political battleground dominated by sectarian war bands whipped into a frenzy by the reach and churn of the digital information regime. Presidential candidates can now represent themselves directly to the public. Trump is a compulsive late-night tweeter; he comes unmediated and must be swallowed straight. Obama preferred direct appeals to his supporters via text-message.

It is hard to exaggerate the radical nature of this break from past practice.

For most of the 20th century, the presidential nomination process was in the hands of party elders concerned primarily about party unity. The nominee appeared before the public encased in a sort of institutional armor, less a human being than a bundle of slogans mediated by partisan spokespersons and the press. While a thin coat of ideological varnish was expected, any candidate who stood apart by placing ideology above the team risked being punished by the press and suffering a historic defeat at the polls. That was the fate of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrat George McGovern in 1972.

In the past, candidates who put ideology over party, like Barry Goldwater (r), lost elections. AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Today ambitious political players rely on displays of individuality to gain influence and power. Trump’s public image can be described as an accumulation of attention-getting personal quirks. Ocasio-Cortez has become a prominent voice within the Democratic Party in part by dancing and offering makeup tips on Instagram. Ideology is by no means insignificant, but it is rarely emphasized. What matters is the direct connection to the voter. Given a wide-open information environment, candidates chasing the presidency can enjoy unobstructed access to the networks that are the drivers of political activity and whose natural habitat, as Americans have seen, is the web. Displays of personality have an obvious objective: to attach the network politically to the person rather than the party of the candidate.

Without much thought, almost absent-mindedly, America has entered an age of personal politics in its presidential elections. Candidate Obama really did benefit from an “emerging majority” of professionals, women, and minorities to win the White House. However, this majority was bound by loyalty to him personally and could not be transferred to other Democratic hopefuls, not even his would-be successor. Equally, candidate Trump did assemble a “fragile coalition” that earned him an upset victory, but the Trumpian coalition is loyal to Trump, and it can’t be pocketed and reinvested by the Republican Party.

On this model, the presidency in 2020 will go to whomever can ride the digital tempest in a manner that will attach to his or her person an array of sectarian networks broad enough to obtain a majority in the electoral college.

De-institutionalization explains the vicious tone of American political discourse: when the personal overwhelms the political, political disputes will inevitably aim at personal destruction. There should be no mystery about the logic behind “birther” accusations that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim, for example, or the charges that Trump is a white supremacist and “literally Hitler.” This is politics as usual in the 21st century.

Populism has emerged as the most extreme form of personalized politics. The populist does more than exploit the weakness of the parties; he takes an active stand against the ruling institutions and displays the charms of his own person as an alternative. Under the guise of “draining the swamp” and striking at the elite class, a pitch is made to seduce the many sectarian networks that exist in a state of perpetual rage and negation. A master practitioner like Donald Trump has often expressed a special connection to the “forgotten men and women of our country,” and has tailored his rhetoric and behavior to the common touch. And if populism in power sometimes appears chaotic and improvised, there are good reasons for that. The coherence of government statements and actions depend mostly on personal temperament. Issues like immigration or abortion are treated like elements of a personal brand. The same is true of ideology.

Whatever their failings, democratic institutions, like political parties, bind human purposes in the long term. The triumph of democracy over the institutions has nullified long-standing arrangements and trapped top-level decision-making in the personal and the immediate. Populism has compounded and accelerated this historic trend.

The Hope of Reform and an Example from the Past

The moment of clarity ordained by the 2020 presidential elections has revealed a political landscape that is, to quote poet Matthew Arnold, “swept with confused alarms of struggle and of flight,” in which the correlation of forces between the candidates and the sectarian networks remains in flux. President Trump, populist and serial disruptor, has already mustered his coalition, but must struggle each instant to retain its loyalty through his genius for attracting attention and mastery of media.

Meanwhile, the throng of aspiring Democrats is unlikely to be winnowed to a single nominee without the personal destruction of many of the others; hence charges of corruption and male chauvinism appear more meaningful than policy debates. The candidates are battered on all sides by a kaleidoscopic swirl of controversial events and provocative statements that reshuffle relations among the sectarian war bands and ignite their zeal for battle. November, and resolution, look to be very far away.

For those desperately seeking to avoid clinical depression over the state of our politics, I offer two observations.

First, the reason for the chaos of American democracy should be plain to anyone with eyes to see. American institutions—the parties included—are grossly maladapted to the digital environment. In a Darwinian world, one would expect them to go extinct and be replaced by more nimble organisms. Yet the elites who inhabit the institutions have shown no interest in structural reform. They are stuck in the muck of reaction; their ideal future is the 20th century.

But what seems like pure bedlam is in truth the public’s loud, if inarticulate, demand for reform and a clumsy first step in that direction. The networks have become gathering places for citizens who are disenchanted but not disengaged. Personalism in power has proved nimbler than the institutional elites in addressing citizen grievances—that has been so even for populists, such as Trump, who profit from grievance mongering. While the current cast of characters has no idea of reform, instability is raising up a host of fresh faces from a generation far more comfortable with the web and far more likely to discover a balance between digital information and political authority. Concerns about authoritarianism and cult of personality strike me as exaggerated: historically, such cults have depended on powerful, repressive institutions to take hold and endure. Yet the rise of personal politics in the United States has been a function of the weakness and incapacity of American institutions.

Second, the country has been here before and survived. In Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), historian Jeanne Freeman argues persuasively that the presidential contests of 1796 and 1800 were decided by clusters of “personal friendships” supporting individual leaders, bound together at the national level by the gentleman’s code of conduct. What observers, in hindsight, consider to be the Federalist and Republican parties were in fact informal and unstable networks of “friends of”—friends of Jefferson, Hamilton, Burr—loosely held in place by personal pledges of loyalty that, in a culture of honor, would be ruinous to break. Political information revolved entirely around personal reputation. Venomous gossip in correspondence or print thus sought the personal destruction of political opponents. For this “war of words,” leading political actors controlled newspapers that promoted their representation as honorable men.

Institutions were young and disastrously weak. As a result, the two elections in question degenerated into chaotic free-for-alls, in which politicians with national reputations labored frantically to assemble, among shifting networks of friendship, a coalition robust enough to achieve an Electoral College majority. The election of 1800 was thrown to the House, which took seven days and 36 ballots to settle on Jefferson. John Adams, a defeated sitting president, fled Washington, DC, in despair before Jefferson’s inauguration, certain that America’s constitutional experiment had failed.

He was wrong. The institutions of American democracy matured and adapted. In 1800, Americans now know, the adventure had scarcely begun for the United States. In 2020, America may feel bewildered by the sound and fury of a national midlife crisis, but let me suggest that it is premature to surrender, like Adams, to despair.

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