Trump's election marks a reset for all our institutions
© Getty Images

The election of Donald Trump has triggered near-hysteria among Democrats. Pundits have called it the greatest crisis for the party in ages.

The Republicans, even some who did not support Trump, are almost giddy in their anticipation for tackling the party’s stalled agenda.

But the gloom and glee are misguided.

This election reflects broad and fundamental breakdowns in our parties, in our press and our policy think-tanks — institutions which have long shaped our national debates, and our electoral process. 

Until we open a dialogue about these failings, our democracy will be subjected quadrennially to vitriolic, chaotic campaigns.

Much has been rightly said about voter anger and alienation behind the rise of Donald Trump. But swept up in this national housecleaning is a collapse of the valuable work of both the Democratic and Republican parties in vetting our best leaders, an almost total disregard for the legitimate work of a responsible, probing press, and a tragically missed moment to debate alternative approaches to Obamacare, NAFTA and the war in Syria, to name a few of the issues crying out for expert, unbiased analysis.

In no way is this lament for the era of elites and backroom bosses vetting candidates, or press barons singularly framing issues or anointing presidents.

But like it or not, our layered representative democracy requires what political scientists have long-labeled mediating institutions. Our democracy is not a retail endeavor. Citizens do not vote on every issue, elected surrogates do. 

The Electoral College can supersede the choice of the people, as happened this time with Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: Trump's exclusive interview with Hill.TV | Trump, intel officials clash over Russia docs | EU investigating Amazon | Military gets new cyber authority | Flynn sentencing sparks new questions about Mueller probe READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV Keeping up with Michael Avenatti MORE winning the popular vote but losing the election.

Our parties have a responsibility to offer the best candidates that reflect their values.

The role of our press has traditionally been to explain, describe and probe our candidates and policies.

Our major policy think tanks were designed to find nonpartisan solutions to problems and encourage a full-throated debate on issues and major candidates. 

This year, we got weak candidates and simplistic campaigns producing a president-elect who promised to address immigration by building a wall, deal with Syria by bombing the daylights out of ISIS, replace shaky Obamacare with a vague substitute, and cut tax rates for corporations like it was a garden hedge out of control.

Our political parties were virtual bystanders to a process they owned. They had little to with producing the best-qualified candidates. As a result of the broken primary process, in which a few people in a few states determined who the leading candidates were, party leadership had little to do with the final result.

Only one of the final candidates was a full-fledged party member – Mrs. Clinton.  Mr. Trump was only conveniently a Republican. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSinger Leon Bridges to join Willie Nelson in performing at O’Rourke rally Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls Poll: Beto O'Rourke leads Cruz by 2 points in Texas Senate race MORE was loathed by his Senate Republican colleagues. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV MORE was an independent socialist who caucuses with Senate Democrats but had no allegiance with them.

When the party tried to end his campaign or at least minimize the damage he was doing to Mrs. Clinton, he kept on going, fueled by support from independents that hardly identified with either party.

Sadly, neither the parties nor the campaigns offered up fresh ideas on how to fix the nation’s problems. We have little idea, for instance, how Mr. Trump will pay for infrastructure projects, create jobs and reduce the deficit.

Think tanks, which have played a role in offering up ideas and plans, have become overtly partisan and played little or no objective role in this campaign. They were established to guide debate by applying deep expertise to our policy dialogue. But these institutions have been unmoored from their original purpose of objective inquiry by offering policy-for- hire solutions to curry favor with donors who had an agenda.

The media’s many failures piled up long before votes were tallied. Here are two fatal examples:

Beyond the astonishing amount of free media that propelled the Trump campaign early on, cable television’s raw biases were in full view as liberal hosts verbally attacked Trump or conservatives savaged Clinton campaign officials. Social media algorithms often circulated utter nonsense or falsehoods simply because they were “liked” on Facebook. Our informed electorate was nourished on far too much political junk food.

Both candidates jumped over the press by putting out their news via social media. Trump was ingenious at this compared to Clinton, who will be remembered for doing her best to avoid press conferences and other open contact with journalists.

Institutional problems are not easily changed. But here are some of the ways we can begin to give citizens better candidates and better information. We must restructure the party primary systems. 

On college campuses, promote media literacy to helps young citizens be more discriminating of what they read and hear. As communication educators we must do more to teach skills so that people can be discerning about their sources of information.

Think tanks must be rejuvenated with open-minded donors who fund expert inquiry to get unbiased answers to our national problems, rather than the solutions they prefer.

This is only a start at addressing the failures of political institutions.  But start we must if we are to ensure a viable democracy.  If we do not, the next election cycle could be worse than this one. 

Apcar is the Wendell Gray Switzer Endowed Chair in Media Literacy. Hamilton is an LSU faculty member and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.