America's politics may not be as hopeless as we think

America's politics may not be as hopeless as we think
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Political commentators and pundits widely agree that cooperation between Democrats and Republicans has dim prospects. Beyond the polarizing figure of former President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE, the parties’ ideological positions show galactic separation.

According to the Pew Research Center, approximately three-quarters of both Democratic and Republican voters cannot even agree on “basic facts.” Disagreement has descended into open hostility. But in democratic countries like the U.S., politicians remain fundamentally dependent on public support. Recent and historical events reveal that shifts in public opinion can rapidly change national politics.

For proof of the volatility of public opinion, we need only look at the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Joe BidenJoe BidenPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks State school board leaves national association saying they called parents domestic terrorists Sunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases MORE. Before Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination on June 16, 2015, RealClearPolitics polls gave him a 4 percent public approval. But one month later, the business mogul – who had no previous experience in public service – led 16 credentialed candidates for the Republican nomination, including six senators and four governors. In 2016 Trump was shunned by many Republicans; now he effectively controls the party.

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Biden’s story also shows volatility. An early front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2020, Biden sank to fifth place in the New Hampshire primary that February. He gained only 8 percent of the vote, and his campaign was widely written off.

Against the tide of bad news for Biden, the endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a prominent Black member of Congress, gave Biden’s candidacy a rebirth. He surged to victory with the support of both white and Black voters and went on to defeat Trump in the 2020 election. No major political issues had intervened. The only thing that changed was public response to predominantly Black voters in South Carolina. The lesson here is about the potential for voter volatility.  

The rise of electronic media has made politicians’ qualifications increasingly less important for elections than charisma, money and the skill of campaign managers. Of course, more substantial qualifications become critical after the election is won.

President Eisenhower was not charismatic. Critics claimed he was lazy and not very bright. But the reputation he earned as supreme commander of Allied forces during World War II was not easily challenged. Espousing moderate Republican values that included balanced budgets, Eisenhower was termed the “balancer-in-chief” by biographer William Hitchcock. He presided over an ebullient economy but declined to seek to lower 90 percent top personal tax rates on the grounds that business leaders should invest profits in more useful ways than in high emoluments. 

In the 1950s CEO/worker pay ratios were between 20:1 and 30:1, compared to the current 361:1. Eisenhower’s approval ratings were consistently in the high 60s and low 70s. His widely cited retirement address warned against unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex. Less well publicized is that he also warned against excessive influence by the scientific-intellectual elite.

The first major transformation took place with the election of Andrew Jackson. The first six presidents generally followed George Washington’s principle of appointing government employees based on qualifications. With proper performance, their positions would be permanent. Swept into office in 1829 by charisma and popular trends, especially among Irish immigrants, Jackson held that previous appointment policies were elitist. This was not entirely wrong; well-qualified leaders tended to come from advantaged circumstances. But Jackson’s spoils system led to high turnover within the government bureaucracy with each new administration, preventing establishment of stable administrative systems. The consequences contributed to problems that extend to the present day. 

A more positive example took place in the post-Civil War period at the beginning of the Gilded Age. The Republican administration of Ulysses S. Grant was plagued by multiple scandals, capped by the devastating Panic of 1873. A wave of public revulsion against widespread corruption and veniality in federal (and state) government and private industry led both the Republican and Democratic parties to nominate reform candidates for the election of 1876.

Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won a bitterly contested election. Initially vilified as “His Fraudulency,” Hayes committed himself to a single term to concentrate on federal government reform. Defying spoils-era conventions, Hayes nominated individuals for Cabinet positions based on competence. He also commissioned an international search to prepare a merit-based system for the appointment of federal employees.

Hayes ended his term more popular than at his election, but the proposed appointment system was enacted into law only after public furor over the assassination of President James Garfield by a disaffected office seeker. The Pendleton Act (1883) initiated progressive reform of federal government operations, culminating in the administrations of Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt. 

The history of the earlier Gilded Age suggests that a requirement for change in the federal government's operation is a swing in public opinion that places trustworthy and efficiently functioning government ahead of ardent partisanship, special interests and charismatic leaders. Such developments are not aided by a media that, under the pressure of competition for readers, viewers and listeners, highlights the sensation value of radical or bandwagon movements and in-the-news politicians. It will likely happen when conditions become serious enough to dominate public opinion.  

Frank T. Manheim is an affiliate professor and distinguished research fellow at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He is a former senior ocean and earth scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.