Democracy’s Majesty and 2016’s Indignity

After Tuesday, life will go on, and things are so bad they almost have to get better.

By Peggy Noonan


Thinking about Election Day I realized how much I miss the majesty of the old voting procedures.

You used to go into a tall booth and stand alone and no one could see you vote. The booth was enclosed by dark curtains. You entered and pulled a big metal lever and it closed the curtain behind you. You faced long rows of candidate names with a metal toggle switch next to each. You could put your finger on the toggle and hesitate, or you could smack it down like it was a nail and you were a hammer. There was a satisfying little click. I used to take my little boy and explain what we were doing and why it was important. When you were all done you’d pull the big metal lever again, and that would lock in your vote (you hoped—America has always been full of mischief) and the curtain would open with a whoosh and you’d emerge, a citizen who’d done a citizen’s noble work. Pretty much everyone voted on Election Day itself so it was a communal experience. You saw your neighbors.

Now it is some of the neighbors and little majesty, cheap desks in a busy room with anyone walking by and you standing there like a mook, marking a paper. No click, no whoosh, and the desks have sides but it doesn’t feel so much like a secret ballot now, and it doesn’t have the old dignity.

I can hear you saying, “What does?”

***

Someone is going to win Tuesday and then, if trendlines that have proved reliable in the past continue, the sun will come up on Wednesday. (We claim this with a 3% margin of error.) We’ll go forward. We’re in a hard time and we’ll get through it. The country isn’t just split but unhappy with its choices and pessimistic as to its political future. Twenty sixteen was both the result of and a reckoning with what hasn’t worked the past 15 years. We’ll have to spend the next few years trying to get things in order and figure out how to create a better political reality.

A memory that stays with me is a college student down South who in September asked me if the young, experiencing national politics for the first time this year, should feel despair. No, I said, you should be inspired. You’re not even out of school yet and you can do better than this. All of you will have to set yourselves to saving us. It got a laugh but I meant it, and the audience knew.

How did we get here? How did we get two candidates so widely disliked and disrespected? In broad strokes:

Donald Trump didn’t break one of our two great and ancestral political parties. He won the nomination because the Republican Party was already broken, and those responsible for the party, the elected officials and thinkers, didn’t know. Now they do. Soon they will begin that stage of political mourning known as the symposia process. They’ll discuss how to repair, renew, keep the party together. Or the party will, over the next few cycles, split apart.

Donald Trump doesn’t happen in a more or less united party, he happens in a broken one. As he rose there were essays saying what was happening with the Republicans was the result of a too-great reliance on the thinking and ways of the party’s old, victorious past. There is some truth to that. You can’t be the Democratic Party of 1980 operating from the playbook of 1940. Republicans of 2016 can’t live off the modes and approaches of 1980.

But the split in the party happened in the past 15 years. When you give a party two unwon wars, one a true foreign-policy catastrophe, and a great recession, it will begin to break because its members lose confidence in its leaders. When the top of the party believes in things that the bottom of the party doesn’t want (on immigration, entitlements and trade), things will break further. The bottom will begin to feel the top no longer cares about it. That will end their loyalty. Mr. Trump’s Republican foes are wrong in thinking his followers are just sticking with the party. They’re not, they’ve broken from the party.

In such circumstances the base of a party will do surprising things, such as turn, in hopeful desperation, to a strange outsider in hopes maybe he can break through the mess.

Hillary Clinton’s candidacy results from webs and arrangements—the big name, the big money, the old relationships, the air of inevitability. She is the nominee because the Democratic Party, which used to fight about great issues of war and peace, of the deeper meaning of foreign and domestic policy—it was a vital thing—is now kept together by one central organizing principle: the brute acquisition of power, and holding on to that power no matter what. The worst members of the party appear to care almost nothing about what that power is used for, how it will be wielded to achieve higher purposes. They’re just making a living. They’re just on a team. It is Madison’s fear of the destructive effects of “faction” taken to the nth degree. You see this in the hacked emails of John Podesta. The spirit of the emails I’ve seen is of back-scratching, networking, favor pleading.

The Democratic Party and its lobbyist/think-tank/journalistic establishment in Washington have long looked to me to be dominated by people devoted mostly to getting themselves in the best professional position and their kids into Sidwell Friends School. They want to be part of the web, the arrangement. They want to have connections, associates, a tong. They want to be wired in. They don’t want to be I.F. Stone, alone, reading the fine print of obscure government documents. And Clintonism—for years the biggest web, the securest source of money, a real tong with enforcers and reward-dispensers—has long been a sound route to all of this. You may have to bend rules to be part of it, accept unsavory deals and characters, but it is warm and cozy in there.

One thing I saw this year was that sincere conservatives wholly opposed to socialism had real respect for Bernie Sanders because they saw his sincerity. He wasn’t part of the web and they honored him for it.

Both parties have their webs. Maybe this year begins the process by which they will be burned away.

A closing thought: God is in charge of history. He asks us to work, to try, to pour ourselves out to make things better. But he is an actor in history also. He chastises and rescues, he intervenes in ways seen and unseen. Or chooses not to.

Twenty sixteen looks to me like a chastisement. He’s trying to get our attention. We have candidates we can’t be proud of. We must choose among the embarrassments. What might we be doing as a nation and a people that would have earned this moment?

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