The System Must Survive

American politics needs two responsible parties to absorb all the craziness, because the alternative is worse.

by MATT STOKES | AUGUST 28, 2018

The Two Turnover Test, a theory devised by the political scientist Samuel Huntington, holds that a state can only be considered a stable democracy when it has had two different successful transitions of power from one party to another. An incumbent party must lose an election and then peacefully step aside, as per the rules, and allow the opposition party to rule without instigating violence. Then, for the country to pass the test, it must happen a second time, just to make sure.

By that metric, the United States became a stable democracy in 1841, when William Henry Harrison of the Whig Party became the first non-Democrat since John Adams to hold the presidency. Surrendering power is a difficult thing, which is why so many aspiring democracies fail when the incumbent party, still in control of the armed forces, rejects the results of the election and remain in office. To play by the rules is to accept that the rules matter, which is why two separate turnovers are required—we need to see that the rules have real staying power.

Fundamental in those rules is that the various political players have a right to compete for votes, and that, should they win according to the rules, they are allowed to hold power. It means no candidate will throw the game board across the table to keep from losing—”I don’t want to play this stupid game anyway!”

If nothing else, Senator John McCain should be admired for his devotion to not turning over the game board. When McCain died on Saturday, his famous 2008 “No ma’am, no ma’am” video was treated one of two ways in the media: Either with admiration at the virtue and dedication to gentlemanly politics shown by McCain, or with cynical dismissal of that same admiration because it only shows how far the bar in American politics has been lowered.

Yes, the bar has been lowered, but that doesn’t mean that McCain did the easy thing in that moment. At this campaign event in Lakeville, Minnesota on October 10, just three weeks before the election, a woman in the audience of supporters said, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, he’s not… he’s an Arab.” Her claim did not perfectly align with the conspiracy theory—deluded right-wing ghouls said Obama was a Kenyan Muslim, not an Arab—but still, her meaning was clear: Obama is other.

McCain and his team had sensed that his constituency wasn’t interested in his brand of politics, weren’t interested in hearing about Joe the Plumber. This was a generation raised on talk radio, Fox News, and chain emails, hungry for the kind of red meat that McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin was happy to throw. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for McCain to indulge the racism of his supporters, or to at least play coy with it, to say something like, “Yes ma’am, Obama will be very scary for this country and that’s why you all have to get out there and vote!”

Instead, he responded without even hesitating: “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.” His response was not well-received by the audience. They wanted birther conspiracies, not civics lessons.

When McCain and his civics lessons lost the election in a landslide, the opportunity was there for politicians without the same concerns about political norms. Several years later, Republican House Speaker John Boehner was asked in an appearance on Meet the Press to comment on the birther conspiracy theory embraced by so many of his voters. While Boehner did in the most wishy-washy way say that he didn’t believe the conspiracy (“I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian, I’ll take him at his word.”), he refused to denounce the conspiracy. “Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think,” he said. “It’s not my job to tell them.” It was a brilliant performance by Boehner because he could check the box saying he believed the president was born in America and he could signal to the base that he was on their side and shared their doubts.

Boehner, as leader of the Republican party, knew his voters cared not about tax cuts, balanced budgets, and family values, but for denying the legitimacy of the opposing party. It would have seemed absurd to Boehner at the time that his posturing would eventually lead to his party’s presidential nominee to one day literally call Obama the founder of ISIS, but these things happen in degrees and over time.

McCain obviously had a huge hand in accelerating the right’s trend toward bloody shirt politics by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate and elevating her to national prominence. But he was never comfortable with it, admitted later that he regretted the choice, and did what he could during the campaign to distance himself from her style of politics and her message. During the same townhall meeting that produced the “He’s an Arab,” question from the audience, McCain repeatedly defended Obama’s character. “He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president. If I didn’t think I’d be one heck of a better President I wouldn’t be running, and that’s the point. I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are. Because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.”

Unless elected leaders sincerely believe in constitutional democracy, we are in trouble. As the Republican base reduces more and more to the party of white people who want to stick it to non-whites, they will demand that their elected leaders reflect that desire, and then translate that into policy.

There will always be conservatives—they exist in every country and have existed in every political system in history—and if they don’t have a responsible party to go to, they will reject the system as a whole and bring on something much worse. The conservative writer David Frum puts it perfectly in his book Trumpocracy:

Maybe you do not much care about the future of the Republican Party. You should. Conservatives will always be with us. If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.

The 1930s showed what happens when the legitimacy of a system is rejected. Weimar Germany was seen as an illegitimate government, so to many it didn’t seem like such a big deal when Hitler washed away the old rules and granted himself dictatorial powers. In France at the same time, the socialist prime minister Leon Blum was so unpopular with conservatives that chants of “Better Hitler than Blum” were not uncommon to hear. When Germany defeated France on the battlefield and installed a sympathetic puppet government, many in France were happy to go along because, finally, their side had some power.

Which is why two robust, responsible parties have to exist for the system to work. Liberals like myself are looking forward to winning back Congress and the presidency. And then… what? Are we going to rewrite the Constitution so that Republicans aren’t allowed to vote ever again? The crazies have rights too, and they need somewhere to go.

All of this is to say that John McCain was a champion of the legitimacy of electoral politics, of democracy. He used that system to advance ideas that were, on the whole, destructive. But he did it the way he should have, and he always argued for the importance of that system. He argued that his opponent, Obama, was not an enemy and had just as much a right to try to win as he did. Politics is moving past McCain’s idea, and all historical indications point to this being fucking terrifying.

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