The Political System is Rigged—But That’s Not Our Main Problem

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each have their cheerleaders. Most of us, though, regard these candidates as horrid and this year’s presidential race as an “international embarrassment,” as Vincent Carroll puts it. How did we get here?

Part of the problem is that our political system really is substantially “rigged,” meaning that the rules are inherently unfair in certain ways. (By contrast, various rules, including those of the Electoral College, are perfectly sensible, as I’ve argued.)

The rigged system is not our main problem—I’ll get to that—but I do want to briefly address the major ways that the rules are unfair.

As we go through the list, note the irony that Trump, the main person complaining about the “rigged system,” is the primary beneficiary of it. But Trump has no idea how the system actually is rigged; to him claiming the system is rigged is just a way to deflect criticism and to work his supporters into a blind rage. But the fact that Trump’s claims of a rigged system are groundless doesn’t change the fact that the system really is rigged in certain ways. How so?

  • Ballot access: State governments give preferential treatment to the major political parties (and sometimes to established minor parties) when it comes to ballot access. As I’ve written, governments should set standard rules for everyone and give no special standing to parties. With fairer rules, we’d probably see a stronger alternative to Trump (Evan McMullin is on the ballot in only eleven states).
  • Party welfare: The federal government helps finance major-party presidential candidates. Not only is such political welfare a flagrant violation of people’s rights—as many people would not voluntarily choose to contribute—it gives certain candidates preferential treatment and helps shut out alternatives.
  • Open primaries: When government isn’t giving preferential treatment to certain political parties, it is meddling in their activities. One way some governments do this is by forcing parties to participate in primaries open to unaffiliated voters, which opens to the door wider to sabotage voting. A sabotage vote is when someone votes for a weak candidate of the party that person hopes will lose. How many people voted “for” Trump in the primaries thinking he’d be the weakest candidate for the Republicans? We know via Wikileaks that Camp Clinton actively promoted Trump.
  • Hamstrung party spending: Another way that governments meddle in parties is by restricting their campaign spending. This weakens parties and encourages outside groups to exert more influence over parties. Other government rules regarding campaign spending make it harder for upstart independents to gain traction.
  • Winner take all: Political parties, as private organizations, should be able to select candidates however they want. I personally prefer the caucus system. If parties want to have winner-take-all voting so be it, but I think that’s a very stupid system when there are more than two strong candidates. Other Republicans—led by Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio—split the anti-Trump vote, letting Trump win the nomination with the support of a minority of his party. I do think that, for general elections, governments should institute approval voting—meaning people may vote for multiple candidates if they wish—so that voters can better express their preferences and support upstarts without fear of “wasting their vote.”
  • Long lines: Waiting in line to vote can be extremely expensive for voters missing work or paying for babysitting. It looks like the problem of long lines disproportionately affects minority communities. Obviously it’s not fair to make voting harder for some people than it is for others. With Colorado’s mostly-mail voting, I worry about the possibility of stolen ballots and pressured votes, but at least we don’t have to wait in line.

But for the rigged political system, Trump almost certainly would not be this year’s Republican nominee. If state governments didn’t meddle in party affairs, Republicans probably would have instituted more sensible rules through which they would have picked someone else.

Even if Trump had won the Republican nomination under fair rules, an outsider would have had a much better chance of taking on Trump if state governments didn’t discriminate with respect to ballot access or insist on winner-take-all voting.

Trump’s nomination is a real shame, not only because the nod for Trump made a Clinton victory likely, but because almost any elected legislative or executive Republican officeholder in the country would have made a better president.

But, as I said, as important as the problem of rigged rules is, that’s not the main problem we face. Existing rules are good enough such that, usually, they do not generate two horrifically bad major-party candidates for president, as they did this year. Something else is going on.

The main problem is cultural and, more deeply, philosophical.

The Democrats are locked in a contest between pragmatists who basically favor free trade and are open to streamlining the welfare state—think of Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms—and hard-core egalitarian and anti-industrial “democratic socialists” in the vein of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (Barack Obama rides the fence between those camps.) Clinton was the strongest candidate on the pragmatist bench (although I found myself wishing Joe Biden had run). If the egalitarian socialists overrun the Democratic Party, that party will deservedly die throughout huge swaths of the country.

What about the Republicans? Sure, the better Republicans look down their noses at Trump or even openly condemn him. But for years leading Republicans have been running nationalistic anti-immigration nonsense. Is it really such a surprise that this movement has now taken on an openly racist tinge among the “alt-righters” supporting Trump?

Many conservatives just don’t have any real ideas to run on anymore. The Communists are gone. Neoconservative foreign policy was a complete disaster under George W. Bush. Practically every conservative has now swallowed the welfare state and could not imagine criticizing it (aside from its “waste and fraud”).

So what have they got left? They’ve got old-time religion with the homophobes and the anti-abortion zealots (though now the gay marriage ship has sailed), and they’ve got the “we hate brown people” brigade. That is much of today’s conservative movement in a nutshell.

I do realize that the best conservatives out there still do genuinely care about free markets, economic liberty (at least in some contexts), and Constitutionally limited government. But those are no longer the conservatives leading the conservative movement.

Donald Trump represents not a revolt against today’s dominate conservative ideology but a fulfillment of it.

Because the 2016 presidential election is merely a symptom of deeper cultural and philosophical problems, we will continue to live with these problems into the foreseeable future.

What can we do about these problems?

Obviously, we should try to fix the unfair and stupid political rules that now bind us. At least with better rules there would be less chance for the worst manifestations of today’s socialist and nationalist trends to show up in major elections.

The deeper problems can be addressed only at the level of ideas—mainly the ideas of philosophy but also of economics and other social sciences.

I’ve made my pitch for reclaiming liberalism for liberty, and I’ve made my pitch for (classical) liberals to take over the Republican Party.

To get traction, advocates of liberty must dust off their books (and write new ones), study their issues, find their allies and fellow travelers, and speak and write and keep fighting. The ideas of liberty are too important to surrender.

If we do our jobs, some day the “contest” between Trump and Clinton will be seen as nothing but a sick joke—and a blaring wake-up call.

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