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The American Revolt of 2016

An opportunity to "make Congress great again"?

November 2016

Abstract: 2016 was, surprisingly, a year of revolt. An apparently unruly character will be in the White House, and many are not sanguine about the upcoming term of President Trump. But for those who see corruption in Washington as destructive of our democracy, this may be a time of opportunity.

In the presidential election of 1828, the rabble-rousing retired General and popular war hero Andrew Jackson of Tennessee turned American politics on its ear. Four years earlier he had suffered a painful defeat in his first run for the presidency, where he had gained the most popular votes as well as the most electoral votes (but not a majority), only to be outmaneuvered when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, where he lost to the candidate of "the establishment", John Quincy Adams – the son of our second president. This time he was determined to get revenge on Adams, whom he accused of electoral shenanigans, and occupy the White House.

Jackson was the very opposite of the genteel set that had ruled Washington from the beginning. They were educated at the best schools and raised in comfort; he had relatively little education and was raised in a hardscrabble homestead. Jackson swore, he drank, he brawled, he'd killed a man in a duel and many on the battlefield. He was in a way the ultimate backwoods hero.

The politicians of Washington were appalled at the thought of having this unpolished bumpkin as president. Their wives were even more appalled at Jackson's wife, who was accused of bigamy and adultery (which was technically true under the laws of the day). But Jackson's hole card was a nascent movement in the country to broaden suffrage beyond the elite. If more "ordinary" citizens could vote, Jackson's chances would improve.

Jackson invented the modern American personal campaign, spending two years traveling about the country, giving fiery speeches, talking to whoever would listen. It was the dirtiest campaign the country had seen, and as much mud was slung at Jackson as by him. (It was actually the only presidential campaign the country had seen – before Jackson, candidates thought it unseemly to be promoting themselves in public.) He got states to change their voting laws to give the right to vote to more ordinary citizens, and when the votes were counted in early 1829, Jackson had beaten the establishment candidate and sitting president in a landslide. Basically, Quincy Adams got the elite vote, Jackson got most of the rest.

Today's Democratic party counts its origin from Jackson's victory. They framed themselves as the party of the common man, an appellation that was to a greater or lesser degree somewhat credible through the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. So what happened this year? Why did it turn out that the "working class" voted against the Democrats and for the rough-cut bumpkin that Washington feared? Pretty much for the same reasons as in 1828 and '32, and more recently in the Reagan landslides of 1976 and '80. The people sensed that the government had grown elitist, effete, and out of touch with the people. They felt they needed to remind the government of where the ultimate power is held in a democracy. It is not held in the elite classes, it's held by the people.

So the people, demonstrating their ultimate power again in 2016, voted in a direct-talking rabble-rouser as president, a man not objectively the best fit for the job, but where was the candidate who combined high qualifications with a believable pledge to return the priorities of the government to the priorities of the people? If the dominant parties have such a person, he or she didn't run for president this year. While I personally am far from satisfied with the election of Mr.Trump, I lay the responsibility for this unfortunate result on the political cartel that runs every aspect of American political life: the "duopoly" of the Republican and Democratic parties. These two private organizations have created essentially every rule and law at every political level in this country, and they have shaped election and financing laws intended to ensure that only candidates of these two parties will serve in state legislatures and Congress.

This year, the Democratic party bosses hand-picked their badly flawed candidate long before the faux public input process began. No one else needed to apply, and when Mr.Sanders did apply the party bosses used every known trick to ensure that their selectee would triumph. The Republicans used the opposite method, and actually allowed the democratic process to function. But as we know, the purpose of democracy – trumpeted to the world in our Declaration of Independence – is chiefly to allow the citizens of a nation to turn out the government and select a new one in its place. Democracy is not designed to select the best government, or choose the best policies. It's probably true that by the processes of mass democracy, which our founders were so fearful of, we are prevented from getting the best leadership the country might have. That's the price we pay for the right of peaceful revolt. And this was a year of revolt.

There has been, after the election, a lot of hand-wringing and hopelessness, mainly by Democrats and the mass media. A segment of Democrat voters appear to refuse to accept the result of the election. They are simply refusing to accept reality, which doesn't seem like a useful plan. What may be useful over the next four years is to take advantage of Trump's announced plan to "drain the swamp" of improper financial influence in Washington. The influence of lobbyists and large donors is making a mockery of our claim to be a democratic country. If all those of us who have worked for and contributed to the fight against the influence of money on Congress will act to hold Mr.Trump's feet to the fire on this issue, this may be an opportunity for progress, and even to "make Congress great again".

© H. Paul Lillebo

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