The prevailing diagnosis has been that the current election cycle is infected by the narcissism and jingoism of Donald Trump. But there is another way to look at it: to see this cycle as characterized by a crisis of legitimacy.
A recent University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll confirms that people don’t trust the elites, the insiders, the experts, the officials. And they are not without reason. Those types have not behaved responsibly or performed well.
The reset with Russia has not worked. Both it and China are acting provocatively, on the ground in places like Ukraine, Crimea and Syria, in the South China Sea, and in virtual reality.
The current secretary of state negotiated a worthless cease-fire in Syria and a questionable deal with Iran. The prior one jeopardized national security by recklessly handling her email and leaving us to find out from WikiLeaks what was in it.
Although it fared better than other institutions in the poll, our military hasn’t defeated Islamic terrorism. Instead, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Libya are a mess. Terrorist attacks happen with disturbing regularity, at home as well as abroad.
A general leaks secrets to his embedded biographer and gets a slap in the wrist. Other generals take sides in partisan political elections instead of keeping their political preferences to themselves, giving advice to, and taking direction from, their elected civilian leaders.
Congress seems incapable of performing its most basic functions, like passing a budget and confirming nominees.
The masters of the financial universe proved themselves to be at least inept, if not corrupt. Their derivative securities and collateralized debt obligations blew up the domestic economy and dragged down the rest of the world, forcing Main Street to bail out Wall Street.
Most recently, we learned that the retail banking unit of a large financial institution had a massive program of opening accounts without its customers’ permission in order to reap fees and performance bonuses, and that the executive who created the program was given a golden parachute to keep her quiet.
One governor seems to take bribes, but gets acquitted on appeal. Another (ours) doesn’t seem to be able to control himself. A state attorney general gets convicted for violating grand jury secrecy and lying about it. A state court judge refuses to follow the federal law on same sex marriage. Supreme Court justices forget to appear impartial in public.
Mass shootings seem to be more frequent. Law enforcement is vilified for being racist. Violent crime appears to be on the rise. Protesters riot in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
President Obama fits into this narrative. As a smooth-talking, dispassionate, former academic, he exudes elitism. Hillary Clinton does too, with all her years in government and her sense that the rules don’t apply.
The average person follows the rules and gets punished when they don’t. They work to support themselves and their dependents. They come home to watch talentless and undeserving people living large on TV. No wonder many want to blow things up.
But that wouldn’t be prudent. It’s so wasteful. Notwithstanding this parade of horribles that I have marshaled, I don’t think our system is beyond salvation. I do think we need to take corrective action. Restore some order. Revitalize our institutions. Make some improvements. Incrementally.
Leaders must promote the common good, rather than cater to the fringes. Experts and elites have to hold themselves to high standards. Their peers should review them and point out when they go astray in a constructive manner. The opposition must be loyal, not blind. The law must be enforced against the high and mighty, not just the poor and unfortunate. The press must be balanced, if not objective. People have to play their part: stay informed and involved, and be reasonable.
Democracy is collective self-government. It begins with individual self-control. That would be a good place to start. At all levels.
Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.