Political Reform in An Era of “Existential Politics”

February 28, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

Rick Pildes asks whether in this time of “existential politics,” when contestants for political power perceive the very “identity of the country… to be at stake,” we might expect the steady degradation and eventual collapse of institutional norms. He is moved to this reflection by Judge Laurence Silberman’s recent column on Jim Comey’s and Justice Ginsburg’s interventions in the 2016 political campaign. Judge Silberman charges each with disregard of norms, with having “bent with the political winds” in a storm. Silberman does not explicitly develop the theme of an existential politics, but Pildes rightly sees something like it playing in the background.

One other consequence of this brand of politics is the collapse of any agreement about the rules of political competition. For the existential warrior, these rules either cost too much–they just get in the way–or they require tighter alignment with self-interest. If, as Michael Gerson mockingly describes the mind-set, the nation is now in the midst of a “fourth turning, or maybe the fifth progression, or the third cataclysm,” or if the government threatens a turn toward fascism, there will be little patience in this fight for ground-rules that complicate the path to victory or successful resistance. As noted here, the progressive opposition may include campaign finance limits among its reform commitments, but how far can this go, if resources are thought essential to the project of stopping Trump?

The rejection of rules tends to be rationalized, and rationalization has been spreading. Last to go has been the acceptance for the need for disclosure; but it may be on the way out, as Republican and conservative critics argue that transparency requirements are devices that the administrative state has established for the surveillance of the political opposition. In this attack on disclosure, the President’s refusal to release his returns, while a rejection of norms and not of law, has put a fine point on the precarious position of transparency in the existential politics of the day.

It would be easy but wrong to imagine that the net effect on political reform will be de-regulation, an era of anything-goes in which various restrictions lie inert and unenforced on the books. In a free-for-all, the rules governing political participation can be weaponized as well as discarded. The same pressure to get rid of inconvenient rules drives political actors to write new ones that nicely serve their purposes.

So the current Administration is apparently about to embark on a campaign against “voter fraud” motivated by the President’s conviction that he was, and in the future will be, a victim of illegal voting. That he is a candidate for re-election with a direct interest in voting rules, in the “shape of the electorate,” has not raised a question in his mind, or among his supporters, about the integrity of this enterprise. To the contrary, the President is putting his running mate in charge. And he has made no bones about it: this is about him, his political fortunes and that of what he takes to be his “movement.”

This may be the emerging face of reform in a time of existential politics.

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