THE WAY things are going, it cannot be long before American parents will, when their children are born, announce on their behalf that, when they reach the age of 35, they will be candidates for the presidency. Every child born this year would thus be known as a member of the Class of '16, since 2016 would be the first year in which he or she was eligible to run. But of course they could start campaigning at once. Election campaigns in America would then be a mere 26 years long.
Since the Classes of '12 and '08 and '04 would also be campaigning in their first elections, American democracy would at last have achieved the fulfillment to which it has been steadily working, to have a continuous election for the highest post in the land. Jimmy Carter began to plan his takeover of the Democratic Party even before George McGovern had been defeated in 1972. This was impressive in terms of the past, but primitive in terms of what is to come.
Parents could insure against the campaign expenses as they now do against the costs of a college education, which is likely to be necessary, since the expense of electing even a congressman will in 35 years probably be in the range of $20 million. (1978 was the first year in which the cost of electing a member of the House of Representatives rose above $1 million.) Television and the press could follow a candidate from the cradle, and those who like to use the methods of psychohistory, like James David Barber in "The Presidential Character," could start with those early formative Freudian years, when the character is supposed to be formed.
You think that this is fantasy? But there are already more hats in the ring today than one suspects are made by the Stetson Company in a year. There are certainly more than there were at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, which in the disjointedness of its exchanges had some of the characteristics of a primary. There are already two aspirants for the Republican nomination from Texas alone, and when one thinks of the size of Texas one can only wonder what the future holds.
Harold Stassen has entered the race once more, and in this be may prove to be what he at least has never doubted, one of the most significant politicians of the age, since he seems to have been running since he was not long out of the cradle. The development that I envisage would indeed be democratic. If the Kennedy family can decide at birth that each of its members should in turn be president, why in the tradition of "Log Cabin to White House" should this not be open to all?
Europeans and the English have always been amazed at the number and length of elections in America. Even in an off off-year -- the year after a presidential election -- elections are taking place. I first visited the United States in 1965, a year after a presidential election and a year before the midterm elections to Congress. But to whatever city or town or village I traveled, north and south, I could not get away from an election of some kind.
Like most Europeans, I do not think that this emphasis on elections, on one activity among all the others in the political process, is in the end very healthy. It gives too great an influence to one form of pressure. It subjects politicians to what in effect is a permanent system of recall. It makes democracy a windy thing, recalling Macaulay's still forceful comment to an Marican acquaintance, "Your constitution is all sail and no anchor." Who will deny that American politics is less anchored now than ever?
But this is not here my point. Neither do I intend to explore the unquestionable fact that the extension of the primaries is bedeviling the working even of the electoral system. As the primaries have now developed, they are the perfect instrument for the footloose single interests, through which any small group can intimidate the candidates. They are also the breeding ground of the new quasi-political operators, the political consultants and opinion pollsters and media manipulators. The political process is meant to bring diverse interests together in significant coalitions, having to concede here in order to win support there, but the single-interest groups in a primary can in isolation get hold of a candidate by the short hairs.
My interest is wider. America has always been regarded by outsiders as the most political of nations. That is why it holds elections to so many offices. No other democracy of which I am aware allows popularly elected school boards so prominent a voice in the management of its public schools. No other democracy of which I am aware thinks that it is natural to choose high aw officers by popular election. But this is the American way and, in the sheer size of the country and its federal structure, there are reasons for it.
What interests me is that there lies behind it a much more profound politicizing of life in America. This politicizing now seems to me to be rampant. There appears to be hardly an issue these days on which a decision is not sought in the political arena, from whether one should have a baby once it is conceived, to whether a clump of trees should be pulled down to allow the passage of a highway. This is not only a threat, as I have pointed out before, in the uses to which the referendum is now put. The politicizing of every aspect of life has always been regarded as one of the attributes of a totalitarian society. Though not in any simple way, this is the danger.
WHAT SEEMS to be an enlargement of th freedom of the individual -- the right to carry whatever is one's individual interest to the vote -- is really an invitation to politics to intrude in every corner of our lives. "The individual is sovereign in the election booth, but no man can spend his life in an election booth." So said Max Ascoli, the founder and editor of The Reporter, speaking from his experience of fascism. But one can add to that. No one should wish to take all of his or her life into the election booth.
I have personally no doubt that political activity is one of the high arts of a free and civil society. But if everything is subjected to politics, that art is perverted and made gross. Politicians are asked to take a stand on questions that should be none of their concern. Ordinary people who do not frenetically see every aspect of their private lives as a political question wake up one morning to find that some single-interest group has indeed brought politics into their private lives.
It is usually the extremists who want to politicize our lives. The extreme right and the extreme left will hunt down what they think is evil or corruption or decadence, communism or reaction, in books and the theater and movies and religion and the curriculum of schools. To put it in a nutshell, nothing is left sacred. The form that this politicizing is taking in America is that the single-interest groups are extremists in their own single cause. Many of the absurd claims to "rights" which various groups are now making are nothing more than a politicizing of large areas of private life that used to be held free from the intervention of politics.
On all sorts of questions, politics is now being invited to legislate or adjudicate what are called our "lifestyles," to decide what should be our mores. The owner of one of the successful disco bars in Washington told me the other day that he was getting out, partly because to run such a public place in the District of Columbia has become too much of a hassle: "Every morning you find that someone else is bringing a suit against you, because yo do not let gays dance together on the floor, or whatever." Before we think that the excessive regulation of our personal lives is largely the result of big government, we should consider that the really threatening regulation is being invited by the activity of the single-interest lobbies.
If there is an absured and growing amount of regulation about the ingredients and quality of the foods available to us, we should consider that this is not primarily the result of bureaucrats who will not leave us alone, but of the politicizing of our private choices as the result of the prying of all kinds of single-interest groups. The criticism of them -- that they imagine a society that is "risk-free" -- is a justified one. But one must carry if further. They will not allow even us to choose to risk.
Ralph Nader is the most unapologetic politicizer of our private lives. Appearing to fight for the rights of the individual as a consumer, he is in fact the arch-apostle of government prying and regulation. But the mood extends much further. Politics has been invited even into the marital bedroom -- for that is the meaning of inviting the judiciary into it -- and one wonders where on earth there is left for it still to pry. Perhaps someone will ask it to determine who in a family should have first use of the bathroom in the morning: certainly some of the claims to individual rights that have recently been taken to court are no less silly than that.
The invitation to intrude into the marital bedroom, as has been pointed out, is not to determine whether there has been criminal violence, which existing laws could determine, but to decide the nature of the most intimate choices of husband and wife. A young man in Boulder, Colo., is now suing his parents for what his lawyers call "malpractice in parenting," claiming that his parents did not bring him up properly -- which his action seems to prove, indeed! But although this may seem to be an especially absurd and extreme example, it merely carries to its logical conclusion the present mood of inviting government into even our most personal relationships.
Behind this rampant politicizing of our lives there lies an American belief that everything can be settled. Somewhere in the political realm there must be a final court of appeal that can resolve every contradiction and conflict in our day-to-day rounds. Nothing is to be left to us to work out responsibly for ourselves. Nothing is to be left untidy. The fact that life by its nature is untidy is to be challenged in the courts or in the election booths. But adults have to learn to live with their feet always in the water.