One of the parties — which I used to call my own — has already been captured by the most extreme, disturbing element of its traditional coalition. The radicals promised a revolution against an out-of-touch elite. They succeeded, in part, through bullying and intimidation. They have devalued governing skill and compromise. They have elevated potent cultural symbols that unite and motivate their own — such as the fight against an imaginary “deep state” — rather than seeking to unite and inspire the country.
And now the other party — as though by some horrible compulsion for imitation — is being captured by the most extreme, disturbing element of its traditional coalition. The radicals are succeeding, in part, through bullying and intimidation. They devalue governing skill and compromise. They employ potent cultural symbols — such as the demand for “revolution” and the demonization of moderation — to unite and motivate their own tribe rather than seeking to unite the country.
The two sides are not morally equivalent. Only one is subverting our constitutional order on a daily basis. Only one leader is regularly fanning flames of racial division. Only one leader has separated migrant families and abused migrant children. Only one leader has authoritarian pretensions and regularly uses his office to facilitate corruption.
But Trump and Sanders practice a similar type of politics, described with typical brilliance in Yuval Levin’s new book, “A Time to Build.” Levin argues that political institutions — say, the presidency or Congress — were once seen as formative institutions. People within them were expected to uphold certain standards and develop certain skills. Politicians wanted to be recognized for excelling at the profession of politics, which includes mastering detail, building consensus and cooperating in spite of differences.
Politicians such as Trump and Sanders, however, want to be seen as outsiders overturning a discredited establishment. Trump, for example, has continued to criticize elements of his own administration on Twitter as though he were an outside observer. In this political approach, the purpose of institutions has shifted. “We have moved, roughly speaking,” writes Levin, “from thinking of institutions as molds that shape people’s characters and habits toward seeing them as platforms that allow people to be themselves and to display themselves before a wider world.” Political institutions are no longer seen as “formative” but as “performative.”
Trump may be the champion of performative politics, but some leaders of the left, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sanders, are contesting the title. For all of them, public office is not so much a place to serve and achieve but a means to raise the profile of their activism. For all of them, the act of being viral matters more than the craft and discipline of passing laws or ensuring their proper administration.
It wasn’t that long ago that a progressive leader such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy aspired to be a master legislator and was perfectly willing to make reasonable compromises on education reform or immigration reform to secure incremental progress. Or when President George W. Bush proposed and got passed the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief with the strong support of then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and then-Sen. Joe Biden.
Who, in this age of the outsider, would now run for president on a platform of reasonable compromise and bipartisan purpose? (Well, actually, Biden initially did. And many in his party reviled him for it.)
But what if the greatest need of the republic is not for an outsider to shake things up but an insider to get things done on education reform, and immigration reform, and global health? What if the type of leadership we need most does not pursue virality as an end, or signal cultural loyalties as a tactic, but rather elevates prudence, professionalism and idealism rooted in achievement? What if we need politicians who know their jobs and a president who brings honor to his office and healing to a weary country?
The realization comes like a nightmare: Maybe there is no longer a democratic constituency for the talents and virtues that make democracy work.