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For Fans of Lesser Sports Properties, the Party is Over

Back when I was posting more regularly about the sports TV wars – in part because the wars themselves were burning brighter and the stakes seemed higher – a point I routinely made was that, as good as the wars would be for the largest, most popular entities with content that could attract large audiences to sports networks, they would be an absolute boon to lesser entities that might not otherwise attract much of an audience at all, or even enough to justify their existence, as the glut of sports networks looked for properties to fill out the rest of their time. Truly tiny leagues and conferences didn’t see much of a bump from the wars (a TV deal with CBS Sports Network only kept the UFL afloat for an additional half season) but lower-mid-tier leagues, the sort that could attract audiences approaching a million on broadcast and regularly top several hundred thousand on networks the size of FS1 and NBCSN, saw their visibility vastly increased. As I explained in my book The Game to Show the Games (and as expanded upon here previously) no sport benefited from the glut of sports networks more than soccer, even before the sports TV wars properly became a thing, as a veritable soccer boom enveloped English-speaking America driven in large measure by coverage of the English Premier League on Fox Soccer Channel and its predecessor Fox Sports World, driving NBC to not only break the bank for Premier League rights but to make it as much of a tentpole for NBCSN as the NHL.

If no sport benefited more than soccer from the sports TV boom, no single deal demonstrated the power of TV to elevate a sport more than the Premier League’s deal with NBC. NBC’s high-quality coverage, semi-regular games on broadcast television, and dizzying array of games on NBCSN only scratched the surface of what NBC would do for the Premier League in America. Perhaps more remarkable was NBC’s decision to place all the games it couldn’t fit on its linear networks on an array of “Extra Time” channels and available for streaming for any subscriber to a cable package that included NBCSN. American viewers could watch every single Premier League game live, something people in England itself couldn’t say, if only because the Premier League contracts there were arranged to protect gate revenues, especially at lower-tier clubs.

This week, NBC announced that those games not airing on NBC’s linear services would now be available on a “Premier League Pass” subscription service, no longer free with NBCSN. The headline on Re/code touting this deal focused on the “no cable subscription required” aspect of the service, which is a bit disingenuous considering games on NBC’s cable networks aren’t part of the deal, but not really any different from people who get ESPN3 from their Internet provider (or who sign up for ESPN’s long-delayed direct-to-consumer offering) and get to watch mid-major college sports and less popular events without access to ESPN’s actual linear networks. Despite its uselessness to cord-cutters, though, I was surprised to see headlines on more soccer-focused sites bemoaning what a big step backward this was for NBC’s coverage of the Premier League, with Vice Sports going so far as to claim that the move of what it admits is “the crappiest third” of Premier League games to a premium service amounts to NBC “kill[ing] America’s EPL Golden Age“.

Certainly for Premier League fans used to signing up for the cable bundle, this is a huge step backwards. $50 is a relatively steep price, though for an entire season of Premier League games it compares favorably to American sports leagues’ pay-per-view/out-of-market/streaming services, which often top $100. And it’s not like Premier League fans can save money by just signing up for Premier League Pass, since again, it doesn’t include games on NBC’s linear networks. But it’s hard to declare the loss of the least interesting, most perfunctory matchups, that were already consigned to streaming and overflow channels, as completely undermining the visibility and value of the Premier League on American television, especially since given the ongoing shifts in the media landscape, a move like this may have been inevitable. Even if Extra Time wasn’t really “too good to be true” even at the time, setting aside specialized channels and propping up the cable bundle even more was becoming difficult to justify. With Premier League Pass, NBC is pivoting towards the sports distribution system of the future, one that more specifically targets fans of various sports, that sports networks in general will have to pivot towards.

As such, I’m not sure I agree with Richard Deitsch that this is entirely about monetizing a more expensive Premier League rights deal; if so it would raise the question of whether the deal was really worth it to begin with. I think there’s a bigger picture to look at here. Going back to its days as Versus, NBCSN has staked its territory around providing comprehensive coverage of sports that might get shorter shrift at ESPN or Fox, and that’s a territory that lends itself well to providing services oriented directly at those niche sports fans. The NBC Sports Gold service already sells access to many of those niche sports bundled together for up to $70 a year, but depending on how many butthurt Premier League fans (especially those that have attached themselves to teams further down the table) swallow their pride and pony up, Premier League Pass could easily make them more money. I could easily see NBC as laying the groundwork for the day it may ultimately have to shutter NBCSN in its current form and fold many of its rights into networks like CNBC or USA as the cable bundle finally utterly collapses, folding together many of its mid-to-lower tier rights into a direct-to-consumer offering targeted at the niche sports fans NBCSN serves today. I may have felt Fox was better positioned to run down ESPN than anyone else (certainly Fox themselves did) before it turned out Fox didn’t quite have the quality of rights to convince people to turn to FS1 on a regular basis, and I’m skeptical that anyone other than ESPN will survive the collapse of the cable bundle and shift to Internet streaming, but NBC may be better positioned than any of the alternatives to pivot to marketing a national service directly to the consumer, offering a simple value proposition to fans of niche sports (ignoring the question of the fate of local sports and what it would mean for Fox and NBC). With Premier League Pass, NBC is building the groundwork and subscriber base for whenever the day may come when NBC Sports Gold has to become its main offering to sports fans.

Ultimately, I think the effect of the Internet will be to collapse any intermediate distinctions preventing a step down from the ESPN level directly to pure streaming, with the only distinction being between the resources and quality poured into that streaming, with the likes of Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and potentially Google on the high end, down to lesser offerings oriented towards more niche audiences like Premier League Pass, all the way down to free streams where there’s no room for monetization and no budget for any but the most rudimentary setups at all. For the truly tiniest leagues, I’m already seeing signs of streaming, of various degrees of monetization, being a boon to them; when the number of channels is effectively limitless, there’s little reason not to put up a stream of every game you have so long as you have the resources for it, especially when it comes to leagues popular in their home countries that just need to export their feeds to the States. But for these mid-tier leagues that have become used to comprehensive coverage subsidized by non-sports fans who continue to subscribe to the cable bundle, the party is over. Even if you believe that the most apocalyptic scenarios still involve the vast majority of Americans continuing to subscribe to some sort of comprehensive cable bundle for the foreseeable future, there’s still clear evidence of the fear of cord-cutting and sports-free packages driving sports networks to reduce their investment in mid-tier properties that don’t drive enough viewership and subscriptions on their own to justify the level of expense the cable bundle has inflated their perceived value to. Services like Premier League Pass are the first sign of sports networks sending a message that it’s time for sports fans to pay more of their fair share of the boom of sports television that has erupted in recent years.

I’m not sure it matters whether or how we survive the Trump era in the short term…

…because we were already pretty dang close to crossing the point of no return for global warming utterly destroying civilization, and with Republicans all but guaranteed to control the White House until 2020 and Democrats facing a massive uphill battle to retake just one house of Congress before then no matter how unpopular Trump and the Republicans become, the United States pulling out of the last best hope to salvage something of civilization might actually be a net positive.

Even without global warming, the increased distrust and discarding of norms once seen as essential to American democracy really makes it feel like we’re witnessing the end of, if not Western civilization, at least the United States as we know it. Throw global warming into the mix, and you get a contributing factor to my lightness of posts so far this year: it’s hard to see any point in trying to contribute to the direction of society when it feels like it’s in the midst of collapse. Short of inventing time travel, all we can do is talk about what should have been done and wrap things up before turning out the lights.

I’d like to think it isn’t that bad and that America and the world do in fact have a future worth contributing to, but it’s hard to see the path to that future, and the narrative being written right now sure seems to resemble societal collapse more than society overcoming adversity to emerge stronger than ever.

Is ESPN Giving Up on IndyCar?

If you’ve been paying more attention to the sports media landscape than I’ve been covering for you, you know that ESPN this past week let loose with a barrage of layoffs, firing over a hundred people including a number of prominent on-air and online personalities. Obviously, this is in part ESPN attempting to trim the fat for a cord-cutting future, one where live event rights to compel people to sign up and stay signed up for cable, or any future direct-to-consumer offering, are the most important thing for the future of the business and all else is just gravy, something only to be risked if they make enough money to justify it, a future where linear television exists primarily as a conduit for popular live events and anything else is just filling time. Hence, heavy cuts to ESPN’s journalism operations, which don’t help ESPN collect higher subscriber fees or appreciably boost ratings, and studio analysts, which are mainly relevant if at all as programming bracketing live games, especially with highlight shows like SportsCenter being less relevant with highlights being widely available online, but comparably fewer cuts to live game analysts and announcers. But not all sports are created equal. ESPN makes these cuts on the heels of a multi-million dollar agreement with the Big Ten that hasn’t even been officially announced yet, one that to an outside observer makes little sense in the context of the layoffs, but which ESPN sees as critically important, as high-value programming driving subscriptions and eyeballs and which, even splitting the contract with Fox, deprives Fox or any rival of that programming that might bestow money and credibility on them and potentially allow them to move closer to on par with ESPN (the impending launch of the ACC Network, on the other hand, looks all the more questionable). But less popular sports, especially those sports that require a large amount of personnel separate from or superfluous to your other sports, might not be worth the expense.

To my knowledge, no more than two play-by-play men have been confirmed to be fired as part of the layoffs, one of them being longtime auto racing announcer Allen Bestwick:


Before Bestwick, the last two announcers of the Indianapolis 500 were Marty Reid and, in an infamous one-year experiment marred by over-emphasis on Danica Patrick, Todd Harris. Neither is still with ESPN. During ESPN’s most recent stint covering NASCAR races, the three lead announcers for the Sprint Cup series were Dr. Jerry Punch, Reid, and Bestwick. Punch is also among those that were fired. As Bestwick’s tweet indicates, he’ll continue to serve as a lame duck for the rest of the IndyCar season, including the 500 (as will Punch), but after that? Quite possibly the only personality ESPN has left with auto racing announcing experience is Paul Page, who called the 500 all but three years from 1988 through 2004, and who currently is reduced to calling the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and nothing else. Even discounting the play-by-play spot, if ESPN can’t replace Punch the 500 will have fewer than three pit reporters for the first time at least since ABC started airing it live, and hiring someone new would seem to defeat the point. And next year is the last year of ABC’s contract to air a grand total of five or six races, which raises the question: why would ESPN invest money in a sport when they just fired its play-by-play man and best pit reporter (as well as main alternative for the play-by-play spot) as part of attempting to cut their expenses to the bone?

ABC has felt like it’s been on its way out as a television partner of the IndyCar Series since the then-Versus network took over cable coverage in 2009; that it would renew its relationship in 2011, after the Comcast-NBC merger that would have allowed Comcast to unify coverage under one roof if ESPN didn’t want to, was somewhat surprising, but with the subsequent departure of NASCAR and the NHRA from ESPN leaving those five-six IndyCar races on ABC as the only motorsports content ESPN produces, it may be an expense ESPN feels it can’t afford when only the 500 truly produces appreciable numbers, even with Bestwick and Punch broadening their repertoire into college sports in recent years. About the only reason to keep it around is to keep ABC’s status as the only television partner the 500 has ever had, but that hasn’t stopped many other longstanding associations from changing hands in recent years – perhaps most pertinently, the move of golf’s British Open first to cable as the only home of live coverage and then to NBC, ending its long relationship with ABC and bringing major golf back to NBC after that network had its own long relationship with the US Open ended in favor of Fox. It’s easy to see ESPN throwing up its hands and letting NBC have full rights to the entire series, including the Indy 500 with coverage potentially hosted by Bob Costas or Mike Tirico, and Bestwick and Punch joining NBC’s team for IndyCar, NASCAR, or both. ESPN’s relationships with the British Open and NHRA were both bought out a year early as the new contracts began, and ESPN attempted to do the same with NASCAR; it’s easy to surmise that ESPN would not only be willing to give up IndyCar rights but surrender the final year of its deal similarly, and thus leave ESPN without any motorsports coverage for the first time practically since its founding.

All this brings me to one last important point. I’ve mentioned before what a boon the sports TV wars have been for smaller leagues and conferences that have been able to get television exposure and revenue that would have been unthinkable ten years ago, even if on relatively obscure networks. Now, however, the most immediate victims of cord-cutting might be those smaller leagues – or perhaps more to the point, mid-tier leagues like IndyCar that don’t move the needle but attract considerable expense regardless. If the firing of Bestwick and Punch suggests ESPN won’t even come to the table in the next IndyCar negotiations, IndyCar’s best bet to attract much of a rights fee in its next contract might be dependent on whether or not Fox is interested in sweeping in and picking up the rights, and Fox may balk at airing the 500 and risking a rain delay that bumps up against the NASCAR race the same day. (NBC also airs Formula 1 from Monaco the same day, but that may be less of an issue.) Otherwise, barring a surprise CBS-Turner combined bid, NBC might be able to essentially name its price, similar to where it found itself with NASCAR when ESPN and Turner abandoned ship on the sport. ESPN’s newfound frugality is very bad news for entities that don’t offer enough high-quality content to justify increased rights fees or a significant number of maintained subscriptions. It reduces the number of outlets available to them and forces them to find shelter with entities that remain vulnerable to suffering even more than ESPN if the linear cable market contracts further. If you’re banking on increased rights fees but your next contract negotiation is even a year away, and you’re not one of the major college conferences, pro leagues, major golf competitions, NASCAR, FIFA, or the Olympics, it’s time to ratchet down your expectations considerably.

Still in a bit of a holding pattern

Not much has changed since the post I had last month. I think I’m basically letting myself have an unannounced vacation, having burned out on my attempt to continue my series of political posts. You can probably see a pattern to this if you look back on the history of Da Blog, especially over the last few years, where I’ll have long stretches, especially over the spring and summer, where I spend all my time on totally frivolous projects.

Every time this happens I feel incredibly guilty about it and about not spending time on the projects I actually consider “productive”, and then I keep working on the frivolous stuff because that’s where my mind is, allowing myself to fall into a complete rut for months on end. But every month I spend on stuff like that is a month I’m not working on stuff that can go on Da Blog or the rest of the web site or that can be released to the world at large, and I’m losing momentum in terms of establishing a name for myself in the wider world, and it feels like this is happening more and more recently (though that may be related to my not having school, living with my dad, and not feeling pressure to get a real job). To be honest, I feel that’s a reason why the book isn’t as timely as I’d hoped or quite up to how I’d envisioned it when I started. I shouldn’t be feeling old at just short of 29, but from what I’ve read I’ve already passed the age where the brain hits its peak and stops growing. Have I locked in my poor work habits for all time, and put myself in a situation where they’re enabled? Is there even a way to keep me focused on “productive” projects that I would be receptive to?

This isn’t really because of the election and the ongoing Age of Trump, aside from that being the impetus for my political series, but it doesn’t help. Part of the problem is that ever since the election, I can’t help but think we’re witnessing the slow-motion end of the world and self-destruction of civilization; if Trump doesn’t start a nuclear war because someone insulted him on Twitter, the forces behind his election and other populist movements around the globe will cause civilization to come to a halt, with or without all-out war, and if they don’t do it on their own global warming will do it for them. (That middle option might be the best-case scenario if it results in a drastic drop in emissions, but that wouldn’t be enough to prevent catastrophic changes.) Against this backdrop, as I said earlier, writing about anything else, certainly anything that attempts to shape what the future might be (and thus presumes its existence), seems frivolous; even the political series, which I had hoped to complete before the election, seems pointless. What good is anything in the face of humanity’s apparent and potentially inescapable self-destruction? It’s a recipe for paralysis and apathy; even trying to write recommendations for how to fix the problem seems like casting stones to the wind at this point, doomed to go down in history as a record of what should have been done rather than an impetus to actually do it while there was still time to make a difference (which feels like the story of my life since launching Da Blog). I do have a few ideas for projects I can try to make meaning out of even in this context, even aside from the political series, but they’d take a long time to get going and I haven’t been working on any of them.

So yeah, this is one of those periods where I descend into a tailspin of depression over my inability to get actual work done and end up getting even less work done as a result. I don’t know when I’m going to climb out of it or what I’ll come out of it with. Hopefully at least next month I’ll have more than an exercise in self-pity.

So, How am I Holding Up in the Age of Trump?

I haven’t made any posts since before the inauguration, and you’d probably forgive me if the first week or two of the new administration left me so broken down as unable to say anything. There’s probably some truth to that, but it’s not the whole truth; for example, circumstances outside my control left me unable to update the Pro Football Hall of Fame Watch, which I may have to reassess the criteria for and post with possibly substantial changes in July or August.

I’ve been trying to make progress on the series of political posts I started on the eve of the election, but one post in particular has proved much more involved than I expected, in part because it’s an idea for a post I’ve had going back at least to my first round of political posts in 2008, but the outcome of the recent election has resulted in an example to work with that’s far less straightforward than the 2000 election I was going to work with. Recently I’ve been letting that fall by the wayside in favor of another more frivolous project that may or may not result in new content for the site but which doesn’t make me feel much better for working on it. I was intending for this series of political posts to build up to my proposed changes to the Constitution, but the context now feels very different than it did then.

I did start a new Da Countdown on inauguration day ticking down the remaining days in the Trump administration, assuming he doesn’t suspend elections, but there hasn’t been much else. I actually have an idea for a more philosophical approach to my next political post, but it’s something that would have been better served coming out last week. And the election has inspired a bunch of other ideas for projects, but as was the case all last summer, it’s been hard for me to re-orient myself towards the project I had considered to be a prerequisite for them.

Still, I do hope to keep my “continue my streak of months with a post” posts like this one to a minimum going forward, but I suspect when my next Blog-Day post comes out I’ll once again have a pretty low mark of posts for the year.

The Music May Be Stopping for Cable Networks

It feels empty, going back to talking about television and the future of video at a time when it feels like, for a young liberal like myself, we might not have a future of any kind at all, but there was some news this week that made me reflect on one of my older posts and how the television landscape is shifting.

In 2012, Comcast was looking for something to do with its ten-year-old video game channel, G4, which had been dropped by DirecTV two years earlier and seemed to be inexorably on the wane. It eventually decided to rebrand it to the Esquire Network, a joint venture with Esquire magazine. Two weeks before the rebrand was to finally take effect, Comcast, now in control of NBC Universal, decided to rebrand the Style network as Esquire instead, figuring that Style’s female-oriented programming was now redundant with Bravo and Oxygen, and giving Esquire a slot that actually had DirecTV carriage. G4 would remain on the air under that name, endlessly rerunning its back library, until its existing carriage agreements ran out, and it was finally taken out of its misery a little over two years ago.

That Comcast was willing to rebrand Style as Esquire Network without having anything else to do with G4’s space was surprising to me, because as I wrote shortly before G4 was put out of its misery, the trend in the cable business seemed to be to constantly rebrand channels until companies found a format that stuck, holding on to established channel space and using whatever channel hadn’t caught on to launch the next format idea that came to the suits. Which brings me to this week, and the news that came out Wednesday that Comcast will be shutting down Esquire Network’s linear feed later this year, converting it to a digital on-demand service. On one level, that Comcast replaced Style, not G4, with the Esquire Network means they have now effectively killed two channels instead of one. But on another level, there’s no guarantee Comcast wouldn’t be shutting down Style now anyway, if they hadn’t already done so. In that sense, Comcast may have simply been ahead of its time, knowing that it might not have any new channel ideas with which to replace either Style or G4 – for both channels, the alternative to giving Esquire Network a try would be a full shutdown.

The notion of “cable network musical chairs” was from the start rooted in one of the dynamics captured in my book, The Game to Show the Games. As described in Chapter 7, for many years the Big Nine companies that control most of the channels on your cable lineup were able to use their popular channels to bully cable operators into carrying less popular channels. By about ten years ago, it became nearly impossible to launch a new channel from scratch unless you could convince cable operators it would have a built-in audience from the start, and since then the only channels the Big Nine have attempted to launch from scratch have been regional and college-conference-affiliated sports networks. But outright closing a network and giving up its channel space was unheard of. Until G4, the only truly national cable networks to completely shut down since the 2004 closure of CNNfn and TechTV were ABC News Now, which had highly limited distribution to begin with, and SoapNet, which only survived the launch of Disney Junior because of Disney’s inability to get cable operators to swap one out with the other. It made sense to keep a channel around, just to squat on the space, until you came up with a new idea for what to do with it, knowing that unless things became truly dire cable operators would continue to carry it.

Of course, the same phenomenon that keeps companies from launching new channels from scratch also makes it difficult to relaunch existing channels and attract enough of an audience to make up from the audience lost from the old format, especially in the age of cord-cutting where starting up a new linear network seems like a decidedly outmoded, foolish proposition, if you don’t have any of the live events that are the main purpose of linear television going forward, or any established shows moved from other networks. It’s become decidedly obvious to all parties involved that the cable network landscape is badly oversaturated, but I felt that, without cord-cutting accelerating substantially, no one had any incentive to shrink it – so long as the Big Nine could still get cable companies to carry them, they had no reason to shutter any of them and deprive themselves of a revenue stream. Rerunning old content over and over would still bring in more money than losing the space without being able to get it back if you had a better programming idea.

There is some evidence, though, that cable companies are getting more and more empowered to at least try to dump networks they see as worthless, as they look for ways to shrink their packages to deliver more value and more reason for people to sign up for them. As much as online pay-TV services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue have failed to live up to their promise of slimmed-down channel lineups, instead carrying most of the Big Nine’s entire portfolios, they’ve still placed some pressure on the Big Nine to shrink down what they have to carry, especially coupled with traditional cable companies’ efforts to create truly “skinny bundles”.

It’s hard to say what the tipping point was. By the time A&E Networks followed through with its announced replacement of H2 with the Viceland network in February, it was already widely ridiculed despite the head of Vice boasting that it would “return millennials to cable TV”. The general consensus was that Vice had no illusions of reaching “millennials” by any means other than online, and a linear network would simply broaden who it could reach at very little cost to Vice itself with the potential to bring in additional ad revenue. Al Jazeera America shut down two months later without replacement, despite the efforts of OneAmerica News Network to take over the space, in part because it wasn’t backed by any of the Big Nine. The same goes for the October shutdown of the Pivot network, itself already a merger of the Documentary Channel and Halogen network. The shutdown of Esquire, triggered by both AT&T and Charter looking to dump it, suggests the Big Nine’s bundling practices won’t insulate them from having to cut down on their networks.

To be sure, the Big Nine will continue to play musical chairs for as long as they can – Comcast is reportedly also looking into converting Oxygen into an outlet for crime dramas – but if the shutdown of Esquire is any indication, we may finally be about to see a market correction as the cable network landscape contracts to just those networks that are absolutely necessary, or at least sustainable. Losing Esquire on its own won’t cause anyone to dump cable, but if the trend accelerates fast enough, as more networks shut down there will be less of a reason for those subscribers that remain to keep their cable subscription, and eventually we should reach an equilibrium where cable is priced low enough to actually be worth the cost for those subscribed to it, while the migration of the “lost” content to the Internet, heralded by Esquire’s conversion to a digital platform tied to the Esquire magazine web site, will minimize the damage from the contraction and increase the value of cord-cutting. We could be seeing the start of the formation of the video landscape of the future. Again, assuming there is a future.

How Third Parties Can Be Relevant, and Save American Democracy in the Process

I mentioned Duverger’s Law in the last post, which holds that in a “first-past-the-post” system such as what we have where a plurality rules, a two-party system is inevitable. Supporters of third parties constantly try to deny this, claiming some sort of conspiracy of the two major parties to convince people we have a two-party system and so discourage people from voting for third-party candidates. But it’s actually quite simple to demonstrate. Anyone old enough to remember the 2000 election saw it play out firsthand. People dissatisfied with Al Gore’s progressive bona fides decided to cast their vote for Ralph Nader, and in certain states, that gave the vote, and the presidency, to George W. Bush. By voting for a candidate closer to their views they actually elected a candidate further away from them. The obvious conclusion is that if you want to get your way, you stick with the major-party candidate closer to your views no matter what, because veering away from it is counterproductive. (Yes, I am aware that Nader defenders will claim he took equally from both candidates, but it wouldn’t have taken much of a difference in Gore’s favor to swing Florida.)

The Founders may not have been aware of Duverger’s Law, but they still took pains to avoid its consequences in the selection of the President. A majority of the electors are required to choose a President; otherwise the race falls into the House of Representatives, where a majority of states are needed to settle upon a President, recognizing, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, that “it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive”. That a candidate could effectively secure enough electoral votes to win the Presidency when he did not secure a majority of the vote in seven states, accounting for far more electoral votes than his winning margin, indeed when he lost the popular vote by over two million votes, yet his opponent failed to secure a majority either, would greatly offend the Founders. The only place where the Founders did not secure the process from “permit[ting] less than a majority to be conclusive” was in the selection of electors themselves. The electoral college could be greatly reformed, and made far more hospitable to third parties, simply by adding a prohibition against states awarding all their electoral votes to a candidate that didn’t win a majority. But adopting the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, as many on the left want to do, without requiring majority rule, would throw out all the wisdom the Founders tried to put into the electoral college while (as we shall see) actually foreclosing what little hope third parties might have to win the Presidency, further entrenching the two-party system and all its problems.

So if you want there to be more than two parties, so that you have an alternative to the two most hated candidates in history, you need to move away from first-past-the-post. Perhaps you adopt something similar to the ranked-choice voting system Maine enacted on Election Day. Or perhaps you follow the example of countries like Britain and Canada, where a multitude of parties reign and effectively challenge the dominance of the major, powerful parties. Those nations use… a plurality-rules, first-past-the-post system?!?

Yes, in Britain and Canada, third parties typically target electoral districts where one of the major parties is irrelevant, allowing them to serve as an alternative to the remaining major party. The viability of third parties in Britain and Canada is usually attributed to their being parliamentary systems, where the head of state is chosen by the legislature. But it’s hard to see how that makes much of a difference. There’s nothing stopping today’s third parties from focusing on winning in specific states and districts where they can be the only viable alternative to the major parties. Indeed, such a strategy should be more viable in the United States, with its gerrymandered districts designed to be safe for one of the two major parties, than in Britain or Canada. It might even completely nullify the problem of gerrymandering. The whole point of gerrymandering is to create a few districts utterly dominated by one party, and then leave the rest of the districts with a large enough majority for the other party so as to leave a sizable underclass of supporters of the first party that are left completely disenfranchised. A party that can appeal to that underclass’s interests, while being palatable to enough members of the majority, should be able to effectively challenge for the district better than the original major party it’s replacing. Done right, possibly assisted by multiple third parties all carrying out the same strategy, it should not be possible to gerrymander your way to one-party rule; no matter how much you disenfranchise the members of one party, you only create an opening for another party to challenge you. Perhaps then district lines could be redrawn to preserve the current two-party system at the expense of giving any party “safe” seats, or they could even be drawn without regards to party preference at all, just whatever makes sense for each state, if it’s not possible to entrench any one party into power.

Under the Founders’ vision, a party looking to influence the direction of the nation should actually focus on Congress more than the Presidency – there’s a reason Congress comes first in the Constitution and why all the powers we popularly associate with the federal government as a whole are attributed to “Congress” in that first article. Indeed, until the expansion of presidential power under Woodrow Wilson, Congress was more powerful than the President – and, as the past decade of gridlock has shown, still wields tremendous power to, if not shape the direction of the country, at least check the President from unilaterally doing so.

But rather than do the hard work of building a party from the ground up, third parties continue to waste their time on moonshots to win the presidency, hoping against hope that the people will, all of a sudden and all at once, reject both major parties and that enough of them would coalesce on just one candidate (which would, of course, be theirs) to steal the presidency. Even if such a thing were to happen, it’s highly unlikely their party would hold any seats in Congress which could leave their President wholly impotent, but the fact that no third-party candidate even became relevant even in the face of the two most hated major-party candidates in history should cause some serious soul-searching in third-party offices, regardless of how much they may blame the media or the two-party system or their inability to get on the debate stage. Only a candidate with enough pre-existing celebrity as Nader can truly achieve relevance, and even he didn’t achieve any of the milestones that could have established truly lasting or at least impactful relevance beyond just tipping the outcome away from his preferred policies.

I’m fairly convinced the 5% threshold to receive funding from the federal government is actually the most anti-third party rule we have, convincing third parties that their presidential moonshots are actually a good way to create a shortcut to building a real party, and once they collect their federal funding they can actually start working on electing people at other levels. Nader didn’t achieve it, and even Gary Johnson, arguably the most qualified third party candidate since at least Nader or Perot, again going against the two most hated major-party candidates, didn’t achieve it. Without actually being able to elect enough people at lower levels to convince would-be politicians that your party is a legitimate means to achieve office, you have no mechanism to build credibility for any candidate you would field or to give them the sort of experience that would at least allow them to know what Aleppo is or name a world leader they admire. And without being able to convince activists that your party is a legitimate means to advance their causes, you’re left to become a club for people far enough outside the mainstream to complain that the two major parties don’t represent them. Johnson was probably the closest any third party is likely to come to a viable, credible candidate as long as they keep chasing the presidency, and he was despised by a large portion of the Libertarian base, his best approach, according to many analysts, being to distance himself from his own party as much as possible. Ultimately, third parties’ laser-focus on the presidency effectively precludes them from being credible and moderate enough to even achieve enough presidential votes to be worth it.

What makes the whole thing even more absurd is that the Founders may have actually intended for the United States to be something akin to a parliamentary system, but failed because of another intersection between their two big blind spots I mentioned last week. The Founders believed that no one other than George Washington would be able to win a majority of the electoral college, simply because it was too difficult for anyone else to achieve enough name recognition across all the states given 18th-century communications technology, meaning most candidates would be regional at best. Thus, the House of Representatives would pick the president on a regular basis, effectively establishing the President’s fealty to the House, but the existence of the electoral college would mean that if another Washington had enough popular will behind him, he could become President without going through the House. The rise of parties would ultimately undermine this vision, but it didn’t have to. If a third party had enough support in the right states and could effectively split the vote on a regular basis, it could regularly force an electoral college deadlock and throw the race into the House, where, presumably, a third party that strong would have a say in who becomes President – something that wouldn’t be possible under the NPVIC without ditching first-past-the-post. So the presidency, and thus the country, continues to be subject to Duverger’s Law, and the President either gets to work with a majority in Congress or butts heads with a faction he has no need to appeal to, because third parties won’t work to make Congress, and with it the Presidential race, work exactly as the Founders intended, because of their laser focus on the Presidency.

That said, if a third party became large enough to regularly throw the Presidential race into the House of Representatives, we might start running into problems that would still warrant some significant changes to the Constitution. In our “democracy uber alles” society, having the House pick the President regularly after nearly two hundred years of the people doing so more or less directly would not go over well, especially if House districts remained gerrymandered (indeed, one could argue we more or less chose a two-party system over House selection of the President in the 1820s after the way the 1824 election played out and the subsequent slow coalescing of Andrew Jackson’s opponents into the Whig party), and it might end up subverting House races if people voted for representatives as a proxy for their presidential vote, since representatives have the “real” power to pick the president, rather than voting for representatives on their own merits. (This seems to be a common phenomenon in Britain, where people effectively cast their vote for the party they want the prime minister to come from, and even happened in the United States, where direct election of Senators was enacted because people were voting for state legislators based on who they wanted to be Senator.)

All this is exacerbated by a quirk of the Constitution: when picking the President, each state gets one vote. This may have made sense when the US was seen as more of a union of individual sovereign states, where the states were primary and the union derived from them, and in a more agrarian society where the state with the most representatives at the time the Constitution was drafted was Virginia with ten, but in today’s urbanized society of mostly neutered states and a stark urban-rural divide both in the landscape and in our politics, it would be quite undemocratic for California’s 50+ representatives to have the same amount of say in picking the president as Wyoming’s one (even if it is the same way the Senate, which would have to pick the Vice President, works).

As much as Democrats may lament that large numbers of their voters only turn out in Presidential years and don’t care as much about Congress or state legislatures despite their importance, that third parties suffer from the same affliction may be far more damaging to the country as a whole. A relevant third party could have offered a real, credible alternative to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, would have allowed a viable option for factions within the parties rather than forcing each faction to fight to make itself heard over the other factions in the major parties and the preferences of the establishment, would break the “with-us-or-against-us” mentality engendered by the two-party system and set itself apart from the major parties in the areas where they do agree (and so allowed themselves to become a true alternative to the establishment), forced compromises instead of gridlock where appropriate, and by their very existence would have done much to ease the scourge of gerrymandering, with both of the latter two having the effect of encouraging moderation instead of leaving the two parties to slowly leave the center behind in order to appease their bases. Instead they keep laser-focusing on the presidency and wonder why the major parties keep ignoring them – and in so doing, may be complicit in the ongoing decline of our democracy. I can only hope it is not too late for them to realize it.

 

The Constitution’s Two Fatal Flaws, Part II: How the Two-Party System Turned the Presidency Into What the Founders Most Feared

In the last post I talked about the Founding Fathers’ first and most obvious of their two fatal blind spots when making the Constitution, their distrust of political parties without doing anything to prevent their formation or mitigating their effects. But the place where the rise of parties most undermined their vision was in the power of the Presidency, which was designed for a George Washington but which the parties would render tailor-made for a Donald Trump.

The Founders of course were very concerned about the tyranny of a single ruler, not only of a king but also of the governors of the colonies the king appointed, but as they deliberated on the Constitution many of them came to see the President as the safeguard against the tyranny or hubris of Congress, saw him as a way to protect against demagogues in Congress while doing little to prevent the office from being taken by a demagogue himself, feared an oligarchic conspiracy of the Senate without doing much to consider the opposite problem of a wholly impotent one paralyzed by faction, and sought to insulate him from Congress’ influence while doing surprisingly little of the reverse. Thus, after much debate, the convention finally settled on the system whereby a group of electors, determined by a process set by each state legislature but imagined to be mostly chosen by the people, would choose the President, and only if a President failed to receive a majority of the Electoral College did the House of Representatives step in to choose the President from the College’s top vote-getters. His powers were meant to serve as a check on Congress and to be in turn checked by Congress, not as a means to tell Congress what to do, but powers they were, and they provided enough of an opening for the President to seize ever more power across the decades and centuries. Doubtless the fact that George Washington was certain to be the first President, and that he was no would-be tyrant but in fact had no wish to take the office at all, was foremost on their minds. “The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” said Benjamin Franklin. “Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.” Certainly even the opponents of the Constitution had too much respect for Washington to voice any fears that the Constitution would grant him too much power.

The expansion of presidential power has meant that every twist and turn in the fortunes of the nation inevitably gets credited or blamed to the President, even if Congress actually has more to do with them, because the President is expected to “push through the gridlock” through sheer force of will and effectively tell Congress what to do. In effect, despite our alleged anti-monarchist origins, we seem to expect the President to act as an elected king, and Donald Trump in effect presents himself as what, on some level, we want our President to be, indeed what we think he already is.

For Alexander Hamilton, that the President would bear all the responsibility for all the nation’s ups and downs was a good thing. In Federalist #70, he made the case for vesting executive power in one man rather than diffusing it among many, noting that a diffuse executive would make it harder if not impossible to attribute responsibility for any action or inaction, especially if the executive’s deliberation were kept secret. Hamilton believed that “it is far more safe there should be a single object for the jealousy and watchfulness of the people”, that if a plurality in the executive did not result in dissension and paralysis, a far more dangerous problem than in the legislature given the urgency of the decisions the executive must take, it would more likely result in the opposite problem, of a conspiracy of men using such a powerful office to destroy the liberty of the people, aided by the inability to pin responsibility on any one of them. A singular executive can be held responsible for the successes and failures of the nation, and rewarded or punished accordingly. In a republic where the executive must be re-elected, this distinguished him from the British monarch, who was insulated from all responsibility for any decisions he might make that instead devolved upon his advisors who he could overrule.

Had Hamilton foreseen the level of influence the President would come to have on the legislative process, he and the other Founders might have recognized that this degree of attribution of responsibility to the President would insulate Congress from some of the responsibility that might rightly fall to them, even to the point of depressing turnout for midterm elections. A Congress with personal animus with the President could block the passage of any bills whatsoever, even those of the utmost importance, and the President would see much of the blame fall to him, as the Republicans’ showdowns with Obama have proved.

If Hamilton did not see the rise of parties that would make such a conflict possible, it is all the more profound that he did not foresee that it would also allow the executive to obtain more and more power at the expense of the liberty of the people, thanks to a conspiracy not of an executive council but of the President’s party’s representation in Congress, who would willingly expand what circumscribed powers the Constitution gives him even into areas that are rightly Congress’s. Federalist #69 contains Hamilton’s most robust defense of the presidency as substantially more circumscribed in its power than the British monarch, yet many of his points ring hollow. “The one would have a right to command the military and naval forces of the nation; the other, in addition to this right, possesses that of declaring war, and of raising and regulating fleets and armies by his own authority,” Hamilton writes; yet the President has repeatedly, since our last truly “declared” war in World War II, sent the military to fight around the globe without Congress’ explicit permission. “The one would have a concurrent power with a branch of the legislature in the formation of treaties; the other is the sole possessor of the power of making treaties;” yet the Senate rarely applies any real influence on the formation of treaties and in any case, in practice, has little ability but to sign off on the treaty the President gives them. “The one would have a like concurrent authority in appointing to offices; the other is the sole author of all appointments”; yet in practice the Senate, once again, has little influence in changing who the President might choose for judicial and other offices except in cases of extreme disqualification, and if the President’s party is in power not even then, but even the party opposing the President has little power but to stonewall his choices in hopes of capturing the Presidency for themselves or, perhaps, forcing the President to choose someone else who might not be much better in their eyes, all while the country suffers from the continued vacancy.

Nor did Hamilton foresee that the emergence of two great, opposing forces would make the prospect of which party controlled the Presidency of profound importance, to the point of, judging by the left’s reaction to Trump’s election, threatening the liberty of the losing party, or that it would demolish the safeguards the Founders did install against a demogogue or a tyrant ascending to the Presidency. After the revelation of the CIA’s report on Russian influence on the election, Hamilton’s words in Federalist #68 were highly circulated and cited by liberals and by electors considering defecting from Trump:

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment. And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. Thus without corrupting the body of the people, the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias. Their transient existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it. The business of corruption, when it is to embrace so considerable a number of men, requires time as well as means…

The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.

Perhaps Hamilton should have foreseen that when the electoral college exists solely for the purpose of choosing the President, they are less likely to deliberate on the merits of the choices given them than they are to state their intent ahead of time and allow themselves to be used as a proxy for whoever the people of each state really want to be President. Certainly if he had foreseen the rise of parties he might have reached this conclusion. In any event, the rise of parties and especially the two-party system has effectively neutered any hope that the electoral college might serve as any sort of effective check against “foreign powers…gain[ing] an improper ascendant in our councils”. All that is needed is for them to ingratiate one of their number into the nomination of one of the major parties and they will have access to an apparatus that will secure the vote of a considerable number of states, and will install electors obliged to vote for the candidate with an “R” next to his name, no matter his qualifications or lack thereof, no matter his fealty to a foreign power. For them to do otherwise, indeed, is to effectively defy the will of the people, to usurp the choice of the people under the system of election that, if it was not necessarily designed by anyone, is the system we have ended up in and which people believe ourselves to operate under, any deviation from which is inherently anti-democratic. It is quite unlikely in any case as such electors would effectively not only be rejecting a single candidate but calling into question the judgment of their whole party, when they tend to be party flacks, “corrupted” by “time” well before such a candidate even launched his candidacy, and tasked with carrying out the party’s will.

Perhaps more than any other part of the Constitution, the electoral college is difficult to defend in the context of the two-party system. Yet perhaps more than any other part of the Constitution, it is also responsible for that system. As mentioned, the increase in presidential power has resulted in the perception that the presidency is the only elected office that matters, and by not “mak[ing] the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men”, the Founders gave people no reason to care about any other office if the President was going to be that powerful and at least nominally directly elected by the people. Among other things, this means that third parties that set out to break up the two-party system and want to present themselves as viable alternatives inevitably put all their eggs in the Presidential basket, inevitably fail to gain any traction whatsoever (even with two historically hated candidates, Gary Johnson barely even broke three percent), and then whine about how the system is rigged against them. As the 2000 election should have demonstrated, the best-case scenario for third parties running Presidential candidates is to serve as a spoiler tipping the election to the candidate further away from their views. This actually has a name in political science: Duverger’s Law states that, in a “first-past-the-post” system like we have where a plurality rules (and which the Founders never intended), a two-party system is inevitable.

And yet the electoral college also provides more of an avenue for third parties to achieve the presidency than most of the proposed alternatives, if only they could see it and had enough patience to build up power at lower levels first. In so doing, they might alleviate many of the problems people have with our government without directly changing any laws, let alone the Constitution. The great irony is that the Founders’ two blind spots might have cancelled each other out instead of reinforcing each other, if only third parties would follow the path the Founders laid out for them, and which I lay out in the next post.

The Constitution’s Two Fatal Flaws, Part I: The Inevitability and Value of Parties

Despite the bizarre political-rally setting, I thought President Obama’s farewell address Tuesday night was one of the better ones of his presidency, certainly one of the most important, making several important points about the state of our democracy and our country and what to do and not do about it. But besides the fact that he aimed it enough at his supporters that the people who perhaps most needed to hear what he said will ignore it, I’m worried that his unwavering commitment to optimism may have led him to understate the threats to our democracy and fail to get at their root causes. In December, when the left was calling for the electors to effectively overturn the results of the election, I made many of the same points but came to two conclusions that evidently were a bridge too far for Obama: that the root of the problem was the two-party system and that truly fixing our government would have to involve making changes to the Constitution.

In other words, I saw the problems with our government as primarily structural, while Obama sees them (or says he sees them) as primarily peculiar to this moment. Obviously the particular circumstances of the moment must have something to do with our situation for us to make it over two hundred years without running into the problems we’re experiencing now, but the specifics of those circumstances are unlikely to change just because Obama hectors us to change them, and are more likely to get worse. “The splintering of our media into a channel for every taste” and the ability to take in only the facts and engage only with people we already agree with was inevitable with the rise of the Internet, a natural consequence of human nature only forestalled by the presence of a small number of media outlets able to control the national conversation to a significant extent; perhaps it’s possible to teach people to discern real facts from “fake news”, but we’re a long ways away from that and not even that close to universally recognizing it as a good thing, let alone a necessity of democracy. Obama speaks of “allow[ing] our political dialogue to become…corrosive” and “writ[ing] off the whole system as inevitably corrupt” as weakening the ties holding the nation together, as though the corrosiveness of our political dialogue weren’t an inevitable result of technology and increased popular participation in political debates and the criticisms of the system didn’t have some merit. In this context, it makes sense that Obama would speak of “rebuilding our democratic institutions” in ways that work within the system – making it easier to vote, reducing the influence of money in politics, increasing the emphasis on “transparency and ethics”, and redrawing district lines, all laudable goals but made easier if not self-correcting when more than two parties can thrive, which none of those goals help with – but treat the problem as a failure to live up to our Constitution’s ideals, rather than the Constitution itself potentially being part of the problem.

Not that the Constitution’s ideals are bad ones – far from it! But in America, we tend to revere the Founders and our founding documents almost to the point of religious devotion. If Obama can’t admit that our Constitution might be a contributing factor to our problems, calling for a Constitutional convention to greatly change the structure of our government must seem downright sacrilegious; even raising the possibility that the way the Constitution pursues its ideals ends up undermining them seems largely verboten. In order to truly confront the root causes of today’s gridlock, we are going to have to confront the reality that for all their wisdom, the Founding Fathers were after all human beings who lived nearly 250 years ago, human beings with flaws and disagreements, and that in crafting the Constitution they made some critical errors that ultimately undermined their goals.

There are two major errors the Founders made in crafting the Constitution in particular that have proven to undermine the franchise. The first and most obvious to students of American history is their distrust of political parties without appreciating the forces leading to their creation. The second was that, for all their distrust of kings, they let their hero-worship of George Washington lead them to give the presidency more power than they probably actually wanted, creating the opening that would ultimately lead to today’s king-like presidency through a procession of presidents with less humility – a process they were actually deeply aware of. The two are interrelated – the Founders hoped the Congress would stop the president from obtaining more power for himself, but they’re more likely to let the president do what he wants if they’re more concerned about their loyalty to the party than to their current office or themselves – but each has proven corrosive on their own.

The Founders believed factionalism was the result of too much popular participation in the political process – of people pursuing narrow self-interests. By granting more power to elected representatives, they believed, those representatives would be free to focus on deliberating amongst themselves, united by the quest to do what was best for the republic as a whole and the imperative to do the job for which they were elected. In the Founders’ minds, lawmakers would line up and take stands on an issue, then when the next issue came up they would line up and take sides on that issue, sides that looked completely different from the previous issue and with little apparent commonalities besides their opinion on that issue. Besides missing that even the “best men” could be subject to a more subtle form of the same sort of passions they believed the people at large were susceptible to (not to mention that this was pretty much how Britain’s Parliament worked and it resulted in the very party system they were trying to avoid), the Founders missed that even the most learned, disinterested statesmen could have legitimate fundamental definitional differences as to what was best for the republic, differences that existed amongst the Founders themselves and would unite those committed to one definition behind a given course of action while pitting them against other definitions dedicated to other courses of action, and might even lead them to believe the other side was not really interested in the welfare of the republic and that only their own side was. Some might believe in a strong central government while others believed in states’ rights; some might believe in protecting rural farmers while others believed in helping urban industries. Even among the very people that worked on the Constitution there were disagreements over what it actually allowed the federal government to do.

In the end, the Founders were probably too optimistic about the merits of voting for the person as opposed to the party. Parties may have been the result of people pursuing narrow self-interests, but organized parties control and direct the pursuit of self-interest into forms more conducive to the success of the party as a whole, presenting a coherent statement of the merits for or against a particular position from the anarchy of hundreds of individual representatives, encouraging and supporting compromise and potentially unpopular yet necessary courses of action, even if they don’t always do so in the most savory of ways. The separation of powers was supposed to prevent the system from being exploited by people with naked self-interest; Congress was supposed to have most of the power, and the President had to work with them to get anything done. Individual Congressmen couldn’t get too much power without potentially running afoul of the President, and if worst came to worst the Supreme Court could curb the President and Congress from together abridging the rights of the people. What the Constitution does not do is provide any system for curbing those who would pursue naked self-interest despite all this, something that has become far more necessary now that the Senate and Presidency are directly elected by the people, creating far more opportunity for a demogogue to achieve one of those offices. Members of Congress can only be booted out in the middle of their term by a two-thirds vote of their house (a high enough bar that it is exceedingly rarely tried), and the President can only be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors”, not for using the legitimate privileges of their office in a legal but self-serving way. In effect, the Constitution and the push for democracy uber alles leaves it up to the easily-manipulable people to vote out the most self-interested politicians (and as the Republican primary process proved, even if the people do try to vote against the demogogue they can end up splitting the vote and giving the demogogue the win anyway).

Despite all our polarization along partisan lines, in some ways we live in a culture significantly closer to the Founders’ intention than at any time in history, and it is proving no virtue; we now live in a world where a self-professed billionaire can run for an office he seems to treat more like a dictatorship than a presidency solely on the back of his own brand, where one particularly venal politician can bring the entire government to a standstill just to discredit the “establishment” and further his own career. Republicans may take advantage of this more than Democrats, but over the last sixteen years I have lamented that Democrats have been too moral to engage in this sort of brinkmanship; their commitment to upholding political norms, actually seek out compromise, and actually care about appealing to more than just party activists gave them a candidate for President that failed to excite those activists enough to match the enthusiasm of Trump supporters, has given them little hope of capturing the House until at least 2022, and dashed any hope of actually accomplishing any of their agenda at the national level short of favorable Supreme Court decisions – and the rise of Bernie Sanders and backlash of the party base against its establishment in the wake of Hillary’s loss (in part because of the reticence of many of Sanders’ supporters to support her even in the face of the threat posed by Trump) suggests the Democratic base is getting tired of constantly trying to appease the Republicans and constantly losing, and may be about to react to Trump’s victory and Republican control of both houses of Congress similarly to how the Republicans reacted to Obama’s similar victory. Sanders supporters who seethe at the DNC tipping the scales to Hillary should note that a similar degree of control at the RNC might have saved the country from Trump.

In Federalist #10, James Madison argued that the only way to prevent the tyranny of a majority of citizens from trampling over the rights of a minority was a system of representation, whereby “the public views” would be filtered “through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” Demagogues and evil men might obtain high office, but this would be unlikely at large scales, since there would be more wise men, it would be harder for demagogues to charm a larger number of people, and the diversity of their opinions would be more likely to center on wiser men. A large nation, Madison argued, would have a greater diversity of interests, which would make it harder for any of them to form a majority with which to pursue their views on the whole, and even if they did they would be torn apart by internal disagreements:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

Madison recognized that if factions could not be avoided, the best outcome would be a large number of them, representing a diversity of competing interests, that could not band together to pursue a single policy at the expense of the minority. This, he would soon see, would not come to pass. The Constitution did nothing to prevent the diversity of interests in the United States from coalescing around two major political parties, or from being able to push their agenda on the rest of the country once they were able to form a majority. Nor could Madison foresee today’s great urban-rural divide and the formation of two great factions with diametrically opposed views hoping to achieve enough control of government to enact their agenda, with few who honestly combine views from each side, let alone hold completely novel views, and fewer who are active enough in politics to exert their own influence on the system.

It’s impossible to know what, exactly, the Founders would have done differently if they had known that the rise of parties was going to be inevitable. Likely they would have sought to find a way to direct the passions of each faction towards the good of the republic while mitigating the negative consequences they feared – perhaps incorporating the parties into the system of checks and balances in some way and creating structural, not merely cultural, incentives to compromise. If Federalist #10 is any indication, one thing they might have done would be to try to ensure that as many definitions of the good of the republic would be represented as possible, under the theory that compromise is more likely when there are many parties that are likely to find common ground with other parties than when you have two parties diametrically opposed to each other. Part of the reason for our current malaise is that we have too few political parties for the diversity of our electorate, with the result that the parties, which should be private organizations to exert a particular viewpoint on the levers of politics, have effectively become fundamental parts of the political process themselves, with the primary process being seen as every bit as important a means to express one’s duty as a citizen as the general election. In a functioning democracy, party bosses should have every right to set the rules to run their parties as they see fit, but when the parties are every bit as much a part of the political system as Congress, for them to do so smacks of corruption and twisting the political system itself to serve entrenched interests, so the parties find themselves torn between ensuring party unity, representing all the factions of their base, presenting an electable candidate, and resisting insurgency. So the Republicans are hijacked by activists to nominate perhaps the most anti-democratic major-party candidate in American history, while the Democrats’ greater control of the process ends up alienating the very activists that, in the modern American political system, they so desperately need. A healthy party system might have parties for the following viewpoints (some of which might merge with others):

  • The free market almost always knows best, and government should be shrunk and as many functions given to private enterprise as possible.
  • Government should serve to curb the excesses of the free market and provide avenues of opportunity for people to move into the middle class or the rich.
  • The capitalist system needs to be torn down and replaced with a socialist system with government at its center.
  • America is a federation of states, and so the states should be given broad leeway to run themselves as they see fit, as much as is feasible.
  • Only a singular strong, powerful leader can make America great again.
  • America is a Christian nation and should be organized around Christian principles.
  • People should have freedom to do whatever they want without impinging on other peoples’ freedom, whether that’s to get an abortion, marry someone of the same gender, own a gun, or start and run a business as they see fit.
  • Government needs to act on behalf of the environment and future generations that cannot have a direct voice in government.
  • The only goal that matters is for America to increase its GDP as much as possible.
  • America should focus on protecting its own working class from the abuses of the rich and competition from overseas.
  • America should use its power to spread the ideals of democracy all over the world and safeguard the current world order of peace.

One thing I’m fairly certain the Founders would have done differently if they had known about the inevitability of parties is greatly curb the power of the Presidency, if not get rid of it and have the head of government be chosen directly by Congress. The rise of the two-party system would make it much easier for the President to continue to accrue power across the decades while losing little to none of it, while the method of electing the President himself would end up being the single biggest factor in preventing more than two parties from forming. We’ll get into that in the next post.

Predictions for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selections are performed by a panel of 46 leading NFL media members including representatives of all 32 NFL teams, a representative of the Pro Football Writers of America, and 13 at-large writers.

The panel has selected a list of 15 finalists from the modern era, defined as playing all or part of their careers within the last 25 years. A player must have spent 5 years out of the league before they can be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame. Players that last played in the 2011 season will be eligible for induction in 2017.

During Super Bowl Weekend, the panel will meet and narrow down the list of modern-era finalists down to five. Those five will be considered alongside one senior candidate, selected by a nine-member subpanel of the larger panel last August, and two contributors (not players or coaches), selected by another nine-member subpanel, for a total of eight. From this list, at least four and no more than eight people will be selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

My prediction for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017 is:

LaDainian Tomlinson
Kurt Warner
John Lynch
Joe Jacoby
Don Coryell
Kenny Easley
Jerry Jones
Paul Tagliabue

Hall of Fame Game: Chargers v. Cardinals