Can America's Political System Survive the Presidential Election?

View of north front of the White House, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Francisco Diez

When it comes to qualifications for the presidency, we have defined deviancy down.

As the 2016 presidential campaign grinds to its momentous conclusion, a profound and disturbing question hovers over the American republic: has the country entered a crisis of the regime that is sending it into a downward spiral from which it may not be able to recover? Few Americans want to confront such a question, of course, because it contains ominous ramifications. And yet it seems difficult to avoid the fear that the country is in uncharted—and potentially very dangerous—territory.

All governments face crises from time to time, of various types and dimensions—economic dislocation, enervating wars, domestic unrest born of powerful civic anxiety or class conflict, scandal at the top of governmental circles. Healthy governments manage to shake off these crises over time and get the nation back on track.

A crisis of the regime is different. It is intrinsic to the regime itself, spreading dysfunction and ultimately decay. A powerful example was the hundred-year crisis of the regime that engulfed the Roman republic, from the time of the Gracchus brothers to the emergence of Julius Caesar. Through those decades, the politics of the regime became so intense and intractable that they began to eat away at the foundations of the civic system itself. Ultimately, the citizenry lost faith in the legitimacy of the regime and in the sanctity of the leadership succession regimen. At that point, the only solution was Caesarism, the greatest threat looming over any democratic system of government.

Most likely, America, so sound and resilient through its relatively brief existence as a republic, will find its way through the current crisis and resume its proud march through history. Most likely, it will prevent the crisis of our time from becoming a regime crisis, threatening the very foundations of our government.

But the nature of the current presidential campaign should sound alarm bells in the consciousness of Americans. Never have we seen a campaign that raises such profound questions about governmental legitimacy and the soundness of our succession system. And not since the 1850s has the country been so powerfully split as to its national identity and definition. It’s inconceivable that this election, whatever its outcome, will dispel the crisis and return the country to its moorings within any reasonable time span.

Let’s begin with Hillary Clinton. One simply shakes one’s head in wonderment at the folly she has visited upon her country, born of her self-absorbed need to operate in stealth and fashion her own rules. The poor judgment she exhibited in operating as secretary of state with her own private email server is one thing, forcing her to dance upon the precipice of legality. But the selfishness reflected in her behavior is something else entirely, since she placed her country upon that precipice as well. If she wins the election, she will carry with her into the Oval Office a constitutional crisis of the first magnitude, as she will be the subject of ongoing criminal investigations. This is unprecedented.

Then we have the spectacle of FBI Director James Comey, whose stewardship of his agency, coupled with Justice Department behavior, has dealt a blow to any sense that our politics remains untainted. Only partisan fervor could prevent a person from concluding that the initial investigation of Clinton’s handling of classified information left an appearance of a whitewash. This is not to argue that Comey or the Justice Department consciously set out to whitewash the outcome, but certainly the appearance is unavoidable—no grand jury; the granting of limited immunity without anything of substance in exchange; the permitting of computer destruction; the lackadaisical interrogation of Clinton herself; the provocative tarmac meeting between Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, just before Comey announced he wouldn’t recommend an indictment; President Obama’s signal that there was no basis for proceeding with the case and his scheduling of a campaign event with Clinton even before the Comey announcement.

For millions of Americans, all this undermines the legitimacy of the election. The specter of special treatment hovers over the campaign and will hover over the outcome if she wins.

But then Comey expanded the potential legitimacy crisis by announcing he was reopening his email investigation on the basis of new information that may or may not be pertinent to the matter. And he did so just eleven days before the election, a lapse in both policy and judgment.

In case all this weren’t enough to raise questions about the solidity of the campaign system, there’s the Clinton Foundation, an unprecedented powerhouse of political perpetuation operated behind a façade of international good works. It is an instrument of oligarchy, a testament to the reality that for decades now more and more political power in America has been seeping upwards toward well-entrenched elites that dominate the terms of debate and the administrative state that operates in Washington, increasingly impervious to voter sentiment. It also, not coincidentally, served as a vehicle of quick riches for the Clintons.