The renowned economist F. A. Hayek once observed that “the curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Many Americans and other observers are waking up today and perhaps, like me, they are thinking that politics has something to teach us about how little we know as well. In fact, economics has something to teach us about what we might get from a political process that is designed in a particular way.
The two major parties in America nominated candidates who were historically unpopular. But the parties got there in two very different ways. The GOP nominee Donald Trump was an unlikely candidate from the beginning. He faced a deep and varied field in the primary. And against what basically every poll and pundit predicted, Trump won. And won. And won … until he eventually gained the nomination.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, was the presumptive Democratic Party nominee from the start. Bernie Sanders ran an impassioned and vigorous primary challenge against her. But her contest with Sanders was widely thought to be a warm-up, a sparring match, where Clinton could get her campaign going and the winning juices flowing. And just to make sure that the she could be assured the nomination, the Democratic Party had a superdelegate system in place that would mitigate, and even to some extent nullify, the primary voting results.
Clinton was protected and insulated from the competition of a real primary challenge in a way that Trump was not. As the general election returns were coming in last night, one political commentator described Clinton as “the Jeb Bush of the Democratic Party.” If the GOP had a superdelegate system in place, the likelihood of a Trump nomination would have been greatly reduced. Perhaps we would have seen a Jeb Bush nomination, or at least some other more establishment candidate.
By insulating Clinton from an existential primary challenge, the Democratic Party thought they were setting their candidate up for a win in the general election. But what actually happened is that an unpopular and historically weak candidate was protected from real competition, and in a historically nasty general election these flaws were exposed. By opening up a nominating process that had a great deal of diversity and competition, the GOP thought they would find a fitting and thoroughly vetted nominee. What they got was a candidate who the experts thought couldn’t win, until he couldn’t lose.
There are all kinds of lessons to be learned from what happened last night and from this exhausting election season. The post-mortems have already begun and will continue for some time. But at least some of those necessary lessons have to do with how little we actually know about the political system we have designed and what it has practically been set up to accomplish.
“Great men are almost always bad men,” the British historian Lord Acton claimed. We do not have a political system in America today that fosters healthy competition, moral character, or true statesmen. Instead, we have a system that breeds distrust, envy, and division. From a republic that depended upon the health and vitality of families, churches, and various other forms of association, we have become a polity that encourages “great men” to rise up, make us grand promise, and perhaps even worse, attempt to begin to deliver on some of these through political means.
Somehow America has to find a way forward. Hopefully we can do so with fewer illusions about what we really are able to design and with better ideas about what is actually necessary for a free and virtuous society.