Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected president of France, is an investment banker by training and a radical reformer by acclamation.
Perhaps that sounds like an oxymoron. How can an investment banker be a radical reformer? Macron did it not with radical positions, but by radically rejecting France’s sclerotic party system and running and winning, essentially, as a man without a party.
Americans of all political flavors, including Trumpists, are demoralized and mystified by our country’s political lot. We should now look to France for inspiration and tutelage. (Now that’s a sentence I never imagined writing.)
There is not much argument against the view that America’s fundamental political challenge is polarization and extreme partisanship.
So, if the core problem in politics spouts from the failures and corruptions of the two-party system, isn’t it only logical to at least try to fix it from outside the two parties? Isn’t it downright irrational not to try? I am not talking about something outside the entire political system or even the amorphous mainstream, just outside of the two-party duopoly.
The current regime of electing office-holders exclusively from two parties and two parties only hasn’t worked for years. Yet we blindly stick with it. Einstein is supposed to have said, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Exactly.
Boosters of third parties are the perennial cranks and naifs of political reform, and I am a moldy old crank and naif. A crack in the failed duopoly must and will come, I quixotically hope against hope, but it doesn’t have to be in the form of a full-blown third party.
Macron is a role model. While he did start a new party to get on the ballot, for all practical purposes he is a soloist now charged with building a coalition orchestra. Perhaps his new party will endure, perhaps not. Regardless, his election will jump start a new political paradigm in France, which faces deeper economic problems than ours. The current paradigm isn’t worth a dime.
I won’t waste time rehearsing the sins, skullduggery and selfishness of the Democrat and Republican parties. The court of public opinion has already found them guilty. That verdict was first reached a generation ago after Watergate; confidence in the parties and their politicians has withered consistently since then, with only a few brief periods of exception. In 1904, Winston Churchill said of his own Conservative Party government, “To keep in office for a few more weeks and months there is no principle which the Government is not prepared to abandon, and no quantity of dust and filth they are not prepared to eat.” Americans think the same of both of our parties today.
How many historic lows does it take before there is an historic effort to shuffle the stacked deck?
So, what might a knight who’s come to slay the two party dragons look like?
In France, he looked boring. Emmanuel Macron comes off as a colorless but smart investment banker turned cabinet minister who is not a charismatic campaigner or fancy talker. His powers came from recognizing that the time was ripe to renounce the baggage and decay of France’s party structure, a radical step.
What a contrast he is to Donald Trump, who is certainly the most radical, nonconformist president in our history. Being a renegade does not mean he is a reformer. He is disease, not cure.
Macron showed that real change doesn’t necessarily come with trumpets and bells. Trump and Bernie Sanders showed that Americans are ravenous for something outside the rails. And they both showed that the old formula, built on big spending campaigns, television advertising and state parties, isn’t the only formula.
All that means there could be an independent candidacy in 2020 without a full-blown third-party apparatus, an epically charismatic candidate or huge bankrolls. Many thought Michael Bloomberg, for example, could have waged a maverick, independent campaign in several recent elections.
I won’t go down the rabbit holes of fantasy politics, sketching out various scenarios and dropping a couple names.
I will suggest that the list of senators up for re-election in 2020 contains plenty of vulnerable incumbents in both parties. A Macronesque vanguard fielding a handful of strong congressional candidates and a presidential ticket could have tremendous appeal even without a messianic figure at the top of the ticket. The movement would have a clear platform, not just the pragmatic centrism of recent failed mini-movements. The platform is fundamental reform — reform of the duopoly, its tawdry customs, self-perpetuating tricks and the politics everyone hates.
It is the Darwinian duty of Democrats and Republicans to extinguish a challenge like that. It is one thing the crippled parties are actually good at — protecting the duopoly. Democrats will be the most ruthless opponents because they think they have the most to lose.
Political scientists and pundits will dismiss any independent candidacy as quackery. Donald Trump, however, has indisputably proved that even the biggest of all quacks can be president.
Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC (www.decodedc.com).
Readers can email Meyer at firstname.lastname@example.org