1776: Would You Like to Reconsider?

1776: Would You Like to Reconsider?
There’s a competition in the world between state corporatism and democracy, and the American political system needs to shape up or lose.

Updated Oct. 28, 2016 7:13 p.m. ET

The American primary system, which has thrown up two presidential candidates who are despised by 60% of Americans, is broken and urgently needs to be reformed. The only rational response to the choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is that of Henry Kissinger on the Iran-Iraq War: “A pity they both can’t lose.” For a non-American who defends the U.S. at every opportunity, I must ask: Are you deliberately trying to make it more difficult for me this year?

For all the undoubted genius of your Constitution, in 2016 it is no longer sustainable for Americans to say they have the best democratic system in the world. There have been many types of democracy—the Athenian agora model of direct participation, the Westminster-based constitutional monarchy, the Swiss referendum and cantonal model, Indian mass democracy, and so on. But it is impossible any more to suggest that the finest one is that which has thrown up Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump as the final choice for 320 million Americans.

When Chinese GDP is overtaking America’s, we are engaged in a vital ideological struggle over which political system delivers the best results: the state corporatism of the Beijing model, where there is no free speech and no democracy, or the democratic model of the West, whose leading democracy today presents its people with a choice between a preposterous, petulant monster of self-regard with deep, dark psychological flaws on one side, and on the other a proven failure whose views float with the polling data and whose word of honor cannot be relied upon.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that democracy is under threat in America. With your Constitution, Bill of Rights, First Amendment, Congress, separation of powers—and the sublime instincts of the American people—democracy is under no threat whatsoever here, for all your president’s absurd hyperbole. But the concept of democratic values as worthy aspirations for modern society certainly is under serious threat globally from a totalitarian state-capitalist model that is dangerously attractive in what it is producing for its populations, while American democracy is offering a choice between a crook and a clown.

So what is to be done?

First, the Republicans need party leaders and candidates who confront people like Mr. Trump seriously from the start and do not coddle him in the vain hope that if you’re nice you inherit his supporters when he collapses. Second, it is ludicrous to have debates controlled by TV channels that want the GOP to split and the Democrats to win, and which frame their questions accordingly.

Third, the talking down of America, even in an election year, has gone too far and is likely to be misinterpreted abroad. Newt Gingrich has said that if Mrs. Clinton wins, America will go the way of Venezuela. No it won’t. When Adam Smith was brought the news of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, and was told that Britain was ruined forever, he replied. “There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.”

If we in Britain got over losing America and went on to become the largest empire in history, you can get over four years of Mrs. Clinton. The word “again” in “Make America great again” is a terrible libel on your country, which is still great on any objective criterion, albeit clearly going in the wrong direction. Self-pity is not a part of the American national character—however emotionally and rhetorically alluring it might be during election time—and you must not permit Mr. Trump’s sloganizing to allow it to find a place there.

Fourth, the percentages of support that guarantee a candidate a place in the debate should be drastically higher so that you don’t have a dozen or more people taking part and thus sometimes given no more than 30 seconds in which to try to sum up complex issues, leading to a moronically low standard of debate. If Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were forced to debate each other in 30-second bursts, answering politically loaded questions from CNN and ABC and CBS intended to embarrass them, you probably wouldn’t have got a much better outcome.

That Donald Trump has held no public office also ought to have been an automatic disqualification. I know you like the idea in America that anyone can be president, but you are really testing that dictum this year. You’ve had plenty of presidential candidates who have not previously held elected office, including William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Wendell Willkie and Dwight Eisenhower. But they all held high offices or served their country outside politics: Taft was governor of the Philippines, Hoover was head of the Belgian Relief Agency during World War I, Willkie fought the Ku Klux Klan and headed his local bar association, and Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander during World War II. These were all honorable positions of importance and responsibility. Mr. Trump has been head of Miss Universe and star of “The Apprentice,” both businesses in which he owned an interest.

The Republican Party should not have allowed itself to be hijacked by a man with so minute a record of contribution to the nation, and it needs to alter its rules to prevent a similar demagogue with deep pockets and no conscience from doing it again. The Republicans need a superdelegate system of sane party elders who want to see the party win. If there hadn’t been superdelegates in the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders would be within a hair’s breadth of the White House right now.

So my sixth reform is for the Republican Party machine to have the last say on who is or is not a Republican, and who can therefore stand under the Republican banner. It ought to demand a relatively longstanding commitment to the party. In October 1999, Mr. Trump left the Republicans and in August 2001 he enrolled as a Democrat. In September 2009 he rejoined the Republicans. In December 2011 he wrote on his registration form, “I do not wish to enroll in a party.” Then in April 2012 he rejoined the Republicans. If he doesn’t walk, talk or think like a Republican, then the chances are he isn’t one and shouldn’t be allowed to stand as one.

Winston Churchill, after crossing the floor of the House of Commons for the second time, joked that, “Anyone can rat but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.” What the Republican Party has moronically allowed Mr. Trump to do is to re-re-rat. That might have been understandable if he had been promoting traditional Republican policies and values, but he never has and is certainly not doing so now. Today he should have been a maverick third-party candidate ranting into the wind, instead of enjoying the formal imprimatur of one of the great political parties of the Western world.

Great presidential leadership has not been a prerequisite for American success. America threw up no truly great president in the 36 years between Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and Teddy Roosevelt’s accession in 1901, but she threw up leaders aplenty. Those were also the years of America’s greatest economic growth, and the leaders of that period weren’t politicians, who had the sense to stand back from government interference. They were the great business leaders of those days, the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans, Fricks and so on, who built the enterprises that allowed the U.S. to burst onto the world stage as the Great White Fleet circumnavigated the globe in 1909. But in the present era of anemic growth, we do need political leadership of an abnormally high order.

Can the ideals of 1776 still work in the modern world? I believe they can, indeed they are the best ones to cleave to. I’ve been rereading the Federalist Papers. Of course they are very good on how to prevent tyranny in the U.S. but for all they say about preventing vulgarity and corruption, the authors tended to assume that the people could be trusted to vote against vulgarity and corruption. They didn’t foresee a situation when there is only a binary choice, between vulgarity on one side and corruption on the other. Madison’s answer was that if people he called “fit characters” acted, then “It will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice.”

Just because an idea is bad, it doesn’t mean it can’t last a long time—look at Communism. Your primary system has only been around for 120 years—almost exactly half the Republic’s existence—and is ripe for reform, not least because the leaders it has thrown up are not noticeably better than the ones from before the Progressives changed the voting rules. Luckily, the Constitution makes no mention of parties or primaries, so instead we may be guided by common sense in changing the way candidates are chosen.

Very often when someone says he’s a candid friend, it’s a precursor to him saying something rude and unpleasant. Well, I’m a candid friend of America who goes on TV and radio and writes books and articles in defense of America. So I hope you won’t blame the messenger if I tell you straight that your selling point as a nation—democracy—is not cutting it in the modern world, largely because you are not selling it properly. With the one exception of female franchise in 1920 you haven’t bothered to modernize it significantly since the Progressivist era of the 1890s.

If you really want government of, for and by the people to survive and prosper when you are no longer the largest income-generator on the planet, you are going to have to raise your game. It won’t be done internally without a fight, because no politician ever genuinely thinks that a system that has had the perspicacity to put him there is broken.

But it’s no longer enough for America to navel-gaze and worry about its president’s gender or skin-pigmentation or even his ludicrous haircut. You need to look at what is happening to democracy globally. As a political system it’s on trial, and right now it’s losing across huge swaths of Asia and Africa—losing out to the ideas of totalitarian state-directed corporatism that seems to be delivering much higher growth and much better leaders.

America needs to double down on the concepts that made her great and modernize the political system that gave her global hegemony in the first place. These abysmal presidential candidates are a depressing symptom of a larger problem with American politics—but now you have four years to change the system. You owe it to the American people never again to give them such a putrid choice as the one they face the Tuesday after next.

Mr. Roberts, a historian, is a professor of war studies at King’s College London and the author of many books, including “Napoleon: A Life” (Viking, 2014). This article is adapted from the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lecture, which he delivered in New York City on Thursday evening.

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