America is not, and has never been, one thing. We should not only celebrate our diversity but also recognize it as one of the assets that has kept us strong through the centuries. But we are in the midst of an age of extreme polarization, one that has rippled across our nation’s capital with disastrous effect. Actual governing has ground to a standstill in favor of blood sport. As a consequence, a new silent majority, level-headed Americans who simply want their government to solve problems, now regularly stay home come election time. They surrender their privilege of voting out of a mix of apathy, bitterness and cynicism.
In no place has this surrender become more consequential than in the primaries. The midterm primary turnout is usually abysmal, but even the last presidential primary in 2012 saw 15.9% turnout—a shockingly low number. The last primaries, in 2014, had an even lower turnout, with voters again surrendering control to the extreme base. The consequence has been clear: A new breed of politician has to come to Washington, one who believes that compromise is weak, that any attempt to reach across the aisle is tantamount to betrayal, and that grinding government to a halt is some kind of victory.
In 2016, we are seeing what this mass surrender has wrought. The dysfunction of government has satisfied no one, whether on the right or the left. But this year things have reached such a point that a breakaway group of voters, sick of business as usual, have created something of a monster. That Donald Trump is a man of no political experience seems not to matter. Trump is filling the gap that has presented itself inside a dissatisfied electorate. While some perceive him as cutting through politics as usual, Trump is a consequence of our dysfunction, not its solution. It doesn’t seem that the real-estate mogul is interested in governing. He certainly doesn’t exhibit even basic knowledge about it. But it’s clear what he is passionate about: winning.
The current primary system was conceived in the 1960’s as a way to wrest control from the old smoke-filled backrooms and place it in the hands of the people. In a grand irony, we have come full circle: A smaller and smaller subset of the population is again in control. But this time, it’s not the power elite but the extreme fringes wielding all the power. We are reminded of Yeats’s line: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”
The primaries themselves remain problematic—antiquated and imbalanced. As we again watch the Iowa and New Hampshire dog-and-pony shows, we can’t help but wonder: Does anyone think these states—neither of which encompass the diversity of America—deserve such power? It’s far past time to rotate which states go first—or in our opinion, just scrap the staggering and institute a National Primary Day. It’ll eliminate the embarrassing pandering and raise the turnout with one swoop.
Legitimate differences of opinion about the role of government in our national life certainly exist, but these differences have been exaggerated and inflamed by the primary process, the hyper influx of money that has flooded the system, a segmented media, and the decline of civility in the political sphere. Bernie Sanders, a proclaimed socialist, could only be threatening an establishment candidate like Hillary Clinton during a time when voters are angry and looking to tear down the status quo. His very campaign (and high poll numbers) is built upon the anger and exasperation the public has with a broken system.
The best way for the public to voice our concern is to exercise our right to vote, our duty as Americans. It’s the surest way for the silent majority to be heard, loud enough to drown out the shrill fringes and the mindless obstructionism.
It’s important to remember: Election winners are determined by the difference, not the total. Just because you didn’t go to the polls doesn’t mean that you didn’t vote. By not showing up, you’re just voting for the other side’s candidate, sure enough as if you’d pulled the lever, checked the box or pressed the button.
In a democracy we have a role in shaping our country. At the end of all the money, all the noise, all the paid ads and social media posts and raging talking heads is the single vote. And it’s yours. Guard it with your life.
Tom Daschle is a Democratic former U.S. Senator from South Dakota, and Trent Lott is a Republican former U.S. Senator from Mississippi. They are the authors of Crisis Point.