Every successful candidate—as well as most losing ones—for President of the United States attract “public intellectuals.” They offer their services as storytellers, media whisperers, and strategic thinkers. They make a difference; they help launch and sustain good and unforgettably terrible ideas as well. And they are rewarded richly in the best sense of the word: their exceptional brains work most brilliantly around power. They must, however, swim in one of two immense pools: the Republican and Democratic parties. The action is not on the beach with the independents.
The entry fee into these ponds has lightened; old-boy passports aren’t as valuable as they once were. Presidential politics today is an extremely competitive marketplace, with demanding investors who thrive in the vicious new meritocracy. So, merit should get you in.
Exiting is not as easy: it can cost you your name, career, and friendships. It raises a character question: Can you be trusted on any team?
“Loyalty” is not just a harmless pat on the back for dutiful service. The word imposes a sin tax on exit: being known as “disloyal.” Being loyal doesn’t get you a promotion or keep the business innovative or on its toes. It simply allows the institution to not worry about potential quitters 24–7. (Insights on the power of loyalty goes to Albert O. Hirschman's "Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States")
The above considerations partly explain why David Brooks in Time for a Realignment and avowedly partisan thinkers write passionately about the dislocation and movement of millions of voters, while largely sitting still themselves. Their squirming has generated entertaining and clever discussion—and we should appreciate that.
Joseph Nyethe liberal who coined the strategic panacea “soft power” hilariously excoriates Republican Donald Trump for being soft on Vladimir Putin and squeamish about committing US forces to any war to defend Lithuania. Conservative David Frum speaks soulfully about his dark night in the Republican Party. He chooses forthrightly to campaign against Donald Trump as a loyalist’s first step to unite conservative Republicans, later.
Their loyalty shouldn’t be overvalued. There’s another equally effective way to be intellectually and politically useful: quit.
Too little attention is paid to the virtue of picking up and leaving. America is great if only because America and it’s more timid northern cousin are populated by switchers and quitters, not only by those who keep their heads down, wait for bad times to pass, or hope that their bosses will wake up one day and stop treating them as soreheads and has-beens.
Think of those illustrious troublemakers insiders loathed at the time: Theodore Roosevelt and his Progressive Party, René Lévesque and the Party Quebecois, and Preston Manning and Reform Party.
Singing the praises of the two-party system is an establishmentarian excuse for not rocking the boat amongst the brains at the top as well as amongst the “white trash” below decks. Throughout the modern communication age, the oldest parties have set the rules and acquired for themselves tremendous advantages to ward off revolts and new competition.
The privileged, of course, have done all this to make politics less corrupt and politicking more like a profession.
Yet, there’s no compelling evidence that breaking down the quasi-monopolistic advantages for Democrats and Republicans and Liberal and Conservative parties would lead to the chaotic fragmentation of our popular democracies. Insurgencies are eventually absorbed by both adaptive competitors and by an enduring preference by voters to give one party, not coalitions, decisive power to govern.
Malcontents serve new ideas within established parties. However, they only rouse themselves when there’s reasonable prospect that neglected constituencies will exercise their freedom to move on.
More “public intellectuals” should try it—light the way, so to speak. Real change needs them.