A Vacancy in the White House? Send in the Clowns

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The White House is seen with the Washington Monument behind it and the Jefferson Memorial to the right in 2011. Americans have stopped trusting the mediating institutions that used to filter and scrutinize potential leaders on behalf of the rest of us, the author writes. Gary Hershorn/Reuters

This article first appeared on RobertReich.org.

The next president of the United States will confront a virulent jihadi threat, mounting effects of climate change and an economy becoming ever more unequal. We're going to need an especially wise and able leader.

Yet our process for choosing that person is a circus, and several leading candidates are clowns.

How have we come to this?

First, anyone with enough ego and money can now run for president. This wasn't always the case. Political parties used to sift through possible candidates and winnow the field.

Now the parties play almost no role. Anyone with some very wealthy friends can set up a super PAC. According to a recent New York Times investigation, half the money to finance the 2016 election so far has come from just 158 families.

Or if you're a billionaire, you can finance your own campaign.

And if you're sufficiently outlandish, outrageous and outspoken, a lot of your publicity will be free. Since he announced his candidacy last June, Donald Trump hasn't spent any money at all on television advertising.

Second, candidates can now get away with saying just about anything about their qualifications or personal history, even if it's a boldface lie. This wasn't always the case either. The media used to scrutinize what candidates told the public about themselves.

A media exposé could bring a candidacy to a sudden halt (as it did in 1988 for Gary Hart, who had urged reporters to follow him if they didn't believe his claims of monogamy).

But when today's media expose a candidate's lies, there seems to be no consequence. Ben Carson's poll numbers didn't budge after revelations he had made up his admission to West Point.

The media also used to evaluate candidates' policy proposals, and those evaluations influenced voters. Now the media's judgments are largely shrugged off. Trump says he'd "bomb the shit" out of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), round up all undocumented immigrants in the United States and send them home, and erect a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexican border.

Editors and columnists find these proposals ludicrous, but that doesn't seem to matter.

Carly Fiorina says she'll stop Planned Parenthood from "harvesting" the brains of fully formed fetuses. She insists she saw an undercover video of the organization about to do so. The media haven't found any such video, but no one seems to care.

Third and finally, candidates can now use hatred and bigotry to gain support.

Years ago, respected opinion leaders stood up to this sort of demagoguery and brought down the bigots. In the 1950s, the eminent commentator Edward R. Murrow revealed Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy to be a dangerous incendiary, thereby helping put an end to McCarthy's Communist witch hunts.

In the 1960s, religious leaders and university presidents condemned Alabama Governor George C. Wallace and other segregationist zealots—thereby moving the rest of America toward integration, civil rights and voting rights.

But when today's presidential candidates say Muslim refugees shouldn't be allowed into America, no Muslim should ever be president and undocumented workers from Mexico are murderers, they get away with it.

Paradoxically, at a time when the stakes are especially high for who becomes the next president, we have a free-for-all politics in which anyone can become a candidate, put together as much funding as they need, claim anything about themselves no matter how truthful, advance any proposal no matter how absurd and get away bigotry without being held accountable.

Why? Americans have stopped trusting the mediating institutions that used to filter and scrutinize potential leaders on behalf of the rest of us.

Political parties are now widely disdained. Many Americans now consider the "mainstream media" biased. And no opinion leader any longer commands enough broad-based respect to influence a majority of the public.

A growing number of Americans have become convinced the entire system is rigged—including the major parties, the media and anyone honored by the establishment. So now it's just the candidates and the public, without anything in between.

Which means electoral success depends mainly on showmanship and self-promotion. Telling the truth and advancing sound policies are less important than trending on social media. Being reasonable is less useful than gaining attention. Offering rational argument is less advantageous than racking up ratings.

Such circus politics may be fun to watch, but it's profoundly dangerous for America and the world. We might, after all, elect one of the clowns.

Robert B. Reich, chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the 20th century. He has written 13 books, including the best-sellers Aftershock and The Work of Nations. His latest, Beyond Outrage, is out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of The American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. His film, Inequality for All, is now available via Netflix, iTunes, DVD and on demand.

A Vacancy in the White House? Send in the Clowns | Opinion