In eleven days, we will welcome the end of a presidential political campaign that, regardless of the outcome, will leave our national psyche bruised and battered. The rhetoric has been occasionally tawdry, frequently nonsensical, and almost universally devoid of substance. The idea of a vigorous contest of ideas seems as far away as it ever has been in American political history, replaced instead with a funhouse mirror distorting any semblance of maturity, seriousness, or sophistication. It’s downright depressing.
As beleaguered as I feel after unsuccessfully avoiding most of the news coverage for the past year, I have enough spirit left to make the obvious point that beyond the brutish nastiness of the campaign has been the jaw-dropping realization that one of the political candidates is fundamentally unfit for not just the highest office in the land but perhaps any office, anywhere, anytime. The childish, moronic, boorish behavior is so prevalent that a single example would do a grave injustice to this candidate’s near savant-like capacity to offend, to distract, and to pulverize any pervading sense of national decency. To entertain a notion of equivalency of the candidates is to render one’s self untethered to reality. To endorse this candidate is not to express a coherent political opinion, or to make a statement against the other party or candidate, but, rather, it is a wholesale abdication of the responsibility every citizen should feel. It is an investment in nihilism.
Flexing moral outrage (dare I say moral superiority) can feel good, but the day after the election will be no party. We will wake up to the politics of division. We will wake up to a country seemingly unmoored to common ground. And we will wake up to the dawning reality that the previous 12 months have revealed more than the triumph of scorched earth politics. Rather, we have witnessed a perhaps unparalleled expression from millions of American citizens that they feel so abused by an indifferent political class, so marginalized by a changing economy, and so broken by the combined might of poverty, lack of education, and drug abuse, among others, that the empty promises of a demagogue speak to them on a profound level, despite such promises being obviously contrary to fundamental American values, the very values in which they drape themselves.
The candidate is not the problem, and the election won’t provide the solution. Our national political paralysis comes at the hands of snotty children the size and shape of adults, free to pillage national character while representing districts where diverse electorates that would hold some semblance of balance and moderation have been conveniently gerrymandered out of existence. Our collection of adult children, nary a statesman to be seen, largely answer to plutocrats and pollsters, and, while self-preservation has been at the top of a politician’s priorities since the beginning of time, the national interest seems to have completely fallen off the list. At least it seems that way.
It would be a somewhat comforting thought to take solace in our national inertness if we could explain the stalemate as the byproduct of a healthy equipoise, a reflection of well-balanced forces rightly aligned to best serve a polity ready to take great steps, even leaps, in the areas of economics, eduction, the arts, science, and on and on. While strides are certainly being made, it doesn’t feel like we’re fighting because it’s so good. Instead, it feels like we’re fighting and falling behind in many important areas. Again, at least it feels that way.
It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m not moving to Rwanda anytime soon. But to say we deserve better is an understatement. Our political dialogue should be sharp and it should be passionate, for it is important. When our political life leaves behind spirited debate and transforms into a vulgar carnival that misleads the masses and distorts American values to the point of unrecognizability, however, we find ourselves much less than we can be. Less than we should be.
The lack of substance of this campaign and the lack of heft in our current political life has one redeeming quality: like all weightless things, it is swept aside relatively easily. Perhaps that unifying event or force, that thing that reasserts our common American purpose, is right around the corner. Of course, the problem with things easily swept aside is you’re never guaranteed it will be replaced by something better.