“In a nation of 320 million people, how did we end up with these two?”
That’s the question I’ve heard repeatedly from both my Democratic and Republican friends.
It’s hard to fathom, and almost tragically funny. As if your football team deliberated for months and then used its only draft pick on William Hung from American Idol.
He bangs, you know, and he’s not part of that “Football Establishment.”
~The Dallas Cowboys
So while many have thoughts on who is worse, I want to ask a different question: Why did the worst people win in the first place?
What is so wrong with our system (and ourselves) that we nominated two options that sound like a frightening game of “Would you rather…?”
To be clear, in calling both Trump and Clinton “the worst” I do not mean that they are literally the worst people in the country. I don’t think that.
It is possible that you could find a more unsavory character, say, by
- Playing “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” at Riker’s Island,
- Or “Marco Polo” at a Kim and Kanye pool party.
Instead, by “worst,” I simply mean that they are—in my limited judgment—the worst people (in terms of character) set forth by their respective parties in the primaries.
True, Bernie may have been more progressive than Hillary, but he was also more honest. And yes, Ted Cruz may have been voted most annoying by pretty much everyone he’s ever met, but he did not accuse an opponent’s dad of killing Kennedy, or insinuate that a disproportionate number immigrants are rapists and murderers (etc., etc…).
In that regard, the worst people won.
And our question should be “Why?”
THE OBVIOUS ANSWER
The obvious answer is simple: we voted.
Somehow, more people thought these were the best options. And while I respect that, I also think it sits among the worst nominations since Caligula tried to make his horse a consul.
But instead of blaming individuals, perhaps we should examine some broad issues that may be propelling unsavory individuals to new heights.
Because whatever we did, we’ve got to do differently next time.
1.BOTH PARTIES HAVE BEEN RADICALIZED
Few can deny that both parties have moved toward the extremes of their respective bases. This is where the energy is. And candidates lurch this way to win their primaries. It’s always been this way. Still, it does seem that the “baseness” of the base has increased in recent years.
When this happens, fortune favors the shrill, anger is confused with wisdom, and none of this bodes well for reasonable candidates.
2.THE MONEY MANDATE ENCOURAGES SOUL SELLING
A second reason we might call “the money mandate.” These days, a successful presidential campaign costs around one billion dollars. And with slippery finance laws (“corporations are people, my friend”) and SuperPACs, it seems that some level of soul selling is almost required to amass the needed capital.
Thus while billionaires like Trump are set, for all others, the money mandate propels candidates who are willing to be bought by special interests, corporate giants, and foreign powers. Thus “the worst” have a distinct advantage.
3.PUBLIC DISCOURSE HAS BEEN REDUCED TO “MEMES” AND MEANNESS
A recent study showed that in his speeches Donald Trump speaks English at a fifth grade level. That’s not an insult, it’s an algorithm. And it’s far higher than his “Tweet-level.”
For some, this was proof that the other (losing) Republican candidates were simply talking over the heads of voters, while Trump was, in the words of one supporter, “talking to us not like we’re stupid.”
Still, the real problem is not grammar or intelligence.
A deeper issue is that many have bought the myth that “straight talk” is the ability to pair insults with exclamation points. It is not. And the solution will be slow in coming. Somehow, we must teach our kids that decency matters, not just in one’s personal relations, but in campaigns and on social media. We much teach logic, critical thinking, and fact checking. Because only a thoughtful and virtuous electorate will shun thoughtless and unvirtuous candidates.
4.CROWNING ROYAL FAMILIES IS CROWDSOURCED NEPOTISM
Once upon a time, the American colonies threw off the yoke of monarchy, and with this, the idea that being related to a leader qualified you to be one. In royal families, power is gained by “waiting your turn,” but not so in democracies.
Thus it seems odd to claim that one candidate should win, because she “waited” for years.
To be sure, defacto royal families are nothing new in American politics. And few would disqualify an FDR simply because of uncle Teddy. Yet both of these men were trusted, charismatic, and brilliant in their own ways. So it wasn’t merely that they “waited their turn.”
For this reason, both parties could seriously benefit from a crop of young leaders whose names aren’t Bush or Clinton.
5.THE WRINGER RUNS OFF DECENT PEOPLE
To go through a presidential campaign means submitting one’s self and family to “the wringer” of public scrutiny and character assassination (especially if one is running against Donald Trump). Thus we might ask if the sheer scrutiny of our political process scares off the decent people, while a disproportionate number of egomaniacal narcissists fill the void.
As Shakespeare put into the mouth of Richard III:
“Conscience is but a word that cowards use” (5.3).
And sadly, it is not difficult to picture one nominee nodding inwardly at this, while the other retweets it. #strongleader #Shackspeer
If this sounds bleak, it’s not meant to be.
There are good people out there, and we must find them both now and in the future.
Yet in the meantime, perhaps we should pause from our debates over who is “the lesser of two evils” and consider how we got here.
Then maybe next time will be different.
Till then, there’s this. 🙂
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Comments (and disagreement) are welcome, but please do so under your actual name, and please keep it respectful for all readers. ~JM