Logically, a candidate for President should need to clear just two hurdles to get your vote: Identify the most critical challenges we face as a nation and convince you that he or she is the candidate most capable of meeting those challenges.
Do voters consistently get this right, or do they get bamboozled somewhere in the process? I submit they usually get it wrong, but not in their selection of the candidate most capable of meeting the challenges they consider most critical. Rather, it is in the identification of the challenges where voters are led astray.
Voters, it seems, generally suffer badly from ADD. They’re driven to distraction by the news cycle. And by candidates who prey on their fears and prejudices. By the time they cast their vote, they’ve lost sight of what they themselves believe are the challenges we must meet. They’ve allowed the media and the candidates to tell them what those challenges are.
Is it possible for the right leader to break through, despite the glaring systemic shortcoming? My guess is sometimes, but not this time.
Consider the landscape.
Dominating the news is the threat presented by ISIS, not from its military force, but from its capacity to inspire terrorist acts by “radicalized Muslims” far and wide. Part of the debate is whether Muslims themselves are inherently dangerous and, if so, whether it’s okay to ban Muslim tourists from the country.
Are there challenges more critical than ISIS? Is the challenge associated with ISIS even being framed correctly?
Earlier on, immigration was the topic du jour. Should we deport all the undocumented immigrants living in America today? Should we impose harsh sanctions on those who enter the country illegally a second time, on the theory that they’re far more likely to commit a heinous crime? [Of course, taking that to it’s logical conclusion, we would impose harsh sanctions upon the first entry, because it’s the first entry that makes the second entry more likely, which, as the theory goes, makes the heinous crime more likely]
Is illegal immigration a critical challenge? Or could we actually muddle along indefinitely without taking action on immigration?
Put that aside, and ask yourself what you believe to be the challenges we must meet, those where failure could destroy our way of life as a nation, or where success could make life better for the great majority of us. Here are mine: Climate change; extreme economic inequality; and the scaling back of American empire and the surveillance state before the system collapses upon itself (as all empires eventually do).
Would everyone reading this piece see things as I do? Obviously not. But say, hypothetically, I’m spot on. Will the candidate most likely to position us to meet those challenges win? No, because he/she will never convince the requisite number of voters how critical those challenges are. Too many voters will get distracted, or perhaps just not get it. In fact, by emphasizing the real challenges we face, a candidate loses credibility with many voters. If a voter is convinced that slapping 5-year prison sentences on border crossers is our path to prosperity, talking about climate change is not just unproductive, it’s counterproductive.
So, when do voters get it right? When the challenges are too obvious to ignore. The two elections that come mind are 1860 and 1932. Lincoln and FDR won those two elections because voters understood well what was at stake. Nobody could be distracted from the challenge of the hour.
My guess is that 2020 will be very much like 1860 or 1932. Hopefully, the right person will step up at that time. That’s not a certainty. Things can just easily devolve in times of crisis. Yes, another Lincoln could show up, but so could another Mussolini. Time will tell.
Where does that leave us in 2016? Probably about where we were in 1856 or 1928, with lots of Buchanans and Hoovers from which to choose.
Listen carefully, and you practically can hear Simon and Garfunkel speaking to you: “Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon. Going to the candidates debate. Laugh about it, shout about it, when you’ve got to choose. Either way you look at this you lose.”