“The most amazing thing about the 2016 elections,” Roger Porter of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government told me, “is that we are likely to elect someone who close to two-thirds of the country does not trust.”
The choice offered to Americans is the largest failure of the two-party system since at least the primary process’ democratization in 1968. Recent events revealed a Democratic candidate dangerously careless in the conduct of her public duties, deceptive in her defense and secure in the (correct) assumption of impunity.
The Republican candidate is one of the few politicians in America able to make Clinton appear sympathetic on her campaign’s worst day. Donald Trump accused the attorney general of bribery, defended an anti-Semitic meme and praised the late Saddam Hussein for being “really good at killing terrorists.” On the evidence of Halabja, Hussein was also good at killing women and children with mustard gas, sarin, tabun and VX. “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas,” Trump mocked in December, “everyone goes crazy, ‘Oh, he’s using gas!’”
Just to be clear: Any leader who makes light of the largest chemical weapons attack on civilians ever has a sickness of the soul.
So these are the options offered by the main parties – two of the least popular, least trusted politicians the country has recently produced. Isn’t this the opposite of what political parties – designed, presumably, to win elections – are supposed to do?
Is this a failure of the system used to select candidates? The 2016 nomination process undermines this hypothesis. In the Republican Party, the establishment lost. In the Democratic Party, the establishment won. Both organizations failed at their main mission – picking a candidate of character and broad experience with an informed, compelling vision of the common good.
If the system is not at fault, it must be a trait or temper of mind in the electorate. Every political commentator is now an amateur sociologist, trying to explain what caused this populist backlash against elites. Professor Porter – a respected professional in such matters – cites a lack of sustained economic growth, the dislocations of globalization, increasing wealth inequality and the frightening messiness of foreign affairs.
The result, Porter says, is a “rise in cynicism and resentment.” The resentment is natural, and is likely over time to change both parties’ policy profile. But cynicism is not always tied to resentment. Following the Watergate scandal, voters turned to the squeaky clean Jimmy Carter.
Cynicism is more dangerous to democracy than outrage. Cynicism pretends to be a sophisticated, insider knowledge of institutional corruption. It says: I can see, even if you can’t, how the whole ball of wax – politics, economics, religion – is rigged in favor of capitalist economic elites, or liberal social elites, or both. Since no one wants to appear the fool, cynicism is infectious. Many Americans feel exploited but believe politicians who offer idealistic answers are frauds.
This perspective greatly reduces the aspirations of politics – setting the ethical bar lower than we would for almost any other profession.
But there are other effects as the toxic cloud of cynicism settles over American politics. No matter who wins, the other side will view the victor as illegitimate – an unindicted criminal or a loopy bigot. The winner will find that a cynical public coheres like dry sand. It will be difficult to rally the whole country around hard or dangerous national goals. And a great country will continue to be crippled by its politics.
The worst hell of despair is believing that hope itself is a racket.