The stakes of this innocent-sounding question are high. Endless as the presidential race has already seemed, we still have more than six exhausting months to go. (Let’s pause to salute the British, who do the whole thing start to finish in a matter of weeks.) Ideally the time would be put to good use.
And it still can be. After all, if we spent the next six months educating Americans about the bold choices we need to make to renew the country, that would be time well spent. Among other things, this would mean asking Americans to rethink how we run our schools, banks, armies, hospitals and elections — plus talking much more honestly about taxes and spending.
I can hear you laughing already at the touching naivete of this idea. But put your world-weariness on hold for a moment. Ask yourself why elections aren’t this way.
Obviously some of what shapes a presidential race comes from outside — the financial crisis in the home stretch of the 2008 campaign, for example, or reversals in Afghanistan. But such uncontrollable forces aside, the answer as to who decides what the campaign is about is simple. The two major parties’ candidates decide. Not the press. Not the voters. At least not in the sense that Democrats and Republicans are competing to actually solve the problems citizens face. Instead, the candidates are trying to do things that will get voters to vote for them — which is different. The two parties decide what appeals and behaviors are best calculated to get them to victory on Election Day. Then they do their best to frame the campaign on these terms.
All this seems obvious, perhaps, but the corollary can never be stressed enough: There is no necessary link between what candidates do to win power and what it would actually take to address the country’s biggest challenges.
American presidential campaigns are now a dueling series of pseudo-events, misleading arguments and symbols managed by candidates in order to gain power by attracting the support of 50 percent-plus-one of those citizens who bother to vote. Just as the standard disclaimer at the front of novels informs us that “any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental,” so do political campaigns deserve the disclaimer “Any edification you may receive on the collective choices facing the nation is purely accidental.” Sometimes it happens. It’s not the main mission.
Maybe this didn’t matter as much from, say, 1950 until recently, when America was the world’s unrivaled economic power. But everyone knows the country needs a serious call to renewal in a global age — an agenda that goes well beyond the president’s rhetorically worthy but timid proposals and worlds away from the anti-government nihilism that has devoured the GOP.