The long 2016 presidential campaign, in which ten agonizing months still remain, has in many respects felt like two parallel campaigns-one Democratic and one Republican-that are occurring in two different countries. This is the case in part because at this point in the election cycle, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, no candidate has any urgent incentive to appeal to what is left of the American political center or to the swing voters who will determine the outcome of the general election. And most are focusing almost entirely on their respective political party bases.
Additionally, this election is now the third of the last five in which no candidate is a sitting President or Vice-President, this is significant because neither party is simply running a candidate to defend the status quo, and, in theory, at least, both primaries are wide open. Before 2000, this dynamic was relatively rare and had not occurred since 1952. This year, even more than 2008, when the election was similarly open, the two parties seem to not only disagree on the issues, but also disagree on what the issues are.
The easiest way to understand this is to watch a Republican and a Democratic debate. The Republicans are running for the President of a country that is “at war” with radical Islamist terrorism, perhaps even already involved in “World War III,” led by a President who is “weak”, and threatened by immigrants-from Mexico who want to steal jobs, and from the Middle East who want to attack us. This is a country that has been browbeaten into a defensive position by “politically correct” forces and that must, for the sake of the whole world, take a position of aggressive and strong global leadership.
The country that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley seek to lead is one where growing income inequality needs to be reversed, where a good new health care law has helped millions of Americans, where, if we are to survive international cooperation and coalition building is essential, the threat represented by ISIS is being ameliorated by effective policies from Washington and where the forces of progress and inequality are constantly in battle with those of intolerance and bigotry. The dramatic differences between the views of the two parties will make for a very unusual general election as the candidates will be more likely to talk past that to engage with each other.
Underlying these differences is a more profound dichotomy in how progressives and conservatives see the world, and the U.S. This has always been true, but rarely more stark than it appears in this campaign. Republican candidates speak of “securing borders”, the “nation-state”, “carpet bombing”, being “at war” and giving Russian President Vladimir Putin a “punch in the nose.” You can almost feel the adolescent testosterone, unblemished by any actual military combat, dripping from the candidates. On the Democratic side, words like “income inequality,” “gun regulation,” “Scandinavian,” and “police brutality,” give the debates the feel of what a Hollywood writer might try to pass off to the American people as an Ivy League policy seminar.
One way to think about the differences between these two worldviews is to envision the election not as a discussion or debate over issues confronting the U.S. in 2016, but as an argument over how future historians, say in the year 2116, will describe the U.S. in the period from roughly 2009-2015. It is possible that those historians will describe the U.S. in our era as locked in a deep and relentless struggle against the global threat of Islamist terrorism, in a period of decline and deliberate hesitancy to confront the rest of the world. Perhaps those historians will tell a story of how a confident and bold Republican President took office in 2017 lead the country to victory over Islamic terrorism and restored the country to greatness, while barely touching on economic issues because of the fundamental soundness of the economy, after the socialist overreach of the Obama era was rolled back.
That is one scenario, but it seems that another scenario is one that should at least be considered. Future historians may look at these years as ones where the U.S. sought to wind down, with varying degrees of success, the mistakes of the Bush administration, tried to reposition the U.S. in an increasingly multi-polar world, overreacted to a terrorist threat that was more about media and fear than anything else, and began to address glaring problems of police brutality, income inequality and uneven access to health care.
Leaders of both parties implicitly believe that the history written one hundred years from now will prove them right, but it is also likely that they are both wrong. There are two main reasons for this beyond the obvious point that the future is unknowable. First, the major issue facing the U.S. and the world right now is climate change, but precisely because it so partisan, with Democrats believing firmly in the threat of climate change and Republicans believing it is not real, neither side has discussed it in other than a very cursory way in the campaign. A century from now, politicians will look back on this election, at least up until now, not for what was debated, but for what was not mentioned. They will also probably wonder why we were so obsessed with a horrific, but limited and random seeming, crime in Southern California, and the threat of a bunch of murderous, brutal, thuggish, but also militarily weak and unsustainable, fanatics half a world away, while ignoring the much larger threat that was already making itself known through rising sea levels, droughts and melting ice caps.
Second, there is a natural tendency for candidates in both parties, and people in general, to overstate the significance, peril and excitement of the times in which they live. This is the reason why candidates and party activists, with no intent to deceive, describe every election as the most important of our lifetime. It is also why Republican candidates speak of World War III and Democrats of a paradigm shifting evolution in how wealth and income is distributed. It is, however, more likely that a century hence, historians will describe this period as a one characterized by decades of U.S. intervention overseas that created a steady, but not devastating loss of soldiers, wealth and American hegemony, and of wars all over the world that did not directly effect the U.S. Economic historians may not describe the collapse of the American economy in the first two decades of the 21st century, but rather the ups and downs and minor adjustments that occur in all capitalist systems.
If that is true, the next President will not have to fight World War III, rebuild the foundational principles of the American economy, save the country from a powerful and widespread threat of domestic terrorism, battle the forces of political correctness or stop Christian theocrats from taking over the country. The next President, much like the current one, the previous one and the one before him, will have to manage a foreign policy that is complex but rarely presents a direct threat to the U.S., work on the margins of a large, flawed but reasonably functional economy, and try to balance the competing forces and visions of tolerance and religiosity that are unavoidable in a large, pluralist and free society. It is too bad nobody is running to be President of that country.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.