Note: The Roosevelt Institute is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and does not endorse particular candidates or subscribe to a political party. The following does not represent the views of the organization, its members, or affiliates, and should not be construed as an official endorsement. We do hope this analysis contributes to a constructive dialog on the current state of U.S. presidential politics and provides a space for reflection on the political choices we make.
By Mario Goetz
In a few days the American people will elect a president. Every election cycle, a hurricane of swirling rhetoric threatens to wash away the dusty complexity of this time-worn process. Now, our nation enters the eyewall of an already brutal campaign, and we must ground this latest depression in a larger context or risk being swept up in mighty squalls. We must understand that lofty vision cannot stand on a foundation of straw, but requires the bricks and mortar forged by generations before us. Above all, we must find comfort and refuge in trust among one another, and in the steady march of justice. Cory Booker voices this wisdom in the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
In Michigan’s primary, I voted for Bernie Sanders. I voted for Bernie Sanders because his vision distilled these values into a rallying cry that brought love, compassion, and progress out of the political darkness and thrust it into the light. Millions who felt lost, left behind, and forgotten by their representatives seized on a glimmer of hope, and they magnified that glimmer into a beacon of truth, honesty, sincerity, and idealism. This creed proclaims that fundamental changes can be made; we the people can harness our political systems for the benefit of all. I rejoice in this new political community, and the progressive revolution Bernie advocates will always remain the beating heart of my political philosophy.
The paradox of the Bernie phenomenon, however, rests on the very principles it deifies: democracy. Our American brand of this centuries-old political experiment is better defined as republicanism: neither direct democracy nor unilateral dictatorship. The founders of our country created this system in a crucible forged between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Our system attempts a negotiation between the promise of unbridled freedom, opportunity, and individuality, against the virtues, of community, compassion, and collective progress. At our worst, all of these values disintegrate into oppression; at our best, we strike a golden balance that lifts up the individual, while serving the collective good.
Throughout our history, this balance was preserved and advanced not by the Herculean efforts of a mythic champion, but by the steadfast contributions of everyday Americans- those who did what they could while appreciating the fruits of their individual labors. Historians today have learned to excoriate the “great man” theory of history, not because our historical figures were not great, but because they weren’t the only ones. For example, we cannot understand the power and influence of the civil rights movements of the 1950s-70s without acknowledging the painstaking work of organizing church congregations, mass migrations, and generations of leaders who built its rock-solid foundations decades before. In our system, change takes time- a long time. It’s supposed to. The cult of personality injects energy and vision, but the body is not healed with one shot.
Bernie’s campaign represents this generation’s injection- our contribution to American progress. My deepest wish is for Bernie’s platform to be implemented. However, we are electing a president, not a dictator. The tenets of our republican system extol the virtues of stability. Our democratic principles mandate that if our cause is truly just, we will not wield it as a cleaver, but extend it as a helping hand. Our principles mandate that if our cause is truly just, we will not use it to club our political opponents into oblivion, but explain our positions patiently and forcefully. We must not succumb to divisive rhetoric that declares dissent an evil foe, for this denies their human dignity. If we truly stand for honesty, sincerity, and inclusivity in our governing project, we must offer our fellow Americans redemption, not annihilation.
Now, Bernie Sanders and the progressive standard-bearers have joined Obama, whose metamorphosis from game-changer to left-leaning moderate is now complete, to support the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. The smart money still favors her, despite the expected late tightening of the race. It simply seems Donald Trump’s message cannot encompass the feelings of enough Americans to legitimize his claim to the White House. Just as in Hillary’s triumph over the anti-establishment politics that motivated Bernie Sanders supporters, the general election cycle will show just how much Americans, and especially those with decision-making power, still value stability over uncertainty.
Incredibly, and perhaps ironically, inertia might be the best predictor of America’s impending political decision in a seesaw campaign year. No matter how riling the drama spouted by profit-driven media outlets and Jerry Springer guests cum presidential candidates, Americans will ultimately get bored and revert to form: get up, go to work, watch Netflix, and go to bed. Hillary preserves this version of reality. Trump does not.
Thus, Trump, who was, is, and will continue to be a reality television character, will succumb to the same instinct for moderation that defines the American two-party system. The problem for Trump is that a growing majority of Americans feel a different pain than that to which the xenophobia, vengeance, cultism, and authoritarianism appeal. A majority of voters this election will not be the white working class living in declining suburbs or rural populists. The “silent majority” that elected Nixon and Reagan, which commentators like Ann Coulter and others on the right still count as a political constituency capable of king-making, has become diluted, degraded, and dismissed by the march of time. Maureen Dowd aptly diagnosed the Trump phenomenon as the “death throes” of this antiquated political coalition. In the face of hemorrhaging political, economic, and cultural dominance, this campaign has provoked a bastardized form of white male ethnocentrism among Trump followers that demands nothing less than a turning back the clocks.
While this may indeed be the essence of conservatism- the consolidation of power around the status quo-Trump’s militarized, venomous version has already alienated large swaths of the conservative base. Put succinctly, despite his moral abhorrence, Trump’s appeal to his supporters is quite understandable, and quite persuasive: he will blow up the system. Most of America, however, has too much to lose.
Herein lies the story of Hillary Clinton’s ascent to the presidency. In a revealing interview with Vox, and elaborated upon by various intellectually-driven publications, Hillary’s power derives from traits opposite to those of Trump. Where trump is indefatigably transparent, Clinton conceals herself to a fault. Where Trump’s mouth trails his gut like a toddler gripping the leash of a bounding Great Dane, Hillary is meticulous, shrewd, and haltingly rehearsed. Whereas Trump lives to hear his own voice echoed back to him by sycophants and gilded hallways, Hillary obsessively absorbs information, and molds her statements to fit the advice of strangers, close advisors, and her conscience in turn. Whereas Trump forms quick, glamorous friendships and even quicker, explosive enemies, Hillary withholds emotional attachments and shuns fatuous grudges, more interested in efficient working relationships and surprisingly broad political alliances.
While these traits may disadvantage her in a modern political campaign, the results she has achieved in her political career and the words of her peers paint a more positive picture. To be clear, she is a centrist at best, a corporatist at worst. She is capable of compromise in the interest of progress, and wedded to the habits of an older political era of which she is a product. Perhaps the nausea of this political season has generated nostalgia for respectability politics over the rapture-fantasy Trump promises to call forth. If elected, the first presidential mom in American history will have the opportunity to comfort the country in the same way moms everywhere have comforted their children after a nightmare. She can’t erase the memory of discord and despair, but balancing the nation in her steady arms, she can make it stop.