The United States lives in the age of permanent campaigning – where crusading for the sake of crusading is victory unto itself – and nowhere has this become more apparent than in the ever-elongated presidential election cycles. With platitudes replacing substance, presidential campaigns perpetuate the belief that the nation is beset by endless domestic and international crises. In contemporary politics, winning the presidency means governance is replaced by endurance, administration with rallying the base, and leadership with fundraising.
Candidates across the 2016 presidential field have been regurgitating and debating talking points about how they would govern once elected, as if the role of the presidency suddenly grants them monarchical authority. As much as American’s refuse to accept it, Congress still matters when it comes to the nation’s policy-making; presidents do not rule by decree and executive actions can only move policies forward so far. “Obama: I didn’t appreciate how weak the presidency is until I was president” read a Vox headline from November 2015, and this lack of ‘appreciation’ is not solely indicative of politicians losing connection with the processes but is illustrated by voters across America who do not fully appreciate how the system was designed to function. This underscores the nation’s lack of interest in House and Senate races.
For the past year the United States has been enamored with who will control the executive branch at the exclusion of Congressional campaigns. Most news cycles are filled with debates on who will win their party’s presidential nomination with very limited focus on Congressional seats. This is due to the fact that Congress is seen as dysfunctional and the masses, believing the rhetoric on presidential campaign trails, expect the executive branch to fix this problem, even though it is well outside the Oval Office’s purview.
The ongoing congressional stalemate stems from, and is further exacerbated by, elected candidates who hate government or refuse to compromise, and democracy can only flourish if compromise is achieved by all sides.
This is also not a singular party issue. Senator Ted Cruz was elected to the Senate by promising to never work with Democrats: “If you’re looking for an established moderate who will go to Washington and work across the aisle and compromise…I’m not the guy.” In a similar vein, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to a question about “which enemy [is she] most proud of” by stating “probably the Republicans.”
Without a super-majority in the House and Senate, the executive branch will need to find common ground with those across the aisle, and the president’s refusal to do so will be to his/her own detriment.
Campaigns, by nature, must over-embellish leadership qualities in terms of rhetoric in order to keep a hold on the electorate’s attention. When this occurs, those on the other side of the aisle are relegated to the status of “the other” and are no longer seen as misguided citizens who want the best for the country. Rather, they become a fifth column, an internal threat that is nothing less than existential. Essentially, America is becoming less cooperative because the nation has willingly divided itself into political camps that believe and drive forward the narrative of stereotypes and caricatures utilized to subvert the opposition.
Rhetoric and sound bites on the campaign trail are the antithesis of the great orators who founded America, and yet the country does not seem to expect anything more from the salespeople running for office. These iterations, coupled with a civically-illiterate population, have transformed political campaigns into a cold, indifferent system that relies on election sabermetrics. Both parties have a slavish fascination with gaming the electoral system by the numbers; nine US states still have straight-ticket voting options on their ballots ensuring party affiliation, not a candidate’s merits are front and center to the voting public’s decision-making.
The Democratic Party seeks out ways to register anyone who is not illiterate, insane, or dead based on statistical proof that their party wins when more voters turn out. The Republican Party, however, does everything in its power to disenfranchise or confuse voters because they have a statistical likelihood of success with few voters. Neither option is compatible with free and fair elections but reflects a worldview akin to vice merchants, relying heavily upon a community’s apathy or lack of education.
Relegating the American voter to sheer numbers is not new, nor is it limited to voter suppression or empowerment. With the rise of big-data elections, campaigning is now based on manipulation. The campaign that most astutely uses emotional blackmail or fear tactics will be the inevitable victor. Thousands of dollars are poured into study groups that spend innumerable hours researching and formulating the most emotionally evocative statements. While there remains the thinnest of veneers that these statement tie to some vaguely worded party platform, the real purpose of these exercises is to say whatever gets people to vote for the candidate – for the party. Sadly, they work, making it unlikely these tactics will change in the near future.
This willingness to manipulate voters directly highlights a disheartening paradigm shift that has occurred in American politics. Formerly, the parties were the first steps of policy formulation. Party platforms were debated and modified internally, a microcosm of the democratic process in which we all participated. Presidential candidates ran on the basis of demonstrating the worthwhile cause of their platforms, and voters would choose on the basis of platform and proposed policy, with party loyalty playing an important role. Now, elections are simply about collecting the most numbers possible and even candidates with dubious pasts and questionable merits can achieve a nomination as long as they toe the party line.
Anything and everything is on the table if it brings in more votes. If anything, the party does not exist anymore, unless you count its capabilities to disburse money to candidates. Our campaigns are inherently undemocratic and they treat the nation as a statistical phenomenon – an easily-swayed, ignorant mass that remains susceptible to dog-whistle politics and propaganda.
Based upon the noise coming from the 2016 presidential race, its results will simply be a rehashing of what already exists in Washington – one party will stymie the other’s efforts for fear of being viewed as weak or unprincipled to their constituents, and the blame games will begin anew. Whoever is elected we can expect results: spending levels will increase or decrease, tax percentages between income brackets will be tweaked, threats of gutting military budgets and social programs will be mooted by last-ditch efforts and simple backroom deals that instead should be used to build trust and create avenues for further cooperation.
However, in this brave new world of hate, vitriol, and purity politics, such a scenario is far less likely than winning the $1.6 billion Powerball. It can happen however, when it occurs to politicians and voters alike that there are few winners and the rest of the country seethes with disdain and jealousy.
A silver lining exists, though only to a small degree. Even when leaders from both parties refuse to compromise, the United States government continues to move forward in fits and starts, although it will not be one of collective action and populist policies that benefit the greater good. Rather, progress will be attained through either the expansion of executive powers or by attaching riders to must-pass legislation. In short, progress will be made only by employing the tactics of pseudo-democratic or post-communist states.
In contemporary American politics, remaining outside the Beltway has become integral to remaining electable to a politician’s base because the machines that allow Washington to function are deemed corrupt or broken. Washington is broken when it comes to implementing policies that favor the masses; the system continues to work perfectly for politicians and corporate leaders. There is a reason why individuals seek national office yet do little to correct the ‘problems’ outlined on the campaign trail, and voters are continually disenfranchised when they send a candidate to Washington to ‘change the system’ only to see that the system has changed the candidate.
The unwillingness of either political party to honestly resolve the problems facing the country illustrates Washington’s true effectiveness in protecting the country’s elite. Vague promises, preserving pet projects, and kicking important issues as far down the road as possible is not the behavior of leaders; it proves that there is a dearth of leaders in Washington willing to accept responsibility. We should not expect this next class of prospective presidential candidates to be any different.