If there’s one thing I hear most often about the presumptive choices on our ballots in November, it’s a sense of bewildered disgust at the likelihood either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will be the president in about eight months.
I hear this not only from disaffected Republicans but many independents and not a few Democrats. “How?” they ask. “How did we get to this place?”
That’s one of the better questions to ask in the months to come. And if your answer doesn’t include at least part of the blame accruing to yourself, or at least your “side,” you’re probably not being totally honest. This unappealing general election is the culmination of many years of both parties being unresponsive to the realities apparent to many Americans. Trump won a rebellious victory against that decay in the GOP; Clinton is barely staving off the revolution Bernie Sanders tried to spark among Democrats. Both uprisings cite the failure of their respective parties’ “establishments” to tend to “the people.”
I’m not going to rehash all the proffered reasons they feel that way, but I will offer another one. Look at what both parties have focused so much of their attention on: institutions. Democrats are committed to defending them, Republicans to attacking them. But I’m not sure either has convinced people besides its own partisans — and not even all of those — that its actions translate to a commitment to them.
Before you decide this is going to be too abstract, stick with me a moment. Think about what so many of the fights between R’s and D’s in recent years have concerned: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schools, the EPA, the IRS. These are creatures of the government intended to benefit all, with dubious results or consequences in the minds of many. Democrats defend them, Republicans rail against them. Real people wonder what’s in it for them.
In the face of obvious shortcomings of, say, our public schools, Democrats by and large offer one answer: Spend more money. There is not a school-reform movement from the left to speak of, because that could alienate the school employees and unions who are vital to Democrats’ winning elections. There are Democrats who support school reforms, but for the most part they back Republican proposals.
From the right, by contrast, there is a never-ending supply of school-reform proposals. Many of them are sound and would improve education and the lives of students. There are so many, in fact, that a number of Republicans come off as being chiefly interested in tearing down the public-school system — playing right into the hands of Democrats all too happy to portray them in just that way. In fact, the main argument Democrats make in favor of the mediocre institutions they prop up amounts to this false choice: The current system may not be ideal, but it beats the nothing Republicans would leave you with.
The parent whose child is stuck in an under-performing school, meanwhile, hears two things: Democrats saying the system is underfunded, Republicans saying the system is broken — neither of which sounds as if it will make a difference in that child’s life anytime soon. It’s all about public schools as an institution, not what’s best for the students they’re supposed to serve.
Or take Social Security. You might think self-styled progressives would be amenable to means-testing the benefits rather than having Uncle Sam write a check each month to retired millionaires. But that would be too much like change; better, Democrats say, to keep paying everyone than to allow Republicans an opening to changing the whole system. Republicans, meanwhile, come across as if they want to, well, change the whole system. The debate sounds like it’s about Social Security itself, not retirees.
So we have a dearth of ideas backed by fear-mongering on the one side, and a gusher of ideas that seem ideological or actuarial, not human-focused, on the other. It’s no wonder so many voters this year have looked at the establishment on each side and concluded, you both stink.