The 2016 Election–A Teachable Moment

On this, the day after the final presidential debate, we have a valuable opportunity to reflect on our democratic process.  And so much becomes clear if we briefly look away from the one race that dominates the headlines.  In doing so, we may note some interesting ironies of our electoral culture.  

First, at this moment just prior to an election in which the entire lower house of our Congress is to be elected, as well as one-third of the upper house, the vast majority of our attention is for some reason drawn far more strongly to the presidential campaign.  The power and importance of the chief executive certainly requires serious consideration, as the next president will select cabinet officers to head departments and carry out policy concerning many important aspects of American life.  He or she will also nominate federal judges, Supreme Court justices, and at least one member of the Federal Reserve Board.

But the Congress is also a powerful institution.  This election will determine not only who will hold seats, but also which party controls each house.  This, in turn, will determine which members hold leadership positions in each chamber, and ultimately which bills will come to a vote and become law.  The Congress has an influence on American life that is at least comparable to that of the president.  Yet few people even know who their representatives are or could be.

While my own state has no offices on the ballot this election, many states do.  State capitals across the nation also exert a powerful force on the lives of Americans, and from a lesser distance than Washington, D.C.  Neither in media coverage nor in terms of voters’ curiosity do state races draw the kind of attention that the presidential campaign does.

County and local elections lurk only in the dimmest recesses of most of our minds, and this despite the immediate and direct effects that local leaders have on our lives.

Instead, a mass-media culture seeking always the largest audience has consolidated our attention and directed it toward the most conspicuous office in the land.  And if we must look primarily at that race, we have much to examine there, too–if only we could see through the glare of sensationalism, demagoguery, and pandering.

That politicians distort the truth, or will say anything for votes, or scorch all sensibility in private conversation, or cavalierly explain away egregious actions in their past, or appeal to the fears of their supporters, or dehumanize their detractors, should come as no surprise to any of us.  As for the laments about the depths to which our political discourse has devolved, plenty of better writers have covered that topic–and alas, to too little effect.

No, a far greater concern should now be too great to ignore: that both major presidential campaigns have suffered humiliating and damaging exposures that in any earlier election would have meant certain defeat.  Now, millions of Americans state openly that they will vote for the candidate they consider less unfit.  By no means will all American voters pull the lever while holding their noses and gagging so violently, but certainly, a majority of voters will have very little confidence in whomever they select to be our next president–even if the candidate they voted for wins.  This has grave symbolic implications for our nation.

We still have more to consider.  The very nature of our political system has constrained our democracy and confounded our ability to progress as a civilization.  The two-party system holds power for the same purpose that all political entities hold power: for its own interests.  At this point in the 21st century, most other industrialized democracies have third, fourth, and even eighth major political parties.  True, they often have messy and volatile governments controlled by coalitions less stable than the two major American parties; however, they also have a wide range of interests duly represented, they have substantive and nuanced political discussions, and they tend to have far more engaged and informed electorates.

In this teachable moment, we have an opportunity to learn valuable lessons.  We must, however, consider more than just the presidential election.  We must look closely at ourselves as members of a civilized democracy, and we must reflect.

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