Historically Americans have complained that elections offer little real choice between presidential candidates or policies. Democrats and Republicans look much alike, act much alike and govern much alike. A choice between “Frick” and “Frack” is no choice at all.
But there is a profound paradox in this complaint. While touting more and better choices, Americans have consistently eschewed radical change, preferring their presidential politics, political candidates, and political decisions bite size. Small differences between the major parties, tiny distinctions between the major candidates and – most important of all – slow change in the basic direction of policy change has been the hallmark of American government and politics for more than two centuries.
For some time political scientists have pointed to this phenomena often describing it as “incrementalism,” to explain the inevitable and natural result of our federal form of government. The separation of powers structured into American government together with multiple layers of checks and balances makes incremental-style compromise, bargaining and moderate politics the default option of the political process.
But sometimes though that default model has failed, turning the country’s politics ominously toward a much more polarizing ideological bent.
The extreme example of this was the presidential election of 1860, which plunged the nation into a civil war. Slavery, the political issue of the day, could not be settled by the ballot and was not settled until the nation went through more than four years of bitter war.
Happily other failures of incrementalism and moderate politics have produced less traumatic problems. In 1932, responding to the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal, the greatest expansion of the federal government. More recently, the best example is the election of 1964 when the staunchly conservative Barry Goldwater was nominated by Republicans to face liberal President Lyndon Johnson.
The Goldwater campaign adopted as its theme “A Choice, Not an Echo,” emphasizing that the American people were being offered a real choice between candidates, parties and policies. Indeed, they were, a choice voters made giving a landslide victory (61 percent of the popular vote and 44 states) to Lyndon Johnson.
Many concluded the Goldwater debacle proved that ideological politics and candidates are unwinnable in American presidential elections. They were wrong. Less than 20 years later, the conservative Ronald Reagan won over incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter, taking 44 states and a majority of the popular vote in a three-way race.
What does any of this tell us about the 2016 presidential race now getting underway?
First, this race features two of the most unpopular candidates in American history. Both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton are more unpopular than they are popular. More people dislike both of them than like either of them.
Second, many voters will hold their nose with one hand while pulling the lever with the other. Many will make their choice because they dislike the other choice even more. And whoever is elected will almost certainly be the most unpopular president-elect in modern American history.
The 2016 candidates each have their own unique set of electoral problems, problems that would end almost any candidacy in any previous American election. Clinton is seen as aloof, and has not connected with the electorate. Many voters neither trust nor like her. Moreover, after a quarter century in national politics she has become an indelible symbol of the hated “establishment.” Still, in an abrupt change, she is running as a change agent with a progressive agenda.
Trump is even more unpopular. Many view him as racist, sexist, and misogynist. His ignorance of government is palpable. Moreover, he portrays the country in apocalyptic terms, lacking any sense that the future will be better – or that he has any idea how to make it better. Almost nothing Trump has said provides any clue about how specifically he would solve the myriad problems he raises. But, he is running as the quintessential anti-establishment candidate at a time when the people show record disenchantment with politics as usual.
Together Clinton and Trump offer the American people a classic choice between the devil and the deep blue sea – between the candidate you dislike and the candidate you dislike more. Yet someone will win this election.
And this we will live with for at least the next four years.
We wished for real choices. We got them!
We wished for real change. We are getting that!
We wished to end politics as usual. That is happening!
Maybe we should have been more careful for what we wished for.
We shall see.