This campaign year has been full of twists and turns. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone on November 8. So talking about what comes afterward seems premature. But it’s been on my mind a lot, because I’m worried.
This is not about who wins the presidency. I’m concerned about the aftermath of this campaign season and how hard it’s going to be for our next set of elected officials, from the President on down, to govern.
Let’s start with the belief expressed by a lot of people — including some candidates — that the system is “rigged.” This is a perilous way to treat the country’s political system; it sows distrust in future election results, de-legitimizes winners, and undermines the government’s credibility. If the charge takes hold, it will put political stability at risk.
We all have criticisms to make of the system. We know it doesn’t work perfectly and that there’s no shortage of challenges the nation needs to address. But to convey the impression that the whole system is rigged is dangerous and risky. Without a basic foundation of trust, representative government crumbles.
Instead of taking aim at “the system,” we could instead focus our criticism on a more substantive target: politicians, including the two presidential candidates, who have failed to serve us well in their debate on the economy.
Much of the debate has revolved around immigration, trade, and other issues of the moment. These are not unimportant, but they’re not the heart of the matter. The real issue — the one that politicians have proffered few solutions for — is that the economy is not working for most people. True, there’s been some improvement in the lot of middle-income earners, but the fundamental issue that economists of all stripes have been warning us about remains. This is that we face significant structural problems, driven not so much by foreign competition and immigrant workers, but by advancing technology and globalization.
Our real economic challenge, in other words, is how to provide meaningful work and good wages to tens of millions of clerks, accountants, factory workers and service providers whose jobs are disappearing because of robots, machine learning, and other irreversible changes in how work is accomplished.
Politicians need to place much more emphasis on economic growth, which is the key that unlocks many doors and is the preferred course to ease the anxiety and cynicism abroad in the country. Growth should be the central aim of economic policy, and how to achieve it should be the focus of the policy debate.
The problem is, this election isn’t providing us with a substantial policy debate. We’ve heard plenty about personality, vision, and the alleged dirty dealing of people on the other side. Serious debate about policy approaches has been replaced by sound bites signifying… well, not very much.
Indeed, if anything characterizes this election, it’s the politics of personal destruction. Demonizing the opponent has become the central concern of many campaigns, up and down the political ladder. This approach is toxic for democratic institutions and political culture. We have to be able to disagree in this country on matters of great import and controversy without tearing into and trying to destroy the opposition.
We have always had — and should have — vigorous partisanship. But today, politicians prefer hunkering down with their fellow believers and party members and circling the wagons. This makes it very hard to get negotiations going, which is the only way to make the system work.
All of this — the attacks on the system, the lack of meaningful debate about improving Americans’ economic future, the generally substance-free nature of the campaign, the politics of demonization — will make it very hard for whoever wins office to govern well. The anger, frustration, cynicism and outright pessimism that we’re seeing in this election cycle will not miraculously dissipate on Election Day.
It used to be that when a president came into office, a substantial majority of the American people gave him the benefit of the doubt, and with it an extended period in which to get things done. I don’t believe that’s going to happen after this election. And all Americans will be worse off as a result.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.