The death of the substantive election

Electoral politics is a bitter pill to swallow for many Americans, but for the policy wonks whose lives are in hammering out the minutiae on weighty issues like trade deficits, the raising of interest rates by the Federal Reserve and the merits of a value-added tax over the progressive income tax, accepting that such things are never going to be a part of main-stream political debate is especially trying.

This election- devoid of even the commonplace banalities, the lip-service paid to special interests and identity groups, which have come to define what passes for substance in national elections- is nothing short of an existential crisis. It is not just that ego has totally replaced substance in the candidates themselves and in their messages, but that the electorate seems perfectly willing to countenance this venial style of politics. There is a deeply troubling level of cognitive dissonance, unaddressed by the media, between the obsequiousness of Trump and Clinton and the extremely high levels of dissatisfaction with the culture of government which polling indicates exists in the nation.

Now, ego has a place in politics. The individual who is not secure in their talents has no business leading others. Besides, ego is an extension of the most natural instinct- survival. But there are two kinds of ego- the rational and the irrational. Irrational self-interest may serve the individual in the short-term, but it promotes a kind of binary thinking which does not serve the dynamism of long-term goals.

Take Trump, who can’t get his ego out of his own way long enough to hit Clinton on very obvious ties to the policy failures of the Obama administration, particularly in regards to the Middle East, or to her constant flip-flopping of position to reflect the popular opinion of the moment. Even with toss-up states unassigned, Real Clear Politics’ math has Clinton already over the 270 electoral votes needed to win, while statistical wunderkind Nate Silver’s election forecast has Clinton with an 86.9% chance of winning.

Polling is merely a snapshot of a group of surveyed individuals; it cannot be extrapolated to predict the behavior of a larger group and retain its validity. But it is a barometer of generalized attitudes.

What is significant is the perception that Trump’s inability to let slide the merest insult makes him unstable. While this may not ultimately translate to lost votes come election day, it does betray the importance of a candidate’s discretionary powers and ability to pursue long-term interest.

The substance of a candidate, be it in their character or their message, is in the values and ideas which they have espoused over the duration of their lives. Consistency, especially in the face of political pressures, speaks to temperament and discretion on the part of those who seek the highest-office.

Both Trump and Clinton lack a consistent record. It is not a coincidence that this is a campaign of epithets and fear-mongering rather than policy. There can be no substance where candidates pursue their own short-term interest in the forms of positions and power rather than adhere to the values and ideas which comprise the goals of long-term interest.


Also published on Medium.

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