2016 has gotten off to a depressing start. Our stock market, following the lead of Chinese and others, had its worst ever opening weeks. The Middle East remains in turmoil and, as Chemi Shalev writes in Haaretz, the Netanyahu government has introduced legislation that directly threatens Israel’s long admired democracy. Europeans meanwhile are struggling with an influx of refugees, the reaction to which may undermine a EU that boasts, and may depend on, open borders. But awaiting the first voting in Iowa, nothing depresses me more than the current presidential contest. This is our election of anxiety and discontent.
Sarah Palin’s endorsement rant only underscored how disconcerting the candidacy of Donald Trump — and how natural their pairing. Fellow senators it seems fault Ted Cruz especially for being an unabashed egotist. Isn’t that the Donald’s domain? And then comes word that Michael Bloomberg is seriously considering a run at buying the presidency much as he effectively did three times the mayoralty in New York. Bloomberg is purported ready to spend $1 Billion of his own money on such an effort. Who does he think he is…a Koch?
Not surprisingly, I found the president’s final State of the Union bittersweet. Watching it, I just couldn’t stop thinking that there is no Barack Obama — no one of his special talents or intellect — running in ’16. For all the young people gathering at his rallies and despite an idealized liberal message, Sanders is no Obama. Hillary Clinton, whom I support because she is both experienced and qualified, has yet to fire us up, to evoke the passion for which we yearn. But what adds most to my own unrest is that she is the only candidate in either party who is ready to take on the very complex and difficult job of being president from day one. Indeed, I find the prospect that any one of the GOP candidates would sit in the Oval Office no less that frightening. That lack of viable choice isn’t good for the country.
Part of what’s so depressing is that there is absolutely no joy on the campaign trail. Indeed, it is anxiety and discontent that rule across the land. If that were not bad enough, Republican candidates especially seem bent on magnifying and enflaming our national unease. In his first inaugural Franklin Roosevelt famously declared, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror….” It’s a message that still resonates more than eight decades on. It could be credibly delivered in 2016, but it’s not. Instead, as the columnist Roger Cohen recently put it, this is a time when, “fear is a much-trafficked commodity.” Listen to these candidates and you’ll see that traffic coming at us fast and furious.
FDR was right about exaggerated fear but, as when he took the oath in 1933, there is good reason for the unease that prevails today. Bernie Sanders surely isn’t purposefully fomenting fear, but his shrill one-dimensional economic focused message taps specifically into a widespread anxiety. Despite upbeat statistics, the recovery has yet to be felt on the ground across the land. It isn’t only the widening gulf between the super rich and everyone else, or income inequality per se. It’s that most Americans — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — are losing ground in real terms. Inflation may be moderate and interest rates low, but family income has either stalled or even declined. All too often the new jobs — and there are millions of them — pay less than old ones. Republicans don’t talk much about income inequality but there’s no doubt that the rise of the so-called “outsiders” in this election cycle reflects in part the same economic insecurity among their constituents. I put outsiders in quotes because no one running for the presidency is truly an outsider, certainly not real estate developer Trump or the decades long senator Sanders. Ted Cruz, a product of Princeton and Harvard, is married to a Goldman executive. How much more insider could you be?
If it weren’t bad enough that people are falling behind economically, many see themselves losing ground politically as well. White Christians, many of whom identify as Republicans, look into the future and see their majority status, and consequently their power, eroding. It hasn’t really happened yet, but they know what’s coming and it unnerves them —makes them frantic. That explains why they are digging in and working so hard to turn the clock back, reverse progress wherever they rule. Consider what’s happened in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and here in North Carolina where I live. Changing demographics and the coming rule of a much more open-minded generation may time limit these regressions, but that doesn’t make them less meaningful or painful in the present.
If Republicans are protectively digging in, the naturally Democratic constituency is equally discomforted. They see a systematic attack on the trade unions that have been essential to middle class life, along with blatant gerrymandering making a mockery of one-person-one-vote. If playing with districts were not enough, voter suppression is on the rise, especially (but not exclusively) in former confederate states. While those aging white voters might fear the future, the soon to be majority are living a frustrating present. The hard won gains of the Civil Rights movement, especially its protection of voting rights, are, with help from the Supreme Court, being undermined and reversed. That adds to both anger and unease. For different reasons, both sides are subject to the same emotion.
Finally there is the fear, again opportunistically hyped, of "terrorism" abroad and most especially when it touches the “homeland”. The attacks in Paris and in California have set people on edge. That ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States doesn’t mean that their violent attacks — construed to insight terror — aren’t raising the level of fear. Ironically, the sponsors of this violence are effectively partnering with rightist politicians in promoting fear for their own, albeit different, purposes. ISIS is a sophisticated manipulator of modern media while pretenders to public office stoke anxiety on the stump.
As primary voting gets underway, much of the hype, speculation and pontification will be replaced by results — right. Lots of spin will follow. The campaigns and talking heads will tell us what we have seen and what it means. They will continue to insult our intelligence. Projections will be made and the horse race drama will gain new momentum. One thing is unlikely to change. This will continue to be an election of real and carefully promoted anxiety and discontent. The only thing that might change that is if candidates stop playing on our fears and start seriously addressing them. At this point, I’m not optimistic, which is what I find so depressing.