WASHINGTON – “The most amazing thing about the 2016 elections,” Roger Porter of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government told me, “is that we are likely to elect someone who close to two-thirds of the country does not trust.”
The choice offered to Americans this November is the largest failure of the two-party system since (at least) the democratization of the primary process in 1968. Recent events have revealed a Democratic candidate who was dangerously careless in the conduct of her public duties, deceptive in her own defense and secure in the (correct) assumption of impunity.
The Republican candidate is one of the few politicians in America capable of making Hillary Clinton appear sympathetic on the worst day of her campaign. Donald Trump – again falling off the teleprompter wagon – accused the attorney general of bribery, obsessively defended an anti-Semitic meme and praised the late Saddam Hussein for being “really good at killing terrorists.” On the evidence of Halabja, Hussein was also really good at killing women and children with mustard gas, sarin, tabun and VX. “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas,” Trump mocked in December, “everyone goes crazy, ‘Oh, he’s using gas!'”
Just to be clear: Any leader who makes light of the largest chemical weapons attack on civilians in history – which, among other horrors, sent children into convulsions and respiratory failure – has a moral screw loose, a sickness of the soul. Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus, meet the man you have endorsed.
So these are the options offered by the main parties: two of the least popular, least trusted politicians our country has recently produced. Isn’t this the exact opposite of what political parties – designed, presumably, to win elections – are supposed to do?
Is this, perhaps, a failure of the system we use to select candidates? The 2016 nomination process was a controlled experiment that undermined this hypothesis. In the Republican Party, the establishment lost. In the Democratic Party, the establishment won. Both organizations still failed at their primary mission: picking a candidate of strong character and broad experience with an informed and compelling vision of the common good.
If it is not the system that is at fault, it must be a trait or temper of mind found in the electorate. Every political commentator has become an amateur sociologist, trying to explain how rapid economic, social and cultural change has resulted in a populist backlash against elites. Professor Porter – who is a respected professional in such matters – cites a lack of sustained economic growth, the dislocations of globalization, increasing inequality of wealth and the frightening messiness of foreign affairs.
The overall result, Porter says, is a “rise in cynicism and resentment.” The resentment is natural, and is likely over time to change the policy profile of both parties. But cynicism is not always tied to resentment. William Jennings Bryan embodied an idealistic populism. Following the Watergate scandal, voters turned to the squeaky clean Jimmy Carter.
Cynicism is more dangerous to democracy than outrage. Cynicism pretends to a kind of sophisticated, insider knowledge of institutional corruption. It says: I can see, even if you can’t, how the whole ball of wax – politics, economics, religion – is rigged in favor of capitalist economic elites, or liberal social elites, or both. “We have a crooked system,” Trump has said, “we have a rigged system.” Since no one wants to appear the fool, cynicism is infectious. Many Americans feel exploited but believe that politicians who offer idealistic answers are frauds.
This perspective dramatically reduces the aspirations of politics – setting the ethical bar lower than we would for almost any other profession. Democrats know their candidate is not trusted, but at least she is a fighter who understands the vast conspiracy set against her. Republicans know their candidate is a world-class cynic, but at least he can get down in the dirt with the Clintons, lie for lie, threat for threat.
But there are other effects as the toxic cloud of cynicism settles over American politics. No matter who wins, the other side will view the victor as illegitimate – an unindicted criminal or a loopy bigot. The winner will find that a cynical public coheres like dry sand. It will be accordingly difficult to rally the whole country around hard or dangerous national goals. And a great country will continue to be crippled by its politics.
The worst hell of despair is believing that hope itself is a racket.
Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.