To my current high school and university students voting for the first time:
I’m sorry. Really, I am.
Most presidential elections aren’t like this.
I admit my first voting experience in a presidential race wasn’t the most exciting contest of all time. It was 1996 and the economy was starting to boom. America was chronologically nudged between the twilight of the Cold War and the dawn of global Islamic terrorism. In 1996, no one had heard of Osama Bin Laden unless you were an aficionado of the Soviet-Afghanistan conflict and were well versed in the leadership of the mujahadeen.
Likewise, no one had ever heard the name Monica Lewinsky. That particular delight for the body politic was a ticking time bomb when the presidential election was held in November of 1996. Bob Dole was an American hero and a thoroughly decent man who never stood a chance against the political acumen of Bill Clinton and the wizardry of his campaign, meticulously celebrating the power of incremental public policy reform.
By 2000, I was a classroom teacher and the students were riveted by the one-month soap opera that ensued in the wake of election night. In 2004, everyone knew the election would be close. Conventional Republicans and Democrats rooted hard for George W. Bush and John Kerry, never doubting that their own candidate was the better man of the two. The election of 2008 ushered in the greatest fantasia of optimism (for some) and hubris (for others) ever witnessed in my lifetime. But whatever your politics, the nation was clearly a place that still believed in genuine inspiration and the potential to overcome historic division and resentments. Back then we didn’t sneer at words like “hope” or “change.” It was a time that was more “West Wing” than “House of Cards.” By 2012, Americans were either passionately ready to pivot from the oratorical beauty of Barack Obama or believed his stewardship of the nation was only half done.
Today is different. Everyone just wants to move on from this election. The feeling of the electorate and in your young eyes in late October is similar to how one feels with the onset of a head cold: we know there is suffering that lies ahead and we also know it won’t be going away for a while.
I feel bad for all of you. I fear you will always remember this election as the ultimate introduction to the world of American presidential politics, a world that can genuinely rivet and inspire, inform and edify. But this election cycle seem to be the inverse of Lincoln’s notion of “appealing to the better angels of our nature.” Instead, America has chosen as its finalists two of the most unsavory and reviled characters in the tapestry of modern day America.
What is interesting is that the guttural repulsion of the electorate is neither surprising nor interesting.
Sure, there were moments when people thought Hillary Clinton would elevate her campaign into something resembling a genuine vision for the country, forcing her to temporarily camouflage her Machiavellian methods and Nixonian monomania for personal power and self-adulation. But no. Hers is a campaign that is equally joyless and prosaic.
For a few fleeting weeks in September, Donald Trump seemed to embody the discipline of a candidate who actually wanted to win this election. Briefly it appeared that maybe the Trump cheerleaders and Trump sycophants were right: Donald Trump was a modern Reagan. The country wanted change and simply needed to confirm that Trump was emotionally and personally up to the job.
But then he had to debate his opponent and admit he paid no taxes, made excuses for his “locker room talk,” and never really reassured the American people that he deserves to be the single most powerful human being walking the planet in an era of intense economic and security complexity and anxiety.
It’s not just that we don’t like either of our options. It’s that deep down in our American DNA we know neither of them is worthy of the power, the office, or the opportunity to bind the present generation to both America’s extraordinary past and its even-greater potential future. While I bemoan our cultural and national obsession with the American presidency (it is, after all, Congress that writes the laws and the budgets, and it is our collective culture that paints the modern picture of “We The People”), there is no denying our instinctive hope that the human being presiding in the oval office is a person endowed with heroic qualities, what Alexander Hamilton described as a person with a “continental reputation,” someone with the mettle of Achilles and the moral fiber of Cato, the judgment of Salon and the eloquence of Demosthenes.
And while we know our presidents are cut from the same human and flawed cloth as the rest of us, we also know that it is the American presidents of the past who have often changed our world for the better.
Washington who paved a road that reconciled enlightened republicanism with the need for strong executive leadership.
Jefferson who gave voice to the animating principles upon which our civilization is entirely based.
Lincoln who married the “self-evident” and rational truths of the Declaration of Independence with the romantic longing to make them a living reality for every American regardless of the accident of her birth, for it is this president who understood the need for every American to listen to “the mystic chords of memory” from our collective past.
Theodore Roosevelt whose love of the “strenuous life” was merely a microcosm of America’s industrial might and potential to affect the geopolitical balance of the planet for the better.
Ronald Reagan who believed that freedom is not incidental to culture but sewn into the fabric of the entire human family and that it is liberty’s labor that gives life its vigor and meaning.
In the midst of the trivial and the pedantic, i.e. the headlines of the election of 2016, it is easy to forget that our destiny is unbounded and unformed, slowly etched by the manner in which we exercise our power.
For America is more than its creed, more than its natural resources, more than even its founding documents. America is the tale of a society in quest of that which is forever elusive and yet within our grasp, the hymn that is sung by the political sirens of every age, the highest and most laudatory of human aspirations: human Justice. No that is not a typo—capital “J” Justice—the Justice of both the furies and the fates, the Justice of Plato and Publius, the Justice that must be renewed in every American generation.
Presidents lead nations but they can never save the nation. Only the people, the demos, can do that.
Please remember this the next time you are tempted to either coronate a candidate or elevate a celebrity. If you do, I promise 2020 will be better!