WASHINGTON, June 9, 2016 — The conventional wisdom is that ideological conservatives and liberals will face a lose-lose worse decision in November. If not for the most exciting conventions in the last 50-years, the Republican-Democrat matchup has come down to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Voters will have to pick one or the other: The Republican, non-conservative businessman who may be without an ideology. The self-proclaimed billionaire who seems to not be that good at business. Or there is the Democratic insider. A professional politician who is corporatist rather than liberal, an ethically challenged middle-manager reaching above her level of competence to be the leader of the free world.
For conservatives and liberals alike, the choice is nothing less than gruesome.
Victor Hanson refers to that matchup as a “Hobson’s choice”, the choice of taking what is available or nothing at all. The Atlantic assumed that scenario under the headline, “The Worst of All Worlds” and quoted voters who said things like, “I’ll vote for one or the other then go outside and throw up.”
According to Gallup, a majority of voters have negative views of both Clinton and Trump. Neither candidate is considered honest. Politifact finds Clinton more honest than Trump in statements about the economy or her opponents’ voting records (the relatively small sample of statements that they’ve tested); her statements are true or mostly true a staggering 50 percent of the time. Staggering because lying only half the time is now the standard of an honest politician.
However, when it comes to matters that could get her indicted, Clinton lies, and then lies some more. Her rule is never to admit anything, never to disclose anything. She learned during Watergate that Richard Nixon should have lied and destroyed the evidence. It is the rule of plausible deniability.
She won’t repeat Nixon’s mistakes. And, she will remind us, she lies less than Trump, but she can always be counted on for the big lie.
Politifact finds only 8 percent of Trump’s statements to be true or mostly true. In his defense we might say that Trump doesn’t have a well-defined sense of reality and seems to make it up as he goes along. Hence he doesn’t really lie; he engages in performance art.
In a sane world, the 2016 Presidential election would not happen. A candidate who lied as brazenly and as long as Clinton about things as important as her personal email server couldn’t be elected to the school board. She would never hold another position of trust. She would probably be under indictment. No one sane would give her another security clearance.
A man as crude and ignorant of the world as Trump would still be a reality TV star, putting his name on steaks, water and education scams and forever kept by sensible voters from holding public office.
Yet here we are. Either the voters are insane or politics are now insanity.
Is the world insane? Are the voters stupid? No. The conventional wisdom is wrong. The choice facing voters may be grim, but it’s far from gruesome and may not really be that difficult. And while many find the situation unpalatable, we aren’t here because voters are stupid.
We are here because they’re afraid.
The two candidates may be awful, but each is awful in his and her own way. If you know what you value, the choice is easy. It’s made easier by the fact that the choice isn’t binary. The November result will be either Trump or Clinton, but that’s not the choice presented to us.
Given the candidates’ net negative popularity, for most voters, the decision will come down to the “lesser of two evils.” They won’t vote for Trump, but against Clinton because while they dislike Clinton, they fear and despise Trump. This group is making decisions based on reasons that seem good to them, but the fact is that they plan to vote their fears, not their hopes. Voters will jump into bed with a troll in order to avoid an ogre.
They’ll worry about dealing with the troll once the ogre is dispatched. The questions is who do you see as the troll or the ogre.
This type of settling has been a hallmark of presidential politics for decades. People vote for a candidate who doesn’t please them in hopes of escaping the candidate who terrifies or disgusts them.
The result of a decision process like this is to ratchet down the quality of candidates. We choose bad to avoid worse, and next time around, bad doesn’t seem as bad as it did. But now we’re confronted with worse and awful, so we choose worse to avoid awful.
We jump into bed with Mr. Wrong, move onto Mr. Terrible, then wake up one morning with Baba Yaga because, well, troll. If we consistently vote our fears, we’ll eventually end up with our nightmares. If voters choose Clinton to avoid Trump, they’ll eventually find themselves in a situation where Trump is the lesser of two evils.
Mitt Romney would have been far less damaging to the country than Barack Obama has been.
There are a couple of reasons for this slide. First, we focus on shiny things (policy promises) rather than character. If a candidate checks all the right boxes, he has our vote, no matter what kind of man he is. Rather than asking whether the candidate will contribute to the health of our political process, we ask who will give us the goodies that we want.
We trade short-term policy gains for the long term health of our political system and culture, and forget that eventually those policy gains can be snatched away.
Consider the growth of executive power. Republicans and Democrats have focused for decades on pushing their policies by means of a powerful executive who will cajole, corral, and eventually work around Congress. They’ve tried to pack the courts with men and women who will reliably rule in a particular direction, running around the legislature.
If you’re a Democrat who approves of President Obama’s use of executive orders, how do you feel about that approach to governance in the hands of a Republican? How do you feel about that power in the hands of a Donald Trump? Are you certain that activist judges will always tilt “progressive”? What is easily won is easily lost; what is won by fiat can be taken by fiat.
If you like Trump’s promise to storm into Washington to get things done regardless of congressional opposition, how would you feel about Clinton making the same promise? By focusing on ends over means, we put in place means that can easily destroy our ends.
In the end, the most important legacy is the process by which change is affected, not the results that we got.
A second reason for the slide is a voting system that makes us feel captive to the two major parties. There are alternatives to Trump and Clinton in November. People will avoid them for fear of wasting their votes. “Voting my conscience is an expression of white privilege,” one liberal friend observed.
It means that her minority friends might be exposed to the horrors of a Trump presidency; voting according to conscience is a luxury she feels her friends can’t afford.
That assessment is rational, but it leaves us governed by our fears, not our hopes. The major parties have left us afraid to consider alternatives, and so we have a self-fulfilling prophecy of eternally weak, non-competitive third parties. The Green and Libertarian parties offer genuine alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans, but people who would love to see those parties in power always settle for less.
People who vote out of fear are trapped in a losing game, pressed into service as guards in their own prison, bending over and grabbing their ankles for one gang-leader so that he’ll protect them from another.
To break out of the game, voters could use help from their legislators to change the voting rules. That won’t happen; the legislators are Democrats and Republicans. But don’t they serve at our pleasure as our representatives?
This might be an excellent election to choose hope over fear. Perhaps Trump and Clinton are a Hobson’s choice after all, one we can change by choosing better. If you like Clinton, vote Clinton; if you like Trump, vote Trump; if you don’t like either, you’re in the majority, so why go willingly to give victory to the minority?