Before he tumbled, Jeb Bush promised the Right to Rise. John Kasich wants you ready for a New Day for America, Marco Rubio looks further to A New American Century, and Donald Trump, of course, is pledging to Make American Great Again. Sloganitis extends to Democrats too: Martin O’Malley’s misbegotten campaign spoke of Generation Forward, while Bernie Sanders speaks of “political revolution.”
Almost everyone promises radical political reinvention, as if the hopelessly recalcitrant Congress would dissipate if he or she wished it so.
Consider Sanders, for example. Given that Congressional Republicans now deny the basic duty of the president to even nominate, with the advice of consent of the Senate rather than its deigning, a justice to the Supreme Court, what hope is there a Sanders administration could actually abolish college tuition? Or raise taxes on the rich, and doubly so upon the well-protected mavens of Wall Street? Or correct the Supreme Court on campaign finance through a constitutional amendment of all things?
Without an actual political revolution or realignment materializing at the behest of a socialist septuagenarian, Americans would relive the familiar duping of “hope and change.”
That’s not to say that the Obama presidency will be remembered as a failure—far from it. But his signature achievements, like the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, or the deal with Iran, came out a bit crooked, refracted through the prism of pessimism and partisanship. And at the same time, civil libertarians have much to be disappointed by—the first targeted killing of an American citizen without a trial, the disclosure of broad-sweeping surveillance programs, and the continued detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
But incrementalism—the kind endorsed by Hillary Clinton, whose essential campaign promise is to continue the Obama years—makes for much less tantalizing campaigns.
And in our hyperpolarized era, it might not even make sense. There are two basic ways that a candidate may gain votes through effective campaigning: either by convincing some voters to change their minds or encouraging the registered adults already partial to their cause to actually show up to the polls. Given that primary participation rates in the last presidential election hovered around 20 percent, it’s reasonable to assume that the turnout effect—the kind aroused by negative campaigning and stirring cries to break up the banks or deport illegal immigrants—is much more important than attempting to convince undecided voters.
In a hypothetical general election, a voter who decides to change his vote from Hillary Clinton to John Kasich—probably the two closest candidates across party lines left standing—would go from an outspoken advocate for abortion rights to a man who prides himself on defunding Planned Parenthood. From endorsing the Common Core to rejecting all federally mandated education standards. From supporting gun control to removing restrictions on concealed-carry licenses. All that is to say that the possibility seems marginal, and, further, the people on those margins would seem to be deeply confused about essentially everything anyway.
Mobilizing an electorate is not so easy. Donald Trump seems best at this sort of game, coming out with some brash statement, equal parts bombast and bluster, with hardly a sniff of substance that is duly rehashed over the airwaves and recounted in articles for the next several days. It seems that Trump is well on his way to the nomination by crowding out his rivals through sheer ridiculousness, through complete asphyxiation of the political arena. He has won the past three primaries, each accompanied by high, sometimes record-setting, turnouts.
We lionize this as the year of the outsider, but the real problem might be less fundamental. Though much remains for the establishment to fret about, it may just be that, these days, the silent and sullen majority stays home—dejected and demobilized, unenthused with the establishment but not wholeheartedly committed to its undoing.
And yet, were this dejection to yield a President Cruz or—and it really pains me to have to write the next three words—a President Trump, then the times really would be a changin’. We might not like that so much.
Idrees M. Kahloon ’16, a former Crimson editorial executive, is an applied math concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.