The last hurrah of summer has come and gone and now like magic we’re supposed to transition back to work and school mode. We note that the crossing guards are back and stores have switched their displays from Back To School to Halloween, yet our hearts and minds still yearn for just one more moment of yesterday. But this year, in addition, we are expected to focus on the Presidential campaign. Labor Day, the traditional kick-off to the political season, begins the process through which we attempt to assess the candidates and they begin to assess who we are and what we want. That is a true challenge during this cycle. It appears that “we” have changed and it is clear that the candidates , other than Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, really haven’t figured out who “we” are yet. The polls and crowds are telling us that it isn’t “business as usual”.
For many years we have been told, and polls have proven, that we are an extremely polarized nation. The split between right and left is almost right down the middle. On issues such as pay equity, gun control, education, climate change, healthcare and trade we are at odds with each other. That is nothing new. Fundamental within each of these issues is the question of what role government should play in our lives. The right has traditionally sought smaller government while the left has looked for a larger government role. We have been seeing this for decades. Yet, when the Presidential candidates are selected to represent each party they have tended to move towards the center from their original starting point on either the right or the left. While they make superficial attempts at soothing the concerns of their party faithful, the truth is in the ultimate result. Government grew at an alarming rate under George W. Bush while it has shrunk under Barack Obama. In each case, promises made during the heat of the campaign have been left unfulfilled. Certainly, in both cases one can look at unforeseen extenuating circumstances for the reason. A new President can’t possibly appreciate all of the factors that go into creating his priorities until he is sitting in the Oval Office. Of course in Bush’s case he created his own problems by listening to bad advice and attacking Iraq. Has the huge gap between promise and reality finally sunk in and created a very cynical electorate? So what is this telling us about, who are “we” and what are “we” looking for?
The current polls are telling us some interesting things about ourselves. First, the traditional right/left divide related to selecting a presidential candidate is not as clear as it used to be. Neither Sanders nor Trump are espousing smaller government. Sanders is espousing a more caring, connected and compassionate government. Trump, through all of his ridiculous and often offensive bluster is espousing a smarter government. The names at the top of the GOP polls are all individuals who come from outside of government with no electoral experience. It seems that the “we” in the GOP is saying loud and clear, at least at this moment, politicians we don’t trust you, we don’t want you, go away. The “we” on the Democratic side are saying, at least it’s trending this way, don’t tell us what’s inevitable, we’ll tell you who and what we want.
Certainly it is early. After all, we just got through Labor Day. But those who have been engaged on the electorate side of the equation are not buying the traditional rules or the traditional ideological labels. There is an assertive cynicism at play here, and it just might end up turning the process and the results on their head.