The election that forgot about the future
There are lots of reasons to find the 2016 election depressing. The two main protagonists are so deeply unpopular they seem like the only figures their parties could have produced who could lose to one another. One has pioneered the do-gooder's grift, becoming rich while running a charity in exchange for influence. The other is an egoist and oaf who rarely completes a sentence if it is more complicated than, "I'm going to knock the hell out of 'em." One campaign tells us that China and the Middle East are laughing at us and manipulating us. The other tells us that Russia is subverting our whole democracy.
America used to be obsessed with the future. But, perhaps predictably in a campaign led by two baby boomers, this campaign has been about the past. Trump promises to restore America to the post-war status it had, teeming with productive factories that produce the best goods in the world, and create the largest and most secure middle class. It's a vision where average men can provide for a family, and with a little prudence, get a little lake house for the summer. We'll win wars, like we used to do. We'll get richer, like we used to do.
Hillary Clinton's campaign also invokes this same exact past, as a source of fear. Giving in to Donald Trump risks losing the gains made in the last 50 years in civil rights. "It is important that we not reverse marriage equality, that we not reverse Roe v. Wade," she says. One of the major reasons that Clinton's campaign fails to excite her supporters is that it's ambitions are so limited. Eight years ago, liberals were imagining Obama would usher in a post-racial America, and even turn back the rising tide of the seas. Clinton's vision of the American future is continuity with the recent past. She wants to protect the welfare state from Republican hands, and just tweak its benefit structures.
The implicit message of the Clinton campaign is that there is no major political innovation to be had. Just let idealistic liberals tweak the policy nobs by a few microns this way or that. It's a stunning thing, really, that America in 2016 should have substantially the same kind of redistributive state it has had since the 1930s and 1960s, with a few tweaks for health care, and maybe a paid family leave on top. We can barely get a suggestive future-sounding slogan. Where is John F. Kennedy's brave "New Frontier," or even George H.W. Bush's "Thousand Points of Light"?
Our politics have ceded the future to the market and Silicon Valley. The question of social organization, presumably, has been mostly solved by the wonks. Liberal democracies are increasingly convinced that there is no innovation in political thinking allowed. We simply adjust the levers of policy at appropriate times, and focus on atoning for past sins. The global elite is converging on economic integration, low trade barriers, universal benefits, light regulation, and the cultivation of a global class of politicians and plutocrats who socialize and groom each other and their children for continued benevolent rule. Sometimes, in their darker moments, they cede the future to China, thinking that some kind of autocratic capitalism might produce better trains and faster growing cities.
And again, this is not surprising, Two baby boomer candidates were almost always going to settle into the two default positions. One would represent those who felt they lost something of the vim and promise of their youth. And another would naturally represent those who are mostly satisfied with the work their generation has done, who generally admire the distribution of rewards in our society, but wouldn't mind more credit themselves.
A normal age would produce a culture of letters that recognizes this for what it is: exhaustion on a deep level.
Our politics are obsessed with the past because we aren't invested in the future the way a normal society should be. So we hardly imagine what we might build. We live on credit in the somewhat secure knowledge that our creditors can't collect even if they were to rob our graves. Like the Clintons, our elites live with dual incomes and one kid. And we search for ways to do good, when the getting's good for us too. Like Donald Trump, we're hoping to stick some nameless others with our moral and financial debt.
This pattern of life — a life oriented to no future at all — will end soon, because it is unsustainable. And because, if we can bear to look, it disgusts us.