The election we are not having

The presidential election is a critical element of our American representative democracy.
October 5, 2016

The presidential election is a critical element of our American representative democracy. We are a republic, not a pure democracy. Most decisions are made by our elected representatives. They steer the ship of state. We, the public, don’t pay a great deal of attention to most of the elections that put them in office, or remove them from those same offices — whether for Congress or for state and local offices.

But we do pay attention once every four years to the presidential election. Turnout skyrockets, and everybody talks about the campaign. It’s our one true chance to affect the ship of state, to select a captain and to provide popular guidance for the direction our ship will take. And usually the election provides, in a very rough way, a competing set of directions from which to choose, along with the critical choice of the person who will steer. Often the simplest way to decide is to consider whether the direction set by the current administration is working fine, should be amended or should be reversed.

That is, until this year.

In 2016, one candidate, Donald Trump, has so enveloped and dominated the race that the normal functioning of the presidential election has been seriously clouded. Both Trump and Hillary Clinton have an interest in the election being conducted that way. Trump has only one speed, and it’s all about him. As long as he is steering the ship, he says, all will be well no matter where we are headed. For Clinton, Trump’s liabilities as a candidate have elevated to center stage her argument that he is unfit to hold the captain’s chair. 

She may have a chance at turning into a winning argument Michael Dukakis’ failed 1988 campaign pitch: that this election is not about ideology (aka direction) but about competence, given that she is running against a person with no political experience and massive weaknesses, whereas Dukakis was facing an experienced, sitting vice president, George H.W. Bush. And Bush, remember, proposed to carry out the popular policies of Ronald Reagan, even as he sent a subtle message that he would carve out his own, more moderate path that would lead to “a kinder, gentler” America.

Clinton’s calculations make practical sense. Trump can’t be anything other than who he is, and the candidates’ side-by-side fitness calculation may well win the race for Clinton.

But if you want a clue to why so many millennials seem to have tuned out much of the election news, why they think the race doesn’t really matter, that the two candidates aren’t much different from each other, and are leaning toward throwing away their votes on third and fourth candidates, we should consider the limitations for our democracy of the framing of this election. After all, these younger voters have grown up in an era of an exploding celebrity culture in which bad behavior by famous people is not nearly as shocking as it used to be. 

So, what’s at stake? For the Jewish community, in particular, there are important issues that need to be addressed during the campaign.

The first presidential debate did introduce some important direction issues, such as tax cuts as a means to generate jobs, a brief mention of the Iran deal and matters of race and policing. But the discussion of the issues passed a little too quickly, with the candidates referring us to their websites for more detail. 

Here’s what I would like to hear the candidates address in the coming debates:

1. What is your assessment of the Barack Obama presidency? Do you favor continuing the policies Obama has pursued or implemented? Even in those cases where you generally favor the president’s policies, are there ways in which you would chart a different course?

2. Do you believe that climate change is man-made? If so, what policies do you favor to deal with climate change? Do you favor the Paris agreement on climate change, and if not, would you withdraw from it if you are elected?

3. The Supreme Court is now divided 4-4. If you become president and choose the ninth justice, who would offer the fifth and deciding vote on many issues, are there any decisions made by the previous full court that you hope to reverse? Specifically, would you favor a different direction on voting rights? Or on Roe v. Wade?

4. The United States recently reached an agreement to send a large package of military aid to Israel. What is your assessment of this package and of Israel’s strategic relationship to the United States? What is your opinion of the movement, including on some college campuses, to divest from Israel?

5. The Iran agreement has been a source of disagreement. Do you intend to maintain, reverse or amend the agreement? 

6. Do you favor or oppose voter ID laws that have now been adopted in a number of states? 

I could go on, but I’d rather return to my original point, which is that even though the election is likely to end up as a referendum on the comparative fitness of the two leading candidates to captain our ship, it is imperative that we keep our eyes on the ship’s direction. It will be four more long years before we get another chance.

RAPHAEL J. SONENSHEIN is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A. 

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