Right or left, it doesn’t matter. One of the few things we can all agree on is we live in a political climate no sane person would consider ideal. The favorability ratings of both major candidates are at a historic low. Our sitting president, as of today’s polling, will most likely leave office with a 50% or so approval rating, as ironic as it is accurate about how polarizing his time in office has been for the populace. When it comes to the legislative branch, the most common complaint is they can’t or won’t get what they need to done. Basically, if you’re an American in 2016, you’re probably dissatisfied in some way, and I’m right there with you.
Still, there’s a particularly insidious way of thinking presenting itself through a lot of avenues this year. It’s merely implicit for some but a consistent and unapologetic way of thinking for others.
Here’s the idea:
This is an unprecedentedly bad time in American history. Maybe even the worst.
For some, the Obama or Bush years or what’s to come with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is proof this country’s going to hell in a handbasket. You won’t find that many people saying this is the worst time, but it’s still in the air whenever anyone says things like “I thought we’d gotten past this,” “Things will never change,” or “They’re all crooks.”
You’re not alone if you think like this. Slate, The Huffington Post, and The Atlantic think it too. Those who registered Democrat to vote for Bernie Sanders are pretty unlikely to support Hillary Clinton. A number of prominent Republicans aren’t going to vote for their own nominee and a lot of those who will are going to drag their feet to the polling place the same as you and me.
Is this bad? Certainly. Is it the worst? No, definitely not. If you think it is, here’s a handy list of questions worth asking yourself to discern if we are really at the verge of the apocalypse.
1. Is Donald Trump the worst candidate in history?
First off, let’s realize just why Donald Trump looks as bad as he does. It’s precisely because this country has been on an upward and progressive trajectory through the years. Donald Trump is calling for mass deportations of illegal immigrants and bans on Muslims entering the country. He says implicitly or explicitly racist, misogynistic and otherwise boorish things. He’s very offensive, and he makes us look bad. The sad thing, though, is his entire platform isn’t that out of step with the American presidency through the ages.
John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, calling for deportations and restrictions against immigrants as well as strict laws fettering freedom of the press (sound familiar?), and his life is considered worthy of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography and miniseries. Andrew Jackson committed genocide and he was on the twenty dollar bill for years. The revered Teddy Roosevelt and Donald Trump both gave meaning to the phrase “bully pulpit” and share more similarities than many would like to admit. FDR palled around with Joseph Stalin, remained mum on anti-lynching legislation and interned more than 100,000 Japanese Americans. These are just some of the big names. This isn’t to excuse Trump’s own offensive and regressive statements, just to put into perspective he’s uncomfortably similar to some “American heroes” and, as of now, has less blood on his hands than some of our favorites. Many people of color and religious minorities will tell you that Trump’s speech may be brazen and horrifying, but it’s far from unique in American culture or even American politics.
Truth be told, we’re fortunate to live at a time where a candidate like Trump is considered a bizarre-as-all-hell anomaly, given his sort of thinking was accepted as a given for so long. When it comes to discriminatory immigration policies, the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented people from immigrating and working in the United States from 1882 to 1943. The initial act expired after ten years, meaning it had to be continually renewed during that period. In other words, you had a Congressional majority of Trumpist thinkers for over fifty years when it came to immigration. This is, of course, one of the bolder examples of discrimination in immigration but far from being the only one.
If your problem has predominately to do with Trump’s bigotry, you are wholly justified. His statements are inflammatory, off-base and unbecoming of a presidential candidate in 2016. However, it’s important to remember this kind of thinking was upheld as law by a majority of lawmakers and voters for decades upon decades, even centuries upon centuries. You need a lot of Trumps to get Trump’s work done. His success is alarming, but the fact it’s alarming to so many is a small comfort.
To live in an era where this kind of behavior gets as strong of a backlash from within his own party, not to mention the alternative party and the media in general, is a Xanax prescription in a panicked time. Even if he did win the presidency, his ideas are thought to be, by and large, backward by a significant part of the population. The younger generation thinks he’s a joke and a majority of people, albeit an alarmingly small one, think he’s racist.
In other words, President Trump would be terrible. Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to say so, he’s not the worst of all time. In fact, he’s startlingly similar to presidents who enjoy retroactive praise for their progressive viewpoints in other arenas. But, if history is any indicator, we’d make it through his time in office (whether or not the party that supported him would is another question). The far more disconcerting question is, once he’s defeated (which he, in all likelihood, will be) what will become of his supporters?
2. Is Hillary Clinton the Worst Candidate in History?
Hillary Clinton is subject to many valid critiques. There are, of course, the totally invalid ones as well: that her husband’s actions are somehow her fault or indicative of her own character, that she cannot govern simply because she’s a woman, that her pantsuit was too matchy with Elizabeth Warren’s, that her speaking patterns are somehow more worthy of criticism than her male counterparts, and so on. In other words, Clinton has to deal with a lot simply because she’s a woman, and it’s very unfair.
But then there are the other things. These are the things driving people who are hopeful they’ll be alive when the USA elects its first female president who isn’t Hillary Clinton. By now, we all know the role sheet of her transgressions: the emails, Benghazi, her hawkish war stances, her pandering to all sides, her close relationship with Wall Street, etc.
There are plenty of people, though, thinking these things somehow distinguish her as a particularly disastrous candidate. It’s not just that Hillary Clinton is a lying politician, it’s that she’s the worst liar. It’s not just that she compromises her ideology for corporate and other interests, it’s that she’s so inconsistent that no one could ever dream of taking her seriously. It’s not just that she’s inept, it’s that she’d tank the country. It’s not just that she mishandled Benghazi, it’s that she’s directly responsible for the deaths of American soldiers. It’s not that she’s a Democrat, it’s that she’s the devil.
To boil it down even further, Clinton is considered to be so morally reprehensible by some that she’s not just the lesser or greater of two evils, she’s evil incarnate.
Once again, as with Trump, Hillary Clinton is a bad candidate. As a Senator, she voted for the War in Iraq and backed the Patriot Act. As Secretary of State, she insisted NATO topple Qaddafi’s regime in Libya and now ISIS has taken it over. She’s a huge fan and good friend of one of the most warmongering politicians in American history, Henry Kissinger. The list goes on, and I wish it wouldn’t.
To counter all this, though, it’s worth remembering Hillary Clinton’s statements generally come off as more true than false, she travelled for her negotiations more than any Secretary of State in history and has as much of a record advocating for children and women in need as she does for any of her less appealing characteristics. Where our current Secretary of State John Kerry was voted last by a host of International Relations scholars on effectivity in the position, Clinton tied with Madeleine Albright for fourth.
Moreover, to level many criticisms against Hillary Clinton is to level them against the political establishment itself. She’s become a proxy, a scapegoat, upon whom complaints about the entire status quo can rest. Even if she isn’t pronounced guilty, there’s a way to connect the dots to her being implicated somehow. For what it’s worth though, few and far between would be the politicians who aren’t being criticized by extension when complaints are vocalized against Clinton explicitly.
While Trump is proof we still have a long way to go in eradicating bigotry from the country, Clinton is proof we still have a long way to go in reforming Washington D.C. But the amount of unfavorability Clinton faces suggests her plug-along-the-way-we-have politics are on the decline. Not to mention, for every Lincoln or FDR who really changes things up and guides the country through a crisis, there are more presidents lost to history for their commitment to the same sort of political game playing Clinton is.
3. Is the Current Congress the Worst in History?
Okay, it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. This time, there’s no need for qualification, there’s no need to say things aren’t as bad as they could be. This Congress, by all estimation, truly is one of the worst in history. This isn’t to take away from the fact any presidential biography or history book proves Congress has always been a hard place to get things done. But take a look at the numbers.
Congress, as an entire organization, has a lower approval rating than the individual ratings for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Since November 2012, they’ve run a disapproval rate dancing between 75-86% of Americans polled. Meaning, in the last four years, there was a time only 14% of America considered their work approvable and worthwhile. The only reason our most recent Congress (the 114th) isn’t the least productive is because the one preceding it (the 113th) was but, combined, they were the least productive Congresses since 1940.
Scholars are going as far back as the Civil War to try to find a more inept Congress. For my money, our recent crew may only be surpassed by the 88th Congress giving up on the whole “declaring war” thing and leaving the whole Vietnam decision in Lyndon Johnson’s lap on negligible evidence. But hey, at least they can say they passed the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 too. We can’t even get a compromise on guns despite mounting evidence that we have a systemic problem that needs to be addressed somehow.
Maybe it’s just me being drained trying to qualify how Trump and Clinton aren’t as bad as it could be, but I can’t think of many ways to defend the people meeting on Capitol Hill. By every quantifiable measure, they suck as bad as everyone says. I suppose one benefit is, if you think a Trump and/or Clinton administration would be particularly disastrous, a Congress divided against either/both of them would do a lot to block them.
Of course, this works both ways.
4. Are We the Worst Citizens in American History?
This is the most important question of all. It’s one thing to complain about how dismal the political climate is, it’s another to acknowledge responsibility in it. Only 41.9% of eligible voters turned out to elect our current Congress 2014 (I wasn’t one of them). In the past 50 years, the highest percentage of voters in a presidential election turned out in 1968 and, even then, was only made up of 60.84% of the eligible population.
It doesn’t just have to do with voting either. As of 2012, one in three Americans couldn’t pass the citizenship test required for immigrants to attain legal standing as citizens. Although Trump, Clinton and Sanders ran or still run their campaigns railing against the wealthy to some extent or in some way, the U.S. citizenry had stocked the 2009 cabinet with 237 millionaires to represent the “common person’s” interest. Ultimately, it seems like Americans tend to get the gist of the political situation they are participating in but not many of the details.
If you believe this is the worst election in history, it has to do with you and me in the same way it has to do with the media, the Democrats, the Republicans, Trump, Clinton and whoever else you’d care to blame.
Even if we vote for a President, will we vote for all the less “notable” elections as they crop up?
Even if we vote, are we voting based on as thorough data as we can?
Even if we analyze the thorough data, are we aware enough of our own biases to call ourselves out when the data contradicts our most cherished principles?
The questions could keep going on forever and they should.
We’re at a point where people are dissatisfied, depressed and even horrified by American political realities. But complacency is what got us here, and complacency is what will keep us here. Instead of throwing in the towel or simply voting for the lesser of two evils, it may be time to acknowledge we’re all lucky to still be part of a country where we maintain a say over who governs us.