It’s hard to say how many undecided voters there still are, but to a good deal of them — perhaps, even, to a good deal of those who have already made up their minds — the idea of voting for presidential nominee Joe Biden or for President Donald Trump in November presents something of a Sophie’s choice. Trump has joked on Twitter that “Sleepy Joe” doesn’t know “what office he’s running for,” and that the former vice president “doesn’t know he’s alive.” Jackassery aside, the president has a point — Biden isn’t as sharp as he used to be. On the other hand, we have Trump — a narcissistic, woefully incompetent, grade-A lunatic. Hunter S. Thompson’s description of Richard Nixon as “… a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena …” is an apt branding of our current president, except the average hyena is probably more trustworthy and has a better command of international politics and morality. With less than two months to go, many Americans must be scratching their heads: Really? These two are the best we got?
As The New York Times’s Giovanni Russonello reported in June, the 2020 election “could become only the second presidential contest in the history of modern polling in which both candidates are seen negatively by most voters.” The first was in 2016. It wasn’t always this bad. With the exception of the 2016 election, each of the five presidential contests in my lifetime featured candidates who were reasonably likable. Since 2000, the Democrats have nominated Gore, Kerry and Obama; the GOP has tapped Bush, McCain and Romney — all fairly likable and sane guys. So, what gives? Are the 2016 and 2020 matchups just aberrations? Or is this what presidential politics will look like from now?
It is tempting to point to the benefits of a parliamentary system here. Under that framework, a party, rather than a specific candidate, gains the most seats in a national election and that party’s leader becomes the prime minister. In this alternate universe, a parliamentary system would likely deliver us “Prime Minister” Nancy Pelosi in the event of a Democratic win, or “Prime Minister” Kevin McCarthy should the Republican Party take back the House.
Excluding those on the left who are unwilling to recognize the degree of Biden’s decline, and those on the right who are members of the Trump cult, these two are probably more palatable options than the ones we will have in November. The impossibility of the U.S. adopting the Westminster model aside, it is important to point out — if our metric is providing Americans with two fairly solid alternatives — that our electoral system has worked pretty well in the 232 years of its existence. Does it have other problems? Absolutely.
What’s unique about our country’s political landscape today is the extent of our polarization. Intense political divides are of course nothing new, but looking at the past 50 years for context, it appears there hasn’t been as much philosophical real estate between the left and the right as there is today. Republicans ultimately respected people like Al Gore, and Democrats didn’t broadly question John McCain’s character. By 2016, something changed. To the left, Trump was a neo-fascist, race-baiting Putin wannabe and his base was too thick-skulled to realize how much damage he would do. To the right, Clinton was a calculating, condescending, sanctimonious tick, with an untrustworthy base that would lick the floor to put her in the Oval Office. The rhetoric, on both sides, became unhinged; it was, and is even more so today, vicious and visceral in the absolute.
Couple this intense polarization with incessant media coverage every time Trump fires off a tweet or Biden jumbles his words, and it’s no wonder why we all become further entrenched in our predispositions against the other guy. For better or worse — and it’s probably for worse — we have entered a Brave New Age of information inundation. That’s not going away in November, even if Trump does; that’s the world we live in.
Democrats believe that a Biden presidency will bless our country with a return to normalcy, which the Divine Providence knows we need. If we’ve paid any attention the past four years, however, it’s easy to see that these hopes are misguided. If Biden is sworn in as the 46th president on Jan. 20, 2021, Fox News will do what Fox News does best: lament the senility of the man in the Oval Office, predict the chaos and anarchy — perhaps even death of the republic — that a Biden presidency will allow and generally stir a conservative firestorm. The liberal media outlets will defend him tooth-and-nail against these attacks. In short, the roles will reverse, and the coverage will be more or less the same.
Lyndon Johnson said that being president “is like being a jackass in a hailstorm … There’s nothing to do but to stand there and take it.” Nearly 55 years later, that’s what it feels like to be an American citizen. A change in president will not bring a change in the weather. The hailstorm will still rage, and we, the jackasses, will have to stand there and take it.
Max Steinbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.