Don't be distracted by the unbelievable clown show that was last night's Republican candidate's debate. Between the penis jokes and the talking-over and mad barking, all that was missing was smashing chairs over each other's head to raise it to the level of the old Morton Downey, Jr. or Geraldo talk shows. Maybe next time.
But the descent into junior-high antics among Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio (John Kasich exempted himself from the worst of it, to his credit as a human being) obscures a larger point, one not just about the Republican candidates but the Democratic ones too: We are witnessing what is hopefully the last election of the 20th century.
None of the remaining candidates has injected anything that can be considered modern or relevant to the challenges we face today as a country, as an economy, as a society. They are doggedly reading from exactly the same playbook that their parties had set in stone by the 1980s (at the very latest). Despite massive changes in technology, communication, globalization, and so much more, it's forever 1993, 1983 or even 1973 for Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, Sanders, and Clinton.
Consider the Republicans first. Their basic approach to goosing the economy is to cut taxes and, in unspecified ways, cut regulations (including all those the Republican Party and George W. Bush ushered in earlier in the century). None of them has seriously discussed systematic spending cuts, especially of the old-age entitlement programs such as Medicare, which blow up the federal budget more than anything else. Yes, they all pay lip service to repealing every jot and tittle of Obamacare, but none dares to say that even before that, the federal government was spending close to half of every health-care dollar in the country and that maintaining an unlimited, single-payer health-care system for everyone over 65 (i.e., Medicare) is flatly unsustainable. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has at various points talked about replacing endless streams of money with "premium support" but such a plan is, first, only hypothetical, and second, scheduled to always kick in the year after that other year—you know, that one way, way, way out there on the horizon. When it comes to Social Security, a morally bankrupt program as well as a fiscally bankrupt one, Republicans flipped their wigs when Barack Obama suggested tying cost of living increases to the inflation of goods rather than the inflation of wages
So too, of course, did Democrats (especially Bernie Sanders, who insists we should be expanding Social Security's scope and largress), but they're supposed to act that way, right? There was a time not so very long ago when Republicans or fiscal conservatives more broadly questioned old-age entitlements. Indeed, Ronald Reagan in the early 1960s railed against mandatory Social Security (he suggested it should be a voluntary program) and called Medicare nothing less than "socialized medicine" (which it sort of is). By the end of his time in power, though, he called saving the shaky finances of these big-government programs "the highest priority of my administration" and pushed through the payroll-tax hikes to prove it. Today's GOP remains firmly in that place, coming up with plans to raise taxes and the relatively young and relatively poor in order to maintain benefits for the relatively old and realtively wealthy. Yes, there will be some means-testing and the eligibility age will creep upwards slowly, but the status quo will not just be maintained but celebrated as a Republican accomplishment. Indeed, one of the main Republican arguments against Obamacare was that it would "steal" money from Medicare.
In terms of defense spending, military intervention, and national security issues, only one Republican candidate—Rand Paul—offered a variation from a celebration of hawkishness and elective wars as the very definition of American exceptionalism. Paul was attacked roundly for minor deviations, including the radical idea that the United States need not be involved everywhere around the globe all the time. As last night's debate suggests, there is no room left in the GOP for candidates who would break with the ultra-expensive and utterly disastrous foreign policy in this century we've seen under Republican and Democratic presidents. All the candidates, to varying degrees, pledged boots on the ground, more rockets, boats, battles, you name it. Jimmy Carter's figurative corpse was exhumed (possibly because Obama is, well, pretty interventionist) and kicked around for a while as Reagan was invoked as a shining city on a hill or something. When it comes to a surveillance state, consider the uniform affirmative answers to whether Apple should unlock its products whenever the state demands it. Of course, they all say (as does Hillary Clinton). Of course, Edward Snowden is a traitor (Clnton agrees on this too), less because of what he might have given to foreign governments (there's no evidence that he's done anything of the sort) and more because he showed the government to be lying to its citizens.
When it comes to social issues—"culture war" issues, conservatives sometimes call them—the GOP is the party of the past. John Kasich, the least gargoylish (?) of the GOP candidates last night, couldn't simply admit that being anti-gay is kind of fucked-up or that the debate over same-sex marriage is over. Republicans are quick to paint the refusal to follow or expand anti-discrimination laws as a case of "religious freedom," but would any of them defend a baker not serving blacks or Latinos because the government has declared businesses a "public accommodation"? There may be indeed be a libertarian principle involved in all this—nobody should be forced to do business with anyone if they don't want to—but it is impossible to escape the conclusion that lots of conservative Republicans are simply prejudiced against gays. That might be for religious reasons or psychological reasons or whatever, and they might even have a First Amendment right to not bake cakes for same-sex weddings. But let's be honest: Being weirded out by homosexuality is so last century. The same goes for things like pot legalization, the last stand of the drug war which has been an offense against individual rights that has corrupted countless law enforcement agents over the years and perverted everything from prison sentences to foreign policy to education. Like some Japanese infantryman left on a Pacific island for decades after World War II, the GOP soldiers on under Just Say Noorders issued by Nancy Reagan while sitting in Mr. T's lap.
And then there is immigration, which has become for conservatives and Republicans the litmus-test issue that abortion once was. To be a legitimate conservative these days, you must be against immigrants, legal and illegal. Indeed, one of the great sticking points for Donald Trump is his supposed softness on the issue (despite his declarations in favor of mass deportations and 45-foot or 50-foot walls on the country's southern border). National Review, the flagship conservative journal, has been overtly hostile to immigrants since the 1990s; rarely does a kind word about immigrants appear in its pages. Where Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush once famously debated just how important illegal immigrants were to the U.S. economy (seriously: watch this if you haven't seen it yet), Republicans are now wedded to impenetrable border-control and work-permit schemes that went out of fashion with the collapse of the German Democratic Republic.
Watching last night's debate was thus appalling on multiple levels, but especially for the simple fact that it might just have well taken place 20, 30, or even 40 years ago. Yes, Donald Trump has brought something new to contemporary politics, especially on the Republican side. But no, new ideas and approaches to governance are not among the things he carries. The Republican Party, for all its success at winning gerrymandered House districts and controlling state legislatures and governors' mansions (where politics are less ideological and more pragmatic), is like a classic rock band that is playing hokier and hokier tunes to smaller and smaller crowds. Sensing this, the candidates for president are fighting onstage for more time in the shrinking spotlight. The one thing they won't do—can't do—is start writing new tunes that might connect with a world that has moved on without them
Virtually all of the above can (and should) be directed at the Democrats, too. They too are old and wizened (their two remaining candidates have more than 140 years of wisdom between them!). But they are sad and pathetic in ways specific to themselves, too.
Like the Occupy Movement he draws some strength from, Bernie Sanders is an emanation of old-style class-warfare that has never played well in America (even in the Depression, for christ's sake) because the simple fact is that life is relatively good for most people here, at least in material terms. Sanders has already defined himself downward from a socialist to a social democrat but all he really is a redistrubitionist on steroids. Apparently unaware that the federal budget is already overwhelmingly spent on transfer payments of one sort or another (sometimes called entitlements), he wants to, what, increase the percentage from 66 percent of the budget to 85 percent or maybe 90 percent?
College should be free, well, because free is good. Never mind that average in-state tuition and fees at four-year schools come to about $9,400 a year before any financial aid is given (grants, loans, discounts) or that the 36 percent of households headed by 20-to-40 year-olds that have college loans has a median debt total of just $8,500 (or that the median borrower has consistently spent just 3 to 4 percent of their monthly income on loan payments for the past 25 years). The federal government actually spends more on welfare programs—about $700 billion a year—than it does on defense ($600 billion). Maybe that next $100 billion will be the game-changer, right?
Like Trump, Sanders is keying into a widespread fear and anxiety that the "system" or the "game" is rigged. His answer, which is older than he is himself, is to promise to rig the game the right way. You'll get everything you want and need, he tells people, and we'll make the "billionaires" pay for it all. And by billionaires, of course, he means all of us. We already cannot pay for our current spending without taking on more debt, which ultimately correlates with slower economic growth. Even progressive economists have pointed out that Sanders' plans are not just expensive but flat-out unaffordable.
There is, at last, Hillary Clinton, whose debate performances have revolved around her resume, which is indeed long and varied. Her achievements, on the other hand, are less inspiring and she is running openly as a continuation of Barack Obama's presidency. Obama seems himself stuck in the past, in a time when American liberals still had cultural, policy, and intellectual inferiority complexes regarding Europe. He instinctively reaches for a Euro-state '74 solution to whatever ails us and his faith in bureaucrats is almost charming. Assuming an easy ascent to the Democratic nomination, Clinton spent the early part of her campaign both conducting a national "listening tour" and reintroducing herself to an American public despite having been first lady for eight years, a senator for eight years, and secretary of state for four.
Out of all the candidates, Democratic or Republican, Clinton is arguably the most centrist on economic issues, though she has tacked left to step on Sanders' toes. Hence, she eventually came out against the Keystone XL pipeline and dissed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which she promoted as secretary of state). But as senator from New York (or as she sometimes like to say, "Wall Street"), she is no stranger to market forces, even as she unconvincingly claims that the financial sector is scared of her. While representing the Empire State, for instance, she routinely put through patches for the alternative minimum tax, which hits high-income individuals living in the New York metro area. Alas for those of us who see a need for a different foreign policy, Clinton is centrist when it comes to military intervention. Which is to say that she is "an urepentant warmonger" who still refuses to admit that things went poorly during her tenure at State and, in fact, for most of this century.
To say she brings no new vision to economic or foreign policy isn't to say she isn't dragging old baggage everwhere she goes. As Matt Welch wrote in a recent Reason cover story, Clinton has been remarkably predictable when it comes to regulating speech and technology.
She has consistently backed government intrusions into communications devices, from content-filtering V-chips on television sets to anti-encryption back doors on iPhones. She has established as her litmus test for Supreme Court nominees a commitment to overturn 2010's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which a 5–4 majority overturned on grounds that "the censorship we now confront is vast in its reach" a federally enforced cable TV ban of a documentary film attacking a certain politician named Hillary Rodham Clinton. Several other laws that Clinton championed, including the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), were opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and struck down by the Supreme Court as violations of the First Amendment. And she has grasped the flimsiest reeds of evidence to lay at least partial blame on artistic expression for everything from playground fighting styles to the Columbine massacre to, most infamously, the murder of four U.S. personnel in Libya.
Perhaps all we need to know about the two remaining Democratic candidates for president is that each relentlessly attacks Uber, the ride-sharing system that has revolutionized not just taxi service but changed the way we think about personal transportation. In this sort of reflexive dismissal of the new, they are not so different from their Republican counterparts, who are similarly quick to denounce developments that they find appalling.
Does anyone doubt we need a new operating system for politics? Even amidst a bad-to-awful economy (caused in no small part to government action), the quality of lives are improving. We are able to live more like we choose, and we are more able to choose who we want to be. The world is never short of problems, but we have never been so rich with solutions and the ability to figure our ways out of the boxes we've built in our personal lives, our cultural lives, our work lives. As Edward Snowden recently told Reason, "The individual is more powerful today than they have ever been in the past." No wonder that Republican and Democratic candidates are so nervous, so jumpy, so mired in a past when politics controlled more of our lives and mattered more to us.
We are not evacuating politics because there are not political problems to solve. We are leaving politics—especially as defined by the Republicans and Democrats—behind because we can, just like we left the broadcast networks and the Big Three automakers and the Top 40 as soon as we could. Everywhere but our politics, things are getting better.
If there's anything to be hopeful about after watching last night's debate, it's that we are witnessing the implosion of one of the major parties. Its fracture may provide the occasion for all of us to not just contemplate a different set of politics but to insist on a way of thinking about the present that isn't overwhelmed by the failures of the past.