You can be excused for being a bit confused after the first full day of speechifying at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Especially after hearing notables such as Michelle Obama, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders speak, you have to wonder: Is contemporary America "already great," so screw you, Donald Trump!?!? Speaker after speaker extolled the progress we have made over our often-awful past. "I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," said the First Lady, testifying to huge, sweeping changes in everyday life.
Or will our children have to become Uber drivers, driving robots to their fracking gigs in an otherwise jobless future? For every invocation of America as a country so great and wonderful and sweet-smelling that it could be a deodorant flavor (not that we need another one, right, Bernie!), there were two or invocations of just how nasty, brutish, solitary, and short things have become over the last few years. (Forget for the moment that a Democrat has been in the White House and the Democrats even held Congress for a while this century.)
As the warm-up act for Sanders, Elizabeth Warren barely had time to thank her introducer—Joe Kennedy III—and mock Donald Trump "as a man who inherited a fortune" before depicting the horrors of contemporary America:
Housing, health care, child care—costs are out of sight. Young people are getting crushed by student loans. Working people are in debt. Seniors can't stretch a Social Security check to cover the basics.
Again and again yesterday, we were told that the next generation may be the first in American history to have a lower standard of living than its parent's—an anxiety that was also voiced at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and every election I can remember since the early 1970s. Only the rich get rich in America, and the poor get…obesity and all manner of social dysfunction. We're spending more and more on all sorts of programs to help the poor, the definition of which has grown many times over the past 15 years, under Republican and Democratic presidents. Indeed, last night we were told that a truly fair America would offer free state college tuition to kids in families that made up to $125,000. That's more than twice the median household income.
America has always been an anxious place, especially about money, which might explain some of its dynamism. Individuals, families, and corporate behemoths rise and fall with regularity. Against the backdrop of the politicial conventions, it was announced that Yahoo, a company founded in 1994 and valued at $125 billion in 2000, was being sold to Verizon for $4.8 billion. "Three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves," runs the old saying. Yeah, if you're lucky. Every new dollar you get is one more you can lose.
To the economic fears, Sanders added existential-global threats. If Hillary Clinton is not the next president of the United States, he averred, "there will be more drought, more floods, more acidification of the oceans, more rising sea levels." If Donald Trump becomes president, the very seas will boil! Americans will be at each other's throats, and the 1 percent will further migrate into whatever secret compounds they've been building the past decade with money stolen from the good working man. Among the many reasons he suggested to vote for Hillary Clinton was that she alone could "end the movement toward oligarchy in this country."
If these particular themes aren't your cup of tea, you can simply call up speeches from last week's RNC, where you'll find a different slate of existential threats coming to America. The Republican nominee Donald Trump spoke for 75 minutes and for most of his speech, he outlined a laundry list of every conceivable fear he could conjure. Radical Islam, immigration (legal, illegal, Mexican, Muslim, whatevs), stagnant wages, rising violence in the streets, and really terrible trade deals were among the litany. It was dark, yes, and authoritarian in that Trump made the pitch that he alone could fix it all. Captain Ahab for president! At the DNC, things were just as authoritarian but perhaps authoritarian by committee rather than individual. Trump is prone to arrogating power to himself, while the Democrats seem more interested in creating new agencies and authorities (such as Warren's own pet project, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau).
Surely it matters that both the Republicans and Democrats agree on at least three out of the top five on Trump's list. Hillary Clinton also believes crime is getting out of hand, that NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership must be stopped, and that wages must be raised. Based on her record, she likely believes that Islamic terrorism is a big deal, too, and she not long ago held a very different view about immigrants than her current position. And surely it matters that both Republicans and Democrats refuse to outline exactly how they will grow the economy. Instead, they each talk about the clawbacks they will pursue: against the Chinese and the immigrants, in Trump's case and against the 1 percent and the banksters in Clinton's.
One of the reasons why presidential elections (and especially convention seasons) are so draining and tiring is that they are always waged in apocalyptic terms. For at least the past four elections, each contest has been called the most important one in my lifetime. That can't possibly be true. In each one, we were told that the water taps would stop working, the sun would never again rise, and that David Crosby, Stephen Baldwin, or somebody even less consequential would leave the country depending on the outcome. Sadly, that last part also never came true.
So it is once again. Donald Trump is such a terrifying ogre that even many Republicans have said they will never vote for him. Some have even flipped for Hillary Clinton. The mania incited by Clinton is not small-ball, either. One of the reasons why I'm particularly partial this time around to the Libertarian ticket of former GOP Govs. Gary Johnson and William Weld is that they refuse to be apocalyptic.
Part of the reason is that they can't afford to be. They just aren't that much of a threat yet to the established order, so saying the world will end if they don't win carries no bite. But more important, Johnson has the temerity to say what other politicians refuse to: That we live in many or even most ways a world of wonders in which progress continues. He proudly holds up his smartphone and points to technological innovation as one reason for optimism. Where Trump ignores the sharing economy and Clinton wants to strangle it, he wants to "Uber everything."
As Johnson told Reason in a recent interview (go here for video and text):
Has life in America ever been better than it's been today? No, it hasn't! We get along better, kids are smarter than ever, the number one law enforcement tool is (pulls out iPhone) this guy right here when we're witnessing that all the time. When you think about the future and you think about a model of entrepreneurism where the middle man can be eliminated and you, as a provider of goods and services, can make more money, and people that are buying those services pay less. That's an excit– Airbnb! [My fiance] Kate and I, we have a home in Santé Fe. I think we can rent that darn thing out part time for– make an extra $40,000 a year. Well, the city of Santé Fe bans Airbnb. Come on! If that was money in our pockets, we'd be spending that all over Santé Fe. Well, they are protecting the hotel industry, and I just think there is a closed mindedness with Democrats and Republicans. You know, protect the status quo when–
The future is wide open if we'll just get a libertarian bent on the whole thing.
That's a message that is not only largely accurate but especially comforting in an election season that has more Sturm und Drang than a work by Goethe. Many things regarding government need changing, yes, especially debt and spending issues, and Americans overwhelmingly (around 70 percent!) think the country is headed in the wrong direction. But there's no need to panic. In a world with Google maps, after all, we can figure out how to get back on course without freaking out. If only electoral politics was subject to such calm rerouting.