The conventions are upon us and voter dissatisfaction is sky-high. New polling by Pew Research finds only four in ten registered voters in both parties are satisfied with their choices for president, the lowest level in decades. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have public records of lying, divisive rhetoric, and highly questionable business practices, regardless of what FBI Director James Comey and Gonzalo Curiel, the judge in the Trump University case, conclude.
As my 88-year-old neighbor, a lifelong Republican, put it: “Well, I’m not voting for Hitler.” She paused. “But I could never, ever bring myself to vote for Clinton.” She threw her hands up: “What to do!”
This is a big problem. Many politically minded people are feeling unrepresented, exhausted, and out of options. Unfortunately, this disillusionment likely will continue beyond November.
Not to burst any bubbles here, but the libertarian ticket is DOA. A write-in is a protest, but doesn’t change the outcome. The conventions are highly unlikely to churn out alternate candidates than the ones primary voters have selected.
This means either Trump or Clinton will be elected president in 2016, leaving a wide swatch of the country (including members of the winning party) shaking their heads and feeling more disgusted with Washington than ever.
As The Country Decentralized, Washington Centralized
The 2016 election, in perhaps the starkest way we’ve seen yet, reveals the ever-widening gap between what Washington can provide and what needs exist. That gap appears to be structural.
As Yuval Levin wrote in his excellent new book, “The Fractured Republic,” the latter half of the twentieth century was a time of coming apart and increased individualization in America. Big, near-monopolistic corporations gave way to smaller, more nimble competitors; shared Judeo-Christian ethics gave way to a diversity of individual beliefs and values; and social and fraternal orders were replaced with the Internet, where people interacted in ways tailored to their interests and preferences of the day.
One marked exception to this trend of decentralization has been the government. The federal government in particular has become increasingly bureaucratic, large, and gridlocked, and thus unable to meet the challenges of an increasingly diffuse and diversified society.
The breakdown of Washington can be seen in the failure to adequately address: Worker displacement from globalization and technological change; providing a sound primary education and affordable secondary education; an entitlement system that can adapt to changing demographics; a safety net that helps the poor rise up the ladder of economic independence; a regulatory architecture that thwarts cronyism. And so on and on.
It is unsurprising then, that trust in the federal government has been falling rapidly. Only 19 percent of Americans trust the government most of the time, according to Gallup, a trend occurring long before Trump or Clinton got in the race. For many Republicans, lost faith in the government is good news, validation for their agenda to roll back Washington. But even if the government were dramatically constrained, many of the aforementioned challenges would remain. Likewise for liberals, even if the size of the government were dramatically increased, there is a slim track record to prove this would help.
Our nation is facing big challenges and Washington appears unable to solve them. Trump and Clinton appear unwilling to address these challenges, either: only 27 percent of voters think Trump and Clinton are focused on important policy debates.
It is tempting to pull a Pontius Pilate and wash our hands of it. Instead, it is a call to action.
Stop Shouting at Your TV
If you are discouraged by 2016 and the direction of the country, here’s a challenge, which I offer to you as much as to me: To watch Fox News and MSNBC less. To roll our sleeves up more.
The good news of the 2016 election is that it has freed up millions of Americans to make the country great again themselves, instead of wishfully thinking politicians can or will do it for them.
My hometown of Dallas is in the national spotlight for a tragic massacre of our police force. But underneath this dark cloud, thousands of people are working to solve local problems that should be celebrated. Charter schools are popping up in underserved neighborhoods, such as Uplift Heights Preparatory School in West Dallas, with dramatic improvements in reading scores. People are pooling resources to help with specific needs of the poor, from rent payments to counseling to bus tickets.
Bible studies are befriending and supporting the refugee community in Dallas — Texas has one of the largest in the United States — and helping them integrate and see the best America has to offer. The Dallas police force has self-led on transparency measures to improve community relations, with complaints on use-of-force dropping 64 percent from 2009 to 2014.
These efforts are not just in Dallas. They exist around the country, where people are banding together and forming unique solutions to address the unique challenges their communities and states face. For example, if you care about the loss of conservative values, instead of legislating these values from on high, perhaps it’s time to dig in and show just how countercultural and life-giving it is to work on a stable marriage and raising kids. If you think government is doing a lousy job with the poor — either too much or too little — then maybe it’s time to visit a homeless encampment in your city and see what their needs really are. If you are concerned about policing, as Dallas Police Chief David Brown bluntly put it, “Get off that protest line and put an application in. We’ll put you in your neighborhood and we’ll help you resolve some of the problems you’re protesting about.”
None of this is to suggest there is not an important role for the government. This is clearly not the case. As Arthur Brooks notes in his book, “The Conservative Heart,” Americans give roughly $40 billion annually to human service organizations to help the vulnerable. If this were spread out evenly across the nearly 50 million Americans receiving food assistance with no overhead, it would come out to just $860 per person per year. The government plays an important role in providing a safety net, strong national defense, platform for economic growth, and a host of other things for which it is uniquely suited, and there is a need, now more than ever, for politicians with strong character and clear visions.
But it is to say that instead of wallowing in the 2016 debacle, it’s time to actively inject ourselves into civic and community and family life in ways we haven’t before. Instead of reflexively calling for one more or one less government program, or believing that one individual presidential candidate can turn the nation around, it’s time to begin changing lives one person at a time.
To the extent the Trump-Clinton election is an inflection point in our country’s history, hopefully it is not just a realignment of political parties at the top, but the beginning of a dramatically new dynamic, engaged, and localized electorate, whose the victory is not only found in Washington, but also at home.