It is cliché to say that a presidential election is important. And yet, the 2012 presidential election may be one of the most decisively meaningful elections in recent history. The world is now in year four of the global financial crisis. In addition to economic retraction that may last decades, there is social dislocation and political unrest. The level of frustration and cynicism is reaching all-time highs. And as Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, Universities, and businesses record their lowest levels of public trust and integrity, the only major U.S. institutions that continue to be well respected in public polls are the army and the police. If we do not somehow elect a President who can begin to halt or reverse the descent into political paralysis, the risks to the United States are enormous.
We are in need of a political genius, as Peggy Noonan wrote this month in the Wall Street Journal:
Why do people think we need a kind of political genius? Because they know exactly how deep our problems are and exactly how divided our nation is. We need a president who knows and understands politics because he knows and understands people and can galvanize them. When he speaks, you listen, in part because you believe he’ll give it to you straight, in part because his views seem commonsensical, in part because something in his optimism pings right into your latent hopefulness, and in part because he’s direct and doesn’t hide his meaning in obfuscation, abstraction, clichés and dead words.
As much as we need an inspired political leader, it is clear beyond a doubt that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is such a leader. The result is that this election is as depressing as it is boring.
The promise of a Romney-Obama matchup is terrifying not simply because one of them will win; but more, because it is so obvious that these two politicians who actually are so similar in temperament and worldview would never actually engage in a contest of ideas. We have two candidates who are, quintessentially, moderate technocrats. Both are products of Harvard professional schools. Both candidates are essentially risk-averse technocrats. One worships data. The other worships experts. And both will do and say anything to win.
It is hard not to wish that Newt Gingrich had won the Republican nomination. At least his promise of hounding Obama to debate the core issues of American governance promised a consequential and engaging campaign.
Instead, this is a campaign not of ideas but of consultants. David Brooks, who writes today that the upcoming election is “incredibly consequential and incredibly boring all at the same time,” gets this right:
Candidates know that they’d be punished for saying something unexpected — by the rich, elderly donors and by the hyperorthodox talk-show hosts. Instead of saying something new, now they just try to boost turnout within their own demographic niches and suppress turnout in the other guy’s niches.
Hannah Arendt taught that politics is about action that is spontaneous and surprising. Political action needs to be courageous and new, since only unexpectedly bold action can galvanize and unite a people. The political actor is one who can inspire, but inspiring action must above all be risky and extraordinary. For Arendt, freedom demands such leadership if life is to remain surprising, new, and human.
As Roberto Mangabeira Unger argued recently, we need a political leader who brings a wartime mentality to our contemporary crisis. Peggy Noonan from the right agrees. From all sides there is a longing for just such political leader, one that candidate Barack Obama promised to be four years ago. The falsity of that promise has hardened people against hope. The cynicism and dishonesty of both candidates is numbing. It is further diminishing our political culture, at a time when we hardly thought politics could sink lower and we can hardly afford to allow it to do so.
What would it mean to elect a leader who could revive American politics? That is, in fact, the question asked in the upcoming Arendt Center Conference, “Does the President Matter? Reflections on the American Age of Political Disrepair.”
On the most obvious level, the President does matter. Of course some will benefit under President Romney and others under President Obama. But on the level that matters most—the regeneration of the political life of the United States—it is hard to see how this election means anything. Neither candidate is speaking to the whole country and neither has the ambition or the spark to inspire us to overcome the limitations of our selfishness, weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder, and more common things than we can do on our own.