I cannot remember a presidential campaign quite so dreary as the one through which we are currently suffering.
Carl Sandburg is supposed to have remarked that every candidate should carry an extra hat - to pull rabbits out of once elected. This year nobody is promising us rabbits. Nobody is promising much of anything, other than to avoid the overweening awfulness of the other guy. Only 14 percent of Americans expect their children’s lives to be better than their own, according to Rasmussen Reports, the lowest figure ever recorded. We are truly in the midst of a great depression — psychological, not economic — and our politics are only dragging us down.
Some 80 years ago, in his masterwork “Ideology and Utopia,” the Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim argued that democratic politics are always utopian. It is only natural, he wrote, that those who seek office will promise not only improvement but also near-perfection. Implicit in his thinking is the idea that voters choose among parties based less on concrete or incremental progress than on the utopian vision that they prefer. Politics, in short, appeal to our dreams.
If this was ever true, it isn’t any longer. The Republicans promise to make the economy grow faster. The Democrats promise that we will all have adequate health care. The Republicans promise to rebuild the Navy — although still to less than half its size during the Civil War. The Democrats promise never to touch Social Security or Medicare — although how they will pay for either remains a mystery. Even if kept, these promises are tiny; specific, to be sure, possibly even attainable — who knows? — but encouraging a smallness of vision.
Nobody seems to think we should be dreaming of greatness. On the left, the message is that we must, in our private lives, exercise less of the freedom granted by our preponderance, lest we further befoul the environment and perhaps our own bodies. The right, meanwhile, says that government, too, must do less - lest we befoul the economy, and perhaps our own souls.
Yes, there are bits of magic on order. One party taps its wand and declares that across-the-board tax cuts will save us; the other waves its hand and assures us that a little more stimulus is all we need. Apart from the competing tribes of true believers, nobody really has much faith any longer in such parlor tricks. In any case, their very smallness testifies to the poverty of our political imagination.
The subtext of the current campaign is that we have reached our limits, that we cannot do all that we used to do - in short, that the American century is creaking toward its end.
Agree or disagree, this implication is difficult to miss. And it’s depressing; deeply, profoundly depressing. Psychiatrists tell us that many people who have lost a great deal in the financial crisis are suffering from symptoms not unlike post-traumatic stress disorder. Is it possible that the entire country has the same condition?
True, a formal diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to an event entailing serious risk of harm or death. But consider the rest of the symptoms: the flashbacks to the moment when it all went wrong, the certainty that the future is now constrained, the constant irritability and hypervigilance against imagined threats, the inability to function normally. This list may describe the United States today more accurately than we would like to believe.
Our politics in particular involve every symptom: We repeatedly return to the ground of disaster (seeking to place blame), we bicker over a future that seems small and limited, and in every gaffe we find evidence of the other side’s nefariousness.
I do not mean in any of this to make light of the situation of those suffering from genuine PTSD, some of them friends of mine. I am drawing an analogy, not an identity. But I think the analogy is apt. Our national confidence has been shaken, by the economic mess at home and by the mixed results of our military adventurism abroad. As a result, we quarrel constantly over the small, unable to focus on the large.
True, the candidates now and then try to paint great visions, but these efforts are swiftly buried in an avalanche of negative advertising — from both sides — along with its close cousin, the constant attacks from partisans on cable television and talk radio. The predominance of attack as our mode of political discourse is an important sign of where we are. Attack ads encourage us to pay attention to the past instead of the future, to select our candidate by accepting a narrative about mendacity or even wickedness rather than by comparing visions of the future.
Scholars disagree whether negative advertising lowers or raises voter turnout, and some work suggests it has little effect either way. (One recent paper even proposes the counterintuitive conclusion that negative advertising is most likely to depress turnout among those who have already made up their minds.) Whatever the effect on turnout, negative advertising can hardly lift the national mood, and more likely contributes to the rising sense of hopelessness, the shared intuition that we are no longer equal to the problems that beset us.
Today, only 14 percent of us still believe in that future, and those seeking our votes seem too busy tossing mud at each other to care. What we need at this moment is a candidate willing to call off the dogs and call us once more to greatness, by doing the serious if difficult work of laying out a path toward the brighter day for which an unhappy nation yearns.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University.