American election update: No change

In an earlier post I talked a bit about how the current American presidential election cycle may be marking the end of the conservative road.

A point I brought up was that in the U.S., as in Canada, there is “systemic resistance to change” in the political system that is leading to a desire among a significant number of voters to blow it all up. In Canada, for example, if you’re outraged or disgusted by the Senate or the first-past-the-post election system, both of which the Liberals promised to reform (or end), you should be aware by now that absolutely nothing is going to be done about either. Ever. As I said in that earlier post:

The resulting feelings of frustrated impotence just drive greater anger toward party establishments on all points of the political compass. Perhaps aware of the disappointing results from the “hope and change” presidency of Barack Obama, the Democratic Party this time around is offering none of either. The very best you can expect is more of the same.

Politicians understand this, and so we have Hillary Clinton — the most establishment, status quo politician one can imagine; someone who has explicitly stated her desire for only “incremental” change — being branded at her convention nomination as “the best darn change-maker I’ve ever met in my whole life” (in the judgment of husband Bill). Meanwhile, the (political) outsider Donald Trump’s economic platform consists of nothing but tried-and-true Republican planks (lower taxes, especially for the rich) that are now rotten with age.

I’m afraid this has been the lesson of the presidential election thus far. Bernie Sanders, who clearly never had any reasonable chance of winning the Democratic nomination (the party was working against him), got to play the part of everyone’s nutty granddad. Though popular among some voters, the media as well as his opponents successfully made him out to be “Crazy Bernie,” a flaky socialist and somewhat comic figure. Donald Trump, meanwhile, was a madman on the other side, a ranting demagogue who has become another object of fun and mockery: a stock comedy figure channeling the resentment of the rubes, the bubbas, the losers, and the flakes in the Tea Party.

The fairness of any of this aside, the larger structural message of all this is clear. In troubling times we need to accept the safety of things as they are. Don’t rock the boat. Any thought of real reform is dangerous. Change is bad. As Christian Lorentzen, watching the Democratic convention for the London Review of Books concludes, “the young and the left will have to trade in their revolution for the prospect of some mildly ameliorative technocratic reforms.” And even that they may not get.

It’s clear that the Republican party feels that Trump is a nightmare they’re just going to have to endure before they can get back to business as usual. The Democrats, meanwhile, should walk to victory with a candidate who represents . . . business as usual. I think that while this will be far from the worst of all possible outcomes, it will still be a disaster. So much of the present system is in need of radical reform, especially with regard to environmental and economic issues. But the meaning and message of this election thus far has been to reinforce the notion that any thought of change is impractical folly. As Margaret Wente writes in the Globe and Mail, “the greatest danger in [Trump’s] defeat would be if both Republicans and Democrats decide they were right all along, and don’t need to change. Because if they don’t, another Trump will come along. And the next one might not be crazy.” To this I would only say that if things don’t change then another Trump will have to come along. We can only hope he or she will be a force for good, but I suspect we’ll be past that point by then. We can effect change or have change happen to us. The latter course is going to be ugly.

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