On October 12, 2016

A sobering look beyond the election

By Lee H. Hamilton
This campaign year has been full of twists and turns. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone on Nov. 8. So talking about what comes afterward seems premature. But it’s been on my mind a lot, because I’m worried.
This specific worry is not about who wins the presidency. I’m concerned about the aftermath of this campaign season and how hard it’s going to be for our next set of elected officials, from the president on down, to govern.
Let’s start with the belief expressed by a lot of people—including some candidates—that the system is “rigged.” This is a perilous way to treat the country’s political system: it sows distrust in future election results, de-legitimizes winners, and undermines the government’s credibility. Without a basic foundation of trust, representative government crumbles.
Instead of taking aim at “the system,” we could instead focus our criticism on politicians, including the two presidential candidates, who have failed to serve us well in their debate on the economy.
Much of it has revolved around immigration, trade, and other issues of the moment. But our real economic challenge is how to provide meaningful work and good wages to tens of millions of people whose jobs are disappearing because of globalization, automation, and other irreversible changes in how work is accomplished this day in age. Economic growth is the key that unlocks many doors and is the preferred course to ease the anxiety and cynicism abroad in the country.
The problem is, this election isn’t providing us with a substantial policy debate on that or any other issue. Indeed, if anything characterizes this election, it’s the politics of personal destruction. This approach is toxic for democratic institutions and political culture. We have to be able to disagree in this country without tearing into and trying to destroy the opposition.
All of this—the attacks on the system, the lack of meaningful debate about improving Americans’ economic future, the generally substance-free nature of the campaign, the politics of demonization—will make it very hard for whoever wins office to govern well.
It used to be that when a president came into office, a substantial majority of the American people gave him the benefit of the doubt, and with it an extended period in which to get things done. I don’t believe that’s going to happen after this election. And all Americans will be worse off as a result.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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