During a recent trip to Spain, I managed largely to ignore the political news that had been such an obsession before I left. To be sure, an occasional headline broke through or an email from a friend pointed out some particularly outrageous development. For the most part, however, I stopped reading newspapers, Politico news summaries and all the sage commentary.
Upon my return, I discovered that relatively little had changed. It turned out having immediate access to a breaking report or to the latest mudslinging was for the most part irrelevant. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
That conclusion is far from a statement that politics doesn’t matter or that we don’t need to make every effort to be well-informed about it. What it does mean, at least to me, is that we often get consumed with the details and miss the big picture. In an era where real-time communications seem so important — witness all the people you’ve seen walking along the sidewalk, head down, reading or writing on their smartphones — relatively little “breaking news” is actually crucial. News organizations that rush to get the story first often get it wrong.
My observations, at first glance, seem to conflict with the basic storyline that this is the year in which everything has changed. We have the spectacle of two outsiders with no loyalty to the political parties whose nominations they are attempting to capture. The two frontrunners have unprecedentedly high unfavorable ratings. The political establishments of both parties are in disarray and increasingly ignored. In addition, one candidate, with no experience in government, is appealing to the worst in human nature, blatantly disregarding the truth, and reminding many of the fascist dictators of the 20th Century.
None of these developments, however, happened overnight. All of them can be traced to prior history. One of the many ways in which the media has performed badly in this election is failing to examine the factors that have led to the political mess in which we find ourselves today. Everything is about the next news cycle, the scoop, the latest incendiary attack.
What’s more, we still have ahead of us more than five months of what will likely turn out to be the ugliest presidential campaign in history. Given the patterns of our recent politics, that shouldn’t come as a surprise either.
How do we come through this election with our democracy as well as our personal sanity intact ? My hiatus in Spain suggests a couple of strategies. First, it is really critical that we pay attention to the campaigns and what they tell us about the candidates. That’s different from reacting, or overreacting, to every pronouncement, every accusation, every bit of spin. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump present vastly different backgrounds, policy positions, approaches to the office and appeals to voters. It’s been a long time since the electorate was offered such a stark choice.
Secondly, if you believe the outcome of the election matters, then active involvement is essential. The first thing my wife and I did after returning from our trip was to write checks to two campaigns that we think are important. The biggest political mistake that some people of my generation made was to convince themselves in 1968, after a tumultuous Democratic nominating campaign, that there was no difference between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon.
This is the point at which my trip to Spain raised an important historical example. After the Spanish Civil War in which the army under General Francisco Franco overthrew a democratically elected government, Franco ruled Spain as an absolute dictator for the next 36 years. Critics frequently compare Trump to Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini, but I think the comparison to Franco is at least as troubling.
The Trump campaign is certainly not a military coup, but it has many of the same appeals that Franco offered to Spanish conservatives. Moreover, while a Trump presidency would not last 36 years, it certainly could bring about fundamental changes in what we now think of as American democracy.
I don’t plan to go back off the political grid and I will do my best to keep political news in perspective. If reasonable people stay engaged, don’t allow themselves to get distracted or discouraged by the pseudo-drama of the campaigns and remember that there is no such thing as a perfect, flawless candidate, there will not be a Trump presidency to worry about. That bit of optimism, tempered by the necessity of working to make it happen, is the best that I can offer.