- - Monday, November 7, 2016


For many Americans, the election of 2016 has become one America cannot win. Its divisions are not only between the parties, but within them and society at large. So divisive, it is the political equivalent of the Vietnam War and may leave its own scars.

Decades ago our nation ended the most divisive war in living Americans’ memory. Only on the extremes was there certainty. Between these extremes there was ambivalence. It was not a “good war” as Americans remembered its predecessors. Many served despite doubts. Many found other alternatives to service. Many protested. Many fled to Canada.

This large middle felt the choices were not theirs, but foisted upon them. They sought the lesser of evils, but any choice they made would never satisfy them or many of those around them.

This presidential election offers a political version of that situation. While there are loyalists supporting both candidates, many, if not most, Americans appear to be somewhere within those boundaries.

This should not be surprising considering the nominating primaries. Neither candidate was a landslide winner throughout those contests. Bernard Sanders received 40-plus percent of Democratic votes right through to the end. Donald Trump did not begin to receive consistent majorities until relatively late in the Republican primaries. These results demonstrate the obvious: Neither candidate was the first choice of many voters even within their party.

America’s ambivalence continues. According to Rasmussen’s Nov. 1 tracking poll, Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump were tied at 44 percent. That means 12 percent of respondents are split between other candidates and being undecided. And this alienation exists within the parties, too. Mrs. Clinton has the support of just 84 percent of Democrats, while Mr. Trump has just 80 percent of Republicans’.

Undoubtedly, there are a large proportion of voters whose natural proclivities would normally steer them without hesitation. However, this race has them paralyzed — either unable to take a position or to be at peace with the position they feel thrust upon them.

Friends become enemies, as another’s decision becomes an implicit indictment of their own. Resentment builds, as what would have been a normal decision in normal times is now condemned by others who have historically made the same decision.

For many Americans, a bad election has become a bad war. Admittedly it is a dilemma of smaller scale, but there is a disturbing parallel. America has not experienced such a personal quandary in a long time.

If you follow your old standard, are you instead betraying its principles in a larger sense? Are you a traitor or a conscientious objector? Is failing to serve really the greater service — or is it a self-serving excuse for failing to join a conflict that will seemingly produce few, if any, heroes? Finally, will there be pardon when all is over — as President Carter did for those who once fled to Canada — and will it come with real forgiveness?

America has had the luxury of avoiding tough decisions. Our political system has pandered to our proclivity to have it all — or at least our cake and its consumption. We bridle at this election, which is not making it easy for us.

This election also offers America the ominous feeling that perhaps things will not simply return to how they were. By approximately two-to-one margins, Americans feel the country is on the wrong track. Many would argue strongly that this election will not put it on the right track — their best hope is that it will not put us on a worse one.

For several generations, America’s economy has afforded us the luxury to buy our way out of virulent social — and to a great extent, political — conflict. Ironically during the Vietnam War, President Johnson overtaxed the economy, forcing it to fund his build-up of social spending and America’s military engagement.

Now the economy appears to be balking again: Instead of allowing us to avoid tough decisions, it is thrusting them on us. Rather than strong, we have felt its prolonged weakness. Instead, it is government that is large, debt that is larger, and obligations continue to accumulate — even as old ones increasingly come due.

Our economy once allowed us to avoid being a zero-sum society. Our politics not only matched that, but facilitated it. Now many fear that we do not have even a zero-sum election, but a zero-zero one: Where almost everyone loses.

Our politics is not offering us a way out of our societal problems. Rather, it appears to be magnifying them. While some on each side of this year’s political conflict have no qualms about it, many Americans feel they are being drafted into one with no good alternatives but many bad ones. Worst of all, it seems to presage politics to come.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.

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