Why This Is An Election About Nothing

I have a different explanation than Richard Wolffe for why this is a Seinfeld election (a show about nothing). Wolffe cites some economic and crime statistics to demonstrate that, much like in 2000, we’re living through a time of peace and prosperity and therefore the stakes seem so low that we can focus on Trump’s tweets and Clinton’s emails without having a serious conversation about policy.

What this misses is the degree to which Red America is missing out on the prosperity. The booming areas of the country are almost all in either blue states or in the blue areas of red states. The phenomenon is only getting more pronounced as almost all the movement among the electorate that’s headed to the right is coming from working class whites in hollowed out towns who used to be Democrats. Trump is picking up steam in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio even as suburban women around Cleveland and Pittsburgh flee his party.

These folks don’t feel like they’re first, second or third on the Democrats’ list of priority constituents, and they resent it. But they also know, because it’s indisputably true, that mainstream Republicans have done absolutely nothing for them but make empty promises and unfulfilled threats to upend the status quo.

We’ve seen the evidence. As Princeton University professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton demonstrated in their much-hyped paper last year, the aging white middle class in this country is suffering from “increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.” They’re the only cohort in this country that isn’t seeing an increase in their life expectancy. These folks aren’t killing themselves and drinking and drugging themselves to death because they’re experiencing too much peace and prosperity. And they’s not hot for Trump because he’s a good person.

On the Democratic side, it isn’t some personality defect on Clinton’s part that explains why millennials feel like it’s uncool to express any support for her candidacy. The economy isn’t working well for them and Bernie Sanders did a better job of demonstrating that he understood that.

The big difference between the two candidates is that Clinton is prepared to address the problems her young base is experiencing, and she doesn’t have any major ideological opposition within her party that will prevent her from making a real effort. But Trump’s party is divided on the issues he’s pushing, including most prominently, immigration and free trade. So, even if his solutions had more promise for helping Red America reverse its death spiral, he would not be able to marshall enough political power to implement them.

The problem for the Republican Party is that their more establishment mainstream wing has no ideas for what to do about job loss, income inequality, the opioid epidemic, or the deteriorating health condition of their core constituents. Assuming Trump loses, what do they do then?

They can’t turn their backs on the millions of people who voted for Trump and still hope to win elections. But they’re ideologically hamstrung because they have federal power but no mandate to aggressively use the federal government to do anything to benefit their base. They have absolutely no permission to work with Clinton or the Democrats.

This election isn’t about policy for several reasons, but one of the most important is that the Republicans have no federal policy agenda at all, and the few ideas that they bat around are so highly contentious within their own party that they can’t get to base one, let alone pitch those ideas as bipartisan bills.

It’s not true that Clinton hasn’t focused on policy. Just yesterday she gave a major speech in Toledo on antitrust (of which, more soon), and her website is filled with ideas on every major issue facing the country, including policies on opioid abuse and rural communities that would disproportionately help Trump’s voters.

But you can’t have a policy debate with rageoholics, nor with a candidate who is more focused on beauty queens and his penis than with what is really ailing America. This election is about Trump, that’s true, but it’s really about a bunch of facts that explain why Jeb Bush was dead on arrival as a Republican candidate. Why was Trump nominated in the first place?

It wasn’t because people are so fat and happy and contented that they didn’t think it mattered who they nominated.

This isn’t 2000, and this isn’t really an election about nothing. It’s an election about deep dysfunction in the American political system, stemming first and foremost from the crackup of the right and their complete failure to even notice that their base is suffering deeply from things that their policies are not capable of addressing.

What we get, then, is a form of nihilism that isn’t based on an affirmative belief that there’s no truth or that nothing ultimately matters, but more on a rational assessment that there’s nothing better on offer from the GOP.

We don’t know for certain who will win the election in November, but we already know that Jeb and Boehner and Cantor’s party will be the loser.

And, until the right regroups and rethinks what they’re all about, there’s nothing to debate except Trump’s taco bowls and early dawn tweets.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.