This is a public service announcement. Despite all the drama of the United States presidential election debates; despite all that’s at stake for the world’s security and stability; despite all the breathless coverage; this election is about as small as it gets. A little more than a month away from election day, what has America really debated through this long contest?
America has dissected the midnight Tweets of a delusional, failed businessman. It has watched in awe at his man-child tantrums and eruptions. It has investigated emails that the National Archives in the US will never see. America has fretted about a candidate’s bacterial infection. Let’s be honest. The US has not debated war and peace, capitalism and socialism, or even surveillance and privacy. More than anything else, it has simply obsessed about the psychopathic freak show that is the campaign of the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Let the historians of the future know that the great contest between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton of 2016 was much like the famous Seinfeld pitch to NBC: It’s a show about nothing.
In that sense, we have to recognise something profound about this point in time. The blame is not entirely on the candidates or the campaigns or even on the shallow nature of the commentators. For this is an election at a time of relative peace and prosperity. Yes, it’s true: Peace and prosperity. And America’s failure to admit the obvious is hurting its ability to sustain an adult conversation about American politics. If you haven’t already pressed the publish button on your comments below, or tweeted your outrage to the world, it’s time to consider the facts.
Yes, of course there are unacceptable levels of gun violence and isolated acts of homegrown terrorism in the US. And the squeeze on the middle class — as well as the gap between rich and poor — is a profound challenge to all of America. But back in the Seinfeld era, American cities saw far higher murder rates. There were the large-scale terrorist attacks of Oklahoma City and the Atlanta Olympics, the first attack on the World Trade Center and the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
The first internet bubble created millionaires and billionaires overnight, while the manufacturing decline that began in the early 1980s continued to hollow out the rust belt. So America rolled into an election at the end of the 1990s that bears a remarkable similarity to this one: A contest between two candidates who thrilled nobody in particular.
A wonkish Democrat who wasn’t particularly good at retail politics, seeking a third term after a popular and charismatic president. A simplistic Republican gun-slinger who promised a return to the Ronald Reagan era of even greater wealth and military superiority. Reporters (including this one) considered which of the two they would rather share. Meanwhile, younger voters thought both candidates were hopelessly irrelevant to their lives and tiresomely similar in their politics.
Of course the political differences between George W. Bush and Al Gore were obvious and catastrophically so. As we now know, within a year of taking office, president Bush had decided to invade Iraq — a decision almost unthinkable for a president Gore. With a Gore White House, the US would have led the world on climate change more than a decade before President Barack Obama struck the Paris agreement. But back in 2000, at another time of relative peace and prosperity, it didn’t seem to matter whether voters cast a few ballots for Ralph Nader or even got confused and chose Pat Buchanan. And so the infinitely wise Supreme Court of the US decided the course of the planet on the basis of 537 votes in Florida.
The Trump-Clinton election isn’t like 2004: A contest about national security, playing out in the bloodbath of the Iraqi civil war, while Osama Bin Laden was still at large. It’s nothing like 2008: An election that unfolded as the economy plunged into a free fall in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It may have some echoes of 2012, when a wealthy businessman, who liked the idea of self-deportation, went up against a mainstream Democrat on issues of gender equality. But that was a presidential re-election effort, and both the president and the economy were very far from where they are today.
Today, unemployment in the US stands at 4.9 per cent. That’s lower than it was during Reagan’s re-election in 1988, Clinton’s re-election in 1996 and Bush’s re-election in 2004. Four years ago, as Obama ran for the second time, it was 7.8 per cent. The only recent election with a lower rate: Bush v Gore in 2000, when unemployment was 3.9 per cent. Household incomes surged 5.2 per cent last year, the largest gain since records began in 1967. If incomes continue to grow this year, they will have made up all the lost ground since the Great Recession of eight years ago and will be close to the all-time high reached in — when else? — 1999. Gas prices are lower than they were in the last two elections and the president’s job approval ratings are above 50 per cent.
And while there are still thousands of US troops deployed across the world, not least in Afghanistan, combat deaths are a fraction of what they were in the last three presidential cycles. None of which is to say that this election should remain substance-free. After all, it certainly is not consequence-free.
Trump’s election would throw the world’s economy and its security framework into disarray. There are many factors to blame for this Seinfeld election: The capitulation of responsible Republicans to an extremist fringe; the small-bore politics of campaign strategists in a divided nation; and of course the brain of the GOP nominee himself. But you should also blame America’s stubborn inability to recognise the relative peace and prosperity that exists today. Until Americans turn the page on their mindset of recession and war, they are condemning themselves to an election that is entirely Trumped up.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Richard Wolffe is chief digital and marketing officer at Global Citizen, a non-profit organisation dedicated to ending extreme poverty. He is the author of Renegade: The Making of a President, Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House and The Message: The Re-Selling of President Obama.