December 21, 2000
At the end of a troubling month of electoral jousting, it is still unclear just who the next President will be. Whoever assumes the office in January will face a deeply divided country. The election results show no clearly dominating mandate for either a pro-business, supply-side conservatism or a justice-oriented populism. On the issues, we as a nation remain split. No matter who is President, half the nation will harbor a deep and lasting grudge. With a split Congress every legislative effort will threaten to turn into a battle. If the economy continues to slide into the doldrums, folks will turn a bitter eye toward the White House.
Practically speaking, this means that the next President will find it very hard to, as George W. Bush put it, "be a uniter, not a divider". Every President wants to be seen as popular and effective, but with the stage set for partisan battles and hard times, that won't be easy.
Given this not-so-rosy scenario, I'd like to offer a set of predictions about what the next President might do. The predictions, which follow below, are multiple in number but united by just two simple themes: distraction and division. The next President will try to keep us from paying attention to the issues that divided us down the middle in the first place. Instead, he will pursue a different sort of division: a jingoistic politics in which vast domestic majorities are pitted against those who cannot vote and those who constitute small minorities of those who can vote. These new vast majorities will, our new President thinks, boost him out of the doldrums and into a second term.
Let's jump down from this abstract plane to the dirty realm of politics. Here's what I predict the next President will do to distract and divide:
Fight a War
Oh, it may not be called a "war", but I bet my boots that the next President will send his minions out to scour high and low until a threat (real or not) to our national security is found. Quicker than you can say "high noon," with flags all a-flyin', we'll be asked to rally around our troops as they defend our freedom in some country most of us have never heard of before. Neil Young will be trotted out to sing his patriotic song again. By gum, the President's operatives will say, we may not like the President personally, but we've got to stick by him in this time of crisis! Watch for the jutting jaw, prime-time TV addresses, and phrases like "this will not stand!" CNN will work overtime to develop new graphics, theme music, and macho anchors for their special reports.
If you've got an angry crowd of detractors at your door, what are you to do? Throw 'em a bone. The President will be tossing everything but the kitchen sink out of the national budget in order to make room for a big payoff -- sorry, tax cut -- to the American people. Let them eat cake, President Antoinette will conclude, we'll worry about policy direction later.
Focus on the Kiddies
We may not like the next President, but if he can place himself next to a cute moppet on a regular basis, our hearts might melt anyway. No matter how irrelevant or counterfactual the policy, our next President will propose over a dozen new initiatives to "protect our nation's children!" This means sermons about family values. This means more anti-drug measures. This means vague proclamations about the evils of modern media. Anything to distract the public from more substantive issues, while casting the Presidency in the Cloak of the Stern but Reassuring Daddy Figure.
No, that's not a misspelling. The United States ranks at the top when it comes to religious affiliation and attendance. The public likes to think of itself as God-fearing in one form or another, and our self-righteous piety creates a natural internal enemy - the godless secularists. Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, expect a lot of heated rhetoric about the importance of "spirituality" and the association between "drifting moral character" and dwindling religiosity. Expect to see lots of photo ops with the President going to church. Expect to see ministers aplenty arriving under photographic fanfare to give counsel to the Commander in Chief. Expect to see the wall between Church and State turn into a wobbly fence as the President allows religion to assume a role in politics, the government and official public life. This will not be the result of some honest conversion, but rather the result of a political calculation to sacrifice a small community of non-believers to the great idol of majority public opinion.
In sum, our next President (or his shadow cabinet) will distract us from the real issues that divide us into opposing camps of nearly equal size, and try to massage us into new majorities based on the jingoistic vocabulary of War, Me First, Babies and Almighty God. Considering that we allowed ourselves to be manipulated into a choice between a preening wonk and an ignorant pinhead, that strategy just might work.
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