There is a passage in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America that people like to quote around election time to suggest that the way America works itself up over presidential elections is a little silly. It goes like this:
Long before the appointed day arrives, the election becomes the greatest and, as it were, the only matter which occupies people’s minds. Then political factions redouble their enthusiasm; every possible phony passion that the imagination can conceive in a contented and peaceful country comes out into the light of day…
As the election draws near, intrigues multiply and turmoil spreads. Citizens divide up between several camps each of which adopts the name of its candidate. The whole nation descends into a feverish state; the election becomes the daily theme of newspapers, the subject of private conversations, the object of every maneuver and every thought, the only concern of the present moment.
It is true that as soon as the result has been announced, this passion is dispelled, all returns to calm, and the river which momentarily overflowed its banks returns peacefully to its bed. But should we not find it astonishing that such a storm should have arisen in the first place?
Especially because of the reference to “phony passion,” this passage is generally taken to suggest that our elections are farcical, and create incentives to gin up imaginary crises to get people worked up. But it has always seemed to me that Tocqueville is saying something different, and his point may have particular relevance to this unusual election.
Our system is designed to require elections at regular intervals, rather than to allow elections to occur in response to political crises or to be scheduled according to the preferences of the party in power, as generally happens in parliamentary systems. That means that our system forces problems to the surface, and compels the country to confront them even when doing that is inconvenient to the people in power.
This election season, whatever else might be said about it, has certainly played that role. It has forced us to begin better coming to grips with some serious problems in our country, and has surfaced tensions and divisions that will not simply disappear tomorrow. It has compelled both parties—though I suspect one much more than the other—to confront their weaknesses and problems. It is likely, regardless of the outcome, to transform the Republican Party in some significant ways, and ultimately it will probably also compel the Democrats to come to terms with some of their own unsustainable tensions and weaknesses.
None of this has happened in the best possible way, to put it mildly. It has happened by forcing the two major parties to look within themselves for what they had to offer, and therefore by proving that neither of them had much to offer that appeals to the country. In a sense, it has forced the political spirit of this moment to be embodied in two candidates, and by so doing—because we are inevitably better at judging people than at assessing complex political situations—made us see just how bleak, exhausted, and uninspiring our political culture is at this point. We are confronted with the smug, complacent blindness of our elites and the reckless, self-pitying outrage of our populists in the human forms of two distinctly unappealing politicians, and we are made to feel, viscerally, what it means that our two parties now amount to these two choices and that the artifice of baby boomer politics is coming crashing to the ground around us. This is a valuable experience, not because it will make one of these two people president—which the country will surely soon regret—but because it might make our parties sufficiently dissatisfied to try to do better.
A great many Americans, no matter their own politics, have experienced this election year as a kind of agonizing ordeal. And while it is very likely true that the passions now enflamed will die down some once the election returns have sunk in, the lessons we have been forced to learn the hard way will not disappear.
We might well have been spared these lessons had our political system not been designed to create an artificial crisis every few years that compelled us to ask how things were going in our country. But that would not have been a good thing. These days, things are not going as well as they might be. That’s no excuse for despair, or for losing all proportion and imagining that American life has never been worse or that we are at the edge of an abyss and this is our last chance to turn things around. There is much more cause for confidence and hope in America than that. And our political system is so ordered as to give us a lot of room to err and also to recover. But one of the ways it does that is by forcing us to confront problems now and then, so that we do not let deep dissatisfactions fester forever, and so that we might be forced to consider how we might do better.
If we’re lucky, this election could well force just that in time—not so much by its outcome as by the frustrations it has brought to the surface. And we’re Americans, so we already know we’re lucky.