With Mitt Romney’s labored triumph over the Republican field, as well as Barack Obama’s re-nomination uncontested in his own party, it appears that the principals for this year’s presidential election are now a sure thing.
In some respects, what is striking about the two, Obama and Romney, is how similar they are, at least tempermentally. Both are cool as in somewhat remote (rather than hip) personalities. Both seem instinctively cautious. Both are relatively cerebral. Neither plays much on people’s emotions, though both give it the old college try every now and then.
And one more thing, while both are candidates for the Presidency, neither is in the running for the position of "the new messiah" who will re-write history and usher in the new millenium. What a relief. We’re better off to have politics less infused with religious zeal and ideological fervor.
Arguably, many of our elections have offered "the new messiah," the last three in particular. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush was the favorite son and anointed instrument of the religious right, while in 2008 Barack Obama’s campaign of "hope and change" had a definitely messianic quality for the left.
Political messiahs generally don’t fare well. Bush is now the unmentionable one in his own party. And Obama entered office with expectations so high that he couldn’t do other than disappoint. So now he runs, not as God’s anointed or "the One," but as a centrist politician with a good foreign policy track record and a still stalled, though improving ever-so-slowly economy.
And despite his Mormon pedigree, no one is likely to mistake Mitt for messiah material either. He is too awkward. He’s not an instinctive politician with an electric connection to the electorate. He’s a plodding politician with a well-oiled organization and lots of money.
We’re better off to be choosing among mortals rather than hoping to elect a messiah. We’re better off, perhaps particularly in the present volatile moment, to approach politics and politicians with realism and reasonable expectations than in the flush of idealism or a pseudo-religious ideology. Politics is, and should be, the realm of compromise, not crusades.
We are well advised to bring to politics and elections a certain skepticism, that is a suspicion of slogans and easy-answers as well as an awareness that the presidency for all its power is also a limited power. A skeptic is "one who habitually or instinctively doubts or questions." This is a good quality to bring to politics as to many other areas of life. And as such it may be distinguished from something that can sound like healthy skepticism, but is really quite different and pernicious.
The "sounds-like but isn’t" is cynicism. To be cynical, again from the dictionary, is "to be scornful of the motives or virtue" of most everyone. The cynic is "bitterly mocking, sneering." There’s plenty of that today. From those who will claim that both Romney and Obama are "in it for the money," to those who assert that “elections make no difference whatsoever — its the corporations who run everything.”
Such cynicism is really a form of intellectual laziness. Skepticism is the opposite, the attempt to make distinctions, to sort among truth-claims and assertions, to not accept the conventional wisdom or the sound-bit claim whole hog.
Perhaps because nearly messianic claims have been made for politics and political figures so often in the recent past, widespread cynicism is one result. If we do expect an election or a new President to change things irrevocably and unilaterally, to usher in the new age. That is, if we have messianic expectations, then we are bound to be — and should be — disappointed. We may become disillusioned, without noticing the real meaning of "disillusionment," that is exchanging our illusions for the truth.
If, on the other hand, we are choosing between limited mortals whose values and policies differ, and neither represents the revealed truth of God, we are likely to find politics and those who practice it not so disappointing. Moreover, when this is the case, we may be less disposed to making politicians the targets of our scorn or derision. For all the differences they are mostly people like us. They are trying to get it right. They have blind spots. They respond to pressure. Every now and then, they do something really courageous.
We are better off to bring these more realistic expectations to politics and Presidential elections.
There will, nevertheless, be those who will try to turn even this 2012 contest into something apocalyptic. On the right, President Obama will be accused of his "hidden socialist agenda." On the left, Romney will be labeled the second-coming of Ken Lay (Enron) or Bernie Madoff, of the great Wall Street Ponzi scheme.
But these smoke-screens aside, perhaps we can look forward, for the most part, to an election that is at a lower blood pressure level than previous ones. It matters. There are real issues and real differences. That’s enough, for while these may be hard times, they aren’t the end times.