Why People Stayed “On the Fence” This Election

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”— Winston S. Churchill

On Tuesday, Americans will elect a President that fully two-thirds of them don’t trust.

While no corporate nominating committee would survive presenting either Presidential candidate to a Board of Directors for approval, our national political parties have recommended to America’s Board of Directors (i.e., its voters) a wicked dilemma – selecting which candidate to least mistrust.

As viewed through the lens of best corporate governance practices, both political parties have engaged in malpractice. In the private sector, shareholders would rebel. Nominating committees would be fired. And the entire vetting process would be re-worked so this could never again happen. (No more circus debates as sporting events. No more hiding disqualifying late-campaign revelations. No more recruiting the 4th estate.)

But it’s too late this year.  Americans will pick whomever they least dislike based on who they think poses the least risk to the nation. And, our structural problems will worsen.

But, there’s good, if ironic, news in this year’s dispiriting election. Stepping back, the meta-message is one of voter dissatisfaction, disenfranchisement and alienation. This means that America’s shareholders are starting to get it. “Feeling the Bern” and “Occupy Wall Street” or “Making America Great Again” and “Drain the Swamp” all have the same core message: The status quo isn’t cutting it.  However, whether it is Americans dropping out of the workforce, young people with college debts (and no jobs), or skyrocketing health premiums, voters aren’t finding the change they hoped for. In an anemic recovery, they’ve seen the rich get richer and the poor become increasingly dependent on government, much of which serves politicians’ primary objective: getting re-elected.  Yet, just as voters are figuring this out, this year’s most likely winner is the most status quo candidate ever – largely because of her opponent’s manifest limitations.

The Clintons may well have gone to Washington to do good; but they certainly ended up doing well. And Donald Trump, who devoted his life to the self-interest of doing well, now claims he wants to do good. And America’s shareholders don’t trust either of them.

The conventional wisdom is that voters won’t hear the truth; so neither candidate has had to be forthcoming. (In an earlier era, when Harry Truman was cheered on by a supporter who shouted out, “Give ‘em hell, Harry,” he responded, “I just tell them the truth and they think it’s hell.”)

But today is different. Our schools teach little history. Our press is challenged by social media on the one hand and by a thinly-veiled bias on the other. We don’t have the patience for policy discussions. So, in a world of constant spin, facts play a bit part in any narrative. In a world of 90-second policy statements, 140-character commentary and one-line zingers, the hard truth is an endangered species.

If America is to preserve what has made it the envy of the world, it must face facts and set its priorities based on them. In my view, there are 5 imperatives, which, if addressed rigorously by a candidate, would have gotten voters off the fence:

1.     Reduce our mounting national debt. At $20 trillion, this can’t be serviced – without massive tax increases when interest rates return to normal levels.

2.     Fix a crushing level of unfunded liabilities.  At $100 trillion, we’re effectively bankrupt. Any “workout” will have to include feathering in later retirement ages and “means testing” for social security, even as we re-work other social safety nets.

3.     Simplify our tax code. We need to eliminate deductions.  The 70,000-page tax code is an impossibly complicated, anachronistic, expensive mess that leads to cronyism, special interests and IRS abuses.

4.     Reduce the cost of government. Here, I mean actually reduce, not simply slow the pace of government increase. This means allowing attrition to reduce headcount. This also means getting out of “hobbies,” refocusing the core mission of the Federal government around i) security, ii) economic growth and iii) the rule of law.

5.     Ensure security – without peace, there can be no lasting prosperity.

Most other things can be done in communities, in states, in families, in local institutions. An unnecessary reliance on central governments and central planners will alter the orbit of our lives and put at risk the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” promised in the Declaration of Independence as an “unalienable right.”  But as we increasingly centralize planning and government, many in government view it as the world’s best business – one that makes laws, prints money, carries guns, and punishes alternative viewpoints – and they want to be the ones to wield its power. A commitment from a candidate to rein in that power would go a long way to getting people off the fence.

Indeed, unless we hold accountable any who would serve in this most important role, we ignore a looming crisis that will come in the night. Before America hits this tipping point, it must find candidates who are competent, numerate, transparent and, above all, trustworthy. Until then, many voters will remain firmly on the fence, vacillating in a classic approach-avoidance dilemma, backing one candidate until repulsed – only to back the other before recoiling.

In the election of 2016, those still on the fence have only one more day to decide whether to take a clear risk by voting for either flawed candidate, or to vote for a third-party candidate, or to wait for next season (an option the Cubs proved is not without hope). For these voters, the failed vetting process of our political parties has resulted in the kind of choice they never imagined they’d face.

By Joel Peterson