There’s no more popular talking point in politics than the decline of America, and the corresponding promise to restore this vaguely defined American strength. A strength that, for entirely different reasons depending on who is talking, has eroded to the point of international and economic helplessness over the course of the last two decades.
This election is an election of fear. The rhetoric surrounding it, on both sides of the aisle, is increasingly pessimistic, increasingly desperate, and increasingly alarming. But instead of calling for evidence or pausing to evaluate the causes of said fear, voters have embraced the urgent negativity. They have taken it and run with it, sending it flying across the Internet and hanging on campaign posters everywhere: “If my candidate isn’t elected, the world is going to devolve into a whirlwind of fire and brimstone and definitive American un-exceptionalism.”
This vague retrospective longing takes away from the actual, feasible problem-solving that should be discussed in debates and speeches. Candidates are so busy trying to articulate what America has lost over the years that they don’t concentrate on dealing with the dilemmas of the 21st century with the tools of the 21st century. But even the longing itself might not be justified.
Perhaps a bit of a historical refresher is necessary. Why must we “Make America Great Again” when it never stopped being great in the first place? America is the leader of the free, peace-inclined world. It is a great experiment in self-government that has produced incredible results: military might, economic prosperity, scientific progress, and international esteem beyond anything its founders could possibly have imagined.
The sophistication and size of our economy is untouchable. There are those who lament the current state of market affairs, but there is no denying that the climb out of the financial crisis of 2008 is well underway. Unemployment is falling and consumer spending is at an all-time high. The rapid growth of China, which some predicted would move the United States into the passenger seat of the global economy, has waned over the last two years, cementing America’s role as the unchallenged leader of the financial world. Look no farther than last year’s desperate Chinese stimulus packages to see the relative steadiness of the U.S. economy. Why, then, the fear?
Beyond economic factors, the supposed terrorist threat undoubtedly contributes to the current environment. There is a belief that, for the first time in our recent history, our oceans cannot protect us from our enemies, nor can the longstanding conflict deterrent of mutually assured destruction. Traditional diplomacy doesn’t seem to work either—the United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.
There is no denying this sentiment, but is it legitimate? The number of Americans killed by terrorism every year pales in comparison to just about every other cause of death. Heart disease is the leading killer of Americans, not jihad. In fact, crunching the numbers on American terror deaths shows that it is statistically just as likely that you will drown in your own bathtub as it is that you will be killed in a terrorist attack. By these metrics, however ridiculous, the war on terror, a war conducted largely beneath the surface of American popular knowledge, actually appears to be working.
But for some reason, it is hard to trace the source of the great American fear, with one exception: the conduits through which it is unleashed—the presidential candidates. Donald Trump rails on and on about America losing to every other country on the face of the earth, claiming he has some non-specific fix somewhere up the sleeve of his designer suit. Ted Cruz offers to carpet bomb the Middle East into oblivion, to a standing ovation. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders like to find monsters closer to home: the amoral right, out to steal your benefits, and the greedy Wall Street CEOs, out to steal your savings. Does anyone, on either side of the aisle, have anything non-terrifying to say? Voters seem to be buying this kind of talk, so why should the candidates stop?
These are troubling times, indeed, or so you would think if you turned on the TV and caught the tail end of a primary debate. Yes, this is an important election, one that will affect the international standing of our nation and potentially some of its economic policies. But, regardless of its outcome, the world is not going to go up in smoke tomorrow.
There are certain damage-control mechanisms written into the Constitution, known commonly as the judicial and legislative branches of government. Our next president will not unilaterally shape the country into a heavy-handed conveyer of his or her worldview.
He or she must work alongside a large system of elected representatives and a network of highly educated appointed judges. For instance, the president needs the approval of Congress to declare war, and any executive order of mass deportation would be subject to the process of judicial review.
The terrorists will still be out there, but the United States military will continue to adapt as quickly as is necessary to counter whatever threats arise. The possibility of fire and brimstone is as unlikely as it ever was and, on top of that, the United States has an unbroken record of success when confronting its fears, and there doesn’t seem to be anything keeping that record from continuing.
So don’t fall into this rhetorical trap. Don’t let the fear of 2016 cast your vote for you.
Featured Image by Craig Ruttle / AP Photo