Throughout the endless, painful primary season, candidates of all stripes have promised to do things for you, to fight for you and your family.
The’ve promised everything from free college to more benefits to lower taxes to a big wall to protect you.
The purpose behind all these undeliverable promises is to gain the support of different constituencies one at a time, independent of any overweening philosophy or point of view. Divide and conquer.
It was not always like this.
Let me direct your attention to 1961 and John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Have things really changed that much? Actually, yes.
In 1961, America was the world’s industrial colossus. There was a large middle class. After winning World War II, salvaging Europe with the Marshall Plan and defending it from the Evil Empire thereafter, we felt not just a moral responsibility, but a moral superiority.
We had the resources and idealism to ask for sacrifice here and abroad. John Kennedy was the political embodiment of a national mood. It lasted until exactly Nov. 22, 1963.
Kennedy’s assassination marked a clear turning point in American life. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, perhaps most important, the Vietnam War were probably all coming anyway, but the timing of his death and all the change and turmoil that followed so quickly created the myth of Camelot and the subsequent national malaise.
We have never really gotten over it. Divisiveness has become baked into our culture and our politics. It has, in fact, been encouraged by the media and the same leaders who purport to bring us together, not excluding Mr. Hope and Change himself.
Every day, we are subjected to an analysis of how many Hispanics voted for Obama or Bill Clinton or Romney and how many will vote for Donald or Hillary, and how they may be persuaded to do otherwise. The same statistical amalgamation applies to women and African-Americans and any other supposed interest group.
The assumption is made that all these media-defined constituencies, as well as the downtrodden white male, are homogenous blobs who will march in lockstep, depending on what the cause or promise du jour may be.
Estimates are that something north of $2 billion will be spent in the next few months to convince people that their ethnicity/gender/economic level will be enhanced or diminished by the compassion or vindictiveness of one party or the other.
This is insanity, and the principal reason that politics are in the pathetic and ineffectual state they are. If these constituencies — and I hate even to use that limiting term — are so, well, stupid as to fall into line together on the basis of believing the claptrap put forth by both parties, then they deserve what they get.
So is this a blanket criticism of the sacrosanct American voter? You bet it is. A fundamental assumption of those guys who drafted the Constitution was that voters would be thoughtful — not nonpartisan, but thoughtful.
It’s also a near-blanket criticism of politicians who offer untenable, unaffordable solutions that, in any case, cannot be managed by a giant Washington bureaucracy. See: VA, IRS, TSA, EPA, etc.
Voters want satisfaction. Fine. The problem arises when they are selfish and unrealistic enough to expect somebody to give it to them, and gullible enough to believe that will actually happen if they vote for a particular candidate. Disappointment follows, and further retreat into the extreme ideologies that have brought us to this point.
If this all sounds like an anti-government rant and hopeless yearning for the good old days, well, it’s hard not to go there. Of course the good old days were never as good as nostalgia makes them seem now, but there once really was a president who appealed to our better angels.
That is what presidents ought to do. By extension, it is what candidates for all offices ought to do: “Reach for the stars.” There is a reason we fall back on cliches to prop ourselves up: We are far from perfect. We understand that, and we know we should aspire to be better. Our leaders should point the way up, not into the mud; it’s our own fault if we follow them there.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by email at