What does it mean for governance to have an issue-free election?

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Most Americans are only too happy to see the election come to a close. Unlike the life of man in the state of nature as described by Thomas Hobbes, this election has been nasty and brutish, but it wasn't short. It also has not been substantive. The news cycles have been dominated by discussion of Donald Trump's tweets and Hillary Clinton's emails. When the votes are tallied tonight, neither candidate can claim much of a mandate to do anything except reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Which raises the questions: What does it mean for governance to have such a content-free election? What effect will the lack of policy debates in the political season have on the legislative process next year?

Matt Green is a politics professor at the Catholic University of America who specializes in Congressional studies. "In many ways, this year's presidential election has been content-free," Green told me. "But that doesn't necessarily mean the next president will lack a policy agenda, nor a mandate to pursue one. Much will depend on what the new president's policy preferences are, and the president's ability to get Congress to go along with them."

Green points to some historical examples. "Consider, for instance, the 1988 presidential election, which was consumed with debate over minor matters like the Pledge of Allegiance and membership in the ACLU," he notes. "Nonetheless, after he was elected, George H. W. Bush had a number of significant policy achievements, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he led the successful invasion of Iraq."

"Another useful example of how meaningless the idea of an electoral mandate can be is his son, George W. Bush. Bush was elected with a minority of the popular vote but exercised strong legislative leadership, for instance, enacting a major federal tax reduction in his first term." One could argue that getting tax cuts passed is a lot easier than passing, say, a restructuring of the nation's entitlement programs, but Green has a point. Did Barack Obama really win because he pledged to enact health care reform? Or was it that the economy was in free fall in 2008 and Obama won by a large enough margin and with sufficient majorities in both houses of Congress that he was finally able to enact the kind of health care reform Democrats had sought and failed to achieve in decades past?

Sr. Simone Campbell is the executive director of Network, the organization of religious women who fight for anti-poverty programs. Poverty went almost entirely unmentioned in the presidential debate, but Campbell is not discouraged. "I don't think it will make much difference on Congress. We never talk about it," she told me. "Our strategy is to stir our people up and remind people that these [anti-poverty] programs affect 100 percent of our people. It is about the common good. Our effort is to direct that conversation and, who knows? Maybe it will be easier because the issue hasn't been part of this polarizing election."

"For us, we've been doing a lot of travel," Campbell says. Network's "Nuns on the Bus campaign are the stuff of legend in political activist circles. We talk about mending the gaps in our society. We won't fix income inequality until we've addressed the disparities of health, housing and so many other issues. We've become so individualistic, it's not about the community. I am worried our wealth is crippling us because only wealth convinces us we can do it alone, and we can never do it alone. On the margins, people know they need to work together." One hopes the newly elected Congress would accompany Sister Simone to the margins, so that the lesson would rub off.

Dan Misleh runs the Catholic Climate Covenant and has been one of the country's foremost advocates for environmental protection. He shares Campbells's equanimity about the lack of serious discussion about the environment during the campaign. "This election year was as crazy as all the pundits have described," Misleh told me. "Not only was climate change generally off the table, so were poverty, war, the death penalty, and other core Catholic issues. Instead, the campaigns and the media focused on scandal, fact-checking and jaw-dropping comments, especially from the Trump camp. On the other hand, I dare you to name an election in recent memory where these justice issues were at the top of any candidate's agenda?"

Looking ahead, Misleh is confident that circumstances will force the government to take action on climate change. "Assuming a Clinton win, and despite the lack of attention to the climate issue, I feel optimistic that there will be some movement on climate policy," he says. "When legislators watch their constituents suffer through 100-year weather events every other year, when the insurance companies start jacking up property insurance rates to pay for these disasters, when the U.S. military begins preparing for the 'threat multiplier' that is climate change, then surely policy movement can't be far behind. For the first year ever, there are now more jobs in the renewable energy sector than jobs in fossil fuel extraction. People are connecting the dots, pushing beyond business as usual, and reaching for real solutions to help safeguard the future for our children."

Unlike poverty and the environment, immigration reform was discussed extensively in this campaign, and it touched on larger societal issues of national self-identity. "This election was really a referendum on the politics of xenophobia and racism that were the mainstay of the Donald Trump campaign," says Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Foundation, a Catholic group that works for immigrant rights and immigration reform. "Advocates will have to keep up the pressure in order to hold Clinton accountable to promises to finally get comprehensive immigration reform over the finish line. The Latino voters who were so engaged this election year aren't going to put up with putting their issues on the back burner for another administration."

Immigration reform passed the Senate in 2013, but it was never brought to a vote in the House. As many as 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the shadows, most of them Catholics. As bad as living in the uncertainty of the margins is, a worse fate could be in store. "If Trump wins, it will be on account of Democrats' inability to lead on globalization, on fixing a broken immigration system, and addressing root causes of poverty and racism," says Corbett. "This ushered in a perfect storm in which a candidate who could run on a flimsy promise of strongman change. If Trump wins, we in the Church are going to have to act quickly to protect migrants from a deportation machine, perfected under Obama, being put in the hands of an administration committed to expelling anyone without the right documents."

Professor Green agrees. "The $64,000 question is whether, regardless of who wins, we see any action on immigration reform," Green told me. "Trump has arguably made immigration reform a third rail in his party, given that his insistence on a cost-free wall along the southern border defined his candidacy and was a rallying point for his strongest supporters. On the other hand, if Trump loses the Latino vote by a wide margin, it will put more pressure on the GOP to pursue immigration reform, thereby stanching the bleeding of Latino votes and preventing the party from losing national elections for the foreseeable future."

Whatever the effects of this campaign on any particular issue, one thing is both clear and worrisome: The disconnect between elections and governance is profoundly unhealthy for a democracy. It feeds the sense of disenfranchisement that Trump has manipulated so shamelessly and so successfully. Even if he loses tonight, the path of demagoguery has now been mapped and largely cleared. A future nemesis who was not caught on a hot mic bragging about assaulting women might be able to march down that path with greater success. Clinton says that good governance starts with listening. Let's hope she means it and governs accordingly. Millions of Americans today will be voting for Donald Trump. They see an America I do not recognize and neither does Clinton. A failure to engage them and connect them anew with the idea that the government is on their side could spell disaster over the long haul. It is a disaster the country must avoid.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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