Cynicism pervades the American election cycle like never before, but if there was ever anything that actually warranted massive cynicism, it’d be politics. Think about it. What other job description requires you to promise 300 million people whatever they want? Lying about who you are is literally the job, especially during election season.
Still, the increasing polarization of American politics – along with our equally increasing demands to have everything we want, all the time – has led to presidential contenders whose very existence defies logic. This particular contest we’re watching now features an incumbent who courts the very corporations he claims to target in order to help fund his man-of-the-people campaign, and whom the oppo paints, in a wonderfully adaptable caricature, as the world’s first ineffectual Nazi. The challenger? A corporate raider who loathes half the populace but makes headway in the polls by promising them jobs to which he’s convinced they won’t show up.
Even stranger, neither one wants to give any actual details about their plans for governance. Why should they? That might upset someone. Anyone. Anyone who could conceivably cast that one crucial vote in the one backwater Midwestern county fire station that could decide the election. With the country more polarized than ever, the good news is that your vote really does count — if you’re lucky enough to live in a perfectly diverse state, that is. Then you get to cancel out the snotty young idealist before he even puts on his “I voted” button. Ha!
American elections have always been popularity contests, but they’ve traditionally been about clear choices — not necessarily between ideologies but between characters. We knew, in the past century, when to elect a “mommy” or a “daddy,” a can-do man of action or a cautious deliberator. Time’s running out, but there are still several stock characters from which Romney and Obama can choose — and like their predecessors, they can change them at will, like POTUS cosplay. Which combination connects with voters this season? That’s for us to know and for you to figure out. Dance for us, rich man! And wear several of these outfits while you do it:
The War Hero. The long gap between Vietnam and Iraq — one which saw a boatload of prominent politicians, for the first time, avoiding military service — has made this a rare specimen in recent years. Which may be for the best; making the ultimate sacrifice for your country is noble, of course, but it doesn’t guarantee the kind of leadership needed to broker deals and tread lightly on egos. You could get an Eisenhower — or you could get a U.S. Grant. But it’ll all work out, because by 2020, which is the earliest most of these vets can run for the big job, we’ll already be invading Mexico for our Chinese overlords. Problem solved!
The Career Man. There are two types of politicians in Washington: those whose hands are stained with teenagers’ blood and dirty money, and freshmen. It’s for this reason that the career pol is sort of looked on these days like a career criminal. In the supreme irony — and the surest sign the system is dysfunctional — it’s usually this bureaucrat who gets the most done. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends, naturally, on how much you personally benefit from their sleazy back-room deals. Freshen your drink, sir? Why yes, we could use a block grant! Why didn’t I think of that?!
The Wonk. He (or she) was, to paraphrase Shakespeare, to the White House born. You know the type, mainly because they’ve been bucking for this job since they were 12; working for their church, actually lobbying for hall monitor, joining more societies and clubs than that kid in Rushmore, and generally missing no opportunity to prove their worth to the community. The little suckup. God, how you hate them. And you will follow them to the ends of the earth, because they are that rarest of creatures: somebody who knows what the fuck they’re doing.
The Regular Joe. You see this avatar a lot more than you used to. Citizens, disgusted by the way government doesn’t work when it’s dismantled, have increasingly longed for a presidential candidate they can understand. Usually this “average Joe” is a Harvard-educated millionaire who merely knows how to dumb it down like a commoner. And that’s also a Good Thing: when actually coerced into leaving the job they don’t have in order to run for office, they usually display a jaw-dropping lack of knowledge, not just about the world beyond their patio but the intricacies of bargaining and governance. Think, just for a second, about the guy you actually like to have beers with. That guy at the bar, your cousin, coworker, whatever. Now picture him with access to 5,000 nuclear warheads. Just shit yourself? Okay then.
The Outsider. They’ve been in politics, usually on a state level, for many years. They’re well respected, even by his rivals. (They doesn’t really have enemies.) They always gets the job done, and with a minimum of fuss. And they make a godawful president, because they don’t know the game. At all. This poor bastard really believes all those lobbyists loitering in the hall shares his or her vision for a better world; they just have different ideas about how to go about it. Sad, really. Usually when a real outsider gets elected, it’s because things are so completely fucked up they’re the only thing keeping the barbarians from the gate. It’s no coincidence that every single candidate of the 21st century has branded himself one; the real outsider, though, can always be distinguished by the one sorry term they complete before they’re driven out to their ranch to write their memoirs.
The CEO. Calvin Coolidge once famously stated that the business of America is business, and the businessman subscribes to that belief utterly; having inherited a large fortune or having somehow managed to “build that” mostly on his own, s/he considers him/herself a model for all Americans — their vision of everyone as a potential millionaire is completely insupportable outside of the pure socialist state they rail against, but they really seem to believe it anyway. If you’d just work harder, dammit! Having been weaned on capitalist doctrine, Americans love this archetype, despite the fact that they, almost to a man, wish their own boss would get caught with his mistress and his secret account and become Jerry Sandusky’s shower buddy. The CEO type thinks America needs a boss, and they want to run the country like a company. Which would make America the only company left in itself. So how totalitarian is that?
The Celebrity. Elections can make your brain hurt, what with all those tiresome discussions of economic theory and blaming each other for war atrocities and the like. Which is why we all get a good laugh out of this gladhander, who seems to think popularity is a gift card redeemable in any area of American life. Actually, they’d be right about that, if not for the fact that being President is about the only job left with real stakes involved — you’re essentially holding the nation’s wallet while you point a gun at the crazy person who wants to kill it. Oh, it’s fun to stand in front of a flag and listen to idiots chant your name, but, hey, that’s why our very wise forefathers created the House of Representatives. They knew, somehow.
The Legacy. Hey, my dad was President. And my uncle was Secretary of State! Or the other way around. I’m hammered right now. But you have to let me in! Come on, guys! I’ll let you ride in my car! Did I mention I have a beach house? We could party. You bring the governing philosophy, I’ll bring the keg! U!S!A! U!S!A! We’re number one! We’re totally gonna kick Iran’s ass at Homecoming! Wooooo!
The Obsessive. They know what’s wrong. Everyone knows it. But no one has the guts to talk about it, much less the brass balls to take the problem head on. One Note Johnny (or Jane) knows! Making everyone read the Bible every day in school provides the quickest and clearest possible pathway to solving those mass shootings. A flat tax would completely level the economic playing field, making it easy for everyone to find the level of wealth that works for them that day. And if gays didn’t get married, children would have binary-sexed parents, making them perform better in school. The answers are so simple! How can you not see this? They could easily govern a vast continent containing every single race, creed, and economic class on the earth! You just gotta want it.
The Third-Partier. Holding radical ideas, but also having several important ones which cross cultural and political barriers, the third-party candidate is an important alternative in the American political process. If we just decentralized power in certain areas, and maintained important protective regulation in others, this country could still be safe and prosperous. The first step is getting all that big money out of government elections! Our message is one everyone will hear!