There once was a presidential candidate who ran on a promise to bring this country together. He said, based on his experience working across the aisle at lower levels of government, that he could come to Washington and get something done.
Indeed, on a smaller stage, he was successful in doing so, growing his own party through his campaigns and succeeding with demographic groups with whom his party had struggled in the past. Even though he may have run using the rhetoric of an outsider — promising to fix a broken Washington just like he did back home — he had plenty of experience in government and was fully supported by the party establishment.
Unfortunately, after he was elected, all of that talk of bringing the country together went out the window as the opposition party turned on him and America proved as divided as ever.
That could be the story of Barack Obama, who first captured the nation’s attention with his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, promising to bring the country together again. Or it could be the story of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Both men thought they could bring their experiences to bear on Washington, but the sharp reality of D.C. partisanship dashed their hopes. If you’re a member of the president’s party, you likely blame the opposition, believing that the other party refused to consider his ideas. If you’re in the opposite party of either of these men, you might say his promises were empty, hollow words built on an empty foundation of cynicism.
The truth, in both cases, lies somewhere in between, of course.
Today, though, we face an entirely different kind of campaign. Somehow, both parties have managed to find some of the most disliked presidential candidates in American history and nominated them at the same time. Far from having been brought together in recent years, the country is more divided than ever, with the prime motivation for supporters of both candidates being opposition to their opponent. That may be enough to win a campaign, but it’s not enough to govern a country in any kind of productive way or to make meaningful progress on the very real challenges that this nation — and the world — face.
It seems as though this year, rather than having at least one candidate be somewhat believable as a voice of unity, both candidates will run campaigns of fear and try to win by dividing this country even further. It’s sad that, at a time when the world so desperately needs strong leadership from the United States, both major political parties have abdicated that responsibility. Unfortunately, that means that the chaos and instability that has enveloped the world — and the divisions that are sweeping this country — are likely to increase for the next four years.
For the United States, the strong leadership that the world needs isn’t going to come from a candidate who convinces a slim majority of the country to hate him or her less than the opposition. Strength doesn’t come from pulling people apart, trampling dissent, and forcing your will. Strength comes from being able to bring people on board, from rallying the nation — and the world — to your side, not from bullying them.
At times of crisis — whether for the U.S. or the world as a whole — this country has found great leaders who possess those skills. Unfortunately, the world may be rapidly trending towards a situation where it will again call upon America to step up and provide that leadership. Sadly, it’s unlikely that this country will elect anyone who can provide it this November, leaving the world in an even more uncertain state.