Too often when pundits try to predict the future they don’t learn from the past. Yes, opinion polls can give you useful guidance about the public and which direction the crowd is headed. But when you take the long view you see that the future might arc toward progress but politics is a pendulum, swinging back and forth from one extreme to another. The reason I bring this up is to ask: If the pendulum swung one way to elect Donald Trump president of the United States, which direction is it headed next?
Elections tend to make more sense with the benefit of hindsight. After the unrest under President Johnson, electing Richard Nixon who promised to restore order had some logic to it. And after Watergate, bombing Cambodia, and Nixon’s enemies lists, electing a gentle, honest peanut farmer in Jimmy Carter probably felt like a sensible fix after Gerald Ford. President Carter’s oil crisis, hostage crisis, and malaise begat President Reagan’s feel-good “Morning in America,” and President Bush’s four-year continuation of Silent Generation Reaganism begat a generational change with candidate Bill Clinton, the first Baby Boomer president. His time in office begat President George W. Bush, who begat President Obama, which is how we find ourselves here.
You’ll notice that the pendulum doesn’t always trace the same line over and over. Sometimes it swings across generations. Sometimes it’s a shift of tone or character. Sometimes the pendulum swings from criminality to honesty and from weakness to strength. After President Trump, I can see it swinging in one of two directions, either toward healing or toward moderation.
It could be the latter. Americans are revolting against division. The number of independent voters is larger than either of the Democratic or Republican parties, which have become more ideologically sorted or extreme, albeit asymmetrically so. The status quo is awash in conflict on social media, in the news, and on cable television, and increasingly our off-line conversations are mimicking our online discourse. We have a tendency to limit our interactions to those with whom we agree and shut out all others, and E Pluribus Unum is becoming something we see on our currency and not in our lives.
We know from U.S. history that a house divided against itself cannot stand, but who can bring us together? Will it be someone outside the political system, such as businessman Howard Schultz, or someone with a reputation for speaking truth to his own party, such as Gov. John Kasich? Or will a third political party spring up to fill the big opening in the middle of our political spectrum?
The other way the pendulum could swing is away from rancor and chaos and toward kindness and calm. As I write these words, I can imagine how good that might feel. In a political environment in which confusion and anger are the new normal, perhaps a happier leader such as former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu might be the cure for what ails our political system. Perhaps it might finally be Vice President Joe Biden’s turn.
Of course, the pendulum could swing in any number of directions toward optimism, it could be another generational swing, or we it could point finally toward a woman holding the office of the president of the United States of America. I don’t have all the answers, and there are undoubtedly points that the pendulum could swing to not discussed here.
These are some of the most important questions facing the United States, which is why I am pleased for Hill+Knowlton Strategies to sponsor several conversations with potential presidential candidates at the Texas Tribune Festival in September. I hope it will be a good opportunity to have productive conversations that go beyond the usual talking points and engage with the possibilities of where we go next.
There is a hero-sized hole in our political future. And despite what many have said, the bar for holding the presidency has not been lowered. In fact, it has been raised because of the challenges that face the U.S. Soon the pendulum will swing toward a candidate or candidates who fit the times. It remains to be seen whether they ran grab that chance.
In addition to the Hill+Knowlton-sponsored candidate series, Jack Martin will be speaking at the Texas Tribune Festival’s Trade Winds panel.