Change, American style

“Change” has become the major theme of the upcoming election. This hardly represents a change, of course — no theme is more recurrent in our elections than “it’s time for a change.”
Yet in the presidential elections I’ve followed (dating back to 1960) only the election of 1980 brought about, or could reasonably have been expected to bring about, significant change. Moreover, the public has often elected a Congress that, predictably, served as a brake on what little change the president might have had in mind.
I believe that this pattern reflects a fundamental split in our national psyche. On the one hand, Americans are a restless people, prone not to settle for the status quo. On the other hand, we are not radicals, and we understand at some level how good we have it here.
We resolve this tension by electing, or seriously flirting with, essentially centrist candidates who talk about and/or exude newness. 1960 is a good example. Substantively, John Kennedy was not a “change” candidate (Hubert Humphrey, who ran against Kennedy in the early primaries, would have been a more plausible agent of change). During his campaign, Kennedy showed little interest in domestic policy and, with respect to foreign policy, he stood mostly for prosecuting the cold war with “great vigah.” His opponent, Richard Nixon, stood for basically the same thing. But Nixon, the vice president, had the look of the status quo while Kennedy looked like something new.
1976 is another case in point. Although Jimmy Carter is the biggest “flyer” the American electorate has taken in my lifetime, he ran as a moderate southern governor. Carter was a change candidate mainly in the sense that, unlike the two men elected in the three prior presidential races, he seemed like a decent guy. That was about as much change as the voters wanted.
In 1980, Americans were being held hostage in Iran and the economy was suffering from “stagflation.” With the country reeling, the electorate opted for change. However, Ronald Reagan didn’t promote himself primarily as a “change” candidate; he promoted himself primarily as a candidate of specific unorthodox ideas. That, I suspect, is how you can tell that you’re in a true “change” election.
1992 is perhaps the most interesting case study. That year, in the wake of a recession, American discontent ran deep enough to produce the only serious third party candidate of my lifetime. But he turned out to be a billionaire centrist, whose “radicalism” consisted mostly of a promise to “get under the hood of government” to make it work. In a year that seemed ripe for a change election, we got Ross Perot — raging moderate — and Bill Clinton — triangulating Democrat.
In this cycle, heralded now as the mother of all change elections, true “change” candidates are available — Ron Paul and John Edwards (assuming against the odds that he’s sincere). However, neither has gained traction. The public prefers a candidate who looks bold and new, but whose record in the Senate (essentially indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s) exemplifies caution, and whose “radical” idea is a reduction of partisanship that would virtually preclude significant change.
Like John Kennedy, then, Barack Obama presents himself in a way that appeals to both sides of our political psyche — its restlessness and its non-radicalism.
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