Back in 1992, when Bill Clinton first made a run at the presidency, his campaign strategist James Carville is said to have hung a sign in campaign headquarters reading, “The economy, stupid.” Oh, if it were still so. If it were, Hillary Clinton, despite her flaws, would be coasting to victory this November. The unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent; in 2015, middle-class income grew at the fastest rate on record; and Wall Street is hitting historic highs. Not all the economic indicators are positive: Housing starts are down, and the income gaps between rich and poor, as well as black and white, continue to grow. Nevertheless, in any “ordinary election cycle,” as we’ve grown used to saying these days, the economic news would be a boon to Clinton.
But this election is not about the economy, stupid. It’s about “the system.” The “corrupt, horrible system” has been Trump’s electoral trump card.
The idea of “the system” has been fundamental to the sciences and social sciences since the middle of the twentieth century, when systems science, systems theory, and systems thinking came to dominate the U.S. academy. It was the academy in the middle of the last century that gave legitimacy to “systems” as accounting for the ways things really work, or don’t work, in the world. As in the human body, aging, a poor diet, genetics, and a sedentary lifestyle work together to cause heart disease, so “systems” integrate parts with a whole to produce results that transcend any one cause.
In identifying “the system” as the issue of this election, Trump has managed to find a singular concept by which to encompass such diverse issues as wage stagnation, the breakdown of the mainstream media industry, terrorism, racial tensions, and ongoing political corruption in Washington. Each of these problems can legitimately be understood as having systemic rather than single causes, though Trump has given us no reason to believe that he has any grasp of systemic causes. But his grasp of the issues does not matter: Culturally speaking, we have moved not only beyond the days of “it’s the economy, stupid,” but also the George W. Bush days when having a “good man” in the White House seemed reason enough for many to vote for a president. Now, explicitly or implicitly, this election is about the fate of “the system.”
Just how much the electorate is focused on problems with “the system” is indicated not only by Trump’s rhetoric, but by the troubles of Hillary Clinton. Last week Declan Walsh mused in the New York Times over the unsinkability of Donald Trump. Reviewing but a small portion of the string of troubling revelations about Trump, revelations that would have sunk any other presidential candidate in modern American history—the gross misuse of the Trump Foundation’s funds, accounts of widespread discrimination at Trump properties, and Trump’s “birtherism”—Walsh contrasted Trump’s impunity with Clinton’s inability to navigate relatively ordinary electoral scandals like the misuse of her personal email account, special meetings with Clinton Foundation donors, and references to “deplorables.”
To be sure, Clinton has demonstrated poor judgment more than once. Nevertheless, she has been disproportionately punished for her crimes and misdemeanors. Walsh marveled, “If Mr. Trump is Teflon, Mrs. Clinton must be Velcro: Every transgression, real or perceived, from her decades-long career in politics stubbornly sticks to her.”
Here’s the paradox we face: Voters expect Clinton to honor “the system” and play by its rules. If she violates those rules, it is assumed she should be punished. All the while, voters are also ready to destroy “the system” altogether. “The system,” rather than being taken for granted, is itself on trial, with Trump the freewheeling prosecutor and Clinton the flawed defense.
Indeed, it’s not just that she's Velcro and he Teflon and she’s the defense and he’s the prosecution. It’s that she is playing the role of the woman publicly punished to prove the integrity of the system, while he is the braggart and buffoon who can act with impunity.
Hence, despite all the good economic news, there’s relatively little good electoral news for Clinton. And it may only get worse between now and November 8.
The silver lining, I think, is that Americans on the whole want “the system” to work. Otherwise, Hillary Clinton’s scandals would not stick so stubbornly. The bad news is that we are now stuck with an either/or paradigm: Either the system will work or it will be destroyed.