We Get the Candidates We Deserve
In this week’s Editor’s Corner: Our presidential candidates are more in line with who we are than we may want to admit
The 2024 presidential race matchup is all but set—and it’s giving us a major case of déjà vu. As we inch ever closer to a Donald Trump-Joe Biden rematch this November, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we got here again. After all, neither Trump nor Biden is viewed favorably by most Americans, and the idea of another face-off between the two candidates turns off many voters. A quick Google search yields lots of op-eds arguing that we deserve better candidates than the ones we’re getting.
But do we really deserve better? To be honest, I think we get exactly the candidates we deserve.
Voters often send mixed messages, holding views in direct contradiction with one another. We say we don’t like our candidates, and that political polarization is a big problem for the country. Yet large numbers of both Republicans and Democrats see the other side as the enemy. In fact, we increasingly fear that there may be a need to resort to political violence to save America. It’s not surprising, then, that we don’t see a shift in the types of candidates we’re getting.
Our behavior at the ballot box further adds to the confusion. Voters sometimes tell pollsters one thing, and then vote a different way. Fewer than half of Republicans say they’d be willing to vote for a candidate charged with a felony, and yet Trump racked up solid victories in the Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada GOP presidential contests, securing the backing of majorities of voters and caucus-goers in those states. Trump faces dozens of felony counts—and not only has it not hurt him at the polls (currently, he leads in a rematch with Biden both nationally and in the swing states), but he’s used it to fundraise for his campaign.
You’ll find similar incongruities across the political aisle. Around 7 in 10 Democrats say they believe 81-year-old Biden is too old to be president. But like Trump, he keeps racking up overwhelming primary wins. He even won New Hampshire’s Democratic primary as a write-in candidate. If Democrats are truly concerned about Biden’s advanced years, they’re not showing it when they cast ballots.
There are several reasons political watchers throw out as justifications for why we’re not getting higher-caliber candidates—flaws in party nominating processes or lopsided name recognition, for example. But in some ways, our political process is more open than ever. Thanks to social media, we have more exposure to political candidates than we’ve ever had before. For the cost of running an X account, candidates and their campaign staff are able to communicate directly to voters, without needing to run what they say through the filter of the media or political party apparatus, or having to engage with other candidates on a debate stage.
But more democracy in our elections isn’t an unmitigated positive. Rather, it tends to insert greater extremism into the political process. Recent trends in campaign finance offer a great example of this: As parties have become weaker, the number of small donors to political campaigns has exploded, while the dollar amount of the average individual donation has shrunk. On the face of it, this seems to be exactly what many on the progressive left dream of. But in practice, as Thomas Edsall wrote last year in The New York Times, small donors are more ideologically strident than the average American, which in turn has driven incumbents and challengers alike toward political extremes.
In the 2022 election cycle, the five House or Senate candidates who raised the highest percentage of their campaign funding from small donors were Bernie Sanders, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan—none of whom are even close to moderate, either in their politics or temperament. With these kinds of fundraising numbers, more candidates will likely run to the extremes: Squeaky wheels get grease, and more extreme candidates get a bigger piece of the small donor pie.
As Americans, we do have choices. While many will say that our elections require us to select between the lesser of two evils, that we deserve better candidates, I have to disagree. Far from being imposed on us by outside forces, our candidates are really a reflection of who we are—they indicate whom we’re willing to accept as our champions and representatives. To put it another way, we get what we give: When we vote in ways that contradict what we say, and when we accept and even invite greater extremism into our politics, we shouldn’t be surprised that we get exactly what we have coming to us—and good and hard, as H.L. Mencken once said.
What I’m reading: As a Jersey girl who lives near Paramus, one of the largest hubs of shopping centers and retail stores in the country, malls are pretty much part of my DNA. I spent a good chunk of my teenage years hanging out at Suncoast, FYE and the Gap with my girlfriends, and today, you’re likely to find me perusing hauntingly beautiful dead mall photos on Instagram.
It’s natural, then, that recently, I’ve been enjoying “Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall,” by architecture critic Alexandra Lange. Her book traces the rise and fall of malls, and where they may be going in the future. The history of the shopping mall is one very much characterized by the evolving role they’ve played in people’s lives. Malls were social gathering places, and the mall fountain was a central location for people to meet one another—in a way, evoking a town square.
“At their best,” Lange writes, “malls create community through shared experience.” Today’s newer malls are less successful at the creation of these experiences, and the one-two punch of the COVID pandemic and the rise of online shopping seems to have done further, perhaps permanent, damage to shopping malls.
Could malls recover? Yes, Lange argues, because the mall is “an architecture born to be malleable, and in that malleability lies its future.” It will, of course, require a reinvention of what malls are and how they meet our needs. Lange’s book has been a fascinating read so far, and if you’re interested at all in retail history, it’s one you ought to check out.
What I’m watching: The Super Bowl, obviously! So many things to consider… How will Usher stack up among all the halftime shows? Which ads will we be talking about on Monday? Will Taylor make it back in time from Tokyo to see Travis? And by the way, did you know there’s a football game too?
OK, OK, maybe I know slightly more about sports than I’m letting on, but in all honesty, the thing I’m most excited about is my Super Bowl party menu. Last year, I started a new tradition of making dishes that represent the cities of the two teams facing each other in the big game. So today, it’ll be Mission-style carne asada tacos for the 49ers and pulled pork shoulder and baked mac and cheese for the Chiefs. No matter which team you’re pulling for (or if you’re instead pulling for all those cute puppies), I hope you have a fun and food-filled Sunday!
Charles Blahous, “Americans Should Be Less Complacent About Social Security”
David Masci, “Bring Back Playground Psychology”
Tracy Miller, “Why Electric Vehicle Sales Mandates Should Be Abolished”
Mollie Johnson, “The Creator Economy Offers Promises and Perils”
Lyndi Schrecengost, “Not Finished Yet”
Robin Currie with Alain Bertaud, “Vancouver's Housing Challenges Are a Cautionary Tale for Successful, Well-Managed Cities”
Addison Del Mastro, “Neighborhood Supermarkets Are Everywhere”
From the Archives
Michael Puttré, “Empty Magazines Imperil Readiness in Our New Missile Age”
Martin Gurri, “The Psychopathology of Digital Life”