A surprising pleasure of navigating Island roads more slowly than we might like during peak visitor season is that we get to see the burgeoning patchwork of political placards dotting lawns and roadsides. Candidate names for county and state house offices are just becoming familiar, and the Burma Shave school of attention-getting is colorful and, the candidates hope, “sticky.” A name, an office, and perhaps a primary date — not exactly advertisement, not exactly argumentation — when placed on one’s lawn may help us to say something about ourselves and our values without a cloak of anonymity. Perhaps sharing our favorites nourishes our civic spirit in a way that solitary lever-pulling and magic marker x’s simply can’t provide.
Despite our seasonal brush with off-Island worldliness, culturally analogous to opening up the great ponds to the ocean each spring, most artifacts of civic life on Martha’s Vineyard are intensely local. When seen against the backdrop of this humiliating and potentially apocalyptic presidential season, the lack of hoopla and the lack of party identity attached to the elections that matter to us daily is a reminder of how happily far below the radar — and below the “down-ballot” slots that national and state political observers study so closely — we are.
Alongside the local names and contests on display are the presidential candidate signs, Hillarys and Trumps and, still, Sanders. These innocuous banners mask a vast polarity reflecting the most bizarre and frightening presidential election in our memory. They also obscure the even more threatening spectacle of our national parties — with little to do beyond choosing and supporting credible candidates for the presidency — in differing stages of failure.
In particular we confront the Trump effect, a candidacy intentionally unmoored from the civility our practical democracy requires, and also strategically and self-indulgently threatening to undermine our national political legitimacy, in a constant stream of ginned-up media attention. We may have reasonable, occasional complaints about town, county, and state house government and elected officials, but at the local level we don’t expect we’ll ever see ourselves on the precipice of a dystopian morning-after.
At a national level, American politics have almost always been the province of true believers — evangelicals, tycoons, nativists, racists, military hawks and doves, showmen and fakes, managers and experts. Their messages are simple to frame and simple to absorb. As in I say Mexican, you say build a wall, or I say income inequality and you say break up the banks, or I say first woman president and you say break that ceiling. The alternative — anticipating a big idea’s unintended consequences, or being honest about hard choices, or accepting needed compromise — is complicated to explain, smacks of elitism, and is easy to characterize as weak or contradictory. These two lobes of American thinking are always in place, and always in tension.
Along with the county and statewide candidate signs and the presidential preferences on display, there are also signs welcoming President Obama and his family back to their Vineyard vacation, some adding a goodbye after this last visit as a sitting president and family.
The past eight years have brought much to be grateful for. For us, the comparison of the debasing and debilitating 2016 election and the Obama standard of intellectual as well as inclusive democratic political leadership is instructive.
There is still much left to work on, but there are many concrete accomplishments to admire in the Obama presidency: steering out of the financial debacle of 2008 accompanied by steady economic and employment recovery, health care reform, tax reduction for all but the top 5 percent, and leadership in securing the full rights of members of the LGBT community among them.
These legislative victories have been hard won, and have depended on infrequent cooperation from congressional Republicans. President Obama has used his extraordinary intellectual gifts and temperament to grasp and embrace complexity; his remarkable discipline keeps his, and our, concentration on the prize rather than the soundbite.
More than fifty years ago, in his perceptive and powerful “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” Richard Hofstadter parsed popular American political thought, and therefore political leadership, into two styles — anti-intellectualism and intellectualism. For Hofstadter, intellectualism didn’t mean superior intelligence — rather it was, as Nicholas Lemann described, a distinctive habit of mind and thought that actually forbids “the kind of complete self-assurance that we often associate with very smart or committed people.”
Hofstadter goes on to say, “It is rare for an American intellectual to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations.” Perhaps no American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has achieved this as well as President Obama.