During the 1988 US presidential election, contested by Republican George HW Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis, the national mood was captured by a popular bumper sticker: THANK GOD WE ONLY HAVE TO PICK ONE OF THEM. That sentiment sums up how I have felt for the past year about the options that will face me next Tuesday, when I must choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Tonight, I head home to New York, to vote in the ugliest, most divisive presidential election in living memory. I could have chosen not to go. I could have taken the view that my vote won’t matter, one way or another: New York is a staunchly Democratic state, and Clinton has a near-as-makes-no-difference lock on its 29 electoral votes. (Each state is allocated a number of electoral votes, based on its population; the candidate that wins the most popular votes in a state automatically gets all of its electoral votes.)
Why am I going, then? The citizen in me feels an obligation to make my choice clear, but I could have done that from New Delhi: Americans are allowed to vote by absentee ballot. But the journalist in me can’t resist the chance to be at the scene of what is certain to be a historic moment, not just for the US, but quite possibly for the whole world.
By curious coincidence, it will be the second time this year I’ll be present at a vote of world-altering consequence: I happened to be in London on June 23, the day the UK voted to leave the European Union. The “Brexit” referendum, like the US presidential election, had been preceded by an ugly campaign, in which one side was blatantly racist and xenophobic, and made wildly implausible promises, whereas the other side was smugly certain of victory, and made only a desultory effort to connect with voters.
The result left London stunned almost to silence — and I mean that literally, because entire neighbourhoods were quieter than they had been the previous day. The racist-xenophobes had won, and the smug it’s-a-sure-thing crowd were wondering how so many of their fellow citizens could have been so reckless in their choice.
I hope that’s not the mood in New York on November 9.
But back to the choices facing the Americans. That 1988 bumper sticker reflected the inability of the two candidates to connect with the electorate: Bush Sr. and Dukakis were dull as ditchwater, and the campaign was unadulterated tedium. This time around we’d had the opposite problem: far too much excitement, too much raising of hair and hackle.
Whatever else you can call Trump, dull isn’t one of them. And while Clinton isn’t the most charismatic of politicians, this is to some extent compensated for by the tantalising possibility she could become the first woman to lead the world’s most powerful nation.
But if the election season has been long on intensity, it has been conspicuously short on inspiration. Neither candidate has made a compelling appeal to America’s better angels. They haven’t even tried. Trump trades in fear and hatred, Clinton in caution. Trump’s message has been, “Vote for me, or your world will end.” Clinton’s is, “Vote for me, because if you vote for him, your world will end.”
Trump is crude: a sexual predator, serial liar and tax dodge, a man with utter contempt for everything and everyone, including those closest to him. Clinton is craven: a woman who will take money from anyone, and say almost anything to attain or keep power. She has more experience in government than he does, but her record, since she became the Clinton family’s standard-bearer, is of a politician who takes no risks, and avoids difficult decisions — hardly what the US (or the world) needs right now.
It is not just sad, but downright dangerous that the world’s oldest democracy can only produce these two figures to contest for its biggest prize. And it is not surprising that they are, by some polls, the two least popular contestants ever.
How, then, should I pick one of them? Like many Americans, I have struggled with this question for months. It was clear early on that the cop-out of abstaining would not be an option: this is too important an election for fence-sitting. Here, finally, is what it comes down to for me: I can see no prospect of anything getting better, for America or the world, under President Hillary Clinton, but I am certain everything will be worse under President Donald Trump.
It’s a dismal mood to take into the voting station. More depressing still, I know how I will feel afterwards. Indeed, my hunch is that many of those who voted for the winner will quickly experience a sense of buyer’s remorse. And so, a mischievous — and potentially lucrative — idea occurs to me. Starting on November 9, I could start selling a new bumper sticker: COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE: WE COULD HAVE PICKED THE OTHER ONE.
(Bobby Ghosh is editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times. He has spent over two decades covering international affairs, including long stints as correspondent and editor in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the US. He tweets as @ghoshworld)