Right about this time, every even-numbered year, I get a similar question from family, friends, strangers: Aren’t you glad this election is almost over?
The easy answer is yes, of course. Like most political reporters, I’ve spent the last two years reading, studying, interviewing and reviewing the candidates and their campaigns. I’ve read position papers and watched dozens of television ads. I open about 150 emails a day, most crammed with misleading claims and falsehoods.
I’ve read polls, talked with consultants and experts, watched the cable shout-fests. I’ve read the crummy mailers. Yes — at the end of the campaign season, it can get a little tiring.
Yet … it isn’t the whole story.
There’s a common conception that reporters are a cynical bunch, distrustful of rules and authority. There’s some truth to this. Reporters take nothing at face value, which can drive political figures crazy. We can push pretty hard.
But most political reporters are romantics at heart, deeply invested in the American experiment in democracy. We still think choices matter.
You may think Hillary Clinton should be the next president, or Donald Trump. But let’s be clear: the decision is crucial. America under Clinton would be a much different place than America under Trump.
We’ve tried to explain what some of those differences might be. Yet I’ve never covered a presidential campaign — this is my 10th — in which facts and issues seemed less important than they do in this one.
Some of this is unavoidable, a reflection of Trump’s outsized personality and Clinton’s long public history. And many voters, especially at the presidential level, judge candidates by their demeanor and temperament, not their views on accelerated depreciation schedules or restricting tax expenditures.
Partisans derisively call these people low-information voters, ignoring a key component of democracy: All votes are equal, and all votes are counted. In the end, it makes little difference how or why a voter decides to cast a ballot, it only matters if he or she does so.
When the voting is over, though, governing must begin. And governing, unlike campaigning, is enormously complex, and infinitely more important.
Let’s be clear again: the next president and Congress will find no easy answers in the Middle East, only difficult options. Obamacare is in trouble, but so is the health care industry. Race and gender and opportunity and violence remain tangled challenges in America, growing more entangled by the day.
Kansas has to figure out how to pay its bills. Missouri faces crumbling roads, an aging population, slumping schools.
Addressing those challenges will require clear minds and real facts. Instead, facts have been discarded like used confetti this year.
The problems of mainstream reporting are well-known, notwithstanding the important work done by journalists this cycle. Most reporters remain convinced, however, that facts are the only way self-government can work. Without facts, there is chaos.
And when governing and campaigning become synonymous, problem-solving becomes impossible.
Let’s hope the winners next Tuesday understand this, after staring into the abyss of the 2016 election cycle. Let’s all be glad the campaign is almost over. Let’s focus instead on the harder work of self-government, which begins Nov. 9.