How should voters make this historic election choice?

By John W. Boyer

We are now entering the final days of a highly competitive and hotly contested campaign.

Our fellow citizens in all the 50 states must now think about the final criteria that they will use to choose between the presidential candidates this year.

What should we look for in a new President? Doubtless, all of us have political or cultural or social issues that are favorite topics, though they may have been overlooked in the heated rhetoric of this election season. But are there a few principles that are of more universal significance, such that we could all agree that they are fair standards to deploy in thinking about whom to vote for on November 8?

It seems to me that we should choose someone as President who can do at least three major tasks, and do them responsibly and well.

First, we need a President who has the experience, judgment, and personal temperament to be an effective and respected leader of our foreign policy and our responsibilities as the only remaining superpower in the world. The world that we now inhabit is a very dangerous place for us and our families. America is not only a unique and proud national state, but we are also a world power with significant responsibilities and exposures in Europe and in Asia. In Europe and the Middle East our allies find themselves constantly threatened by a perverse Russian political imperialism, which not only endangers our Israeli, Polish, Baltic, Ukrainian, and Romanian allies, but which has also managed to wreak havoc in Syria and the Middle East more generally, helping to create both a massive refugee crisis and waves of new terrorism that could soon impact our own security in the United States. In Asia, we face not political imperialism but an unpredictable and unregulated economic imperialism, which in many respects could prove to be just as dangerous or destabilizing for our nation. Whoever serves as our President has to have the skill and experience to deal with the many foreign policy crises that will inevitably impact our welfare and that of our democratic allies. The learning curve here is sharp and relentless, and it will do none of us — Republicans, Democrats, or Independents — any good to elect someone who is not highly effective in international crisis management and foreign-policy leadership.

Second, we need a President who will design and execute a major initiative to generate good, well-paid new jobs, and to launch a major effort to retrain our people in effective skill acquisition who have suffered from the dark sides of global economic development. We cannot pick up steel mills that have grown up in South Korea and move them back to Youngstown, Ohio. This will never happen, and it will serve no one’s purpose to try to persuade angry and frustrated people that such utopian schemes would ever work. But we do need a fairer tax system which, with some significant one-time shifts in the tax burdens born by wealthier Americans, might be used to fund major public initiatives to create jobs and job retraining. That is, we need a major national infrastructure investment program, using the profits of a one-time tax restructuring, to launch these changes and reforms immediately. This broad approach worked under Roosevelt in the 1930s, and it would work today. Our citizens deserve a New Deal for our time, and those hit the hardest by the trends in economic restructuring over the past two decades deserve our immediate and serious help.

Third, we need a President who will work with great dedication and evenhandedness to deescalate the rhetoric of fear and mutual hostility that we now find enveloping our country, to set an example of fair treatment of people of all religious faiths, all ethnic and racial backgrounds, and all cultural viewpoints, and to establish very high and enforceable standards for the fair, dignified, and equal treatment of women in the United States.

As a historian of the Hapsburg Empire and longtime Dean of the College at the University of Chicago, I confess that the underlying issues of this election call to mind another time and place that was stricken with deep divisions between classes, ethnicities, religions, and regions, where a powerful government was forced to navigate complex internal and international conflicts in halting and impulsive ways. In Habsburg Austria before World War I, the frustrations and rivalries of voters and various rival ideological groups distracted leaders from the central, unifying priorities that should have directed responsible policy in those days. The results were not conducive to global peace, economic prosperity, or the maintenance of Austrian power in the international system. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the catastrophe of 1918 proved.

In the current context, we should seek a leader who has extensive experience in international affairs and a long-standing commitment to improve the social status and welfare of working-class people in the United States. We need to set aside personal feelings of whom we like or dislike, based on the high volume of back- and forth political accusations to which we have been subjected over the past year, and to judge which candidate would be a more effective, steady, and well-skilled leader in these large and difficult policy domains. We need leadership that is flexible and fearless, but also informed by a commitment to fundamental values. Ideology is not trivial, but ideology is not policy. Good policy requires enlightened leadership and consistent strategic planning, and we need good policy that will benefit all Americans.

Political rhetoric and emotional mudslinging will be of little use to us on the morning of November 9, when we all wake up to return to the real-world, concrete policy dangers and challenges that I have just mentioned.

We need a skillful and respected President who can unite the nation not just by words, but by pragmatic deeds, and respond to the serious policy challenges before us with alacrity tempered by balanced judgment and basic fairness, someone who can manage the complexity of change while protecting the ideals of decency, humanity, and social opportunity for which this nation is almost unique in the world.

Good luck in making a wise choice next Tuesday.


John W. Boyer is Dean of the College and the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History at the University of Chicago.