During this presidential campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain have each spent a great deal of time talking about their dreams for the 21st century. And they have worked to persuade voters that the policies they would implement would achieve that dream, ushering in a golden future. Nothing surprising in that. Political campaigns are usually cast in the future tense.

I want to suggest, however, that these are the wrong terms in which to evaluate our electoral choices in November. Like other Presidential elections in American history that came at a moment of national crisis, 2008 will likely be a referendum on what has happened during the preceding eight years, not on what McCain or Obama promise for the future. Obama has already begun to sound that note. “Eight is enough,” he declared during his August 28 acceptance speech.

Elections: Is the Past or Future at Stake?

To listen to political pundits talk, one might think that we are able to predict the consequences of proposed civic policies—that we can verify with certainty that they are good or bad, and vote for the political party whose policies promise the best outcome. But if we had any way to make such calculations—if we had such an actual science of politics—heated disputes on the issues would not exist.

In truth, of course, on many key public questions it is more than likely that roughly 50% of Americans will disagree with the other 50%. Why would we think that these disagreements could be resolved by objective, cognitive appraisal? What would make us think that one side was right, or that the notion of who was right could have much meaning? We simply can’t know that certain policies pursued today will yield predictable or desirable results tomorrow. In this sense, we have often cast our election-year debates in the wrong terms.

Each party in the American system has a personality that differs from the other. Republicans and Democrats have different attitudes that their politicians reflect. These alternative (if frequently similar) convictions consist of visions of far-off goals, a moral ethos about the worth of these goals, abiding claims concerning their fittedness for our social order, and expectations for apocalyptic victory.

The polity of the United States provides rich benefits for its citizens, a large measure of domestic stability, and security in foreign policy. But it is largely mysterious to me what conditions have given us such a political culture and how we have continued to guarantee its advantages. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we really don’t know how the structure successfully grew up, or what the mechanisms are that give it an effective energy. In fact, in the absence of any real explanation, people often resort to the providential and say the country is “blessed,” or that God “shed his grace” on us.

Conservatives have traditionally demanded less of the political system. They have aimed to preserve the principles that, they believe, have gotten us the benefits. Liberals have asked for more. Somehow, they think, civic life can progress, and the political struggle can empower those who can secure progress.

This belief developed because progressive Democrats at the end of the nineteenth century absorbed into their framework of principles the ideas of modernizing Protestants. For these Protestants, God was not so much a supernatural creature but was immanent in our social life, and evidence for this reality was the upward swing of civilization. Over the twentieth century this religious notion moved into the secular realm of liberal politics.

We should surely try to bring our good fortune more under our control. But we need also to realize that we have little power over it, and that we have limited means for nudging it positively. In such circumstances, we should be satisfied with a more minimal notion of what politicians and parties can accomplish, and what they ought to be accountable for.

The Hippocratic Oath of Politics

For a moment forget the prospects for improvement, and focus on holding on to what we have. Since we have not made much of an advance on formulating an American political science that can predict the future, we should do our best—sort of blindly staggering around—to try to insure that we don’t make things worse. This is more than a platitude, for we have no guarantees that we can fix what we have spoiled. The primary rule of politics, like the oath taken by doctors, needs to be: Do no harm.

We often talk about the “ship of state” so let’s put this the way the navy does: Not on my watch. This old adage roughly translates into the injunction to those who have responsibility for a ship to keep it on course. When you have that sort of responsibility, your shipmates are depending on you, and you don’t want anything to go wrong that you could have avoided had you been diligent. “It didn’t happen on my watch” is a common denial of blame. “Not on my watch,” similarly, asserts vigilance and a resolve not to make things worse off than they have been. In the military in general, if something goes awry, someone is accountable (or at least someone will be blamed or punished for it).

Here is my minimalist notion of the way American democratic politics does its job. The role of the electorate is to punish the politicians who mess up on their watch (even if the messes aren’t entirely their faults).

1932 = 1968

We have two outstanding twentieth-century examples of this punishment function at work during moments of national crisis.

In the election of 1932, the electorate voted the Republican Herbert Hoover decisively out of office and replaced him with Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. In 1928 Hoover and his party had taken credit for the prosperity of the 1920s, and at the end of Hoover’s term citizens blamed him for the Great Depression that had engulfed the United States from late 1929 on. The public also felt that Hoover’s efforts over three years to alleviate the economic suffering had been unavailing.

We don’t know that Republican policies created the boom economy of the 1920s, and we don’t know if other policies than the ones Hoover implemented would have created jobs and credit. For his years in office from 1929 to 1933, when The Crash occurred, Hoover may just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We do know that at a slightly later time, the different policies of the Roosevelt administration did little to control the economic downturn. The Democrats under Roosevelt did not do much better than Hoover and the Republicans, at least at the level of economic policies. FDR did, however, brilliantly capture the shift in the national mood. His personality, and the personality of the party he re-shaped in his image, better matched the nation’s than Hoover’s.