Is the presidential campaign already boring or confusing?

The pundits endlessly ponder, “Who won the last debate? Who’s ahead in the Democratic caucus in Iowa? Can Trump win again?”

As usual, people following politics are being treated to a campaign covered like a sports event.

But this may be a landmark election. Despite appearances, it won’t simply be about keeping or rejecting Donald Trump as president. It will offer a stark choice about the country’s future. There are three options.

The choice starts, not with Trump, but with the “liberal world order.” That’s the system that emerged following the end of the Second World War in 1945. It is not “liberal” in the narrow political meaning. In this case, liberal means freedom and democracy for all.

Under this system, American-style democracy was supposed to take root in many countries. Governments would be chosen by the people. Their main task would be improving the quality of life of citizens. Average people would gain a greater share of national wealth through new jobs and prosperity.

Military conflict among countries would be reduced, because nations would agree on rules for settling their differences. The United Nations would allow the winners of the Second World War to ensure the rules were followed, so that peace could be promoted.

In Europe and elsewhere, this new world order succeeded under American leadership, but it also experienced obvious failures, which became more apparent over time.

National democracy produced disappointing results for many people. Instead of promoting prosperity, it could cause a growing gap between the wealthiest people and the rest of the population. Woman and minorities did not gain equality with dominant groups.

In world affairs, the Soviet Union rose, broke the rules, and eventually declined, leading to hopes that Russia, its successor, would join the new order. Instead, Russia rose and broke the rules. So

did China. Non-government terrorists attacked. The U.S. engaged in endless wars based on questionable assumptions. The U.N. was helpless.

In the U.S. and other countries, the new order was challenged for its shortcomings. A new generation of leaders offered a second option.

Trump would “make America great again,” going back to a time before the new order. Taxes would be cut. The growing political power of minorities would be reduced. Environmental controls on business would be slashed, because they are obstacles to wealth creation.

The U.S. would reject allies and alliances as having failed to produce results. The only international rules worth following are homemade.

Trump is no great theorist. His focus is self-promotion. To gain support, he chose to serve as the conduit for the political views of those who reject the post-war order.

He is not alone. The U.K. move to leave the EU and Turkey’s move to reduce its NATO ties depart from the “liberal” view. Dictators, or at least authoritarians, displace democracy. The ruler of Hungary openly proclaims he is “illiberal.”

If you were unhappy with the results of the “liberal world order,” you wanted change. Whatever else Trump offered, it surely was change.

The third option is a different kind of change. Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. believe people reject a “liberal world order” that has produced inadequate public services, economic discrimination and unnecessary wars. Unlike Trump, their vision does not look back.

They believe the post-war order did not go far enough. If the “liberal order” gave freedom to corporations and left society under the control of the wealthy few, then they say it is time to give power to a truly democratic government in which each person counts the same.

The three choices lie just below the surface of the 2020 campaign.

Trump offers a continuation of the modern Republican program to reduce “political correctness” in favor of a more authoritarian government, less emphasis on minority rights, and less environmental regulation.

The Democrats are divided on the alternative to offer voters. Some want to erase the Trump presidency just as he has tried to erase the Obama presidency. They would return to the liberal order, while improving health care and fighting global warming.

Other Democrats respond to the demand for change and would repair the failures of the old order through greater common action led by government and financed by higher taxes on the wealthy. Though exaggerated, some label this “socialism.”

This is not a routine election about who wins the impossible job of president. It is about making a major decision on where the country wants to go.

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman. 

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