Dave McCuanDave McCuan is Associate Professor of Political Science at Sonoma State University. He graduated from SSU in 1991 with a B.A. in Political Science.

May You Live in Interesting Times…

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The Elections of 2008 promise to shift American politics for years to come. How unique is this year in politics? The number of elections, the number of unresolved policy questions and the uncertainty of world events have converged into a perfect political storm. This storm and its aftermath will shape politics far beyond the coming months.

Electoral politics always present new challenges to the conventional wisdom. Politicians primp and strut, interest groups package and spin and the airwaves fill with promises. But in 2008, politics will be different. How? With an open race for the presidency, a restless public wary of the economy and weary of Iraq, and changes in campaign techniques (what scholars call “electioneering”), there will be a paradigm shift that reverberates far beyond Washington, D.C.

Think for a moment how our politics faces fundamental change this year. To be sure, money is still critical and campaigns are still fought through the airwaves and with quick stops to key areas (the “television and tarmac campaign”). But an upfront primary process, the rise of blogs and cell phones, and instant analysis and punditry, have collided with changes in voter demographics and expectations. Yet our traditional political institutions – the ability to govern and deal with substantive problems – continue to erode.

This erosion of both confidence and capability reflect a bifurcated national politics. The divide of political attitudes between urban and suburban (region), young and old (age), war versus the economy versus healthcare versus the environment (issues), white and non-white (ethnicity), and male and female (gender), illustrate the gravity of the challenges before us. In California, we have dealt with this situation through elections—lots and lots of elections. In fact, by the time our next president is sworn in, California will have held 13 elections in eight years.

This constant process of elections tests the ability to actually run a government. We are in a watershed moment for American political history, a turning point of monumental potential backed by the potential of paralysis. Elections can provide hope and inventiveness and renewal of our faith in civil discourse. In recent history, though, this potential is all too often grounded by inarticulate words and deeds.

The politics of 2008 will be a test for American political institutions. Candidates will try to provide a bold, inspiring, tangible vision tapping into voter sentiment for change. In the aftermath of stormy elections, however, candidates will be challenged to manage political institutions that seem incapable of dealing with change given the rising challenges presented by the defining condition of American politics in the last four decades — fiscal stress. The winners of 2008 will be judged by their abilities to juggle expectations and deliver results despite a difficult environment. “Reform” of public policy will be the lesson resulting from the year’s electoral battles.