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Making sense of the 'silly season'

In the ongoing pre-primary, presidential hopefuls will do almost anything to stand out. It won't make much difference to voters on Nov. 8, 2016. 

Larry Downing/Reuters/File
People rallied on election night in Chicago in November 2012.

Cue Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Overlay a kindly but authoritative voice (David McCullough’s, for instance). Tell us that the quadrennial pageant of American electoral politics, the moment of We the People, is at hand. Consider the issues, personalities, and strategies. This is the grand stage, the arena, as Richard Nixon called it. Politics, especially American presidential politics – which over the next 15 months will consume more and more public attention beginning roughly now – is serious, even sacred business.

But also ... hey, it’s politics, which means politicians, their minions, their supporters, and the nattering nabobs will be generating a stream of political news derived from photo ops, talking points, red-meat rhetoric, gaffes, fog, and sometimes some very serious policy positions. Late-night comics have it easy from now until Nov. 8, 2016.

This moment – the late summer, fall, and early winter before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus – is known as “the invisible primary,” “the money primary,” “the beauty contest,” or just “the silly season.” It is when political figures of bigger or lesser status (16 Republicans, five Democrats, many more independents, gadflies, and wannabes) throw their hats into the ring. They are hoping to “make an impact,” “change the conversation,” “speak to the heartland,” and “stand tall for America.” They give speeches calculated to thrill supporters. They publicly stake out positions they may or may not stick to if elected. They coo chi coo babies, glad-hand local grandees, admire the Iowa State Fair’s butter cow, and eat hot dogs, cheese-steaks, pancakes, funnel cakes, corn dogs, corn chowder, and, well, just a whole lot of corn.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Peter Grier sets up the coming US presidential election. When he was a preteen, Peter accompanied his dad to Washington on a business trip and they happened to hear Spiro Agnew give a blistering speech at the National Press Club. That was his introduction to national politics. Peter has reported from Washington since 1980, not always wearing the political reporter’s hat, but his years in the city that never stops spinning have given him hard-earned perspective.

When you finish Peter’s analysis of the upcoming presidential race, you’ll know this: All the political chatter, excitement, outrage, and gotchas barely move the political needle. Enormous pools of money are raised and spent. Talking heads talk. But the vast majority of voters are unswayed. The only real swing voters, Peter notes, are the handful who aren’t paying attention.

Politics is serious and fun, sacred and profane. Governance happens on a whole different level. The People are actually pretty steady in what they believe and how they want to be governed. Debate will rage, the political circus will raise its tents and strike them, breathless analysis will ensue – and the machine of democracy will run as it was designed to run: imperfectly but continually trying to form a more perfect union and generally succeeding in securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

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