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Editor’s Note: Tiziana Dearing is an associate professor of social work at Boston College, the former head of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Boston, anti-poverty activist, and advocate for social justice. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Story highlights

This election isn't about who the president will be; it's about what America will be, writes Tiziana Dearing

People aren't confused because they're stupid; people are confused because the state of the social contract is a mess, she writes

Gallup poll noted in February only 27% of Americans felt the country was headed in the right direction, she continues

CNN  — 

At some level, the 2016 presidential race has stopped being a presidential race and become a fight about who we are as a country. We clearly don’t know the answer. We do know one thing, though. People seem confused. Confusion breeds Donald Trump.

A caller to a national radio program recently noted that he had been a Rand Paul supporter until Paul left the race. Now he’s supporting Bernie Sanders. Paul is a libertarian. Sanders is a socialist. Moving from one to the other is like saying, “I was a vegetarian, but the store was out of broccoli, so I bought a steak.”

Tiziana Dearing

An interviewee on NPR on Super Tuesday was asked who she supports. She’s a self-identified Christian and began her answer by lamenting false claims of Christianity by many Republican candidates. I figured she’d be a lock for Ted Cruz.

Almost. She was undecided between Cruz or Trump. Yeah, because they’d definitely score the same on a Bible quiz.

People aren’t confused because they’re stupid. People are confused because the state of the social contract is a mess. The symbols and short cuts we traditionally use to tell us who stands for what are a mess, too. To make matters worse, those taking the clearest stances on what the social contract should be are not necessarily the ones who could get the hard work done to fix it.

Put it all together and we get a nightmare, three-way grid. There’s Insider versus Outsider. Then, Who Gets It versus Who Can Govern. Then, there’s a jumble of characteristics like Christian, or Fiscal Conservative, or Pro-Choice, that used to align pretty cleanly with tags like “Democrat,” “Republican,” “liberal” or “conservative,” but now basically work as “independent variables.” They could show up anywhere.

If you’re an upper-class liberal from the Northeast, the country is going to hell in a handbasket. If you’re a working-class conservative from the South, the country’s also going to hell, just in a different basket. As a Gallup poll noted in February, only 27% of Americans felt the country was headed in the right direction, and it’s been a year since that number topped 30.

Either way, we can’t afford business as usual and need someone who understands that. That means the Outsider Who Gets It. So, we get a voter who might prefer Rand Paul, but also Bernie Sanders.

But some voters consider themselves realists. They want a person who can govern, or maybe just someone who doesn’t want to blow up the very infrastructure of governance they’re asking to run. That’s likely an “Insider,” even if she or he doesn’t Get It, and it’s one way to get an un-enrolled Massachusetts voter who went for John Kasich in the primary but is ready to for vote for Hillary Clinton in the general.

What about voters who feel specific values are critically important? If you’re an evangelical Christian, conservative Christian values are critical. Historically, politicians who represented such values also represented ideas like protected trade, a strong national defense or American Exceptionalism. Think George W. Bush circa 1999-2000, when he ran as a Christian and also authored the aggressive security doctrine of “preemptive defense.” You could pick a candidate who took one of those positions and feel fairly certain he held the others you cared about, too. Not so much in 2016. But that’s hard to see, so we get a voter undecided between Cruz and Trump. Throw in a preference for Outsider, though, and that evangelical dumps Cruz.

People don’t like confusion. We like certainty. Nothing fits that bill better than someone who offers absolutes. Combine absolutism with an Outsider Who Gets It – and who is so slippery he can convincingly sell, “Whatever values you think you care about, those are my values, too” – and we get a juggernaut. We get Donald Trump.

This election isn’t about who the president will be. It’s about who America will be. If the Insider candidates Who Can Govern don’t do a better job of Getting It, owning that they helped mess it up in the first place, and connecting their plans for fixing it to the core, traditional values of their parties, we’re all in trouble. We’ve seen the alternative.

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