One reason ‘both sides stink’ is the theme of this election

What I hear most often about the presidential election is a sense of bewildered disgust at the near-certainty either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will win it.

“How?” ask disaffected Republicans, many independents and not a few Democrats. “How did this happen?”

That’s a good question. And if your answer doesn’t include at least part of the blame accruing to yourself, or at least your “side,” you’re probably not being totally honest. This is the result of many years of both parties being unresponsive to the realities apparent to many Americans. Trump won a rebellious victory against that decay in the GOP; Clinton is struggling to stave off Bernie Sanders’ “revolution.”

Both uprisings cite the failure of the “establishment” to tend to “the people.” I won’t rehash all the proffered reasons they feel that way, but I will offer another one. Look at what both parties have focused so much of their attention on: institutions, not people. Democrats are committed to defending them, Republicans to attacking them. I’m not sure either has convinced people besides its own partisans — and not even all of those — that it’s committed to people.

Think about what so many partisan fights concern: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schools, the EPA, the IRS. These are creatures of the government intended to benefit all, with dubious results or consequences in the minds of many.

In the face of obvious shortcomings of, say, our public schools, Democrats generally offer one answer: Spend more money. There is not a school-reform movement from the left to speak of.

From the right, there’s a never-ending supply of school-reform proposals. There are so many, in fact, that a number of Republicans sound chiefly interested in tearing down the public-school system — playing right into the hands of Democrats. In fact, the main argument Democrats make in favor of the mediocre institutions amounts to this false choice: The current system may not be ideal, but it beats the nothing Republicans would leave you with.

The parent whose child is stuck in an under-performing school, meanwhile, hears two things: Democrats saying the system is underfunded, Republicans saying the system is broken. Neither sounds as if it will make a difference in that child’s life anytime soon. It’s all about public schools as an institution, not the students they’re supposed to serve.

Or take Social Security. You might think self-styled progressives would prefer means-testing to having Uncle Sam write checks each month to retired millionaires. But that would be too much like change; better, Democrats say, to keep paying everyone than to allow Republicans an opening to changing the whole system. Republicans, meanwhile, come across as if they want to, well, change the whole system. The debate sounds like it’s about Social Security itself, not retirees.

So we have a dearth of ideas backed by fear-mongering on the one side, and a gusher of ideas that seem ideological or actuarial, not human-focused, on the other. Maybe it’s no wonder so many voters this year have concluded both sides stink.