by Dr. James Quirk, Liberal Studies Faculty
What happened to the level of our [un]civil discourse? Why do so many people seem just not to like Hillary Clinton? How did Donald Trump (not really a Republican) and Bernie Sanders (not really a Democrat) do so well in the primaries? What is this “change” we all seem to want? Have Republicans already lost the Hispanic vote, like the African-American vote? Why is trust in the media and in the candidates so low? Is it time for a third party? Could the whole electoral system really be “rigged,” and if so, could it be under foreign influence?
Our hybrid class this semester, “Voters, Campaigns, and Elections,” has been looking at these and other questions. Among terribly polarized professional partisans and a vast middle unhappy with the whole thing, Americans of all political persuasions share one idea about this election: it has been a crazy year.
We began with a reasonable approach: trying to understand the centuries-old division of a preference for Alexander Hamilton’s strong central government versus Thomas Jefferson’s preference for limited and local governance. We read caricatures of each of these, from Che Guevara and Ayn Rand. We read The Federalist Papers, asking as the founders did, How do we limit our freedoms and still protect them? How much government should we have? How should we divide the prerogatives of national and local governments – what should be local and what should be national? And are political parties even a good idea at all?
We’ve looked at how voters, political parties, campaigns, and elections have evolved since the earliest days of our Constitution: from small local parties to large national ones, big city machines, [nearly] universal suffrage, candidates now of personality more than party, and the impact of the Internet on campaigns and elections.
Each element we studied, though, seemed to clash with what we have seen this year.
Instead of Obama’s development of sophisticated social-media fundraising and mobilization techniques, Trump tweets in the middle of the night about a woman he didn’t like 20 years ago. It’s not a good sign when “FBI” is a central part of the campaign – or when both campaigns switch their opinions on it. The Republican nominee is vulnerable to the Democrat or even a third-party candidate in very-conservative Utah, but he is campaigning like he could win in Democratic strongholds like Michigan. He’s criticized as insulting his way to the White House; she’s viewed as completely untrustworthy.
We could go on and on.
But the students consistently raised questions of more sophistication. Because Trump is not buying television ads, Clinton doesn’t need to either – leaving more money and television time for House and Senate races. Large numbers of voters disdain both candidates – but the third-party candidates still didn’t really emerge as viable. Critical states don’t have the same early-voting laws as each other – millions of people have voted in Florida and Ohio, but almost none in Pennsylvania. This may be the Baby Boomers last run – last chance for a President, and last chance to be an important electoral bloc.
I met with visiting delegations of young Russians and Kazakhs in Washington last week, and talked with some of my colleagues in the Balkans and the Middle East. They’re as confused and troubled as most Americans. This isn’t the best example of democracy, they inform me. No, no, it’s not.
Or maybe it is. My Liberal Studies students range in age from 20s to 50s, and they are from different races and ethnic groups, different careers, and different political parties. But they share some things that are important. They all want to really get a better sense of what’s going on, how we can put it in a larger context, how we can influence it, and how we can more generously and more effectively understand it with others. I have tremendous respect for students who can commit to a graduate program, especially when they have competing work or family or other obligations. We’ve tried to use this semester to work on our American political history, and on this crazy election, as a team – really learning from each other, even (or especially) when we disagree.
What’s next? The electoral college map seems to favor Clinton: Trump will need to win nearly all the competitive “swing” states. There’s an unlikely but non-zero chance that Trump will get more voters nationally but Clinton still wins the electoral college (like Bush-Gore 2000).
Whoever wins, we’ll learn all the wrong “lessons” from the campaign and voters in our instant analyses – tweeting works or doesn’t, a strong organizational “ground game” is or isn’t necessary, people value experience or outsider status, this party or the other is in real trouble.
In truth, our country will remain severely divided. Seventy-two days later, we’ll inaugurate an unpopular new president – either the first woman or the first reality-television star. And one day after that, we’ll start looking toward the 2020 election. The Iowa caucuses are in just 1,183 days.
Election map: http://www.cnn.com/election/interactive-electoral-college-map/