America’s exhausted politicsAs the United States limps toward the presidential election on November 8, the dominant feeling is one of exhaustion: of a degraded discourse that leaves no one feeling good about either the political system or the country. What has gone wrong?
One explanation is a material one, that the U.S. is witnessing a new class politics. More than any of the advanced industrial states, America has seen stagnation in incomes in the bottom half of the income distribution and rising inequality.
The campaigns of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump clearly appealed to populist sentiment. Sanders devoted significant attention to the financial system, including Hillary Clinton’s connections with Wall Street, and the top one percent. Trump put trade and immigration at the center of his economic platform, stressing the social costs of globalization.
But the divisions in the society now run much deeper. For years, right-wing talk radio and niche media outlets have stoked broader resentments against a political system that appeared to favor insiders of both parties. A strand in the new right focused attention on the cultural as well as economic costs of a relatively permissive immigration system, at times veering into outright racism and xenophobia.
Trump — a spectacularly wealthy property developer who appears to have paid little or no income taxes over the last 20 years — would seem an unlikely spokesman for the little guy. But blunt, coarse and even aggressive language was all part of his charisma, demonstrating his credibility in taking the fight to Washington.
Democracy rests on a surprisingly fragile foundation. On the one hand, parties need to compete vigorously with one another. On the other hand, they have to refrain from challenging the integrity or patriotism of their opponents. It is precisely that sense of fundamental trust and civility that has frayed. In the most alarming comment of the campaign, Trump asserted that if elected he would empower a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton’s emails, despite the fact that the FBI ruled that her behavior could not sustain prosecution. In the second debate, he went so far as to claim that if elected he would put Clinton in jail. Comments of this sort are typical of authoritarian regimes, not democratic ones.
Fundamental features of the American political system virtually guarantee that the strategy Trump has pursued will fail. In the Republican primaries, Trump ran on a platform that was wildly popular with the disaffected base of the party. But it is a law of American politics that once the battle within the party is won, the candidate has to pivot to the center, fighting for the undecided and swing voters. Trump refused to pivot, and despite the anxious coverage of the campaign he has in fact never led the race, either in poll averages or in the projected electoral college vote.
The current collapse of the Trump campaign has been driven by the rise of an unexpected issue: the candidate’s misogyny. Last week, a recording emerged of Trump talking openly about propositioning and even assaulting women. Once that story was broached, a wave of others has followed. The result has been a massive defection of women and one of the largest gender gaps on record. One analyst has projected that if only men could vote, Trump would win 350 electoral college votes, far more than the 270 need to win. But if only women voted, the outcome would be even more lopsided, with Clinton taking 458 electoral college votes to Trump’s 80; even Republican bulwarks like Texas would fall.
Absent yet another “October surprise,” the debate about the election now centers not on who will win but how the presidential race will affect so-called “down ballot” voting for Congress and local officials.
But the damage of Trump’s candidacy has not been limited to an imploding Republican party, which is desperately trying to decide whether to stick with Trump or openly abandon him. The invective has spilled over into the broader political discourse opening up fissures that will take years if not decades to heal.
This new discourse includes totally implausible policy proposals, such as building a wall along the Mexican border, imposing massive across-the-board tariffs on trading partners and abandoning allies. Trump has cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral system, claiming that if he loses is it only because the system is rigged. While openly calling his opponent a liar and crooked, he routinely denies saying things that are easily available in the public record. And he has unleashed a public discourse of extraordinarily divisiveness, at various times denigrating not only immigrants and Muslims but women, the disabled and even war heroes.
In short, we are in the exhaustion phase, hoping for a quick end to an ugly campaign. The question at this juncture does not appear who will win, but how we reunite a country that has been so badly torn apart by such a viciously cynical and narcissistic campaign.
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.