By Hastings Wyman –
The 2016 presidential campaign has been the bitterest, and most outrageous, of any in modern times. While this year’s candidates – especially Donald Trump – have been particularly divisive, more than the candidates are responsible. America’s voters have grown further and further apart over recent decades, waiting like dried underbrush for a lightning strike or careless match to ignite them.
A recent op/ed in the Wall Street Journal by David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale, summed up the view from the Trump side of the divide. “Trump voters have noticed that, not just over Mr. Obama’s term but in recent decades, their own opinions have grown increasingly irrelevant. It’s something you feel, like encroaching numbness. Since when has the American public endorsed affirmative action? Yet it’s a major factor in the lives of every student and many workers. Since when did we decide that men and women are interchangeable in hand-to-hand combat on the front lines? Why do we insist on women in combat but not in the NFL? Because we take football seriously… Did we invite the federal bureaucracy to take charge of school bathrooms?”
The charge of liberal elitism was recently echoed in a more personal way by Macy Smit, a Tampa hairdresser who is the daughter of Bill Clinton’s half-brother Roger Clinton, who told RadarOnline, “Something tells me the Clinton side of the family looks at me and my mother as not good enough, but we’re hard-working. I support Donald Trump 100%. I have been a Democrat my entire life, but Trump is what we need right now – somebody who is going to stand up for us.” This is an astounding example of the transition of the role of the Democratic Party in American politics.
“Trump speaks for working class people, the sons and daughters of Reagan Democrats, but worse off financially that they were,” says Dr. Charles Bullock, Richard B. Russell professor of political science at the University of Georgia. “They may be working now, but not making as much money… They think, ‘Trump made a ton of money so he must be smart.’ ”
“Among Trump supporters, there’s an intense dissatisfaction that the economy and society have left them behind,” says Josh Stockley, associate professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. “The same was true among young supporters of Bernie Sanders. There’s a lot of none-of-the-above, who believe the process is disgusting or broken.” He concludes, “If you combine general voter unrest with divisive language that has come from the candidates, it makes for a very volatile election cycle.” He cites the Republican National Convention for its “very negative outlook about the state of this country” as well as “the whole rigged election theme.”
“There are a growing number of voters who are very dissatisfied,” says Dr. Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida. She points out that the number of “no party affiliation” voters in the Sunshine State is growing, noting
that “there are clear generational divides” and “growing opposition to the two-party system as we know it.” She concludes with an understatement, “This is not a healing election.”
Bullock also notes that Clinton is “making headway among younger voters. They are not nearly as Republican as their parents were. They are the leading edge from Republicans back to Democrats, the reverse of the 1980s.” He noted that in 2014, he noticed an uptick in Democratic activism among his students.”
The ideological divide between the parties has also widened. “It’s clear the parties’ differences are deep,” says MacManus, adding that “Florida’s divisiveness is nothing new.” The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, Director of UVA’s Center for Politics, says “Both parties had conservative and liberal wings, but moderates are gone. Everybody is either liberal or conservative; they’re going further to the left or to the right.”
Sabato also says, “The difference between this year and the ‘60s or even the ‘90s is that we’ve gotten social media. Social media exaggerates the differences and it’s gotten worse every year, more and more destructive of people on Facebook and Twitter.”
Race is also a significant factor. “This has been incubating for decades, going back to George Wallace and Goldwater, a level of intolerance that’s been incubating,” says Dr. Silas Lee, New Orleans-based sociologist and pollster who is African-American. He notes Ronald Reagan’s campaign visit to Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980, and the Willy Horton issue in 1988. After President Obama was elected, “you saw old-fashioned racism emerge. Obama was defined as an outsider,” noting that Trump, who had championed the “birther” issue soon after Obama took office, “is the perfect vehicle for these people. He’s well-known, has visibility and some level of credibility.”
Not a healing election indeed. Now we can look forward to a divided nation, led by one or the other of two unpopular leaders, trying to recover a common purpose and move us forward. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.