Year of the Smackdown
“Highly negative views of 2016’s leading candidates may reflect the hyperpartisan climate that has been building in recent years, also evident in previously unseen levels of ideological polarization among primary voters this year. There’s also the level of in-party factionalism this year, especially on the Republican side.”
Recent ABC News poll showing high levels of Trump/Clinton unpopularity
We all know that this political year is an outlier, a set of conditions and candidates so far from the norm that it has confounded pundits, politicians and most of the public. We haven’t seen this combination of nastiness, nativism and nonsense for many a year. Unusual it is, but also perhaps a bitter taste of all that is to come.
Maybe, just maybe, the interminable, dispiriting process of selecting a new president, and the choices the process has produced, merely offers a sour sample of the new face of American democracy. It’s not even close to morning in America, more like nightfall. Cloudy with a chance of chaos.
Disliked and not trusted
A gnawing realization is settling in. The current campaign may represent nothing less than what the nation will look like far into the future – profoundly divided, deeply cynical, irrationally angry and distressingly unable to confront, let alone solve, big and pressing problems.
Call it the death of aspiration. Label it democracy in decline. This new normal is accelerating the country toward an ominous political cliff. Where once we aspired to the optimistic, sunny uplands of a Kennedy or a Reagan we now settle for so much less. It’s not like we haven’t seen this coming. Now its here.
If things continue as they have over the last six months both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will limp across the finish line, struggling and fussing all the way, to capture the nomination of their parties. Yet, each will also have been broadly rejected by significant numbers of voters in their own parties.
One party, angry, disillusioned and ready for a fight, at least with itself, seems prepared to embrace a man who wants nothing so much as to be taken seriously, but who is also the most seriously unprepared candidate for national office since, well, since Sarah Palin. The other party will likely nominate a candidate whose overriding rationale for running is that she’ll be the first, but who is unable to excite a younger generation of women (or men) who view her as both yesterday’s recycled news and as profoundly untrustworthy.
People who will not win nominations this year are vastly more respected than those who will. Republican voters like John Kasich much better than their likely candidate. Ditto for Democrats and Bernie Sanders. If it is Clinton v. Trump in November we will see a contest between two of the most unpopular, least trusted and most severely flawed candidates in modern times. It will be like Andrew Johnson running against Warren Harding.
From a historical standpoint the election of 2016 may be remembered as the moment that defined new political boundaries, or more likely limitations. Ironically, both of the leading candidates have defied political tradition by basing their campaigns on the past: Clinton finds herself both invoking and rejecting the presidency of her husband – an administration now a quarter century distant – with all of its messy and tawdry contradictions, while Trump promises to “Make America Great Again” without ever suggesting what era of American greatness he has in mind. In both cases the candidates present a yearning for something lost and not a realistic vision for a renewed America.
The Age of Trumpism and Clintonism…
Still, the two frontrunners, as Michael Lind wrote recently in the New York Times, define, distressingly so, the future of American politics. “No matter who wins the New York primaries on Tuesday or which candidates end up as the presidential nominees of the two major parties, one thing is already clear: Trumpism represents the future of the Republicans and Clintonism the future of the Democrats.
“Those who see the nationalist populism of Mr. Trump as an aberration in a party that will soon return to free-market, limited government orthodoxy are mistaken,” Lind writes. “So are those who believe that the appeal of Senator Bernie Sanders to the young represents a repudiation of the center-left synthesis shared by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In one form or another, Trumpism and Clintonism will define conservatism and progressivism in America.”
Or, put another way, the holy war for the future shape of the American political experiment will play out as it has for most of the last quarter century with likely even more anger and division and with less middle ground and common sense. Both candidates promise something new, but Trumpism and Clintonism are more correctly a doubling down on the politics of dysfunction that have given us repeated fights over issues like the debt ceiling and repeal of Obamacare.
Does anyone really think a Hillary Clinton nominee to the Supreme Court will offer anything but a further politicization of the court or that a Republican Party that Trump has led into the fevered swamps of anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim hatred will suddenly come to its senses on the immigration and refugee crisis?
Clinton has never met a war she didn’t like and Trump can’t spell NATO, but would do away with it nonetheless. Don’t expect either candidate – or president – to fundamentally rethink, as it so obviously necessary, America’s frequently disastrous commitments in the Middle East.
Goldman Sachs’ favorite Democrat isn’t any more likely to address the fundamentals of national and global income inequality than is a flaky billionaire given to gold plated bathroom fixtures.
You would think that the anger and disaffection coursing through the American body politic would prompt some serious reflection from serious people about how to accomplish a course correction, but Trump’s idea of reflection is to admire himself in a mirror, while Clinton seems to believe admitting an error, or even an uncertainty, is a sign of weakness. As Maureen Dowd writes Clinton “has shown an unwillingness to be introspective and learn from her mistakes. From health care to Iraq to the email server, she only apologizes at the pointing of a gun. And even then, she leaves the impression that she is merely sorry to be facing criticism, not that she miscalculated in the first place.”
To quote Trump, it’s just “sad.” Months and months of debates, town halls, the Sabbath gasbags, millions – if not billions – in vacuous ads gets us what: A nation horribly divided, unable to generate broad national agreement on any serious priority and led by people most of us don’t trust. This is the new normal. If you liked the last eight years, you’ll love the next four – or forty.
History tells us it is virtually impossible to identify a political crisis until it smacks us in the head, but more and more this feels like the year we get smacked.