Can US politics recover from this toxic campaign?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 20, 2016
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes a photograph with supporters at a campaign office in Seattle. Andrew Harnik / AP Photo

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes a photograph with supporters at a campaign office in Seattle. Andrew Harnik / AP Photo

It is not long now until voting day in the United States and many Americans will be heaving a sigh of relief that the November 8 end is in sight. The long campaign has fallen to levels never before plumbed. Chauvinist abuse, religious and racial bigotry and sexually explicit terms have featured in stump speeches, television interviews and public discourse.

What is this election season “doing to our children”, America’s first lady, Michelle Obama, recently asked on the campaign trail. What messages are little girls and boys absorbing? Will they behave as hatefully as they have seen and heard happen during the election?

It’s not just the effect on children. Fifty-two per cent of American adults have told pollsters that the 2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress. The survey was conducted online by Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association among adults 18-years-old and older living in the US.

It’s not hard to understand why. People have had to watch the undermining of key social, cultural and political values, not least the centrality to America of religious freedom. Essential civic traditions such as a belief in the electoral system’s fairness and courtesy to political opponents are under threat. At the weekend, Republican nominee Donald Trump described American democracy as “an illusion”. Earlier, he threatened to have his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton thrown into jail if he wins, something pundits instantly denounced as behaviour more suited to Third World dictatorships. He has also suggested he will not accept the results of the election, a convention that is considered the cornerstone of a vibrant democracy. There are fears of voter intimidation and post-election violence.

Many say American politics will never be the same after this election. Can it recover its equilibrium?

It all depends. If Mr Trump’s rise is seen as an anomaly, a mere aberration caused by the force of his unique personality and celebrity, then memories of this political season will fade if, as seems likely, he loses. Then, the moral coarsening of politics may be corrected and everything will be as before.

But if his candidacy is more a symptom than the cause of a profound change in the culture of America, the election aftermath has to address this disturbing newly-revealed reality.

Already, there is talk of Mr Trump’s provocations extending beyond election day and well into and beyond a possible Clinton presidency. This could happen one or both of two ways. Bruce Bartlett, who worked for president Ronald Reagan, recently raised the troubling possibility of Mr Trump continuing to tend his angry, often racist and Islamophobic constituency, “which will remain a powerful force in the presidential primaries fuelled, perhaps, by a Trump cable channel”. Thus, the dastardly impulses of his core supporters — roughly 38 to 40 per cent of the voting population — that came so startlingly into view this election, would remain a factor in the foreseeable future. Thus would existing scepticism about crucial institutions such as a free media and the government flourish, as would deep suspicions about progressive cultural change and globalisation.

The second way in which Trumpism might stay alive is the birth of a new party. If the billionaire launched a political party that claimed to speak for white nationalists, it could run racist candidates, say, for state legislatures. They would continue to advocate division and partisan bickering rather than allowing America to end political gridlock and invest in its people.

Admittedly, if he lost this election, the chances of Mr Trump remaining a political star are low. Like Sarah Palin, the proudly ignorant vice-presidential candidate on the 2008 John McCain ticket, the businessman may lack the discipline to remain relevant to a once-adoring constituency.

But whether or not Mr Trump has a political future may be beside the point. Many fear that the language and ideas he has brought onto the campaign trail may affect the way politics is done in the future. It’s worth noting that this candidate appealed to many conservatives who decided politeness itself was the problem, simply because norms of politeness have been used to enforce progressive social change. How to rebuild the constituency for desirable cultural shifts?

Lewdness and the discussion of private parts — the candidate’s own and those of other people — has also become normal. Putting the moral guardrails back up will be a challenge after the election.

But an even greater conundrum will be to rescue the idea of America itself as a fair, rule-bound country that affords opportunity to all. Technological change and trade deals have altered workers’ prospects. The internet has inflated perceptions of their poor lot. Demographic change has accelerated their sense of displacement. Political scientist Rui Teixeira, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, notes that between 1976 and 2012, the percentage of white voters declined from 89 to 74. In 2016, it’s estimated at 70 per cent. The sense of loss — of dominance — cannot be denied. How to speak to and for them and also speak to and for all?

American politicians would need a new language. Perhaps something along the lines suggested by Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. It would be a restating of the virtues of cosmopolitanism, not as rootless globalism but enshrining the idea of “obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind”.

America, it’s said, is great because it’s good. Perhaps it can only be great when it gets back to being good.