Divided it stands: The year ahead in American politics

Hillary Clinton will win a nasty presidential race that strains U.S. democracy and leaves a trail of bitterness
The US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 2, 2013, on the day after a compromise bill passed the US Congress, avoiding the "fiscal cliff." The agreement raises taxes on the rich and puts off automatic $109 billion federal budget cuts for two months. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The new campaign began the day the old one ended—a shameless cavalcade of panhandling, baby-kissing, backstabbing, race-baiting, man- and woman-splaining and voter disgust. The culmination, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, will be the most bitter and contentious presidential election in the 228-year history of the United States of America and the rusted-out machinery of its 18th-century electoral mechanics.

Until the next one.

For the past three years, more than a dozen proven, experienced, serious contenders—and an equal number of has-beens, outliers and outright liars—have been in full roar, cravenly seeking the Republican and Democratic nominations to occupy the Oval Office when Barack Obama’s second (and, by law, final) term expires in January 2017. (Why anyone would want to be president is a separate question. When Obama trounced John McCain in 2008, the satirical newspaper The Onion headlined its coverage: “Black man given nation’s worst job.”)

American voters can expect the hullabaloo to become even more hellacious as the state-by-state primaries and caucuses begin in February in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, with more than a billion dollars predicted to be spent on television and radio attack advertising before the victor emerges.

Overwhelmingly, political scientists expect former secretary of state and former U.S. senator Hillary Clinton to be that champion. If that happens, all the sound bites and furiousness of the campaign—and especially the megalomania of real estate billionaire and Republican front-runner Donald Trump—will be rendered meaningless, money-wasting and moot. Unless, of course, the experts are wrong. “Hillary has been the ‘inevitable’ next president since 2008 or even earlier,” says Jennifer Lawless, professor of government at American University in Washington. “Right now, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where that inevitability fades as it did when Obama overtook her, eight years ago.”

“Since 2000, we’ve had a series of pretty close election cycles, but the map is one that favours the Democrats a little bit, as long as turnout is high. Hillary is not generating the enthusiasm that Obama did in 2008 and 2012, but if the Republicans manage to nominate someone like Donald Trump, not only would Hillary have all the Democrats, but every poll suggests that independents would break for Clinton over Trump in huge proportions,” adds Lawless.

“The landscape certainly favours Hillary at this point,” says George Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University. “The economy is not tanking at the moment and we don’t have a lot of body bags coming home . . . Of course it all depends on her opponent. The Republicans have substantial discontent among a segment of their party that gets a lot attention now, but it’s only a modest percentage of the total American public.”

The correlation between affiliation and optimism is striking. “In general, do you think America’s best days are ahead of us or behind us?”pollsters from the Public Religion Research Institute asked nearly 3,000 Americans over the past few weeks. Sixty-five per cent of the Republicans who responded picked “behind.” Fifty-nine per cent of Democrats chose “ahead.”

“Voters are polarized, and they are more consistently polarized than any time since we began studying party loyalty,” says James A. Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University’s school of public affairs. “In 2012, 93 per cent of Democrats voted for Barack Obama and 93 per cent of Republicans voted for Mitt Romney. Voters are consistent across time, but they are divided along racial, cultural and ideological lines, and we’re seeing that reinforced by and in the Republican Party.”

As Trump, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and an underling cast of senators and governors debated and demonized each other through the summer and fall of 2015, Clinton cast herself, despite her millions, as the valiant Katniss Everdeen of the struggling American middle class. But all the noise and noxiousness may have overshadowed the most significant fact of all: there are significantly more Democrats than Republicans among the nation’s eligible voters, and that ratio is even more slanted in California, New York and several other states under America’s arcane formula of partisan primaries and disproportional representation.

“I think Hillary will be the nominee unless she slips on a banana,” American U’s Thurber says. “She’s doing better every week. If she wins Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s over with, she’s in. She may not be the most exciting candidate for a lot of people, but she is the next nominee for the Democrats.”

Arizona’s Milward adds a note of caution: “People said in 2008 that she was inevitable and she wasn’t. It’s very hard to figure out things like terrorism. If we had a terrorist attack, what would that do to the race?”

Should Trump become the Republican flag-bearer at the party’s convention in Cleveland in July, the late-summer sprint for the White House could approach record levels of populist incitement, feminist backlash and all-around nastiness. As Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine last month, “[Trump’s]talent for manipulating the darkest emotions of the conservative id, while minimizing specific policy commitments, has been on full display . . . None of this requires intellectual justification in lizard-brain America, and Trump, for now, is the Lizard King.”

Yet it all has happened before. In 1968, Alabama governor George Wallace won five Southern states and captured 10 million votes as the independent voice of the downtrodden white man, railing against what he called “civil-rights agitators,” “pointy-headed intellectuals,” “anarchists and communists,” and “hippies who know every four-letter word but w-o-r-k and s-o-a-p.”

Asked whether his lack of experience in global affairs might prove damaging should he win the White House, Wallace replied, not unlike Trump and Carson, “I’ve read about foreign policy and studied—I know the number of continents.” (Richard Nixon won that election and the Democrat Hubert Humphrey finished second.)

“A lot of the things that Trump stands for are things that other people have said,” notes Brinton Milward, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “He just carries them to a different level—he doubles down on almost everything. The thing that’s different now is the context. He has the background in self-promotion, in reality TV and in all these books trumpeting Trump. He has a standing that other people don’t have.”

Milward is a former director and strong proponent of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which is chaired by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Hillary’s husband. The organization strives to bring Democrats and Republicans together in a spirit of public service and compromise, beginning at the state legislative level. But Milward admits that, on the national stage, bipartisan comity is about as common as mermaids. “According to the latest poll, Americans’ trust in government is at 19 per cent,” Milward says. “That’s not the lowest it has been for the last 50 years, but it’s pretty darn close. You are having real problems getting people to agree on what it is that allows a democracy to function.”

“Respect for civil discourse depends on three things. Humility: your views today may not be the same tomorrow. Empathy: the ability to walk in another’s shoes. And common fate: we’re all in this together. In my view, you aren’t a democracy at all unless the losers see the winners as legitimate, and that is increasingly hard to find.”

“You cannot predict the rise of a Donald Trump or a Ben Carson,” says Edwards of Texas A&M. “We’re always trying to prevent people like that from arising, and we don’t know how to do it.”

“It has always been a mess,” Edwards goes on. “We go from one thing to another—from the ‘smoke-filled room’ to openness and transparency, starting in the 1970s. It is indeed democratic with a small ‘d’ now, but whether it’s the best way or not is an open question. I can hardly stand it, to tell you the truth.”

In late November, Donald Trump tweeted that his presence on the presidential ballot would bring out the greatest number of voters in November—both Republicans and Democrats. “That’s the stupidest thing he ever could have sent out,” says Lawless of American U. “He is going to be engaging with someone who has extensive foreign policy and domestic policy experience. Sure, Trump will bring out the voters—but they won’t vote for him!”

“I am very discouraged with the system,” says American University’s Thurber. “The permanent campaign continues to bring in money and these people strategize their fundraising around wedge issues like immigration. This is a real problem in our democracy.”

In 2010, on the eve of Congressional elections, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell told an interviewer that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Come 2016, the nation’s scholars believe, history will repeat itself. “As soon as she is elected,” Thurber predicts, “Washington will be full of fundraisers and those wanting to get rid of Hillary.”