Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The 2016 Presidential Election as a Window into Contemporary American Political Culture

I am currently thirty-four years old and I have been an active voter since 2000. No matter which side of the political spectrum my family and friends fall on (and I have many which can be fit into any conceivable political distinction) there seems to be a general discontent with the contemporary state of American politics, the candidates available to represent the masses, and the entire modern political process.  The most frequent complaint voiced, from folks on both side of the spectrum, is that the candidates, for lack of a better term, stink; which, I think, means that they fail to adequately embody the kind of leadership desired.  The general lack of enthusiasm to fully embrace either candidate from any respective ideological position is astounding, in my opinion, really leaving only the disinteresting election of 2004 between George W. Bush and John Kerry as a debatable rival in terms of an intellectual dud.  At least in 2004, there seemed to be a sociopolitical urgency surrounding the War on Terror and foreign policy.  In the current election, the personalities and pasts of the candidates is the only thing remotely interesting about this contest, leaving most voters feeling entertained, in a crude fashion, but unsatisfied.

The sad state of American politics becomes clearly visible when examined against the backdrop of some of the important issues that could be at stake, but instead are swept under the rug as debates over emails, sexual assaults, tax fraud, and the personal pasts of each candidate dominate the popular discussion.  But does blaming the system, the parties, or the candidates themselves really make sense or solve any of the inherent problems?  Yes and no, depending upon how we choose to view and use this election as a steppingstone.  Rather than complaining about the lack of adequate representation, it would be more productive to use this opportunity to examine this election as a window into our contemporary sociopolitical well-being.  In this respect, this article argues that in three important areas, the American public is reaping exactly what they have sown in terms of the garbage involved in this election cycle.  First, the public has either a general case of historical amnesia regarding political history, or a general ignorance to that history which could be used as a helpful reference point in grounding extreme, inaccurate opinions based on emotional flights of fancy on both ends of the ideological spectrum.  Second, modern political ideologies have become so intertwined with collective and individual identity that they are now rigidly counterproductive in terms of being able to think critically about our political institutions and which issues are truly important.  Finally, the inability to tackle difficult political questions stems directly from the former issues and directly results in the media, political parties, and the candidates being able to punt on difficult, important issues as long as they present a general atmosphere of entertainment in the fashion of a polarizing reality television show.  If we are to make our sociopolitical institutions effective instead of farcical, these issues will need to be addressed through education, activism, and thoughtful participation on the part of the entire citizenry.

Historical Amnesia:

In his opus, The Origins of Political Order, a highly recommended read, Francis Fukuyama comments that, “The struggle to create modern political institutions was so long and so painful that people living in industrialized countries now suffer from a historical amnesia regarding how their societies came to that point in the first place.”[1]  Fukuyama is more discussing an idealized path to westernization for “Third World” countries (“getting to Denmark” as it is called) than contemporary politics, but his theory is applicable to the current discussion.  As Fukuyama later points out, astutely, theory must follow history in the causal chain if political institutions are going to reflect reality in a coherent, meaningful, and productive fashion.[2]

Most Americans today feel that they are living in a time of unprecedented political partisanship, hostility, distance from compromise, and lack of attention to the issues that matter to them individually as constituents.  In a personal sense this may very well be true, but it reflects the kind of amnesia Fukuyama cautions against.  Mudslinging, personal attacks, and political divisiveness have a long history in American politics, predating even the Federalist Papers and the issues surrounding the adaption of the Constitution in the 1780s.  Donald Trump calling for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment over emails, or Clinton’s emphasis on Trump’s dubious attitude toward women pale in historical comparison to issues from our past such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which allowed the Federalist party in power to legally jail political opposition, the debate over slavery which lead to the American Civil War, or the interrogations of Joseph McCarthy and the role the Second Red Scare played in developing a unified nationalistic front against communism.  So when we think that politics is dirtier, less compromising, or more invasive of personal rights than ever before, we need to check these emotions against a historical reality.

Recently, I raised this issue of historical amnesia in a discussion with some friends, leaving one friend to comment that perhaps the issue is more ignorance than amnesia.  The point is a valid one.  Many Americans have a dreadful grasp on their own recent history, never mind the history of colonial American or European political institutions they are founded upon, the history of the places they acquiesce in making war upon, or how this history has led to the development of the institutions that exist today.  In this respect, the educational system of the nation is failing before our very eyes and, in my opinion, accurately reflects the political attention paid to these important issues.  We hear very little in this election about making our educational system stronger, more affordable, and competitive against other developed nations.  Instead, we hear about someone’s hand on someone else’s genitalia or ISIS, a distant, faceless threat which were it not for social media would likely be a minimal or nonissue.

Regardless of whether the issue is amnesia or ignorance, there is no excuse for it in this day and age of instant access to a seemingly unlimited amount of knowledge.  We need not all be expert political historians but we should have a basic understanding that our adversarial political system can be dicey and easily distracted if we, as voters, do not require an intelligent discussion on the issues we view as important.  If we only think or care about the issues the media or the candidates concoct to grab our attention then we are failing to do our due diligence as citizens.  Active participation in the political process is a tremendous responsibility and should be treated as such.  Unless we, collectively, make it a point of emphasis to check our emotions with research and reason, much of the time we are allowing the political process to control us instead of controlling it, as is the point of representative government.

Ideology and Identity:

The American political process is nothing if not founded on the basis of compromise.  Any Constitutional historian or scholar could recount the painful debates of a blistering 1787 summer where it was firmly understood that if a nation was to be created, compromise must reign supreme.  Yet, it does seem that this electoral cycle pits very different ideologies against each other in a rigid “take it or leave it” stance.  Ideology has become so inflexible with polarization usurping perspective and patience, and we have become so normalized to this behavior, that we have acquiesced in the entire government ignoring its Constitutional duty to appoint a ninth Supreme Court Justice in the wake of Justice Scalia’s passing.  There is a supreme irony in the timing of Scalia’s passing as the self-proclaimed strict interpretation’s death has now caused the abdication of a clear Constitutional duty due to the ideological sensitivity and whining of those who perceive their “side” as losing if another justice of the opposite ideology is sworn in.  So much for compromise!  Yet, this really important issue and the breakdown of our institutions is not a prevalent topic of political debate in this electoral discussion.  Instead, archaic issues like abortion, immigration, and whether climate change actually exists (issues with a predetermined, polarized stance depending on ideology) allow candidates and voters alike to bicker along familiar battle trenches.  Meanwhile, politicians, special interests, and voters all ignore the elephants in the room, like the increasingly unbearable cost of medical care and the effectiveness of that care to combat diseases of modernization such as cancer, COPD, diabetes, and stress-related psychological illnesses.

The central problem is that most people have interwoven their political ideology into their personal identity.  No matter which side of the spectrum you lean towards, a predetermined set of issues and stances, like those mentioned above, allow you to define who you are, and where you stand in comparison to those around you.  By extension, the same argument can be made for communities, cities, and states, in general.  So when we are “debating” these issues there is an egoic component at stake.  Attacking our ideology becomes an attack on us as humans, communities, states, nations, etc.  Responses to these attacks then take the form of anger, betrayal, and misunderstanding rather than a civil discourse based upon rational political discourse with the general underlying goal being the improvement of the common good.  Rousseau and Jefferson would not approve.

The ramifications of this Narcissistic political behavior are extremely dangerous.  It seems that we do not actually listen to the words coming out of the candidates’ mouths or their stances, but rather we have already determined whether we boo or applaud as soon as any of these tired issues are introduced.  This is the opposite of critical thinking.  It is an intellectual passing of the buck because we are egoically invested in our ideology and not concerned with making thoughtful determinations on important issues in spite of our emotions and preconceived agendas.  If politics is to be redeemed and become more responsive to the real growing crises in this country, in education, healthcare, foreign policy, and racism, we all need to put our ideologically-driven emotions aside and require an intelligent, productive debate from our candidates instead of the same pro-choice, pro-life and other “hot button issue” monotony.  In order to solve these crises, we will need to piggyback this on top of historical awareness and thoughtful participation in a society-wide political discussion about improving our common good regardless of the growing pains of these transitions.

The 2016 Election as Entertainment Only:

I will not argue that this election cycle has not been entertaining.  If nothing else, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have put on a good show in terms of creating ridiculous things to discuss after their every interaction.  However, the polarization of the candidates’ personalities detracts from the fact that generally speaking, they are both ignoring the fundamental political problems that need to be addressed.  Issues of campaign finance reform, improving the educational system, and finding a way to provide affordable, high-quality medical care to a massive population are largely ignored by the candidates and the media in an effort to provide entertainment, secure ratings, and make maximum profits for conglomerates.  We end up voting for a candidate based upon how we perceive or judge them emotionally vis-à-vis their counterpart rather than by a thorough analysis of their political positions on important issues.  From one side of the spectrum Trump is a disgusting womanizer ill equipped to lead a Dunkin’ Donuts much less a nation.  From the other perspective, Hillary is a conniving, deceitful career politician who makes her living off of other people’s work; a “nasty woman” who will introduce little, if any change into a system desperately needing it.  This is nonproductive, subjective banter at best which does little to address actual political problems but saps enormous amounts of creative, emotional, and intellectual energy from any progressive political conversation.

The problem is that we seem to yearn for this kind of polarization.  We allow it to define our ideological stances, play to deepest fears over the collapse of the system or our national security, and generally divide and distract us from the fact that both ideological stances have important contributions to make regarding the mending of fences.  Our lack of historical perspective distorts our reality, creating an unnecessary feeling of urgency that pushes down upon us like the falling sky, requiring immediate action and endless vigilance if we are to stay afloat in these “unprecedented times of difficulty.”  Instead of thoughtful reflection on issues, we succumb to the emotional pull of one candidate’s words and their conceptualization of the other as illegitimate, if not criminal.  Is this the best we can do; two candidates each claiming the other is a criminal, or at least, a sexual deviant?  We have allowed a gladiatorial atmosphere to usurp the patient rationalization of the entire political process.  We put people in power who do not have the common good as their primary motive and all the while remain glued to our televisions, phones, and tablets reassuring each other through Facebook likes, retweets, and hashtags that although we are unsatisfied, we are supremely and thoroughly entertained.

If we are to improve our political institutions we need to require more from our candidates, representatives, and ourselves than mere entertainment.  As voters, we need to demand a rational discussion on real issues, difficult issues, issues that we, in the depths of our awareness know need to be solved but out of fear just want to disappear.  We need to be prepared to ask difficult, important questions when our questions are sidestepped as they inevitably will be.  Change is always difficult, trying, and requires an enormous amount of patience, perspective, and pain.  History teaches us that each generation has to go through a trial by fire if they want leave the world arguably better than they found it.  We need to accept the challenge of acknowledging our part in the political failings of our system.  It is our greatest generational challenge and also a way make government more accountable, representative, and democratic.

[1] Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 14.

[2] Ibid., 24.

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