I have finally figured out something Barack Obama and George W. Bush have in common besides living in the White House for eight years each. I suspect both of them are horrified — as in hair standing straight up on their heads horrified — by the directions voters of all stripes are taking as Presidential politics 2016 unfold. It is almost as if Democrats, Republicans and Independents held a secret convention and agreed to do their own thing this year and to do it loudly.
As I heard a TV talking head express this stunning phenomenon, it is as if American voters are in full political revolt.
When Democrat-turned-Republican Donald Trump, with all his insulting ways, and 74-year-old self-described Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders began resonating with voters, the Establishment of both parties pooh poohed them. Surely, party elders said, voters will come to their senses any minute now. Surely, they will acknowledge the wisdom from above and fall back into line, supporting the candidates we have put forward and bankrolled for them.
The troops have quit taking orders.
American voters have apparently taken a lesson from the 1976 film Network in which a main character holds up his fist and declares, “I am mad as h*#l, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” “This” varies from voter to voter, of course, but it generally involves the sense that the political Establishment is, at the very least, not listening to real Americans and at the very worst is lying and thoroughly corrupt. Nevermind that Establishment candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have long records of public service and zillions of dollars behind them. This season’s voters are sending messages that both parties’ elders are loathe to receive.
We are far from done, of course. Early voting has been in small states with, from North Carolina’s perspective, amazingly homogenous voters and overwhelmingly white populations. So, what to expect as the rest of the nation continues to express its frustration and anger at the polls?
My guess and my hope are that much of this emotional political tsunami stems from the reality that politics-as-usual has brought us inequities of all sorts — economic, environmental, voters’ rights, educational, access to health care, our personal and national safety and more. These are not easy or comfortable topics for many on this year’s political stage, but they loom large in the minds of voters. The Donald’s support base of largely white, lower income men without college degrees illustrates the frustration. They are people for whom today’s technology and economy are not working well. They may have lost jobs to other nations or to technological advancements and they are angry. Who would not be?
On the other end of the spectrum, Bernie Sanders appeals to women and younger voters, a real concern for Hillary Clinton. What is that appeal? Sanders talks about both free and debt-free higher education, notions much on the minds of younger people and others hoping to move up the educational ladder.
In the midst of all this swirling frustration, candidates and voters seem farther away from each other than ever. Voters simply do not believe much of what they hear from candidates, often with good reason. An entire industry of debate fact checkers has popped up during the 2016 cycle, another of countless examples of our federal government having become so polarized by partisanship that it is virtually paralyzed. The immediate partisan reaction to last weekend’s sudden death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is but the latest manifestation of our polarization.
All of this feels a bit like a high profile sports competition with both sides cheering and booing.
Call me Pollyanna, but I have faith in the common sense of American voters. With only a few exceptions, we have elected reasonable people to our presidency, and I have my fingers crossed that we will do that this year as well. I also sense that voters will do our best to force candidates and our eventual party nominees into talking honestly not about what divides us but what shapes our daily lives — our jobs, our schools, the environment around us, our health, our safety.
If those honest conversations can and do occur, America is likely to elect a reasonable and realistic president, be he or she a Democrat or a Republican. If they do not, the frustration and anger so many of us feel now can only grow and carry over into future election cycles and push us ever farther apart.