After The Presidential Campaign, Our Toxic Politics Will Endure
Like all traumatic events eventually do, the U.S. presidential campaign will end.
Polling places will close, votes will be tabulated and a new electoral map will be drawn up that shows how our 45th president-elect got elected.
Unfortunately, the stink of this campaign season will stick around much, much longer. The vitriol has been too corrosive. It can’t be put into a bag, tied up and tossed away with the leftover campaign flyers. Discord this passionate, this overwhelming, leaves scars. Boundaries of decency were crossed, the authority of our democratic process and institutions were flouted, and some even talked not at all metaphorically of civil war.
The depth and immutability of our partisan divide has been exposed. One side has pledged itself to anti-intellectualism and the other to jeering at ignoramuses, as if that will bring them around to sweet reason.
People have compared the 2016 presidential campaign to a reality show — by which they mean an absurd, sham version of the real thing. Well, I’m sorry, America, but this is our reality. And none of it can be disinfected with lemon-scented niceties after the election, regardless of who wins.
Donald Trump’s entire campaign rested on his determination to unleash upon anybody and everybody who stands outside the Republican Party’s restive base. Barking with sexism, racism, religious bias, nationalism and a good dose of anti-elitist posturing, he pitted that base against a nebulous host of un-American, royalist enemies.
All the while, he not only showed a stunning lack of respect for democratic principles, but he also gloried in his own exploits at bribing politicians, avoiding taxes and generally grabbing all he could get by any means necessary.
And people cheered. Until far too late, much of the Republican leadership couldn’t muster the wherewithal to denounce him or to defend those he scourged. They even found ways to discount the fact that white supremacists gleefully latched to the promise of a Trump presidency.
The reason the GOP could not resist Trump is that the party has been fertilizing the soil he sprang from for decades, cozying up to conspiratorial talk radio hosts, casting aspersion on science, undermining the election process with false proclamations of voter fraud, sowing race-based populism.
Democrats aren’t sinless either. Clinton earned much of the distrust that she drew. It would be a lie to label all of it gender-based misogyny, although there is plenty of that as well. Skirting the rules seemed to be a calling card, from the sloppiness of the never-ending email scandals to the perks and trappings of the Clinton Foundation. Both Bill and Hillary know better. They just chose differently.
Democrats are on point to be offended at the retrograde and cynical nativism of Trumpism. But they need to be more honest about why Trump’s voters feel like the party offers them no hope. Democrats haven’t been listening to them for decades now, having cast their lot with the kind of economy in which only the educated prosper.
A New York Times/CBS News poll released in the final days of the campaign shouldn’t shock. It found more than eight in 10 voters disgusted with the whole campaign and the state of our politics.
The same poll also revealed the widespread belief that neither Clinton nor Trump is equipped to help pull the country back together. Trump is hostile to the very idea of reconciliation. It’s not his brand. Apology — even acknowledging another’s offense — is something he clearly deems as unacceptable weakness.
Clinton, on the other hand, will not be given the opportunity. Large portions of America will not suddenly begin respecting her after the election any more than they did before. And those numbers will include many people who cast their ballot for her as the least objectionable option.
Furthermore, the Republicans have already begun signaling that they intend to set the same traps they used against Barack Obama, blocking anything that might suggest moderation or cooperation. They claim it is to protect the party, but this comes at the expense of the nation. There is even talk already of impeachment for the first female president.
There isn’t much weighty discussion around the systemic changes our country needs: campaign finance reform, redistricting and shifts in ideology that will allow more moderates to live through the primaries.
America needs leadership at the national level that it can believe in, that it can trust, that will elevate the nation’s interests over partisan interests. It will take both parties to produce such leaders.
Gloat over or bemoan your candidate on the evening of November 8. Afterward, at least consider that the real work for America — regardless of political affiliation — lies ahead.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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