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The 2016 Election: What the Heck is Going on?

Updated on July 13, 2016

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Regardless of a person’s political beliefs, there is general agreement that the 2016 election has been surprising to say the least. Donald Trump, in spite of the fact that he is Donald Trump, is apparently going to be the Republican nominee. Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old political independent and self-described Democratic socialist, came far closer to winning the Democratic nomination than almost anyone expected. And throughout this entire process, I have asked myself continually the simple question of what the heck is going on.

Because I am an American history instructor by trade, my natural instinct has been to look to American history as a guide for making sense of the present. So in this longer than normal blog post, I am going to do a quick overview of about 100 years of American history, with the goal of answering two closely related questions. First, how did the two major political parties develop into what they are today in terms of ideologies, messages employed to attract voters, and the types of people who tend to vote for them? Then, I will attempt to answer the key question for making sense out of this election: why are so many Democrats and Republicans unhappy with their own parties? Because this year, being a candidate who is part of the party establishment, or just being a typical Democrat or Republican, is clearly a bad thing.

The Beginning of Liberal Democratic Dominance

This story begins in 1932. After about a decade of Republican dominance in Washington DC, the nation elected a Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, in a landslide. Herbert Hoover, who was elected in a landslide just four years earlier, had seen his popularity plummet when the economy crashed at the end of the 1920s. Suddenly, the pro-business, limited government philosophy of 1920s Republicans became far less appealing as the economy sank deeper into the Great Depression with each year that Hoover was in office.

When Roosevelt came in, he did not have a clear plan for digging the country out of the hole. But he ended up implementing what has come to be known as the New Deal, which was essentially a combination of new government regulations combined with various forms of economic aid: bank reforms, the Securities Exchange Commission, public works programs, relief checks, and Social Security. These programs in themselves never dug the country completely out of the hole – it took massive government spending on World War II to do that – but things stabilized and gradually improved enough to help keep Roosevelt in office for twelve years. (He would have been there for sixteen years had he not died shortly into his fourth term.)

You could make a strong case that the political impact of the New Deal was more significant than the economic effects. Many voters were convinced that Roosevelt and his New Deal approach to governing had done far more to help the country turn the corner than anything Hoover had done. This perception would help Democrats dominate politics at the national level for decades. From 1932-1968, there was only one Republican elected to the White House, Dwight Eisenhower (who was a political moderate). And from 1932-1980, Democrats controlled the House and the Senate roughly 90% of the time. Republicans largely found themselves in defensive mode, trying to lessen the scope of government regulations and aid programs. And to this day, the Democrats are still to a large degree the party of Roosevelt and the New Deal.

The Political and Social Changes of the 1960s

But to understand fully the political parties as we know them today, you have to jump ahead to the 1960s. Because it was in this period that the liberal approach to governing hit its peak and the battle lines were drawn in social and cultural conflicts that have raged to the present day. And even as it seemed that liberal Democrats had reached their peak of dominance, the 1960s would be the beginning of a conservative Republican comeback.

In 1963, Lyndon Johnson became president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A year later, voters chose to keep him in the job by handing him a landslide victory. As a master politician with a large Democratic majority in Congress, Johnson was able to implement what he called the “Great Society,” a wave of laws and programs to build on what his hero, Franklin Roosevelt, had started with the New Deal: Medicare and Medicaid, environmental and consumer product safety regulations, food stamps, housing projects, and Head Start, to name a few. At a time when the United States was the most prosperous nation in history, Johnson sought to wipe out poverty once and for all through aggressive government action.

In addition to the anti-poverty programs and new regulations, there were two legislative achievements that would also have major social and political repercussions. In one of the strangest political twists in American history, Lyndon Johnson, a Southern Democrat, signed into law the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The party of white superiority and segregation that had dominated the Deep South since the Civil War was now becoming the party associated with civil rights. (This is in spite of the fact that Johnson needed the support of many northern Republicans to get these civil rights bills passed.) And Johnson, the astute politician that he was, knew that the decision to support civil rights legislation had probably cost his political party the South.

Another major achievement of Johnson tends to get less publicity than the Great Society programs and civil rights legislation, but its influence on the current political environment would be equally important. Ever since the 1920s, when immigration restrictions were first set up, immigration laws were designed to do two things: limit the number of immigrants who could come here and ensure that most of these future immigrants would be white. Quotas were set up with far more people allowed in from places like Europe and Canada than from Latin America and Asia. But in the 1960s under Johnson, these quotas were adjusted so that the numbers from various regions of the world would be more balanced, and this would be the beginning of a steady increase in the non-white population of the United States. Today, more than one-third of Americans identify themselves as non-white, and this number will only increase into the future.

But when you talk about the changes of the 1960s, you have to talk about more than politics. The dominant images of the 1960s, rather than being Lyndon Johnson signing things into law, are often hippies doing their thing in the streets. This so-called counterculture countered the traditional morals and values of 1950s suburbia – where many of these hippies grew up – on virtually every level: sex, religion, personal appearance, attitudes toward materialism, the meaning of patriotism, etc. And while many people enjoyed the ride or cheered on this counterculture push for social changes, others were horrified by this behavior.

The Conservative Republican Counterrevolution

As often happens during periods of major social change, it was not long before some people began pushing back. A former actor named Ronald Reagan surprised many people when he was elected as governor of California in 1966. In this mecca of “hippyland,” Reagan ran in many ways as the anti-hippy, a man who would restore order in the chaos. At the national level, Richard Nixon would take a similar message nationwide to help him win the presidency in 1968. Ultimately, the messages and political strategies of Reagan and Nixon would culminate in Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980 and a conservative shift both politically and culturally.

This Reagan revolution was built on three basic things. First, Reagan argued that the federal government had grown too big, expensive, and powerful under liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. By strangling the economy with excessive taxes and regulations, and making people lazy and dependent with aid programs, the government had played a major part in creating the economic problems of the 1970s. As Reagan famously said so often, government was not the answer. It was the problem. After a rocky economic ride during Reagan’s first couple of years, the economy turned around, inflation was brought under control, and millions of jobs were created. And like Roosevelt’s supporters after the Great Depression, many Americans gave the Reagan program of tax cuts and deregulation credit for getting the country out of a hole.

Reagan also continued his reaction against the hippies that Nixon had also employed so effectively. When Nixon said he stood for the Silent Majority in the 1968 election, he was talking about all of those Americans who did not cause trouble in the 1960s. Instead of protesting in the streets, taking drugs, and being sexually irresponsible, most Americans went to work each day, raised their families, went to church, and obeyed the law. Since the 1980s, traditional Christians rising up politically to fight for their values have gone by different names: the Moral Majority, Religious Right, or evangelicals. However they are labeled, religious conservatives trying in their minds to bring our nation back to its Christian heritage played an important role in Reagan’s victories and in Republican political success ever since.

The growing importance of social conservatism in the Republican Party represents one of the more remarkable political achievements in American history. The GOP did not simply attract religious conservatives by adopting certain positions on issues. They managed to convince many Americans that Christian values were perfectly consistent with the Ronald Reagan political philosophy. In this worldview, Jesus was clearly a conservative Republican. He spent so much time, after all, complaining about excessive income taxes. He also couldn’t stand excessive regulation of corporations or welfare programs. It’s not as if Jesus ever did much to help lazy poor people. And I think we all know his point of view on gun ownership. He was clearly a second amendment guy who might have been able to hold off the Roman security forces if he and his disciples had just remembered their guns that day. Clearly, there is not any Christian position on these modern political issues. But if you ask many modern socially conservative Republicans, they will tell you that the platform of the modern Republican Party is perfectly in line with Christianity.

Reagan and conservative Republicans in general were openly disdainful of big government and of counterculture values. They had to be a bit more subtle, however, about the third trend that they were reacting against. Because Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act, Richard Nixon knew that Southern states, which had been dominated by the Democratic Party for a century, could be turned Republican. He also knew, however, that he could not be blatantly opposed to Civil Rights.

Nixon’s so-called “Southern Strategy,” therefore, involved carefully chosen language that could appeal to Southern anger and anxiety. So when Nixon talked about protecting states’ rights in an age of federal civil rights legislation, establishing law and order in the face of race riots, or was critical of affirmative action and busing programs, he was able to appeal to the South without necessarily being overtly racist. And when Nixon or future Republicans declared a war on drugs, called for crackdowns on illegal immigration, complained about welfare cheats, or defended police officers when they were accused of abusing or unjustly killing black people, these positions also had clear racial overtones or more subtly capitalized on negative racial stereotypes. While overt racism was now considered a bad thing, subtly using race as a tool could still attract voters in the South and throughout the country due to both these lingering stereotypes and to the steady growth of the non-white population. Some of the white majority were worried about their decreasing numbers, looked for scapegoats to blame for social problems, and resented the fact that white people (particularly white men) seemed to be the only demographic in the country that could be openly criticized. Saying anything negative about ethnic minorities or women was just too politically incorrect.

After decades of dominating in Washington, Democrats have largely been on the defensive since the Reagan counterrevolution. They have mostly been trying to preserve what they could of the New Deal and Great Society without being able to add much of anything new in terms of liberal legislation. Since 1980, Republicans have controlled the White House for 20 of the 36 years, and they have controlled the House and the Senate for roughly half of the time. On the brink of the 2016 elections, Republicans have significant majorities in both the House and the Senate, control the majority of state legislatures, and 31 of 50 state governors are Republicans.

Why are so Many Republicans Angry?

So if Republicans, with the exception of the White House at the moment, have been doing better politically in recent years than they have for decades, then why are so many Republicans unhappy? To understand the anger that has turned so many people toward Donald Trump, you must turn to the three issues that have helped them be so successful since the days of Nixon and Reagan. In spite of their electoral success, many Republicans feel that the federal government has not shrunk enough. Most, of course, blame President Obama and congressional Democrats for a lot of this. But ever since the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, it has been clear that many Republicans are just as angry at the Republican establishment who they accuse of not pushing hard enough to reign in out of control government spending. Instead of compromising with Democrats and merely trying to chip away at this government spending, Tea Party politicians proudly asserted their unwillingness to compromise and their desire to bust up Washington. With Trump, many Republican voters want to go even further. After decades of being told that the federal government is basically bad, it is only natural to conclude that the problem goes beyond government policies. The politicians themselves are the fundamental problem. So the time has come to elect the ultimate anti-politician to bust up the place once and for all.

It is also important to note that many Republicans, like Americans in general, have been struggling economically. The 2008 financial crisis created a big hole and many people are still trying to dig their way out. Some people’s economic troubles, however, can be traced back for decades. Beginning in the 1980s, an increasing number of jobs that used to be done in the United States began to shift overseas where wages were lower and regulations less strict. Since the dawn of the Information Age in the 1990s, humans have increasingly been replaced by robots and by various forms of artificial intelligence, a trend that will only accelerate in the not so distant future. The internet, while creating enormous economic opportunity, has also replaced business models and industries that have increasingly become obsolete. Full-time, steady employment has become less common as companies shift to part-time and contract workers. With so much of his support coming from older, white working class men, it is clear that much of Trump’s voter base consists of people who find themselves feeling obsolete in a country that they do not recognize any more.

In the 19th century, as our nation shifted from being a nation of mostly farmers, small towns, and small businesses to a land of factories, cities, and large corporations, many people also found themselves feeling obsolete. Some took their anger out on the technology that stripped away their ways of life or blamed immigrants for their problems. Trump, by fixating so much of his rage on illegal immigrants, is tapping into some of that same human tendency to look for scapegoats. But his economic “plan” goes beyond scapegoating.

When it comes to economics, much of Trump’s appeal is that he is a wealthy businessman. While sometimes short on details, he claims that he will use his business skills to cut better deals with foreign countries and to create a better environment for economic success. But he is doing more than simply reciting the standard Republican message that tax cuts and deregulation will lead to general prosperity. He is also promising to take aggressive action to bring jobs back from overseas and to stop places like China from screwing the United States over through unfair trade deals. This flies in the face of the decades-long Republican message that free markets and a less active government will lead to prosperity. And it may be the first sign that some Republicans are beginning to question the notion that the wealth made by prosperous businesses will eventually trickle down to the general population. After decades of the American working class being decimated, some may be asking if pure adherence to the Reagan program really brings prosperity for all.

Republicans are not only unhappy about the current economic situation and the state of affairs in Washington. They also feel that they are losing the so-called “culture war.” Gay marriage is now the law of the land, abortion remains legal, and some are apparently convinced that Christianity itself is under attack. Donald Trump, however, is hardly the typical Republican social conservative. He does claim to be a Christian, although anyone running as a Republican knows that he or she must at least claim to be a Christian. But he seems to have, to say the least, a limited understanding of Christian theology, and his lifestyle over the years has hardly been a model example of family values. This may be another sign, however, that the Republican fusion of various forms of conservatism is starting to break down, with Trump voters putting less of a priority on family values. Some Republicans may also be realizing a simple truth: electing politicians who claim to stand for family values has done next to nothing to make Americans have better family values. If anything, politicians promoting family values push Americans away from traditional Christianity. One of the best ways to convince people that an idea is false, after all, is to have a politician promote it.

Trump has gotten the most media attention, however, for the inflammatory statements he has made in relation to certain ethnic minorities. But Republicans, as stated earlier, have been capitalizing on anxieties related to race for decades, and given recent events, it is not hard to see why this strategy is particularly effective right now. We are near the end of the second term of the first black president in American history, a president elected at the beginning of a historic financial crisis. It is no surprise, therefore, that the classic tactics of scapegoating and of exploiting the public’s fears and lingering prejudices would work so well in the current political climate. It is also important to note that the shrinking white majority is smaller at the moment that at any point in American history, and we are seeing some of the inevitable backlash.

Many Republicans have been horrified by this ugly “nativism” that has been so key to Trump’s success. But Republican leaders are being disingenuous when they act completely surprised. When Donald Trump introduced himself onto the political scene five years ago as a prominent spokesperson for the “birther conspiracy,” Republicans had a chance to disown him forcefully and put this ridiculous idea to rest. Many realized, however, that it was politically convenient for a large percentage of Republican voters to believe that President Obama was a foreign-born Muslim. They just couldn’t resist capitalizing on the prejudices and anxieties that have served the party so well for the last several decades. The only real difference between Trump and much of the more conventional Republican leadership is that he has been less subtle with his nativism.

Why are so Many Democrats Angry?

Democrats, it turns out, are unhappy about some of the same things as Republicans. Many are still reeling from the financial crisis and angry about the bank bailouts. They are tired of politicians being bought off by rich donors. Foreign trade deals and corporations that outsource jobs in order to exploit foreign workers and dodge regulations also draw a great deal of criticism.

But the main thing that frustrates liberal Democrats is the simple fact that they are tired of being on the defensive. When not outright losing presidential and congressional elections over the past 35 years, Democrats have ended up with moderate presidents like Clinton and Obama who proved far too willing to slide to the right and compromise with or give in to Republicans. Bernie Sanders, however, is a throwback to the Roosevelt and Johnson years, a true progressive looking to improve society through government action rather than simply preserve some of the achievements of the past. Many older, progressive Democrats and independents feel that it is time to stand up for progressive principles rather than voting for another moderate who is the lesser of the two evils.

Older progressives, however, have not really been the core of the Bernie Sanders movement. One of the ironies of this election season is that Sanders, a man seeking to be the oldest elected president in American history, has received his most enthusiastic support from young people. But when you look at his policy proposals, it not hard to see why. He has called for free tuition at public universities at a time when a college degree is more critical to success than ever before but the cost of a college education keeps skyrocketing. If not already saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, many are staring down the prospects of going deep into this hole in the near future. When Sanders talks about a single payer health care system providing health insurance for everyone, this is especially appealing to young people who have not yet gotten steady employment with benefits and may no longer be eligible to receive insurance through their parents. Even in the age of Obamacare, health insurance is not necessarily cheap. And when Sanders talks about breaking up the big banks, taxing the wealthy, and reducing wealth inequality, young people who feel that the system is rigged to the benefit of older, more established, wealthier people flock to packed stadiums and cheer him on. Young people today, after all, are the first generation in American history to think that their standard of living will be lower than that of their parents.

It is also important to note that young people today don’t remember the 1960s and 1970s. They don’t remember the problems that helped cause the conservative counterrevolution of the 1980s. Having not grown up in the Cold War, they don’t necessarily see socialism as a bad thing. As a general rule, they are not interested in fighting the same old battles that their parents and grandparents have been fighting for decades.

The Political Power of the Internet

In addition to being the year of the anti-establishment candidate, this is also the year where we are truly seeing the political power of the internet age. For some time now, the internet has helped push people to the political extremes. Rather than being a unifying force, the internet makes it easier for people on both sides of the political spectrum to find like-minded people and steadily reinforce each other’s beliefs. And when people who strongly disagree with one another come into contact online, the interaction often gets ugly. Because people are not interacting face-to-face, they are far less inhibited when expressing thoughts and feelings. As anyone who has spent a little time online knows, people will often say things online that they would never say in person. If things get ugly, this tends to only reinforce people’s beliefs and convince them that those on the other side are stupid, mean, or downright un-American.

Trump in particular has thrived in this type of media environment. A prolific “tweeter,” Trump has an outlet for reaching a huge audience in a format that they are accustomed to, a format that has helped to create our short attention span society. And when he repeatedly attacks people in debates, rallies, and on Twitter, this behavior seems normal and even admirable to people comfortable with the nasty interaction so common online. In an earlier age, Trump’s behavior would be considered unseemly for a man seeking the highest office in the land. Today, his political incorrectness and “honesty” has been one of the keys to his success. It is in many ways an extension of the persona that he has projected for the past few decades, a persona honed on camera with his show “The Apprentice.” And in an age where people are more addicted to entertainment than ever, it should be no surprise that people would turn to a reality TV star for leadership.

But the political impact of the internet has not all been negative. It has also played a major part in helping anti-establishment candidates like Sanders and Trump to even have a chance. Today, anyone with internet access can easily become a campaign worker by posting blogs, sharing links, and generally finding a wide variety of ways to promote a candidate’s message. Also, as the Sanders campaign has demonstrated, the internet makes it much easier to pull together large quantities of money from small donors, reducing somewhat the power of rich donors, interest groups, and political parties to dominate the process. Young people, the people most comfortable with navigating the internet, have been especially engaged this election year. They are finally beginning to utilize politically the Information Age and realizing that the politically powerful have not been looking out for their interests largely because of their historic lack of money, organization, and motivation. While Sanders may have lost this time, this could be the beginning of a movement that lives long beyond 2016.

Lessons, Reasons for Hope, and a Final Plea

There are, however, plenty of reasons to be depressed about this election so far. At the moment, Americans apparently have to choose between two candidates with the highest negatives in American history. But however we might feel about the election thus far, I think that there are some reasons for hope. For one thing, we have finally reached a point in American history in which a woman can become the presidential nominee of a major political party. It has only taken 240 years since independence and 96 years since women achieved voting rights, but at least my two daughters get to grow up at a time when this is at least possible. I expect sexism to be a factor moving forward just as racism has reared its ugly head in the face of the Obama presidency, but presidential elections of the past eight years have at least shown that our nation has made some progress over its history.

As this blog and some past things I have written demonstrate, I am not a big fan of Donald Trump or of the ugly aspects of the Republican Party that have helped him find success. I see him as some sort of a political Frankenstein created by decades of capitalizing on the anger and fears of some Republican voters. Given that I never thought he could actually win the nomination, I must face the fact now that he might actually win general election. But even if he does pull this off, the Donald Trump strategy, which is a more extreme version of strategies employed by some politicians of the past, is not viable over the long-term. Demographics are simply not on his side. He has angered, alienated, and mobilized large numbers of non-white and female voters. And given that younger (increasingly non-white) Americans are far less susceptible to Trump’s nativism than older white Americans – and also given the fact that nature has a way of dealing with old people in general – things do not bode well for the GOP if it fully becomes the party of Trump.

Many Republicans know this full well, and there are signs that the Reagan Republican mix of fiscal conservatism, nativism, and evangelical values may be starting to break down. Many evangelicals are uncomfortable with Trump’s lifestyle, and believers in limited government are concerned about his attitudes toward foreign trade and his lack of focus on specific spending cuts. But underlying much of Trump’s success is the possible realization from Republicans of average means that the “trickle-down” economics which has been sold to them for decades is not really happening for them. So people like myself who have been hoping for a reshaping of the Republican Party as we know it may have some reasons for optimism. Sure, for now, their common fear of Hilary Clinton may be enough to drive reluctant Republicans to Trump. But at some point in the future, when Democrats choose candidates with less baggage, this common fear may not be enough to snuff out the various divisions and contradictions.

Presidents, fortunately, have limited power. Regardless of who wins, some of the more impractical ideas that have been thrown around during this election are very unlikely to happen. Our president, however, is given the unique power to be our national and international representative. Like it or not, a president speaks for all of us, and elections are our chance to choose the available candidate who best fulfills this role.

The Fourth of July was just a few days ago. For some, it was a day to eat barbeque, blow stuff up, and celebrate how great we are by waving flags and singing patriotic songs. But for me, it should also be a day when we pause for a moment and remember the ideals that our country was supposed to be founded upon. I want to be led by a spokesperson who tries to push our country a bit closer to living up to those ideals. I don’t want to be led by someone who uses his or her political pulpit to dredge up some of the ugliness of our past.

It would be nice if we could always vote for someone that we really like and who truly represents us. But sometimes, the best you can do, and your obligation as a decent American citizen, is to vote against someone or something. And sometimes winning isn’t enough. Certain candidates and ideas need to be crushed in order to minimize the possibility that they come back again. So regardless of what opinion polls or the conventional wisdom might say, I encourage anyone who has read this far to not be complacent or encouraged. Go out and send a message in November.


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