The general election and the rebellion of 2016
This has been the year of living rebelliously. Exhausted, frustrated, disgusted, millions of Americans nonetheless go to the polls Tuesday, possessed, despite all their disappointment and despair, with a sense of hope for the future and a determination to restore respect to the country and its institutions.
Tuesday brings to an end a tortuous and tortured process that has raised questions about the sturdiness of our democracy, the processes we use to select our leaders, the durability of our political parties and the willingness of Americans to be engaged in the vital civic activities of our culture. We emerge from this experience battered and bruised, skittish and skeptical -- and yet still committed to Lincoln’s better angels, and of course to better presidential candidates.
This is, to be sure, a moment of extreme pressure on our institutions, spawned in part by those two deeply flawed candidates and amplified by the emergence of a new generation of voters with its own perspectives and priorities and by profound demographic shifts that are rendering old notions of our politics as outdated as the city bosses were in the 1990s.
Some of what the country has witnessed seemed new and searing, but wasn’t. The name-calling (Lying Ted, Little Marco, Crooked Hillary), for example, was discordant but not exceptional in our history.
Years before he became president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis was the target of unforgiving opprobrium from Sam Houston, who criticized the Mississippi senator by saying he was as “ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard.” In “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy wrote this of Thomas Hart Benton, who served in the Senate from 1821 to 1851: “Pouring out his taunting sarcasm in short, bombastic thunderbolts of gigantic rage, hate and ridicule, day after day, in town after town, he assailed his opponents and their policies with bitter invective.”
Nor are shifts in party loyalty a new feature of our democracy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said of his 1940 rival, Wendell Willkie, that it was typical of him “to stand alone and to challenge the wisdom taken by powerful interests within his own party.”
Above all, this campaign has been about rebellion. Rebellion over the status quo. Rebellion over the wealth gap. Rebellion over the power of party leaders. Rebellion over the prerogatives of party establishments. Rebellion over the norms of political campaigning. Rebellion against the conventions of language and manners in politics. Rebellion even over whether a presidential campaign is the proper forum for rebellion.
Campaign retrospectives may change our view of this campaign, but they almost certainly will not change the notion that this has been a year when every assumption, every expectation, every premise of politics has been under siege and, in financial terms, under water.
To all the questions in play above we might add: Is this campaign a turning point in how we conduct our politics, or is it an aberration so odious, so out of character with the country’s traditions and aspirations, that the 2020 campaign will look less like the contentious struggle between Trump and Clinton and more like, say, the 1976 competition between Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter?
Like so much in this year of rebellion, the answer will come neither from exit polls Tuesday afternoon nor from the final results Tuesday night. The answer will come from our heads and our hearts -- and from what we expect of our politics and what we demand of our politicians.