The gen­eral elec­tion and the re­bel­lion of 2016

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - David Shribman Colum­nist David M. Shribman is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib­man@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manPG.

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.

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