November 9, 2016
This election year (2016) has been an exhausting parade of ugliness. It has also highlighted some fundamental truths about the United States circa 2016, lessons that political leaders should heed beyond Tuesday’s elections.
Hate sells. Racism, bigotry and misogyny, Donald Trump has proved, can energize a national campaign. Mr. Trump has shown it is feasible to recruit the alt-right, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and anti-Semites as ferocious allies without alienating reliable Republican voters.
Economic anxiety is high. Americans of all backgrounds — whites, blacks, Latinos, men, women, people in rural and urban communities — have this in common: They are worried about their economic future. The country recently experienced the longest recession since the Great Depression, incomes had been falling or stagnant for years and income inequality in recent years has been worse than at any other time since the 1920s. All the candidates, Republican and Democrat, have sought to make this issue central to their campaigns.
But Mr. Trump has outdone even Bernie Sanders in tapping this anxiety. While economic worries cut across all demographic lines, he has gotten away with exploiting the real concerns by attacking immigrants and trade agreements, but offering no cogent policies for creating good jobs and lifting wages. His economic and tax proposals would hurt ordinary workers and blow a hole through the federal budget. By contrast, Hillary Clinton has offered practical ideas that could improve the economic situation for most Americans.
The media enable extreme candidates and the parties are too fragile to stop them. Social media sites and TV news transmitted every political spitball and insult spewed over the past 18 months. But they had little capacity to establish widely shared truths or foster constructive debate about issues like climate change or criminal justice. In democratizing the media, Twitter and Facebook have also made it possible for Americans to encounter only the messages they want to hear. Desperate for ratings, Fox News, CNN and other networks handed Mr. Trump an open mike early in the contest. And having fanned the flames of extreme partisanship for years, Republican leaders were powerless in the primaries to stop Mr. Trump’s rise, and then were afraid to alienate his supporters by opposing him in the general election. Mr. Trump used his media savvy and entertainment value — often in the form of insults — to keep all eyes on him. Imagine how much further a more disciplined demagogue might go applying a similar formula.
Hispanic turnout is rising. Here’s a bright spot. Early voter turnout during the last few days in states like Nevada and Florida suggest that Hispanics are voting at much higher rates in this election than they did in the past. This shows that the Latino vote can mobilize, and it could be pivotal in delivering the loss Mr. Trump deserves. How fitting that would be.
Citizens are turning to local solutions. The presidential election is not the only consequential choice before voters. In fact, tens of millions of people across the country on Tuesday have a chance to take matters into their own hands by voting on ballot proposals that could change their lives and communities. Voters in nine states will consider measures to turn around the failed war on drugs by permitting the medical or recreational use of marijuana. Cities and counties, including Los Angeles and Seattle, will be voting on financing rail lines and other desperately needed transportation projects. Washington State will vote on taxing carbon pollution. Elsewhere, people will vote on stronger gun control policies and raising state minimum wages.
These proposals are a powerful response to the anti-government zealots who have hogtied Congress into inaction on anything besides futile, partisan investigations. For deeply frustrated citizens, this end run around political dysfunction may be the only way to move the country forward.