Presidential Campaign 2016: Thoughts from Across the Pond…

Some thoughts on the current Presidential Campaign from Professor George H. Gilliam, UVA.

The great philosopher Woody Allen once remarked that 80 per cent of life is just showing up. Most Americans have stopped showing up at political events. This year, only about 9 per cent (fewer than one in ten!) of the population actually voted in the Republican and Democratic caucuses or primaries. We are now paying the price for years of political apathy and avoidance. Clinton and Trump! Is this really the best we have to offer?

It is very easy to become influential in American politics. One simply has to show up, and be present to vote. The vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin in 2008 showed that one need not be well educated or well informed in order to reach political heights. Two years later, a swarm of angry, misinformed Republicans joined to so-called TEA [Taxed Enough Already!] Party movement and not only hijacked the Republican Party but gained control of the legislative branch of both the federal and many state governments. What had been a slow race to the bottom accelerated. Many citizens who were well prepared for public service – women and men who had been leaders in their businesses or professions, who pay attention to civic issues, who care about community – chose not to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the insurgents: Americans claim not to be class conscious but in fact issues of class played a large part in the decision of many to abjure political participation. In a year in which the ‘best and brightest’ did not want to dirty their hands, it was easy for highly-motivated outsiders to win control. The Republican Party now is run by a minority of the minority. The Democratic Party narrowly avoided being captured by a man who never theretofore had claimed to be a Democrat; the price Democrats paid to avoid Sanders was reluctant acceptance of the heavily damaged Clinton.

In the past few dozen years, African-Americans who have offered for public office have found that pre-election polling consistently overestimates their support. Apparently, respondents to surveys do not want to appear racist, so tell the pollster that they will vote for the black man or woman when, in the privacy of the polling booth, they in fact vote white. The same phenomena may be at work this year. Trump is so – for want of a better word – disreputable on so many levels that many likely Trump voters are embarrassed to admit their preference. Many Americans are still virulently racist. They won’t admit to it, but they will vote Trump because they know his real slogan is ‘Make America White Again’. Unless Clinton had a lead in national polls of 8 to 10 points in the days leading up to the election she will be in trouble.

Regardless of the outcome of this election, one hopes that it will serve as a wake-up call to those who have chosen to remain on the sidelines. Good people cannot abdicate leadership to the likes of Trump and Clinton. But to take politics to a higher ground the good people have got to re-emerge in the nitty-gritty of politics. They have to start showing up.

– Professor George H. Gilliam, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia. Thoughts as of September 2016.

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