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.

Review: American Historian Professor Frank Cogliano’s September lectures

A Review of Professor Frank Cogliano’s lectures, ‘The 2016 American Presidential Election: Precedents and Reflections’ and ‘You think the 2016 US Election is bad? You should try 1800!’, September 2016.

With the U.S. presidential election looming ever closer, there has been no shortage of exhibits, film screenings and lectures to entertain American history enthusiasts in Edinburgh this September.

Over the last month, I had the good fortune to attend not one, but two lectures delivered by Edinburgh University’s inimitable and well-loved Professor of American History, Frank Cogliano. The first, titled ‘The 2016 American Presidential Election: Precedents and Reflections’, was hosted at the National Library of Scotland and was so popular that I arrived to discover tickets had sold out two months in advance – luckily, I was able to sneak my way in. In his usual humorous yet informative style Professor Cogliano deftly guided the audience through the history of the Electoral College system, pausing to explain that yes, it is technically possible for the election to end in a tie (hint: keep your attention fixed on Nebraska and Maine). Drawing upon a range of historic presidential elections, Professor Cogliano offered potential outcomes for the forthcoming election, but neglected to go ‘on record’ with any prediction for November 8!

With the upcoming presidential election it made perfect sense for an American historian to kick off the Edinburgh University History Society’s annual lecture series. Professor Cogliano reprised his role as the ‘unofficial guide to presidential elections’ in addressing a busy lecture theatre full of young history enthusiasts. His title, “You think the 2016 US election is bad? You should try 1800” undoubtedly drew some curious audience members (and fans of the trendy Broadway musical Hamilton) and he provided some much-needed reassurance that perhaps the 2016 election is not as unprecedented as the media would like to have us believe. Both lectures were thoroughly enjoyable and I would encourage any presidential enthusiasts or otherwise to keep a look out for the many events happening around Edinburgh as Election Day draws closer.

Finally, for any keen election enthusiasts, Professor Cogliano highly recommends visiting where visitors can manipulate the political map of America to predict various election outcomes. (Professor Cogliano is sorry to say that his Fantasy Football team has suffered dreadfully as a result of this newfound source of entertainment.)