Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

Monthly Archives: October 2016

2016 and watersheds

The 2016 election has been a uniquely depressing experience. Somehow the Republicans managed to nominate, from a candidate pool ranging from awful to merely incompetent, the worst possible option: a racist authoritarian whose existence is a stinging rebuke to the notion of American meritocracy and who undermines easy assumptions about the progress of equality in America. Hillary Clinton, practically the embodiment of what people mean when they complain about hawkish neoliberalism, is somehow the good guy in the 2016 race.

One element that makes the race so unpleasant is its steady presence: the downside of being constantly connected is that you’re, well, constantly connected. Social media and cable news overflow with obnoxious political commentary, stories of Trump’s latest bigoted gaffe, or horserace commentary. You sometimes feel like you can’t get away from this horrible experience through which the American people are inexplicably putting themselves.

Part of this is a reflection of the increasingly (and regrettably) partisan nature of American political culture, but I also think part of it is a need to make the race more exciting than it actually is. Like play-by-play announcers insisting that anything can happen in the fourth quarter of a 45-14 football game, the clickbait/24-hour news media has a vested economic interest in obscuring the extent to which the election has already been decided. In all likelihood, the race is over, and Donald Trump has lost. Most organizations predicting the outcome, as the New York Times forecast indicates, overwhelmingly favor Clinton:


Scrolling down to the state-by-state predictions, Trump would have to hold on to all the Republican states, win every toss up state, and pick off one of the states leaning Democrat to win. Polls can be wrong and anything can happen etc etc etc, but a huge Clinton win picking up 350+ electoral votes seems far more likely than a Trump win by any margin.

There are a few explanations for this state of affairs. One obvious reason that Trump is losing is that he’s Trump. Clinton is a weak candidate, and the things that are necessary to be good at campaigning are not her strengths (or are outside her immediate control, like the continued influence of sexism). But Trump is just about the worst imaginable candidate, magnifying Clinton’s strengths like political experience and temperament for the job while minimizing her weaknesses because he shares so many of them.

I’m curious how much of this is bigger than Trump, though. Demographic forces and political shifts appear to have favored the Democrats for several presidential elections in row (Congress and state elections being a different matter). Since the end of the Cold War, the smallest electoral margin any Democratic president has managed was John Kerry’s 251 in 2004, also the only time since 1988 a Republican won a majority of the popular vote. The two Republican victories were extremely narrow; the Democratic wins have been solid.

I wonder if historians will look at the 2008 presidential election as one of those watershed elections, like 1896 or 1932, that permanently changed the political landscape. 1896 seems like a good comparison: a partisan era when Democrats usually had safe states to count on, but a time when Republicans almost always had the advantage going into a presidential race.

And yet! Republicans hold a solid majority of the political offices around the country. Republicans make up a majority of governors and, even in this awful national year, expect to hold on the House of Representatives with a toss-up for control of the Senate. Maybe a better analogy is 1968, when the New Deal coalition broke and, ushering Republican dominance in presidential elections against Democratic control of Congress.

That said, one can easily take this kind of talk too far; I remember people talking about the inevitable generation of Republican ascendancy even after the 2000 election. Barack Obama’s election may represent only unhappiness with the unpopular George W. Bush and a desire for change, while a Clinton victory might best be understood as a referendum on the exceedingly unfit Trump. But it looks to me like most of the trends at a national level favor the Democrats; it would take considerable Democratic incompetence or scandal (or something attributed as such) to shift the balance.