Tuesday

April 25th, 2017

Insight

History might smile on this year's election: It's ugly, yes, but it may come to represent a time when America came to terms with itself

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published Oct. 31, 2016

The Closing of the American Mouth

WASHINGTON — The entire political world is in a swivet. Worst election ever. Horrible candidates. Shameful dialogue. Awful conduct. And then Friday’s surprise FBI announcement about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s emails. 

Hard to argue with the national sense of despair. But years from now, when this election is either a colorful or horrifying anecdote, history may look back on it as an important moment in the American passage, and a consensus may emerge — as it has about other difficult episodes, such as the confrontations of the civil rights movement, now embraced as a shining American moment — that some substantial good came of the collision of forces in the 2016 election.

So as Donald J. Trump and Ms. Clinton bring their campaign ballistics to their welcome conclusion, we can hope that this election may be remembered for more than their caustic comments and their insults, and that the last several months will be redeemed because this election prompted some of the following:

A searing examination of the relations between the sexes and a national condemnation of sexual harassment, in its subtle as well as overt forms.

Not since the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas has there been such intense attention on this issue, which has simmered on campus and in the workplace but exploded earlier this month onto the political stage. The video of Mr. Trump’s casual conversation of sexual adventures focused the nation on his behavior, but also on the broader question of the treatment of women.

Mr. Trump and his most ardent supporters brushed aside his remarks as locker-room banter, but the very act of attempting to dismiss his comments carried with it, and then prompted, a vigorous denunciation of the attitudes and actions they expressed. By any measure, the injection of his comments into a White House campaign degraded the political process — but today hardly anyone can argue that the country is worse off for having confronted this issue and that the broader society is not sounder for the censure his elicited.

A painful appraisal of the character of the two major political parties.

With the Democrats flirting with becoming the party of the national elites and the Republicans attracting support from blue-collar voters, the two parties are unmoored from their nearly century-old roots. This has prompted an identity crisis in two dimensions, with the parties exchanging constituencies and even, on occasion, talking points.

The remarks of two veteran political observers underline the crisis that both parties share.

“We don’t know who we want to be — and we have lost our 20th-century values,” says former Democratic Rep. Michael J. Harrington of Massachusetts, who entered Congress in 1969 on the strength of his opposition to the Vietnam War.

“Main Street Republicans are worrying that their party is coming off the rails,” says Robert P. Strauss, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who was a treasury official in the Richard Nixon administrations.

This has produced a serious case of political vertigo in the body politic. Two parties that once had both liberal and conservative wings moved two decades ago into more ideological identities, producing gridlock in Washington. Then, during the past year, conservatives fled the Republican Party they had built even as liberals questioned whether their party, whose nominee had a weakness for Wall Street values, was abandoning its New Deal roots and its commitment to working Americans.

A fresh assessment of the place of immigrants and minorities in American life.

The election coincided with the publication of Tyler Anbinder’s stunning new book, “City of Dreams,” an epic history of immigration in New York that celebrates the role immigrants have played in the United States and chronicles the obstacles they have faced. The book carries lessons, and inspiration, for a country created by immigrants but now facing difficult questions about their welcome here.

The election also coincided with a new Harvard Institute of Politics Poll of Americans ages 18 to 29. Their view of race relations is sobering if not discouraging. Some 85 percent of young blacks, 72 percent of young Hispanics and 45 percent of young whites believe that “people of [their] own racial background are under attack in America.”

A national debate about responsibility, loyalty and manners.

These issues are usually reserved for the family dinner hour, but it was in the Bill Clinton years, themselves marked by questions of sexual behavior and meditations about redemption, that they first moved into the political realm. They receded during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years, in part because the men who followed Mr. Clinton were conscious of their public responsibilities and resolutely traditional in their lifestyles and behavior.

Bush and Obama opponents may have railed against their policies — particularly the Iraq War in Mr. Bush’s case and the health care overhaul in Mr. Obama’s — but hardly anyone assailed their personal conduct. Much of the 2016 campaign has revolved around the twin questions of whether Ms. Clinton belongs in jail and has a history of mendacity and whether Mr. Trump avoided taxes and is a social menace.

The country is tired of this campaign, and for good reason. A remarkable poll, conducted this month for Colby College and The Boston Globe, found that nine Americans out of 10 agree that civility — “general politeness and respect” — is an important element of American life, with three Americans in four believing civility has eroded in the past decade.

The rate of Americans over 65 — some of whom first voted in the 1972 election, experienced the divisions of the Vietnam War and then witnessed Watergate — believing that presidential campaigns are worse than in the past is 97 percent. These days there probably isn’t any other question regarding American life — probably even whether apple pie is a satisfying dessert — that would win the support of 97 percent of any sample.

“We are very aware of behavior right now,” said Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert who operates the Protocol School of Texas, based in Austin. “This has been a contentious campaign, and we live in a civil world and have certain expectations and standards. Every campaign has issues, but in this one, reasonable manners, civility and standards haven’t been met. We usually don’t talk politics in our social lives, but I think we are going to use this as an opportunity to say that certain behaviors are not acceptable, and that manners and civility simply have got to be restored.”

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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