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April 27th, 2017

Insight

The rebellion of 2016

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published Nov. 7, 2016

The Closing of the American Mouth

GETTYSBURG — This has been the year of living rebelliously.

Exhausted, frustrated, disgusted, millions of Americans nonetheless go to the polls Tuesday, possessed, despite all their disappointment and despair, with a sense of hope for the future and a determination to restore respect to the country and its institutions.

Tuesday brings to an end a tortuous and tortured process that has raised questions about the sturdiness of our democracy, the processes we use to select our leaders, the durability of our political parties and the willingness of Americans to be engaged in the vital civic activities of our culture. We emerge from this experience battered and bruised, skittish and skeptical — and yet still committed to Lincoln’s better angels, and of course to better presidential candidates.

This is, to be sure, a moment of extreme pressure on our institutions, spawned in part by those two deeply flawed candidates and amplified by the emergence of a new generation of voters with its own perspectives and priorities and by profound demographic shifts that are rendering old notions of our politics as outdated as the city bosses were in the 1990s.

Some of what the country has witnessed seemed new and searing, but wasn’t. The name-calling (Lying Ted, Little Marco, Crooked Hillary), for example, was discordant but not exceptional in our history.

Years before he became president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis was the target of unforgiving opprobrium from Sam Houston, who criticized the Mississippi senator by saying he was as “ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard.” In “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy wrote this of Thomas Hart Benton, who served in the Senate from 1821 to 1851: “Pouring out his taunting sarcasm in short, bombastic thunderbolts of gigantic rage, hate and ridicule, day after day, in town after town, he assailed his opponents and their policies with bitter invective.”

Nor are shifts in party loyalty a new feature of our democracy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said of his 1940 rival, Wendell Willkie, that it was typical of him “to stand alone and to challenge the wisdom taken by powerful interests within his own party.”

This is not the worst election we have ever had, though surely it is the worst we have had in modern times. The campaign has distressed commentators and political scientists, but there remain glimmers of hope among the people who actually will decide the outcome. This is not a guess based on anecdotal conversations in this classic swing state but a statistically significant finding in a respected poll. The percentage of Americans who, according to a Colby College/​Boston Globe poll, say both sides in the election confrontation should come together and work together is astonishing: 93 percent.

The strains on the two parties have tested their mettle and perhaps prepared them for a raucous future, when the New Deal coalition is dissipated and when old ideas of Republican rectitude are abandoned along with wing collars, bustles and puttees.

The difference between this campaign and others is that earlier campaigns answered questions. The 1932 campaign, which swept FDR to power, answered the question of what the future of the Democratic Party would look like, and the campaign that followed, in 1936, affirmed that the United States would enter a period of government activism. The 1980 campaign answered the question of whether the country would continue on a path of big government, with Ronald Reagan standing athwart decades of trends and bringing them to a resounding halt.

By contrast, this election raised questions that the end of the campaign will not resolve. Here are six among them:

• Is the Republican Party, since 1909 the party of the Establishment, going to relinquish that role and banish its own party establishment?

• Will the Democrats, since 1932 the party of the poor and striving, take on the tint of the elitist party, its power centers being gentrified urban areas and college towns?

• Will the Republicans, within the lifetimes of many voters the party of social rest, emerge as the party of cultural unrest?

• Will the Democrats, in recent years the party of insurgency, retreat into a new, sleepy life as the party of the status quo?

• Will the Republicans keep the support of blue-collar voters that their leaders spent decades fighting in labor battles but whom Donald J. Trump attracted into their column in 2016?

• Will the Democrats embrace the nostrums of Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and surge leftward?

As we prepare to vote, these questions remain unanswered — and will remain so for months, perhaps years. And, while the insults and invective of this campaign ultimately may be unremarkable — in years to come no one will care whether Mr. Trump abused the bankruptcy or tax laws or whether Hillary Rodham Clinton should not have used a private email server — the politics of the future will depend on the answers to those questions, some of which are interdependent.

For, above all, this campaign has been about rebellion: Rebellion over the status quo. Rebellion over the wealth gap. Rebellion over the power of party leaders. Rebellion over the prerogatives of party establishments. Rebellion over the norms of political campaigning. Rebellion against the conventions of language and manners in politics. Rebellion even over whether a presidential campaign is the proper forum for rebellion.

Campaign retrospectives may change our view of this campaign, but they almost certainly will not change the notion that this has been a year when every assumption, every expectation, every premise, of politics has been under siege and, in financial terms, under water.

To all the questions in play above we might add: Is this campaign a turning point in how we conduct our politics, or is it an aberration so odious, so out of character with the country’s traditions and aspirations, that the 2020 campaign will look less like the contentious struggle between Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton and more like, say, the 1976 competition between Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter?

Like so much in this year of rebellion, the answer will come neither from exit polls Tuesday afternoon nor from the final results Tuesday night. The answer will come from our heads and our hearts — and from what we expect of our politics and what we demand of our politicians.

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

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