Fatigue with the election?

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Far & Near column published in the Hindustan Times (24 October, 2016)

With election day fast approaching on November 8, many Americans are relieved that this sordid presidential campaign is ending. As comedian John Oliver suggested, things have plunged so low that you have to look up to find “rock bottom”. Quick on the uptake, corporations are already exploiting the national mood. During the final debate on October 20, the painkiller medicine Excedrin posted an advertisement in the guise of a viral tweet: “The possibility of a #DebateHeadache is high. Be prepared with Excedrin.” Travel companies tempt potential tourists with the suggestion, “Politics getting you down? Come away with us.”

In conversations with friends and colleagues, I’ve found universal disgust with the election. Everybody rolls their eyes and shakes their heads at what has transpired. Most of the blame falls correctly on the puffed up shoulders of Trump, for whom the adjective “outspoken” has been stretched to unprecedented dimensions. His rhetoric stirred dark energies in American politics, notably white nationalism, which I’ve written about often in this column. But Clinton has also cast a cloud over the campaign, unable to shake off the impression that she’s a cynical operator and the embodiment of the establishment nexus of political power, media access, and Wall Street lucre. Sexism plays a part in why so many people dislike her, but it’s not for nothing that Clinton is one of the most unpopular presidential candidates in American history. Her 53% unfavourability rating is only a little better than Trump’s 61%.

But I have a confession. I’ve been fascinated with the way this election cycle has unfolded. While there have been many horrific moments (principally from the Trump campaign), this has been one of the more engaging contests in recent memory. I’m not the only one to feel this way; the Clinton-Trump debates established new ratings records with nearly a third of the country tuning in to the first bout in September. Even if they’ve been watching through their fingers, Americans have found this campaign compulsive viewing.

The same cannot be said of the 2012 election that pitted the incumbent president Barack Obama against Mitt Romney. Despite many differences, both men were cut from similar cloth, centrists fluent in the language of establishment politics. Romney did struggle to overcome the impression that he was an “out-of-touch rich guy.” At a private dinner, he made the fatal mistake of saying that Obama’s voters comprised the 47% of the country that didn’t pay income tax. Before that remark, reporters had dwelt on the fact that one of his houses had a “car elevator”. Earlier that summer, the media spent inordinate time fretting over an episode in 1983 when the Romney family journeyed for hours with their dog fixed to the top of their car. Did that constitute mistreatment? Was the Republican candidate abusive to his pet, and did that make him unfit for the presidency?

Fast forward four years, and numerous accounts paint the current Republican candidate as a man guilty of sexually abusing women. Revelations via WikiLeaks increasingly sketch an image of Clinton as a cynical insider, with deep and possibly unethical ties to Wall Street and foreign powers. Any given day in the last few months of this election cycle has produced more controversy than the entirety of the 2012 campaign.

That’s not entirely a bad thing. It is easier for me to write this now because Trump is poised to lose heavily, punished at the polls for his sexism and racism. But in flummoxing the status quo and, like a magic realist novel, forcing the public to suspend its disbelief, Trump has widened the political frame. As many commentators have observed, American democracy is not being well served by its two main parties. The Democrats and Republicans don’t properly represent the various cleavages in society beneath the surface of the political system. Trump’s candidacy better exposed those tensions, especially at the level of race. He didn’t invent the odious white nationalism that got him this far; he simply recognised that it was there. In turn, Americans are realising that race and white identity in the 21st century are necessary subjects to grapple with. The best way to strengthen and protect multiculturalism is to confront these issues head on, not pretend they don’t exist.

Yes, Trump has said (and done) plenty of awful things during this campaign. Nevertheless, I think much of this popular fatigue with politics is not simply revulsion at his antics, but rather a reluctance to deal with dissonant voices, an unwillingness to accept that the placid, centrist, managerial “politics as usual” of the past is no longer functioning. No matter who wins, the Democrats and the Republicans will have to reckon with the populist Right-wing and youthful Left-leaning forces reshaping society. How they accommodate that changing landscape will make for much more edifying politics than this election.

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