The nation’s democracy has been battered by a category 5 political storm unlike anything seen in the modern era.
As Election Day dawns, there isn’t a political figure or institution in the country that has avoided damage from the unrelenting battering the 2016 presidential campaign has unleashed.
It’s tempting to invoke President Gerald Ford’s attempt to calm the nation after Watergate by observing that, at least momentarily, our long, national nightmare is almost over.
But considering that the signs point to something of a split decision in the election — Democrats retaining the White House, the GOP in charge in the House and the Senate in precarious balance — it’s hard to imagine sunny political skies in the forecast any time soon.
One Year Ago: America in Search of a Political Reset
The reality is this: It’s time for everyone to grab a broom, a shovel and a whole lot of duct tape and get to the hard task of cleaning up after this near-catastrophic storm. This mess didn’t start with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and it’s not going to end with a victory of either of the most unpopular candidates ever to win their party’s nominations.
American democracy can survive this test but only if every institution in this country takes the time to do their part and accept some level of responsibility for this campaign.
Here's just a starter list:
The Republican Party needs to learn who its voters actually are. During their now-infamous 2013 autopsy, the party focused most of its diagnostic efforts on why they can't win general elections in presidential years — which meant they only looked at what was preventing them from growing their 47 percent to 51 percent.
What they didn't do was figure out exactly what its base expected from the party.
Donald Trump stumbled into the answer and he didn't need a party autopsy to figure that out. But if there is a bigger challenge for the GOP, it's the growing echo chamber where those rank-and-file voters increasingly isolate themselves in — an alternative media universe where beliefs are reinforced at the expense of facts. If the party's leaders and members can't agree on the same set of facts, how are they going to communicate a potential winning agenda in an election year?
And the unrealistic promises that are made to please a base constituency have been destructive to the party’s credibility. That’s got to change. A strong, vibrant and competitive Republican Party is healthy for democracy.
The Democratic Party
Democrats, if they do hold the White House, can't assume a presidential victory is a pure validation of their way of governing. A win will be in no small part due to a rejection of Trump more than it is an affirmation for Clinton. The GOP may appear more fractured right now than the Democratic Party, but the ingredients are there for a similar implosion if the party isn't careful.
As Hillary Clinton was acquiescing to just about every single progressive ask for the party platform this summer, one smart Clinton operative admitted that she may have won the nomination but Bernie Sanders won the campaign to decide the ideological direction of the party. The Democrats have been benefitting from being "not them" with a lot of voters who are not quite as progressive as the party activists for now. Can Democrats keep these "not them" leaners in their coalition if they govern in a more progressive direction?
That will be just one of the first challenges a President Hillary Clinton would face. Her political comfort zone is as a more center-left Democrat. And this fault line has the potential to splinter the party. When one leaves out race, the Democratic coalition doesn't look all that different from the GOP coalition when it comes to income. And that divide has shattered the coalition on the right between blue-collar whites and the business/Wall Street elite.
Well guess what, the Democratic coalition consists of a wealthy elite and a working class group of voters, mostly of color. It's a coalition that survives as long as the other party is seen as less inclusive on ethnic and racial lines. Democrats may think the GOP will never be able to rebrand itself anytime soon when it comes to non-whites, but parties aren't static.
Hillary Clinton’s to-do list isn’t all that long but it is extraordinarily difficult. She has a unique challenge if she's elected president – making history by both breaking the glass ceiling and also being the most unpopular incoming elected president in the modern era. Perhaps only Richard Nixon ‘68 would rival her on this score. The level of antipathy that many Trump supporters have for her is beyond anything we've previously seen. She simply can't afford to not try to at least de-escalate the anger.
She should embark on a set of town halls in Republican states with actual Trump voters starting in December and begin a conversation. She may make little actual progress, but democracy demands a real effort. If she simply adopts the 90s model of "hammer them harder than they are hammering us" — we're doomed. And she has to address her trust deficit in both meaningful and symbolic ways. If she has the attitude that her allies have had in the past of "it's never enough," she won’t ever recover from this deep trust hole she's in.
The media made the same mistake as the 16 other GOP presidential candidates when Trump rode down the escalator in June 2015 by focusing too much on Trump himself and too little on the Trump supporter. And no entity collectively deserves more criticism on this front than we in the media. Journalists who got it first were the ones who don’t inhabit the Northeast Washington-New York City corridor.
Reporters outside the bubble who spent time with friends and family in the part of America that's been left behind, had a leg up in getting the Trump phenomenon. Bottom line: there was never enough early reporting about what was happening on the ground.
Trump is an intoxicating figure and his magnetism may have clouded the judgment of some, but he was a vehicle for actual frustration in parts of the country that was hit harder by the Great Recession and has taken longer to recover.
I was lucky to find myself in Iowa in the summer of 2015 when a Trump supporter said a version of the following to me: "I know who a Trump is, that he can be full of B.S. But he's my middle finger to you and all of Washington."
He meant no personal disrespect, he was trying to say "maybe if I support Donald F-Ing Trump, you'll listen." We in the media never really did and remaining deaf to those sentiments will only continue to fuel the anti-establishment anger and cost even more members of the media to lose credibility and eyeballs.
Congressional leaders need to realize that permanent gridlock will only lead to more outsiders like Trump and Sanders catching fire because the public sees it as a lack of action on their behalf. Partisans may believe fighting until the end for a perfect Supreme Court result is what plays with the base but eventually that mindset leads to action on nothing and turns off a slew of voters (especially Millennials) who prioritize problem solving over partisanship.
Just about every federal agency appears to be functionally behind or worse. Whether for bureaucratic, technological or even ideological reasons, there isn't a facet of the federal government that doesn't need reform. Acknowledging this and bringing the public in to do the reform could go a long way to start restoring trust in government again. This is a bigger crisis than political leaders appreciate.
The cleanup list goes on and on but the damage is clearly evident for all Americans to see. In short, it’s time for someone to get started. It may fall on a President Clinton and a Speaker Ryan to lead the country out of this nightmare, here's hoping they are up to the job.
One final thought: This was a unique election and some aspects may never apply to the future. That said, we could look back in 20 years and view this as a tipping point moment. The red-blue divide of the last 40 years appears to be coming to an end.
Doug Sosnick, a longtime Democratic strategist and old Bill Clinton hand, has been at the forefront of this argument, and he believes a potential political realignment based on where one sits on the economic ladder is coming.
It's likely that the center-left party of 2036 is one that is viewed as more globalist (think Americans who believe they are equally citizens of the world); while a center-right party is a bit more nationalist, more skeptical of trading too much U.S. sovereignty for international benefit. Already, the contours of this divide are apparent in this campaign and in some ways, it's a return to politics before the 1960s when economic issues drove political party identification, not the culture wars.
This doesn't mean the debate over social issues like abortion or other equality issues are completely going away, it's just that a big chunk of our society as a whole has basically moved on. Look at the current GOP nominee: Trump's campaign has never been animated on social issues. Even as the GOP platform stayed very socially conservative, that wasn't the tone of Trump's convention. And primary voters as a whole never punished Trump for his lack of conviction on these one-time pillar issues for the GOP. His economic populism trumped all — pun intended.
Bottom line: Until this new sorting by economic outlook truly takes hold, we are likely in for a slew of more disruptive economic-issue based campaigns headed up by outsiders with unconventional appeal. The two parties haven't really caught up to where voters are and this election was a warning to both that if they don't start paying attention, their days are more numbered than they think.