What Should We Do About an “Election from Hell”?

Recently, I received an invitation to participate in a discussion about the election this week at Drexel. The objective was to consider the candidates and the issues, and to urge Drexel students to vote.

Recently, I received an invitation to participate in a discussion about the election this week at Drexel. The objective was to consider the candidates and the issues, and to urge Drexel students to vote.

I replied that I would be happy to offer an opinion about the election, but that I could not encourage anyone to vote. I didn’t hear anything further from the sponsors, so I have decided to express myself here.

The phrase “election from hell” was coined by the New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow in an op-ed column last May, when the primaries were still in progress and the major parties two months away from officially selecting their candidates. But it was clear enough that, barring an act of God or an access of sanity, the Democrats would nominate Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the Republicans Donald J. Trump. God did not choose to intervene. Hell has gotten a lot hotter since May.

We have had elections before where the candidates aroused no enthusiasm, or even unease and distaste. But we have never had one before in which both major party candidates were actively distrusted or even detested by a clear majority of the electorate. It’s hardly cause for wonder, then, that this election season has been so much about hate. To begin with, the candidates themselves are hated.

At first blush, this is perplexing. We have primaries so that the voters of each party can pick the candidates they prefer. How, then, did the electorate come to be confronted—to confront itself—with the choices it liked least, and, for the majority, not at all?

The answer to this question, that of candidate selection, is complex, but the particular circumstances of this election can be described briefly. What we’ve witnessed in 2016 is a populist revolt on both the left and the right against the parties themselves and the policies they represent. Republican voters rejected sixteen establishment candidates (well, Ben Carson was in a world of his own) in favor of an insurgent who had only recently registered with their party, and who denounced it for having betrayed their interests. Democratic voters nearly chose a lifelong political independent who had never belonged to their party at all, and who likewise espoused a program—universal health insurance, tuition-free higher education, and urgent attention to climate change—that was anathema to party leaders. Bernie Sanders might well have been the Democratic nominee (and Donald Trump not the Republican one) had independent voters, who constitute 42% of the electorate, been permitted to vote in the primaries, but they were excluded from most of them. When nearly half the electorate is accorded no guaranteed role in the choice of presidential candidates, it’s scarce wonder that people are apt to be dissatisfied with the results.

One can give establishment Republicans, this much credit, that they have been with few exceptions appalled by the hostile takeover of their party. It almost certainly wouldn’t have happened had not the plethora of candidates in their contest not enabled Trump to win many early primaries with a relatively low percentage of the vote. Still, they did deserve him. The Republicans created an electoral base by conning working class voters and Evangelicals into believing they represented them, and when Trump disabused them at long last, he rode the tidal wave of their anger to the nomination, and, if he can rile enough people up, he might just ride it to the White House too.

It is less easy to forgive the Democrats. Donald Trump is a mountebank—if the term is unfamiliar, please look it up, because it precisely describes him. To say that he is unqualified in every respect for public office is to grossly understate the case. That’s not necessarily a disqualifier for Republicans—think George W. Bush, think Sarah Palin—but he is in addition a complete rogue, and rogue elephants are not the kind Republicans like to breed. So, having survived the Bush years thanks to the healing ministrations of Barack Obama, who gave them back both houses of Congress, they now face a serious implosion. If Trump should win, he will not court Republicans; they will bend the knee to him. (You think Vladimir Putin kept John Kerry cooling his heels on his last state visit to Moscow? Wait to see how long Paul Ryan waits on Donald Trump.) The party could divide; it could even perish. It wouldn’t be missed. Trump has already taken its base with him.

The Democrats, in contrast, were offered the best candidate they’d put up in decades, a genuine progressive, unbeholden to elites, and substantively addressing issues of popular concern: our broken health care and education systems, our crumbling national infrastructure, the disgrace of deep poverty, and the obscenity of unaccountable wealth. Here was a rumpled, elderly figure without graces of speech or manner, self-exiled at the margins of the political scene for thirty years, but capable, simply through the force of his convictions and his evident personal rectitude, of doing what no one else had done for decades: of arousing the young, and giving a generation being schooled to give up on itself the sense of a future worth fighting for.

The Democrats could never have produced such a figure by themselves, so, naturally, they had to figure out a way to stop him.

I never got starry-eyed over Bernie Sanders. He is a moderate social democrat, and the reforms he was touting had been taken for granted for decades in Europe. Some of them had already existed in America. Tuition-free public higher education? Hey, I had it when I was going through college in New York, and so did everyone else; it was taken for granted. Universal, single-payer health care? It was on the platform of the Democratic Party in 1948, and in that same year, the British, still on wartime rationing and dependent on Marshall Plan aid, gave it to themselves. Sixteen years into the twenty-first century, it might fairly be said that Bernie Sanders was just trying to bring America abreast of the twentieth.

Nor did (or do) I agree with Sanders about every public issue, or every question of value. I was troubled, too, by the conventionality of his thinking about foreign affairs, and his failure to address the toxic legacy of our imperial posture in the world. But he was something I hadn’t seen in a long time, and had almost given up on: a candidate of hope.

So, the Democrats turned instead, with as close to unanimity as any Stalinist Politburo, to the very embodiment of a broken and corrupted system, a figure already rejected eight years earlier by the voters of her own party, the anti-change, anti-hope candidate: Hillary Clinton. How’s that, folks, for a thumb in your eye?

Barack Obama, of whom the best that can be said is that he has wasted eight years of our political history, has repeatedly declared Hillary Clinton to be “the best-qualified person” ever to seek the American presidency. Leaving aside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, let’s examine the claim.

Clinton began her independent political career with an attempt to overhaul the American health care system, a task delegated her by her husband. She failed, so completely that the opposition party took control of the Congress essentially on that issue. Thereafter she had no public role, but she did support her the initiatives that made Bill Clinton’s presidency the most retrograde Democratic administration in American history: job-killing NAFTA; a crime bill that raised America’s incarceration rate to the highest in the world; a welfare “reform” bill that threw a million kids into poverty; and, for the coup de grace, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall wall between commercial and investment banking that greased the skids for the worst depression since the 1930s.

Clinton got into the U.S. Senate on the coattails of Al Gore, who substantially outpolled her in New York in his own failed pursuit of the presidency, and was reelected in the Democratic Congressional landslide of 2006. In her Senate years, she made not a single speech anyone could remember except the one supporting war with Iraq, by general consensus the worst American foreign policy disaster of modern times. Her name appears as a sponsor on only three public bills, all local services for constituents. They included one that renamed a post office.

Eight years in her only elected position. She renamed a post office.

Clinton ran for the presidency on this stellar record in 2008, and with a near-monopoly of party endorsements and donors, all seemed poised for the restoration that would complete the family narrative the Clintons had schooled us to regard as our own national destiny: first Bill, then Hillary, the first husband and wife presidential duo in history (“Two for the price of one,” as Bill had breezily promised us at his own inauguration). But a jug-eared junior senator from Illinois came, seemingly from nowhere, to spoil the plot and steal the office. Hillary settled for secretary of state, Obama’s concession to the Clintons’ vengeful fury and the price of their support. In this job, she managed to wipe a rather large state, Libya, off the map, leaving a warlords’ paradise and a de facto North African capital for the Islamic Caliphate. When Moammar Qaddafi, who had held the country together, was hunted down and spitted like a dog in the street, Hillary crowed, “We came, we saw, he died.” When Chris Stevens, our ambassador to Libya, was then murdered with his aides in Benghazi, she told a Senate panel she felt had grilled her too long on the subject, “What difference does it make? They’re dead.”

Your perfect presidential resumé. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the e-mails, or the sordid commerce in State Department access for contributions to the Clinton Foundation—foreign policy for sale. Best qualified for the country’s highest office? How about least: or, if you’re considering the alternative, perhaps second least.

Paul Krugman, Noam Chomsky, and even Bernie Sanders tell me I must vote for Hillary Clinton lest Donald Trump become president. They tell me it is my duty. But my vote isn’t a duty, it’s my right as a citizen, and a right is something one freely chooses to exercise according to judgment and conscience. My judgment tells me that Hillary Clinton is incompetent and corrupt. My conscience tells me that I cannot accept even a particle of responsibility for putting Bonnie and Clyde back in the White House.

Come November, one of two terrible candidates will become the next president-elect. Don’t blame me for the result, or yourselves. But, if you’re as offended by them as I am, do something about the political system that produced them, and the parties that anointed them. That sounds a lot closer to the common duty we owe our democracy.

About Robert Zaller 54 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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