Reflections on a Toxic Election

As Americans endure one of the most unpleasant and depressing election seasons in a long time, it might be productive to consider how we ended up with a Presidential race between a buffoon and a woman people love to hate.

Pundits have had a field day speculating on why Donald Trump won the GOP primaries. They have faulted the party, identified nativism as the heart of his appeal, and accused the media of allowing him to manipulate–and dominate–the news cycles. All of which is accurate, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

If more Americans understood how government works, and what skills public office requires, the willingness to believe that anyone who had run a business could just as easily manage the affairs of the nation would disappear.

I have remarked before on the evidently widespread belief that Americans go to the polls every four years to elect a monarch, who can then wave a magic wand and effect policy change. For people who do not understand checks and balances, or federalism, or the policy process, voting for someone as unfit for office as Donald Trump may seem reasonable; for the rest of us, it’s madness.

What about the pervasive suspicion of, and distaste for, Hillary Clinton? How much of that criticism is fair, and how much isn’t?

Michael Arnovitz has probably provided the most in-depth analysis of that criticism. Both the essay linked to and the previous one referenced in it are well worth reading in their entireties, but a couple of his observations about “Hillary hatred” are particularly relevant here:

I am sure that [my] last statement about policy sent a bunch of people lunging for their keyboards in order to explain to me that Hillary Clinton’s policies are exactly what they DON’T like about her. But it is very clear to me that this is not the case. The vast majority of messages and comments about HRC that I see consist almost solely of either personal attacks, false claims, childish conspiracy theories, assumptions of guilt by association or complaints about legislation passed by her husband decades ago. Almost none of the comments I see (or have received) even bother to address her current policy positions, and most of the small few that do either willfully misrepresent them, assume as a given that they are terrible or dismiss them altogether as mere political expediency.

Arnovitz notes the extent to which criticisms of Clinton are founded on the same lack of understanding of how government actually works that gave us Trump:

Factions with strict ideological agendas love to pretend as if all policy issues, problems and solutions are simple and self-evident. But this is absurd. In truth, our world is now connected by an incredibly complex web of political, legal and economic relationships; a Gordian knot of competing agendas that can quickly take “simple” solutions to very unhappy places. Responsible politicians know this, and the law of unintended consequences patiently waits for those foolish enough to think otherwise. Which is why seasoned leaders like Hillary Clinton often favor nuanced and incrementalist approaches. These approaches are not particularly inspiring, to be sure. They also leave politicians like Clinton open to charges of avoiding necessary change or maintaining “failed” systems. But on the plus side they don’t set the world on fire. …

Finally, Arnovitz considers the years of GOP demonization of Clinton.

And finally, for those progressives who insist that there is no difference between Hillary Clinton and Republicans. You know who does see a difference? Republicans. And in fact they seem to think there’s a pretty big fucking difference. Which may have something to do with why they have spent tens of millions of dollars and unknown thousands of man-hours over a multi-decade period on a single unrelenting enterprise: convincing anyone who would listen that one of the most qualified public servants in America is actually a lying, corrupt she-devil. And clearly, for at least for some of us, it was money well spent.

People are free to dismiss Arnovitz (or the fascinating article by Ezra Klein in Vox, exploring the gap between how Clinton is seen by those who know her and the public persona that triggers negative reactions), but we all need to consider what years of living with unremitting politically-motivated attacks signify to talented young people (especially women) who might consider a career in public service. Because it isn’t just Hillary Clinton, although she certainly is a high profile example.

Why enter public life, if every mistake you make, every human flaw you exhibit–and we all have them– is going to be relentlessly politicized and exaggerated?

Why “pay your dues” studying policy, or serving in a variety of public-sector positions, if voters see no difference between celebrity and competence?

Before we march to the polls to cast our votes, perhaps we should learn what the job requires, and which criticisms are relevant and which aren’t.