Everyone pretty much agrees that this is one of the most unusual presidential elections in history, but the focus is too much on quirky personalities. To be sure, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are unconventional presidential candidates. But this election isn’t really about them or about Hillary Clinton either. This race is about shifts in the electorate that have prompted voters to behave in ways they never have before.
The phenomenon is not confined to the U.S. We are seeing similar aberrations in Britain, Germany, and, to a lesser extent, France. On Thursday, Britain voted decisively to leave the European Union. Most card-carrying members of the British establishment were dismayed by this effort, and they warned of catastrophic economic consequences if the U.K. opted to go it alone.
While not exactly analogous, some of the same dynamics that are fueling the effort for Britain to leave the EU can also be seen in the rise of Donald Trump. There are passionate voices in the U.S. demanding a crackdown on immigration, and a concern by many, on both sides of the Atlantic, that their countries are changing too much and too quickly—which is another way of saying they are alarmed by the speed of racial and cultural transformation. The rise of Islamic-inspired terrorism is stoking the fires on both sides of the Atlantic.
But it isn’t just immigration and ethnocentrism that are driving the political volatility, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Both of our two major political parties are becoming far more ideological than they were in the past. The Democratic Party, once center-left, is now emphatically Left. The Republican Party, historically center-right, is now emphatically Right.
Consider Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Clinton was widely perceived as being on the far left of her husband’s administration, but she has spent the past year scrambling to keep up with a party that has moved well to her left. Jeb Bush, who was one of the most conservative governors in America from 1998 to 2006, discovered in the primaries that he is now on the far left end of his party. Bush hadn’t changed, but the party had moved out from under him. The leftward drift of the Democratic Party propelled the unlikely candidacy of Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist.
The economy has changed just as dramatically. Globalization, automation, productivity gains, and technological advances, among other things, created new winners and losers almost overnight. The losers were often people who had skills that served them well in the 20th century but had fewer applications in the 21st century. The people left behind are scared and angry. Many of them are working-class voters without college degrees, and they form the backbone of the Trump movement.
Still others are young people who graduated from high school or college since 2008, often with big student loans to pay off, only to find the worst job market in generations. Several years ago, the amount of student-loan debt in this country passed the level of credit-card debt. When you combine these factors with the progressive pronouncements of the Democratic Party and the natural idealism of youth, you have the ingredients for the socialist campaign of Bernie Sanders that gave Clinton fits.
The fight over immigration is partly related to jobs and the economy. But it also reflects a split between people who embrace multiculturalism and see immigration as freshening the lifeblood of the country, and other people who are uncomfortable with the new arrivals and feel our culture is under siege.
At the same time, the political culture wars have heated up. Abortion, guns, gay marriage, and bathroom policies at schools have created deep emotional cleavages in the country. The opposing camps are so entrenched that compromise seems impossible.
The quirky personalities who have walked on stage during this campaign season often blind us to the societal unease we are experiencing. It would be a mistake to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of various candidates without recognizing the underlying forces at work—and trying to figure out where they might lead.
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