Les Mis: US Election 2016

Les Mis

by Prof Don DeBats


US Election Day: fewer than 50 days now remain and the US electorate faces, at the top of the ticket, the two most unpopular presidential candidates since modern polling began. Gallup’s polls go back to the 1950’s identifying the most popular major party candidates (Eisenhower in 1956 and Johnson in 1964) and the least popular. In that long history, only three candidates scored more “highly negative” views by voters than “highly positive” views: Barry Goldwater in 1964 (17% highly favorable to 26% highly unfavorable), Hillary Clinton (22% highly favorable to 33% highly unfavorable), and Donald Trump (16% highly favorable to 42% highly unfavorable).  Trump in these measures, taken in mid-June, is indeed more disapproved of than Clinton.

The more telling point is that never before in modern presidential elections has the US electorate faced TWO such poorly regarded candidates. This is a presidential election in which “neither of the above” is the clear winner. It remains to be seen how many voters will vote for the Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, or Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate; in the end probably not much more than 10 percent in all. But that is more than enough to make a difference in an election between the main party candidates who many voters regard as “deplorable.”

Hillary Clinton of course has recently placed that term at the center of the final stretch of the election campaign, and perhaps created a new collective noun, by declaring that, “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables” because of their views on women and various minorities. “Unfortunately,” she said, “there are people like that. And he [Trump] has lifted them up.”

In Clinton’s words, it is not just that these people have deplorable attitudes, or attitudes she wishes they did not have, or views she might hope to change, but that as people, as people, they are deplorable. And, she added, “some of these folks – they are irredeemable.” This in fact is indeed a deplorable attitude – condemning the sinner not the sin — and it is a further intensification of elitist dismissal of the people with whom elitist candidates disagree. And this is from candidates who aspire to be, and must be, the president of all the people, not just a fraction of the people.

Clinton’s image of “the basket cases” was neither a simple accident nor an irrational enthusiasm; nor was it the product of exhaustion, on last week’s funding raising event at “Cipriani’s” (on Wall Street) for which a thousand of New York City’s rich and powerful paid between $1,200 and $10,000 (some up to $50,000) per ticket. Clinton had used the deplorable-people-in-the-basket analogy at previous fund-raisers for “moneyed enclaves,” as The New York Times puts it, in the Hamptons and in Martha’s Vineyard from which the press was barred. The line resonated, just as it did at this event, producing laughter and applause.  Ever more confident, Clinton said something similar the day before on Israeli tv. And the Wall Street function was open to selected members of the press.

It coarsens then-candidate Obama’s 2008 disdainful dismissal, delivered at another elite fund raising crowd, this time in San Francisco, explaining to the privileged few how it was with the unprivileged many: “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”  Then-candidate Clinton was quick to deplore such an attitude, only now, eight years later, to enunciate an even more categorical condemnation of the same group, who have endured another eight years of politics which has continued to fail them, and even more tragically, their children. Obama at least was interested in, and in a sense sympathetic to, the sinners.

Nor are Establishment Republicans immune from lofty dismissals. In May, 2012, in the midst of his campaign to unseat President Obama, Mitt Romney attacked “the 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it…[and] they will vote or the President no matter what.” And then the dismissal of nearly half the electorate: “These are people who pay no income tax…[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

There is something unjust about picking on such comments in this election cycle. There are half-truths in all three of these examples. Clinton went on to be sympathetic to the “other half” of Trump supporters, just as she bracketed her boast in the March Town Hall debate that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” with a far more positive message: “We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people,” Clinton said. “Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”

Trump on the other hand, has based his campaign on consistent and unmitigated disparagement of women and Hispanics, mocked the disabled, and denigrated any and all who opposed him.

Perhaps then this is only a question then of who is winning the race to the bottom?

Not really. The race this year is being run differently, and that is beginning to show. However flawed is Trump as a messenger, he has a message. Any political figure knows that a good way to lose a fight is to provide your opponents with a mobilizing collective identity, especially if they are widely dispersed and defined by anonymity and social dislocation. It is soccer’s “own goal.” Trump flirts with this in respect to Hispanics and they have mobilized against him. But Clinton has done so for a significant swath of American citizens who do vote, who lacked an identity and were once defined by their isolation, their anonymity and their social dislocation. They are now, this significant swath of the American citizenry, “the deplorables.”

Already the tee shirts, baseball caps, coffee mugs are available on-line. Bumper sticker makers and tee shirt designers and political sign makers are going to have a field day furthering the identity and white hot anger of “the deplorables.”

Even before this faux paus Trump supporters were far more energized than Clinton supporters. The Washington Post’s recent survey is full of warning signs for the Clinton campaign, especially given

  Percent Almost Certain to Vote Percent Very Enthusiastic About Candidate Following Election Very Closely
Trump 93 46 61
Clinton 80 33 45

that this is the point in the campaign where pollsters shift their attention form “registered voters” to “likely voters” as a better guide to an outcome now just six weeks away.

That sense of differential enthusiasm is palpable. Over the past weekend on a road trip through Virginia and North Carolina, two pivotal states in the election outcome, I saw not a single Clinton yard sign, banner, pin, or bumper sticker. There were not a great many Trump self-advertisements either, for these are deservedly unpopular candidates, but all that there were, were his.

Today, one of the most respected polling voices, Larry Sabato’s, made a sudden correction to the predictions of the Electoral College votes that will determine the presidency. Previously his predictions had been in accord with almost all others: a massive Electoral College win for Hillary Clinton:  347 to 191 where 270 Electoral College votes wins the White House.

In the past week 17 states have been re-evaluated and every one moved in the direction of Trump, from “Likely Republican to “Safe Republican” (5): from “Leans Democratic” to “Leans Republican” (2); from “Leans Democratic” to “Toss Up” (3); from “Likely Democratic” to “Leans Democratic” (6); and from “Safe Democratic” to “Likely Democratic” (1).

Today Sabato’s prediction is Clinton 272, Trump 215 with three states now toss-up states: Florida (29 Electoral College votes), North Carolina (15), Nevada (6) – with the presidential election in the balance.  No doubt the odds still favor Hillary Clinton, but not the way they once did.

Meanwhile, in Miami on Friday night, Trump addressed his supporters as “the Deplorables,” as did the on-screen labels. Ever conscious of the grand entrance, Trump emerged to a new musical tune, walking around the stage, conducting with his arms, urging the audience to join in, as they did, shouting out the stirring cadences of Les Miserables’ theme song: Do you hear the people sing?                                          …

Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes.

Will you join in our crusade?

Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?

Not only an identity, but an anthem too…..

Perhaps this is just the pollster’s wish for a horse race and perhaps Trump’s moment, and his sudden spurt of support, will finally energize the Clinton supporters, if only from fear rather than from conviction.

But right now there is the feeling in the air…..

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Don DeBat's blog posts Election 2016

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