Washington — Political commentators and pundits seem to strain the most this election season when trying to describe just how different this presidential campaign is while simultaneously maintaining a sober impartiality amid striking polls, outlandish tweets, unprovable assertions and obsession over candidates' health.
The strain was evident among panelists at Georgetown University recently, when one described a stint in an Iranian prison as good training for covering this year's political spectacle and the moderator said that he had heard the choice between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump described as a "preview of Purgatory."
All of that was in jest, but by way of trying to find a light way to get at very serious issues at stake in the national conundrum that is the 2016 presidential race, a contest between two individuals more disliked than any major party candidates before them and more than most politicians, period, even in an age of extreme cynicism.
The discussion, which kicked off the third season of public presentations by the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, was titled, perhaps reflective of the incongruous tangle of the season, "Faith, Anger, and Trust in Campaign 2016." Of the first there was little said. The last -- trust -- was often followed parenthetically by "or lack of it" except when speaking of the enormous trust that developed between young people and their champion, Bernie Sanders, who is no longer contending. The discussion was moderated by John Carr, founder and director of the initiative.
Most of the conversation focused on anger and the consensus that there is much of it and that the reasons for it are deep and layered.
Jerry Seib, Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, who, prompted by Carr, joked that his five-day detention in a Tehran prison in 1987 and covering this year’s election were “equally uplifting experiences,” listed three reasons for the current anger.
Anger and the economy
First, he said most elections turn on the economy "and that’s where I think the explanation starts."
While economic statistics have improved -- the panel occurred the same day the Census Bureau announced that median household income had risen 5.2 percent -- the feeling among people that things have not gotten better for them personally has also risen. While the first increase in median household income in eight years "may seem a reason to cheer," the increase is only enough to leave people where they were nine years ago. "There’s a sense people have that the economy is not working for them, and that’s the root of the anger," he said.
Second, he said, people have a sense "that institutions in the country don’t work. One of the reasons they’re angry about the economy is because they think the financial institutions, the banks, the government, are not producing results that help them."
Finally, he said, a reason "under-noted and underappreciated," is the anger people have "at what happens, or, more precisely, at what does not happen in this town. This place does not work anymore." Obstruction, he said, worked for a while, but the anger now is because neither side, left nor right, is producing anything of benefit to voters.
Anger and money are inextricably linked in this election cycle, said Melinda Henneberger, long-time political journalist and columnist and currently visiting fellow at Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. "I don’t think there’s any fundraising without outrage," she said, "You never get an appeal that says, 'Things are great, pony up now.' It’s always, 'You wouldn’t believe what happened today, friend.' I think that’s an industry and I think it does, over time, keep us quite angry."
While "a lot of good things come out of" social media, she said, it also provides an outlet for relentless venting. And "venting constantly, instead of being cathartic, just leads to more venting."
She also believes people have come to see "an entertainment value in anger." It is something she witnessed covering numerous Trump rallies during the past year. At the rallies, she said, "you don’t hear people talking about the economic stuff that you see in the polling numbers." Many of the people she encountered at Trump rallies, she said, were well educated and "doing fine" financially but still "have the feeling that the system is rigged -- which, of course, has been a talking point for Bernie, Hillary and Trump -- and that really resonates."
She said she heard "time and again" that Trump followers are angry because "they feel they’ve been lied to and basically want to blow it up. At the same time, ironically, while they say they are angry because they've been lied to, they don't really hold Donald Trump to telling the truth." Ask them about his Muslim ban or what he’s said about women, for instance, and "they invariably say, 'Well, you can't take that stuff literally.' "
"Even though he may be the one they'd want to flee from at a party," she said, "they feel -- maybe because of reality television -- that it's a form of entertainment they can't run away from."
Social media, a prime avenue of engagement for younger voters and activists, has been a vehicle for spreading and magnifying anger said Emma Green, a 2012 graduate of Georgetown, youngest on the panel and senior associate editor for The Atlantic. She noted a speech earlier in the summer when Clinton referred to the alt-right. "It is a term that came into prominence recently and basically refers to a vague umbrella of people who are anti-immigrant, nationalist, tend to be anti-anyone who’s not white." There is a "sort of pro-white pro-Nazi vibe to the group," she said, and it is entirely a phenomenon of the internet spread through web pages, twitter and other social media.
"I think these groups have gotten a megaphone that they wouldn't have outside of this election cycle. The thing they attach to -- identity and the rage surrounding identity -- has been a big thing in this election," she said, referring to politics that is centered on narrow interests or engaged by groups identified by cultural characteristics.
She said she has noticed the use of language that is not so much an expression of anger, but related to anger. "One of those words is resignation." During the conventions, she recalled, polls reported people essentially said, "I can’t believe that these are my options. I have to pick between one of these two?" She believes a portion of the electorate "is simply resigned to two choices that they're not particularly excited about."
A liberal critiques Democrats
If this year's campaign season has stood protocol on its head, then perhaps it only stands to reason that syndicated columnist Mark Shields, widely recognized as the liberal contributor to public television conversations with a conservative counterpart, would give an impassioned critique of Democrats in general and by association, Hillary Clinton, for too long ignoring the party's most loyal element.
Any "blue collar, white, non-college educated American" who lived through 2008 mortgage scandal and subsequent recession, he said, saw "neighbors, friends, relatives have their entire fortunes wiped out because Americans don’t have portfolios … Americans have homes." And those homes were either lost or severely devalued, he said, meaning many Americans lost their fortunes and their plans for the future. Compared to the 1989 savings and loan scandal, when the country lost $124 billion and 1,100 "savings and loan executives went to jail," Shields said, in the 2008 mortgage scandal, the country lost $13.4 trillion according to federal estimates, "and not a single three-piece-suit-Gucci-loafer-wearing executive has ever taken a perp walk, has ever been indicted."
When the country was convinced with false evidence of the need for the Iraq War, "who bore that burden?" he asked. "Was it the families at Georgetown dinner parties? Was it the people on Wall Street, the investment bankers or their children? Was it the people on Shelter Island or Nantucket? No. It was the sons and increasingly the daughters of America’s blue collar workers. Across the board, they were the ones whose mothers were widowed, whose funerals were attended not by cabinet officers and not in most cases by syndicated columnists."
The same blue collar workers, "the most loyal component of the entire Democratic constituency" were abandoned, he said. The voters who made the difference in the victories of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and John Kennedy, he said, suffered the greatest during the past 15 years when median household income dropped by $4,351.
"In the identity politics of the contemporary Democratic Party are they even acknowledged? They’re kind of nodded to. But is their strife at the center of the Democratic mission? I don’t think so. And so is there a sense of abandonment? Yes."
Though he personally finds the Trump message "hateful and even worse," there is an attraction to it among white, blue-collar workers and "the anger is easily understood when one looks at the past 15 years."
There was an attempt toward the end of the discussion by several of the panelists to pull back from the abyss with talk of ultimate hope in the system righting itself, though the offerings were thin on how that might occur. And, hope aside, Steib offered up numbers beyond anecdote and theory demonstrating just how unusual the year is. The 61 percent of people surveyed at the end of the summer who had a negative feeling about Donald Trump and the 53 percent who had a negative feeling about Hillary Clinton (a figure he said has probably gone up in intervening weeks) he compared to polling in 2000 when 30 percent of people had a negative feeling about George W. Bush and 37 percent had a negative feeling about Al Gore. "This is a leap upward in negativity that’s in an order of magnitude," he said. "It’s just astonishing."
Also amazing, he said, is that more than 50 percent of people on each side of the partisan divide said they were voting either against Trump or against Clinton rather than for a given candidate.
And completely new to this season is a fourth category that The Wall Street Journal had to add to its polling answers because so many people were saying that they had decided that they could not vote for either candidate. In past elections, it was not unusual that people who were polled would give their preference for one candidate or the other or say they were undecided. In contrast, people today are saying, "I have chosen. I have made a decision I will vote for neither of them. Not that I don't know, or I'm not sure yet, but I have decided I will not vote because I cannot vote for either of them.
"These are astonishing things," he said, "if you think about it."
[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @TROBNCR]