Looking on the bright side of this election
The entire political world is in a swivet. Worst election ever. Horrible candidates. Shameful dialogue. Unforgivably bad conduct. What a disgrace.
But years from now, when this election is either a colorful or horrifying anecdote, it is possible that history may look back on it as an important moment in the American passage, and the consensus may emerge that some substantial good came of the collision of forces in the 2016 election.
■A searing examination of the relations between the sexes and a national condemnation of sexual harassment, in its subtle as well as its overt form. The video of Trump’s casual conversation focused the nation on his behavior, to be sure, but also on the broader question of the treatment of women.
Trump and his most ardent supporters brushed aside his remarks as “locker-room banter,” but the very act of attempting to dismiss his comments prompted a vigorous denunciation of those remarks, attitudes and actions. By any measure, the injection of those comments into a White House campaign degraded the political process — but today hardly anyone can argue that the country is worse off for having confronted this issue and that the broader society is not sounder for the censure those remarks prompted.
■A painful appraisal of the character of the two major political parties.
With the Democrats flirting with becoming the party of the national elites and the Republicans attracting support from blue-collar voters, the two parties are unmoored from their nearly century-old roots. This has prompted an identity crisis in two dimensions, with the two parties exchanging constituencies and even, on occasion, talking points.
This has produced a serious case of political vertigo in the body politic. Two parties that once had both liberal and conservative wings moved two decades ago into more ideological identity, producing gridlock in Washington. Then, in the past year, conservatives fled the Republican Party they had built even as liberals questioned whether their party, whose nominee had a weakness for Wall Street values, was abandoning its New Deal roots and its commitment to working Americans.
■An assessment of the place of immigrants and minorities in America.
The election coincided with the publication of Tyler Anbinder’s stunning new book, “City of Dreams,” an epic history of immigration in New York that is a celebration of the role immigrants have played in the United States and a chronicle of the obstacles they faced. The book carries lessons, and inspiration, for a country created by immigrants but now facing difficult questions about their welcome here.
The election also coincided with a new Harvard Institute of Politics Poll of Americans ages 18-29. Their view of race relations is sobering if not discouraging. Some 85 percent of young blacks, 72 percent of young Hispanics and 45 percent of young whites believe that “people of (their) own racial background are under attack in America.”
■A national debate about responsibility, loyalty and manners.
These issues are usually reserved for the family dinner hour, but it was in the Bill Clinton years, themselves marked by questions of sexual behavior and meditations about redemption, that they first moved into the political realm. They receded during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years, in part because the men who followed Clinton were themselves conscious of their public responsibilities and resolutely traditional in their lifestyles and behavior.
Much of this campaign has revolved around the questions of whether Clinton belongs in jail and has a history of mendacity, and whether Trump avoided taxes and is a social menace.
The country is tired of this campaign, and for good reason. A remarkable poll, conducted this month for Colby College and the Boston Globe, found that nine Americans out of 10 agree that civility — “general politeness and respect” — is an important element of American life, with three Americans in four believing civility has been eroded in the past decade.
“We are very aware of behavior right now,” said Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert who operates the Protocol School of Texas, based in Austin. “We usually don’t talk politics in our social lives but I think we are going to use this as an opportunity to say that certain behaviors are not acceptable, and that manners and civility simply have got to be restored.”
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.