January 14, 2017

Political Confusion and Tension, but No Voter Mandate in Sight for either Republicans or Democrats

After the American Century

Today's politicians seem to live in a hall of mirrors, because they are surrounded by like-minded people. Clinton and Trump both appear to have had that problem, though it was manifested in different ways. They each thought they understood the public mood, and each looked in the mirror and thought they were more than they were. Hillary now knows this, but Trump does not, or rather, not yet.

Admittedly, the political scene is complicated, and it is hard to sort the trends out into a meaningful pattern. In the US the country as a whole seems to be moving to the right, yet Hillary Clinton had more than 2 million more votes than Donald Trump. The gun lobby prevents any meaningful control over firearms, but at the same time more than half the public wants some form of gun control. Same sex marriage has become legal, but opposition to it remains strong. Whatever trend one points to, there seems to be a powerful trend in a different direction.

The result appears to be that every citizen holds one or two positions that the government opposes, and all too many people have no understanding or sympathy for those who do not share their position. Compromise or the attitude that one should "live and let live" both seem rare. 

President Obama worked against this atmosphere of division and tension, without much success. Donald Trump seems intent on fostering more division, upsetting the public even more than they already are. He has appointed someone who denies climate change to head the Environmental Protection Agency.  He has appointed a person who wants to abandon public education for the voucher system in charge of education. He has chosen an Exxon oil executive to oversee foreign policy, and he will deal with major oil producing countries where Exxon has interests, including Russia and the Middle East. Trump has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin, even as it has become quite clear that Russia has mounted widespread cyber attacks on the US and its allies. 

The only consistency here is that Mr. Trump avoids moderation. His rhetoric and actions repeatedly go to extremes. He sees himself as an enormous figure in that distorting mirror. But the American public is deeply divided by him. I do not recall large rallies being staged against any other president on Inauguration Day. Usually the event is a celebration of the peaceful transition of power, where the new President lays out a broad program and seeks to win the confidence of a broader public than those who elected him.

Such a speech, such an appeal, is especially needed in 2017, after a nasty political campaign that discouraged voter turnout and led to the election of a candidate who did not win a majority of the votes cast. But Trump seems to think he has a mandate. He does not. He received 46.1% of the votes cast, to Hillary's 48.2%. Only 129 million people voted, and the turnout was the lowest in 20 years. To put this in perspective, here were the real results of the election

No one   42%  (i.e. did not vote)
Clinton   30
Trump    28

In other words, Trump came in third, and Clinton only did slightly better. The voters did not much like either candidate. Rather than trade accusations about leaked emails, it is time for both political parties to admit that the public did not like these candidates. There is no mandate for Trump, and if Hillary had won, there would not be one for her, either. Acting as if one has a mandate did not work out well for George Bush, nor is it likely to be a success for Donald Trump. The distorting mirror can only seem real for a while.