Are we there yet? I feel like an antsy kid on what seems like a never ending road trip. Don’t you? With only weeks to go, we should be seeing some light at this seemingly endless tunnel. If you see any, do let me know. I also don’t see much substantive discussion. At a time of complex global challenges and in the face of an economic present and technology-driven future for which we have yet to adequately course correct, all we seem to encounter is sound ¾dare I say much of it hot air ¾ and fury. There has been little serious discourse on the campaign trial and, as such, we have learned little. The fate of the Supreme Court hangs in the balance, but aside from Trump’s list of “qualified” potential appointees and some discussion as to whether Clinton would go forward with Merrick Garland, the subject hardly comes up. We are on our way to the third consecutive hottest year on record and climate change, beyond the usual platitudes and generalities, is largely absent. Of course, one candidate talks about reviving the coal industry, a hallow and cruel promise that he knows can’t and shouldn’t be kept.
You may hope that the upcoming debates will change that, but don’t count on it. This is such a different year than when Hillary Clinton first ran for president. She faced a vigorous 2008 primary fight, but there was something uplifting about that campaign, often some real joy. Even in losing she reminded her supporters of their progress in shattering, albeit not penetrating, the glass ceiling. Not so in 2016. Trump supporters are the opposite of joyful, they are “mad as hell” even if for different reasons. In this joyless year, Trump voters are angry while Clinton voters are unenthusiastic.
In both in 2008 and 2012 the parking lots of liberal Chapel Hill where I live were filled with Obama bumper stickers adorned cars. Today, my Hillary car magnet is more the exception than the rule. In her case, part of the enthusiasm gap, or certainly some of the things that created it, can be attributed to sexism. Yes, I know Hillary lacks Obama’s charisma, has made some mistakes and can be her own worst enemy. But let’s not avert our eyes from the challenge virtually all women still face in the workplace. If they don’t talk up, they are written off as ineffective; if they do they are often caricatured as “bossy”. They may get special credit when they behave “like a man”, but must certainly be “having their period” if they are perceived as the slightest bit testy. NPR reported the other day that experts warn Clinton against being too aggressive in debate because voters don’t like that in women. Let’s face it, as a society we continue to demand more of women than of men. We set bars higher than we (both men and women) demand of ourselves, and then disingenuously claim that we are doing no such thing. Give me a break.
Men continue to be the leadership default in every field, public and private. Despite making up 50.7% of the population, only twenty women (out of 100) serve in the US Senate and six (out of 50) serve as state governors. The numbers in industry are even worse ¾ twenty-three of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. We could go on, but you get the point. These telling numbers help explain why there were so few women who might have been considered as alternatives to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Leaving aside a Sarah Palin, do you have any doubt that if, say, two women were facing each other in November the content and nature, not to mention news coverage, of the race might be totally different? And wouldn’t we all be better for it?
If the campaign is disheartening, in my view the media has a lot to answer for this elections cycle. Much of the blame is often laid at the doorstep of Rupert Murdock, but I think the man who really deserves discredit is Ted Turner. CNN came to us in 1980 a full sixteen years before Fox. The idea that we either needed or that any network could meaningfully provide 24/7 news without resorting to fluff and fillers was on its face absurd. Fox simply built on Turner’s vision finding a way to keep viewer’s eyeballs by being provocative and controversial, often spreading hyperbolic propaganda grounded in falsehoods. Murdock at least comes from a newspaper heritage but Turner had no such bona fides. CNN hired a few legitimate journalists (most notably Bernie Shaw) and still have a few, but show time and show business rule the day. Broadcast news programs are now generally called “shows” and come to us with all the trappings. Even on NPR they each have their own often B.J. Leiderman composed theme music. The anchors at networks especially have become super-salaried celebrity entertainers including those who might have started out as serious journalists. Entertainment ratings are all that count and the “news” covered is selected accordingly, for it’s entertainment high ratings value.
Donald Trump, who looms frighteningly as a possible winner in November is, if not the creation of, then certainly enabled by a complicit media writ large. I believe he wouldn’t be with us had the media been doing their job. Part of that job is filtering, separating legitimate news from promotional hype. From day one of his outrageously xenophobic announcement, Donald Trump’s has benefited from being consistently headlined ¾ his every deed and action dutifully “reported”. This 24/7 media hype more than delegate counts gave him the nomination in Cleveland. He has dominated the front pages of newspapers throughout including such august institutions as the NY Times (“All the News That’s Fit to Print”) for months on end. Only on the day after the bomb went off in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood was Trump’s name not repeatedly headlined on left hand column of their home page. To paraphrase PT Barnum, Trump doesn’t care what they say about him so long as they repeat his name. PT Barnum, how fitting, how much echoes of his bombast and extravagant claims have characterized this election cycle. The only question is if a majority of November’s voters buy into the delusional circus. If so, our rate driven media deserves much, though certainly not all, the credit. Thank you very much.
If I sound discouraged or deeply concerned. I am. Eight years ago we seem to have taken a giant leap forward. Words like progress, a sense that we finally had transcended old prejudices and done so with the boldest of statements prevailed. Obama loomed larger than life. Perhaps the most literate president since TR, among the very best presidential orators to all time, a man of intellect ¾ a reader not a Cliff Note skimmer. What we didn’t anticipate, or want to consider, was that giant moves forward produce if not full throated backlash, then at least considerable pushback. That happened early on tokened by the Tea Party. 2012 was a test year, but the person and the multiple talents of Obama were at play. 2016 is a new, and in some respects a more profound, test. Both presidential candidates have been impacted by it. In the end though, it isn’t Clinton or Trump who are being tested, it is all of us.
Who am I? That’s a question we should always be asking ourselves. Chances are most of us have a pretty good idea, a sense of self and being. On a personal basis, each of us will cast our vote this November and, in doing so, the who am I question is likely to play a significant role. We will be saying “this is who I am”. In a sense, who am I is the easy and controllable question. At the moment, what may be the more important and consequential question is “who are we”. I think what’s so troubling this year is that we don’t have a real handle on the answer to that question. Who are we collectively? The Obama years has forced all Americans to consider our identity ¾ what we think and what makes us tick. What happens on November 8 may give us a better sense of who we are, at least at this time. The answer will have consequences; profound consequences I’d suggest.