ELECTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES
FOUNDATIONS OF AN ABERANT ELECTION
There are 3 foundational components that help us understand elections. The components are 1. The organization of elections; 2. The office incumbents; and 3. The electorate. The Veterans For Peace (VFP) sponsored Elections Have Consequences forum, featured 2 political science professors who were invited to help understand the elections of 2016—the Trump election—and of 2018—the Blue Wave election—before an audience of VFP members and community members.
Initial questions from the moderator and the audience were aimed at getting perspectives on the elections. The professors were quite informative citing historical precedents concerning campaign financing, party politics, and the peculiarities of the American electoral process. There was also substantial content focused on office holders, the primary character of which was rather pejorative, describing incumbents as blindly committed to personal and party success rather than servants of the collective good. Near the end of the forum, questions about the electorate were voiced, but generally not addressed.
Specifically, a 2018 study of Trump’s election published in the April issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that racism, sexism, and status fears drove Trump voters was the predicate to a question as to what concerned citizens can do to mitigate those characteristics in future elections. The only direct response from one of the professors was to the effect that that was a “big” topic. No one in the audience picked up on the theme represented in the question.
There is broad agreement, especially among progressives, that the Trump election was shocking, unexpected, and devastating. Many hours of scholarly effort, tv news coverage, and informal discussions have focused on understanding what happened. At this forum there was substantial focus on the first two of the proffered foundations of elections. The points made and emphasized were familiar and widely shared by the audience. Indeed, questioners applied their own filters (e.g., tax policy, broad economic conditions, “dark” money, special interests) to affirm what’s “wrong” with the electoral process and candidates/incumbents.
The forum’s avoidance of examining the third foundational element, to wit, the characteristics of the Trump electorate was noted as it happened. Upon reflection it seems that existential anxiety may have been a primary explanation. Criticisms of elections and candidates/office holders, writ large, are nonthreatening as these concern “others”—roles, people, organizational peculiarities, etc.—safely distanced from “us”. They represent subsets of our public lives that do not include “us”, but they are available for our commentary.
Conversely, the much larger subset of voters includes or potentially includes “us” writ large. Surely some of our network is comprised of Trump supporters, voters, contributors, defenders. This brings the reality of the problematic election closer to home. To that extent, we all have more investment in electorate examination. If, as the National Academy of Sciences article suggests, Trump voters were motivated by racism, sexism and status fears, critiquing them also involves self-assessment or, minimally, people with whom we have relationships—family members, coworkers, neighbors, etc.—the possibility (probability) for degrees of confrontation is apparent. It’s plausible that when given the choice, most will “play it safe” by focusing on foundational elements 1 & 2.
This raises questions about arriving at a comprehensive understanding of election outcomes in general, and the Trump election in particular. If nefarious candidates/incumbents wish to mobilize an electorate, appealing to their racist and sexist proclivities and their status fears rather than appeals on the basis of content and political platforms may be more expedient and attractive. As Congressman Elijah Cummings said in his closing comments at the end of Michael Cohen’s public testimony before the US House Oversight Committee, “This is not us!! We are better than this!”
This discussion is intended to stimulate thinking about a next step in addressing the theme of elections by VFP. It is not intended and should not be construed as a criticism of the professors who were the content experts for our just completed forum. They were not given specific guidance to address electoral characteristics when they were invited to participate in our program. We are and will remain extremely grateful for their contribution to a broader understanding of political science and its value in analyzing US elections. We look forward to an ongoing discussion of these issues.
March 2, 2019