How the US presidential election lost its glory

For a veteran observer of the American political scene since the 1960s, Monday’s first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is not just anticlimax and disappointment: it is unimaginable.

Godfrey Hodgson
26 September 2016
Donald Trump, September 2016. Steve Helber/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Donald Trump, September 2016. Steve Helber/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.I was one of the original ‘boys on the bus’. In 1964, 1968 and 1972, I endured the appalling regime of 4am baggage calls to leave hotels in almost every state of the Union, oceans of indifferent coffee, fast food, and exhausted and exhausting candidates endlessly repeating ‘the speech’. My reward was an unparalleled Grand Tour of all the United States (except only North Dakota and Alaska) and face time with such legendary heroes of the American political pantheon as Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy.

For a veteran of those critical years, Monday’s first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is not just anticlimax and disappointment: it is unimaginable. Not that the candidates I followed more than 50 years ago were either politically or personally impeccable. But they were serious people, serious politicians painting more or less solid pictures of how they wanted their country to be and to behave, accepting in greater or lesser measure a responsibility to all their fellow citizens. 

Two very different politicians will meet on Monday. Hillary Clinton, to be sure, stands closer to the traditional candidates of a past that was certainly not golden. She has real personal credentials, achievements, policy positions, most of which she stands by, even if she is more than a little hubristic and embarrassingly impressed by money. Symbolically, as a woman candidate for the White House, she represents the righting of an historic wrong. There is still an uncomfortable sense that ultimately she is where she is, after all, because of whom she married, and because of the way she handled a domestic dispute many years ago. She is talented enough to have done it all on her own. But she didn’t.

As for Donald Trump, let’s just say that he has no political or government experience whatsoever. He is where he is because he has made a lot of money, though far less than he claims, and because he has shown prowess at bullying and insulting people on and off television. So far, his policies are series of barks and boasts, of insults and innuendo and appeals to the lower angels of his fellow citizens’ natures. He makes George Wallace and Barry Goldwater look like Augustan statesmen by comparison.

It is customary to blame many of the evils of the day on social media, and it is true that the otherwise improbable ascent of Trump to the antechamber of glory owes much to the angry discontent revealed and no doubt also stimulated by Twitter and its fellows. Old-fashioned media must take some of the blame too. Any journalist can see that the Donald is ‘good copy’. He can be relied on to say, and sometimes to do, such outrageous things every day that he has dominated political reporting in the United States since the 2016 campaign began; poor Hillary Clinton (poor is not quite the right word) had to faint to get the coverage her rival receives routinely.  

There is a pervasive feeling across the United States (not to mention across the world) that this is a seriously unsatisfactory presidential election. Donald Trump, for many – boorish, indifferent to truth, and totally without political experience – is more obviously unsuitable. But Hillary Clinton, for all her ability, good intentions and experience, is nearly 70, she is the wife of a former president, and serious questions have been raised about her own truthfulness, not to mention the awe in which she holds investment bankers. She still seems to many a strangely arbitrary choice for the Democrats. (That explains the astonishing success of a 74-year-old self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont.) Many who are delighted to see a woman so close to the White House still wonder why this particular woman should have been chosen ahead of more than 117 million other adult American females. 

The origins of the unseemly nature of this campaign go back long before the events of 2016. The causes of what so many Americans now see as a dysfunctional system include the anger and sense of abandonment felt by a large share of the population, at least since the financial crisis of 2008-9; the acute ideological polarization of the parties; the end of virtually all restraints on the role of money in elections; and the withering away, not of the state, but of the political parties.

When the candidates capture the party

The stage is set for Monday's presidential debate. Patrick Semansky/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

The stage is set for Monday's presidential debate. Patrick Semansky/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.As someone who has been writing about American politics since 1962, I have seen much of this coming for a long time. For a start, the role of the two great historic parties has changed. Once they chose the candidates. Now the candidates capture the party. It began with Jack Kennedy in 1960. He and his advisers revived the moribund primary system – only 16 states then retained the primary, a Progressive nostrum of the early twentieth century. Old Joe Kennedy’s money enabled them to use the system as it had never been so effectively used before to show that his son could win votes all over the country. For example, if he could take West Virginia, the most Protestant state, that would help to destroy the idea that a Catholic could not be elected. 

Two years later, as a young White House correspondent, I toured the north-east with president Kennedy. At every stop he paid elaborate respect to the local party chieftains, most of them ‘lace curtain Irish’, grave Catholic pères de famille in expensive suits. He addressed them respectfully as Mr Green of Philadelphia, Mr Bailey of Connecticut, Mr Lawrence – that was governor Lawrence of Pennsylvania – and so on. But these were not for him, so it seemed to me, valued party colleagues whose support he was seeking, so much as satraps of conquered provinces.

When I first arrived in Washington, if a foreign friend asked me what divided the Republicans from Democrats, I used to tell them it all went back to things that had happened in the 1860s: slavery, emancipation, war and reconstruction. Before long, that had all been changed by things that happened in the 1960s. In Franklin Roosevelt’s day, the Democratic party was an ideologically incoherent coalition between southern whites, mostly ultra-conservative, and non-Protestant immigrants and their descendants (Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics and German, Polish and Russian Jews) who were predominantly liberal. The Republicans could expect the votes of national and local, mainly Protestant elites and their admirers. (It was one of my professors at the University of Pennsylvania, E. Digby Baltzell, who invented the term WASPS for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.) As a result, while the Republicans were overwhelmingly the party of business, there were moderate and even liberal Republicans in Congress and across the States.

In 1963 when I was interviewing Robert Kennedy, I asked him why the United States, unlike almost every other democracy, did not have a party system that opposed progressives and conservatives, Haves and Have-nots. He fished out a shoebox from the bottom drawer of his desk. It was full of filing cards on which he had written his reasons for thinking that that could never happen in America. The country, he said, was simply too big, too divided by race, ethnicity and culture. I was impressed. But in fact he was wrong. 

The money power

Hillary Clinton, September 2016. Matt Rourke/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Hillary Clinton, September 2016. Matt Rourke/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Even as we spoke, it was changing. After the Johnson Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans began to vote massively even in the Deep South, and to vote Democratic. They pushed the centre of gravity of the Democratic party to the left. So southern white conservatives joined the Republican party, pushing it to the right. Once the safest of Democrats, white southerners are now reliable Republicans. 

Lyndon Johnson’s overwhelming victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964 hid the fact that a new, ideologically conservative Republican party was emerging to confront a newly ideologically progressive Democratic party. It was recruited by popular resistance to African-American emancipation, by the reaction against the Sixties upheavals of the peace and women’s movements and by the creation of new conservative institutions by a new breed of conservative intellectuals and neo-conservatives like Bill Buckley and Irving Kristol.

In 1968, decisively though not easily, Richard Nixon won the White House. The liberal consensus of the post-New Deal years was over. The financing of presidential politics changed. Once politicians could count on money from the parties. Now, to campaign by buying television ads, they found their own funding from donors. There had always been rich men in America politics, since George Washington himself. But mostly they were major economic powers, men like Andrew Mellon in the 1920s and Nelson Rockefeller in the 1950s and 1960s. Now there was a new generation of money men, Texas oil men and the Californians who would be Ronald Reagan’s kitchen cabinet. They were bred far from Wall Street, and they used their money to choose the politicians they liked.

In a series of stages from Buckley v. Valeo in 1964 to Citizens United in 2010, newly conservative majorities on the Supreme Court set free the money power. Giving money to political candidates, said conservative justices, was no longer a shameful necessity, but a political right, like voting.

Giving money to political candidates, said conservative justices, was no longer a shameful necessity, but a political right, like voting.

The amount of money spent on political campaigns increased exponentially. By the millennium, the first information political journalists would give about a new figure on the political scene was no longer what his or her policies were, but how much money they had to spend. Senators I knew admitted with a wry smile that they were dragged off the floor of the chamber by their staff to spin the Rolodex phone index and ask potential backers for hard cash. Although liberal Democrats were not without individual donors, and labour unions, though much diminished, could still find tidy sums, the really big money came from the right and the far right at that.

Men like the brewer, Joseph Coors, the casino king Sheldon Adelson (“when you have all the marbles you can make the calls”) and the Koch brothers poured money into the campaigns of right-wing politicians on an unprecedented scale. The movement known as the Tea Party, often portrayed as a spontaneous grassroots upheaval, was largely created by money from the Koch brothers. It is quite possible that Donald Trump exaggerates how much money he has; estimates of $10 billion and above are almost certainly fantasy; but Trump can afford to be his own Koch.

It was not only in the field of campaign finance that the Republicans used the courts to change the rules of the political game. The most dramatic example was the result of Bush v. Gore, the 2000 lawsuit over the fairness of recounts in Florida that was decided by a conservative majority in the Supreme Court. The matter is hotly argued. But it is at least arguable that the younger Bush owed his years in the White House to five justices of the Supreme Court.

Patiently, Republicans in the states have ‘gerrymandered’ electoral districts to improve their prospects. Today no more than one in ten of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be seriously contested by both parties. At the same time the Republicans have had some success in persuading the courts to restrict the right to vote. Because of this and because of the complexity of the electoral process, the New York Times reported on 1 August that only 14% of the eligible voters in the United States voted in the primaries. Only 9% voted for either Ms Clinton or Mr Trump. That’s one pretty direct explanation of why an ‘outlier’ like Trump can win the nomination of a major party.

The media diet

The stage for Monday's debate. Julio Cortez/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

The stage for Monday's debate. Julio Cortez/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.It is perhaps no wonder that so few Americans identify with either of the candidates that have been presented to them by a system that is not only flawed, but visibly more flawed than it was 50 years ago. Certainly cynicism about the news industry has grown. By May 2015 a CBS/New York Times poll recorded that more than 80% of respondents thought the role of money in elections was excessive.

The role of media was undiminished. But the character of the media environment has changed since the years in which Teddy White’s The Making of the President sprinkled the Kennedys with gold dust. American television became so obsessed with politics in those days, not by the pure light of reason, but because of a public relations problem. In 1959-60, the reputation of the networks was besmirched by the scandals of rigged quiz shows. In 1961 Newton Minow, the new regulator sent in by the Kennedy administration, called television a “vast wasteland”. CBS and NBC threw themselves furiously into restoring their reputation. “My job”, said the great Fred Friendly, “was…to restore the prestige of CBS…tarred by the quiz scandals.” They hired dozens of new producers, some poached from newspapers, for their news departments. They put on ambitious, immensely expensive documentary series about the triumphs and even the shortcomings of American democracy. And in 1963, before the Kennedy assassination, both doubled the length of the all-important nightly national news show from 15 minutes to 30. To be sure, this was in part a manoeuvre to capture revenue from their own affiliate stations. But it opened an age when news was genuinely popular viewing in the United States.

Only 9% voted for either Ms Clinton or Mr Trump. That’s one pretty direct explanation of why an ‘outlier’ like Trump can win the nomination of a major party.

In 2016, media in the widest sense thrive. People communicate with each other in unimagined ways. They can switch on music like tap water. They watch sports, boxed sets, various grades of pornography. Social media proliferate. But this rich diet does little to enhance the reputation of politicians. In this context, millions watch, amused and horrified, as Donald Trump stubbornly maintains that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and reporters grind on with laborious inquiries into whether Ms Clinton used private e-mails when she was secretary of state.

No doubt when, or if, the first woman is elected president of the United States, there will be excitement. There should be. But for now, from the once glamorous process of choosing what American journalists still call “the leader of the free world”, the glory has departed.  

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