Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

U.S. election reflects country’s response to profound change

More than a quarter-century ago, this area, in the very geographical centre of Pennsylvania, provided Vice-President George H.W. Bush with a massive 13-percentage-point margin that helped him sweep this swing state into the Republican column in 1988 and catapult himself into the White House. But four years ago, this same area landed in the Democratic column and helped Barack Obama capture the state on the way to win a second term in 2012.

Enormous transformations like that are under way throughout the United States, and they have converged in one dramatic, dispiriting, even dyspeptic presidential election campaign that reaches its screechy climax on Tuesday.

But in a broad sense, the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States is not about building a wall on the Mexican border, nor about how much the wealthy should pay in taxes, nor even whether Russia is playing an unseemly role, or has an uncomfortably big stake in, the results of this week's balloting. It may not even be about former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and New York businessman Donald Trump.

Story continues below advertisement

Read more: FBI's Comey reaffirms July decision not to charge Hillary Clinton over e-mails

John Ibbitson: The dwindling demographic support of the Republican party

Read more: Bitter U.S. election will reach fitting end in an apathetic Manhattan

It is, instead, about how the country responds to profound change that is rapidly altering the politics, economy, demographics and culture of the world's pre-eminent power in a way that has perhaps only one precedent, the rapid industrialization of the United States in the late-19th century.

"This is a country that is moving, and changing, very fast," Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, said in an interview. "We have sped up the pace of life and changed the way we live – and people are caught in a whipsaw. With technology, globalization and immigration, the country is changing faster than people can deal with it, and it causes anxiety and stirs passions."

Electoral patterns inside the United States are changing dramatically. The ethnic profile of the country is in transition, requiring a new political calculus. The major political parties are developing new identities, prompting a re-evaluation of long-standing alliances. Relations between the sexes are being altered, unsettling many Americans. Broad assumptions about manners and comportment are being overhauled, troubling established political figures.

"The American people believe the parties have humiliated the country," the Democrats' 1984 presidential nominee, former vice-president Walter Mondale, said in an interview. "There's some truth to that." It is common to say that the past is another country, but this year it is true that the country no longer even remotely conforms to the patterns of the past.

Story continues below advertisement

This year even the candidates' supporters recoil at their behaviours. This year crude invective has become the common currency of campaigning. This year polls show the public holds twin, but deeply contradictory, views: Americans' satisfaction with their lives and with their financial state is on the rise – even as Americans are demanding profound change.

And yet this year no one says that the election-day choice doesn't matter – or that, as former governor George Wallace said of the two nominees in 1968, there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the two.

"There's a huge difference this time," former governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania said in an interview. "These candidates are poles apart on most of the issues facing the country. Nobody can say this election doesn't matter. Forget all the name calling. The outcome of this election will make a big difference."

These candidates have different styles, different histories, different priorities, different policies, different vocabularies. They have different visions of the world, of the role of the presidency, of the place the United States occupies around the globe. They have reversed the profiles of the parties – the Democrats this time are the elitists, the Republicans the populists – and even have repudiated their own profiles. In this election, the businessman and plutocrat is the insurgent. In this contest, the lifelong political activist and advocate of the underclass represents the status quo.

And in this campaign, traditional notions of civility have been trampled upon. "I've seen fights I've never seen before, and heard language I've never heard before," said Pennsylvania State Senator Kim Ward, a Republican running for re-election this fall.

The element lost in this chaos-filled campaign may be that the chaos is not an aberration in a country recoiling in horror at two deeply unpopular presidential nominees but instead that it is an accurate reflection of a country convulsed in change, frustrated by its inability to process it – and angry at its possible implications. "People are totally fed up," said former labour secretary Robert Reich, who now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. "A lot of people have just had enough." That frustration helped produce a raucous campaign that has called into question every assumption about American politics and, more broadly, about American culture.

Story continues below advertisement

It has put at centre stage working Americans who feel at the periphery of American life. It has marginalized elites who, for decades, have been at the centre of American life. It has empowered those with little power and stripped the powerful of their prerogatives. It has fortified the political role of those without college degrees and undermined the authority of the elites, the modern equivalent of the late 19th-century American Mugwumps, whom Theodore Roosevelt derided as those who "distrusted the average citizen and shuddered over the 'coarseness' of the professional politicians." This campaign, moreover, transformed both parties into warring parties.

The Republicans today are divided among traditional conservatives at ease in a Rotary Club meeting inside a hotel ballroom; urban sophisticates with bulging stock portfolios and the cellphone numbers of their hedge-fund advisers at hand; Midwestern farmers skeptical of the coasts and worried about swings in international commodity prices; and religious conservatives battling abortion and gay rights. The Democrats are an uneasy coalition of Bill Clinton-era moderates comfortable with Wall Street; university-oriented liberals who marched to the beat of Senator Bernie Sanders's drum during the primary season and who want to battle the big banks and climate change; and labour leaders apprehensive about the party's new business allies.

"There's a lot of anger and frustration out there," said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest labour federation in the United States, "and that's what Trump has tapped into." Many of the changes that shaped the character of the campaign lie below the surface, but some are obvious.

The face of the country has changed more rapidly and more profoundly than at any time in American history. The share of the Colorado vote cast by Latinos, for example, has doubled since 1980; Denver itself today is one-third Latino. In the last decade, Nevada has gone from two-thirds white to barely half white.

At the same time, the percentage of Americans with a college degree has grown dramatically; in 1975, the rate of college graduates was barely a fifth of the population. Today it is more than a third.

"There's so much disruption for non-college-educated whites that they really have shaped this election," said Daniel Urman, a Northeastern University political scientist. "The question is whether their rebellion is permanent – and how we govern a country where people live in separate factual universes as well as separate political universes. The terrifying thing is that neither of these candidates is particularly well-equipped to bring these two groups together."

Report an error
About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.