Guest Opinion: Time to look beyond the election

The San Diego Union-Tribune
Nov. 10
Stock image

Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States.

In normal times, the ability of an uncouth, unconventional candidate like Trump to overcome staunch intraparty opposition and be elected the 45th U.S. president could have been seen as a symbol of the vitality of American democracy, with rank-and-file voters defying entrenched establishment interests to change a nation’s course.

But these are not normal times. The elation that so many Americans — even some Republicans — felt in 2008 over the election of the first African-American president seems unlikely to be repeated this election. Barack Obama maintained a patina of optimism and inclusivity around his candidacy that somehow survived the 2008 campaign. The same won’t be said after the scorched-earth 2016 campaign.

The sense of relief that many Americans used to feel after a contentious election season seems a distant sensation.

Despite Clinton’s concession, millions of Clinton voters will be tempted to wonder whether the election was rigged, given the specter of Russian hacking that’s been hanging over the campaign. Given the likelihood that Clinton will win the popular vote, they are also likely to see the result as illegitimate for that reason, too. Meanwhile, millions of Trump voters would have seen the election as rigged by shadowy forces if he lost — even if Trump himself didn’t make the incendiary charge.

We congratulate Trump on his victory and hope that Americans won’t raise inflammatory, unfounded doubts about the results. But at this point in this extraordinary year, such hopes seem naive. America is not what it was. It’s almost as if Americans live in two separate countries because the internet, social media and skewed TV coverage allow partisan individuals to only see information — true or otherwise — that reinforces their beliefs.

This creates a centrifugal effect that pushes more and more Americans to views that once would have seemed extreme and unlikely. A 2014 study by Stanford University’s Shanto Iyengar and Princeton University’s Sean Westwood came to some remarkable conclusions: that marriage decisions are more influenced by political views than attractiveness or personal qualities and that partisan animus is stronger than racial animus.

Against this grim backdrop, America needs its leaders — political and otherwise — to try to keep this centrifugal effect from intensifying and threatening to tear this nation apart. We need Democrats to resist the impulse to see racial hatred as the organizing principle of the Republican Party. We need Republicans to resist the impulse to see contempt for traditional American values as the default position of the Democratic Party.

At this point, it is futile to urge individual voters to stop their crowing and venting about this unexpected development. It is vitally important that American leaders and important institutions resist the temptation to declare the result a black eye for democracy. That is simply not constructive.

If our leaders don’t step up, America seems on the verge of a political and cultural rift as severe as the one that buffeted the 1960s. We hope this doesn’t happen.

Some 180 years ago, French author Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

We hope he was right. How we hope.