Reflections on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

For much of the presidential race we heard from pundits that the body politic was witnessing an “unprecedented” campaign and was navigating in “uncharted waters.” Such characterization largely was based on a reaction toward Donald Trump, who not only ran an unconventional campaign but also was accused of violating numerous political “norms.” What went mostly unnoticed, however, was that pundits rarely outlined what these norms were and what exactly Trump was doing to violate them. Was it a violation of norms that he ran a largely negative campaign through heaping so much abuse on his opponents? Or was it due to his tendency to pit one kind of American against another? Or was it simply because he brought a level of vulgarity to the race, to which most in the country were unaccustomed within the context of the campaign trail?

There are indeed norms that remain essential to democratic processes, but the reality is that these are poorly understood by pundits and the public alike–in part because the historical origins of such norms are only vaguely grasped.

In response to such a lack of understanding, the following will consider the most fundamental norms of modern democracy, all of which derive from the development of the public sphere in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and how these norms fared in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The essay is organized in keeping with the three norms necessary for the public sphere when it first emerged: the use of reason; the freedom of expression; and transparency.

The Use of Reason

It is hard to conceive of how any election could have been any more devoid of the use of reason than this one. From the very start of the primary season the presidential race reflected a profound lack of substance in addressing the most pressing issues facing America, in part because it quickly devolved into name-calling and the pitting of one ethnicity against another. In this respect, Donald Trump did more than anyone else to set the tone for the race when he announced his bid for the presidency:

When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. . .  When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

I could go on, of course, about what unfolded from there: the creation of monikers like “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” and “Crooked Hillary”; the references to body appendages in a Republican “debate”; the 281 things that Donald Trump insulted on Twitter.

I know I might be stating the obvious here, but where’s the use of reason in all of this? How is any of this a reference to indisputable fact or the building of an argument based on evidence? Instead, what we saw an appeal to the lowest common denominator–an incitement of emotion, the stimulation of the most base instincts, a call to the visceral slime that any civilization must first tame if people are going to live together in peace.

Another way in which the Trump campaign evaded reason was the tendency of the candidate to not tell the truth. “Reason” requires, among other things, that premises, conclusions, and the evidence on which these are built be true and verifiable. But as many non-partisan fact-checking organizations found, Trump had a gross propensity to make things up–all the while never admitting when he had his facts wrong. Politifact, for example, has rated 51 percent of all of his statements as “false” or  even worse, “pants on fire.” Only 4 percent of this statements were said to be “true” while another 26 percent were rated as “mostly true” or “half true.”

But Trump was not the only one who strayed from reason. Although Hillary Clinton based her campaign more on the facts, once she gained the Democratic nomination she was hardly any better at employing reason given how she relentlessly attacked her opponent as unfit for the presidency. The character assassination of Donald Trump by Clinton was a serious flaw in her campaign, but not because her accusations about Trump’s bigotry, misogyny, ignorance, and narcissism were untrue. Rather, the accusations forced Clinton to play on Trump’s home field of irrationality, and she just could not play the game as well as he did. Clinton was most effective in the debates, for example, when she simply told the truth about what Donald Trump had said. Could Clinton have won the presidency if she had avoided attacking Trump in the way that she did? Perhaps, but such a hypothetical misses the point. Clinton avoided invoking reason almost as much as Trump did.

The use of reason, it is true, is no guarantor of victory at the polls. Indeed, elections are often won and lost according to the baser instincts to which Trump so successfully appealed. But when reason is so blatantly deferred in a democratic election and tribalism is chosen instead, essentially it is tantamount to destroying a village in order to save it. The repercussions of such disregard for reason will be felt in the U.S. for many years to come.

The Freedom of Expression

There is perhaps no greater misperception among the American people than the view that the media in the United States is free, autonomous, and unbound. The proposition is laughable, but not because every journalist, reporter, or media company has an implicit liberal or conservative bias. Rather, the claim’s absurdity is due to the media being driven first and foremost by profit; finding and revealing the truth are fundamental for the media only insofar as they enable company profits to be made. Once this is understood, it only takes a short hop to realize that the freedom of expression is severely constrained in the United States, above all when it comes to what the media reports.

It may be a stretch to claim that the media treatment of Donald Trump explains his victory. But this much is certain: there is no way he could have become a serious presidential contender without the assistance of major media outlets, many of which gave him millions of dollars in free advertising during the months preceding the Republican presidential primaries and caucuses. In a rare moment of candor, CBS President Les Moonves told The Hollywood Reporter in late February 2016 that Trump “may not be good for America, but he’s damn good for CBS.” No truer words were spoken about the state of the media in this country and how it relates to our politics.

But the failure of the American media does not stop there. Traditionally, the media has been understood in the U.S. as the “fourth estate,” a public force exerted to hold candidates and appointed political officials accountable. Such accountability is expected above all in the presidential debates, whether they are held before the two major parties select their nominees or after. So how many questions at the three debates featuring Trump and Clinton were raised by the media (or citizens whom the media chose) about the most pressing problem facing the planet, climate change? None. Not one. Zilch. In a country that upholds the freedom of expression, that the nominees of the two major parties were not held accountable for their views and proposed policies regarding climate change is not only a national disgrace; it is a clear sign of how circumscribed political expression is in the United States.

What about the internet? Doesn’t it mean that everybody is free to say what they want? Hasn’t it been a great boon for the freedom of expression in politics, above all for ordinary citizens? As Matthew Hindman pointed out in The Myth of Digital Democracy, the internet often fails a citizen because her voice merely becomes one amid an unwieldy cacophony:

. . . where the Internet has failed to live up to its billing has to do with the most direct kind of political voice. If we consider the ability of ordinary citizens to write things that other people will see, the Internet has fallen far short of the claims that continue to made about it. It may be easy to speak in cyberspace, but it remains difficult to be heard.

The freedom of expression is a political utility only insofar as the public has full, easy, and open access to such expression. In this respect, a corporate-controlled, profit-driven media exemplifies the dearth of free expression and further shows how, despite and perhaps because of the multi-vocal internet, the corporate media still exerts undue power in elections.

Transparency

Of the three norms necessary for a healthy functioning public sphere, that of transparency was probably the most violated in this presidential election. At first this claim may sound ridiculous; Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton were among the best know candidates to run for the presidency. They stood within the limelight for so long that virtually everything was known about them. Not one part of their lives eluded the scrutiny of the media or the broader public.

As true as this may be, though, transparency in a presidential election requires that the public knows exactly what the candidate plans to do once he or she is president. Moreover, knowing much about the candidate’s personal social, economic, and cultural background can help citizens a great deal in determining what kind of president he or she will be.

This is why the failure of Donald Trump to disclose his tax returns was so disturbing, and why many saw this failure as a violation of transparent norms necessary in democratic government. Not only would the tax returns have told us about how good of a businessman Donald Trump really has been; it would have also indicated how he has dealt with the obligation of every citizen to contribute to the common good through taxes, as well as to the degree to which he has exercised generosity and charity. The tax returns would have provided us with another side of Donald Trump who, because he had never run for political office, now faces new temptation of using government power to personally enrich himself.

But the lack of disclosing his financial and tax status was only part of Trump’s opacity. His explanation for what he would do as president was equally obfuscating. Most of his policy proposals simply ended with this vague promise: “And it’s going to be great.” Was that any way to be honest, forthright, and clear to voters? Yet even more disheartening than the lack of specifics was that this did not seem to matter to most Trump voters; they voted for him anyway. The failure to disclose his tax returns tells us as much about a public relatively comfortable with political ignorance as it does about Trump’s tendency to bamboozle Americans.

One could claim, nonetheless, that Hillary Clinton obscured her presidential plans as much as Trump did. But here is a case where drawing an equivalency simply does not work. To be sure, the problem with her private server and email account testified to her personal tendency to remain guarded from the public, and often this came across as if Clinton had something to hide. Although unduly blown out of proportion, this issue remained a drag on her campaign and could have cost her the election. Yet even so, her campaign provided clear policy positions that not only were well publicized but also were finely thought out and constructed. Clinton was much more transparent than Trump was, which is why the country waits in suspense as to what Trump is actually going to do as president. This is no way to run a democracy.

Transparency was missing in another way as well. When eighteenth-century patrons of the public sphere spoke of the need for transparency, they meant it in the sense of telling the whole truth. They were used to having government officials cover up whom they were helping or how they were spending money derived from taxes. They were accustomed to having priests and ministers telling them that it was a mystery for why God permitted some people in society to have more power and privileges than others. If we understand transparency as telling the truth in this election, then it is all the more damnable that the social network of Facebook was responsible for helping circulate false stories about the candidates. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg initially dismissed the idea that false news on Facebook had any appreciable effect on the election, but after receiving a healthy dose of bad press for this development he saw the need for his platform to address this problem. It should come as no surprise, moreover, that Russia may have played a role in planting fake news stories as well. False news is, and will continue to be, a serious threat to democratic governance.


The absence of reason, free expression, and transparency in the 2016 U.S. presidential election should be setting off alarm bells for anyone who deeply cares about democratic culture. The fact that most of the nation merely shrugs its shoulders about such a deeply flawed process shows us how damaged and compromised the American public sphere is. As long as the basic norms governing the public sphere are violated, and as long as the American electorate remains mired in ignorance about not only the public sphere but also the norms that help define it, we should expect to see further erosion of democratic culture in American politics. Perhaps it’s true that Donald Trump is merely riding a wave of worldwide anger in response to the ravages left by globalization. But one hopes that it is not too late for many Americans to realize that a greater degree of political irrationality, repression, and obfuscation will only make the problems related to globalization that much worse in the long run. We shall see.

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