Considering the changing landscape of elections after 2016

The electorate has become curiously estranged from the political systems that are supposed to represent it. In a fatalistic sweep, digital media has instilled civic apathy in the young — the result of an overloaded sensorium in face of unproductive online discourse. The old have made a trade-off with partisan loyalty, abandoning the establishment’s previously held principles in an attempt to alienate themselves from perceptibly declining parties. Those seemingly unaffected by politics are unaware of the current limitations in the rule of law and the gamble irrevocably associated with the democratic way of life. In light of the last election, those who have been let down will hold their breaths to watch what is commonly referred to and mythically constructed in Washington, D.C., as “the process” taking place on Election Day.

The outcome of the midterm elections is an indication of what we have learned and what we will continue to struggle with. Apathetic or jaded mindsets play no role in progression; voting is necessary. This is the most instrumental act a single member of the electorate can do to change current conditions, and this is what millions failed to do in the last election. In the 2016 presidential election, the overwhelming majority of nonvoters rationalized their decision with, “did not like candidates or campaign issues,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Dissatisfaction is not only cast toward politicians but also toward the parties themselves. Drifting from party identification has become a popular trend, and those unaware of the decline of the two-party system will not make it very far in understanding the future dynamics of American politics. It’s evident that party loyalists are more radical than ever, championing the fights in intellectual intolerance or political incorrectness, yet failing to realize the perils of polarization. The mere thought of identifying as an independent, however, seems so threatening that silence becomes more admirable than engaging. “The fact is that the scarcity mentality and the perpetual warrior style it demands are incompatible with any civilized political creed,” wrote David Brooks on the op-ed page of The New York Times. “At first the warriors seem to be fighting for the creed but eventually they transform it.”   

If one takes a step back from the sinking two-party system, it becomes apparent that voters gravitate toward personalities as opposed to parties. Americans are more concerned with the presentability of a candidate and the prospect that they’ll serve as a respectable figurehead of the United States. Charisma carries further than campaign promises; invariably, they’re rarely fulfilled. In the most recent presidential election, we’ve witnessed the extent to which a personality will win you a campaign.

Donald Trump was able to separate himself from his Republican Party counterparts during the 2016 presidential primaries by articulating his policies in a deliberately hyperbolic manner, using a language that both excited and appealed to conservative voters. Ronald Reagan, arguably the most popular president to come from the modern Republican Party, was effective because of his charm and his performance. After succeeding Reagan as governor of California, Jerry Brown noted in “Recollections of Reagan: A Portrait of Ronald Reagan” the largely symbolic role of politicians, recalling, “There is something illusory about it, like a play. Then again, if that satisfies people, it has some value. Reagan seemed to understand all that.” In light of the last election, it seems that the American people once again want someone who will “understand all that” — in essence, someone who possesses emotional intelligence. Again, it is about persona, not policy.

Since the last election, it seems impossible to talk about politics without discussing the media’s transformation. “Most Americans believe it is now harder to be well-informed and to determine which news is accurate,” as reported by the 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy. “They increasingly perceive the media as biased and struggle to identify objective news sources.” Clearly, this is referring to the once inconceivable “fake news,” the very same term that has been assigned to multiple major news organizations by Donald Trump in a McCarthyist rhetoric.

The Washington Post took note of readers’ dwindling trust in media, deciding to add the new motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness” to the front page, although reactions were mixed. “It is as if you are telling us every day that democracy is dying rather than that you are helping keep it alive and well with thorough and accurate reporting. Few people want to talk about death, but many can engage in talking about life,” wrote Pam Leitterman from Sunnyvale, California, in a letter to the editor. One could scarcely conjure up a better argument against the new motto than Leitterman has, but it’s worth questioning who’s responsible for democracy’s future. The Washington Post seems to think that the media is responsible for maintaining the democratic way of life. A lot of people are confident that it’s the duty of elected officials. In fact, it is the electorate that is responsible for preserving democracy. It is the electorate that holds the power to repair an increasingly detached political process.

Contact Christopher Chang at [email protected] .