Editor’s note: Head of state, chief diplomat, commander-in-chief, guardian of the economy – Americans are fixing to elect another president, so we asked Notre Dame’s in-house pundit to put the moment, the issues, the candidates and the choices in context and perspective. Bob Schmuhl’s commentary on American politics and journalism frequently appears in major print and broadcast outlets in the U.S. and abroad. His exclusive observations on the 2016 presidential election will run on magazine.nd.edu every two weeks.
At the beginning of class the other day, I circulated a questionnaire for the 26 duly-enrolled Millennial Domers in my course on American Political and Media Culture. Besides wanting to know their partisan and ideological preferences, their pushing-70 teacher wanted to gauge student opinion about contemporary political figures and this year’s presidential free-for-all from the anonymous surveys.
Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump received a single vote in the category of “contemporary/living American political figure I admire most.” President Barack Obama, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were the top choices of nearly half the class, which seems modestly more liberal than the participants in other such courses during the past few years.
The hands-down winner for the query “contemporary political figure I’d most like to have a beer with” was Vice President Joe Biden. Clinton and Trump might not be admired, but four students — two for each major party candidate — wouldn’t mind sharing an adult beverage with them. “I honestly wonder what it would be like to have a one-on-one conversation with him,” one respondent wrote about Trump, who, it should be noted, is a lifelong teetotaler.
When asked to provide one word to describe the 2016 campaign for the White House, four students wrote “chaotic.” The adjectives “interesting,” “disappointing” and “ridiculous” appeared twice each on the surveys, with several other vivid terms mentioned singly: “mind-boggling,” “insane,” “unbelievable,” “terrifying,” “regrettable,” “disheartening” and “disillusioning.”
Evaluated collectively, these student responses reflect America writ large. The Democratic and Republican standard bearers evoke no authentic admiration — around northern Indiana one rarely sees bumper stickers or yard signs favoring either Clinton or Trump — and it’s a good bet that soon after November 8 many, if not most, voters will be happy to dispose of their memories of this particular democratic exercise in the so-called dustbin of history.
Before then, however, several questions hover like famished vultures over each of the candidates.
Will revelations about Clinton’s Internet imbroglio — a private email server for public business, deleted messages in the thousands, careless handling of classified information, and all the rest — continue to weaken her chances just as she tries to project strength at the finish line? What else will we learn about the funding for the Clinton Foundation? (Interestingly, both the email and the foundation concerns revolve around the conflict between the alleged convergence of public and private business.)
Can Trump control his vocal cords, which never seem to rest, and try to articulate a consistent, coherent argument on behalf of the policies and proposals he considers most important? The recent consternation over his true intentions on immigration — could the candidate be softening his stance on a signature issue? — is a salient example. In addition, at what point will the Trump campaign stop re-designing its organizational flow chart to look like an operation that knows what it’s doing?
These questions — teachers, alas, specialize in making inquiries rather than providing answers — focus on the figures at the top of each major ticket. One also wonders whether the unfavorable reactions to both Clinton and Trump — a late August poll reported that exactly 2 percent of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of the two candidates — will depress voter turnout or motivate some citizens to consider other candidates who are in the race and fighting for whatever attention the media might give them.
A telltale sign that the United States views itself as a strict two-party nation is evident in the often-used phrase “third-party candidate.” Every person, running for whatever office, who isn’t on the ballot as a Democrat or a Republican, automatically becomes in our threadbare thinking and lingo a “third-party candidate” — even when there are more than three parties represented on ballots.
For the presidency this year, the Libertarian Party features a ticket of two former two-term Republican governors — Gary Johnson from New Mexico at the top and William Weld of Massachusetts as the Number 2 — while the Green Party has nominated a physician, Jill Stein, as its White House aspirant. Meanwhile, Evan McMullin, who served in the CIA and as a senior advisor for the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, is running a vigorous independent campaign in several states and could play a decisive role in his home state of Utah.
Johnson, Stein and McMullin are maneuvering to try to join Clinton and Trump on the stage for the three presidential debates, but their prospects look dim. Moreover, Johnson’s recent inability to handle a question on live television about the Syrian civil war — which prompted him to ask “What is Aleppo?” — made voters do a double-take about his knowledge of contemporary affairs.
Be that as it may, will voter unhappiness with the Democratic and Republican nominees nudge people to scrutinize the situation and even look beyond the traditional two-party offerings? In European countries and elsewhere, voters have a greater number of serious alternatives for high office. To “make America great again” maybe all we really need to do is examine the condition of our political infrastructure, including our incomprehensible presidential nominating process and our lockstep allegiance to the two-party tradition.
Fittingly, perhaps, two clichés compete against each other as reactions to this year’s choice. To some people, it’s a “hold-your-nose-and-vote” election. To others, it boils down to “the lesser of two evils.” Neither prospect prompts much excitement, just more questions — or the wisecrack that we’re getting the evil of two lessers.
One student’s single-word description of the 2016 election in the class survey captures the dilemma of this unpredictable and unedifying campaign season as well any other: “puzzling.” Is it possible to fit all the jigsaw pieces of this year’s election puzzle into a pictorial and political scene Americans can recognize — or even admire?
Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame.
Illustration by Jim Larkin