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5 Questions with Michael Berkman, Director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy

by on October 09, 2016 5:00 AM

T&G: You had a lecture event with Brooke Gladstone in September titled, “The 2016 Campaign: Is it the Media’s Fault?” Why do you think we have a presidential campaign with two people who have such high negatives when it comes to public opinion?

Berkman: It is certainly true that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have record high negatives, but I’m not sure there is one explanation for both. Hillary Clinton herself acknowledges that the campaigning and public part of politics is difficult for her, especially compared to more natural politicians like Bill Clinton. And she has been in the public eye for many years as the subject of an endless number of often partisan investigations and attacks. These take their toll. There does seem to be a pattern with Hilary Clinton: when she’s pursuing power, people turn on her. They don’t care for her ambition. But when she’s in power or leaves office — as when she was a Senator or Secretary of State — she’s actually quite popular. All that said, stories like her private e-mail server and the Clinton Foundation also play into a narrative that the media has certainly helped to perpetuate that she is not transparent and that the rules don’t apply.  

Now Donald Trump is another story, although he too has been in the public eye for a long time.  Trump makes comments that are apparently intentionally antagonistic and often insulting to individuals or groups of individuals. This goes back quite awhile — consider his history with birtherism, claiming despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary that the president was not born in this country and therefore not constitutionally allowed to be president. Among many, this will make you highly unpopular. All told, have we ever seen a presidential candidate who uses personal insults as freely, or who has such a reckless disregard for the truth, as Donald Trump? Of course, to his hardcore supporters this “telling it like it is” rhetoric accounts for his attraction. But it turns many other people off, including many in his own party.

T&G: We keep hearing how this country is divided. Do you believe that to be the case? If so, how do think we got here?

Berkman: I do think there are much higher levels of partisan polarization than we’ve seen in a seen very long time, and maybe since the Civil War. This is true at the elite, politician level, and it appears to be increasingly true in some different ways among the mass public as well. This polarization has been developing for many decades; indeed, you see its roots in the 1960s over issues of race as the South turned increasingly Republican. Before then, there were liberal Republicans and very conservative Democrats. But since then we’ve had a kind of sorting where liberal voters and politicians gravitated to the Democratic Party and conservative ones to the Republicans. The middle has emptied out.

Polarization has also led to a more intense partisanship where Republicans and Democrats are less likely to socialize, consume the same media, or even live in the same communities. We see this in Congress as well where Republican and Democratic legislators spend much less time together than they used to. This has also led to what some political scientists refer to as “negative partisanship,” where supporters of one party are driven more by loathing for the opposing party than support for their own.

T&G: What are the issues that you thinking are driving voters this year?

Berkman: This is very unusual election because both the Republican primaries and the general election have been so devoid of the usual kinds of issues that drive American politics. A recent Doonesbury comic strip captured it well when it showed a character daydreaming about a debate between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton that turned on questions of how much economic growth would be possible and advisable. But instead this election has been dominated by Donald Trump’s comments and the candidates questioning of each other’s basic fitness for the job. In many ways, the election has become a referendum on him, which has the effect of muting the kinds of issues that usually define elections. Further, because Donald Trump has been so evasive on his issue positions it’s been difficult to figure out exactly what it is he will do if elected.

But in some sense, the whole election season has been consumed with a sort of anger and dismay with politics as usual. I think income inequality has been an important issue as well. We are just a few years away from a serious recession, and recovery has been far better for some in the society than others. This contributes to the anger and dissatisfaction. And for many, there have also been dramatic cultural and demographic changes that also contribute to these feelings. We should not forget that America is increasingly a nonwhite country, and this type of change doesn’t come without its upheaval.

Relatedly, we should not understate the importance of immigration, especially within the Republican Party. Republican donors and much of the party base clearly have different feelings and interests in this area. And I think the issue of terrorism and its relation to our overseas commitments and activities is on the mind of many people.

T&G: Is there anything you’re especially paying attention to this campaign season?

It’s all fascinating and so unusual. Like so many others, I’m fixated on what Trump says and does, and how far he will push the envelope of what is acceptable in American elections.  I am also very concerned that he has taken us in directions we will have a hard time getting away from: his explicit use of slurs and personal insults, for example, hardly help to elevate political discourse.

T&G: Regardless of who wins the presidency, how optimistic or pessimistic are you that they can bring the country together, so to speak?

Berkman: I am very concerned. At the McCourtney Institute for Democracy we take a nonpartisan view of American politics, but do aim in all our efforts to evaluate American democracy and try to improve it.  And we see some things going on that concern us a great deal.

Polarization and intense partisanship are here to stay for a while. Trump did not create this reality. But the Republican Party is clearly dividing into those who were with Trump and those who are not. And the potential — although by no means inevitable — implosion of the Republican Party could destabilize things in a way that no one can anticipate. But what most worries me and others at the institute are the efforts we’re seeing by Donald Trump and some of his surrogates to delegitimize the winner of the election should it be Hillary Clinton. Unsupported and really reckless claims of rigging the election and cheating will only make it more difficult for Trump’s supporters to accept Hillary Clinton. And Trump’s calls for his supporters to monitor the polls, if heeded, could turn very ugly. So I’m quite concerned that he is setting the groundwork to ultimately refuse to accept the results of the election. Once again, this is extremely reckless. This acceptance by the loser is absolutely essential for a democratic system. This wasn’t easy for Al Gore after the Supreme Court ruled in 2000, but he did it, and our nation was better for his act. We should all hope the loser of this election does the same.

David Pencek is editor of Town&Gown magazine, Town&Gown's Penn State Football Annual, and Town&Gown's Penn State Winter Sports Annual.
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