Reflections on the 2016 US Election


Prof Robert W. McChesney

Teaches communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the co-author of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy (Nation Books, 2016).



US2016 - Section 8

Section 8: Result and Beyond

The most important takeaway of the US 2016 presidential election is that we are entering transitional times, with unusual levels of political turbulence the order of the day. This is true not just in the United States, but, to varying degrees, worldwide. At its core, the cause is a stagnant capitalist economy, with growing inequality, unemployment and underemployment, poverty and precariousness the emerging features. Upon this is layered a growing sense of corruption in governance, and the inability of governing institutions in ostensible democracies to represent the interests of the bulk of the population to address and solve problems in an efficient, just and humane manner. And foremost among those problems are inequality, militarism and the climate crisis.

This is certainly the case in the United States, where the mainstreams of both major political parties were significantly abandoned by their voters in 2016. In stagnant and corrupt times the mainstream is increasingly dismissed as ineffectual and corrupt. As we learned in the 1930s, when the world was in a similar political economic crisis, the dominant growing alternatives are an authoritarian anti-democratic pseudo-populism on the right, generally known as fascism, and democratic socialism on the left. In the United States, the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders reflected elements of these two traditions respectively, and both did dramatically better than anyone would have thought possible for generations.

Indeed, had the Democratic Party not rigged the primary process in close collaboration with Hillary Clinton and the news media to guarantee she got the nomination over Sanders—indeed, to prevent any effective competition for the nomination—she may well have been defeated in the spring. There is reason to believe that Sanders, who is hugely popular among independent voters, would have crushed Trump in a general election. The turnout and enthusiasm among young people would have been markedly higher—Sanders is arguably the most popular politician with voters under 30 in modern American history—and early analysis of the election results suggest such a higher turnout would have provided victory margins in several of the states Hillary lost.

The election also drew attention to a number of issues that undermine the notion that the United States can be termed a democracy, unless one uses scare quotes. 

Hillary Clinton actually won the election, if one simply looks at the popular vote. She lost decisively in the “electoral college,” an absurd device put in the constitution primarily so slave-owning states could get credit for the slave population—each slave counted as 3/5 of a person—without letting them vote. 

The total vote for all the House of Representative races split fairly evenly between the two parties, but the Republicans got a landslide 46 seat majority, largely due to gerrymandering, whereby politicians rig election districts to favor the dominant party at the state level. 

Moreover, millions of Americans were unable to vote because they failed to meet strict identification policies put in place universally by Republican state governments with the clear intent of lowering the number of poor and minority voters. 

The US system makes “lesser-of-two evils” voting highly rational behavior, thereby locking in the two-party duopoly and allowing them to serve corporate interests and not worry about losing their voters to the one permissible hated alternative. 

And, to top it off, the total cost of the 2016 campaigns has yet to be tabulated, but it stands to be much like 2012, when US candidates spent 30-40 times more per voter than did candidates in Germany or Britain in their most recent national elections, mostly for generally asinine TV political advertisements. Much of that cash comes from wealthy individuals and corporations and is unaccountable “dark money.”

So is it any surprise that the United States has the lowest voter turnout of any major democracy in the world, with barely 50 percent of the voting-age population participating in 2016?

There has been much grumbling about how the mainstream media has been dreadful and superficial in its election coverage, and it is justified. But there was a far greater problem in 2016 that got almost no mention: there is very little coverage of political races by journalists any longer. The US model of commercial journalism has collapsed and when people go to the polls they have almost no idea who the candidates are and what they stand for aside from what they might have seen in the TV ads. Unless there are clear public policies to establish a competitive independent news media, it is difficult to see how the governing system can be corralled to serve the interests of the people. Whatever their flaws, that was something the framers of the constitution understood in their bone marrow. In a genuine democracy, this would be an issue of the highest magnitude.