Election 2016: America, will you ever learn?

Or a thank you letter for giving the world the most dangerous presidential candidates.

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Image courtesy of Caglecartoons.com

The President of the US has never had a greater influence over the fate of the international community and its members. Currently, the US actively participates in all prominent war conflicts around the globe and the president’s influence on these affairs could not be stressed enough. However, in the year of the presidential election, the American population ranks foreign policy as one of the last issues they consider pressing or deserving urgent attention – around only 2%, according to surveys carried out by Gallup in 2016 (1). So who’s gonna pick up the bill?  The rest of the world, of course.

One of the candidates called revisionist China “a currency manipulator” and deemed immigrants coming from neighbouring Mexico “rapists” whom he would stop by building a “big, beautiful wall.” The other candidate called emerging superpower Russia’s president a “bully” without a soul and, in her final weeks as Secretary of State, sent a letter to President Obama describing relations with Russia as critical – a message worryingly similar to George Kennan’s Long Telegram.

Whatever crisis is due to happen following the US election, future generations will certainly wonder how we let things go that far. How did the leader of the free world end up inducing more tension than any other leader? How did the long-standing symbol of democracy, freedom and civil rights turn into a scarecrow capable of repelling even their own party’s members? How did the most powerful army in the world get frivolously abandoned in such incompetent hands?

Very easy, I’ll answer! Just take the American society, add tons of ignorance, extract any trace of political involvement, and you’ll get the next international catastrophe ready to happen.

So, let’s give this talk some context. The US army has some kind of presence in around 20 different countries, including Turkmenistan and Tajikistan (2). However, attempts to find out what the public opinion is about these engagements, is doomed to fail. Simply put, these two names are absent from any American analytics or data provider company’s records, as well as most national media outlets … because they are just not part of the discussion.  The American taxpayer subsidizes military activities in territories without having a clue where their finances actually go. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

In contrast, some military conflicts – such as the ones in Vietnam, Iraq and Syria – have managed to stay on the national agenda for years and have been closely inspected by the public eye. However, this hardly means the population managed to hold the government to any sort of account. Quite the opposite, a closer inspection reveals another central issue in American politics – people tend to justify governmental authority without questioning its legitimacy. For instance, prior to the “ultimatum” speech held by President Bush (3), approval ratings of sending troops to Iraq were in the high 50% range and jumped to 66% on the night of the speech. Eventually, this percentage surged to 76% right after the official start of military actions (4). A parallel could be made with similar data showcasing the public opinion about the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Days before the war was launched, a slight majority of 55% supported the idea. However, following Bush’s announcement that the first attack was launched, approval jumped to 79% which, towards the end of the war, went to an 84% high.

Question is, does the government always get it right, or is the American voter just not interested enough to form their own opinion and choose to rationalize all activities carried out by bodies of authority? It seems more plausible that the trend of Americans providing justification for their government’s actions is so persistent simply because it’s far easier than providing justification of one’s own actions … or the lack thereof.

Another concerning statistic is the “rally-round-the-flag effect” – a phenomenon characterized by the spiking approval ratings of the government during ongoing international dramatic processes directly involving the US. The most notable example is the shift in public opinion after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Bush’s approval rating jumped from the pre-attacks 51% to the post-attacks rating of 86% (4). This percentage is the fourth highest ever, the top three being George H.W. Bush with 89% and 87% during the Gulf War and Harry Truman with 87% after Germany’s defeat in WWII. There are a number of other examples which could be summoned in support of this argument – 16, to be specific, with at least a 10% margin in the approval rating before and after certain rally events in the period between 1941 and 2001.

Interestingly, although the 9/11 events were the result of serious security breaches and the lack of effective national defense strategy, the tragedy of the terror attacks enhanced the level of trust people had in the institutions of the American government. 64% of the interviewed people said they trusted the government to do “what was right ‘just about always’” compared to the 30% pre-attacks result (5). This data goes to show that, in the light of dramatic events – whether positive or negative – Americans tend to become hostage of their own emotions and patriotic feelings. Consequently, this leads them to blindly believe anything the institutions which they perceive as unifying tell them.

However, as a result of the way the invasion of Iraq was presented by the government, there is a stark contrast between what the population believed they were getting involved in, and what turned out to be the case. In 2003, some 34% Americans believed that the conflict would last less than a month and 41% predicted that less than 100 Americans would be killed or injured (6). However, what could have been a very successful war, ended up a fiasco as the US failed to provide a sufficient number of troops to secure order in Iraq and prevent the spread of terrorism in the Middle East.

The war’s popularity rate kept dropping gradually until, in 2013, 53% of the people viewed the actions undertaken by the US government as a mistake against 42% holding the opposite view (7).  This is a reoccurring trend and it has been worryingly relevant to other military operations too – specifically, the Vietnam and the Afghanistan wars. The approval ratings are expected to drop even further in the future, painting a picture of an American society who is no longer sure that “past military conflicts were the right course of action and, as such, may be more cautious about supporting future actions” (8). However, this shift in opinion takes too long and comes too late to undo or sophisticate any of the strategies the US army has employed in military conflicts in the past. Too often, enormous amounts of financial and human resources get wasted, but very rarely do Americans learn from their bitter experience.

Another worrying trend in US political culture is the overall lack of interest on behalf of voters. This year, more and more cities across the country implemented early voting, and campaigns received more media coverage than ever before. However, the presidential election saw a 20-year low number of people casting their ballot – around only one in two people 9.* The United States – yes, the most influential state capable of erasing us all from the face of the world – is one of the developed countries with the lowest voter turnout. The primaries tell a slightly different story as they saw a record high number of voters. However, the turnout is still extremely low, sitting at just 29%.

The result? America and the world had to go through arguably the most controversial election in their history between two presidential candidates with record low approval ratings. After all, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were nominated by a total of 9% of the whole population.

So, thank you America, for leaving us wonder who’s more dangerous: the adventure-seeker whose spontaneous tweets might spark World War Three, or the rigid, calculating face of the establishment whose appointment would most certainly mean another Cold War.

There is no right choice … but there will still have to be one.

*Statistics about voter turnout were added at a later revision of the article.

Live from the campaign battlefield

The candidates are tired, the volunteers are tired, the voters are tired – hell, even my dog is tired of all the drama.  After what felt like an endless campaign, Election Day is finally upon us.  The overwhelming numbers of headlines, photos and live broadcasts will finally come to an end.  Do you know who’s even happier about that than you are?  The people following Clinton and Trump every step of the way and filling notebook after notebook with shorthand.  The people standing behind the camera, holding the microphone, reporting every word they hear.  You seldom notice or think about these people, but they are your eyes and ears on the campaign battlefield.  They observe, they inform, they educate.  And trust me, they are far more tired than you.

 

Phillip Mattingly has spent the last 18 months away from his family, following the presidential candidates across 40 different states.  He is a New York-based correspondent for CNN and has been covering the campaigns since the early primaries.  Mattingly started by reporting on Republican nomination contenders Chris Christie and John Kasich, then moved on to Donald Trump and covered him for six months, until he recently received his latest assignment – Hillary Clinton.

“It’s a crescendo of sorts, right? You’re taking everything you have done up to that point and trying to compile it together to be able to tell the most accurate and timely story you can.”

Mattingly enjoys being able to cover the biggest story everybody’s been focused on this past year.  Most of all, he is grateful that, unlike most people whose opinions are defined by the headlines, he gets a raw insight into real political attitudes across the whole country.

“You get out of your bubble, you get out of the office, you talk to actual voters and volunteers – people on the ground. … It sounds kind of idealistic, but it makes you feel good that people care that much.”

So, where is he going to be on Election Night?

“That’s a good question,” he laughs.

“Election Night is a little bit up in the air, you know, Hillary Clinton has a big rally in New York, but there’s also a good chance that I’ll be in a swing state as well.”

Can he tell me where he will be two days from now then?

“You don’t know where the candidates are going to be much further than two or three days in advance. … All I know right now, is that tomorrow I’m going to be in North Carolina, to meet Hillary Clinton there.”

This means Mattingly often needs to write articles and prepare packages on the road.  However, despite the exhaustion, the deadlines and the long miles, he realises he’s been given the opportunity to witness history in the making.

“On Friday, we were on Hillary Clinton’s plane when the news of the FBI letter broke, and the plane’s Wi-Fi wasn’t working. … At the same exact time as we were starting to land, everybody’s iPhones just started going nuts. … You get to sit back and think, ‘Okay, I’m tired right now, but how cool is it that I get to be involved in this?’”

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While the national spotlight is on the presidential and on congressional candidates, regional media outlets – such as Channel 6 Lawrence – are busy with local and state elections too.  Furthermore, Kansans will also vote on a proposed state constitutional amendment crucial to their fishing and hunting rights, as well as whether to retain their judges in the Kansas Supreme Court and the Kansas Court of Appeals.

Stefanie Bryant – the channel’s news director and anchor – loves the challenge and the “immediacy of the day.” She will spend Election Day delivering all the necessary information about the ongoing events to her audience.

“I will be here – at Channel 6 – making sure we have local coverage as voters head to the polls when they first open and close.  I’ll make sure the staff has everything they need to tell stories.  I’ll anchor the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts and anchor our election special that begins at 7:30 p.m. when the polls close.”

While journalists spread the candidates’ message to the public, press officers help them construct it.  Johanna Maska is a marketing and communications executive who worked for President Obama during his 2008 campaign.  In only seven months, she drove some 30,000 miles across Iowa setting up speaker sets and podiums.

On Election Day, Maska was then-Sen. Obama’s press lead and was responsible for “everything from press coverage to the minute-by-minute plans.” At the end of the night, she and her team were overwhelmed by what they had been a part of.

“My husband called when the Associated Press called Ohio for the president and said, ‘You’re with the next president of the United States.’  I had no idea what was ahead of me then.”

Maska eventually became the director of press advance for the White House, and travelled with President Obama to some 40 countries, 24 summits and more than 40 states during her time in the position.

Despite the campaigns being the most exhausting experiences in her life, she feels they gave her a “tremendous sense of purpose.”  In 2012, she was, once again, standing backstage with the president moments before he accepted the nomination.

“I was grateful. I had always believed in this leader – and I wanted him to have more time.”

So … the job was done, right?  Not at the slightest.  After Election Day, there are still countless headlines to be printed, many news stories to be discovered and a lot of work to be done.  However, there’s something even more pressing which needs to be taken care of first.  As Maska recalls, “I stopped in Galesburg, Illinois – my hometown – on my way home to see my parents.  And I think I slept for a week straight.”