Here’s what they told us:
Larissa Taylor, professor of history:
Much of this election has been about the politics of fear. Same (very) old story, different day?
Fear is a primal and often protective emotion, aroused when we or what or whom we care about are threatened. In 1933 FDR famously tried to reassure a frightened nation during the Great Depression that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. While intended to uplift the American people, his oratory was too facile. Historically there have been many rational causes of fear over millennia, from natural disasters to plagues to wars to mass murder. By contrast, to modern people, “irrational” fears can seem silly or even fun—witch crazes, vampire contagions (not only in Greece and Eastern Europe but in also in New England in the 19th century), and ghosts. Throughout history, the wrath of God helped explain the unnatural but was also manipulated by crusaders and inquisitors who sought to purify Christianity from the heretics, Muslims, and Jews. In the 16th century, kings and churchmen alike instigated wars to eliminate those who did not believe the same truths as they did. Massacres and pogroms resulted as men and women learned of the cancerous lesions in their midst.
In more modern times, a knock at the door during the revolutionary terror in France made the strongest shudder, knowing they would be drowned or led to the guillotine because a virtuous demagogue named Robespierre claimed “terror [was] the order of the day”—the only way to preserve his new society.
If anything, the number of demagogues and politicians who use the rhetoric of fear to gain power has increased in the 20th and 21st centuries. As we see today, the politics of fear is alive and well in the American presidential elections. Terrorism, economic instability, and the ever-present fear of the Other are the main weapons in the arsenal of demagogues who portray a weakened, endangered America that cannot survive without them.
Sandy Maisel, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government:
How did we get to this place?
The second presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—featuring more falsehoods and mud-slinging than discussion of issues—represented a low moment in American democracy.
Why? I prefer not to cast aspersions on individuals and to look to institutions and the process. Start with the context. Many Americans are unhappy with their state of affairs and with the government role in alleviating the pain that followed the 2009 great recession.
The media has played into that dissatisfaction, first by not calling to account those candidates who posed facile and impractical solutions to serious, difficult problems—“Build a wall!” “Tax the 1 percent!” The media’s role is not to be a mouthpiece for irresponsible candidates but to evaluate what is said. Add to this failure of mass media the proliferation of unfiltered social media and the result is the creation of candidates who inevitably feed on discontent.
One influential political science book is titled The Party Decides. But in the GOP, the party didn’t decide. For many reasons, party leaders failed to recognize the threat to the Republican party that Donald Trump represented. Oh, how they wish they had super-delegates!! And, like the Republicans, the Democrats were unable to convince many of their voters that the nomination should go to someone who actually was a party member, who understood that the work of government involves compromise and finding practical solutions.
Disaffected voters do not have any sense that the system works—and the display we have seen this fall does nothing to convince them. It is indeed a sad time for American democracy.
Raynee Gutting, visiting assistant professor of government:
Candidates’ messages are more and more sophisticated in the ways they play to our psychological fears, insecurities, and desires. At the same time, there is more and more analysis of these messages and their intent. If we know we’re being manipulated, why does political messaging still work?
The short answer is that political messaging doesn’t always work. The longer answer is that it sometimes works, for some people, some of the time. Let’s just consider mass communication, such as TV ads. Here, “manipulation” depends on a variety of factors, such as the emotional content of the ad (e.g., fear vs. enthusiasm), whether you support or oppose the ad’s sponsor (and how strongly), and whether implicit appeals are made explicit (see Tali Mendelberg’s analysis of George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads).
To understand the effects, and non-effects, of political messaging, we need to understand that people are biased and lazy information processors, so not all ads are equally effective for everyone. For example, if I am an avid Trump supporter, no amount of pro-Hillary messaging is going to convince me to vote for her (in fact, I will likely have an automatic, negative reaction toward Hillary, making my support for The Donald even stronger). If we narrow our focus to those who are most susceptible to persuasion, those who are moderately aware about politics, but not so aware that they have strong enough prior attitudes or enough knowledge to resist persuasion, then messages are more likely to persuade, often by increasing exposure to a particular candidate. Exposure breeds likeability.
Interestingly, it is both those of us who are completely disengaged from politics and those of us who hold strong prior beliefs (and therefore engage in biased processing) who are least susceptible to manipulation. Of course, there are always caveats.
Robert Weisbrot, Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Teaching Professor of History:
Is the Cold War over?
Donald Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin is not simply oblivious to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and bombing of civilians in Syria. Trump seems, more generally, oblivious to a persistent Russian-American rivalry. Apart from the anomaly of Gorbachev’s democratic reforms and his conciliation of the West amid economic decline and unraveling imperial control, Russia is what it has long been: an authoritarian state, grudgingly admiring of, yet adversarial toward the West, and poised to exploit opportunities to expand its power and influence. The Cold War that spanned more than four decades after World War II was one phase of that rivalry, albeit intensified by nuclear brinkmanship and ideological antagonism. In that sense, Putin’s aggressive policies are familiar in the arc of Russian history.
U.S. policy makers may learn a two-fold lesson from this history: to shed illusions of the Kremlin’s benevolence or restraint, yet also to avoid so demonizing Russia as to fail to press common interests, such as defeating terrorist groups to which both nations are vulnerable.
The need for greater realism than Trump has shown toward the Kremlin should not, of course, preclude appreciation of an entire people. Having spent a week in Russia in 2013 through an exchange program between Colby and the faculty of journalism at Lomonosov Moscow State University, I found Russians to be extraordinarily open, gracious, cultured, and kind. Foreign policy calculations tend to reduce nations to pieces on a chessboard, but it is helpful to remember that humans everywhere are much the same.
Cheryl Gilkes, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies:
Issues surrounding race have been front and center in this presidential election in a way we haven’t seen in decades. Why? And why now?
The election of President Barack Obama dramatically contradicted the exclusion of black people from power that has been central to the historic tradition of American racism. Colfax, Louisiana, 1873, Wilmington, North Carolina, 1898, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921, and an unknown number of lynchings are violent reminders of the vehemence of white resistance to black power—electoral and economic. In spite of that violent history, after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, activists and analysts seriously underestimated the level and effectiveness of resistance to civil rights and voting rights. While the civil rights and black power movements gave overt bigotry a bad name and generated organized anti-racist movements and activities, the Republicans’ “southern strategy,” a strategy that a dying Lee Atwater admitted in his own words was “racist,” accommodated and embraced the anti-civil rights/anti-voting rights factions of the Democratic Party (e.g., Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrats” and “states’ rights” activists). Effective “dog whistles” continued to mask while nurturing the ever-present role of race. The Reagan administration, after highlighting its intent with a “states’ rights” rally on the steps of Mississippi’s infamous Neshoba County Courthouse, diluted the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Anti-voting rights interests vigorously fought Clinton’s nomination of champion voting rights litigator, Lani Guinier, using subtle but racist stereotypes labeling her the “quota queen.” The “birther” hysteria—hysteria that ignored President Obama’s mother’s seventeenth-century American roots—unmasked, enabled, aggressively mobilized, and revived the visibility of race, racism, and racists.
This presidential election reminds us that issues surrounding race are ultimately issues about power and about who is included or excluded in the exercise of that power.
Daniel Shea, professor of government and director of Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement:
Why has civility in our politics eroded? And is there anything good about negative campaigning?
In an effort to better understand why so many young Americans shun politics, a few years ago I shifted some of my scholarly work to the issue of civility in politics. Certainly, the epic battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has added loads of grist for the mill.
But why should we care about the tone of our politics?
Not long ago many bemoaned declining levels of engagement, particularly among young Americans. Any array of recent indicators points to a captivated, charged electorate. Perhaps nasty politics is the byproduct of a vibrant democracy. And we might also consider how norms of civility and decorum have been used to stifle dissent, particularly from out-of-power groups. And, of course, it is true that America has witnessed other periods of intense, nasty political rhetoric. American politics has never been a game of bean bags, as they say. Citizens in a democracy should pay attention and defend their interests with vigor.
So what’s the big deal? For one, our nation is in a period of transformation; from the economic underpinnings that have left so many behind, to changing demographics and cultural norms. Rapid change spurs anxiety and new challenges. The crew of a ship will be lost if they don’t row together in the storm. Whereas previous periods of malice were followed by calm, many of the forces leading to the current climate will not fade. Financially successful, highly charged partisan “news” programs, websites, talk radio programs, and voter mobilization operations will not disappear after the 2016 election. We can’t simply wait for the storm to subside.
Most importantly, we should fix our gaze on the system’s long-term stability. Unlike other nations where the glue is geographic, religious, ethnic, or cultural forces, our bond has been an abiding faith in what the late Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called the American Creed. At times, it seems impossible to understand the other side. Why shouldn’t we lash out when the stakes seem so high and the opposition so crazy?
Make no mistake, a prolonged period of ugly, nasty, stubborn politics will do damage to the American Creed.