Scott MacKay Commentary: A Caustic Campaign is Almost Over

Nov 4, 2016

After a toxic presidential campaign, the national question will become how to unite a fractured country. Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay says Rhode Islanders will hopefully be better at this than other states. 

Presidential campaigns have never been mistaken for church services or campfire songs. The thrust-and-parry of negative politics has long brought out the worst in our country. Yet, through wars, depressions and seismic shifts in the economy and makeup of our population, the resiliency of our system endured.

This time, that may not be the case. Presidential elections were once great tribunes of democracy. This year, it too often seems as if voters live in two different countries. Even the campaign slogans are divisive. Trump’s `Make America Great Again’ harkens to a bygone, monochromatic country run by white men. It assumes that things in the U.S. are terrible.  Hillary Clinton’s `Stronger Together’ looks forward to a changing country with a growing economy that celebrates diversity.

The truth, as usual,  falls somewhere in the hazy middle. The United States is not nearly as bad off as Trump claims. Nor, for the many who have lost jobs to globalization, as well off as Clinton supporters assert.

This way-too-long campaign has galvanized the notion of two countries that don’t much understand or interact with each other. City dwellers versus their country cousins,  minorities against whites, women and men on different planets. The Internet, which was supposed to bring the world to our living rooms, too often leaves us in our own divided houses, red and blue voters cherry picking what they want to believe. That great 20th century politician and public intellectual, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said famously that we’re all entitled to our own opinions. But not our own facts.

With any luck, we’ll go to bed tomorrow night knowing  who is the next president. What happens after ought to be a huge concern. Will the losing side accept the legitimacy of the result? How will we overcome the caustic residue of a fact-free campaign? Already some Republicans are saying that they won’t accept a Clinton victory. And Democrats so loathe Trump that they will likely try to block his policies and especially his Supreme Court nominations. Some Republicans have gone  so far as to say they will never ratify a high court nominee sent them by Clinton.

Rhode Islanders are a cantankerous lot, but our governments have been run much like elections of yore, way back in the 20th Century. Parties used to fight like playground boys during a campaign, but gathered together to run things after. Tip O’Neill, a New England liberal, and Ronald Reagan, a southern California conservative, agreed on very little. Yet they were both patriots with a keen appreciation of public opinion. O’Neill never tried to make political hay out of the bombing of more than 100 Marines in Beirut on Regan’s watch – political partisanship stopped at the water’s edge.

It’s easy to criticize politics in the Ocean State. There is too much corruption and self-dealing. We have a sclerotic one-party system that doesn’t always reflect public opinion. Yet, we don’t have partisans trying to shut down the government for no good reason. And our petty graft rarely threatens the health and safety of our citizens. If you think our leaders are bad here, we have a glass of Flint water for you. And police officers shooting civilians.

Perhaps this is due to our size. We’re a million people, all crammed into a watery slice of southeastern New England.  We have as close to a face-to-face democracy as one can get in a modern society. Our politics are deeply personal, as has historically been the case in New England; or governor is known universally as Gina, our U.S. Senator as Jack.

It’s pretty easy to talk to your state rep or city or town council member. They’ve likely been knocking at your door recently pleading for your vote.

Our state has been forged by immigration like few others. It’s hard to hate someone of a different race or ethnicity when you work with them. Or he or she is your kid’s little league coach or music teacher.

Those of us of a certain age remember a different time in American politics. The 1960 election remains etched in our consciousness. It signaled the ascension of two World War II veterans to national leadership. One of those candidates, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, would shatter a ceiling by ending the exclusion of Roman Catholics from the White House.

It was one of the closest elections in American history. Democrat Kennedy’s highest percentage state was heavily-Catholic Rhode Island. Neither he nor Republican Richard Nixon ever mentioned jailing their opponent. As dawn was breaking on Cape Cod, Kennedy was declared the winner. That morning, Nixon congratulated JFK on his victory.

There was no mention of Nixon voters exercising their Second Amendment rights. Life went on in the strongest democracy the world has ever known. And eight years later, Nixon won the White House in another close campaign. Sometimes, the good old days really were.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at RIPR.org Remember to vote and tune in tomorrow night to Rhode Island Public Radio for all the national and local results.