If your head has been spinning from the rhetoric this election season, you’re not alone. With the rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee and Bernie Sanders’ relentless pursuit of Hillary Clinton throughout the Democratic primaries — plus the vitriol on display from supporters on both sides — the change in tone of U.S. politics has been swift and radical. A year ago, Mike Firestone ’01, chief of staff and former campaign manager for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, went canvassing for Hillary in New Hampshire and found the bellwether community very receptive. Just six months later, he returned to find a different town, which had voted 3–1 for Obama against Hillary in 2008, now blanketed with Trump signs. He realized then that both Trump and Sanders were going to pick up a lot of votes. “We’ll see these counter-establishment impulses through the fall,” he predicted.
In an unusually contentious election year, with tempers running high and plenty of public handwringing over the tone of the presidential primaries, it was no wonder that CA alumnae/i and friends came to a panel discussion of politics at reunion on Saturday, June 4, with concerns and questions on their minds. Every seat in the the Team Room at the Moriarty Athletic Campus Field House was taken, and more stood to hear Firestone and his fellow panelists offer opinions on the current election cycle.
Nicholas Evans’ 91, vice president of U.S. government relations at CGI, a technology company based in Arlington, Va., has also noticed a rapid polarization. “Individuals crossing the aisle to work together are now getting called sellouts, rather than being seen as bipartisan collaborators,” he said. Even Republicans who five months ago were horrified with the idea of a Trump ticket have started to fall in line — for anyone other than Hillary. At the state level, there has been a wave of red governorships. Democratic officials with formerly wide popularity across the board have suddenly faced major challenges to reelection, simply because of their party affiliation. It seems that voters are no longer willing or able to separate their feelings about local and state officials from their reactions to the presidential candidates. “It’s real and it’s happening across the country,” Evans said. “It will come down to turnout.”
Sandra Willett Jackson ’61, who has campaigned for Hillary in her senatorial race, the 2008 primaries, and this election, acknowledged that there are no easy answers but recommended that everyone concerned about politics get out and speak up, in favor of experienced candidates. She urged attendees not to overlook local and state elections. “Take nothing for granted,” she said, noting the importance of state legislatures in setting election rules.
Cynthia Perrin Schneider ’71 broadened the conversation to offer an international lay of the land. As the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands from 1998 to 2001, a professor of diplomacy and culture at Georgetown, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy in the Brookings Institution, and codirector of the Timbuktu Renaissance Initiative, her career has centered on cultural diplomacy. She expressed concern about the perception of American politics in the international community. In Asia, for example, people hear that Trump is the nominee, and they take his pronouncements seriously. The Obama administration has disappointed many Asian countries by focusing so selectively on China’s rise. And civil society groups, especially in the Muslim world, have no faith in either leading candidate, having experienced the United States’ support for dictators. “Our security interests are seriously damaged when the U.S. is viewed not as a model but as an enemy,” Schneider said.
So how did we find ourselves in such a state? Everyone could point a finger at income inequality. “Financial lack — the real devastation after 2008 — and the lack of accountability and faith in the system has led to support for Trump and created an open platform for racism,” Schneider said. With so few examples of bipartisan leadership, she also lamented a lack of personal engagement and “human relationships” on Capitol Hill, thanks to the congressional three-day-week.
Firestone reminded the audience that very different groups vote in presidential and non-presidential years, and that many states have made it more difficult for urban and young people to vote. Without early voting, no-fault absentee voting, or same-day registration, he noted, Massachusetts is hardly leading the way.
With insightful questions and comments from the audience, and CA history teacher Stephanie Manzella P’14, ’17, ’18 moderating, the discussion turned to Bernie’s perception as a political outsider despite his years of experience as a senator, and to the sexism that influences characterizations of Hillary and also limits her options for rebuttal.
So what should we look for, as the presidential contest draws near, and what can be done? Talk to people in swing states, urged Evans. Like Firestone, he also suggested that systemic changes could help defuse combative races. He finds promise in California’s open primaries that select the top two candidates regardless of party — thus ensuring that all candidates campaign across the spectrum. Schneider proposed mandatory voting, as Australia has, as a possible corrective. In the nearer term, she predicted that the selection of vice presidential candidates may prove important.
As much as money factors into the political system, It’s not out of the hands of individuals entirely. As Evans said, at the end of the discussion, “Many of us like to follow politics. As a sports fan, I can’t impact the outcome. But with politics you can do something every day that doesn’t even involve writing a check.” The panelists agreed: It’s time to make it clear that this one matters.