Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump: A choice between two stark visions of America

Our two political parties have never been more different from each other. They inhabit wildly opposite political and social universes.
August 3, 2016

Our two political parties have never been more different from each other. They inhabit wildly opposite political and social universes. The two party conventions that just ended revealed one party whose view of America is of a hellish dystopia, while the other sees a struggling, striving optimistic nation of diversity.  

The Republican Party of Donald J. Trump is a distilled version of the white, working-class and middle-class pessimism that has been growing for years as the nation’s diversity has become more politically and culturally dominant and the economic recovery has left behind many voters. This is the 100-proof angst that has been a core energizer for Republicans, but until now had not ever won control of the party.  

Trump’s campaign is not so much a traditional national effort, with local and state organizations, policy agendas, a data plan to reach voters and a strategic program in battleground states, but rather a primal scream to stop the world, I want to get off!  

As unprecedented as Trump’s campaign has been, it has shown a certain logic in its boiled-down 140 characters on Twitter. It is purely one man and one message. And it can work in that way. Our culture has many models of the individual against the group, such as the sheriff in the town driving away the bad guys. This one-person solution can also be a source of autocracy and a threat to democracy. What if the sheriff is nuts?

To the agony of traditional conservatives, this new, distilled Republican Party is less concerned with the role of government than with race and identity, and Trumpism is fairly certain to outlast Trump, whatever happens in November. Remember, Mitt Romney was fairly reasonable but was pulled to the right on immigration, and he’s the one who invented “self deportation.”  It was a small step from that to Trump dropping the “self” part. I doubt that, except perhaps in tone, the party will go backward in the future.  

Democrats, once the party of Bill Clinton’s centrist balancing act, are now the home of the new electorally empowered diversity of Barack Obama. The party is varied, not distilled, which is both its strength and its weakness. Today’s Democratic Party is unmistakably more liberal, and much bolder than Bill Clinton’s party, which he crafted as a brilliant improvisation to survive in a Republican-dominated system.  

Today, communities of color and labor and others have made massive strides in the Democratic Party, Republicans have become much more conservative on social issues important to Jews, and Bill Clinton’s less than 50 percent coalition has become a 50-plus percent majority. That’s why Obama has been a bigger and more consequential president than Clinton. Where once the party had to focus on surmounting black-white tensions, Democrats now must work on keeping African-Americans, Asian- Americans, Latinos, labor, business and environmentalists all together in the same tent. At the same time, they cannot ignore whites, who still compose the majority of voters. Crafting a single message like Trump’s is not in the cards.

The differences between the two party models now seem insurmountable, and only a decisive victory by one side or the other will solve the gridlock we face. Even outside nations are now playing parts in this epic battle. For Israel, it was Benjamin Netanyahu tying himself to Republicans in Congress over the Iran negotiations (Jewish Journal, March 27, 2015), but this is small potatoes compared with what Vladimir Putin seems to be doing. Russia’s alleged interference by hacking Democratic National Committee emails during our election cycle (as well as its increasingly active role in other democracies) could change global politics and reverse the end of the Cold War. A weakened U.S.-Europe-NATO alliance (if Trump’s promised revisions take hold) combined with the post-Brexit fragmenting of the United Kingdom would be sweet revenge for the former KGB agent.

Seeing these two party machines in conflict is, for a political scientist, both spectacularly fascinating and frightening. I cannot write off Trump, because he reminds us how a distilled message made by one person can be powerful: I am not among those who dismiss the power of 140 characters (our modern version of the bumper sticker). But Clinton’s party is better organized than it has ever been: Thanks to the merging of the Clinton and Obama organizations, it is data wise, younger, broader and has two ex-presidents and most everybody on board. So it comes down to a test of whether a vast party can beat an eccentric individual with few friends but a message.

For Jewish voters, finding the right “home” is complex. Jews are not a single voting bloc. There are still thousands of Jewish Berniacs; there are Hillary enthusiasts; there are socially liberal, strongly pro-Israel voters who were comfortable with Bill Clinton but detest Obama; there are Jewish liberals who preferred Obama to Hillary Clinton. There are Jewish Republicans, who worry about the direction of their own party, but detest Democrats. And there are Jewish independents such as Michael Bloomberg who have taken the plunge to support Hillary. The odds are, though, that there are very few Jewish enthusiasts for Trump.

In any case, Israel has been less of a fixture in this round than it has been before. Israel was not mentioned much at either convention, except to check a box of support. And polls show that Israel is no longer quite the deciding factor even among many American Jews in terms of vote choice that it was in earlier times. It was a moment’s news that Bill Clinton was wearing a button pledging his support to Hillary in Hebrew, and both nominees have Jewish sons-in-law.    

Oddly though, Trump’s rise may nevertheless more closely bind Jews to the Democrats for a different reason. Democrats have lost college-educated whites in election after election. But this year may be different, and one thing you can say about Jewish voters: They are college educated whites. Trump’s behavior and attitudes alienate these voters. Clinton is now leading among them, and in the suburbs around the Democratic cities, she will run up big margins.  College-educated whites, like Jews, are high turnout voters. Jewish voters, who once were seen as keys to national elections (as in the perennial question: Will Jews turn to the right this time?) may once again emerge as a balance wheel in our divided American politics.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.  

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