U.S. Elections, Cultural Edition

We have officially left the primary stage of our presidential election (when each party chooses their candidates) and are now heading into the general election (where the parties face off against each other). Despite months of speeches, caucuses, and delegate math, we’ve arrived at a situation where Americans have a choice between two candidates that they don’t like very much.

“Unpopularity contest”

Writing for Time Magazine, Frank Luntz described the situation as “two fundamentally flawed candidates clamoring for votes in a fundamentally furious nation.” Meanwhile, Pew Research Center reports that “overall satisfaction with the choice of candidates is at its lowest point in two decades.” Indeed, they are so disliked that “large numbers of the supporters of both Trump and Clinton view their choice as more of a vote against the opposing candidate than an expression of support for their candidate.” Another Pew study found the country is so divided that few supporters of one candidate have close friends who support the other; many have none.

Still, neither candidate could have made it this far without connecting at some level with American values; the challenge for each now is to extend that message beyond their base and convince voters that their opponent falls short. Below, I present some of the most relevant values and outline each candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and likely approach.

Future & Change

Americans are usually optimistic about the future and we tend to be open to change. This year, however, many voters feel deeply anxious about what the future holds.

As a known entity and establishment candidate, Hillary can’t present herself as a new face with fresh ideas. Rather, she is expected to do more of the same, with tweaks to mollify Bernie supporters or gain labor votes. Because she represents the same party that has been in the White House for 8 years, she will likely frame herself as an extension of Obama’s policies rather than a repudiation of them (a major exception possibly being the Transpacific Partnership, or TPP). The change she can promote is that she is the first female presidential candidate of a major political party. She will also present herself as the candidate best equipped to lead a changing country toward a more progressive future. And, if the convention is any indication, she will choose optimism over pessimism.

While Trump is not a new face, either, he leans on his lack of public service (and public record) to frame himself as someone who would bring a totally outside perspective to the White House. Indeed, a Trump election would signal a departure not just from much of what Obama has stood for, but would also represent the abandonment of many of his own party’s policies and principles. The trouble is that his erratic behavior and dearth of policy specifics makes people question what else his change will offer. And, because his convention speech was filled with doom and gloom, and he proposes a return to a glorious past, he can’t as easily tap into American’s traditional optimism or future orientation.

Takeaway: Hillary will rely on her identity as a woman changing history, and will also try to position herself as the person able to lead the country along the bending arc of history. As a relative outsider, Trump can more obviously frame himself as a change candidate, but he has not articulated a broadly compelling vision for that change.

(For more on the kinds of change the candidates represent, see this piece at The Atlantic).

Character & Personal Responsibility

Americans also value personal character, and both candidates struggle here. Hillary is her own worst enemy. Following an investigation into the email scandal from her time as Secretary of State, the FBI Director said that, “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws . . . they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” Having escaped an indictment, Hillary appeared to gloat, leading voters to wonder if she’s ever going to learn her lesson. On the other hand, she can cast herself in a traditional moral light as a wife, mother, and grandmother (whatever people thought of her decision to stay with Bill, the affair was his, not hers).

Trump has tried to craft a narrative using his reputation as a successful businessman as evidence of his character, but this has floundered as stories emerge to the contrary. More disturbing than business deals and bankruptcies is his reputation as a belligerent bully. Whether it’s in a live debate, an interview, or on Twitter, he can’t resist shooting his mouth off with disregard for social norms or consequences – raising concerns that he lacks the temperament or dignity to be president. His base loves to see him stick it to the elites, but personal attacks on a military family signal it’s possible he’ll go too far, even for supporters. And, in contrast to Hillary’s marital resilience, he is on his third marriage. This hasn’t really been an obstacle for him yet, but when all else fails, marriage can represent character in the U.S., so his history doesn’t help him, either.

Takeaway: Both candidates struggle when it comes to character: Hillary because voters perceive her as a conniving schemer, Trump because voters see him as an egomaniac bull in a china shop. Hillary will probably try to steer the conversation in other directions, whereas Trump will probably double down on the same behavior he’s exhibited so far.

Competition & Achievement

Americans value competition, whether we’re talking about the Super Bowl or the election. And as a rule, we like to see winners. This is why Trump strives to cast himself as Caesar of his eponymous empire: if people believe he is “the best” at making money – shorthand for success and winning in the U.S. – they may believe that he will be the best president, too. To this end, he uses hyperbole to convey how “huge” his support is and denies evidence to the contrary. Many moderate Republicans fear that he can’t win in November, but that hasn’t shaken his supporters. Others worry that while he relishes engaging in political blood sport, he isn’t striving toward a meaningful goal; in other words, while competition is usually the means to an end for politicians, for Trump it may be the end itself.

Hillary is also a keen competitor. Perhaps because she is a woman, however, it is one of the things that detractors don’t like about her. In their view, she’s just too good at the game. However, this is one of the reasons that Democrats ultimately rallied around her: they believe she can defeat Trump. (She does have evidence on her side: although she previously lost to Obama, she has won past elections). Once in office, voters expect that she’ll use her political savvy to best opponents and advance liberal causes. A graver challenge is the public’s impression that she felt she was entitled to her party’s nomination, which goes against the spirit of open competition that the primaries are meant to represent. Leaked emails proving this suspicion correct could alienate voters.

Takeaway: Both candidates present themselves as winners, but Trump has relied more heavily on this message because it contributes to his aura of power and inevitability. Hillary has had to be careful about trumpeting her victories because they remind people that she has been around for a long time. For a safer approach, she’ll play up policy successes, especially when it involved being a team player or helping families.

Egalitarianism & Likeability

Broadly speaking, Americans look down on the people above them and find it easier to trust someone more like themselves. Hillary has struggled somewhat, not least because her journey on the path of the best and brightest through Ivy League schools and politics has made her seem like the perfect image of an elite. Most of the US’s leaders come from the same echelon, but they compensate for this by presenting themselves as folksy, approachable, casual, or easygoing. This has been hard for Hillary, who has never found a hairstyle, pantsuit, or tone of voice that people didn’t use against her. During the convention, she appeared less stiff and reached into her past for stories about her humble roots; these helped her seem relatable and will likely feature in her campaign.

Trump is the boy born with a silver (make that golden) spoon in his mouth, so he has tried to shift the narrative to one of a business man who built something from nothing with his own two hands. Even though he is the farthest thing from a typical small business owner, he casts himself in this light because it helps people to see him as someone they could know, and even someone they could be. He highlights his outsider status to play into this value, as it fits the everyman battle many Americans see themselves fighting against out-of-touch elites. And this is part of the reason behind his baseball cap; as awkwardly as it goes with his suit and tie, it is a symbol of America’s favorite pastime, and a reminder of a simpler era when things were better for the demographic that Trump appeals to.

Takeaway: Both candidates will try to make voters believe that they can identify with them better than the other. To do so, both will have to overcome entrenched public perceptions. Hillary will likely use stories from minority communities to show that she cares about their struggle, and Trump will position himself as the straight-talking champion of the white working little man left behind by globalization.

Hard Work & Tenacity

One of the strongest American values is hard work. Here is a place where Hillary shines – and is the reason she calls her resume “public service.” Compared to being a politician, which sounds slimy, “public servant” evokes images of someone who can roll up her sleeves for the public good, whatever needs done and however long it takes. Although voters may distrust her or think she’s in the pocket of Wall Street, almost nobody doubts her focus, commitment, and ability to put in the long hours to get the job done. Here a thorny part of her past is actually somewhat helpful, too: Every American remembers her husband’s affair but even her detractors can’t help but begrudgingly admire how she turned the lemons of humiliation into the lemonade of an incredible career.

Trump has a harder time with this one, because it’s less clear that it’s hard work (as opposed to a hefty inheritance combined with clever financial schemes) behind his vaunted success. Moreover, if voters worry that Hillary has represented Wall Street’s interests in Congress, Trump is the ultimate personification of Wall Street’s bravado and excess. However, he can rely on a list of his many companies and branded products as a suggestion that hard work must have occurred. He is also nothing if not tenacious, especially when arguing with opponents. However, a concern for voters is whether Trump understands that hard work in a presidential context can be tedious and require diplomacy – which may be a lot less fun for him than yelling “you’re fired.”

Takeaway:

Hillary naturally fits with the value of hard work, so she will probably rely on it very heavily during the campaign to convince voters that she’s up to the task. Overall, this seemed to be her message at the convention: that even if voters don’t like her personally, she promises to work hard for them. Trump will most likely continue to use his background as a real estate mogul as evidence of hard work, but this will only work to a point. Instead, he’ll likely play up his success and his outsider status.

Conclusion:

This election is one of the most contentious in recent U.S. history, and with two strong personalities offering dramatically different visions for the country’s future, it is bound to be interesting. And, as the race takes place on a tense emotional landscape replete with fears about economic fairness, homegrown terrorism, the Islamic State, immigration, shifting demographics, affordable education, rising housing costs, and gun safety, it is no surprise that more people seem to be closely following it than in recent memory.

So, what can the rest of the world expect between now and November? First, there will be plenty of comedy sketches, political cartoons, op-eds, and Sunday morning news shows, which are the primary filters through which Americans encounter and process political news. Second, there will be painful divisions among friends, family, and coworkers as bumper stickers appear on cars, signs appear in yards, and people realize that someone they have known and loved for years sees the world very differently from them. Third, there will be debates (assuming Trump doesn’t cancel), which will serve up public theater worthy of live-tweeting, if not substantive policy discussion. Fourth, there will be protests, conspiracy theories, attack ads, and concerns about voting rights infringement. Fifth, there will be newspaper endorsements. And finally, on Tuesday, November 8, Americans of all genders, races, ethnicities, religious traditions, professions, regions, and political viewpoints will head to the polls and choose our next president – potentially with a very high turnout. When they do, they will base their decision to some extent on how closely the candidates align with some of the key values that Americans hold dear.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride.

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