Today’s election marks the end of nearly 18 months of intense campaigning by Republicans and Democrats alike. A field of nearly 20 candidates was reduced to just two: Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. In the months following the primaries, an election laden with controversy has unfolded publicly, throwing the current divisiveness in modern American politics into sharp relief.
Much has been written of the mudslinging, drama and collective despair of the 2016 presidential election, but as two campaigns draw to a close, the historic nature of the 2016 election is increasingly evident to Yale professors and historians.
HISTORICALLY LOW PUBLIC OPINION
This election cycle stands out because of the public’s distrust and dislike of both candidates which will make either’s presidency more difficult, Yale diplomat-in-residence and International Studies lecturer Charles Hill said.
Hill said each candidate has shown “they lack the usual level of confidence and trust that presidential candidates have in the normal course of history.”
“The winner is not going to be coming into the presidency with anything like a normal regular boost from the election itself,” Hill said. “Each of them has in some sense a record of malfeasance, one in the public sphere and one in the private sphere.”
This presidential election is also wrought with significance in terms of the political parties’ nomination processes, Hill said, adding that he cannot think of another election cycle like this in his lifetime. Hill said the parties did not conduct their primary elections in the usual way: Democrats essentially selected Clinton from the beginning, and the Republican party “lost control of its primary process and so its candidate is not really a Republican.”
Regardless of party, the next president will have to decide whether to continue current foreign policy trends of relaxing U.S. interventionism, said Hill, who previously served as an advisor to Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan.
“Unless something really unusual and dramatic and unexpected happens during the course of the next presidency, the legacy will be that this was the worst campaign certainly in modern American history,” Hill said.
While many political pundits have said that this election is one of the most contentious in history, Yale history professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02 said that many more heated elections have taken place throughout American history, citing the days of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams.
However, he added that this election may become a turning point, specifically referencing a speech made at a Yale reunion in June by Yale classmate and former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean ’71 in which Dean said the 2016 election may mark the end of the “culture wars.” The culture wars, Gitlin elaborated, have been occurring since the Vietnam War, and represent a political landscape in which individuals are “coming at political ideas and events of the day from such different positions that they just can’t seem to find common ground.”
Gitlin added that these divisions fall along racial, religious and socioeconomic lines.
“No matter what kinds of divisions we’re looking at, what troubles me is we are simply not seeing each other and not making enough of an attempt to understand,” Gitlin said. “We need to take that seriously, we need to understand each other’s issues. And to me, that’s the lesson of this election, not so much who wins.”
A FIRST FOR WOMEN AND CHILDREN
Despite its uncomfortable moments, the 2016 presidential campaign will go down in history as the first year in which a major political party nominated a woman.
Yale Chief Research Archivist Judith Schiff, the former president of the New Haven League of Women Voters, said this election is a milestone in women’s rights. Schiff said Clinton is probably one of the most experienced candidates, male or female, that has ever run for president, citing Clinton’s work on the nonprofit, state and national levels.
It has taken almost a century for a woman to appear on the presidential ballot since women first got the right to vote in 1920, Schiff added, but said “It’s finally on the books.” This election, she argued, will set a precedent for female politicians in the future.
“It’s surprising, with some of the notoriety and attention of the press, not that much attention has been paid to the fact that we, for the first time, have on a national party level a woman candidate,” Schiff said. “Before, we had two [female] vice presidential candidates and we celebrated those in some ways more than we do the fact that a woman is running for national office now.”
This election is historically significant not only for women, but also for Clinton’s unusually large focus on issues pertaining to children, according to James Comer MED ’66, a professor of child psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center.
In the past, Comer said he has been frustrated by the emphasis in American politics on issues that could be solved by paying more attention to children. As society changes in complex ways, children need to be prepared to address the issues they will encounter in the future, he said.
“We always focus on all kinds of domestic [and] global problems, and yet the problems we ought to be addressing are the ones that are going to be created by our failure to adequately prepare young people to be successful 30 years from now,” Comer said.
Clinton’s policies were influenced by her time at Yale Law School and her former work with the Child Study Center, Comer said. These experiences allowed her to make connections between law, policy and child development. Clinton has also done more than past candidates to connect support for child development and performance in school, though more could always be done, he added.