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Why It Happened

Apr 20, 2020

The results of the 2016 election came as a shock to almost everyone. Then, for people like me, shock turned to resignation, and then as the years rolled on into a deeper confusion: Why are the Republicans not regarding this as an accident, as a big mistake? The “craziness” is not merely being normalized, it is being regarded as inevitable rather than improbable. What’s really going on? 40% of the electorate simply cannot be dismissed as crazy.

We know what happened, but Why? If it’s not a freak accident, then what were it’s causes? This turning point in American history was, in short, an authentic expression, a culmination of two decades of change taking place right before our eyes. It is not uni-dimensional — it is not only or simply about a con man rising to power and authoritarianism. 2016 was a “perfect storm” of many forces seeking to overturn the status quo and wreck “the establishment”.

Political Power Surge

I read Ezra Klein’s “Why We’re Polarized” and he explained a lot. Here’s a small piece of that book:

  • For 150 years, the US had one dominant party so the other party had to cooperate.

  • In the past 15 years, the US has had two parties with razor thin margins. In this new situation, the parties proceed to duel in mortal combat.

Religious Zeal

Paul Weyrich, founder of The Moral Majority, who died in 2008 :

I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. Our leverage in the elections goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
“We are different from previous generations of conservatives… We are no longer working to preserve the status quo. We are radicals, working to overturn the present power structure of this country.”
The real enemy is the secular humanist mindset which seeks to destroy everything that is good in this society.”
“If we want to stop or at least reduce outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries, we should tax outsourcing. In my view, that would be a good new tax.”
“Yegor Gaidar said, ‘Well, the Soviets spent millions of dollars infiltrating your media. Just because the Soviet Union went away doesn’t mean these people have gone away. They are still there.’” [this quote is from over a decade ago]
From 2016: Exit polls show white evangelical voters voted in high numbers for Donald Trump, 80-16 percent, according to exit poll results. That’s the most they have voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 2004, when they overwhelmingly chose President George W. Bush by a margin of 78-21 percent.

Racial Animosity and Right Wing Media

From a PBS documentary

Conservative media starting with Rush Limbaugh and fulminating in Glenn Beck fanned the flames of racial hatreds and the fear of big government. See the video:


Cultural Shifts from Television

  • How TV Created Donald Trump

  • The rise of the anti-hero.

From the Bulwark Podcast

Populist Indignation
Over Being Scorned by Elites

From a PBS documentary

Sarah Palin was the early prototype of populist anger and resentment and the urge to “throw them out!” See the video below.

Also Robert Reich former U.S. secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration notes:
Sarah Palin understood that many felt the game was rigged against them. They were angry; they felt they were being left behind; that there was a kind of ruling or leadership class, mostly well-educated and coastal, that had contempt for average working people. For these Americans, the median wage has gone almost nowhere since the late ’70s, and they have not seen any gain in their own economic lives, though the national economy is 2-3 times bigger than it was… People aren’t stupid. The game is rigged.

Inequality and the Rise of the “Forgotten America” (PBS)


Differences on the Issues

The country is deeply split on a range of specific issues. These were observed in a key survey conducted in 2017. The study uncovered two dimensions on which the parties differed:

  • An economic dimension (which combines views on the social safety net, trade, inequality, and active government)

  • A social/identity dimension (which combines the moral issues index plus views toward black people, immigrants, and Muslims).

Voter Study Group, June 2017