Americans and elections: It’s a matter of trust

Americans and elections: It’s a matter of trust

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Years ago, students of American politics learned the fundamental notion that the American people vote the way they do because of their party affiliation. If your parents were Democrats, the lesson went, you were brought up to believe that it was the Democratic Party to which you owed your allegiance; the same idea applied for those raised by parents loyal to the Republican Party. Candidates came and went, but your family was the reliable source of votes for the party in which you were raised. Of the two major parties, the data then showed that there were almost twice as many affiliated Democrats than Republicans.

In the late 1960s, beginning with the young, sexy image projected by John Kennedy’s campaign, scholars determined that party affiliation was declining and the American voter was supporting the candidate who had the greatest personal appeal. Party loyalty was being replaced by candidate orientation. While people may have maintained their party affiliation, it was not the driving force behind how they voted.

In the 1980s, after the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Roe v. Wade court decision, voters began to consider issues as a more important motivating factor for determining how they cast their ballot. No one should assume, however, that Americans suddenly became focused solely on the issues facing the nation — which most political scientists always believed ought to be the driving force for how people should vote. What observers realized was that the public was voting specifically and exclusively based on what a given candidate’s views were on, for example, abortion rights, gun control, civil rights, or support for Israel. It was not an array of issues, a cluster of concerns, or an ideology that voters were focusing on — which scholars ideally have preferred as the source for voting proclivities — but rather an issue or a set of integrally related issues. Thus enters the success in 2012 of the Tea Party movement.

There is another aspect to this recent phenomenon that is most apparent when considering the history of American party politics. The uniqueness of America’s two-party system — unlike those of most other democracies — is that parties have nearly always tended to be non-ideological. Minor or third parties might emerge for a brief time but they tended to be passing phenomena that ultimately disappeared or were absorbed by the two major parties. (Who remembers the Greenback Party, the Know-Nothing Party, the Bull Moose Party, the American Independent Party, or the Progressive Party?)

When either of the two major parties moved away from the center, the rate of defection accelerated to the other side or certainly to the center, thus maintaining the balance in the historical two-party system. Barry Goldwater in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972 are only two examples of this phenomenon at play. It is in this context that so many commentators and analysts are finding the 2012 presidential election so curious.

America is facing a significant set of problems at home and abroad, yet this year’s presidential campaigns seem devoid of content. Discussions concerning taxes are not focused on the complicated but critical decisions that must be made by the next administration during its first year in office, but on Gov. Romney’s undisclosed tax returns, which are undoubtedly totally legal but probably grossly embarrassing for average Americans to consider.

Unemployment numbers do not appear to be declining, but the number of people employed is increasing — so both sides can play the numbers any way they wish. This enables the campaigns to avoid discussing the specifics of how government can create more jobs without increasing taxes and not making permanent all the Bush-era tax cuts.

United States-Israel relations are being debated by the two sides over who first declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, although everyone admits that it would be politically impossible for either candidate to take action to have the U.S. embassy moved there — but no one wants to discuss the stalemated peace process.

Neither candidate wants Iran to become a nuclear power in the Middle East with all the dangers that such a development would engender, but the discussion is totally focused on what is meant by the words “to become a nuclear power” — what, that is, would be the exact moment when that becomes unacceptable for the United States (and Israel).

It looks like American voters will have to rely on the old adage: Whom do you trust more or whom do you fear more? Stated more bluntly, it will be voting for whom you like. It is not about who can deliver what, or who cares more about the issues. Sad, alas, but no surprise!

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