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The world of the 2016 elections
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The world of the 2016 elections

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

Even for observers of presidential politics since the advent of the electronic age, this presidential contest has been one of, if not, the most ugly campaign ever. The nature of the personal attacks that began during the Republican primaries has continued virtually nonstop. Not only have the charges been personal and ad hominem, they have reflected an effort to intensify the polarization that has existed in Washington and throughout the country since the beginning of the 21st century, an intensification of what had already been devolving for a decade or two. The tone of the rhetoric has been so distasteful that Americans of all stripes have been turned off.

Admittedly, many Americans do believe the lack of political correctness has been a good thing for the country. These citizens suggest that America finally has a candidate who is willing to “tell it like it is.” Donald Trump makes conversation with the same animus and hostility that pervades many kitchens and dining rooms on a daily basis. Others find the lack of civility absolutely appalling. 

Perhaps at the forthcoming debates Clinton and Trump will address their substantive differences, but based on previous performances that seems unlikely. The two candidates have significant policy views that to date have been replaced by efforts to score personal attack points. 

Scientific voting behavior studies always have demonstrated that candidate orientation and party affiliation are more critical variables than issues for the average voter. This year’s campaign hardly has given anyone a chance to discern any distinction on the issues, because they have not been truly engaged. 

Beyond the personal attacks has been the character of the language. There are virtually no political courtesies anymore. There are verbal assaults on the candidates, their families, the press corps, and minorities, all of which are delivered with an especially ugly, even vulgar tone. It has amused some voters but has largely disgusted the majority.

What is perhaps most depressing is that it may well affect visits to the polls in November. Americans have not demonstrated strong turnouts for decades, and things will likely not change for this year’s campaign. (Turnout in 2008 reached 62 percent of registered voters but dropped to 57 percent in 2012.) Historically, low turnout generally favors Republican candidates. If the Democratic voter registration drives and the GOTV campaigns to increase the African-American and Hispanic vote succeed, that outcome might counter general voter dissatisfaction. Otherwise, the tone and style of this campaign could result in the turnout going even further down. 

While some adamant Trump supporters will be stirred to rally support for the type of style and rhetoric their candidate has championed, many others will merely walk away from the election. The hatred that has been generated toward the Democratic nominee by Trump’s troops — and more recently the foolish, disparaging remarks she used toward them in return — has only further intensified their disgust and rejection of Clinton. 

Israel has been kept almost totally out of the campaign discussion this year, until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ridiculous reference last Friday to the conduct of the Palestinians on the West Bank as an example of “ethnic cleansing.” Except for one Clinton-Sanders debate and an exchange over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the “can you top my support for Israel” in one Republican primary debate, neither candidate made very much of the languishing peace process, Mahmoud Abbas’s sinking support, the forthcoming Palestinian elections, Israel’s expanding settlements, and Netanyahu’s forthcoming visit to the UN General Assembly. Now Netanyahu has successfully stirred the pot by interjecting the “ethnic cleansing” accusation into regional politics. This raised red flags in the White House and suddenly catapulted the issue and the conflict to the front pages again. It remains to be seen if this is just another casualty of a distasteful campaign cycle or if it will lead to a new round of the Bibi-Obama contretemps and/or add more noise to the campaign.

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