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US Politics – 2008-2018

The most recent decade has been a dramatic time for political parties. The nation has become more polarized and its people more extreme in their attitudes. Tensions between party lines cause rifts in communities and many find the rhetoric of politicians to have more of a divisive than unifying effect.

Divisions in the Political Parties

Signs of this political division first appeared in 2008. While the Democrats enjoyed a majority in Congress, the Republican Party suffered from decreased popularity after Bush’s administration. The GOP was divided between traditional, moderate Republicans and a reactionary, extreme right-wing branch. They called themselves the “Tea Party”, harking back to the revolutionaries who threw tons of tea into the Boston Harbor to protest against taxes imposed by the British government in 1773. This branch of the Republican Party felt overtaxed and under-represented by a liberal Democrat in the White House and an unfocused Republican party. The growth of the Tea Party forced the Republican Party to lean to the right - favouring a small government, and reduced budget, with major cuts to public programs such as “Obamacare”. This new face of the Republican Party was successful across the country and is credited with winning back Congress in 2012, despite Obama’s victory. The Republican Party is now more conservative than ever, alienating traditionalists and gaining a new base of voters who have long been downtrodden and disillusioned. These voters were appeased by the highly conservative agendas of the Republican candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in 2016. The Democrats have also faced a divide. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two outspoken and very liberal senators, caught the attention of young Americans who saw government turning more conservative and the Democrats becoming ineffective. Their voices were also not heard in the four years from 2012, as they studied and learned of progressive policies in other developed nations which are lacking in the US. This caused a remarkable base of voters who wanted to “Feel the Bern” in the 2016 election.

The 2016 Election

As early as summer 2015, America began to speculate on who their new President would be. The Democratic Party, after eight successful years, found itself divided between a traditional and moderate Hillary Clinton - a “safe choice” and a woman - and Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist. But this divide was narrow when compared to the scattered Republican Party with its ten candidates. The two most prominent were Ted Cruz - a Tea Party hero and conservative Christian - and Donald Trump, a dark horse and complete wild card, with no political background, piles of money and an unfiltered and active Twitter account. Cruz and Clinton were predictable candidates, being career politicians, but Trump and Sanders came out of left field with their radical agendas and political views. During the primaries, the race was close and heated between Clinton and Sanders, but in the end, Clinton got the Democratic nomination to be the presidential candidate. On the Republican side, Trump got the vast majority of votes and became the nominee—something no one had thought vaguely possible at the time. This revealed that what Americans wanted more than anything else was something new. They were tired of the broken promises of a political system that romanticized about “main street” America while ignoring its struggles and failing to solve them.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the second presidential debate in St. Louis, Oct. 9, 2016.

The election of 2016 was indeed dramatic. Unprecedented amounts of money were spent, especially in swing states where there were particularly aggressive TV ads. People felt Trump, with his social media antics, offensive language and naive policies could not possibly win. However, Clinton was not a clear favorite, having been a career politician, with a history of scandals and lacking the charisma to charm voters. The televised debates before the election were historic: they broke with standard structures and rules and presented an informal and tense rhetoric that at times was even humorous. Trump persevered through scandal and criticism and made it to the election confident of a victory from a “silent majority”. Clinton smirked at his promises and continued her campaign despite criticism that she was untrustworthy. Trump’s platform was building a wall against illegal immigrants from Mexico, exiting international trade and environmental agreements which “stole” jobs, and being tough on crime and terrorism. Clinton's platform promised to institute campaign finance reform, reduce tuition fees for higher education, and initiate gun control laws.

The Trump Years

Trump won the election by winning the majority of electoral votes, but losing the popular vote. No wonder so many people were surprised! However, his supporters celebrated his victory -a businessman, not a politician, who had given voice to their frustrations and made bold promises to create an America that worked in their favor. Yet in the days following his election, immigration lawyers worked overtime guiding nervous immigrants, while Canada’s website on immigration requirements shut down from excessive traffic. There was an increase in hate crime and schoolyard bullying, and yet, nearly 50% of voters were optimistic about how their newly elected leader would perform. Trump has tirelessly tried to keep his promises, a difficult task considering resistance in the Supreme Courts and Congress. He has a conservative majority in Congress, but he is truly the dark horse of the Republican party, and many in his own party vote against his bills. Many Republican voters question their vote, but he is still supported by many blue-collar Americans who have lost their jobs and whose voices have been stamped out by the 8 years of liberal policies and global cooperation. They romanticized about the economic boom of the 1950s and they share Trump’s vision to “Make America Great Again” and put America first. The last decade of American politics has shown that unpredictability is the law of the land. It is indeed a country of endless diversity and voices, yet still stands as 50 united states. Power, trends and sentiments change like the tide as Americans become more divided by their social and economic backgrounds and therefore, in their politics.

Discussion Questions:

  1. The Tea Party came into the national spotlight in 2009, and especially after the passing of the Affordable Care Act. Find out what they are protesting and what they want to see in politics.
  2. What is a “swing state” and what is the effect of swing states on presidential campaigns?
  3. Campaign finance reform has been a common issue in presidential campaigns over the last 30 years. What is the effect of so much money on elections and what effect might it have on democracy?
  4. “Make America Great Again” was Trump’s campaign slogan. What era in American history do you think his supporters thought was the greatest? Why would they think that era was great? Were there elements of that era that were not so great?
  5. Trump’s victory was indeed a surprise for most Americans and even political experts. Look into who voted for him and how he won. Why do you think many Americans like Trump?

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