The year-plus slog to this Election Day told us plenty about ourselves, and especially about our times.
“We’re living in a world that’s not the one we knew just a short time ago,” said Richard Rhodes, a former Kansas Citian and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. “It’s leading somewhere and, right now, it’s not to a very comfortable place.”
The 2016 campaign made the quirks of our era more obvious. A variety of forces — online and otherwise — upend our commerce, our culture, our politics. They make our lives less private and more fractious in large part because of how they put grievance on display.
Rural America feels left behind and dismissed. Young black men feel themselves in danger. Police officers feel underappreciated. The poor and middle class feel shut off from the schools, jobs and insider connections that pave the way to Easy Street. Women feel harassed. White men feel they get all the blame.
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Those old grudges air in new ways. Sometimes it’s healthy. Often, it only makes for more anger.
“My fear is that we’re going to have to sink a little bit deeper,” Barb Rhodes (no relation to the historian) said at a Democratic political event last week in Warrensburg. “We’re going to see some ugly stuff.”
Richard Rhodes sees technology remaking things in ways that diplomacy, politics and even war can’t. Changes taking hold today, he said, simply put so much out in the open.
“The world, at every level, is getting more transparent,” Rhodes said. “There are just almost no secrets left anywhere.”
WikiLeaks spilled memos from the Democratic National Committee. An old “Access Hollywood” outtake seemed, for a dramatic moment in the campaign, to torpedo Donald Trump’s prospects. The still-unsettled FBI probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails figures to breed suspicion beyond Tuesday’s voting.
The country peeked behind the curtains at the same time it harbored growing distrust of the wealthy and the connected. Now, partly because of the seismic powers unleashed in the digital age, more people feel emboldened to fight the powerful.
Those revolutionaries increasingly find allies, often through shared grievances.
Are you a Fox conservative, or part of the alt-right who prefers your Clinton bashing Breitbart style? Are you an MSNBC leftie, or full-on Salon? Or, rather, do you prefer some corner of Reddit that talks seriously about anarchy as the way forward?
If there’s a defining characteristic of the second decade of this century, it may be that facts have become fungible.
Consider climate change, an issue with monumental implications. If Earth’s temperatures are rising because we burn fossil fuels, that’s a powerful argument for taxes on carbon. But taking that action virtually dictates that we drive smaller cars, live in smaller homes, buy fewer things. Moving in that direction could mean a radical shift, perhaps a painful downshift, in the economy.
Yet we can’t agree on the science. Roughly three in four Democrats attribute record-high temperatures in 2015 to man-made climate change. About three in four Republicans don’t.
“With the wave of the hand, we dismiss things as liberal or conservative without really looking at the facts,” said Evan Conway, who’s made a career developing social media apps for phones and now is the chief business officer at Adknowledge in Kansas City. “People decide things first and then look up the facts that will support them, not the other way around. It’s human nature.”
That natural inclination toward what psychologists call confirmation bias is old stuff. It just comes more easily today.
“Definitely Facebook and Twitter over the news,” said 20-year-old Olivia Olson of Arcola, Mo., at a Republican rally last week. “That’s how my age gets everything, Facebook and Twitter.”
With so many media niches to choose from, there’s hardly a crackpot idea that lacks some affirmation.
There’s a bright side there. The spread of information has become democratized because ideas don’t need endorsement from group-thinking elites in the news business or faculty lounges to gain circulation.
But Conway and others note that our newfound ability to bond over love for the same obscurities (comic book characters, alt-whatever bands, shared health problems) also give refuge to affirm our bigotries.
“People who used to hide various beliefs have been much more confident to express them, sometimes anonymously, and they’ve found other people to endorse this ugly behavior,” he said. “It’s not all good.”
Virtual echo chambers also drive people away from evidence that might challenge their thinking, said Hyunjin Seo, a former foreign correspondent for South Korean media outlets who studies social media and teaches journalism at the University of Kansas.
She sees us splintering into our chosen realities, picking and choosing the articles and often-suspect facts that tell us we’re right.
“In the past, news organizations were the gatekeepers” of what was credible and important, she said. Today, Seo said, research shows our gatekeepers are the friends and websites we’ve gravitated toward.
“People tend to follow those who agree with them,” she said. “We moved on to the age of sharing. … You read something because you want to discuss the topic with friends and add your opinions.”
When a 2005 video surfaced of Trump saying his star status allowed him to grope women, at least a dozen one-time acquaintances said they’d been subject to caveman-like advances from him. He fought back on two fronts. He challenged the women’s credibility. And he assembled a small group of women who accused Bill Clinton of harassment and rape and reminded voters that the former president carried out an affair in the Oval Office.
Again, Americans tended to believe what they wanted.
Yet the country had already been talking more about how men treat women.
A Stanford student convicted in the sexual assault of an unconscious woman led to a six-month jail sentence, and outrage across the country that the punishment seemed so light.
Rape on college campuses, and in the military, had already been a roiling issue. Bill Cosby, once the amiable American dad, is now seen as a national creep. Harvard canceled the remainder of the men’s soccer season last week after fallout over members of the team ranking female players in sexually crude ways.
“Even in the past few months, we’ve seen the conversation change,” said Julie Donelon, the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault. “Men and women alike are saying this locker room idea that ‘boys will be boys’ will not be tolerated.”
In recent weeks, people have used #NotOkay to share stories of harassment, signaling they won’t tolerate sexist and brutish behavior.
University administrators have come under increasing fire for the perception that they’ve been slow to make their campuses safe for women, lax in disciplining students blamed for assaults and too slow to take control when rapes were reported.
The willingness of people to speak out has shifted. The Des Moines Register won a Pulitzer Prize for public service after publishing a story in 1990 of a woman who was raped. At the time, the story was seen as a bold approach that challenged the journalistic standard of not naming someone who’d been raped. This fall, The Star published the stories of dozens of people, many of them named, talking about sexual assault.
“The conversation has really been opened up,” said Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
It’s also, she said, created a backlash. People who go public with their assault stories can find themselves under attack.
“They’re called liars. People ask, ‘Why didn’t you say something at the time?’ ” she said. “That backlash has other people scared to speak out.”
Blue city, red country
When it’s not gender, its geography.
Coloring the Electoral College map red and blue shows how America’s coasts differ from its midsection. The gap becomes much pronounced, the nation turns far more red, when the vote is broken down by county.
Barack Obama won 44 of the 50 most populated counties in the country. Yet he won the election, and the popular vote, while losing all but 689, or 22 percent, of the country’s 3,143 counties.
The spread is growing. Wayne State University researchers Joe Blankenau and Chuck Parker studied the differences in Nebraska. It’s a red state, but Democrats still hold sway around Lincoln and Omaha. The two looked at surveys from 1982 and 2012 to see how rural and urban voters differed on various issue. The most striking split came over gun control — city voters supported it, country voters opposed it. In 30 years, the chasm has grown. Even when the researchers controlled for age and party — comparing middle-aged Republicans in Omaha to those in western Nebraska — country folks were still more conservative.
“Maybe it’s the water,” joked Parker. Whatever the cause, Blankenau said, “the difference is widening.”
Even within metropolitan areas, the sort of places we live in can predict our politics. Joshua D. Ambrosius, a political scientist at the University of Dayton, looked at 92 “core counties” that contain the country’s biggest cities — Cook County in Illinois, Jackson County in Missouri. He studied the four presidential elections from 2000 through 2012 and found more of those counties shifting Democratic over time.
He also showed that population density can be a key tipoff. As a rule of thumb, if you pack more than 800 people per square mile into a county, it’s likely to vote two-thirds for the Democrat. If a county falls below that tipping point, Republicans tend to win two-to-one.
“It’s sort of a density divide,” Ambrosius said.
In increasing measures, adults in cities are younger, more likely to be college graduates, far more likely not to be white and to have settled in a place they didn’t grow up.
Those in the countryside, said Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, “feel forgotten.”
She’s editor of the Online Journal of Rural Research and Policy and heads the Chapman Center for Rural Studies at Kansas State University. The continuing consolidation of farming operations means fewer jobs in rural areas, meaning young people must move to cities for work. Those who return after college typically come back with agriculture degrees. Those who leave are more likely to study the arts and social sciences — fields more populated by liberals.
“So the people left behind feel disconnected from the coasts and from the cities, where they think the power is,” Lynn-Sherow said. “They feel they’re not listened to on the things that matter in their lives.”
Campaigns, for all their shallow sloganeering, are made in the image of the country. Our fast-changing world and the unpopular presidential candidates have left voters uneasy this year, hoping for an upside.
“This is kind of the boiling point where we see how bad it’s gone,” said Republican Chris Beyer, a 20-year-old from Jefferson City. “To me, it’s only up from here.”
Mary Harrison, a 78-year-old Republican from Springfield, started voting in 1960 and can’t recall a more contentious time.
“I’ve had to vote for the lesser of two evils. But I’ve never seen the animosity, the anger, the hatefulness of things going on now,” she said. “They want your vote, then they’ve forgotten about you.”
That disillusionment is one of the few things people from both parties appear to share.
“I’m ready for it to be over,” said Eddie Osborne, 65, a Democrat from Warrensburg. “It’s because everybody believes that they’re right, and they don’t give any room for compromise.”
The issues spilling into the election, voters say, come from economic and social shifts in the country that have created new friction between Americans and how they’ve laid bare long-standing disagreements.
“It’s a manifestation of our culture at this time. It’s a function of where we are as a society,” Kathryn Rankin, 60, of Kansas City, said at a Democratic campaign stop last week. “Light has been shined on a lot of issues that back in our day people didn’t discuss.”