The Best and Worst Lessons We Learned from the 2016 Election


To get a sense of how long this campaign has gone on, consider this: in between the first candidates announcing they were running, and today, I began thinking about having a baby, got pregnant, gave birth, went on maternity leave, came back to work, and now have a seven-month-old son who sits up and eats real food. [Jeeeeeeeezus — Ed.]

But finally, our long election nightmare is ending. All that remains is determining whether this particular period of terror fades into the usual anxiety-laced dreams of daily life in late capitalist America or emerges into a hellscape from which we cannot ever wake (this is your cue to find your polling place and to vote, now, if you haven’t). Either way, this wild year-plus ride has been as illuminating as it’s been soul-sucking. From race and gender to culture and media, the election has laid bare the ugly, and occasionally inspiring soul of our country. We’ve been forced to reckon with some heartening and more disheartening truths about American culture, politics and media. Here are a few of them.

The mainstream news-media narrative is helping no one.

I am a journalist and writer (duh) and I think that press freedom and a robust media is a crucial bulwark of a free society. Yet when I speak negatively of the media narrative, I’m talking about what gets cycled through the headlines at mainstream news sites and papers, and on evening and morning cable news programs. And in that case, our problem is not just that that “the media” has completely abandoned talking about the environment or poverty, or that people on the right only get news from biased sources like Fox News or even Breitbart — but also that the need for “balance” means that more time gets spent on Hillary Clinton’s nearly-nonexistent email “scandal” and articles about the Clinton Foundation that have no point at all than gets spent on dozens and dozens of Trump stories, from his vulgar and racist comments to actual fraud, potential tax evasions and shady business, and questionable charity dealings.

Thus the idea is created that the two candidates are equally untrustworthy. Somewhere along the way, the truth has been lost — even President Obama acknowledged this in his interview with Bill Maher last week.

Unhealthy anti-press sentiment is on the rise, and dangerous.

The cable news situation may be a mess, but investigative journalists at many traditional and new outlets have risen to the occasion. During this election we’ve seen many brilliant scoops, from pussygate to tax returns to the Trump foundation — as well as wonderful personal features reporting like this story that ran in the New York Times this weekend, along with creative opinion writing and even criticism that helps unpack the Trump phenomenon. And those journalists who do tell the truth, and uncover secrets — or even those who are just doing their job following the campaigns — are getting harassed and threatened at Trump rallies, even needing police protection in many cases. The abuse has been egged on by the candidate.

In the meantime, massive layoffs and buyouts at the papers that do do the investigative reporting threaten the ability of the Fourth Estate to do its jobs. Critiquing the media economy is about building a better press corps, not making people scared to cover the race.

Socialism doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

Bernie Sanders’ memorable run for the Democratic nomination showed that the word “socialist” doesn’t have to be a negative, and that young people aren’t affected by the kind of red-baiting that used to exist in the popular consciousness. There were flaws in Bernie’s candidacy, but someone who combined his relentless idealism and refusal to budge from the issues with a more savvy and expansive way of speaking about social justice and intersectionality could go far. I should note that I am a former teacher and all my students on Facebook, none of whom come from economic privilege, were agitating for Bernie, which warmed my heart: instead of criticizing the Bernie kids for being young and idealistic, we should celebrate the fact that they’re looking beyond labels and responding to issues like tuition affordability and medicare for all. Maybe someday we can have a political conversation that really encompasses those ideas.

A certain brand of feminism is defiantly, jubilantly winning the conversation.

Call it “panstuit feminism” or “Lean In feminism” or whatever, but Hillary Clinton is the avatar of a kind of mainstream, progressive girl power that is having a huge moment. This marketplace feminism certainly has its problematic aspects, but Clinton’s embrace of policies on reproductive rights, fair pay, and family leave, means her approach is one of substance as well as style. The number of celebrities who have enthusiastically gotten behind the Clinton campaign, not just because she isn’t Trump, but because they celebrate her determination and power, is astounding. This election has seen the rise of the pantsuit brigades; the reclamation (by Beyoncé!) of Hillary Clinton’s derided stay at home and bake cookies comments from the ’90s; the unapologetic ownership of the candidate’s long journey towards real power by women of her generation and the next, and the next. The rampant, unapologetic misogyny on the other side has also been a catalyst for feminism, as women began sharing their stories of assault, bullying and being undermined at every turn. Trump’s candidacy has been like a national consciousness-raising.

On the other hand, many white women would rather cling to racism than stand up for their own status as humans.

Too many white women will be voting for Trump today. I’m not the first one to say this, but it’s worth repeating. This is a man who doesn’t see women as anything but objects for his pleasure; a serial sexual assaulter who parades female flesh in beauty pageants, and whose treatment of Hillary Clinton at rallies and debates shows a demented anger towards smart and accomplished women that is truly terrifying. He has triggered thousands of women to relieve their own harassment, bullying, assault and gaslighting. And yet there are millions of white women in this country who are so angry about “the other” that they can’t even recognize the fact that their candidate sees them as lesser than. They don’t understand themselves in solidarity with other women, but are instead in allegiance to a version of white nationalism that is terrifying in its power.

American Anti-Semitism is still a major thing.

Speaking of white nationalism, the resurgence — or emergence from the shadows — of right-wing anti-Semitism is a notable facet of this campaign. For a variety of reasons, Trump’s candidacy has given boldness and cover to overt anti-Semites who use Holocaust and Nazi imagery to go after Jewish-seeming reporters and Clinton supporters on Twitter. Furthermore, Trump has fed directly into anti-Jewish sentiment by creating campaign ads and speeches that hint at global monetary conspiracies and sinister power structures that just happen to involve prominent Jews. We shouldn’t be so surprised by this; Jews have largely been enveloped by white privilege in America, but wherever racism lives and thrives, anti-Semitism is always hiding under the surface.

Racism is the scourge, and in many way basis of American society, and we are nowhere near dealing with it.

And indeed, racism — a mixture of anti-black, anti-Latino and Islamophobic sentiment — is the major animating force behind Trump’s support. It’s racism that is intermixed with social and economic anxiety, sure. But it’s a movement that has coalesced around the faltering status of white men, a backlash to the Obama coalition of minority groups, single women, and college-educated folks. It’s ugly, and it’s not going anywhere, no matter what happens with Trump. Furthermore, the pervasive idea in that pesky media narrative that economic downturn is more important than race in determining Trump support isn’t borne out by the evidence. What that zombie idea proves, instead, is that we’re in denial about the nature of racism. We’re too uncomfortable acknowledging that racism, rather than being a unique evil, is a part of the fabric of our culture, one that has to be actively excised, personally, institutionally, and structurally. Even in the event of a Clinton victory, activists have their work cut out for them.