Dysfunction will continue.
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While most political observers are focused on the ups and downs of the presidential race, it’s not too early to think about the condition of our politics once it ends. There is no evidence that the campaign will do anything to reduce the partisan polarization that has blocked progress on vital national problems. On the contrary, it seems likely to deepen the crisis of governance that has hobbled the United States for much too long.
There are three reasons to fear the worst. In the first place, the campaign has done little to help voters understand the real choices we face, especially in the economic sphere. The recovery from the Great Recession has been achingly slow, wages have barely budged, many working-age Americans remain outside the labor force, and productivity—the key to higher living standards—has declined for three consecutive quarters. Slamming the door on immigration won’t cure these ills, and neither will protectionism. Policies such as paid family leave will help at the margin but leave the core of the problem untouched. The president-elect will not enter the transition with an economic mandate and will have to create one virtually from scratch.
Second, challenges to the legitimacy of elections and candidacies have disfigured our politics for the past four presidential elections, a trend that may well continue into 2017 and beyond. In the wake of the botched vote count in Florida and the Supreme Court’s controversial Bush v. Gore decision, many Democrats never accepted the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s inauguration. In 2008 and beyond, conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birthplace convinced many Americans that he was not an American citizens and was therefore ineligible to serve as president. This year’s Republican nominee, a principal proponent of these theories, has repeatedly warned his supporters that the election may be “rigged.” If he loses by a relatively narrow margin, there is a real danger that he may question the outcome and give his supporters additional reasons to reject the winner’s legitimacy.
Third, and most fundamentally, the 2016 campaign has further divided Americans along demographic lines, according to a just-released reportfrom the Pew Research Center. Among whites, men are 10 percentage points more likely to identify as Republicans than they were in 2008; individuals over 50 are 13 points more likely; whites with a high school education or less, 14 points more likely. Because white women haven’t shifted nearly as much, the gender gap among whites has widened significantly.