What the Past Presidential Election Reveals about the United States, with Richard Wolffe
A skilled storyteller with decades of experience in Washington D.C.’s inner circles, Richard Wolffe imparts informative insights on politics and economics, including both domestic and foreign affairs. His books on the Obama campaign and White house have shed light on Obama’s legacy, recording exclusive information on the behind-the-scenes events of his campaign and administration. Wolffe served as the Vice President and Executive Editor of msnbc.com, which he helped build from the ground up. He is currently the chief digital and marketing officer of Global Citizen, which under his watch has turned into “the BuzzFeed of Social Activism.” His insights and analyses can be read in his regular column for The Guardian.
SPEAKING.COM: Several people in the international community have reflected on the past 2016 major party presidential candidates (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton), commenting that these two “historically unpopular” candidates are an indication of the United States’ decline. What do you believe our choice of these two candidates says about the current state of the U.S. and its future?
WOLFFE: I’m afraid I think that’s nonsense. People have been predicting the decline of the United States as a world power for many decades. While it’s true there are significant rising economies, such as China, I think the U.S. is uniquely placed as the leading global power for the foreseeable future.
Having said that, the weaknesses of the two major party nominees do reflect fundamental challenges to the political establishment that are not unique to the U.S. In particular, we are looking at two older nominees who are struggling to engage younger voters. Established parties, politicians and the media they rely on, have lost a great deal of public trust and engagement. This is a pattern across the world, and reflects much broader shifts in technology, the economy and our cultural habits at large. After this election, both major parties will need to think long and hard about how they elevate the next generation of leaders, and how they connect with younger voters to stay relevant.
SPEAKING.COM: As part of your work for Global Citizen, you’re orchestrating a campaign to mobilize young voters. What do you tell people who might not want to vote, because they are unsatisfied with their options?
WOLFFE: At the heart of citizenship is the need to vote. Young people are already engaged with the world and want to solve real world issues together. They buy products, choose their careers and even their friends on the basis of shared values – much more so than older generations. But the most important way to engage with the world and further your values is to vote. The real choice in this election isn’t between candidates. It’s between apathy and action. You can’t complain about your choices if you don’t show up.
SPEAKING.COM: What advantages and challenges will the next president inherit from President Obama’s time in the White House?
WOLFFE: Whatever happens, the next president will not face the same extraordinary challenges Obama confronted in his first days: the worst recession in living memory and two protracted wars. The data shows that the economy is strong with unemployment low, and wages bouncing back. Despite the politics and public fear around terrorism, this is a time of relative peace with few serious threats to national security as we experienced them in the early 2000s or the Cold War.
However, there remain significant challenges for the next president. The gap between rich and poor has grown wider and more disruptive through the recession and the slow recovery. International cooperation is struggling in the face of populist nationalist parties. As a result, the global refugee crisis remains a huge burden regionally and a destabilizing factor in many countries. Climate change requires us to make expensive and difficult transitions in our economy and infrastructure. These are not small or easy problems to solve.
SPEAKING.COM: Neither candidate, it seems, will win by a majority. What indications does this division hold for the next administration’s ability to get things done?
WOLFFE: I’m not so sure of that. Whatever happens in the popular vote, the Electoral College result will be clear. Also, there is a deep divide within the Republican Party between its elected officials and party base over the presidential nominee.
If the winner does take the presidency through a plurality rather than a majority – as Bill Clinton did in ’92 – it will be the result of voters drifting to third party candidates such as the Libertarian and Green nominees. That’s a real warning sign for the main parties that they need to revive their fortunes with younger voters, notably through having new leaders with a fresh approach to these bigger issues such as economic opportunity, the environment, and criminal justice reform.
As for what the next administration can do, we’ll have to wait and see how the congressional elections play out. Right now, the forecast results range from the deadlocked status quo to a clean sweep for either side.
SPEAKING.COM: How would a Hillary Clinton presidency differ from Barack Obama’s?
WOLFFE: They are such different characters. Clinton has a broader circle of aides and friends reflecting her many decades of public life. Obama relies on a smaller group of trusted staffers. Clinton is more hawkish on foreign policy, where Obama is more cautious about military intervention. Clinton is generally more pro-business than Obama yet also more liberal on government programs. On the other hand, both of them are policy wonks at heart, with a greater love of governing than campaigning.
SPEAKING.COM: How do you believe the election results will affect the U.S. economy?
WOLFFE: Economic forecasters have already identified a Donald Drumpf victory as one of the greatest threats to the US and world economies. His victory would be deeply destabilizing to the markets since he has promised a trade war with China, a renegotiation of existing trade deals, and even suggested defaulting on US debt. The markets hate uncertainty and I’m afraid Drumpf excels in volatility.
With Clinton, I don’t think the underlying economy and financial markets will move much from their current trajectory. Unemployment and interest rates are likely to stay historically low for the next 6-12 months.
SPEAKING.COM: What changes do you foresee happening to the Republican and Democratic parties after this election?
WOLFFE: I think the Republican party will have some serious soul-searching to do. The split between the establishment and the base is real and poses an existential threat to the party. Drumpf’s approach to Latinos and women threaten to tarnish the party’s brand for the most critical voting demographics in the country for the next several decades.
Meanwhile, the Democrats need to figure out how to appeal to voters under 30 before they drift away to third parties. Overall, both main parties need to adapt quickly to new media and technologies to stay relevant to voters, and that includes the subject of their conversations with voters. We can’t keep avoiding big issues in favor of wedge politics or media flaps about outrageous tweets.
SPEAKING.COM: In various polls, most Americans have expressed they want the media’s coverage of the Presidential candidates to focus more on issues and policy. Why hasn’t that happened during the general campaign?
WOLFFE: Partly that’s the result of the candidates, but mostly it’s because the media is just as confused about its audience as the parties are confused about the voters. Technology has disrupted all channels of communication and it’s much harder to engage large numbers of people. It’s much easier to focus on the viral stories that are engaging with tons of people – and that inevitably means the sensational stuff.
The media is in crisis with a broken business model and an audience that is rapidly fragmenting. It is chasing clicks and ratings against all the odds. So the weightier coverage of issues inevitably suffers, until a new media business figures out how to do this in ways that build an audience.
SPEAKING.COM: How have social media and digital connectivity affected this election in comparison to the past elections you’ve covered?
WOLFFE: This is the first Twitter election. I think Facebook dominates most media today, and it really shaped 2012, but Drumpf’s love of Twitter has skewed this cycle towards 140 characters or less. Digital activity has taken an exponentially greater share of campaign attention since 2000.
We’re now at the point where data analytics are the center of gravity in professional campaigns, displacing pollsters and ad-makers once and for all. Those analytics combine voter data files, online activity, commercial data and good old-fashioned canvassing. Both internally and externally, the campaigns of this decade have little in common with their counterparts in the 1990s.
SPEAKING.COM: How much does a politician’s ability to engage voters online influence his or her ability to win elections?
WOLFFE: No question this is key today. We expect our politicians to be more honest, more accessible, less filtered and less slow to respond. The 24-hour news cycle has turned into the 2-hour social media cycle. I don’t think it’s possible to win elections today at any level of politics without connecting effectively with voters online.
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