David Shribman: Election revealed country’s rightward turn

Published 2:46 pm Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Electoral College completed its ballot for president. In the last month it became clear that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won more popular votes than did Donald J. Trump. But now that the vote counting is virtually complete, one additional conclusion about the country’s 2016 election can be reached:

More Americans voted for conservative-oriented candidates than for liberal-oriented candidates.

The margin is more than a million votes, with the conservative-oriented candidates capturing 50.4 percent of the popular vote as against the 49.6 percent for the liberal-oriented candidates in an exceptionally close election.

As a result, Trump enters the White House a month from today as the leader of what can be roughly described as a center-right nation.

It is incontrovertible that Trump triumphed in the election; the Constitution unambiguously gives the presidency to the candidate with the most electoral votes. It is, moreover, beyond controversy that Clinton, mainly on the strength of California, won the popular vote; her margin in California was nearly 4.3 million votes.

The nation’s mood comes into clearer focus when the vote totals of the liberal-oriented candidates (Clinton and Green Party candidate Jill Stein) are compared with the conservative-oriented candidates (Trump, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, Constitution Party candidate Darrell Castle and independent Evan McMullin, who was on the ballot in 11 states but focused on Utah). The result, according to figures from the respected Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, is a margin of 1,055,001 votes.

“This is a center-right country right now, and not just because of the election outcome but certainly in the direction we’re heading,” says Barbara Trish, a political scientist at Grinnell College in Iowa. “The left seems to be in eclipse right now. Democrats can place some blame on the elites for their loss this time, but since 2000 the country has leaned slightly right. Barack Obama was probably an anomaly because he did a good job to pull people of all views into his coalition, but the trend is clear.”

The question of whether the United States is a center-right nation has been a matter of controversy in recent years, but it is arguable that American conservatives are within the mainstream of conservatives in Western nations — and that American liberals sit on the right side of the left-wing spectrum in Western nations.

Clinton is considered a liberal among most Americans, but many Democrats, especially Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, were critical of the former secretary of state for a representing a faint brand of liberalism.

But the most damaging aspect of the Clinton candidacy might have been the ease in which Trump — and, to a lesser but potent degree, Sanders — portrayed her as the personification of the political establishment in a year of rebellion and in which there was enormous resentment among blue-collar voters — two-thirds of whom, according to a CNN poll, believe working hard is not going to get them ahead in the United States anymore.

In a poll conducted weeks after the election, the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion found that 62 percent of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction.

The election itself was conducted in an atmosphere of rebellion, reflecting years of growing anger and frustration.

The National Bureau of Economic Research’s Fading American Dream study, undertaken by a distinguished group of economists, found that 92 percent of those born in 1940 (and who are now 76) earned more than their parents — a sharp contrast with the record of those born in the 1980s.

Only half of the latter group earns more than their parents, a trend that is even more dramatic in states in the Rust Belt, where Trump prevailed despite polls suggesting that he was doomed there.

“A big part of why Trump won was a vote against the status quo,” says Daniel Carpenter, director of social sciences at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. “People saw Secretary Clinton as the status quo. Vast areas of Michigan and Pennsylvania had people voting against Clinton for just that reason.”

Indeed, exit polls conducted by NBC News showed a huge swing by working-class whites in the past four years. Those voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin gave former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts a 12-percentage-point margin in 2012. Last month they gave Trump a 30-point bulge. About six in 10 said they disapproved of Obama’s performance as president.

And a separate Brookings Institution analysis showed that the 2,584 counties Trump won accounted for only 36 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product — another indication that Trump reaped the benefit of widespread economic anxiety.

(Clinton won only 472 counties, demonstrating that her appeal was more concentrated and that her vote was clustered in the areas accounting for 64 percent of GDP.)

In a Pew Research Center study conducted in the two weeks leading up to the election, majorities of Trump supporters said things had declined in all seven areas the poll surveyed, with nearly nine in 10 saying America’s standing in the world had declined and seven in 10 saying the job situation in the country had deteriorated.

The great mystery is the ideological profile of the 45th president — and whether Trump defies ideological profiling.

A onetime Democrat who once supported abortion rights, he won the presidential nomination of the Republican Party, which for 40 years has had anti-abortion language in its platform. In this year’s campaign, Trump expressed support for some of the activities of Planned Parenthood and spoke of permitting abortions in the cases of rape, incest and occasions when the life of the mother was in jeopardy.

Trump is more a populist than an ideologue, but in selecting members of his administration, the president-elect has shown a distinct preference for appointees from the right.

“It is becoming clear, now that he is appointing a Cabinet, that there is a conservative strain to Trump,” says Paul Beck, an Ohio State political scientist. “This is more the case than any administration that John McCain or Mitt Romney would have appointed.”

But the real test begins shortly after noon on Jan. 20. It was on that very date and at that very hour that, in 1981, the nation knew that it was taking a sharp right turn under President Ronald Reagan.

There are strong indications Trump will engage those turning signals again.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890).