Illustration by Katie McBride
Illustration by Katie McBride

In the throes of one of the most unusual and contentious presidential elections in recent memory, it makes sense to take a step back and take the long view.

That’s what we’ve tried to do in this package, to get out of the heat of the moment, away from the spikes and dips of the opinion polls and the outrage of the moment. We’re not parsing candidates, trying to figure out why this one or that one, what we can say to make you agree, or how loudly we can shout at you when you don’t.

Frankly, we’re tired of shouting. Instead, we sought out perspective. Is this really the worst it’s been? How did The Collegian cover the 1932 election? How does losing an election feel? How can we move on?

Congratulations if your candidate wins on election night in November. Hang in there if he or she doesn’t. No matter what you think of the candidates, chances are our republic has already seen better and endured worse. Democracy is famously messy, “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried,” as Winston Churchill said.

If that’s cold comfort, the advice his government offered for enduring a bombardment might serve you better: “Keep calm and carry on.”

Not a dime’s worth of difference who wins?

We’ve been talking about the 2016 presidential election since Beyonce’s dying lip-synced note at Barack Obama’s 2012 inauguration. We’ve been casting votes since the Iowa caucuses in February. Various media estimate that this election will cost anywhere between $5 billion and $10 billion. Our social media feeds are full of political bickering.

Is who gets elected really this important? After all, we pay the president less than an NFL rookie’s guaranteed minimum salary. (Admittedly, the presidential perks are far better.)

We asked George R. Goethals, a professor in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies who studies presidential leadership.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The question just boggles my mind, actually.”

Who the president is makes a big difference in what we as a nation do, he said. He cited Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ability to unite the country during the Great Depression and World War II. He contrasted Abraham Lincoln with his immediate predecessors, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, often considered by historians two of our very worst presidents.

“Franklin Pierce was rolled by Stephen Douglas and other senators to go along with Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was a disaster,” Goethals said. “Another president might not have been so malleable. There are all kind of questions about the role James Buchanan played in facilitating the Dred Scott decision,” a case that historians frequently cite as the Supreme Court’s worst decision.

The 2016 election: A Spider's guide
Illustration by Robert Meganck

Still, a president “isn’t a god or dictator,” Goethals said. Checks and balances limit presidential power, and the country has persisted despite poor presidents. Still, “the country will be different depending on who is the next president. Any big change in social welfare programs, for example, is going to affect a lot of people.”

All true, agreed Dan Palazzolo in political science, who describes the outcome of a presidential election as “extremely important.” Presidents are expected to lead on issues of policy. In times of crisis and war, who sits in the Oval Office is especially critical, he said.

But it has not always been so, he added.

“For most of the 19th century — outside of the Civil War, until Teddy Roosevelt gets in and starts talking about a greater role for national government — you don’t even think about the presidency being powerful.”

But times have changed.

“The presidency has become more powerful as federal government has taken on a bigger role in our lives,” he said. “That’s what’s made the presidency more powerful and more important: the expansion of the federal government.”

In 1968, George Wallace launched a third-party presidential bid based on a segregationist platform that opposed federal civil rights laws and court decisions in the name of states’ rights. “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats,” he was fond of saying, referring to Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey.

Was he right? Did it not matter who won? Wallace himself took 46 electoral votes and five states. Imagine how different the country would be today if he had won even more.

The state and the nation can make no greater contribution than to provide education to the full capacity of the individual.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, H'46, accepting an honorary Doctor of Laws degree presented by Douglas Southall Freeman, R1904, in Cannon Memorial Chapel March 28, 1946. Eisenhower was elected president in 1952.

The Spider vote, as seen through a century of The Collegian

In 1916, during its third year of publication, The Collegian organized its first-ever straw vote, acknowledging how “national politics has been discussed so often and vociferously here on the campus.” A tiny column — only 38 words — on the second page showed Woodrow Wilson winning with 196 votes to Charles Evans Hughes’ 38, Allan Benson’s four, and a single vote for Prohibition Party candidate James Hanley.

The Collegian continued to organize straw votes for several decades. Sometimes student votes matched the national outcome, and other times they broke from the rest of the voting population, such as when Richard Nixon defeated John F. Kennedy in a 1960 mock election. In 1932, reporters explored demographic research with a ballot asking for college affiliation and home state, imploring students that “it is imperative that this ballot be filled out in full.”

While these polls engaged a population of students — at a time when most were preparing to cast their first vote — in the political process, a look back through the archives of The Collegian offers something more. Scanning clips, polls, advertisements, and opinions offers a glimpse into the evolving values and priorities of a small community.

Two columns over from the results of that first straw poll, a “hip-pocket essay” warned about the dangers of women’s suffrage as the country barreled toward ratifying the 19th Amendment.

“Once she gets the vote,” the essay read, “billiard halls, cigar stores and buffets will be changed to pink tea resorts, gossip joints and poodle-dog rest rooms, and hubby will stay at home and take the baby and the woozy-eyed pup for an airing in the park. Those old time-worn, time-honored seats in Congress and Senate would be covered with vanity cases, crochet work and Laura Jean [Libbey].”

collegian-vote

Four years later, when women were first universally allowed to vote, an article on Page 5 recapped Westhampton College’s straw poll between Warren Harding and James Cox. It closed with a noticeably different tone: “The enthusiasm and intelligent arguments of the girls with regard to the election is definitely proving the success of suffrage.” (The results of the 1924 straw vote, however, congratulated both John Davis for his win over Calvin Coolidge, and Westhampton women for their voting prowess: “Attempting to disprove the theory that women do not know how to vote, only 16 ballots were mismarked out of the 272 that were cast.”)

In the hundred years since The Collegian first tackled presidential politics, the scope of coverage has grown to include summaries of rallies and visits from candidates and representatives and comparisons of party platforms, but also a lasting sense of single moments in time, such as the Commons the night Barack Obama was elected.

“More than 150 elated students in Tyler Haynes Commons embraced, shouted, and cried at 11 p.m., when the polls closed on the West Coast and TV networks announced that Barack Obama would be the 44th president 
of the United States, the first black American to win the office.”

Vladimira
Dostalova

Lisa
Groeticke

Selina
Jang

Marcin
Jerzewski

George
Katsiotis

Luka
Klimaviciute

Clément
Verde

Broad stripes, bright stars, bizarre elections:
Six takeaways from talking to international students about American elections

If you think this election season is bizarre, imagine how it looks through the eyes of international students.

We sat down with eight of them — some studying for four years and others here for just a year as exchange students — in the late spring and early summer, before the parties' conventions. We asked them about the differences between their understanding of American politics and what they've learned as they see it up close for the first time.

Some of what they told us was hard to hear, and much surprised us. A two-party system without a middle? Crazy. Extremely polarized parties? Welcome to normal life in Europe. Here are the recurring themes that rose to the surface:

1. Our presidential election process is baffling.

Lisa Groeticke, an exchange student and dual American and German citizen: I thought it was much more direct, like you just vote for someone and you see who gets voted for. There are so many more steps before that. … For us, it's an election, and then it's over. But here it's years.

Marcin Jerzewski, '18, from Poland: [The primaries] are not a form of executing popular vote. It's not part of the political process in the U.S. Constitution. It constitutes the core of politics, but officially it is not formalized. I think this is extremely interesting.

Clément Verde, from France: We don’t have political commercials. Absolutely not. It’s totally forbidden. No candidate is buying a [billboard] for a big picture of him; it doesn’t exist. People are not used to lawn signs. It would be really curious to do that.

Vladimira Dostalova, from the Czech Republic: I don’t find it so democratic as everybody likes to say. A lot of voices are being lost somewhere. I really have this feeling that politics here is more for powerful people or rich people, and money definitely plays a role in politics much higher than politics in Europe.

George Katsiotis, ’18, from Greece: It’s a very long process that can be very time-consuming. When you don’t have all the states voting at the same time [in primaries], they’re reacting to each other. Trump gained a lot of momentum, but if all the primaries were at the same time, maybe you’d have a different outcome.

2. We share some common fears.

Dostalova: [Because of immigrants], people became xenophobic, and politicians are reflecting these moods. ... You have society who is afraid of something, and they want an authority figure who will provide a quick and strong decision. They are afraid their conditions are going to be disrupted. We’re all human beings. … This isn’t an American problem.

Jerzewski: I understand that this particular election is very special in the view of many Americans, but speaking from a perspective of a European, this extreme polarization is not particularly unusual. This visceral appeal has characterized elections in Europe for a while.

3. Some candidates worry them more than others, particularly Donald Trump.

Selina (Seoyoung) Jang, from South Korea: The diplomatic relationship [between Korea and the United States] will be worse if Trump does what he says, but I don’t think it would be possible realistically.

Xixi Ni, ’16, from China: He represents the dark side of people in a way. … If Trump is elected, I guess he's just a nationalist and opposes any kind of foreign people coming in.

Groeticke: In Germany, you don’t hear much about America except for Trump and really extreme things. We all hear about Trump and didn’t think it would happen. But now it’s getting scary.

Verde: A lot of the rhetoric of Donald Trump is really dangerous against women, minorities … and it’s also dangerous for Europe.

Jerzewski: If we look at Trump and Sanders, who are outliers of respective political formations, they both structure their campaigns around a very particular enemy. For Trump, it’s immigrants, those who benefit from welfare. For Sanders, it’s Wall Street, the top one percent. This is exactly what populist right-wing parties in Europe have achieved — they appeal to the emotion and fear in people.

4. They see gaps between their impression of American ideals and their experience of life in America.

Luka Klimaviciute, ’16, from Lithuania: To even compete for president, you need to have so much funding. What Obama did [with single donations], I thought was amazing. Usually you have to have so much capital or you have to be rich. How democratic is that?

Jerzewski: The U.S. government does a great job abroad in presenting itself as a more racially cohesive country than it is in reality. It’s one thing to know about history and all these issues in a very academic context, but to come here and see these tensions are still high, the racial component was a bit of a surprise.

Jang: I think the policies in the United States are easily based on white people — for white people, by white people — even though they say we are a melting pot country.

Dostalova: I would love for America to be the country that everyone imagines, but everybody needs to work on it to fulfill this equality that is being proclaimed in these foundational laws and declarations. … The American dream is a nice idea and would be amazing if it worked, but it doesn’t work. People are suffering here because they don’t admit it. But what you think depends a lot on where you’re from.

5. But they also see alignment with our ideals.

Ni: Anybody who is an American citizen has this eligibility to campaign for the presidential election. That’s the essence of democracy — everyone has a chance. Even if your opinions are really biased, people give you a chance to speak. The Chinese government, they don’t give you a chance.

6. They care deeply about our election, even if we don't reciprocate.

Klimaviciute: Foreign policy matters more than domestic when you’re abroad — you pay attention to it. I’m surprised by how little people are involved in what’s going on in the Middle East. People are more interested in tax rate and business.

Dostalova: It would be nice if sometimes the United States looked around and took an example from others. That would require some modesty, but that’s not what [the country] was founded on. I get it.

Jerzewski: I think many U.S. students don’t realize how interested people in other countries are in the campaign. Because of the extremely strong position of the United States in the world, because of the impact of U.S. policies, it’s an issue that is crucial to everyone.

You have 20 minutes

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously offered this philosophical inquiry on the nature of knowledge:

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Got that? In the spirit of Rumsfeld’s answer, we asked a collection of Spider experts to address the next president’s knowns and unknowns with this question: You’ve got 20 minutes with the next president, whoever it is. Based on what you know, what are the most critical issues that he or she (and perhaps also we) should be focused on?

You Can’t Get Anywhere If You Can’t Go Anywhere.

Keith Parker, GB’96, CEO of Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, the nation’s ninth-largest mass transit system

Adequate transportation — decent roads and transit systems combined with good school systems — is everyone’s lifeline to good, healthy food, to health care, and to a path forward from poverty. We need infrastructure that is consistently good throughout the nation. From a mass transit perspective, that means having transportation available for everyone, from the luxury condo owner in midtown Atlanta to middle- and low-income citizens. If we don’t look at this broadly, we’ll continue to create winners and losers.

Right now, we win grants for the safest, most predictable projects. For spectacular success, we need to be willing to fail. In Silicon Valley, one of the badges of honor is the number of failures you had at different types of startups before succeeding. We need that mindset if we’re going to solve these problems. For example, I think there’s a chance that self-driving vehicles might be a valuable and cost-effective service in rural areas.

I’ll be 50 years old this year, and I can’t think of a time in my life when there’s been such an anxious feeling at so many levels in our society. Too many people feel as if they’re working really, really hard and not going anywhere. But I’m very optimistic that we’re around the corner, in a good sense, and that a new entrepreneurial period could lift many, many folks.

[Editor’s note: President Obama recently appointed Parker to the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, so he may have the next president’s ear.]

Press the Reset Button in the War on Terror.

Sheila Carapico, professor of political science and international studies

It’s time to completely rethink the so-called war on terror, says Sheila Carapico, an expert on the Middle East. It’s not working. It may, in fact, be making things worse. It’s put us on a perpetual war footing.

“The war on terror has become a kind of mantra,” she says, “so neither the political establishment nor the media even think about what it means. Only a handful of members of Congress and some thoughtful military strategists join academic specialists in calling for a new perspective.”

As Carapico sees it, we are 15 years into fighting a war against an elusive enemy that keeps fragmenting and morphing into something else. First, there was al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and now ISIS/ISIL and other groups are emerging as threats in the region — and increasingly in Europe. It’s a long game of whack-a-mole against an evolving, splintering enemy.

And depending on how you see it, she says, we’re adding fuel to fire and fire to fuel. American intervention in the region has provided a ready stream of recruiting fodder for radicalizing economically disadvantaged groups and deranged individuals.

Carapico would also connect these issues with climate change. The amount of military resources that we have stationed in the Persian Gulf region — decidedly not carbon-neutral — is another reason she says our strategy requires a big-picture rethink.

Unlock our deadlocked Congress.

Don Forsyth, professor and Col. Leo K. & Gaylee Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership

The center isn’t holding, particularly in Congress, where moderates are in increasingly short supply, says Don Forsyth, an expert on group dynamics. The new president’s success will depend on successfully navigating between the mythical Scylla and Charybdis on Capitol Hill.

“Once groups schism and it turns into us versus them, it’s really difficult to get everybody back on the same page,” he says. “Certain things just don’t work. Don’t hope that by being together in the same place that it will help heal the rift. The research doesn’t really support that. You can’t simply hope that contact will lead to good things happening. Contact is good, but it usually has to be in the right circumstances. There have to be some shared goals that cannot be achieved unless the two sides work together.”

But this tactic is easier said than done, he cautions.

“The negative psychological processes that cause us to exclude other groups — blaming, stereotyping, negatively characterizing behavior — that whole host of negative psychologies are really hard to cure, by the way,” Forsyth says. “You don’t think about them as individuals anymore. It’s hard to resist that.”

Finding an easy win is key.

“It doesn’t even have to be an important thing, but once a group starts to succeed, it will start to unify,” Forsyth says. “The best way to create unity in a group is to have them succeed at something.”

The 2016 election: A Spider's guide
Illustration by Robert Meganck

Let’s have more honest conversations about the economy and race.

Julian Hayter, assistant professor of leadership studies

In the poetry of campaigning, the sky is the limit, but we haven’t been having hard conversations about economic and social realities, says Julian Hayter, a historian.

The workforce has changed drastically. General Electric, once one of America’s biggest tech employers, employed thousands of people in the mid-20th century. Today, our biggest tech industry player, Google, employs a few thousand. Politicians’ nostalgia about American labor flies in the face of unprecedented breakthroughs and changes.

“We’ve got all these ideas about what the past was, and most of these ideas are based on mythologies, not reality,” Hayter says. “Longstanding social issues are getting worse because we’re not being realistic about the economic forces at play.”

The next president must be forthright about this, he says: “These unskilled and low-skilled workers, quite frankly, are not going to find the types of employment that politicians espouse.”

These forces also expose America’s long-standing racial divide, including in our higher education institutions, from which many people were purposefully excluded during the prosperity of the mid-20th century, he says.

“The struggle to make diversity meaningful is an American dilemma, and much of that struggle has to do with recognizing how we can atone for previous mistakes,” he says. “It’s a righteous cause to diversify a student body, but it’s deeply immoral to do nothing to allow that diversification to thrive. It’s a dynamic you see in the current country’s understanding of race issues.”

Preserve public support of research and scholarship.

Jennifer Erkulwater, associate professor of political science

In order to act, we must understand that a given situation is a problem and worth correcting, says Jennifer Erkulwater. But the nature of a problem doesn’t just appear out of a vacuum. It is a strategically constructed story that grows out of intentional inquiry, is communicated in a captivating way, and frames the scope and substance of the challenge we face.

In this election alone, for example, economic inequality has been a big piece of the campaign narrative on both sides, she says. Whether inequality is a problem, how unequal our society is, and whether Wall Street, trade deals, or immigration is to blame — these questions can be answered only by a society that invests in answering them.

“Public support of scholarship and creative activity must be preserved,” Erkulwater says. “Scholarly inquiry helps us see that what we experience isn’t isolated or necessarily natural or a given — that it could be different, and there are ways of changing the situation.”

Some of the funding now at risk, she says, pays for data collection that tracks income dynamics, voting behavior, and other factors that build our fundamental understanding of economic, social, and political life.

“There’s something coarsely antidemocratic to say we’ll fund scholarly activity only if it’s related to national security and economic development,” she says. “If we can’t see and analyze the evidence, how can we have the tough conversations about poverty, economic mobility, or racism?”

When thinking about health care, focus on value.

Rick Mayes, R’91, co-coordinator of the healthcare studies program and professor of political science

The biggest problem with U.S. health care, as Ezra Klein argues, is not that it costs too much; it’s that it delivers too little. Based on what we spend, we should have the healthiest, longest living, least disabled, and most productive citizenry on the planet. We don’t.

I would emphasize two issues. First, the U.S. should redirect much of the $3 trillion now spent each year on health care from treatment to prevention. Treating sick patients is vastly more expensive than helping individuals prevent chronic diseases such as emphysema/COPD, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. I would recommend former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg as secretary of Health and Human Services. From banning smoking in bars and restaurants, outlawing trans fats in restaurants, and tightening gun-control laws, no other elected official has done more recently to expand prevention strategies. Moreover, he is refreshingly nonpartisan.

Second, deteriorating morale among clinicians is epidemic. The leading cause is increased bureaucracy; clinicians spend more time than ever doing paperwork and entering data into electronic health records, which means spending less time with patients. This has to change. Policymakers should also cut interest rates on medical education loans. The average medical student now graduates $181,500 in debt. The nation’s 76.4 million baby boomers age fully into the Medicare program over the next 15 years. We should do all we can to help our nation’s clinicians thrive as much as possible.

The 1992 Town Hall debate

Moderator Carole Simpson introduced the second presidential debate of the 1992 election as “unlike any other presidential debate in history” to a national television audience, and the University of Richmond played host. In the first-ever town hall-style debate, President George H.W. Bush and candidates Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot stood in the Robins Center taking questions from uncommitted voters selected by an independent polling firm. The format drew mixed responses in the immediate aftermath — one citizen questioner told The New York Times afterward, “I heard some typical, canned expressions and few specifics being thrown out. What did I learn? I don’t know.” — but in bringing candidates closer to voters, it fundamentally changed how candidates communicate with voters.

The lonesome loser

the-lonesome-loserFor one of the candidates on election night, spotlights will fade and hopes dim as jubilant early celebrations and toasts wind down. No balloons or confetti will fall. Instead, a concession speech will find its place at a glum ballroom’s podium. For one candidate, the most intense job application process in the free world will come to a sobering end.

How does that feel, exactly? A lighter version is a real and recent experience for Jeremy Adler, ’15. Until March, he was a regional spokesperson for Marco Rubio, whose campaign for the GOP nomination abruptly ended when he failed to carry the primary in his home state, Florida.

“It’s tough to look forward,” Adler said. “You’re working 16-hour days on average, barely seeing or talking to family and friends. You pour your heart, your mind, all your energy into something, and you’re left with an empty feeling, a feeling of deep disappointment. It leaves you wanting more.

“All you can do,” he added, “is hope that you’re just as passionate about the next fight as you were about this one.”

I'm at the end of what will be about a 16-year career in elective office. I'm going to be no longer governor in January, and I just kind of have a feeling I'll never see my name on a bumper sticker again.

Tim Kaine, Virginia's governor from 2006 to 2010, speaking at commencement on May 10, 2009. Kaine, who maintains a part-time continuing faculty appointment at Richmond's law school and Jepson School for Leadership Studies, became the Democratic Party's candidate for vice president in July.

After such a partisan fight, can we ever get back to normal?

No matter the outcome of this year's election, one thing is clear: Some great percentage of voters will feel disillusioned, heartbroken, scared, betrayed, antagonistic. You could say that about any major election, but with this year's party infighting, racial tensions, and feminist wave, 2016 is markedly more contentious.

Pew Research Center reported in June that partisans' views of the opposite party are the most negative they’ve been since 1992. Fifty-five percent of Democrats said the Republican Party makes them feel afraid, and 49 percent of Republicans said the same about Democrats. Come the inauguration in January, how do we move forward?

Civil War expert and president emeritus Edward Ayers naturally looks to the past to consider the future. And he is quick to remind us that things have been much worse.

The 2016 election: A Spider's guide
Illustration by Robert Meganck

"I'm hard to impress with partisan divide when you look at the Civil War and reconstruction," he says.

Ayers has written previously that "an effort at reconstruction … must be implemented not only with determination and might, but also with humility and self-knowledge. He says there is a longing for this level of discourse today.

"Abraham Lincoln is the perfect example," he says. "He was called much worse things than either Trump or Clinton are being called today, and his second inaugural address is the very embodiment of humility and self-knowledge. Lincoln led us through the hardest crisis by far the nation has ever faced, yet he refused to gloat. He shows that there is no contradiction between strength and modesty."

But even Lincoln was a fierce partisan, Ayers reminds us, and the nature of our two-party system makes modesty difficult.

We want to be strong partisans, but we want to be one great people, Ayers says. "There's a great tension there. How do we transcend and get things done? You do it by acknowledging that's how things are and try to use that to accomplish some good. We seem perpetually surprised that parties are disagreeing with each other, but that's what we want."