WSU professor Cornell Clayton says the country's division are nothing new

Humanities Washington
WSU professor Cornell Clayton

Casual observers and hardened political pros alike came away from the 2016 presidential campaign thinking it was the most nasty showdown in American history, thanks to the talk of "Lock her up!" tiny hands and JFK assassination conspiracies.

In reality, the harsh tone and incredible accusations thrown around by candidates are part of the country's long, maybe not-so-proud history, according to Washington State University political science professor Cornell Clayton. He explores the good, the bad and the ugly of American politics as part of the Humanities Washington speakers bureau, and will be in Spokane on Wednesday to lecture on "American Rage: Division and Anger in U.S. Politics."

Clayton notes the harsh 1800 campaign of former friends Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, in which Jefferson's dalliances with slave women were used against him, as an early example of divisive campaigns. FDR was called a communist and socialist by his opponents, and in the 1960s, true believers on the left and the right accused opponents of all manner of civil subterfuge. The 2016 campaign might have been nastier than other elections in recent memory, but it was far from unique.

"Americans lack a sense of history," Clayton says. "We live in the present."

That's not to say that the current environment isn't unique, Clayton adds. As with past eras of deep divisions, we're living in a time of social and economic upheaval. "What I think is a bit distinctive about today's political period," he says, "is not only are we polarized and deeply divided over issues, but we have remained so over a long period of time. If you go back to 1968, we've had a long period of elections that were extremely contested."

Close elections and divided government, both common for the past 40 or so years, leads to the inability of government to function, dismaying Americans on both sides of the aisle, says Clayton.

"The government can't address important social, economic and political issues," he says. "That gridlock is so frustrating for Americans that they're willing to reach for a strongman, populist demagogue like a Donald Trump."

What happens next should make for some fascinating future lectures. ♦

Cornell Clayton presents "American Rage: Division and Anger in U.S. Politics" • Thu, Feb. 9 at 7 pm • Free • North Central High School Theatre • 1600 N. Howard • humanities.org

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About The Author

Dan Nailen

Dan Nailen is the managing editor of the Inlander, where he oversees coverage of arts and culture. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine, The Oregonian and KUER-FM. He grew up seeing the country in an Air Force family and studied...