Sept. 14, 2016 – Journalists who cover religion and politics for PBS, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal and other media gathered last night at Georgetown to talk about how anger, trust and faith factor into the 2016 presidential election.
“It’s been an odd year, and a surprising year and some would say a scary campaign,” said John Carr, director of the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, which co-sponsored the event with the McCourt School of Public Policy’s Institute of Politics and Public Service (GU Politics). “We’ve gathered to take a look at not just who’s going to win, how it’s going, but what are the forces of work in this campaign, particularly, what is the impact of people’s anger, people’s mistrust and people’s faith.”
The panel, which Carr moderated, comprised PBS NewsHour commentator and syndicated columnist Mark Shields; Melinda Henneberger, a visiting fellow at The Catholic University of America and who writes regularly for the Washington Post; Emma Green (C’12), an Atlantic magazine senior associate editor who covers millennials, religion and American politics; and Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor and chief commentator for the Wall Street Journal.
Fed Up Electorate
“It’s an angry electorate,” Seib observed. “Most elections turn out to be about the economy in the end and that’s where I think the explanation starts."
As the economic statistics have actually gotten better, the feeling that people have that things aren’t getting better for them personally has increased as well.”
He added that he believes people are also angry at financial institutions and the government for not producing helpful results and are fed up with partisan gridlock in Washington.
Henneberger, who blamed social media some of the anger in today’s politics, said, “it turns out that venting constantly instead of being cathartic just leads to more venting.”
She also said there is “no fundraising without outrage.”
Green said groups that espouse hate and bigotry on social media have been “amplified” by journalists and that such messages are widely shared by young people who use Twitter and Facebook to get news about the election.
The panel moved on to the question of trust, a major issue in the current election.
“I think we have two candidates who have the worst honest and trustworthy ratings in the history of polling,” Carr said, asking the panel why voters so distrustful.
Seib said a recent poll showed that 61 percent of the electorate has a negative view of Donald Trump and 53 percent have negative feelings about Hillary Clinton.
He compared those figures to the 2000 presidential election, in which George W. Bush had a negativity rating of 30 percent and Al Gore had a 37 percent rating.
“This is a leap upward in negativity that’s an order of magnitude that’s just astonishing,” the journalist said.
Erosion of Trust
Shields criticized both candidates in terms of their trustworthiness.
“There is no reason in the world that there should be any trust to a man who ran for the nomination and defined himself and separated himself from the other Republicans on one thing – that he would round up … and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country with a deportation force,” he said.
The fact that Trump once lambasted former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s self-deportation plan and then went on to propose a much stricter immigration policy is “beyond hypocrisy,” Shields said.
“I don’t understand Hillary Clinton,” he added.
While Shields believes Clinton “showed great skill” as a United States senator, he said her “compulsive secrecy” throughout the years had understandably caused the public to mistrust her.
“It’s never the act itself that proves your undoing, it is always the cover-up,” he said.
Faith and Politics
In addressing faith in the campaign, Shields said he also found it hypocritical that evangelical voters critical of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky are now supporting Donald Trump, who boasted that his “personal Vietnam” was avoiding STDs in New York City in the 1970s.
But he said recently, the only time he's seen Hillary Clinton express any religious conviction is when she’s with African Americans.
The panelists expressed optimism, however, about the influence of Pope Francis, who this time last year was about to make his first visit to the United States.
“Pope Francis - a year ago we had high hopes, a lot of talk about the common good and the poor. What’s a Pope Francis Catholic to do?” Carr asked the panel.
“Persevere,” Seib said, “… and don’t count on the government right now to enact the agenda you want, the change you want, the spirit you want. … Don’t give up and find other channels.”
Henneberger reminded the audience that the Catholic Church operates on the “long view,” not “what happened in the last six seconds. I don’t think that we should judge the impact of Francis based on the last cycle.”
Green jokingly called Francis the “great topple-er of giant political egos” noting that the pope met with then-Speaker of the House John Boehner shortly before the politician resigned and that the pontiff has had subtle but choice words for Donald Trump about immigration.
“It’s impossible to think about Pope Francis without feeling better,” Shields said, to murmurs of agreement in the audience. “Despair is the deadliest of all sins, which he reminds us of in the way he lives and is … his example should be ours.”