The romanticised view of US presidential elections is that they present quadrennial opportunities for national renewal; that they are expressions of hope and optimism that reflect this country’s founding belief in its inexorable advancement and improvement.
Peered at through rose-coloured spectacles, they become the democratic flowering of American exceptionalism.
Some post-war examples might include John F Kennedy’s victory in 1960, which was interpreted as bringing the somnolence of the Eisenhower years to an end and unbridling the frenetic energy of the Sixties.
At the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan is credited with bringing closure to America’s long national nightmare of Vietnam and Watergate.
In 2008, Barack Obama seemed to personify how America could renew itself after the destruction of the Twin Towers and the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
On closer examination, however, those elections don’t just look like expressions of hope but also outpourings of fear.
Jack Kennedy exploited Cold War anxieties that America was falling behind the Soviet Union, even inventing a “missile gap” that gave Moscow the supposed nuclear edge.
Ronald Reagan kicked off his election campaign by championing “states’ rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi – the site of the “Mississippi Burning” murders in the 1960s – using language that articulated southern white fears about the encroachment of the federal government and advancement of African-Americans in a setting loaded with shadowy symbolism.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Barack Obama profited from anxieties that the American economy was in meltdown.
Deep pool of resentment
All three benefited from what the political theorist Richard Hofstadter memorably described in the mid-1960s as “the paranoid style in American politics”.
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” wrote Hofstadter, a line penned in 1964 that resonates just as strongly today. Now, as then, American elections commonly witness the triumph of fear over hope.
As we enter election year, there is a deep pool of nervousness and resentment from which to draw.
On the economic front, there is the shrinkage of the American middle class. New figures from Pew Research suggest that for the first time in more than four decades, the middle class is no longer in the majority.