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Roundtable Aims to Make Sense of a Divisive Election

For a full-length recording of the roundtable, please click here.

“We can’t understate how close this election was, and how divided we are as a nation.”

Professor and Sanford Associate Dean Fritz Mayer’s opening remarks set the tone for an impactful post-election roundtable discussion attended by nearly 100 students and staff. Sponsored by the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service (POLIS) and the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (CDI), The 2016 Election Results: What Do They Mean? aimed to make sense of an election whose results surprised most Americans and underscored our nation’s heightened political animus.

The five expert panelists consisted of CDI fellow Quinton Smith and Professors Kristin Goss, Bruce Jentleson, Bill Adair, and Gunther Peck. “Clinton lost by only a little more than 100,000 votes,: said Goss, in order to illuminate how close this election was. “Many Republicans perceive a mandate. In fact, this remains a 50-50 nation politically.”

Smith spoke next, recounting some of the hundreds of racially and ethnically charged attacks since Election Day. In the past nine days he’d met with many students, faculty, and staff seeking to make sense of the final vote tally. “One of the biggest concerns expressed was: How can so many of those who supported Donald Trump claim not to support the vitriol he’s conveyed?”

Peck shared that “political engagement, including lack of political engagement” is one of the most serious challenges we’re facing. “Hillary Clinton performed better in Durham County than Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, in large part, because of political engagement: registering people to vote, driving them to the polls, and so on.”  A progressive, Peck also drove Trump supporters to the polls and debated politics along the way. “By listening,” he said, “you transform the conversation.”

Adair, founder of PolitiFact, explained that this was the most fact-checked election in history.

“We need to continue holding those in power accountable,” he said, “examining what elected officials are saying and reporting on what’s true and what’s not—the raw material of a democracy.”  Looking ahead, Adair and his team are working on automating fact-checking and other journalistic innovations.

Jentleson acknowledged that “While what we’re going through has many aspects that are unique to our history, there’s also a disturbing and fascinating trend.”  Trump’s “America First” mantra parallels with isolationist thinking of the 1930s, and his election is a part of a continuing political narrative defined by racial and ethnic mistrust: the United Kingdom’s vote to withdraw from the European Union (Brexit), the rise of hyper-nationalism across Europe, and so on.

Professor Sarah Bermeo, a self-described political independent, kicked off the question-and-answer portion. She refuses to believe we’re divided on as many issues as we think we are, but expressed strong concern about the political divide and how Trump’s election is empowering some, like campaign chairman and future White House advisor Steve Bannon. “White supremacy in the White House is not okay,: she said. “A vast majority of people in America can agree on that.”

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