Golis: Remember when elections weren’t exercises in fear?

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Americans are about to vote in an election in which fear and anger have become the principal forms of motivation.

And we are left to wonder: Is this what the future holds? Are tribalism and rage, bigotry and violence meant to become fixtures of the American political scene?

Understanding how we got to this place inevitably brings us to the provocations of social media and of cable news — and of the current president. Not a day passes that President Donald Trump doesn’t toss out some shiny object designed to distract or divide. While Trump loyalists like it when he leaves his critics sputtering and depressed, there’s no use pretending that he means to be a calming and unifying voice in a turbulent time.

Unfortunately, we have seen in recent days how this bitter back and forth between partisan factions can encourage extremist views and incite those people prone to violence.

It should be said that the deterioration of common purpose and of American ideals did not begin with Donald Trump. Indeed, the failures of leadership that came before him paved the way for a presidency that taps into popular resentments. Trump did not invent these things. He is only better than anyone else at turning up the volume.

In recent years, the divisions in our country have given license to politicians more determined to extend their careers than to solve the country’s problems. Fifty years ago, it would have been considered scandalous for a Republican Senate leader to say he would do everything in his power to ensure that an incoming Democratic president would fail. Now it’s business as usual.

Did Democrats and Republicans come together to reform an immigration system that was broken? Did they reach out to help people in regions left behind by technology and globalization? Did they agree that the well-being of the country was more important than partisan and special interest advantage? Did they show courage at any time?

The answer — four times — is: No, they did not. Instead politicians served up red meat to their fan bases, encouraging people to forget what they were taught in civics class about the essential nature of cooperation and compromise in a pluralistic society.

Recall that Trump did not just defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. He also defeated a host of Republican candidates, most of them political insiders. In some ways, his election was the inevitable result of years of political paralysis.

And so we come to an election in which winning is all that counts — another election in which we are no closer to recognizing that a big and diverse country is in trouble if people don’t understand the need to work out their differences.

When it comes to restoring faith in democracy, it doesn’t help that national policy is being dictated by people who represent less than a majority of Americans. Gerrymanders make it possible for one party to control the House of Representatives even though the other party gets more votes.

Meanwhile, voters in Wyoming (population 580,000) have more influence in Washington than voters in California (population 39.8 million). If California is trying to pursue a different agenda — and it is — no one should be surprised.

In most cases, turnout will determine the outcome on Tuesday, which is why we witness subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to make it more difficult for people of color to vote. If every person eligible to vote cast a ballot, the country would be changed overnight.

Closer to home, some of the energy (and fun) associated with elections has disappeared. California and the Bay Area counties are now overwhelming Democratic, and competition isn’t likely to return so long as what’s left of the Republican Party embraces views removed from the mainstream of political thought.

As usual, voters are left to make sense of a confusing array of statewide ballot measures, some of which don’t belong on the ballot. An initiative process intended to blunt the influence of special interests has been subverted into a favorite tool of special interests.

Proposition 6, the initiative to repeal a recent gasoline tax increase, found its way to the ballot because sponsors wanted to use it as a means to attack Democrats. (Sonoma County voters will need to decide which they dislike more — a gas tax increase or the bottleneck on Highway 101 at Petaluma and the deteriorating condition of streets and highways everywhere.)

Searching for competitive races, we are left to local elections and ballot measures. These decisions come at a crucial time for Sonoma County, which finds itself coping with both the aftermath of catastrophic fires and the growing number of folks who can’t keep pace with the costs of living here.

Voters will be deciding local finance measures that will test their optimism about the future. Yes, the ways that California finances local government need fixing, but for now, the choice is between paying a little more or watching government services decline.

It’s up to you now. If you don’t vote, you give up your right to complain about whatever outcomes you don’t like.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at

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