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It Can Happen Here

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One of the cardinal principles of the social sciences is not to trust impressionistic or subjective experience. But academic training does not necessarily uncover how to read the handwriting on the wall.  And it was recognizing the message that was clearly on the wall, or more accurately on the lawns and on the buildings that informed a disturbing trend recently observed along well over one hundred miles of roadway in Upstate New York.

Not expecting to see much of anything driving along the very rural country roads and farmland in the middle of the Upstate region of New York, I was shocked back into reality of just how ugly the political landscape has become during this presidential campaign.

Readers need to keep in mind that New York is the state that Hillary Clinton represented in the U.S. Senate from 2001 through early 2009. New York is an electoral college-rich state with 29 votes that is equal to Florida’s share, but far short of California’s 55 votes. A new New York Times/CBS poll found that 46 percent of those polled favor Mrs. Clinton and 44 percent expressing support for Mr. Trump (“Clinton and Trump Locked in Tight Race New Poll Shows,” New York Times, September 15, 2016).

The first few Trump lawn signs and building signs seemed ordinary, but as the miles rolled past, the signs and their repetitiveness was beyond comprehension, while not a single Clinton campaign sign was in sight. In fact, as Trump signs grew into the dozens, the lack of a Clinton sign was even more unusual.

What could possibly be moving people who live in this very rural region to display signs of a major presidential candidate who represents intolerance to the extreme? Without the statistics to back up some educated guesses, these are probable causes for the signs.

Upstate New York is traditionally a bastion of conservative politics and voting behavior. But Trump is not a conservative candidate. His campaign represents outrageous points of view that often spill over with his supporters not reticent to lash out violently at those who protest Trump’s extremism. His foreign policy pronouncements are nothing more than the mercurial threats of a schoolyard bully. His global warming denial needs to be frightening in the extreme to many of the farm families that live on the land where his signs are planted. His plan to reward the rich with even more tax cuts must be somewhat recognizable to the folks that live in this region, as the outward appearance of the conditions of their lives is a direct result of the tax redistribution that has been going on since the administration of the Republican icon Ronald Reagan.

But the reality of what Hillary Clinton represents is not too much different from the policy pronouncements of the Trump campaign. National treasure has been lavished on endless wars with the social safety net being frayed almost beyond repair and recognition. Jobs have been shipped overseas and will never come back and the government is in no way in a mood to begin a New Deal or a Great Society kind of program for social and economic uplift. And the effects of the great party that the very rich have enjoyed since Reagan closely resembles the enormous wealth that public service has afforded the Clintons. Readers might conclude that many of the citizens of these rural towns have not been the beneficiaries of the opportunity for higher education that is sometimes a predictor of more liberal thought and voting tendencies, and even if some are afforded the opportunity for post-secondary education opportunities (New York has one of the best systems of higher education in the nation), crushing debt could accompany that higher learning.

Upstate New York has been left behind by the seismic economic shifts of the last several decades. A tax incentive to businesses to locate in New York state, that is a hallmark of the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo, has created an alarmingly low level of jobs and it is not unusual to see signs accompany the Trump lawn sign that call for a reversal of Andrew Cuomo’s gun control act—the Safe Act—that was made law following the massacre of children and school staff in Newtown, Connecticut.

The conclusions, besides the lawn signs that pass by with  regularity, are not difficult to read. The rightward move of politics in the U.S. that has been increasing in momentum for decades could result in a political shift reminiscent of the far right political systems of some European nations just prior to World War II. It can’t happen here is a complete fiction: it can happen anywhere and especially when the political, economic, and social system ignores the needs of the people. And in the present, third party choices for political office are not center stage yet.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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