Why Hope Is A Loser In This Election

American voters usually award the White House to an optimistic candidate. Not in 2016.

WASHINGTON -- "Voters pick the guy with the sun in his face." That's how American pundit and talk show host Chris Matthews puts it.

It's a truism of politics in a democracy that inclusive optimism usually wins. But it's especially on point in the United States, a country that defines itself as the home of fresh starts and reinvention.

President Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984 by declaring that it was "Morning in America again." George H.W. Bush won four years later by vowing to create a "kinder, gentler" country. Bill Clinton defeated him in 1992 by saying, "I still believe in a place called Hope" -- which, conveniently, was the name of his childhood home in Arkansas.

And after the dark, divided years of George W. Bush's presidency, an obscure senator from Illinois won the presidency in 2008 with a campaign summarized by a now-iconic poster that had just one word: HOPE.

Well, that was then. It doesn't feel that way now. There is no sun now, and I don't know if and when it will reappear.

So far in the 2016 presidential campaign cycle, the mood in both major political parties and among the electorate as a whole is one of anger, division, wariness and resentment.

It is an article of faith -- literally, our secular American faith -- that our best days always lie ahead. It's what we have wanted our leaders to tell us and what we want to believe.

Yet Donald Trump -- himself a symbol of upward mobility and business success -- continues to lead the Republican field with a starkly apocalyptic message. "The American dream is dead," he declares at his rallies.

Trump, in fact, is the sum of all fears, summoning to his side every dark corner of American society: racial, ethnic and religious stereotypes at home; the specter of "evil" foreigners in China, Mexico and elsewhere aboard; the delusion that U.S. government leaders, starting with President Barack Obama, are secret agents with an agenda to destroy America.

Far from attacking him for these views and tactics, most of the other Republican candidates, most of the time, have tried to outdo him with the grim nature of their own message. After all, Trump is the clear leader in the latest CNN poll. GOP campaign consultants are even writing memos telling lower-level candidates how to mimic Trump. (If he doesn't get the Republican nomination, expect Trump to run as an independent candidate, despite his vague promise not to do so.)

Republican Jewish activists cheered Trump in Washington this week when he implied that Obama was a Muslim agent. Then they sat in stunned, uncomfortable silence as he caricatured them to their faces as a roomful of crafty, money-obsessed, rich Jews. (So what did they expect? That they could laugh along with him and he would exempt them from his inflammatory profiling?)

The Democratic Party's side of the conversation is hardly more upbeat. Front-runner Hillary Clinton isn't campaigning as the cheerful inheritor of Obama's successes, such as they are. Pressured from the left, she is fashioning herself as a tribune for the resentments of struggling middle-class voters. Meanwhile, her progressive foes denounce her as a lifelong tool of Wall Street and other elites.

As for U.S. voters, they think, by a 2-1 margin, that the country is on the "wrong track." Only 13 percent believe their children will be better off financially than they are.

Why has the sun disappeared from American presidential politics? Here's a summary of the reasons:

TERRORISM. Fear is rising in the land, and Obama's credibility as a voice of reassurance is at risk. He told Americans that the self-described Islamic State was contained in Syria and Iraq and that the U.S. homeland was safe. But then terrorists killed 130 people in Paris, and ISIS sympathizers killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California.

The president also vowed not to get involved in another land war in the Middle East, yet he is sending special operations troops to help combat the Islamic State.

Republicans are more than willing to play to the growing fear. Democrats, led by Clinton, are caught between an anti-war wing that gave rise to Obama in the first place, and calls for more military and security-state reaction to ISIS.

ECONOMICS. This is the most obvious and familiar reason, though it has recently been overlooked as concerns about national security rise. As campaign guru James Carville once said, "It's the economy, stupid."

The real income of middle-class households in the U.S. has been stagnant for nearly 20 years, even as the richest have grown richer and the poor, as numerous as ever, rely on government programs. It's a recipe for resentment, which too often leads to racial backlash -- even though black and brown middle-class Americans have actually been hit harder than their white counterparts.

Black Lives Matter protesters shout in Seattle on Nov. 27.
Black Lives Matter protesters shout in Seattle on Nov. 27.

RACE. Electing Barack Obama to the White House didn't end the story of race in America. Instead, it opened a new chapter of anger and frustration.

Among African-Americans, that anger and frustration works on at least two levels. At elite universities and other institutions, black Americans are demanding change in a way they never had the power or opportunity to do before. On the streets, the fact that violence and police misconduct are still disproportionately aimed at black Americans has led to a vigorous new activism, called the Black Lives Matter movement.

Their reformist zeal and rhetoric, in turn, has stoked fear and resentment across white America, especially among those who have been long and loudly suspicious of the nation's first black president.

The two political parties are perhaps more demographically divergent than ever before -- a dangerous situation that often adds the flammable fuel of race to everyday arguments. A Trump rally, or almost any GOP presidential rally for that matter, is a nearly all-white affair, and the families there tend to be led by married (or remarried), church-going parents. The Democratic gatherings are starkly different: racially and ethnically more diverse, with fewer married and fewer parents.

MEDIA. Social media creates networks, but divides nations. Liked-minded voters find each other and live their political lives immersed in the partisan reality that "their" news outlets and social media circles create.

That division amplifies fear of the Other, of the mysterious Them whom a certain brand of American politician always has run against. Trump is only the latest, though one of the most potent, examples. His social media weapon of choice is Twitter -- a perfect place, it turns out, for his brand of campaigning by fear and accusation.

GRIDLOCK. Washington as a whole and Congress in particular are so gripped by partisan division that they can barely function. But rather than look for ways of fixing it, the two parties look for ways to exploit it -- and thus make the situation worse. American voters cheer for their own narrow causes, even while their anger and contempt rises for leaders and national institutions.

GUNS. America is awash in guns and gun violence. And yet as the blood flows, the political system seems incapable of imposing even the simplest limits on, say, semi-automatic "assault" rifles or full-bore background checks. Meanwhile, as Americans see more videos of gun violence, their response is to ... buy more guns. The ever-growing gun culture suffuses politics with an air of literal menace.

IMMIGRATION. Trump began his 2016 campaign by promising to be the man who built a wall to keep out Mexicans. But now he and most other Republican candidates conflate that cynical pandering to fear with an even starker and more sweeping call to brand, track and exclude Syrian war refugees and even Muslim Americans.

This kind of hysteria is not entirely new to U.S. politics. In the first half of the 19th century, Protestants rioted against what they saw as a culture-killing invasion of Catholics. Later in that century, especially in the South, white people used lynching and other gruesome tactics to intimidate black people after the Civil War freed them from official slavery. Jewish immigrants were persecuted, and even lynched, early in 20th century America.

Protesters face off with armed National Guardsmen during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968.
Protesters face off with armed National Guardsmen during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968.

HISTORY RHYMES. The late 1960s was the last time that U.S. politics were this divided and driven by the language of violence and fear. The 1968 election was a bitter affair that capped a decade of war, tumultuous social and cultural change, assassinations and riots. 

It was a three-way presidential race featuring a stern Republican who was a master of xenophobic politics (Richard Nixon); a weak Democrat backed by labor unions but not progressive youth (Hubert Humphrey); and a third-party racist renegade (George Wallace), running in the name of the little guy. Nixon won a grim victory based on a promise to "bring us together" through "law and order."

As the saying goes, history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Something about that gloomy campaign sounds familiar.