Political reporter Molly Ball talks polarization in 2016 election
Molly Ball, political correspondent for The Atlantic, discussed the 2016 election — with an emphasis on the breakdown of both of the major parties — during the 31st annual Graham Harvey Lecture Monday. Ball was a fellow at the Knight-Wallace House, a sponsor of the event, in the 2009-2010 academic year.
The Knight-Wallace Fellowship is a program at the University of Michigan that brings mid-career journalists to the University for a year to study a topic of their choice.
Ball's lecture, titled “Election 2016: The Great Disruption of American Politics,” explored the ways in which the 2016 election has been unprecedented on both sides of the political sphere, and will continue to influence the nature of national elections long after Nov. 8.
“Every presidential election is a remarkable event; anything that happens every four years is going to be news, but this one feels different,” Ball said. “I thought I knew everything about American politics and then this election came along and showed me how much I didn’t know. I learned so much about America — not all happy things — but it’s a hell of a story.”
Ball began by discussing the more obvious division found in the Republican Party following the nomination of Donald Trump. She cited several ways in which his platform differs from traditional GOP values — for example, though where Republicans have historically been in favor of free trade and small government, Trump has consistently criticized trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and also favors policies that would expand the reach of the federal government. Ball noted that though Trump’s rise has been a blatant example of GOP division, Ball said through her career in political journalism she has witnessed this kind of change within the party, pointing to the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009 and 2010.
“I, too, like my Republican friends, thought this was a battle of ideas and I’m now coming to believe it’s a battle of identity,” Ball said. “On the other hand, the Republican Party was already broken when Trump came along. I like to think of myself as a war correspondent: I’ve been covering the Republican Civil War since 2010.”
According to Ball, though, the GOP isn’t alone: Democrats are also in the midst of an ideological divide. Pointing to the unexpected success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, Ball highlighted several changes the party has experienced this election.
“The way I shorthand it — this isn’t a partisan statemen, all of the Republicans I’ve talked to agreed with this — the Democrats moved to the center and the Republicans went nuts,” Ball said.
That movement toward the center, she added, has been in the issues Democratic campaigns focused on throughout the primaries and into the general election, which differ from what the party has traditionally run on.
“The Democrats stopped talking about divisive cultural and class issues,” Ball said. “They stopped campaigning on taxing the rich and abortions for all, and they started talking about things like education and public safety.”
This shift, she noted, isn’t true of the Republican party. While 80 percent of Republicans call themselves conservatives, according to Ball, only a small margin of Democrats refer to themselves as liberals — including many millennials.
“A lot of these kids don’t see themselves as Democrats,” Ball said. “A lot of the supporters of Bernie Sanders were young people and a lot of them were political Independents. So there’s a potential time bomb for the Democratic Party if these young people decide the party has overlooked them and ignored their voices.”
She noted, however, that unlike the GOP, the shift among Democrats was not significant enough to sway the nominee.
In an interview after the event, Ball said though the youth vote impacted the primaries, it’s hard to tell how much of an impact it will have on the general election.
“Barack Obama’s enthusiasm among young voters was something he was able to carry on into the general election,” Ball said. “Now we have a Democratic candidate (who) did not have enthusiasm with young voters in the primary, and there’s a real question about whether she can carry it into the general election.”
University President Mark Schlissel, who attended the event and gave the opening remarks, told the The Michigan Daily he was happy to have Ball back on campus just eight weeks before the election, adding he frequently reads her work in The Atlantic.
“I think she’s inspiring for our community, but she’s a young person who’s gotten herself in a position where she can write about interesting and important things and has developed a great audience — certainly around the time of the election,” Schlissel said.