By Randy Myers
Presidential elections are expected to turn on policy—how the candidates will govern on key issues like taxes and foreign policy. Next year’s presidential election, says Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Samuels, is different—a referendum on which values define us as a country. Put another way, he said, it is a referendum on what it means to be America.
Speaking at the 2023 SVIA Fall Forum, Samuels characterized the U.S. as a country tugging apart at the seams politically, culturally, and socially. By way of illustration, he pointed to a group of women in a swing state he began following four years ago. The group came together in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House in 2016 with the goal of reinventing politics in their local area. Initially, their own politics tilted Democratic.
The group remained fairly cohesive, Samuels said, until the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Suddenly, they began to disagree over questions like “is it okay to send my kid to school” and “are we compromising our own children’s success by allowing refugees and immigrants into our neighborhood?” Later, after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022, the women splintered even more over debates about abortion.
Samuels began following the group as a political reporter for The Washington Post. He approached his job from an unorthodox vantage point that he called “outside in”—one that took him outside the nation’s capital to meet voters where they live: in churches, in caucus meetings, at parent-teacher events, on college campuses. Samuels has continued that work since leaving the Post and becoming a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He also is the coauthor, with former Post colleague Tolouse Olorunnipa, of “His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” (Viking) which won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.
As part of his continuing inquiry into the national political debate, Samuels recently found himself in Charleston, South Carolina, where, he said, “voter after voter” told him the most important issue to them in the coming election was the gender assignment of children. “Nothing was more important than that issue,” Samuels said, “because they felt the idea of defining what we are—who is who—was the thing that made America, America.”
Where thinking like that has landed the country, Samuels said, is a place where politicians are campaigning not so much on policy but rather on the idea that their values are better than their opponents’ values. He pointed to a “bubbling up of resentment” in which “a limited number of people are filled with incredible amounts of rage,” often because they worry about their place in a country led by people who don’t think like them or share the same basic values. Much of that resentment, he said, has been encouraged by former President Donald Trump, whose boldness and braggadocio has led his followers to cling to him and his message.
Samuels also contended that the long-held belief that “all politics is local” is no longer true. That notion was driven home in February 2021 when, as part of his work, he found himself observing hundreds of people outside the state capital in Cheyenne, Wyoming. They had gathered to voice their disenchantment with their Congresswoman, Republican Liz Cheney.
“The Cheney name has been one of the most powerful names in Wyoming, not just because of Liz Cheney’s father, Vice President Dick Cheney, but also because their name adorns schools and baseball fields and farm fields,” Samuels noted. “It’s part of the culture of this place. But when Liz Cheney decided to speak against President Trump and connect him to the insurrection on January 6th, there was a turn in Wyoming, and many people believed she was no longer fit for office.”
Perhaps even more striking than the crowd turning on Cheney, Samuels said, was that they were there in part to listen to a Republican Congressman from Florida, Matt Gaetz, denigrate her, too.
“They were willing to welcome someone who could speak a message they had once heard on television, which to me indicates that the local things Liz Cheney was able to do for her people took a backseat to the larger political narrative they were hearing,” Samuels said.
How these shifting dynamics will play out in the 2024 presidential election remains to be seen, but Samuels predicted that voter turnout will be low, with many Americans simply eager to put the election behind them. Playing into that apathy, he said, is an election that looks to feature two septuagenarians, Trump and President Joe Biden, neither of whom are broadly popular.
Samuels sees this as a time when Americans are trying to determine what the future of their country should be, and how it can reconcile some of the negatives of its past, including systemic racism. On that front, he said, Americans must decide whether to acknowledge the atrocities of the past and the idea that those atrocities have reverberating effects, or whether to “start fresh and define the country in a way that makes everyone feel great about themselves all the time.”
Heading into 2020, Samuels said, there was a genuine belief that America was “moving beyond some of the original sin, the human stain of racism.” When the murder of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman showed that moving past racism would not be immediate, he said, it led people to rethink their ideas and their dedication to the issue.
In closing, Samuels encouraged Americans to help define their country by becoming more, not less, politically engaged, whether individually or as part of a group.
“The solution is more political engagement,” he said, “even when it feels more uncomfortable.”