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It doesn’t matter who wins

| Wednesday, November 9, 2016

It doesn’t matter who wins this presidential election.

I’ll be following the results from Ireland, where polls won’t close until 11 p.m. at the earliest, so I have to submit this column before I know who wins anyway. But it really doesn’t matter.

In most election cycles, politicians and pundits frame the race for the White House as a duel between two competing visions for the country’s future. As you probably know by now, though, this isn’t most election cycles.

I’ve seen so many people post and heard so many others say that they will be so happy, so relieved when the election is over. There’s a sense that when the polls close and a winner is declared, all the chaos, hate and anger that have come to define the campaign will end. I don’t think it will.

This campaign officially began 595 days ago when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz became the first of 17 Republicans and 23 major party candidates. And in these nearly 20 months of campaigning, we as a country have seen less of a dignified competition between ideas for the future and more of an ugly brawl between self-inflated egos. It’s naive to think that such a prolonged, nasty fight will end calmly and quietly, and equally starry-eyed to think that the problems the campaign has revealed to us will be solved with the election of a new president. So no, it doesn’t really matter who wins.

Okay, it matters a little. Perhaps I’ve been influenced by such a hyperbolic campaign. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump represent two drastically different visions not only of our country’s future, but also of its current state. Regardless of who we elect, though, the biggest story of this election is not who wins, but how he or she responds to the polarization their campaigns have both shown and sown.

The final national NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken before the election found that 64 percent of Americans feel the election has made the country more divided. Only 23 percent said it has made us more united. And 62 percent said the election makes them less proud of the country, compared to 12 percent who said the same before the 2008 election.

Count me among those six in 10 Americans who feel less proud and more divided following the campaign. Over the last year and a half, we have seen politics at its worst. We have seen people vying for the nation’s highest office demonize entire groups of people based on race and religion. We have seen them distort the truth and spout blatant lies over and over again. And somewhere along the way, the media became the scapegoat for the nation’s problems and attacks on “political correctness” became appallingly acceptable ways to abandon civility and kindness toward one another.

The next president will have largely contributed to these problems, but the country will turn to him or her to solve them. At the same time, it also appears likely that the next president will win the election without a mandate, and thus face intense opposition from a huge portion of the country. So, when it comes to easing the polarization this election season has put front and center, it doesn’t really matter who wins.

So, it may seem that 2016 has made a cynic out of this generally optimistic millennial. Well, not quite. The campaign has shown me, and my generation, that we need to start now and never stop working to bring our country together. This is a herculean task, but a vital one.

So how do we do it?

In a recent video produced by the College of Arts and Letters, political science department chair professor David Campbell gives us the foundation of an answer when he briefly explains the link between civic engagement and polarization.

“As people pulled back out of civic life, out of community involvement, it has led to the rise of a form of political or ideological extremism dominating our political system,” Campbell says in the video.

I’ve heard this message before. I took my political science senior seminar with Campbell last year. We spent the semester studying U.S. presidential elections and how candidates, parties and voters interact to elect a new leader. At the end of the semester, though, Campbell left us with a haunting message. He told our class of 19 that polarization is the single biggest challenge facing our democracy today.

“This is not a problem for other people,” he told us. And he was right. It is up to us — as Notre Dame students, young people, citizens — to seek common ground and build upon it, refusing to let polarization define us. It’s up to us to turn outward and involve ourselves in civic life — through our churches, schools and governments, as Campbell suggests — in the pursuit of a more unified country.

So, it doesn’t really matter who’s elected. The next president will not solve this country’s polarization problem. Only we can do that. It’s not a problem for other people. It’s a problem for We the People.

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About Jack Rooney

Jack is a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame, and The Observer's former managing editor. He is currently spending a year living and working for the University in Ireland, and writing columns to keep him busy. For more random thoughts and plenty of news links, follow Jack on Twitter @RooneyReports.

Contact Jack