The rise of America's nationalized political culture
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The rise of America's nationalized political culture

The 1996 and 2020 elections are the bookends of MSNBC’s first quarter-century. And they couldn’t possibly have played out more differently.
Illustration of photos of former Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump
The story of the last generation is of Americans deciding which side they’re on — or, more to the point, which side they’re against.MSNBC; Getty Images

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The first-ever MSNBC poll was released minutes into the channel’s July 1996 launch. It put President Bill Clinton 24 points ahead of Bob Dole, his Republican challenger. But this was barely news. Pretty much every poll that spring, summer and fall had Dole running hopelessly behind.

Fast forward a generation. It’s 2020, and President Donald Trump is facing the voters four years after his surprise victory.

And really, there was nothing Dole could do about it. The economy was growing, the country was at peace and the Clinton White House and Republican Congress stood as effective checks on one another. A mix of contentment and apathy defined the electorate. Election Night was brief and tidy. Clinton was declared the winner early and rolled up 379 electoral votes. Barely 95 million people voted — a drop of almost 10 million from the last election in 1992.

Now fast forward a generation. It’s 2020, and President Donald Trump is facing the voters four years after his surprise victory. He’s already been impeached, surviving only because of a Senate acquittal. A pandemic is raging. Widespread street protests define the summer months. There is violence, too. The entire culture is consumed by politics. Election Night turns into Election Week, until finally Joe Biden emerges the victor. Turnout ends up approaching 160 million; But a margin of less than 45,000 votes across three states ends up being the difference between Biden’s election and a second Trump term.

The 1996 and 2020 elections are the bookends of MSNBC’s first quarter-century. That they couldn’t possibly have played out more differently speaks to how dramatically our country has been transformed in that time. What brought about this transformation? It’s a loaded question and there are many explanations, but here’s a thought: The combination of cable news and social media has hastened the rise of a nationalized political culture.

It’s not a unified culture, of course; it’s one defined by the clash of red and blue. The story of the last generation is of Americans deciding which of those sides they’re on — or, more to the point, which one they’re against. It doesn’t seem coincidental that, just as voter participation has risen, split ticket voting has continued its steady decline. More than ever, Americans take their cues from the national level and work their way down from there.