U.S. presidential elections are extraordinary moments—ruptures in everyday time, full of transformative promise. Maybe. More than two decades ago, in her seminal essay on time, Nancy D. Munn wrote: “the topic of time frequently fragments into all the other dimensions and topics anthropologists deal with in the social world.” So, in the cacophonous 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, how do we perceive time and why might that matter?
Elections, embedded in cyclical time, are sometimes interpreted as pivotal events that shape longer histories. Such histories can be narrated as slow change, fast change, or stasis; crisis or normalcy; repetitive or linear process; progress or regress. Anthropologists are attuned as well to smaller-scale temporalities. They listen for different personal experiences of time and observe social configurations in which they nest.
Media depictions of the election shape our sense of time. Television news graphics for weeks display the countdown to election day: 25 days…12 days, 11 days, 10 days…! But days are slow markers of election time in an age when tweets can drive news cycles. If we expand the time frame a bit, we have reason to wonder if the U.S. election actually will be over on November 8. Will the outcome be contested? Will one contender fracture democratic tradition by refusing to concede to the winner? Widening the time frame again, what imaginings of America’s past or what politics of memory are evoked in one candidate’s slogan “Make America Great Again”?
Psychologists report that people are experiencing much more anxiety than usual this election season—another critical time signal. “For women,” the New York Times tells us, “particularly those who have been victims of sexual assault, the election has triggered painful memories.” Parents and school officials report a surge in bullying and racialized aggression among children. Their behavior mirrors the rhetoric and actions of a presidential candidate and some of his supporters. While ahistorical frames are common in election commentary, this year’s upsurge in nativism—open displays of anti-immigrant sentiment and scapegoating—echoes nativist outbursts in periods such as the 1850s and 1920s. Today’s iteration of nativism in this nation of immigrants also has counterparts in France, Germany, Britain, and elsewhere. Though the vitriol of this year’s campaign and the 2016 Republican presidential nominee’s popularity, temperament, and rhetoric have historical precedents that extend back much longer than a century, it is the immediate present that fixates public attention.
And yet election time, for many, may also be what Sian Lazar in a different context terms “attritional time”—a period of “constant protest or negotiation, the continuance of the day to day of political life when there is no resolution in sight to a particular conflict or problem, coupled occasionally with a dramatization of what can become quite banal over time.” Disenchantment with formal political parties and institutions or with representative democracy, scholars such as Charles Tilley and Sidney Tarrow argue, contributes to a recent upswing in political activism expressed through protest or social movements. On a scale not seen in decades, participants mobilize for living wages, racial justice, environmental protections, corporate accountability, and immigrants’ rights in struggles that will continue no matter who wins the 2016 election. So too the struggles of those who do not protest in the streets but who strive daily to survive in low-wage jobs or who can find no job at all or who live one health emergency away from bankruptcy. In the late-1960s a minimum wage job “could lift a family of three out of poverty,” but today that same family earns about $15,000 a year, which is $4,000 below the poverty line. These circumstances are not inevitable; they are historically contingent outcomes of political and policy choices.
A final temporal query: why is the U.S. presidential campaign period so much longer than that of many other electoral democracies? And why is the campaign longer today than it was a few decades ago in this country—as in 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower only began his run in the spring of that year, and Labor Day was considered the beginning of serious campaigning. Part of the answer lies in changes in the nomination process and state primary system. While longer campaigns allow time for the public to become acquainted with lesser-known candidates, extended campaigns also require contenders to raise more money, and they generate more advertising revenue for news media.
An Internet meme shared by candidates of both major political parties this year is “This Is Fine” dog—“a web comic by K.C. Green, of a dog sitting in a room engulfed in flames, but he says, ‘This is fine.’” Many American voters, Brad Kim observes in the New York Times interview just quoted, feel that in this election “the world is ending.” That experience of time matters for voter turnout, as well for the civility of post-election life. A closing irony: an intense public desire for the 2016 election process to be over slows down our perception of time’s passage.