Robert Clark’s faith in the U.S. political system is at an all-time low.
The 62-year-old construction contractor from Columbia blames Democratic policies for the 2007 housing crash and recession that led him to close his small business after 26 years.
A former Marine and Vietnam War veteran, Clark cannot believe the FBI did not recommend charges against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over her handling of classified documents.
And he was jarred in September when he received a letter saying he made too much money in 2014 and now must repay the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for co-payments it made for his doctors’ visits over the past year, another example, he says, of politicians’ broken promises to care for veterans.
Like many disgruntled voters this year, Clark blames a broken system, led by career politicians who no longer look after constituents’ interests, for the ills of the federal government and the U.S. economy.
“It does need shaking up a little bit,” Clark said of the U.S. political system. And, Clark adds, GOP nominee Donald Trump is the man for the job. “They need to rattle the cages over there.”
It does need shaking up a little bit. They need to rattle the cages over there.
— Robert Clark of Columbia, a Trump supporter
Many more across South Carolina share Clark’s disillusionment with “politics as usual.” S.C. voters gave Trump, an unpredictable political outsider, a 10-point victory in the state’s February Republican primary.
But while some – like Clark – are happy with the offerings in November, others across the Palmetto State have buyer’s remorse, questioning how the country can move forward with either Trump or Clinton.
Experience in politics was almost a disqualifying trait during the primary cycle this year.
A political newcomer beat out a crowded field of governors and congressmen in the GOP primary, and self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders received strong support in the Democratic primary against Clinton, a longtime political fixture.
The success of political outsiders Trump and Sanders indicates “intense dissatisfaction with the parties and the government” over the political gridlock that has stalled policymaking in Washington, D.C., according to Danielle Vinson, a Furman University political scientist.
“Political science research has shown us for years that people tend to be more happy with government when government is solving problems,” Vinson said.
Political science research has shown us for years that people tend to be more happy with government when government is solving problems.
— Danielle Vinson, Furman University political scientist
While political unhappiness played out across the nation this year, South Carolina has a special animosity toward Big Government.
The colony’s earliest residents rebelled against their British overlords and, a century later, South Carolina led a secession of states from the Union, precipitating the Civil War.
A September Winthrop Poll of S.C. residents found low opinions of federal government and politicians.
The poll found 70 percent of S.C. residents think the country is headed in the wrong direction.
And 7.8 responded “politicians/government” when asked what they think is the most important problem facing the United States today. The “economy” ranked highest, with 11.3 percent.
Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said South Carolinians’ lack of faith in federal government transcends party lines. The GOP has blamed the country’s problems on Democratic President Barack Obama, Huffmon said, while Democrats have pointed the finger at a Republican-controlled Congress that will not work with Obama.
“Both sides have been spinning a narrative of the untrustworthiness and ineffectiveness of the national government,” he said.
‘It’s over for the United States’
Plenty of S.C. residents – especially conservatives – have listened.
They say the international deal with Iran, the FBI investigation into Clinton’s email use, the decline in spending on the U.S. military and federal overreach into a host of issues, including gay marriage, have eroded their faith in the system.
They fear government would grow larger and more invasive under a Clinton administration, leading many to roll the dice with Trump, a political neophyte.
“I get a tremendous feeling that if Trump doesn’t win, it’s over for the United States,” said Paul Anderko, head of the GPS Conservatives for Action PAC in York County. “I don’t know what to do or where to go. It’s going to be liberal judges, more of the same, more debt, and it’s just going to be a financial nightmare.”
I get a tremendous feeling that if Trump doesn’t win, it’s over for the United States.... It’s going to be liberal judges, more of the same, more debt, and it’s just going to be a financial nightmare.
— Paul Anderko of York County, a Trump supporter
Some say outsiders are needed to right Washington’s wrongs.
“There’s a lot of old horses that need to be put out to pasture because of their special interests,” said Clark, the former Marine.
But not everyone thinks the current system is beyond saving.
Many S.C. Democrats support Obama and would welcome a Clinton presidency as an opportunity to improve on his legacy.
“I would take the status quo over blowing the whole thing up any day of the week,” said Scott Thorpe, 31, chair of Young Democrats of the Central Midlands. “There are things that need to be improved, lots of things that need to be improved, and there always will be.”
I would take the status quo over blowing the whole thing up any day of the week. There are things that need to be improved, lots of things that need to be improved, and there always will be.
— Scott Thorpe, a Clinton supporter
But, Thorpe noted, the United States has survived the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, the Watergate scandal and other problems. It also could survive a Trump presidency, the Clinton supporter said.
“He scares me greatly, but I also have a lot of confidence in our country and a lot of confidence in our system,” he said. “Even if we elect someone who is horribly unqualified to be president, that one individual can’t take down our entire country.”
‘We deserve better than just these two’
But this election cycle – with its vitriol and, well, its candidates – has taken its toll on some voters’ faith in the process.
Alfredo Sanchez, a 19-year-old Lexington resident, was looking forward to voting for the first time this fall.
However, since the primaries, that excitement has cooled. The Midlands Tech criminal justice major sees Clinton as shady and Trump as unqualified.
“We deserve better than just these two,” Sanchez said. “I don’t really trust or like any of them fully.”
We deserve better than just these two. I don’t really trust or like any of them fully.
— Alfredo Sanchez of Lexington
Jill Bossi, a Tega Cay executive who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014 as an American Party candidate, says the election and Trump’s candidacy, in particular, have exposed the flaws of America’s two-party system.
“We need a different approach,” she said. “We need a multiparty system approach. The two-party system is almost irrevocably broken. There’s no system because it has gone too far.”
Ashley McKenzie, a 29-year-old insurance agent from Cayce, said she is turned off by Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and Clinton’s status as a career politician.
“I don’t know if I would say either one of them is the best one for the job for a lot of different reasons,” she said. “I’m a little nervous about November. I don’t know which direction the country is going.”
Little faith in politics, government
According to a September Winthrop Poll, South Carolinians have major concerns about the U.S. political system and the two major-party candidates for president in November
Think the U.S. is headed in wrong direction
Believe “politicians/government” is the most important problem facing the U.S.
Say they generally have an unfavorable view of Hillary Clinton
Say they generally have an unfavorable view of Donald Trump
Replied “No” when asked if the term “honest” describes Clinton
Replied “No” when asked if the term “honest” describes Trump
Replied “No” when asked if the term “capable” describes Clinton
Replied “No” when asked if the term “capable” describes Trump