The summer of 2016 has become the overheated hot season when political machines have been overtaken by social media machinations that deliver a dissonant, discordant, disruptive flow of cacophonous information. There's not a gatekeeper in sight.
For 12 years, through three presidential election cycles, I've vacationed with my extended family for two weeks on the beach in North Carolina followed by a week on the Massachusetts shore. The landscapes of the coast in the north and south offer striking contrasts in flora and fauna, fish and fowl, and above all, the rousing differences in human nature.
These starkly different places expose political divisions that animate debate and discussion, marked by the generational changes, the usual contentious differences of conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, libertarians and environmentalists, all with strong disagreements over what's best for the beloved country.
But this summer the media instruments for interpreting the news of the candidates have spawned hyper-angry political conversations that render past summers in sepia, like dimly bleached photographs of the good ol' days that maybe never were, gone now on the wind.
When Sen. John McCain ran against then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, there was pride taken in both candidates, despite their sharp differences. McCain was a hero of the Vietnam War. Obama was a black man showing how far America had come in changing racial attitudes. These were men of character and dignity standing for election to America's highest office. And as friends and family gathered to speak their minds about sharp differences of policy and partisanship, no one thought to impugn the character of either man.
Four years on, we still saw a respectful contest marked by tough, but reasonable rhetoric. In the summer of 2012, there were controversies over Obamacare and government overreach with different ideas about how to fix a wobbly economy. Voices were raised in discussion of the future of medical care, enlivened by irritation over Republican nominee Mitt Romney's remark seeming to denigrate the 47 percent of the voters who depended on government handouts. Romney, like many other candidates before him, was tarred by a remark that was taken out of context, became a sound bite and was magnified into a mantra.
Still, no one questioned the decency of either candidate.
This year a carefully articulated argument over anything is rare that doesn't focus on the character of two candidates whose virtues are, at best, beneath conventional standards (not a high bar), and whose vices have created the two most unpopular candidates since modern records were kept.
There's more than a little irony for conservatives at the table, that after two terms of a liberal president and a slow-growing economy, the contest is not a referendum on policy, but on personality. The debate is alarmingly simple: Does the vulgar and unpredictable clown-in-chief trump the corrupt queen-in-waiting, whose touted "experience" is mostly an inventory of costly errors of judgment that would disqualify her in almost any other time?
It's whittled down to a choice between disgust and distrust, disarray and dismay.
The indigestible table talk within families supping together on a balmy summer's eve bristles into wild accusations and exaggerations that were once the work of offstage mudslingers. Social media exacerbate the problem, the inundation of messages that rush factoids and unchecked accusations across the internet and pop up on smartphones reinforcing raw prejudice of pleasure-seekers, whether they're lying on a beach blanket watching the waves or smacking their lips over a chocolate sundae at the ice cream parlor.
Trolling that once was the work of disaffected internet users has gone mainstream, as "information" is pumped into the bloodstream of the body politic with no editor in charge. Rants and raves quickly proliferate.
Donald Trump is right that the organs of the media don't want him to win. Well, duh. The big media invariably tilt toward the liberal candidate in any race. But Trump's devotion to personal attacks is more fun to read about than Hillary Clinton's regurgitated and reiterated catalogue of details of her greedy arrogance, her sloppy attention to security details as secretary of state, or her convenient intermingling of political and charitable connections.
The voters are caught between emotions of disgust and distrust, depression and apprehension.
The crickets' song to the contrary, there's still a little left of the long, sad, hot summer of 2016. But pray for rain.