Sunday, 20 November 2016

Backing away from the hyperbole

LB Johnson on the campaign trail. Credt: Wikicommons.
Our internet is back, and so am I -- thank you, readers, for being patient in the meantime.

My night on Irish television went well, and I hope to have a piece about the election appearing in a national magazine in the USA soon -- I'll let you know. Later this week I'll be back to posting about pickled apples, our neighbours, our bog butter and other things. For now, though, the US election is still on everyone's minds, and I'll have a piece about it appearing in a national US magazine soon. For this blog's 1,000th post, here is a longer version.


The morning after the election, you could recite the articles before you read them. After “the most contentious election in US history,” they wrote, “the art of fiction is dead.” Pundits called Donald Trump “the most unqualified president in history,” but said the voters were reacting to years of “social experimentation and economic extravagance,” motivated “not by ideology but a desire to vote against Hillary Clinton or a desire for change.” Democrats, meanwhile, were “turning their guns on each other” in despair. 

So far, so familiar. Except none of these headlines were from this election. The first quotes were from 2000, the last from 1980 (with the names of the candidate changed), the “social experimentation” line from 1942, the “turning their guns” quote from 1880. The “most unqualified” line has been used a lot lately.  

The protests, riots, and screaming apocalypse headlines crop up every four years – just more hysterically now than ever. After every recent election, bloggers and activists from the losing side announce that the USA has died and been replaced by Nazi Germany, and that we’re all heading for concentration camps. Some rural conservatives spent the Obama years talking about this very thing, a few even organising militias to prepare for what they thought was the inevitable. It wasn’t. 

Right now my Democratic friends are circulating reports of attacks by pro-Trump groups, in what the news site Quartz refers to as an “ugly picture of a torrent of frenzied hate.” Most of the reports, however, are based on unverified Twitter posts, with no more substance than similar reports from the other side. The most forwarded viral image – an alleged gay journalist covered in blood after an attack – contains few details, and as the debunking web site reports, no such incident was reported to local police. 

The same is true for other widely circulated stories – the Muslim woman who said that Trump supporters pulled off her headdress later admitted to police that she made it up. Activist web sites claim to list “hate crimes” from pro-Trump groups, but many of the photos and stories they list are dubious – for example, a photo of a truck flying a Confederate flag, something that is not uncommon, nor connected to this election, nor a crime. 

Even if a few fisticuffs broke out, my Democratic friends tell me, this is how Nazi Germany started. Except that almost every election in history has seen some similar tensions, and in all cases but one, it did not lead to Nazi Germany. In fact, that’s not how the Nazis began; events like the Krystallnacht left hundreds dead and tens of thousands arrested after a single night. In the week since the election the USA, a country five times the size of Weimar Germany, we have seen only a few violent incidents, and some of those were by Clinton supporters vandalising businesses, smashing windows and setting fires.

Look, I don’t know what it feels like on the ground in the USA right now, and I take threats to Americans’ freedom seriously – and if my friends feel despair or fear, I take that seriously as well, whether it’s founded or not. It’s just that I took it seriously with my conservative friends eight years ago too. It’s not that they were wrong about everything, just most things – and the good criticisms they had were drowned in a sea of hyperbole. 

Yet the rage and despair get visibly worse every election, and it’s worth asking why. Some of it, obviously, is the quality of the candidates -- but contrary to popular belief, we’ve had far more corrupt or vulgar candidates, and not that long ago. People aren’t just concerned – they are ready to blow a gasket, whether their side won or lost.  

Some of it, surely, is that so many Americans are working harder to make ends meet right now, so there is more at stake. Many reasons, however, seem to have more to do with our mental landscape than our physical one. 

For one thing, this election might mark the moment social media became the dominant force in politics. Newspaper journalists could be biased, but they were professionals who strove for at least a nominal balance, and wrote for the general populace. Social media gives you a flood of click-bait, hoaxes, and out-of-context images – and I mean “you,” as it’s algorithmically filtered to fit your darkest preconceptions. 

Through every increasingly tiresome cycle my conservative friends forward me horror stories about the violence and hatred of the liberal moonbats, and liberal friends do the same about the conservative wingnuts, with each side --- and many cliques inside those sides -- living on a different news planet. None of us, honestly, have the time or bandwidth to research everything we receive. All this leaves us breathtakingly unprepared for the moment when we look up from our glowing rectangle at some actual fleshy neighbours, who have spent the last several years inside a different filter bubble, and realise we have no shared points of reference to discuss our country. 

In the internet age, moreover, information flickers and then disappears, leaving the headlines of a few years or decades ago forgotten and making every situation feel unprecedented and apocalyptic. On Election Night I was part of a panel on Irish television, and was struck by how often pundits called this “the most contentious election in US history,” or some such phrase. I remarked later that the 1860 election, which resulted in a million deaths, might have been a bit worse.

This mass forgetting leaves us with few analogies for any new event, save those provided by pop culture; when a populist demagogue is propelled into power, Americans can only debate whether they will be a.) Hitler, or b.) not-Hitler, without asking whether they could be Peisistratus, or Sulla, or Justinian, or Komnenos, or Andrew Jackson, or any of the other possibilities. 

Likewise, the US media too rarely reports on the rest of the world, so Americans have no way to compare their democracy to others. Most other countries have multiple third parties representing a variety of approaches to government: socialist vs. capitalist, cosmopolitan vs. nationalist, globalist vs. protectionist, religious vs. secular. The US media steamrolls all these issues into a single left-right line, with various positions on abortion, trade, the environment or religious expression falling onto one side or another through shotgun marriages. 

There’s nothing inevitable about the current combination, however –William Jennings Bryan a century ago could be simultaneously feminist, segregationist, pro-union, anti-war, and creationist, and parties a few decades from now could come up with other combinations horrifying to the political class but much more in keeping with what most Americans want. Seeing only two sides encourages voters to see politics in terms of good and evil, which drives people to further extremes in pursuit of purity. 

Yet another reason for the bitterness of today’s elections might lie in the USA’s religion of progress. You might think of progress as a fairly obvious truth; we have vaccines, wi-fi and GPS, and our forebears didn’t. The religion of progress, however, doesn’t stop at being grateful for our current good fortune; it declares that history can and must continue in this same direction forever, at an ever-faster speed, as both a natural law and a moral imperative. 

Of course, this god has been failing for decades now; fusion power, flying cars and Mars vacations never panned out, and never will. Nor have the real technological changes turned out to be all beneficial; when authors extrapolate current trends for science fiction, they imagine a dystopia. 

Each side of our culture war has abandoned the religion of progress in certain areas, but no one can let it go completely; conservatives still demand progress in economics and technology, while leftists are “progressive” in social and sexual arenas. Whichever you are, your faith demands that you can never rest -- whether you imagine the next step to be artificial intelligence, genetically-engineered meat or multiple gender categories, it must be taken, no questions asked. No one, on any side, is allowed to ask whether some experiments have succeeded or failed, or to question proposed future changes -- that would be surrendering to the enemies of progress, condemned to the wrong side of history.

For many Democrats, the Obama election was the ultimate proof of progress, and Clinton’s the next necessary step – so they didn’t just see a single election defeat, but the derailing of our national future. Newsweek accordingly called Trump’s supporters “anti-progress,” but most of them have a similar philosophy and use the same metaphors. They simply believe the train already derailed, and want to put the country “back on track.” Neither side questions the basic metaphor, or whether a single office-holder can change the direction of a train.  

Another reason US politics feel so urgent to American voters is that most were born in a Cold-War superpower, and we reflexively refer to our president as the “leader of the free world,” the individual with their “finger on the button.” Yet that world is ebbing away, along with the USA’s monopoly on global influence, and it turns out that’s literally not the end of the world – many leaders far more dubious than Mr. Trump have fingers on buttons these days, yet we’re a lot further away from nuclear war than we were fifty years ago.  

In the 19th century, electing the president meant electing the supervisor of a single branch of a single level of government in a single country. The same is true for elections in Ireland, Norway or most countries today; they look downright relaxed in comparison to ours. It’s not because there is more agreement or less choice – just the opposite – but because voters are simply choosing someone to represent their interests, someone who can vote for a new hospital or bus route.   

As the executive branch swelled to dominate the federal government, the federal government swelled to dominate the country, and the country swelled into a global empire, the US presidency took on more responsibility than any office should have. Americans today are told they must choose a leader for the entire world, someone who will negotiate peace between nations, repair the global economy, command US troops, reverse the global climate shift, violate the laws of physics, be charming on television and set an example for young children everywhere. Demanding such impossible standards every four years means that every candidate becomes the Man that Dreams are Made Of, and every election carries enough weight to break us. 

Finally, we Americans grow up with the stories told by movies and television – hateful villains, sassy heroes, a countdown to Armageddon, a last-minute save and a happy ending -- all designed to pound our emotional buttons and resolve in an hour or two. After generations of these stories, their maximalist language has become our own; any new infection becomes the Zombie Apocalypse, any candidate we don’t like becomes an Evil Overlord, and we discuss all social or environmental issues in disaster-movie language, saying “we have only a short time left” to change everything “or it will be too late.” 

What happens after it’s “too late” and we’re still here? High unemployment? Occasional rioting? Government spying on citizens? Troops at war overseas? Local uprisings? Mass incarceration? Those things are happening now. Sure, they could get a lot worse –the USA is so divided right now that it’s not impossible it could break into mass unrest as Northern Ireland did, or break up as the Soviet Union did. At the same time, you probably still have all manner of food and technology that most people never had, and are safer and luckier than most humans who have ever lived. My liberal and conservative friends alike, as they pound all-capital-letter messages with multiple exclamation marks on Facebook, are not actually in a concentration camp, and it's not too late for them.   

I don’t know what kind of president Mr. Trump will be– by all means, keep a watchful eye on his administration. Clinton supporters can stop, however, going on as though they’ve been robbed of the glorious future they were supposed to have, if only their candidate had been elected, and that we are now sliding into an age of evil and darkness. No political figure will fix or destroy everything. There is no bomb counting down to Too Late, no point at which it is Game Over, nor any point where our story ends Happily Ever After. The nation is not a ship that can sink or a train that was speeding towards Progressistan; it was not derailed, and will not get Back on Track. 

You won’t defeat the Moonbats, Wingnuts, Useful Idiots or Forces of Hatred, because those are imaginary concepts from a web site – the people on the other side are named Molly and Amy and Adam, and they are trying to do the right thing just like you are. The odds of they, and you, dying is 100% in the long run, but the odds of dying in the next few years in a Zombie Apocalypse, Nuclear Armageddon or Nazi Death Camp are quite low. Remember, we’ve been through this many times before, and we’re still here. 

No matter what happens, no matter what your politics, there is one thing that’s bound to help your country in the years ahead. You could help rebuild the social institutions around you -- churches, fraternal organizations, town halls, unions, markets, and webs of mutual obligation – that have so deeply deteriorated. They are what democracy used to be, before it became images on a screen. They are what our dreams used to be made of. They are what kept towns and neighbourhoods functioning fifty or a hundred or two hundred years ago, back before we looked to a candidate to fix everything for us.


Juliana said...

This is one of the best comments on the election that I've read--thank you for your thoughts, and for placing things in greater context. Ahistoricism in American culture is one of my personal pet peeves, and it is refreshing to hear the election contextualized in the larger sweep of history. I also appreciate your observations on the role of the internet and entertainment, not just in creating media bubbles, but in perpetuating the disaster narrative we all live with on the daily. I appreciate this post so much.

Brian Kaller said...

Thank you Juliana! That's exactly what I was going for - thanks for reading.

Sam Ritter said...

I appreciate everything you wrote. I have been trying to help people to see this view of the election in a proper context and to argue policy if they want to argue rather than point fingers at their friends and family for aiding and abetting the next Hitler. Everyone was just trying to make the best decision possible. The real travesty is that so much rides on what should be a far less significant position.

Thanks Brian.

Ken Hamilton said...

Thank you for this excellent column.

BCZ said...

I like this post very much, though I believe it is overly flip about the nature of the current political situation.

As a political scientist specializing in constitutional design, stability, and policy adaptation this is a very unique situation. To downplay it is folly. It is unprecedented (and I say this with a full picture of American political history, and a good deal of knowledge about constitutional developments around the world) to have a situation as multidimensionally bad as this one,

There have been times of populists before. You mention Andrew Jackson, for instance, There has been a time of highly unified government... most notably during FDR's administrations. There have been times of great social and cultural polarization such as the 1920's or on the eve of the civil war. There has been times when clever use of new media could lead to substantial social control such as with the rise of broadcasting....

But K can find no time with unified government, high degrees of media manipulation, a highly polarized public, a highly polarized party system, a populist insurgency, and no Immediate existential external threat at the same time. Can you?

All of these factors, in isolation are warning signs for political instability, the erosion of liberty, autocracy or anarchy. None of this though says it is inevitable, but I would suggest that the probability of some truly epic disasters are higher than they have been in some time.

This does not even begin to discuss the lack of legitimacy of this election in the eyes of a probably record number of Americans (you though Bush v Gore was bad?), the unbelievably dire electoral future the GOP has unless it either radically shits it's approach, alters the rules of the game to disenfranchise enemies, or both... nor does it touch on the particularly brutal social forces that are being toyed with by the Trump team... the lost goes on. Any one of these (and in some cases of hysteria it was only one of these) would be concerning, but certainly no cause for serious alarm. All together are positively worrying for those who have studied the history of free societies and their ills.

Moreover, it is understandable to take the stoic perspective (as I do), and acknowledge that all these things happen. Even extinction level events. From the perspective of the universe it is all going to be okay.... but I think mortals are justified in being a bit nervous by the truly unprecedented combination of factors we see. I give *some* of those sounding the alarm some credit, when Bush was elected,and Reagan was elected... there were concerns. In both cases though we saw this refugees of autocratic states, or the amazing regime poo poo this hysteria... deeming it an insult to the horror of autocracy, we see the opposite now. Combined with the above observations it makes me wonder if you relaxed perspective is the nobility of the band on the deck of the titanic, or the folly of the those convinced that reality could not invent new tortures for the designers of unsinkable ships of wisdom.

Anonymous said...

For this Brit outsider your post was as usual thoughtful and useful. However, I take BCZ’ cautionary comment seriously. He is unsure like the rest of us, but his wondering if, for example, “your relaxed perspective is the nobility of the band on the deck of the titanic”, rings a bell with me. If USA can avoid (we hope) direct war home-or-away, then I daresay you are right that the nation could trundle along in some or other adaptive mode. But Greer in another cautionary tale has conjectured a plausible enough scenario where USA suffers a direct military defeat abroad with serious domestic result in the fragile homeland. I hope to goodness he and BCZ are both merely cautionary.

Have you been in Northern Ireland recently? Our youngest daughter made a recent exploration including Belfast. As a young Brit from the mainland she had never been in a British city that was clearly still the aftermath of a warzone even decades after the action stopped. The signs were everywhere. “Molly and Amy and Adam” had suffered a murder rate gone through the roof.


Brian Kaller said...

Thanks, Sam and Ken!

BCZ, thank you for those thoughts. I absolutely agree that no previous era of American history matches this one exactly, and that we now face a unique combination of factors. I wanted to pick my words carefully on this very charged issues; I'm not dismissing people's concerns, merely stating that all these things have happened before in some combination or other, that panicking will solve nothing, and that fear feeds on itself.

Mr. Trump could, hypothetically, be the USA's Hitler, but I don't find it likely. His term could also be a benefit to the country, or just a little worse than his predecessors, or not significant at all. We just don't know yet.

I'm saying that in the Great Depression, bank runs happened because everyone believed they would, so everyone ran to the bank, causing their fears to come true. In the same way, the more people believe that their society will end soon and violently, the more they will panic, not think clearly, mistrust their neighbours, pursue selfish ends, and do all kinds of things that help collapse a neighbourhood or town.

Anonymous, I know what Belfast is like, and I'm saying that's a possibility in my own country, and it won't be pleasant. But see my response above to BCZ - there's nothing inevitable about such a fate.