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Our Bitter Elections

What happens after it’s “too late” and we’re still here?

After “the most contentious election in U.S. history,” journalists wrote, “the art of fiction is dead.” We chose “the most unqualified president in history,” but voters were reacting to years of “social experimentation and economic extravagance,” motivated “not by ideology but a desire to vote against” the loser—or perhaps “a desire for change.” Democrats, meanwhile, were “turning their guns on each other” in despair.

The first two quotes are from 2000, the last from 1980, the “social experimentation” line from 1942, the “turning their guns” quote from 1880.

The protests, riots, and screaming-apocalypse headlines crop up every four years. After every recent election, bloggers and activists from the losing side have announced that the U.S. has died and been replaced by Nazi Germany, and that we’re all heading for concentration camps.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 organizing militias to prepare for what they thought was the inevitable. It wasn’t.

Yet Americans’ rage and despair gets 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. Also, Americans 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 clickbait, hoaxes, and out-of-context images—and I mean “you,” as it’s algorithmically filtered to fit your darkest instincts.

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 neighbors, 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 I was struck by how often pundits called this “the most contentious election in U.S. 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.

Likewise, the U.S. media too rarely report 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 U.S. media steamrolls all these issues into a single left-right line, with various positions on abortion, trade, the environment, or religious expression assigned to 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. Restricting the debate to 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 U.S.’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, as both a natural law and a moral imperative.

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 the 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 new gender categories, it must be taken, for to do otherwise would be to be to surrender to the enemies of progress, condemning yourself to the wrong side of history.

For many Democrats, Obama’s election was the ultimate proof of progress, and Clinton’s the next necessary step—so this month, they didn’t see just 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 the train.  

Another reason U.S. politics feel so urgent to American voters is that most were born in a Cold War superpower, and reflexively refer to their 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 U.S.’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 50 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, and most other countries today; they look downright relaxed in comparison to America’s. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. troops, reverse the global climate shift, 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 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? 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 U.S. could break into mass unrest as Northern Ireland did, or dissolve 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. You’re not a concentration-camp victim, and it’s not too late for you.    

I don’t know what kind of president Mr. Trump will be—by all means, keep a watchful eye on his administration. You can stop, however, going on as though you’ve been robbed of the glorious future you were supposed to have, if only your candidate had been elected. 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.

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 allowed people to pay for doctors and teachers before everyone looked to government to do these things. They are what our dreams used to be made of. They are what kept towns and neighborhoods functioning 50 or 100 or 200 years ago, back before we looked to a candidate to fix everything for us.

Brian Kaller has written for Front Porch Republic, First Things, The Old Schoolhouse, Mother Earth News, and Grit. He writes from his home in rural Ireland and blogs at www.restoringmayberry.blogspot.com.