Today my family is voting. Well, all who can. My wife can’t, since she’s an alien (Canadian/EU citizenship, second up against the wall when the Trump comes). But my daughter, 21, managed to vote for the first time. My son, 18, will vote with me after he gets out of school this afternoon.
I’ve been following the election closely for the past two years, reading and listening voraciously, getting involved a bit, and talking up a storm. I’ve rarely written about it here, beyond education policy notes, nor have I tweeted much beyond education and technology topics. Instead, Facebook has been my political arena, where I’ve had good conversations. Yes, that’s weird, especially when you realize that these discussions involve people all over the political spectrum and around the world, but it’s worked so far. I’ve also been asking people questions in person, across the US and in other countries, like Iceland.
This has been a strange election, to put it mildly. We’ve had stories of Russian hackers trying to tweak the election, Republican candidates comparing penis sizes, magical birds awarding the aegis to a socialist who nearly won the Democratic nomination, one candidate accusing another’s father of being involved in JFK’s assassination, and nearly every third thing emitted by an orange-hued buffoon/crypto-fascist.
When the show began we expected a dull contest between two American political dynasties, the Clintons and the Bushes, and instead witnessed (or participated in) a sudden populist revolt. Bernie Sanders appeared out of nowhere for most people, an older socialist who refused to look pleasant for tv cameras, was resistant to muck-raking and scandal, and nearly took the Democratic nomination by popular storm. Donald Trump went from punchline to defeating every candidate squeezed out of the GOP’s clown car, taking down pundits’ favorite after favorite.
From not being talked much about in 2015 race rapidly leaped to the forefront of politics. Trump built his campaign on anti-Latino fear, and Clinton responded by becoming more pro-Latino and pro-immigration. Black Lives Matter came into being in the wake of a string of police brutalities, becoming a major national force in a few months. White resentment became the subject of curiosity, disdain, empathy, and relentless punditizing. And Native Americans returned to the political stage through a protest largely ignored by mainstream media, but brought to life by social media.
So far, plenty of surprises. Why do I accuse this election of stupidity?
For one, see some of what I said above. Especially the presidential dick contest.
For another, for an election that looks forward to the next two-four years, this has been a contest largely about avoiding the future. The enormous challenge of automation has largely been left off the table. Instead, Trump and Clinton both made improbable vows to regrow American manufacturing. The even greater challenge of climate change didn’t make it to our ritual debates, and has been soft-pedaled by Clinton and moronically denounced by Trump (as a Chinese hoax). The likelihood that geopolitics is shifting from unipolarity (US as sole superpower) to multipolarity (multiple nations contending, a/k/a “history”) is absent from electioneering. Foreign policy and its implications (extensive surveillance, extensive blowback, a huge military budget, a generation of veterans, etc.) have largely been ignored (sorry, rest of planet; we really are this stupid). Instead, both candidates and their parties take turns beating war drums to see who’s more imperial. Indeed, Trump’s anti-immigrant mania fits snugly in America of the 1920s.
Yes, the Democrats are counting on one future trend, the population’s growing racial diversity, so that counts as forward-looking. Otherwise, things are demographically weird. Latinos, who are booming as a population, failed to land a presidential candidate, despite running two, and appear instead in the 20th century’s old form as victimized migrant workers. Asians, also a growing segment, are almost invisible. In terms of age, Millennials are growing as well, but are largely unaddressed and uninvolved in the election, after Sanders’ defeat. In many ways this is a Boomer election based on old Boomer issues. Anecdotally, my children (21 and 18, so Generation Z/Homelanders) experience the election as an alien thing, frustrating or just deeply disconnected from their lives.
It really is a curiously retro election. As Doug Henwood and Oddný Helgadóttir observed, many people are visibly exhausted or frustrated by politics as usual, as we can see from the appearance of new parties, new energy invested in fringe parties, and generally low opinions held of politicians. But in 2016 we returned to the traditions, re-running the gamy old enterprises once more. Iceland, after the financial meltdown and Panama Papers, just turned itself over to the Independence Party most associated with those crises. Democrats, having quashed Occupy, turned against Bernie with the help of party leaders and media sneering. In the end, America is probably electing an establishment, centrist Democrat (but see below).
And for all the talk about Trump’s Twitter usage, tv “news” really dominated the campaign. As I and others have argued, bad tv pseudo-journalism helped Trump dominate and drove discussion into a very stupid place. Let us never forget this moment of clarity shared by a leading tv executive:
Moonves, who memorably said in 2012 that “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS,” has been even more bullish. On a call with investors in February, he said, “Looking ahead, the 2016 presidential election is right around the corner and, thank God, the rancor has already begun.”
“…Go Donald! Keep getting out there!” Moonves said…
For all of our embrace of new media, this old media pressed its dinosaur’s footprints onto our landscape, and hard. Remember when Network was satire? (It was 1976.)
So why on earth would I deem any of this shambling mess to be inspiring? Three reasons.
First, the Bernie Sanders campaign actually happened. An honest-to-God socialist ran, and won a huge following. He mobilized young people in droves, and in the teeth of party hatred and media disdain. He proved resistant to muckraking, dirty tricks, and to taking the low road. Bernie just laid out a consistent, appealing message, one the Democrats and pundits had assured us would never have any traction with modern voters. Indeed, he took on the Democratic party leadership openly and directly. He hammered that anti-billionaire message home again and again. And when he at last conceded, after fighting his heart out in an epic struggle, he managed to simultaneously campaign for the party’s nominee while kick-starting a national left-wing movement. All while being Jewish (hardly a political bonus) and refusing a makeover.
Some days I don’t think we deserve him. Other days I know we need him.
Second, it looks likely that’s we’ll elect Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States. She’s not my preferred candidate. At some point I’ll have to write up my long list of disagreements and criticisms; others have already done so. But I am delighted that America will joined the civilized world in this single respect: electing a woman to the executive. Whatever the policy implications (again, I’m not a fan), the cultural and symbolic resonances are huge.
Last night I met with some friends, and was introduced to their daughter, who is coming up on her fourth birthday. I think it might mean the world to that little girl to grow up in a country where a woman has been elected president.
Third, corruption is now on the table. That wasn’t easy. Many don’t want it to be, either because it’s too depressing, or because they benefit from it. The 2008 economic crash showed us just how rotten is the combination of vast financial power with regulatory capture and political might… and we didn’t punish banksters, but rewarded them Occupy sprang out of that moment, but we, led by Democrats, ignored or nixed them. The Panama Papers came out, proving epic levels of global corruption, and America blithely paid not attention. Then the very strange combination of Sanders and Trump convinced many Americans that an elite has rigged the game and needs to be fought. They reminded us that income inequality is an essential problem, and that the economy isn’t sweetness and light. That message is now in the mainstream and our culture. I don’t know if it’ll persist into 2017, but it has a shot.
Inspiration, stupidity, and sheer weirdness. What did you see in this election?