With love and respect to my friends in the US who are celebrating today, I’m not there. Yes, it’s wonderful that Donald Trump will no longer be in the White House, though I suspect the process of extricating him from the Oval Office may require more legal wrangling than many of us expect. Yes, a political world without Bill Barr and Stephen Miller in it is a much improved world.
But the 2020 election has laid bare the ugly situation the US is currently facing. I don’t just mean from the perspective of left-wing politics. Zeynep Tufekci is right that the Republicans won everything but the presidency and are setting themselves up for a more dangerous candidate in 2024. What worries me more is the ways in which American institutions are failing and leading us to an increasing state of mistrust and doubt.
Mistrust was already a key theme in Trump’s presidency – he ran against a Washington “swamp”, an allegedly corrupt system he promised his followers that he alone could fix. In taking the office, he corrupted large swaths of the executive to the point where it’s hard to have confidence in its continued functioning – reassembling the State Department, for instance, is likely to be a significant task under Biden. His packing of the federal and supreme court mean those of us on the left will be suspicious of those institutions for decades to come. In other words, Trump was elected because many on the right mistrust government, and his governance led many on the left to mistrust government.
This election drives that wedge in even deeper. Some fraction of the 69 million voters who chose Donald Trump over Joe Biden are likely to see Biden’s presidency as illegitimate and stolen. While Murdoch-controlled media may be abandoning Trump and Republican politicians may be seeking the chance to leave a sinking ship, Trump’s airing of grievances in White House press conferences combined with far-right campaigns to build the “Stop the Steal” narrative will give some percentage of Trump’s supporters the excuse to distrust any actions Biden takes on behalf of the nation.
The increased mistrust shouldn’t just be on the right. On the left, we have recently learned that political polling doesn’t work nearly as well as we thought it did, and that many of our media outlets remain surprisingly out of touch with the concerns and enthusiasms of Republican voters. The belief that America’s ongoing demographic shift to a “majority minority” nation would lead to eternal Democratic dominance has been shaken by substantial numbers of voters of color supporting Trump. Amongst any happiness we feel at retaking the White House should be a deep sense of uncertainty: what do we actually know about this nation we’re living in? What do we know about what our neighbors think, feel and believe?
And there’s a deeper worry. The US has been polarized for as long as I’ve participated in our political system. But the gaps today seem almost impossible to bridge. Beginning with Fox News, but profoundly amplified by the internet, there’s now a rightwing media ecosystem that often feels like a parallel universe in which not only interpretations, but fundamental facts are incompatible. As Roxanne Gay points out in a powerful essay, we are living in two countries, one wrestling with racism and bigotry, one unwilling to lose the privileges of a history of white supremacy and patriarchy.
How can this pair of nations be governed? How can they even come to understand one another?
The most hopeful I have been during this election week was during a discussion last night over Zoom with members of my new academic home, the School of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Our department chair, Alasdair Roberts, is a former Canadian politician as well as a public policy scholar, and a brief history lesson from him on Canadian politics gave me more hope than anything I’ve heard from a chorus of voices in American media.
Canadian politics is boring, Roberts acknowledged, but it took a lot of work to make it as boring and functional as it is right now. When he was growing up, Canada was functionally two countries, Anglophone and Francophone, divided by language into two isolated media ecosystems. Tension between the two Canadas spilled over into violence, with the paramilitary Front de libération du Québec committing bombings and kidnappings to advance their cause. What’s allowed Canada to become boring was a long process of government through tradeoff and compromise, and the hard work of constructing a national identity that went beyond either colonial roots in Britain and France, or the cheap “we’re not the USA shortcut to national self-conception.
This long, slow hope is what Roberts offered to those of us in the US terrified about this election and what it signifies. In a recent article, Roberts describes the US as being twenty years into a “descent from hubris”, the realization that the “Washington consensus” of free markets, reduced government services and deregulation hasn’t been working for most Americans on the right or the left. Realizing that the model isn’t working is part of what’s leading to our current frustration. We agree that America isn’t working, but we blame each other for the country’s apparent ungovernability.
But Canada’s past is a lesson in overcoming that ungovernability. Having a government as often functional and boring as Canada’s seems a distant dream. But that dream is better understood as a long hope, the idea that two divided camps, united by the fact that a broken system is failing them, can in the long run find a new way to coexist.
That’s a faint hope at a moment as fraught and dark as the current one. But it’s something to work with, something to learn from and I’ll take it.