FeatureLiberal Democracy in QuestionThe Left

America the Troubled

Notes on the Political Landscape of a Divided Nation

I.

In 2008, I stepped outside upon hearing the news that Barack Obama had been elected President of the United States. I needed a moment to be able to look at the sky, to see, enveloping me, a New America. We had turned our backs decisively on the abuses of the Bush years. We had elected a Black man in the process. Eight years of darkness had given way to a new dawn.

In 2016, I experience that same sky as a crushing weight, leaden with conservative hatred and fear, with vicious, resurgent nationalism, and the promise to deliver in the open what Bush and Cheney did in secret. I’ve seen what our government can do to the people it decides are its enemies. I’ve seen how it can strip its own citizens down to pawns in a game of “Clash of Civilizations.” We have been handed the horrors I’d hoped we were abandoning and we have responded by electing them to office.

II.

Who are those 50% who stayed home on the most crucial election of our lifetimes? Were they all potential Bernie Sanders supporters, who couldn’t be moved to vote for the establishment candidate, Clinton? I’m not certain that if Sanders had won the nomination, he would have made it to the Presidency. He would have had to conquer that tired old mountain of Communist accusations, for one. But certainly, in a race where it appears that the man who won, won partially because of his rebelliousness, it would have been nice for there to be two rebels from which to choose, so that not all the votes had to go to the one who also happens to be a dangerous fascist. To the extent that the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign are possibly responsible for having stolen this potential away from us, they have some grave sins for which to account.

Still, we cannot ignore that the reason Trump won, statistically, is that he pulled unprecedented numbers of “rural, white voters without college degrees” out of the woodwork. Of course, they weren’t the only people to vote for him, and not the only reason he won, but he galvanized them to an unprecedented degree, and as a result they overwhelmed districts that were either “swing” or even traditionally blue. And anyone who has had occasion to move within these communities knows how easily the “anti-establishment” frame slips into racist and reactionary ones. There is no clear line: this is a bloc that has responded to its dissatisfaction with America by assigning blame to various enemies. We cannot keep wondering how Trump was elected President “despite” all his terrifying rhetoric and offensive personal actions and beliefs. It’s not “despite” — it’s “because of.” Trump is the latest in a series of far-right, reactionary leaders who have appeared throughout the Western world, responding to societies afraid of their own progress. Immigration, refugees, multiculturalism, social justice movements — all of these have upset the ground of normalcy upon which dominant groups rely for their vision of the world to be maintained. When they see people speaking other languages, when they see Black people protesting in large numbers, when they see queer people being given the right to marry, they see a society that no longer makes sense, one that is going off its rails, one that must be saved. Trump has promised to save it.

III.

There is an ominousness to everything, even the most simple things. The breeze feels like a post-apocalyptic howl. The sounds of children playing in the street below sound like disembodied ghosts from a world murdered before its time. Everything feels like an illusion, only appearing to be as it always has been. I’m waiting for the cracks to appear, for the facade to disintegrate, for the new reality to assert itself. Life feels frozen, holding itself in its old patterns on borrowed time. But the world I see is one that has already died. It is hollow at its core. It’s an imagination, a projection of the recent past, which will soon be wrenched away under the brute force of a new era.

IV.

The protests have given me some hope. I’ve heard some wonder what the purpose is of protesting a fair election. I don’t think this is what people are protesting. They are making a decisive statement that this incoming Administration will not be allowed to get away with the things it says it’s going to do. There will be resistance, massive resistance, on the streets. The sacred right of protest, by which the people challenge power that has gone astray, is already being leveraged to demonstrate to our new President that there is a powerful contingent in this country that will not stand for anti-democratic abuses of power, no matter how many people said they wanted it. (By the way, they were the popular minority.)

Because that’s what it comes down to. There are two nations sharing this federation, living on this soil. One is a democratic nation, which at least tries to respect the fact that it is comprised of many peoples, many ideas, many orientations, many interests, and so on, and that all these differences must be negotiated in a framework inclusive to all. The other is a populist nation, which uses the tools of democracy to give power to its own negation — a large bloc whose idea of democratic power is to protect “traditional” America from the very democratic movements that are progressively helping it fulfill the promise of its foundational ideals. It is this abuse of populism that gives us a protective quilt of institutions — the Constitution, separation of powers, representative government, etc. — that keep democracy functioning according to its own principles even when “the people” reject them. But more and more minds are falling to the conservative ideal, and now that a mainstream politician has finally appeared to voice and validate the most naked versions of those views, there are political actors newly enlivened to bring the full force of their prejudice into politics. This is where we stand.

V.

America is ripping apart at its seams. The protests can be read as one half of America protesting the other. The protests also give me fear, because they suggest that the only lifeline to the world we want to see is our anger, is our capacity to create a sustained tension. We live now only in our polarization — an increasingly vicious conservative America determined to put a halt to the changing world, and a righteously passionate America absolutely committed to opposing the reactionaries at every step. I believe that the next four years will be, and must be, marked by protests and grassroots action at a level not seen for over half a century. America is about to become a very unstable place, on the brink of war with itself, its streets constantly erupting as the only measure against the horrors promised by its leaders. And already, militant groups have decided this is their historical moment, seizing upon the unprecedented election result and the contributory ennui of the left to agitate for some final tearing-down of the system altogether. It’s going to be a wild ride, and not the fun kind.

When I went to Ohio in October, I did not recognize the place. It had always been an even mix of “red” and “blue,” “Bush” and “Kerry” signs, testifying to its “swing state” status. This time, it was more or less only Trump signs, as far as the eye could see. The only people politically motivated were the reactionaries; almost everyone else was silent. And everyone I spoke to, my own family, friends of family, made me realize that the very arguments I had against Trump were the very arguments they had for him. The system was all-inclusive; in it, everything that marked Trump as a dangerous aberration of history was transformed into the very reason he must be our next President.

I moved through my own hometown carefully, suspiciously, like an alien trying to fit in, like a subversive trying not to be noticed. I walked up and down the streets of my childhood feeling unwelcome, outside, exiled. I’ve lost my home.

VI.

I’ve been in a deep, dark space since the election. A space that I’ve previously only visited upon intensely personal promptings. I’ve been completely despondent, unable to move. I don’t want this America. I don’t want this world. And I don’t want what it’s going to take to prevent this America from fulfilling its horrible promise. I don’t want vulnerable people to suffer. I don’t want to be in a state of anger in order to act against it. But there is no escape. The next four years of my life are determined. I don’t want them, yet here they come.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We’ve always assumed that these three exist together. I’m wondering if we’re fundamentally wrong, if the liberty we value can only be won by constant suffering, if happiness is a privilege of the dominant, secured by their safety. This is our world: to allow suffering, or to suffer against it. The only difference is moral. Perhaps the only happiness we’re truly promised is the ability to sleep at night.

Or perhaps, beyond that, a happiness in our solidarity, in the joy of coming together, in fighting together, in being part of history together. But there’s a hollow consolation there. I’ve heard a lot of talk about how we need to understand and work with each other. I like the sound of it, but I don’t currently know how it can be done, with the stakes so high. I don’t know where we begin, with two visions of drastically different Americas inevitably gnashing at each other’s throat. Who is supposed to reach out to whom, and in what is this gesture supposed to consist? All I see are battle lines, and I know very well that for many of us, people we hold very dear are on the wrong side of them. Maybe the Union is dying and, with it, our memories of a peaceful togetherness, when our differences were not so great to divide us. Maybe that idyll will be sacrificed to the history we are all about to make.

Zachary Sunderman

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