America (the Beautiful?)
Americans who were of age during the last three election cycles have seen something peculiar.
If you witnessed Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008, amidst promises of re-ordering Washington, jumpstarting the American economy, pursuing global peace, and facing head on some of our most divisive issues such as health care, wage inequality, and racial divisions, you might have felt like you were living a dream. One in which America overcame it’s tragic past of racism, class division, and dirty politics, in order to focus on changing Washington and rebuilding our communities. In those days, Obama traversed the nation as a weary warrior. Chants of “Yes We Can,” echoed in stadiums from Michigan and Wisconsin, to Kentucky and Florida.
If the last eight years were your validation of the American dream, then the evening of Nov. 8 was your descent into a nightmare.
Donald Trump’s election was historic. For the first time in American politics, an outsider won the office. Fighting scores of controversy, he rode the wave of his promise to “Make America Great Again,” all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue.
Witnessing these two dynamic leaders’ transitions in concert is a study in the increasingly bizarre nature of our politics. In 2008, America (half of it, at least) was ready to elect a black man to the highest office in the land. In 2012, he won again, and many of us felt like change was finally here. We rolled up our own sleeves and hit the campaign trail so that we could elect democrats up and down the ballot. We were ready to take on the problems of our time. We were ready to end up on the right side of history.
On November 8th, the narrative changed.
For the past 15 months, many of us convinced ourselves that Donald Trump was an unrealistic candidate.
We told ourselves that he had no way to emerge from the crowded field or Republican contestants- that TV stars can’t out perform our Washington tempered politicians.
Then he became the Republican nominee.
Then, we told ourselves that he wouldn’t survive past the first couple months of campaign season, and that Hillary would cruise to an easy victory.
How wrong we were. Fifty-one delegates in the electoral college to be exact.
Political scientists, strategists, and campaign experts are going to have a field day trying to figure out what happened. They’ll trace America’s steps all the way back to June 15, when Trump decided he wanted to give the highest office in the land a shot. They’ll try to figure out how our models and math betrayed us. How did we convince ourselves of something so false? How did we sell ourselves a dream?
As Trump racked up delegates, winning Florida, then Michigan, then Virginia, then Minnesota, I saw the mood of Democrats across the nation change from jubilant and cocky to stone cold and scared. Many of us began to cry, and others paced around the room nervously, hoping that Hillary would get the votes here and there that she needed: 20 votes from Michigan, 16 from Pennsylvania, 29 from Florida… They never came.
At 2:00, major news networks began to tell us that Hillary lost. Trump won toss up states that Democrats thought they’d secured, while Hillary was emerged by thin margins in states that Democrats had historically blown out.
Suddenly, the temple of ignorance that much of America had so confidently built came tumbling down, and a haze of apprehension began to overcome many as the reality of a Trump presidency began to become a reality.
Change is coming to America.
If I had to hazard a guess about what went wrong this election and how we so sorely miscalculated the chances of victory, I’d name many things. Hillary’s emails? Sure. Her inability to capture key demographics? Check. An over presumptuous and biased media? Definitely.
Out of everything that went through my mind on election night, I keep returning back to one thought.
The majority of Americans can agree on one thing: Trump is not fit to be president. His temper is akin to that of an undisciplined child, and his volatility makes him a liability.
So, how did he win against a country, media, and world that were rooting against him.
Too many people just don’t care.
Our politics have become a spectacle, removed from its purpose of making decisions meant to improve the lives of the populous. Modern politics are a melodrama. How else could the greatest country on earth elect a TV star with zero government experience to office?
During the presidential debate cycle, rather than focusing on impassioned debates about real policy, we were busy making memes of the debate and gossiping over who Donald Trump brought to the debate that we missed out on what was most important. We were too busy talking about Ken Bone, and not our emerging student loan crisis. We should have spent less time preaching from soap boxes on Facebook, and made calls to each other, urging our fellow citizens to get out and vote.
As journalists, we failed ourselves. We were supposed to be delivering non biased, fact based analyses of the election, but we turned into cheerleaders. Our reporting turned into speculation for a targeted audience, and thus constituents became content with laughing off the notion of a Trump presidency, rather than focusing on performing civic duties. In 2016, Our entertainment came before our consciences.
Consequently, we convinced ourselves that we didn’t need to vote.
The numbers don’t lie, either. In both of Barack Obama’s successful democratic campaigns, he mobilized around ten million more voters than Clinton. Many factors can be credited, but the math and logic cannot be discredited. 2016 was the year of un-utilized social capital.
Our talk leading up to the election gave way to a lack of action, which resulted in unrecognized ambitions, and an uncertain America.
I think election night in America perfectly summed up the tenor of the whole election cycle. We’ve become a people incapable of utilizing our own social capital in an efficient way.
When I went to the White House, I saw a scene that was uncharacteristic of an intelligent democracy. I saw Trump supporters in the face of Clinton supporters, with saliva flying out of their mouths, arguing over inconsequential details. Rather than discussing an efficient pathway forward, topics of discussion revolved around false equivalencies. What was worse, email scandals or scandalous comments?
I heard frat boys yelling from the trees “RUSH PIKE”, and bottles of vodka strewn across Pennsylvania avenue.
What should have been impassioned discussion was misdirected anger, and unproductive banter. A surprising scene in the political capital of the world.
A Failure of Democracy
In our history classes, we speak of the fall of the Roman Empire. In detached demeanors, we recall the catastrophic cocktail of indulgence, ineffective politics, and severe divisions. We recount the flawed finances of the republic, and the lack of trust between fellow country men and women, and the corrupt politicians, and a tide of misfortunes that would not recede.
The America of 2016 has begun its traversal down a path of uncertainty. These next few years will indeed be our test. We’ll see if the democratic values we hold so dear will sustain us through the biggest test of our political unity. As half of America denounces our newly elected leader, we’ll see if these cracks in our foundation evolve into searing splits, then irreparable and fatal divides.