It’s impossible to let this day pass without writing something about this title. I let Brexit go by because, well, I was stunned; I said my piece on the Bahamian gender referendum because I was disappointed. But not to say something about this election, which was historic, yes, and not the way I had wanted, would be a travesty.
So let me say this: yes, I am disappointed. Profoundly so. But can I in all honesty be anything else? I am not an American. I could not vote. I had to leave it up to the American people to do their democratic duty, and they did it. As with Brexit, as with the Bahamian gender referendum, people participated in the democratic process the one way they were able. They had one vote, and they used it. And into that vote they channelled everything that they felt about themselves, their times, their nation.
I’m entitled to think that, as with us on our referendum, as with the British on Brexit, the American electorate as a collective got it wrong. The world is heading in one direction and the voters in each of these three nations have chosen not to look that way. Rather, they all turned to look behind them at the world we are all leaving behind, while time inexorably moves us somewhere entirely different. The journey forward for all of us will be taken blindly: we’re looking back. We’re passing through twenty-first century reality and its challenges remain unseen.
I don’t think that this is accidental at all. I also don’t think that it could have been avoided. Because what is happening across the world is that people are voting against their status quo. They are entirely aware, on a molecular level, that things have changed, that the ground has shifted beneath their feet, that the world they find themselves in is not the world for which they are prepared. But because their leaders have been unable or unwilling to articulate these changes, or perhaps even to acknowledge them, they are voting for a return to the past, or for a maintenance of an obsolete system. In Britain, the voters sought to withdraw from the collective of Europe in search of lost (possibly imperial?) times; here in The Bahamas, the voters chose to maintain legal inequalities between men and women in an effort to negate or neutralize women’s real power in our nation; and now, in the USA, voters are electing to “make America great again”—this greatness being exemplified in the shaking of a big stick, the glorification of white skins, and the subordination of the female.
But in not one case were the voters given a constructive choice. I’m pretty sure that those people who, like me, wanted different outcomes will rise up indignantly at this idea. What’s not constructive about Hillary Clinton/the European Union/equal rights for women under the Bahamian constitution? But in imagining these things to be positive because we believe they are, considering them unquestionably as being absolute goods, we miss the point. For democracy is not about absolute and opposite goods. It is about dialogue and discussion—about true debate. If democracy is government by the people for the people, then all the people need to be involved in it somehow.
What was critical and revealing about these three contests in 2016 was that there was very little debate involved. There was plenty of talk, and a lot of argument. There was plenty of threat and plenty of ridicule and lots of tearing down but very little building up. Democracy was not at work throughout the process. These elections were crafted the way reality shows are crafted: emphasizing the extreme differences in the matters (many of them, like the bogeyman immigrant and the spectre of gay monogamy, semi-fictional inventions) for the entertainment of the public rather than engaging in the full implications of the choices to be made. The media in each case focussed more on the sensational surfaces of the contests than on the long-term implications of their outcomes.
In every case, the contest went thus:
- an issue—two referenda and one presidential election—was fought on a national scale;
- the stakes in each were historically critical;
- the issues were presented in a binary fashion as though the contest was a clash between absolute good and absolute evil, without any attempt to find common ground between the two options;
- the stakes were not discussed in any historical or global context, and the implications of potential outcomes were not presented in any thoughtful or measured fashion.
Now the critical thing about the democracy we currently inhabit is this. Ultimately, the only power an individual has comes down to his or her ability to cast a vote. We have constructed systems in which the individual voice is reduced to a single moment in time, a moment when a choice is made, and that choice, in every case above, was a choice between two irreconcilable opposites.
Voters vote they only way that they can. They make a choice. But they do not make free choices. They choose the thing that seems most right to them, most right for them, but they have no control over the ultimate outcome.
The collective result, in every case I have mentioned, has been a step away from equality, from kindness, from civility, from generosity. In every case I have mentioned, the result has been a shrinking of self, a turning away from greatness.
It’s been protectionist. It’s been risk-averse. It’s been desperate.
It has not been great.
Let me make my position perfectly clear here. I am not seeking to belittle what has happened. I’m seeking to understand it on my terms, to recognize that in every case that has dismayed me, people have used their democratic right in good faith. And they have had the absolute right to do so. That they chose differently than I would is immaterial. That they chose differently from what will help them survive in the twenty-first century, though, is critical. And it raises the question. Why did so many people make choices that will not help them in the world we are entering? What went wrong?
My conclusion: it’s not their choices that were wrong. It’s the system that made sure these were the only choices that were available. It is a system that divides those who disagree by a chasm that seems only crossable by violence and destruction. It’s a system that suggests that “democracy” has nothing to do with self-governance for the common good, but rather consists of a battle between two demonized adversaries, in which the winner takes all and the loser is crushed.
So am I happy that Trump won this election? In no way. I have absolutely no confidence that the persona that he performed on the campaign trail has any resemblance to the man he actually is, and I think that we are all, Americans and the world alike, about to be royally screwed, God’s will notwithstanding. But do I think that the “American public” were wrong for voting for him? Not at all. Each individual voted the only way they could: for themselves, for what they believed was the greatest good (for them). The outcome was beyond their control.
Brexit, the Bahamian referendum, the American election: it’s not the voters who are at fault in any of these events. It’s the way we perform “democracy” that is the problem.