I woke up shocked and scared, just like this, the morning after the 1980 Presidential election, when Ronald Reagan received 50.7% of the popular vote and nearly all the electoral votes, when Jimmy Carter got 41% and independent John Anderson 6.6%.
I lived in a bubble of progressive consensus at the time, surrounded by people who thought Ronald Reagan was a joke: I’m not a politician, but I play one on TV. My overwhelming feeling was a horrified surprise, just like today.
The messages are coming in from my friends who, like countless others from the first days of the Bernie campaign through yesterday gave so much to align the electorate toward real democracy, real collective responsibility:
I literally can’t get out of bed. I’m so horrified. I can’t believe it’s
real. How can I face the children?
Most words escape me right now. And the ones that are present don’t easily string into sentences. How are you holding up?
In 1980, I spent a little time blaming the American electorate, then switched to interrogating myself about the distortions in my own understanding that had kept me from seeing what was happening outside my bubble.
Yesterday, meeting with friends and colleagues, I kept checking fivethirtyeight.com (whose tagline—“Election Projections Done Right”—may have to change to “High-level Guessing With A Lot of Bells and Whistles”), always finding Hillary’s chances of election hovering around 70 percent, and reassuring them that Trump had no chance.
Consider this an apology for allowing myself to believe in Datastan when I know for a certainty that Datastan will always fail the human subject.
Progressive movements in the U.S. were deeply demoralized by Reagan’s election, leading to a period of stunned setback. The Seventies had been a thousand-flowers time on the left, with antiracist, gay rights (as they were then called), and women’s movements flourishing along with a growing environmental movement and the vibrant peace movement that had helped end the war in Vietnam at long last. If you were inside, it was easy to feel the lift of a rising tide and imagine that it was only a matter of time before others were surfing the same waves.
But we weren’t talking to those others, only about them. For people like me, who saw increasing demands and victories for equity and justice as a historic inevitability and an all-around good thing—what could be bad about increasing love, freedom, and possibility for everyone?—it was a shock to realize how those very same things represented a loss of power, privilege, and (the illusion of) security for tremendous numbers of white voters, especially in parts of the country often dismissed as negligible by coastal folks.
Once again, I am interrogating my own assumptions and distorted perceptions. A few things are coming into focus:
Our money-driven and all-around awful campaign system is the enemy of democracy, lifting up the wrong candidates, discouraging large numbers of prospective voters, and generating a bad smell that I can’t get out of my nose. Roughly 120 million—60%—of the 200 million currently registered voters (an all-time high) cast votes in yesterday’s election. That means 80 million people who were actually registered were not moved by the urgencies and exigencies of this campaign to cast their ballots. It’s estimated that about 250 million Americans are eligible by age to vote (though as many as 10 percent are disqualified on account of felony convictions), which means roughly half of the voting age population did not take part.
This is a decline from 2008, when people were excited, rather than incensed and disgusted, by the campaign, with 131 million casting their votes. But even at the height of voting, turnout puts the U.S. on the low end of developed countries.
The system sucks, and by that I am not on this occasion referring to the entire military-corporate-white supremacist-sexist system—which continues to super-suck—but honing in on the nature of presidential campaigns and the system of the Electoral College (since Clinton narrowly won the popular vote, direct democracy would have elected her President).
The narcissism of the purist left continues to distort election results. Most red states weren’t closely divided: Trump trounced Clinton in the great majority. Where the races were close, recriminations will certainly come down on the two third-party candidates. Take Johnson and Stein our of the picture in Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin for instance, and allocate a hypothetical majority of their votes to Clinton, and the resulting change in Electoral College votes would have reversed the election. Personally, I have no doubt that the collective narcissism that allowed those campaigns to continue even under threat from a carrot-topped, tax-dodging, sexual-assaulting domestic Putin deserves some of the blame for whatever rains down under a President Trump empowered by two Republican houses of Congress. (I wrote about it back in July as an empathy deficit, and I stand by that assertion.)
The shock and fear many of us are feeling now will be supplanted by love and courage. When cognitive scientists study individuals, they consistently learn that it is our habit of mind to overestimate the impact both good and bad news will have on our lives. Most lottery-winners get over the thrill of their newfound riches and life goes back to normal; most people who lose their jobs or loved ones regain their footing after a period of mourning and reorientation. I think this is also true for movements.
Elections aren’t the same as movements, but they do provide an indicator. Judging by national elections, Reagan didn’t complete the “revolution” of the right he represented, and whatever you think of his promise-to-accomplishment ratio, by 2008, the pendulum swung enough to elect Obama.
I have no doubt it will swing again.
When the shock wore off in the Eighties, liberation movements for women, people of color, the economy, and the planet itself came back big. Trump will try to roll back every gain to equity and justice in our society and take advantage of every opportunity to benefit the few at the expense of the many. I am afraid. But if there’s one thing life teaches, it’s that fear needn’t have the last word. There will be a lot to do, and we will rise to the challenge.
The conversations I know I’ll be having in coming days, weeks, and months will be about putting our weight on the side of love and justice. A huge part of that project has to be an even more determined, compassionate, and probing effort to root out of our own minds the filters and distortions that keep us from seeing clearly the ability of those with money and might to manipulate others into thinking their loss of privilege would be a loss to ordinary working people. Another huge part has got to be truly, deeply facing the fear that loss engenders so that it can’t be exploited for the benefit of the one percent.
When I think about what we need now, the words that come to mind will be unsurprising: empathy, imagination, love in the service of justice, healing that goes to the broken heart of America. May I have the will and ability to do my part to flood this country with that healing love, and so may we all.
Leonard Cohen, “If I Didn’t Have Your Love.”