Tuesday, 8 November 2016

US Election night - first thoughts

As I write, late Tuesday night, the races in the last few states are too close to call, and there’s as much chance of a Trump victory as a Clinton victory, or even, perhaps, god help us, a tie.  As I write, the TV commentators are simply overwhelmed by the failure of their own understanding - informed and encouraged by the false promise of opinion poll reliability - of the country they are paid to claim they understand.

Whatever the ultimate result, over 50 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. Whose vision of the world is profoundly hate- and fear-filled, and utterly narcissistic.  And who appears to have - or at least demonstrates - not a particle of respect for the institutions of American governance. There are surely lessons to be learned from this for us here in Canada.  I do not think this is a time for smugness.  This is a time to reflect on the corrosive power of disaffection and alienation.

We ought to spend time thinking about the lessons of this US election. At the very least, we are called not to take for granted what we trumpet as our Canadian tolerance for diversity, our compassion, and our respect for difference.  For my part, I think I need to spend more time trying to understand the reality that intolerance in the United States is not just the strongly held ethos of a vocal minority, but possibly something close to a majority view, at least of those willing and able to vote.  A frightening thought.  If the country which is the home of pluralism (e pluribus unum) is actually ambivalent about diversity, that is a worrying thing.

But tonight I want to offer only one comment for our continuing consideration.  America, it seems to me, is a country deeply, profoundly, divided on the question whether government can be trusted to do or manage or solve anything.  It’s not quite the same thing as a vigorous debate about whether, on an issue by issue basis, government has got it right.  It’s a deeper view, a view that government is simply, irretrievably and irredeemably illegitimate in all imaginable ways.

How does such a view come to be so widely held?  Plainly, those who are alienated from the benefits of government, who see or feel nothing of the benefits of social and economic progress, the rule of law, or prosperity are eventually bound to question the basic legitimacy of government as a force for good. My worry is that all of the ingredients for institutional distrust are as alive and well here on the north side of the 49th parallel as they are in the United States.  Think for a moment of the last time a major decision was made by a government, an agency, or an appellate court in our country that was not immediately followed by extensive media coverage of the voices of those who do not simply disagree but completely reject the legitimacy of the process that led to the decision.  We increasingly have come to expect that this is the basic framework of our discourse.  Someone is given the power to decide. They decide. Someone immediately questions the legitimacy of the decision.  You never hear the voice that says, “I argued hard for my perspective, but I respect that others have made a different decision.”  A voice that, in my respectful view, is critically necessary if we are to function as a democracy.

I have no trouble with the idea of dissent and disagreement; they are fundamental to democracy.  But if our public discourse is dominated by voices that simply reject the legitimacy of any decision by any decision-maker, we will sooner or later lose any capacity to decide difficult issues with any confidence.  We will lose confidence in the capacity of government or its agencies to do the difficult business of governing.  We will come to hate government and everything it represents.  And after we’ve done that for long enough, we will start electing people who represent the perfect expression of that perspective: people who have no experience in public service, who know nothing about the complexities of the world, who traffic only in mindlessly simple, misleading slogans.  People, in other words, like Donald Trump.

My question tonight, then, is what can we do in this country to build confidence, support, and yes, trust, in our political institutions?  For all their failings, we simply need to cut them the slack to do the most difficult business of deciding and governing.  We are so accustomed to hearing the voices of those who challenge and question.  My concern is that in the long run we will only continue to earn the right to disagree if we can, at least sometimes, accept the right of others to decide even when we do disagree.  This is essential to the functioning of government.  It is also essential to civilisation - to have the grace to accept defeat, to join hands sometimes with your opponents, to applaud the achievement of a society that has nurtured both government and the right to disagree.  Trump won - or at least achieved surprising success - by campaigning against government, against even the idea of government.  That way lies madness, or at least chaos.  We must choose a different path.

1 comment:

  1. Well said Geoff. I think the internet is also a major factor. Not only do people distrust government, they also distrust mainstream news, and look to alternate sites without caring to verify whether they tell the truth. All those people calling for Hillary to go to jail were just aping what Trump said, without caring if there was any real case for that. It's a soundbite reality TV era. Remember when we taught our children to question authority? Now that's all anyone does it seems! I don't know how you put together your thoughts tonight.. it's so heartbreaking.