That morning, or the evening before, when the results first came out was indeed a big shock, a huge shock. I was one of the people -- a great complacent majority -- who assumed with certitude that Hillary Clinton would win. The primary things in my mind, apart from living in a California university town, were the obvious unfitness and outrageous campaign behavior of Donald Trump, and the separation of the two distinct congressional and presidential electorates that had developed through the Obama administrations; there was pretty solid Democratic control of the presidential election process. It all seemed so thoroughly clear, and then suddenly there was a giant stomach-dropping reversal, although we later learned that Hillary won popular support by what is now approaching 2.7 million votes.
I think that the overall political system, our famous sacred Constitution, is performing very badly and giving a very untrue picture of the minds and interests of the population, but it must be admitted that this vote brought forth a giant and needed “wake-up call.”
We are in a very deeply chaotic situation, and again of course, it’s not just the United States--the Brexit vote was a big and similar development, as well as another major failure of a hallowed political system. Not to speak of the shift to the right in France, Hungary and other countries. Austria has just resisted, but barely.
One of the main characteristics of the present situation is that it generates a huge amount of talk and spilt printer’s ink, or now pixels. Most of the verbal reaction is of very low quality and isn’t going to help at all to extricate us from a difficult passage There is a huge confusion between the most important matters (halting climate protection efforts, or sliding into a hot or cold war with China) and trivial ones (Trump’s zero traditional decorum, or his mixing his businesses with government and stealing money through corruption). People are now running to facile recrimination, and personal jokes and attacks that just waste time, and may even make matters worse, I think, although Norma thinks that any stick to beat the bad guys is good.
I’m on the center left. In many ways a critical wrong turning for our country was when George W. Bush, and the Republican right seized the 2000 election from Al Gore. This led to the war in Iraq, a stall on remedying the growing income/wealth differences, a stall in responding to climate change (decarbonizing the economy), and finally the 2008 economic breakdown.
What we are seeing, and not only in our country, is a drama of the unevenness of modernization. Modernization means the immense and pervasive social and technical/economic changes in human life that have been running perhaps since 1600, and which with technical and scientific impetus are running faster than ever now. Modernization is of course a huge boon and gain for human beings (think only of improvements in health and longevity), but it is also a huge threat to many, and there will always be present a large and important conservative and resistant body of opinion in almost all societies.
When I say present-day modernity and modernization, I’m certainly thinking of urbanization, a science-based rather than a primarily religious belief system, high levels of education and literacy, very high levels of specialization and division of labor, the harnessing of “energy,” intellectual “meritocratic” selection for elite positions in society, egalitarian social and racial pluralism, including feminism, and lowered levels of personal authoritarianism.
An important dimension of the issue is the matter of sharing modernity and its fruits (including the great wealth it can generate). When relatively wealthy educated middle-class people, intentionally or not, concentrate and monopolize modernity and its fruits, as many have done in the United States, inevitably a large, eventually majoritarian, body of aggrieved excluded people arises. On the other hand, simply sharing out a modern way of life more broadly is not straightforward, because modernity or “civilization” do in fact make many demands on the individual, and there are many who are unequipped, through lack of education, rural location or for other reasons, to participate. They actively resist modernization at the same time that they complain about being left out of it. This group can become numerous enough to have a major political impact, as we are seeing in the “Tea Party” in our country, and elements of the populist right in all countries. They bring dual and contradictory grievances, both that they have been left out of modernization, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, that they have had too much of it forced on them, and have seen their traditionality, including religion and valid “family values”, be abused.
The pearl of great price in modern social and political organization is to be able to offer a stable and remunerative job to everyone--this is supposedly the work of the capitalists’ “invisible hand,” but it’s obvious that the invisible hand doesn’t work nearly well enough in age of rapid change, both technical (think computerization) and political/economic (think production pursuing low wages to Asia). Indeed, there are huge stresses, if not absolute contradictions, between the operation of a free market economy (neo-liberalism, it is sometimes called), a central feature of at least our kind of modernity, and the well-functioning of a society.
The Russian revolution was basically driven by peasants’ need for control of the land, which to them represented safe, stable employment. Now, as in the periods before the Russian and other revolutions, there are huge numbers of people whose safe, stable employment and community membership is threatened or disappearing. Lots of thrashing about is to be expected, but the thrashing about could itself prove to be genuinely dysfunctional or dangerous, even lethal unless a path is found through the economic and distributional challenges. These are big and difficult problems. I think of the Socialists in Sweden as having worked out and put into effect such a path in their country and their day. Working out a “moderated modernity for all” is a tough nut to crack, although I think that in this country the Democratic Party should get together and have some intense internal sessions to work out how the party stands and what it is proposing to the public, and at what rate of adoption.
Trump in our country (and Farage and others elsewhere), represent pent-up impatience, pain and outrage against the imbalances of the present situation and the smugness with which they are defended. But in fact, Trump offers little or no real solution. That lack itself is going to be a painful awakening for our national public, perhaps making it still further vulnerable to demagoguery. The great great danger is scapegoating, and especially building up external conflict as an outlet channel for the public’s frustration and anger. The present picture could develop uncomfortable similarities with Weimar.