Know Thyself, America: Introspection and Reflection in a Post-Election United States

To many Americans, it might have felt as if the world ground to a halt after the 2016 elections. A constant bombardment of breaking news headlines finally assuaged us: the year-and-a-half long media-saturated, scandal abundant, exhaustive campaign was finally coming to an end. A wholly unexpected set of results, however, had the exact opposite effect. The unprecedented victory of Donald J. Trump, a man with no past political or military experience whatsoever, dramatically re-stoked the fire of sensationalism that has burned in American politics for the past year and a half. Election night, then, may have felt like a wholly surreal experience, one which merited the halting of the clock, even if just momentarily, to give time to digest the results. Time, however, infallible and stubborn as it is, had complete disregard for these wishes, as it usually does. It pushed on, allowing our heated emotion to thaw and thus giving space for clarity, reflection, and synthesis; tools which might go a long way in helping us try to make sense of what happened on November 8, 2016.

Several analysts and political pundits have denoted the results of the election as evidence of a growing conservative sentiment, or ‘backlash’, in America. The Trump phenomenon, they argue, is a reaction to the quickly globalizing and shifting world of the 21st century. A world which, although modernizing, is also highly alienating to a large portion of the population, especially the populations of rural areas, removed from the hyper-connected and globalized urban centers. The fact that the GOP won control of all three branches of government with one of the most conservative platforms in its history might be definite evidence of this sentiment in the United States. Yet, the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, with a margin of almost 2 million votes, while Trump won the Electoral College, has made these pundits recognize that the nation is deeply divided. States like Michigan, for example, which President Obama won by over 9 percentage points, and which was largely predicted to go for Clinton, elected Trump by a margin of only 11,000 votes. This narrow division consists of two opposing narratives which are theoretically antithetical to each other: one narrative paints the nation as losing track of its foundational traditional values which must thus be re-conquered, while the other narrative seeks to break tradition and incorporate new values into the national discourse. These narratives define themselves in opposition to each other, and thus always tend to provide antagonistic answers to the same issues. A closer look at the electoral and political panorama after the elections, however, will show that the reality is actually fairly more complicated; the narratives that we have cast over the nation are not nearly as concrete as we make them out to be.

Amidst the election of mostly conservative representatives, several highly progressive ballot initiatives found success. The legalization of marijuana for recreational use in California, Massachusetts, and Nevada, and for medical use in Florida, North Dakota, and Arkansas, for example, garnered a fair amount media attention in spite of the bombastic presidential results. Some other propositions, however, were largely obfuscated by the sensationalism. The passage of Colorado’s Proposition 106 was one such result.

The mainstream media should not act surprised at the triumph of a reality television star in the political world when it was largely responsible for turning the political world into reality television.

Entitled the “Colorado End of Life Options Act”, Proposition 106 makes assisted suicide by a medical practitioner legal for patients who have terminal illnesses and a prognosis of death within six months. Having passed with an astounding 65% of the vote, the proposition will come into effect next year. Although fairly restrictive in scope, contextually, Proposition 106 can still be considered highly progressive: as of 2016, only five other states have legalized means for assisted death.

Other successful progressive initiatives, such as the passage of tougher gun laws in California and Nevada, and a ban on plastic bags in California, were also largely shunned by the media, for similar reasons to Colorado’s act. The media’s incessant drive for higher ratings trampled the coverage of many issues of genuine political importance. In this set-up, then, it is inevitable that the loudest voice, and the most outrageous ideas, take the vanguard. The mainstream media should not act surprised at the triumph of a reality television star in the political world when it was largely responsible for turning the political world into reality television. Instead of recognizing their own shortcomings, the media prefers to cast a singular political blanket over the whole country, in order to be able to explain the results. However, when progressive initiatives, such as the ones previously mentioned, are being passed alongside a populist conservative sentiment that, truthfully, doesn’t even fit into the mold of traditional conservatism, it would seem that casting one narrative over the entire nation is largely unfair and plainly inaccurate.

The panorama post-election is one full of contradictions and trends, intersecting and diverging, evincing all types of sentiments and worldviews. Pundits and pollsters, who in the past were always delegated the monopoly on reason and political analysis, have been largely contested and somewhat invalidated by these elections. Whereas before they seemed to always have their finger on the pulse of America, now it seems like they have lost their touch. Tools and instruments from a deeply established convention, taken as infallible, have done little to predict voting patterns. How, then, can we approach the current situation of the country, and consequently, of the world? With such a radical proliferation of individualized access to information, it seems like the variety of opinions, narratives, and political trends have radically multiplied: a clash with the dichotomous, bi-polar set-up of the current political system is thus inevitably born. The proponents of this system are left perplexed and bewildered — yet it is largely a fault of their own for refusing to let go of an antiquated, bifurcated, worldview.

The issue with the current political structure, epitomized by the two-party system, is that it only provides and perpetuates two possible narratives for a heterogeneous, diverse nation of over 300 million people. The political system is not an organic representation of the people’s political vindications; rather, it works in reverse, from top to bottom. It imposes a labeled narrative, of ‘conservative’/‘liberal’ or ‘Democratic’/‘Republican’, on a broad spectrum of variegated opinions and experiences. This year’s election evinces the frustration with the deeply entrenched establishments that base themselves upon this dichotomous system. By cloaking the nation in ‘red’ and ‘blue’ swathes, legitimate political frustrations of the most varied kind are snubbed and disdained, especially when they don’t seem to quite fit either of the two ‘colored’ narratives. This inevitably divides and alienates people, leading to a feeling of disenfranchisement either from one of the parties or from the system as a whole.

As time, in all its stubbornness, continues to push us forward, we should rethink and re-vamp the exercise of political analysis and synthesis. It is long past due to do away with the practice of dispelling contradictions and shunning certain trends in the name of uniformity and making sense. Pre-fabricated labels and narratives should follow the same path. Punditry needs to reclaim its original function, in which conclusion is drawn out of reality, rather than helping reality to be shaped by preexisting conclusions. The first step towards this is admitting that a large majority of professional punditry was simply wrong these past elections. They must shed their arrogance and misplaced certainty, their undying attachment to convention along with it. It is the people who know what they want and thus, it is the people, first and foremost, who should be heard. Tendencies should be identified as they truly are, without the veil of bipartisanship or dichotomous narratives. Yes, deep divisions seem to evidently exist throughout the country, but it is possible that many of the people’s frustrations and sorrows are more alike than they are different. If we continue to perpetuate this dichotomy of thought, however, we will never find out.

Once the true power of punditry and political analysis is regained, we might finally be able to engage in genuine reflection and examination that will lead to the pinpointing of the roots of the frustrations, grievances, and the ills that plague the nation. Then, both those in and out of power, will be able to identify how it is that they contribute to the perpetuation or mitigation of these ills. Through this unsung power of reflection and introspection, maybe a true profound change can be made in this broken, alienating system.