The Election Everyone Lost

Locked ballot box used in Carson, North Dakota on October 30, 1940.  U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr.

Locked ballot box used in Carson, North Dakota on October 30, 1940. U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr.

One of the truisms of American politics is that there are winners and losers. For Americans, this binary world of win-or-lose is second nature: It is embedded in our two-party system and ritualized in the structures of our political rhetoric, the spectacle of our public debates, and the signage on our private property.

The reason that it is a truism is that it is mostly true. Every two years, millions of us find ourselves in one of two positions. Some, victorious, cheer in ballrooms as their candidates claim victory and return home invigorated by the fresh hope of democratic change. Others, defeated, gather in similar ballrooms across town to witness the concession of their defeat, and then return home resolved to realize their hopes in days to come.

It is now evident to most of the world that this democratic ritual of triumph and defeat has once again taken place—though in an admittedly dramatic fashion—in the 2016 presidential election. Donald J. Trump won the presidency of the United States, while Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party she represents, lost. But what seems less evident to many of us is the very real sense in which this election represents a departure from the conventions of win-or-lose that have become so familiar: That it is, in fact, an election that everyone lost.

For the past five decades or so, American elections have been contests not simply between two candidates or even two parties but between two visions of America. It is true that these respective visions have deep and entangled roots in American history, but it is also true that in the early 1960s they began to take new shape in a way that would define the central themes of American politics for decades to come.

The first is what might be called a preservationist vision of America. Its fundamental conviction is that of American virtue; of a native goodness that expresses itself in an ethic of personal responsibility, bonds of local community, and—drawing on long-held commitments to American exceptionalism and religious obligation—a calling to global engagement.

It is undeniable that this vision grew out of the experience of ordinary people who daily witnessed this goodness in the lives of their neighbors and in the aspirations of their nation. But it is also undeniable that this vision could be sustained only by a willful blindness to the limits of virtue both at home and abroad; by a myopic nostalgia that—even as it beheld virtue—could not see the profound evil of its complicity in the longest standing white-supremacist order in the modern world.

Taken together, this clarity about its virtue and blindness to its vice fused into a powerful social vision of American goodness. And as a natural consequence, this social vision gave rise to a preservationist political platform whose adherents instinctively pledge to protect that goodness from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

As often as not, these foes shared an alternative vision of America, what might be called a progressivist vision. Its foundational conviction is one of American possibility: of inevitable civilizational development rooted in a vision of individual rights, pursued through a commitment to civic struggle, and oriented toward the realization of global equity. It is a restless vision of a nation ever on the move toward its own unrealized yearnings.

Like the preservationist vision, this vision was shaped by the lived experience of watching ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things both for themselves and for their country. But it too was sustained by a form of blindness, in particular by a jaundiced eye toward its preservationist neighbors; a smug tendency to dismiss their religious convictions and local conventions as unevolved obstructions to progressive imaginings—obstructions that would, in time, inevitably fade away. And likewise, in the second half of the twentieth century this commitment to progress and contempt for all deemed regressive fused to create a powerful social and political vision in its own right.

For the past fifty years, a large part of the story of American politics has been the tumultuous contest between these two visions. Indeed, one could, almost without exception, map the lurching history of the modern American presidency as a rhetorical journey from one of these visions to the other. They have determined the rise and fall of American candidates, informed the hopes and anxieties of the American people, and determined the role of the American nation in the world.

Until now. Of the many dramatic features of this election, perhaps the most dramatic is that for the first time in fifty years, both of these visions of America lost.

That this election represents a repudiation of the progressivist vision—in the presidency, in the houses of Congress, and in all likelihood in the Supreme Court—is beyond dispute. This is not to say that the progressivist vision has lost its power in the American imagination. To the contrary, as I write these words American progressives are holding protests in cities across the nation. But it did lose the election. And it did so in a way—and to a degree—that surprised nearly everyone.

But perhaps the even greater surprise is the fact that the preservationist vision lost the election as well. Some, of course, will try to characterize the victory of Donald Trump as precisely a preservationist triumph, as the vindication of a long-standing commitment to preserving America’s greatness. But this is a political delusion. Donald Trump won the White House not because of the ideals of American virtue but of a widespread disregard for (and perhaps even some approval of) of his own personal vice. He won not as a paragon of personal responsibility but as a prodigy of irresponsible action; not by nurturing local communities but by fueling local resentments; not by promising global support, but by courting global scorn. Because of this, the election of Donald Trump does not represent a triumph of the preservationist vision over its progressivist alternative. It represents the defeat of both.

This means that even though in a conventional sense some of our candidates have won and others have lost, in a more fundamental sense we all have lost. And what we have lost is a compelling account of ourselves. For the first time in half a century, Americans looked at the dominant visions we have created of our nation and realized that we can no longer—as a majority—find ourselves within them. And in response, many Americans chose something new: a vision of ourselves that almost none of us understand. This is an extraordinary development. Not least because, if taken seriously, it forces us to ask anew one of the most important questions that a nation can ever ask of itself: What are we to become?

Many, no doubt, will ignore this question and simply give themselves to campaigns of retrenchment, to the tired work of re-invigorating their favored visions and resisting their usual foes. This is understandable, but it is also a mistake. If this election teaches us any lessons—and it assuredly does—the most important is that neither of the competing visions of who we are adequately reflect who we really are. To the contrary, each of them has failed us deeply. If we are going to live together, we are going to have to set the old visions aside and learn to see anew.

We have to give ourselves—individually and collectively—to the work of re-imagining the meaning of our nation. The work of taking an honest look at ourselves and our neighbors. The work of determining that we are going to love one another and live together as one nation. The work of crafting a vision of what our nation should be. And the work of laboring together—in friendships, across townships, and amid hardships—to make that vision more than a wistful illusion.

It is only if we do so that the common loss of this election will become not simply the re-opening of old wounds but the opening of a new opportunity—the opportunity to re-examine who we really are and to re-imagine, together, who we may yet be.

Gregory Thompson is a Fellow in Culture and Democracy at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

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