Devastated by the American Presidential Election

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.
~ Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 10, 2016.)

Like most of my readers, I am devastated by the 2016 American Presidential election results (and by the Congressional election results as well.) I have waited a few weeks to write about it so as not to be reacting too emotionally to the results. Since that time my usual focus on philosophy has faded into the background as the country in which I was born and lived all of my life finds itself in perhaps its greatest existential crisis. I hope that I am wrong, but the possibility of a fascist, authoritarian, banana republic with the power to inflict worldwide catastrophe is now a real possibility. At this time obtuse philosophical speculation feels superfluous and indulgent. So for the foreseeable future I will write about the grave situation in today’s America.

First, a bit about my background. I have followed politics closely since I was a small boy discussing the issues of the day with my father, who himself was an ardent student of politics. I grew up in the Midwest and my father was a blue-collar worker with a union job. I remember him first explaining to me that the Republican party of the 1960s in the USA was the party of the wealthy, while the Democratic party represented the populist alternative. (No doubt a lot has happened in the intervening 50 years, but to a large extent that analysis still holds true—Democrats give you affordable health-care, Republicans can’t wait to take it away.) I remember reveling in his stories about the honesty of Harry Truman, the intellect of Adlai Stevenson, the oratory of Everett Dirksen, and the whining of Richard Nixon‘s “last press conference.”

I also recall watching the entire TV coverage of both parties political conventions in 1964 at the age of 9, something I’d bet my contemporaries didn’t do. As an undergraduate I had courses in American government, American history, and political philosophy. Later, as a graduate student in philosophy, I had to pass oral exams on a required reading list that included: Plato’s The Republic; Aristotle’s Politics; Hobbes’ Leviathan; Locke’s Second Treatise of Government; Rousseau’s The Two Discourses and the Social Contract;Marx’s The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right; Lenin’s The State and Revolution, and many others.

I also had a graduate seminar devoted to the study of the radical libertarian thinkers of the Austrian school of economics like Joseph SchumpeterFriedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was also required reading there. And, as a young assistant professor I taught a class called “American Political Thought,” where I read most of The Federalist papers and was introduced to, among others, the economist Milton Friedman.

I don’t claim to have mastered the above material, nor do I claim to specialize in political or economic philosophy. Thousands of scholars of political science, political philosophy and economics know infinitely more than I do about these subjects, so I’m not bragging. I simply want to suggest that I’m not a low information voter, and that I have some familiarity with various economic and philosophical theorizing.

Of course I recognize that in the USA today, acknowledging that you know even a little bit about a subject results in being labeled an elitist. My own take on this is that sometimes experts are too sure of themselves, sometimes people are jealous that others know more than they do, sometimes people can’t distinguish between a real expert and a fake one, and sometimes people are just ignorant. As for myself, I know almost nothing about auto mechanics, programming a computer, playing the piano, and a million other things, yet I’m happy to have experts fix my car, program my computer, or teach me how to play the piano if I am so inclined.

What I have done in the last year or so—as our political situation has become more dangerous—is read literally thousands of articles about the current state of politics from reputable and intellectually sophisticated sources like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, The Atlantic, and dozens of others. (Not from fake sources forwarded from facebook.) I’ve probably read more than a hundred in the weeks since the election. What I would like to do in the coming posts is summarize some of the best pieces I’ve read. As I go along, or at the end of that journey, I will try to reflect about what is most troubling in our current situation. Stay tuned if you’re interested.

7 thoughts on “Devastated by the American Presidential Election

  1. I see a few thing left out of your ‘a bit about my background’. All I see is what you have heard from someone else. Where have you been to, especially to work, productively. Ever run a business where the money came out of your pocket? The same pocket that you use to feed, clothe, etc., yourself and family; where you are totally responsible for putting funds in it that did not come from some public or government entity. True understanding and meaning comes from personal experience, responsibility and involvement. Not from being a spectator. I am quite sure that Roman citizens knew exactly zero about being a gladiator! There is a very popular term for talking about people and things, it is called gossip.

    I am not trying to be mean or hurtful. It does seem though that most of the democrat, progressive, etc., ones that are out baying at the moon are acting like Chicken Little.

  2. I too have been struggling with my reaction to the election. My wife’s reaction was the same as mine, with the volume turned way up. She is furious; she is terrified; her attitude is now “America can go to hell!”

    So what exactly is it that is so devastating about this election? I see it terms of four factors. In order of increasing importance, they are:

    First, the defeat of Ms. Clinton. We were so excited that, at long last, we’d have a woman President. And not just that: probably the best-prepared candidate in a long time. This woman has magnificent credentials for running the country. She would certainly have been one of our finest Presidents.

    Second, the idiocy of some in the left for turning their backs on her because she wasn’t liberal enough. Couldn’t those idiots see that she was the only person standing between Mr. Trump and the White House? How could they be so STUPID?!?!

    Third is the election of Mr. Trump. If Ms. Clinton had been beaten by, say, Marco Rubio, I would have been intensely disappointed, but I would not have been devastated. The American system could survive another George Bush II, perhaps with an acceptable loss in blood, treasure, and prestige. But Mr. Trump will be a catastrophically bad President. I don’t need to articulate his disastrous lack of knowledge, intelligence, or temperament — we all know that. His Presidency will cement the downward spiral of America, ending all hope of the country maintaining to its position as leader of the free world.

    But the fourth, and truly devastating factor for me is what this election reveals about the American voter. I now realize that a controlling portion of the citizenry is racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-rational, intolerant, shamefully naive, gullible, bereft of ethical standards, nationalistic, and antagonistic towards the ideals that have constituted the very soul of the American experiment. The nation that even an globalist like me admired for its ideals has been thrown aside by a wave of ugly, vicious fascists. I recall in my youth reading a pundit who observed that when fascism came to America, it wouldn’t be with swastikas, brownshirts, and goose-stepping soldiers; it would wrap itself in the flag, mother, and apple pie — which is precisely what has happened. Perhaps we have begun a downward spiral to fascism.

    The good news is that I really don’t think we’ll end up with a fascist state. Yes, the people who voted for Trump want that, but remember, they are still a minority; more Americans voted for Ms. Clinton than for Mr. Trump. My expectation is that two personas of America are no longer compatible. The ignorant rubes who hate gays, Mexicans, Muslims, and intellectuals, and who think that a woman’s place is barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen will never go away, but the Americans who still believe in tolerance and justice for all remain a powerful force. The two sides are now too far apart to be able to find any middle ground for compromise. The conflict between them will only grow more intense with the years, until ultimately the hotheads on both sides start the violence, at which point a divorce between the two sides will be the only option. I hope that Americans find the decency to carry out that divorce with a minimum of violence, but I fear that the fascists among up will not readily give up their power over the economically more productive half of the nation. The dissolution of the USA is now inevitable. That is what terrifies me.

  3. Mr. McCandless, I believe that your comment reflects a common mistake: “My experiences are more important than your experiences”. Whether they be airline pilot, movie actor, bricklayer, or truck driver, most people believe that their own personal experiences equip them with a unique wisdom few others possess. They can’t ALL be better than each other, can they?

    I suggest that wisdom is derived from three sources: direct experience, breadth of indirect experience, and contemplation. No person has enough direct experience of the world to understand it, so we augment our direct experiences with indirect ones by reading, talking to other people, watching movies and television, and so forth. Finally, all the experience in the world is useless if one doesn’t take the time to mull over what it all means. Usually, discussions like this one can sharpen one’s thinking, as other people can point out things one might have missed.

  4. I’ll be anxious to see where you go with this, John. I’ve been wondering about such a shift in focus on my own blog and other writing too. You know I’ve been writing about evolutionary philosophy (another “obtuse philosophical speculation [that] feels superfluous and indulgent” at this time), but in 2012 I published my first novel called “Draining the Swamp” about an outsider coming to Washington DC to “really make a difference.” My wife and I both worked in DC for several years in a variety of places trying to make government work better, but we eventually moved on to other pursuits we felt were more fundamentally important. Now, with Trump and the clear and present danger he presents, I am wondering what is the best thing one can do. Some people do need to be in the trenches fighting. Some need to be looking far ahead to set the needle of the moral compass. You’ve done great work on the second, and I will miss more of that from you, but I’m glad to know you’ll be rolling up your sleeves for more immediate concerns too. All the best no matter what you do my friend.

  5. I take solace in the fact that political action rarely moves in straight lines. Where it looks like we’re heading isn’t likely to be exactly where we end up.

    I welcome the coming articles.

  6. Thanks Len. As someone once said “prediction is hard … especially about the future.” On the other hand, its looking cloudier than it did a month ago.

  7. Ed, thanks for the nice words. And you have captured my feeling very much when you say “obtuse philosophical speculation [that] feels superfluous and indulgent” at this time)…”

    I will try to produce multiple posts each week as I try to reflect on what’s going on here. But I do fear that things will get much worse, possibly cataclysmic.

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