The Republic Is Dead. Long Live the Republic!

I told myself I wasn’t going to write about the US presidential election until I had had a few days to reflect on the results. After all, I’m an intellectual. Reflecting on things is what I do. But as I was drinking my coffee this morning, it dawned on me that I might as well write something today because I’ve basically been reflecting on the results of this election for the past six months. You see, I never feared a Trump presidency as much as I feared his nomination. That was enough to let me know that every possible outcome of this election would be bad.

I don’t have a natural home within the American political spectrum. Part of this comes from temperament, that ruminative process I mentioned above. I find it difficult to get excited about the hot-button issues of the day. This makes me ill-suited for activism, even when I sympathize with the motivations of the activists. Part of it comes from life experience: from 1997 through 2009, I spent more time outside the US than inside, so looking at my country from the outside-in became a habit. And part of it comes from education: Cicero, Augustine, Machiavelli, and Tocqueville provide a running commentary inside my head. Mostly they fold their arms, shake their heads, and grumble.

All this means that you’re unlikely to hear much from me about things like taxes or bathrooms. Temperament and training incline me to seek the Grundstoffe – the raw materials – of politics, i.e., the assumptions about human nature and our place in the cosmos that underlie our vocabulary, our institutions, and our social practices. As I noted in my first blog post, the building blocks of liberal modernity are relics from a time of flux centuries in the past. They began taking shape after Galileo pointed a telescope at the night sky and Odierna placed a fly under a microscope, dissolving the classical world-view that had stood for thousands of years, but not providing anything nearly as comprehensive to replace it. These concepts then spread via the printing press, inspiring a leisured and literate elite to reshape institutions across the globe.

Social media is doing to modern politics what the telescope and the microscope did to the theory of the four classical elements – dissolving it without offering a coherent replacement. Without such a replacement, nostalgia drives politics. The interconnectedness of the modern world prompted the political movements of our day to reaffirm old identities, to promise to make things as they once were; the media that sustains that interconnectedness enabled them to push their message relentlessly.

In my writings elsewhere, I diagnosed the current state of our polity as a result of the failure of political parties to function as guiding intermediaries between the state and the people. Hillary Clinton was the calcified apotheosis of the modern Democratic Party – a dynastic candidate offering little apart from rote homilies to multiculturalism and assurances that she was competent enough to marginally tweak the regulatory state left by the current administration. Donald Trump, on the other hand, was essentially post-partisan. For him, the Republican Party was nothing more than a brand that he needed to add to his portfolio in order to open up a new market. He didn’t need the structure of the party at all; the media gave him all the “ground game” his campaign needed.

With Clinton’s defeat the Democratic Party is likely to move further to the left, amplifying the voices of people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. On the other side of the aisle, the Republican Party has seen that Trumpism works as an electoral strategy. Republican legislators who refuse to play ball with the new administration will face primary challenges from a rising class of Trump loyalists.

The pessimist in me says that the future of American politics will be driven by celebrity candidates whose electoral strategy, regardless of their political affiliation, will mimic Trump’s: do whatever it takes to grab the media spotlight, because that’s how you will get votes. Give voice to outrage and the votes will come. If there isn’t enough outrage going around already, manufacture some so you can fire up more of your base. The pessimist in me says that our politics will deteriorate into mob rule.

I can’t offer a prescription for what ails the polity, but I do have some thoughts about what people of any political persuasion can do to perhaps alleviate some of the suffering:

  1. Make sure that your social media feed doesn’t turn into an echo chamber. For me this is easy: I was raised in rural Alabama, but my educational and professional ambitions transplanted me to the Northeast Corridor. I see a pretty wide spectrum of political opinions on Facebook and haven’t unfriended (or even blocked) a single person over the course of this election. On Twitter I follow everything from Jacobin to First Things to Reason. They provide food for thought even when I don’t agree with them.
  2. Don’t feed the mindlessness of the social media beast. Political memes are prefabricated opinions. We don’t need them because we all have our own. Write yours down, whether in the form of 1000-word blog posts or 140-character tweets. A picture of that politician you love or hate with some dubious “facts” pasted across it isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about anything, but your authentic voice might.
  3. If you’re an “independent,” join a political party. Yes, yes, I know you’re not a joiner, but that means you have no role in the party primaries that could actually filter out the candidates you hate. Maybe you don’t agree with all of that party’s platform, but you can’t challenge that platform from the outside. In any case, suggestions #1 and #2 will help you resist groupthink and keep you from turning into anyone’s propaganda mouthpiece.

So those are my thoughts on the election. Now please excuse me while I fold my arms, shake my head, and grumble.

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