A day later, and the future still seems pretty dark to me.
Yesterday morning, Hillary Clinton conceded defeat with grace and dignity, and a resolute commitment to the inevitability of social progress, confirming our belief that these have always been her qualities. President Obama began the process of transition. He invited the President-elect to the White House as soon as today. And in a quite remarkable attempt to re-contextualize 18 months of bitter, impassioned and angry campaign rhetoric, he quaintly described US presidential elections as "intramural scrimmages".
Well, we're all getting along now, I guess. At least no one it seems, is any longer describing the US voting system as rigged.
Commentators are well into the post-mortem analysis. For many, of course, that will have to include an examination of the question: what went wrong with their confident prediction that Americans would reject Trump? (Of course, in one sense, they did: Clinton won the popular vote.)
There will be lots of explanations. Here’s one that needs considering. I won’t remember the numbers perfectly, but they went something like this: compared with 2012, the Republican vote decreased by a bit less than a million (in round numbers, 61 million to 60 million); but the Democratic vote declined by as much as 6 million (66 to 60). Overall, a lower turnout. But perhaps what really happened is simply that Republicans voted Republican, while millions of Democrats abandoned their party and candidate. (These would probably be the blue collar workers who once formed the backbone of the New Deal Democratic coalition and who are now the bedrock of Republican support in the Rust Belt states where the election was won and lost.)
The other narrative that has returned to the media discourse as an explanation of Tuesday’s outcome is the argument that what really happened is that voters decided, as they do from time to time, to vote for change rather than continuity. In crudely simple terms, it’s like this: “we’ve given those bastards a pretty good run at it; now it’s time to elect a different set of bastards.” (The argument is pursued by Gail Collins in her op-ed in today’s New York Times.)
This idea was once very elegantly explained by the American philosopher Robert Nozick in his book, The Examined Life. He called it the "zigzag" of politics. He wrote,
“The electorate I see as being in the following situation: Goals and programs have been pursued for some time by the party in power, and the electorate comes to think that’s far enough, perhaps even too far. It’s now time to right the balance, to include other goals that have been, recently at least, neglected or given too low a priority, and it’s time to cut back on some of the newly instituted programs, to reform or curtail them.”
It’s a philosopher’s argument (I don’t think he even names a political party throughout the whole of his discussion). It implies, plausibly, that voters are rarely as entrenched in their adherence to the positions and views of parties and candidates as are the parties (and their ideologues). It argues for a balance over time that ensures that different interests, priorities, and aspirations eventually all have their chance. It underestimates the role that personality - as opposed to policy - plays in election outcomes. But it is not a bad way of explaining one of the best features of healthy democracies, which is that long term one-party rule is the exception, rather than the norm.
So maybe what happened is that Americans - or at least some of them - were simply voting this week for change.
Fine. I can comprehend that analysis. I might even agree with it. But it doesn’t help.
Americans may have voted for change. But what they got was Donald Trump. And that’s where the fear starts to rise again in the pit of my stomach.