How America’s binary worldview killed nuance in its politics
No matter how the journey to America's political zenith is traced, 2016 will go down as the year when shades of grey and mutual understanding were lost
“Don’t say no because I insist… Something’s Gotta Give.” Frank Sinatra, 1959.
One of the very worst things about not being American is, surely, not having the chance to vote for Donald Trump. I mean, look: most of us will never have anything approaching the power to change the course of things that now presents itself to millions of citizens in the US. All they need to do is get out and vote in sufficient numbers and badda bing! Real change, not the wishy washy stuff the liberals go on about. A new and unfamiliar course. The unknown. At home, less of some of the things Trump is agin; abroad, possible collapse of the global order. As pens hover in polling booths, it must be quite a thrill.
OK, I’m messing around. Voting for Trump is a bad idea. What I mean to say is that one of the very best things about not being American right now is not having to hold one’s nose and vote for Hillary Clinton. If you are American and recoil from both candidates, you have my sympathies. You’ve also probably had enough already of being lectured at as to the necessity of voting for the lesser of two evils, and other such cliches, so you will have no such exhortations from me. Instead I will invoke some trite-ish observations in the service of a greater truth: that the binary world you have given us is responsible for the lack of any mutual understanding or shades of grey in your politics and, increasingly, in many other aspects of life on the planet we share together too.
Doubtless there are other causes, but the two epoch-making phenomena of my own lifetime have had a profoundly damaging effect on the notion of universal human values (which I seem to think America used to be fairly practised at articulating, if not actually practising). The first was the Iraq war. When the battle cry is “you’re either with us or against us,” then it should not come as a shock that “with” has limited appeal. The crises that stem from it in the Middle East, Europe and beyond have not only exacted a price in blood and livelihoods, they have also helped to convince swathes of the non-Muslim world that hard borders and entrenchment are a rational response to globalisation. Those who disagree throw around accusations of racism and fascism.
Fracturing dialogue along these lines and the emergence of new culture wars drawn to a large extent on lines of social class and ethnicity have been exacerbated by weaponised use of free speech online. The internet – that other great liberationist force of our times, and made in America – has made great strides in emancipating us from shackles we never though to consider existed. It also, however, magnifies social hysteria and groupthink; it corals us into tribes based on often immaterial differences of identity or on the things we find deplorable in others. All sides exhibit the intemperance they attribute to their opponents.
More words, I would expect, will end up being committed to type on the 2016 US Election than any other in history. They will include millions on the parlous state of the nation’s political discourse in a race between two people who used to hang out together at swanky parties: a vulgarian oligarch and a cosmopolitan technocrat. You will have read such laments and know where to seek them again. But no matter how the journey to America’s political zenith is traced, there seems little doubt 2016 will go down as the year when nuance – like Mr Bojangles’ dog – finally up and died.