This past election reminded me of an assignment I did in my Foreign Policy class last year. We read Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History,” in which he argued that western liberal democracies were the epitome of sociopolitical advancement. According to Fukuyama, the decisive triumph of the United States and the west against the Soviet Union was evidence that we (or at least some of us) had reached perfect systems of government and culture. Answering a question about what I thought of Fukuyama’s thesis, my junior year self wrote “I think the model of human history he presents was relatively accurate… I am still, however, not convinced that the current liberal democratic political/cultural structures of the west will ‘end history.’ I think there is still room for significant development in these areas.”
The election of Donald Trump strongly supports my argument. It is hard to imagine that a society which elects such a man as their chief representative is one with no room for improvement. Beyond this, it seems that we are not even on a track of progression — whatever problems Obama may have had, surely his successor cannot indicate a forward thrust for American culture and government. These realities beg an extremely important question: what are the inadequacies of our society that permitted such a blunder?
The left and right have both produced facile diagnoses that hyperinflate the potential causes which are convenient to their respective narratives. A liberal is likely to tell you that the obscene abundance of racism is the primary explanation for Trump’s election. A conservative who is in the camp of those who decry Trump will assign culpability to the opinion censorship and politically correct culture of the left. Both of these explanations fail to take serious and potential causes that do not serve to their respective political agendas.
It is rather obvious that racism in America contributed to Donald Trump’s election. We can feel certain that practically every white supremacist in the United States voted for him. While it might not be as obvious, there is a very strong argument to be made that certain practices that have become prevalent in liberal political circles alienated many voters that would have otherwise voted for Clinton. While many may have been drawn to him because of their racism or their frustration with his opposition, there is one commonality between almost every single Trump voter (and Clinton voter, for that matter): they don’t know the first thing about politics.
As someone who typically spends hours every day browsing news and political content, I think it would be fair to assume that I am an exceptionally informed person, relative to the average American voter (which is ironic given that I can’t vote). Yet with all of this time spent, I still couldn’t name specific provisions in the TPP, or hope to accurately understand the effects of specific immigration policies. After years of heavy political engagement, I am still stuck with “I don’t know” as the honest answer to most questions about what policies the U.S. ought to implement.
So here is the problem — knowing stuff is a lot harder than we want to think it is, especially in politics. While a doctor must spend years training to diagnose a single person’s health issues and prescribe a treatment, an adult in America needs only citizenship to diagnose and treat the largest problems facing our nation today.
The fact of the matter is that voters have no clue what is going on in the world around them, so we cannot continue to be surprised when the people they elect reflect ignorance. Whenever a truly competent leader finds his or her way into the White House, it must surely be by luck. Her electorate couldn’t have voted based on a pragmatic analysis of her policies — people by and large simply do not think that way.
Pragmatism is an anomaly in American voters, especially as of late. Voters of both parties have selected ideologies that precede facts in almost every case.
As numerous candidates vie for our nation’s highest office, their battle of ideas are marked not by intellectual honesty and pragmatic discussion, but by a competition to pander as many ill informed and politically ignorant voters as possible.
An adult in America needs only citizenship to diagnose and treat the largest problems facing our nation today.
So if your intention is to prevent someone like Trump from nearing the presidency, your time will be poorly spent attempting to eradicate racism or political correctness. The most effective thing you can do as an average person is remind yourself how clueless we all are about the intricacies of American politics.
That doesn’t mean you ought to not vote, but that you ought to dedicate as much time as you can to understanding the complex society that you live in. Every American should fulfill their obligation of knowing as much as they can before one votes.