America has not reflected on its own democracy for a while. We used to assume that we knew very well what it means, what its main features are, what its origins and even its destiny are. Although we have experienced events in the recent past that should have made us more reflective of its currents status—such as 9/11 and its aftermath—2016 should not become a second missed opportunity for self-inspection. Eight years ago we were witnessing the clearest expression of an end-that-is-a-beginning you can think of: the Democratic Party primary season saw a young, inspiring African American political leader about to become the first African American presidential candidate and, just a few months later, the first African American president.
But that was not all. Probably even more important than that, this first African American president was at the time the symbol of the rejection of a past and the embrace of a possible future: the rejection of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, of the illegality and incompetence of it all, and the embrace of a future of international cooperation and respect for its institutional forms. He was so much a symbol of all this that he even received a Nobel Peace Price as a down payment for that promising future! After this, how did we end up in 2016 with an election in which George W. Bush (all the Bushes, actually) and most of his foreign policy advisors and ideologues, the Neocons, openly or implicitly backing the candidate put forward by Obama’s party, the same party that was supposed to have symbolized the rejection of precisely Republican neoconservatives’ time in power?
We have missed something important. During 2016, the party that pundits and even most serious analysts thought was in disarray and destined to defeat and decline ended up winning the election and will soon dominate all three branches of government; while the party that looked composed and orderly lost the election and will certainly face intense internal strife—and, hopefully, renewal. During the hard-fought internecine party battles of the year, the Democratic establishment suffered as much of a challenge within their own ranks as the Republicans, but the Democratic elite obtained a pyrrhic victory that contributed to their surprising ability to continue until the bitter end in denial of the anti-elitist discontent spreading around the country—both left and right.
The party conventions in July epitomized what was going on: they staged for everyone to see that the Republican Party was not going into the 2016 election unified—what almost everyone missed was that a lack of unity would actually propel them to a win in November. During the Republican convention, the matrix that organized the schedule of days and speakers was: “Make America … Again”. If this matrix was able to be made meaningful by filling the blank in so many different ways—make America great, safe, one, white (or at least less colorful, or at least colorful in such a way that it becomes clear that one of the “colors” regains its preeminence,) heteronormative (that is, extending the same principle to sexual orientation: restoring preeminence while not completely rejecting the others or, better put, restoring hierarchy,) again—what that probably meant was that what mattered was much more the matrix itself than the multiple ways in which it could be given life. The whole meaning of the Trump campaign was that of a restoring revolution, one that could allow those formerly unchallenged in their dominance to feel safe, powerful and, most importantly, legitimate again.
This is what generated the enthusiasm that the Democratic Party so sorely lacked, especially after having barely defeated the challenge posed by a socialist from Vermont who could have eventually offered an alternative to some of the potential supporters of the coalition of discontent. The nationalism, nativism, and racism, only partially disguised as a restorative revolution by the Republican candidate, offered a (re)entrance to political life and even (mostly xenophobic) joy to those who have increasingly felt forgotten by the widening gap between economic winners and losers—and taken for granted by the Democratic Party. And this happened mostly because this very party slowly became oblivious to the fact that equality cannot be reduced to an identitarian principle applied, in a particularist way, to each group that has a legitimate grievance against past or present injustices. Equality is a generic, performative principle that, when absent, might trigger a logic of (for now mostly cultural) war of all against all. Sooner or later one substantialized identity was going to feel excluded by the cherry picking of policies and language and was going to act accordingly.
Not surprisingly, that identity became the historically and, according to most synchronic indicators, still dominant one. Perception, however, is never synchronic; it always takes a diachronic view of things. Thus the cultural and symbolic improvement of other substantialized and traditionally oppressed identities, with the still larger substantialized identity losing ground vis-à-vis the wealthy and powerful in the social pyramid, left many to take seriously the xenophobic, sexist, and racist promises of an arriviste. As I tried to underline in my previous contribution to this publication, the world of “possibles” opened up by this circumstance is multiple and indeterminate. Those possibles might be good, bad and who knows what else. Whatever the case, we must accept the fact that none of them is impossible and that we do not even know what they all are.
In broad terms, we must accept the possibility that the worst tendencies might be deepened: the war on terror might radicalize its unchecked nature and metamorphose into even worse policies and actions implemented by our executive; social inequality might continue to increase; and current and future demagogues might continue to persuade large numbers of self-identified members of the largest substantialized identity (White Americans) to blame the weaker Others and other countries for their misfortunes. If all this happens, we will face a very dark and dangerous period of our unexceptional life. If the opposite happens, however, we might soon be witnessing the renaissance of a renewed Democratic Party that finally breaks with its plutocratic patrons and finds an egalitarian voice to express the legitimate grievances of those left behind by today’s America—and the Republican Party, controlling all branches of government, badly overreaching and worsening the conditions of us all, might unexpectedly facilitate this development. In any case, chances are that, whatever the future holds for us, this will reveal itself to be neither black nor white but rather some ambiguous shade of gray. Let us at least make sure that our intellectual arrogance and national pride do not get in the way of perceiving the subtle tones of what will be going on around us.