At last count, there were nearly 319 million of you.
Despite what pollsters, pundits, and other self-interested data-aggregators tell us–and what certain politicians would have us believe–a country is not a series of shifting tectonic plates roughly corresponding to discrete age, class, gender, racial, ethnic, and religious demographics. These lines are real and all too often consequential, but we also cross them innumerable times each day to live with hope and determination in America. And indeed we have to, even when–as it often does–it hurts us. And I firmly believe that all 319 million of us are hurting in our varying degrees and idiosyncratic ways.
So no, I do not believe that we awoke on November 9th in a fundamentally different country than the one we inhabited on the morning of November 8th.
That said, I do believe in something even more improbable than the notion that America’s chief sociocultural differentiator is its myriad, hardened voting blocs: I believe that the nation has a spirit.
I don’t say that our spirit is readily discernible, or necessarily exceptional, merely that we have one, that it changes over time, and that its composition affects and operations touch each of us to different degrees and none of us not at all. That this recent election opened such a gaping wound in the body politic is evidence enough for me that some indefinable thing, pre-election, was shared by all of us, however uncomfortably.
When the presidential campaign began, I wrote in a Scandinavian academic journal that the spirit of America (or mood, to avoid any inadvertent religious connotations) was one of “angry optimism.”
Not merely anger, but angry optimism.
That’s not a paradox.
I think that was America in 2016.
The nation’s approval of the job Congress is doing is less than its approval of head lice. (Look it up.) We are turning away from our media institutions in droves, more convinced than ever before–not without reason–that they do more to misinform than inform. We are embittered by ceaseless war abroad, by economic stagnation for the working and lower-middle classes at home, by a sense that racial and ethnic divisions are deepening rather than the opposite. Social media enforces envy and self-hatred, the swirl of new technologies generates new forms of misapprehension and self-doubt, and the ready connectivities of our time dredge up our latent fear of imminent self-annihilation–sometimes expressed as an open embrace of same.
So ours is an angry spirit.
But what I admire most about America is also, to our great shame, something that has often caused others around the world and many within our own borders enormous pain: our foolhardiness. We do not shirk from the seemingly impossible task–our national experiment in democracy being itself a seemingly impossible task–nor even entertain the possibility of impossibility. Instead, we push forward, often haltingly, sometimes vaingloriously, sometimes recklessly, but always with a sort of optimism that I cannot help but admire because I too often feel little of it myself.
Anger and optimism: America in 2016, I think.
But what we did not have, in 2016, was a political outlet for our optimism, as one presidential candidate offered only a steady, poll-tested incrementalism that has not for the last half-century significantly bettered the lives of tens of millions of our countrymen, while the other offered only the chaotic churn of ignorance, hatred, fear, bluster, hypocrisy, hyper-conservative know-/do-nothingism, and a “post-truth” national discourse. These options were by no means coequally bad, or even in the vicinity of co-equal. While the former was not unreasonably deemed deeply dispiriting by many, the latter should have been instantly received as intolerable by all. And yet we can clearly see, and many clearly did see in advance of the general election, that neither option gave the nation much cause for optimism. And the nation is addicted to its optimism–indeed, so much so that it has often convinced itself that folly, hubris, and brutality are in fact iterations of optimism, even when all of history and much of the rest of the world clamors otherwise.
So America–swathed as ever in optimism but also, as before, layers of self-denial, self-declared exceptionalism, and an almost casual brutalism–expressed in anger what it could not in any credible belief in its own near-term future.
It opted for darkness over D.C., hatred over gridlock, empty rhetoric over partisanship. This wasn’t, I don’t think, born of a widespread preference for any of these false choices, merely the same refusal to any longer be responsible or socialized (in any measure responsible, or to any degree socialized) that we sometimes see in individual humans consequent to years and years and years of them suffering severe physical abuse.
In this case, it is the spirit of America that has been abused. And it has been abused for decades. By talk radio, by redlining, by redistricting, by a hundred thousand pundits, by the bare fact that no one is a human to anyone else on the internet. And now our American polity has manifested its rejection of this systemic abuse in the person of a dastardly and dangerous overlord.
On November 8th, about 46 percent of America voted to blow up both itself and the other 54 percent of America.
It was an irrational and foolhardy decision, though one whose internal metrics probably differed slightly for each of the 60-odd million voters who helped make it happen.
Now we must regain our love and retain our optimism.
It is not wrong that we should go in wariness of conventional politics, and corporate media, and the dispirited masses massing in common areas online. Gerrymandering and campaign-finance corruption ruined consequential political activism, just as the 24-hour news cycle and a dearth of investigative journalism did in mass media and both social media and late postmodernism did in the internet.
The 46 percent who couldn’t see it on November 8th will see it soon enough: Donald Trump is the answer to no question ever asked by America. He is the very worst of what we are or have ever been.
So I do not ask here that we merely pick up the pieces of a national fabric torn asunder. I hope, instead, that we will search for some different ones. I hope for new avenues for political activism, new methods of mass communication, and a new commitment to methods of problem-solving that lift consequentially all boats. I hope for a national spirit of studied audacity, informed naivete, and humble idealism.
We’ve got nearly 319 million Americas to realize, America. It’s a tall order. Impossible, even. Many a devious politician tells us that all is zero-sum, that what you get today was ripped away from your neighbor yesterday and vice versa, or else that all that is new is torn straight from an already tattered Constitution. So: policies, principles, and problem-solving praxes that benefit and honor all? Impossible.
Perhaps–one more time–the impossible is possible every bit as much as the present is intolerable?
Having hit rock bottom on November 8th–as a matter of our collective well-being if not our domestic policy, the latter of which will surely get darker still in the years to come–is there anywhere to kick but towards the surface of the water? The sky? Light?
So, I hope. I hope for America. And I’ll continue to fight for the American experiment. Because nothing else but hope will do or ever has done for anyone, and America has always been far more about the fight than the finish.
And we are not finished.
Assistant Professor of English
University of New Hampshire
Header photo of U.S. flag at night by Unsplash, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Seth Abramson by Claudia Abramson.