The impossible election

America votes and the world waits

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EVEN ON THE opposite side of the planet, it feels excruciating, like a panic attack that never quite reaches its climax. You just want it to be over. Everyone wants it to be over – a shared wish that may be the last thing uniting all Americans, whether at home, or here in Sydney.

Thinking back over the last four years, it seems impossible to remember a time that did not feel hard, or crazy with chaos. This feels like what it has always felt like – more of the same. Despite our travails, very little seems to have been learnt.

It feels right to wear the blame for this lack of progress; everyone circles in ever-tightening and accelerating loops without advancing, a sort of centrifugal dromomania that brings us back almost immediately to our starting point, any leavening of wisdom undone by the gully cut deeper into the ground with every pass.

Weeks ago, unable to bear the strain, I withdrew from all American news, sticking my fingers in my ears and screaming like a six-year-old when Trump’s face popped up on my television. I reckoned that I had already done my part – a postal vote mailed to California in mid-September – and needed no additional agitation. Neighbours and colleagues frequently collared me, asking my opinion. Most of the time I simply evaded the question with a sigh or a look, but one time I snapped, ‘I don’t want to talk about it!’, revealing a depth of distress I share with a few hundred million fellow Americans.

Everyone wants closure – here in Sydney as much as in New York, Dallas or Los Angeles – and all had looked to election night to provide it. But if we needed any more evidence that we live in a post-closure world, when everything stretches out interminably and never resolves, this election delivers that. Even a win – whenever the outcome might be known – will feel incomplete, messy and uncertain. This means our anxieties will persist, and that may be the biggest disappointment of this day.

How, then, did our karma land us here? American presidential elections have frequently been accompanied by a certain hysteria, with dark pronouncements of apocalypse should the vote fall the wrong way: the fate of the republic always hangs in the balance, a note that harmonises perfectly with the nation’s millennialist pretensions. The ‘city upon on a hill’ – a gospel metaphor invoked by both JFK and Ronald Reagan – gives the nation an outsized sense of its destiny, feeding its ‘exceptionalist’ mythology and seasoning American elections with a Manichean flavour: Biden built his campaign acceptance speech on the triumph of light over darkness.

Setting up those dichotomies works well as rhetoric – but in an era of pervasive social sharing, with Facebook’s profiling engines serving up more and more of what drives people to (profitable) distraction, they fail completely, transforming religious metaphor into a kind of borderline disorder that classifies everything as either good or evil. That behaviour, once the domain of a crazy few, has consumed a majority of the American polity as they spin themselves into a mania of self-reinforcing beliefs, of which QAnon is only the most obvious. Under that sort of continuous pressure, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

To be Australian today – and a citizen for almost ten years – feels like winning the lottery, accompanied by an immense sense of gratitude for the qualities that make this nation moderate, stolid and even a bit dull. In an era when anything can be instantaneously amplified beyond all sense, that quality serves the nation well. Australians cannot be said to lack passion (consider our attitude towards sport), but rather we seem to instinctively distrust passion where it lands on matters of substance.

That quality – if Americans could find a way to embrace it, make it their own – could go a long way to binding up the nation’s wounds, finding unum within pluribus. But America famously cannot look beyond itself for solutions to its problems. Instead, as Churchill perceptively noted, Americans will come to the ‘right thing after they have tried everything else’ – a bon mot proving heartbreakingly true in the pandemic.

The plurality and complexity of the world would have astounded America’s Founding Fathers – all rich white men. But it would not have confounded them. The whole history of America is one of tumultuous and sometimes violent compromise. That the republic has endured may, paradoxically, be due to its deep passions, even as those same passions constantly tear it apart.

If we Americans cannot agree, and cannot find it within ourselves to agree to disagree, what comes next? The nation has already bifurcated into separate red and blue realities, with their own mythologies, rituals and beliefs. Will America simply drift apart and dissipate? If the pandemic could not provide sufficient cause to come together as one united people, what – short of the end of days – possibly could? This may point to why America has had such an apocalyptic election: it takes an eschaton to find common ground.

Could it be that America needs to bring itself right to the edge of the abyss, even feeling the earth giving way, before it comes to its senses? Or is this simply the natural life cycle of empire: birth, florescence, overweening power, corrupt arrogance and senescence? Such questions cannot be answered in real time, on the steady crawl of a 24-hour news network, or within a cozy tweet. They take time to reveal themselves. One day, historians might use the tumult of 2020 to draw a line underneath the American era – or they might point to that moment of greatest peril as the necessary precondition for the nation’s rebirth.

In the meantime, we endure an excruciating wait – not just in America, or here in Australia, but all around the world, because, like it or not, the whole world has been swept up by America’s mythology. At the end of election day – long after Americans had gone to bed – I Zoomed with colleagues from across Asia and Europe, listening as each shared their intense anxieties. We all believe. And for that reason, we all suffer. In that, at least, we are united.

5 November 2020

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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