And so we come to the election day itself: the results stacking up state by state and rolling across from the east as the night closes in on the west coast. A lot of attention has been focused on what Trump has said and not said about accepting the result, but not much about what happens if he actually wins. If he actually wins then it is equally incumbent upon the Democrats and the left to accept the result. In fact, Hillary Clinton needs the classiest, most gracious concession speech ever written on standby. If Clinton loses this there will be many, many people who voted for her, and people around the world, who will not only be unhappy, but will not want to accept the result.
If the process is fair, then accepting the result is one of the things you have to learn when you grow up. I’m not going to pretend that I am good at this. I brood over how things should have gone for a long time after the event. So, yes, it’s hard, but if you want to live in a democracy and not an autocracy then you must accept the result. Not doing that, in a democracy, is saying: “even though more people want option A they should be forced to accept option B because I prefer option B”. Which means you’re either daft or arrogant.
I listened to Eboo Patel talk last week and he said three things that I think are on point here. He said, firstly, that he realised that the support for Trump has made him realise he knew nothing about huge swathes of America. He thought about how he would feel if someone came to him and his community of peers and said about his stock and trade: “sorry, but the whole public speaking, NGO facilitation, internet-savvy industry thing is no longer needed. It’s over.” Which, for the manufacturing sector across America is exactly what has happened. How do feel when your certainty, income and dignity is stripped forever, for you and your kids?
He also said that building societies that are tolerant is hard. It’s not about enjoying a shared lunch at school and swapping falafels for samosas, and that it is much more about tolerating things you don’t like or agree with. That it was about accepting that you will disagree with a person about some things, but still be able to work with them on other things. Which is something I have slowly learned to do when I teach: to try and nuance the heroes and villains of history. It is very easy to condemn someone wholesale for some act they did, or a set of values they held, but people are not just one belief or one action. Go easy on the tar and feathers.
Finally, he quoted someone else who said: “most truly intelligent people secretly believe both sides in any debate”. I’ve come to realise that this is right. Take the abortion debate. For a long time I’ve been very Pro-Choice, and I still am, but I have come to acknowledge that, yes, we are talking about human life, and that human life is a very important thing. Sometimes I think that some Pro-Choice arguments forget or dismiss that fact. Women choosing abortion don’t, but people debating it as an abstract can and that is not healthy, and it doesn’t acknowledge what might be a genuine concern on the part of your Pro-Life opponent.
Both sides in democracy seem to have become very sore losers. Both attack the mechanics of the voting system and look for frauds. Both demand recounts, or new elections, and both call the people who voted for the person or things they do not like or want stupid. Calling people who voted differently from you stupid is neither helpful or empathetic. It is also anti-democratic.
Probably all this is for two reasons. Times are fraught. Slow and changing economies, refugees, and terrorism put people on edge and put people’s views into sharp relief. Also, social media makes people more insular, more prone to exist in an echo chamber that confirms only what they believe, guided by algorithms that feed people stories they want to hear. When an outside event – like an election – contradicts the echo chamber it is one hell of a shock.
Mediawatch did a great piece a few weeks ago comparing the coverage of our local body elections with some scandal in the American election. As they pointed out, even on the day the local election results came out there was little coverage even though these elections were ones we actually could vote in and would have a very direct impact on our lives. Most coverage I think was devoted to Trump’s sexual assault comments. It was at that point I stopped following the US election because I thought it was a very good point. Here in New Zealand we are not actually involved, and do not have any influence on the elections in the USA.
The result, should it go to Trump, will be – probably – a pretty black period in American history that I suspect won’t end well. But the job of everybody with those concerns is to get up and get on with it. Hold power to account. Protest. Use the free press as a weapon. Lobby. Legislate. In short, follow the processes of a democratic country. Shrieking, calling people liars, discrediting entire systems, and calling people stupid does an awful lot of damage. Sure, elections may sometimes return results you don’t like, but unless you have a better system on hand to replace democracy with let’s just put up with that, and campaign harder next time.
Finally though, I want to say that this looks to me like the victory of a powerful group on a sinking ship. If democracy can’t figure out a way to enfranchise and empower its non-white voters in increasingly diverse and disenfranchised communities then it will weaken every election cycle. If it continues to do that, if it continues to be democracy for white people and no one else, then the only way forward will be disintegration, entrenchment, and violence. Democracy is supposed to be like Maths: a clean and clear formula that delivers a result that reflects the data put into it. The less it acts like this the more trouble we are in.