2020 North America Politics and Culture

A Reflection on the US Election

So, pending recounts, legal stoushes, and no civil war breaking out, it looks like Joe Biden has finally won and in due course will become the 46th President of the USA. Thank fucking God.

Frequent readers of this blog will know I have a deep interest in US politics, coupled with a life-long fascination with the United States of America. You will also know that I am not a huge fan of The Donald, and never have been – I was expressing my views of non-support from long before he ever got elected (read back over my various posts – click here, here, and here).

And now, I can only hope, Trump will recede into the fog of time, to become little more than an inconsequential blip on the long arc of history. The human manifestation of a four-year mass lack of judgment by the American people; or perhaps a bushfire that has now run its course and, once starved of oxygen, will have a final paroxysm before burning itself out totally.

Certainly, I hope that this is the last blog post in which I ever need mention the name ‘Donald Trump’. Once he is relegated to the sidelines (perhaps to a future job as Fox News political commentator extraordinaire) I suspect that he will quite simply cease to be worth the effort.

No, it’s time for the USA, and the world, to put this four-year long aberration behind us, and get back to being grown-ups again. It’s time for everyone who cares about decent society – regardless of political leaning – to get back to dealing with real problems in a serious and adult way, with respect and kindness. It’s time to ditch “government by tweet” as an operating model. And it’s time – thank the Lord – to see spelling, punctuation and correct use of the English language once again become the norm in American Presidential communications.

***

When Covid-19 first broke, it struck me how, seemingly overnight, everyone suddenly became an expert in epidemiology, and how terms like “R Naught” and “flattening the curve” became part of the daily lingua franca. And now, in a similar vein, people all over the world have suddenly become experts in the American political system. Everyone now knows all about things as arcane as the precise workings of the antiquated US Electoral College system, or the manner in which a US voting ballot is opened, flattened, canvassed and counted.

And somehow, in this process, US politics has become a spectator sport. Billions of people around the world have sat glued to their TV screens, watching voting numbers roll in from faraway places like Georgia and Pennsylvania, just like watching the trickle of runs accumulate in a five-day long game of test cricket. Although at least now the rest of the world can finally understand why for some folks in Commonwealth countries, watching cricket is a pleasurable obsession, while for others it is the equivalent of being waterboarded in slow motion.

Still, like the “Trump era” itself, this fascination with the American election process will fast fade. Pretty soon, we will all have moved on from this moment in time, to whatever is next in the zeitgeist.

But before that happens, I have been trying to discern an enduring lesson from this most incredible, unusual and confounding of US elections. And if I have to sum it up, it is this: look at the scoreboard. Or more precisely, look at the map. Or even more precisely: to properly understand what this American election is telling us, take a deep zoom into a map of the results.

You see, the results map of the 2020 US election – the one you are probably seeing 24 hours a day at the moment, on every major news channel – shows a map of the USA, with those states where Republican majorities prevailed depicted in red, and with those states where Democrat majorities prevailed depicted in blue.

Yet this is a gross oversimplification, that completely obscures the real story buried in that map. Because if you zoom into it, you will see that even in the “red” states there are patches of blue, and in every “blue” state there are patches of red. The distribution of which is anything but random.

By way of example, consider Nebraska, a place that as US states go is redder than red, and one in which more than 60% of the state’s voters turned out in support of Trump. Therefore, on the big picture map, Nebraska is a solid RED. But if you drill down to the detail, you will notice that in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska’s only sizable urban areas, the localized result decidedly favored Team Biden.

Or consider Texas, where the urban areas of Houston, Dallas, Austin, El Paso and San Antonio were blue, blue, blue. But the rest of the state? Mainly red, red, red. Or consider Florida – Republican in all the rural areas, and the state overall Republican. Yet in the city areas of Miami, Palm Beach, Tampa, Orlando – blue. And even in cities like Jacksonville and Tallahassee, large Floridian towns traditionally considered more “redneck”, it turns out that a majority of folks voted Democrat.

The reverse is also true. In New York State, one of the bluest states in all of America, the picture is far from uniformly Democrat. Indeed, if you look at New York State on a county by county basis, it actually looks like the overall state result should be Republican. There is red mostly everywhere, apart from the small areas around NY City, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. That is, apart from those areas that comprise New York State’s main urban population centers.

And another example that is especially fascinating: Delaware, the 2nd smallest state in the Union, which owing to its size has only three counties. Two of those counties are home to the only two Delawarean cities of any note – Wilmington and Dover – and both of these counties returned overwhelming Democrat majorities. But one county, covering rural Delaware with no major urban area in it, returned a majority Republican vote. And that is in Joe Biden’s home state!

None of this is accidental, or even that shocking. Because what the zoomed-in version of the 2020 US electoral results map shows is that in the modern US of A, there is less of a political division based on traditional red and blue states, and more of a political division based on, roughly, the divide between modern urban cities and rural areas, regardless of which state you are talking about. Indeed, it is the growth of urban areas that seems to have been behind the “flip” of traditionally Republican states like Georgia and Arizona.

***

All of which beggars the obvious question: why? What is going on in America (and more broadly, the rest of the world) that is seeing such a radical fault line developing between those who live in urban areas, and those who do not (a similar division is being reflected in politics everywhere else as well: like in the United Kingdom, across Europe, Australia, Canada, Israel, etc).

Now, it is tempting to say the explanation is easy: those folks who live in cities are educated, modern, and forward-thinking, whereas those who do not are dumb-fuck hicks who know no better than to support a retrograde like Trump. Indeed, I have seen this characterization repeated in recent days by so many people in the Democrat/liberal/progressive universe in which I live – either explicitly or slightly more tactfully – that you’d be forgiven for almost believing it to be true.

But, not only is this characterization just as bad as the frequent Republican claim that Democrats/liberals/progressives as a whole are elitist wannabe Communists, it is also grossly unfair to the hundreds of millions of people who do not live in modern urban cities, and yet who are just as educated, decent, and thoughtful as the rest of us.

No, I think to get to the bottom of this we first need to accept that Trump is no more a real representation of the right, than dread locked barefoot hippies are a real representation of the left. And instead we need to try and understand the core difference between what it means to be “left” and “right”.

Which, in my view, basically boils down to a very simple philosophical divide: those with a leftist Democrat/liberal/progressive world view tend to put the needs of the social collective ahead of the individual. Whereas those with a right-leaning Republican/conservative/libertarian world view tend to put the individual first.

This is, of course, incredibly glib, and is undoubtedly a gross oversimplification. But nonetheless, it works for me, in that it does explain a lot. It makes sense out of why Democrats/liberals/progressives tend to favor socially-oriented policies like universal medical care, enlarged welfare systems, and alongside that higher taxes and greater Government involvement in most areas of life – because the group comes first.

Whereas Republicans/conservatives/libertarians tend to focus more on personal rights and freedoms, which translates to things like a desire to see smaller Government, a belief in lower taxes and smaller social welfare systems, a support of more unrestrained capitalism, and a more direct “you reap what you sow” attitude – exactly what you would do if your basic tenet of belief is that the individual come first.

So, the US election just past has illustrated a clear pattern, being seen time and again all over the world these days: urban citizens tend to favor Democrat/liberal/progressive policies (which is essentially a lean toward collectivism), while non-urban citizens tend to favor Republican/conservative/libertarian ones (which is essentially a lean toward individualism).

And, if we accept that this is not because of any innate difference in biology or intelligence or education, then why is it so?

***

The answer, I think, lies in a sociological observation that the basic functional unit of a human collective is less than 150 people. A concept most excellently summarized by the Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari, toward the start of his book, Sapiens:

Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group [of humans] is about 150 people…. Even today, a critical threshold in human organizations falls somewhere around this magic number. Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance… There is no need for formal ranks, titles, and law books to keep order. A platoon of thirty soldiers or even a company of a hundred soldiers can function well on the basis of intimate relations, with a minimum of formal discipline… A small family business can survive and flourish without a board of directors. But once the threshold of 150 individuals is crossed, things can no longer work that way. You cannot run a division with thousands of soldiers the way you run a platoon. Successful family businesses usually face a crisis when they grow larger…

And then this, one of my favorite passages in the book:

One on one, even ten on ten, [humans] are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Significant differences only begin to appear when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we reach 1,000-2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding. If you tried to bunch together thousands of chimpanzees in Tiananmen Square, Wall Street, the Vatican or the headquarters of the United Nations, the result would be pandemonium. By contrast, Sapiens regularly gather by the thousands in such places. Together, they create orderly patterns – such as trade networks, mass celebrations and political institutions – that they could never have created in isolation.”

You get my point?

For thousands of years, we humans lived in mainly small, agrarian communities. Our world was predominantly made up of units of less than 150. We knew everyone in our village, and everyone in our village knew us. Things were able to function just fine that way with minimal Government intervention, control, or the need for heavily imposed laws. Families and small groups took care of each other, and overarching state bureaucracy were largely not required. The group sorted itself out, organically, and didn’t need to be told how to do so. When the founding fathers created the United States, at a time when America consisted of a much smaller, largely rural population diffused over a huge territory, this was the dominant paradigm into which that country was born. No surprise therefore: the founding doctrines of the USA are ones in which the rights of the individual prevail.

Then, something changed, as more and more of us chose to move into larger towns and cities, to live in huge, urban agglomerations of people. And while this process of urbanization has been going on gradually for centuries, over the course of the last hundred years or so human urbanization has gathered speed at a staggering pace. Indeed, it is only very, very recently that we reached the tipping point where the dominant expression of human existence became an urban one. For example, according to the United Nations’ World Urbanization study, until as recently as 2008 the majority of humans still lived in rural areas. But then in 2009 it finally flipped, and the majority of humans – for the very first time in all of human history – were urbanized.

Meaning that at this very moment in time, it is pretty much line ball. In 2020 we are basically a split species: half of us live in giant urban jungles where we need to coexist daily with thousands, if not millions, of strangers. While the other half of us continue to live as we always have, in smaller, less populated environments, and where our daily wellbeing depends on coexistence with limited numbers of people, many of whom we know.

And what flows from this?

Simple: it should come as no surprise that in giant, soulless, urban cities, surrounded by millions of strangers we don’t know, collectivism becomes important – if not essential. Garbage needs to be collected, order needs to be maintained, no-one wants sick people making them sick, or turning up as dead bodies in doorways. So even if we don’t like it, those of us who live in modern urban environments instinctively understand that we need strong Governments, and rules, and taxes. In modern urban environments we need these things simply to keep the human enterprise moving; to ensure our world works. Living in ‘unnatural’ functional units of much, much more than 150 people, we know in our bones that things will not just sort themselves out. Which is why we overwhelmingly support Democrat / left-leaning politics.

And on the other side, for those of us still living in smaller, less-populated, more village-like communities? Well, the system tends to work just fine on its own, just as it always has. Family units and social ties do a big part of the job of making sure that the weak get taken care of, and ensuring that order is maintained, and that things happen. Thus, for the 50% of our species still living in the same social units that have prevailed for thousands of years, the tendency is to look at left/liberal/progressive politics and ask “why?” What’s up with Governments telling us what to do, and massive state intervention to ensure everything ticks along as it should? In this context, Republican / right-leaning politics seems entirely natural.

And when looked at in this way, the gaping chasm that the US election has revealed between those on “the left” and those on “the right” ceases to be a clash of civilizations, or a battle between good vs evil, or “them” vs “us”. Rather, it is more straightforwardly the inevitable outcome of the different conditions in which the two halves of humanity currently live.

***

To be honest, I am not sure that this is the most earth-shattering of revelations – you probably already knew that this is the case.

But I do think it offers an important lesson. Which is that the current trend of demonizing “them” – something I have been as guilty of as anyone – is the first thing that really needs to change. Or as Joe Biden said in his victory speech: “Now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again.” 

An incredibly powerful and dare I say it – Presidential – statement, really, because the more I think about it, the more I conclude that the real “lowlight” of the past four years of Trump – the thing that will be remembered long after the rest of his noise and circus has faded – is the change in the tone of how we speak to each other. Somehow, it has become acceptable to spread lies, and use insulting language, and to trash anyone who disagrees with you, just because they do. Something that Mr. Trump has proved to be an expert at doing, but which those on the left do quite well, too.

Republicans and their ideological siblings around the world feel increasingly comfortable to tag “them” as a secret cabal of big business and anarchist urbanites, intent on imposing radical social enslavement on the rest of society. And equally, Democrats and their ideological siblings around the world feel increasingly comfortable tagging “them” as an unruly mob of uneducated, neo-Nazi, inbred country-bumpkins, intent on seeing society devolve into a lawless, gun-toting free-for-all.

When really, these gross caricatures belie the real story, which is that we are witnessing entirely understandable reactions to the fundamentally different ways in which the two halves of humanity currently live. Meaning that for the most part, no-one is better and no-one is worse; there is no right, and there is no wrong.

And, if we can all somehow just figure this out, internalize it and really believe it, we can at least make a start at repairing the damage done to the fabric of civil society during these awful past four years.


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