Politics may be, as one popular slogan adopted by the high-strung student movement in the 1960s had it, personal, but the political sigh of relief let out last week in the wake of the historic midterm elections in the US was collective.
The reason for that sigh was that no storm came after the calm, for even those candidates who had denied the legitimacy of previous elections and now found themselves at the losing end of the polling booth, quietly conceded their defeat.
In short, the stop-the steal mania that had consumed the political discourse over the last two years, in the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol — an outrage that shocked the outside world as much as did Americans — was now replaced by something resembling traditional politics.
The message to politicians: voter distaste for extremism/ voter longing for leaders grounded in reality/ voter admission that if the political scene over the last two years had become a circus, it was ordinary folks across the country who had put up the tent and it was they who should have that tent folded.
One would be forgiven for calling last week’s elections truly historic — historic given the fact that, against all expectations and against all odds, the Democrats were able to retain control of the Seante and, though the Republicans are projected to dominate the House, they will do so in this midterm with the slimmest majority since the 72nd Congress in 1933, when 218 Republicans and 216 Democrats, with one sole Independent, made up the chamber.
Yet, this overwhelming performance by the Democrats was no more an anomaly than the out-of-left-field, unexpected asteroid strike that the election of Donald J. Trump as president was in Nov. 8, 2016.
The election of someone with no political experience may have appeared to a great many of us inexplicable, a puncture in dialectic, if you wish, in American political culture, but in reality it was simply the terminus of the dynamic evolution of social, political and cultural trends in the country that had been gaining strength for years and coalesced to a critical mass at that one juncture in modern American history.
Conservative and populist trends
Lest we forget, voters in several other countries around the globe have, over the last two or three decades, shown themselves responsive to the appeal of these same, mostly conservative and populist trends — except, as the recent presidential election in Brazil would attest, indeed as the US midterm elections themselves would equally attest, this product is nearing its expiration date.
Political psychologists (pioneers of a new a new discipline) have, seemingly endlessly and in vain, plumbed the factors behind voter behaviour — the long process of gestation in the mind that finally leads a citizen, standing alone by himself or herself in a polling booth, hidden from view behind a retractable curtain, to cast a ballot for this, that or the other candidate.
The effort aimed at deciphering the mysteries of the act becomes more onerous when you attempt to probe those trends in a polarised society like that of the United States in our time,
Political polarisation in the United States, the subject this column addressed last week, has in recent years been amply demonstrated not only legislators across the aisle in congressional chambers but also by ordinary folks, whose animus toward those not in their camp has reached lunatic extremes.
Would you, a Democrat, let your daughter marry a Republican? Come on, you say, be serious! No way Jose!
The question, flighty and irreverent though it may seem at first blush, has indeed been considered plausible enough to posit as a yardstick by which to judge the degree of polarisation between the two camps.
In 1960, it was put to a sample group by the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. The survey found that a mere 4 per cent of Democrats and an equal 4 per cent of Republicans “disapproved” of their offspring marrying from the opposite party.
Now fast forward to a far, far more polarised America in 2018 when the same question was put forth in another survey, this one conducted by the Public Religion Institute, wherein it was found that as many 45 per cent of Democrats and 35 per cent of Republicans disapproved of, well, mixed marriage.
To be sure, this polarisation is not confined to inter-party but extends to in-party animus, for, come on, how many of us, say, Democrats, have encountered rational, sane Republican friends loyal to “Lincoln’s party”, who had gone, during and for two years following, former President Trump’s volatile tenure in the White House, from wanting to embrace him, to wanting to condemn him and finally to wanting, if only metaphorically, to choke him?
Well, truth be told, American politics in our time has always had, let’s say, edge, transiting from the sublime in the mid 1800s to the ridiculously vaudevillian in the mid 1900s.
Here’s Abraham Lincoln in May 1860, then a former congressman and lawyer, walking to his law office in Springfield, Illinois, as he was handed a telegraphed message from the Republican National Convention (RNC in Chicago, which read simply, “To Lincoln. You are nominated”.
After he was surrounded by a crowd intent on congratulating him on his nomination as the Republican party’s candidate for president of the United States, he headed to his office. He later received a letter from the RNC confirming the nomination, to which he responded with one of his own thanking them for the honour. And that was that.
Now if you were old enough to attend, say as a journalist, any of the quadrennial national conventions held, any time in the second half of the last century, by the Republican and Democratic parties to nominate their presidential candidate and collaterally to formalise the principles of their political platform, you would’ve encountered the funny-hatted delegates gallivanting around the packed halls, felt the confetti raining down on you, heard hollering and whistling and listened to all manner of speeches being given at the podium, which then would culminate with the candidate’s own acceptance speech.
I watch these dos all the time. Never missed one since 1972. You see, I love camp.
Only in America, folks. So, as Americans with an America First bent of mind will tell you, love it or leave it.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.