Can democracy cope amid the rise of dangerous conspiracy theories and toxic culture wars? – Joyce McMillan
In America, they call them “counters”; the old British-English word “tellers” seems to have vanished from America’s election vocabulary, at least in the knife-edge states that still remain undeclared as I write, following this week’s US election.
Whatever the differences of language, though, the intense coverage of the election process over the last few days has served to remind us of how little we see of everyday America, on our screens, and particularly of America outside New York, Washington and Los Angeles. We see crises and killings and protests, of course; and we see the glamorous high-profile journalists who rush to cover those dramatic events for the main television channels.
It’s relatively rare, though, for us to spend hours watching ordinary America, in Georgia, or Arizona, or Pennsylvania, just going about its business; in this case, huge rooms full of volunteers and state staffers counting votes, verifying them, inviting adjudicators from both main parties to rule on any uncertain ballots, and trying – in the face of a historically high voter turnout, and a pandemic that has decimated the labour force while generating an unprecedented surge in postal votes – to deliver a fair and accurate result.
In the face of this calm and methodical effort to get a vitally important job done, the disruptive comments emanating from Donald Trump’s White House seem not only tasteless and insulting, but also somehow unreal; as if they come from some different planet where Trump is not the leader of the Republican Party, and his party does not have designated observers present, at every count currently under way.
This sense of detachment from reality, though, has been a distinguishing feature of Trump’s politics since the start of his first presidential campaign. Like right-wing populists across the world – from Nigel Farage in the UK to Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – he relies on his ability to conjure up, for his followers, a largely fictional world of dire threats and simple, aggressive solutions.
The classic example is Trump’s characterisation of most migrants crossing the Mexican border as criminals and rapists, and his declared policy of "building a wall” to stop them. Such tropes and visions, though, are the common stuff of reactionary politics in our time; and it’s therefore perhaps not surprising that this week, America has seen the election to Congress of at least one, and possibly several, elected representatives who are fully paid-up subscribers to the Qanon conspiracy theory, a complete bizarre belief-system – entirely elaborated and spread via social media, since 2017 – that now commands the support of millions worldwide; to the extent that the family and friends of those affected – in the US, Europe and beyond – are beginning to seek advice on how to get through to loved ones who have become obsessed by their Qanon beliefs.
Whoever emerges as the winner of this week’s historic US election battle, in other words, the country will remain deeply divided between those who have embraced Trump’s world-view – and the conspiracy theories to which he has often given online support – and those who regard these beliefs as delusional and dangerous.
It is good, of course, to hear Joe Biden affirm that he will, if elected, try to unite the country; but it’s also wise to note that under 21st-century conditions, those who seek unity and reconciliation will often be dealing not just with the usual differences of political opinion about ends and means, but with differences of world-view so categorical that they seem, at first glance, to make conversation, argument or persuasion all but impossible.
Whether the subject in hand is the Trump presidency, the Brexit debate, or the idea of Scottish independence, “What world are you living in?” has become one of the most commonly used phrases in all internet debate; and in these times, it is often something more than a rhetorical question.
Yet there are still, I think, a few reasons to be cheerful about the long task of restoring a more productive and realistic dialogue about our possible futures; not least because persuasion does not always have to be verbal.
If people who believe in a society founded on freedom, democracy, equality, and mutual respect among citizens make a point of going out into their communities and trying to embody those beliefs; if they set agreed goals for that community, and work to deliver those with the same practical, methodical dedication shown by those vote counters this week; if they are kind, accepting of diversity, willing to listen and to share small pleasures – well then, they can show by example how a good society should look, and draw people into that network of shared values and conversation.
National politicians can try, of course, to win the culture wars that have disfigured our recent politics by meeting rhetoric with rhetoric, and toxic speeches with more conciliatory ones.
In the end, though, it seems likely that a renewed sense of unity, in any nation wounded by division, can only be rebuilt from the grassroots up, through the kind of patient, hard work that draws people away from their screens, and forms real human bonds.
On Wednesday night, those thousands of patient counters across the United States succeeded in making the strident voices from the White House look both marginal and irrelevant. And with that kind of dedication, ordinary people in communities across the world can finally deliver the same verdict on those who attempt the politics of hysteria and hate; the judgment that, while frightening and sometimes alluring, those ways of thought are finally, in the practical business of life, just empty of substance, and of no real use at all.
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