Revolutions create something new. They change the fundamentals on which society and power are built. Yet as France grappled with the aftermath of its second revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville saw America as the future. What was being created there, was truly unique. With no history or precedent to restrain its creation, America was able to embark on a political experiment. As its founders created a constitutional republic, America forged a new kind of society. Tocqueville noted the mobility of the population, who ‘have successively been lawyers, farmers, businessmen, ministers of the Gospel, and physicians’.
Alexis de Tocqueville was in thrall at the confidence and imagination of America’s people to partake in such an experiment. This whiggish confidence in their own progress is a feeling that binds the country’s history. Where there is darkness, the nation celebrates the future that it created thereafter. From the tumult of the 1960s, entrenched into the national psyche are the words of Martin Luther King, the hope of John F. Kennedy and the victory against Russia in the moon race.
To Kill a Mockingbird, a text the world sees as a symbol of America’s past and future, reinforces this confidence. Portraying the racism and injustice of Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee leaves readers with hope for the future. In the final passage, the stoicism of Atticus Finch is united with the childhood innocence of Scout, as they discuss the true kindness of Boo Radley. It is not racial prejudice that ends the novel, but Atticus’ remark that: ‘Most people are real nice Scout when you finally see them’.
Whether culturally – through ’60s rebellion, ’80s rock, or social media — politically — through the ideas behind its very founding — or economically — with its globalising capitalism, America has seen itself as the place where the future is created. Oscar Wilde wrote: ‘the youth of America is their oldest tradition’.
When America lost its reputation
Three separate occasions this year terminated America’s status as a paragon of the future.
The first was on May 25th, with the killing of George Floyd — an event that did not belong to a new age of progress and unity. It was emblematic of the country’s past, and in turn, led many Americans to question it.
The second occasion came at the end of the summer, when America passed a grim milestone. On September 23rd, more than 200,000 people had died from Covid-19. Meanwhile, its President continued to be separated from reality and science. On June 17th, Trump said the pandemic was fading away. Three days later, he spoke to a largely empty crowd as his supporters chose to stay at home — fearful that they may catch the virus at his rally in Tulsa. At this point a second spike was beginning. And now it is being followed by a third.
The third occasion came on September 30th, with the first presidential debate. If Tocqueville had been watching from 1830’s France, he would not have presumed democracy was the future. The Times of India wrote: ‘The US embarrassed itself before the world for 100 minutes’. On stage, the ideal of democracy was degraded by the leading participants — especially one particularly dismissive individual.
A decaying America
The above events were reflective of processes that had been gathering momentum for decades.
The decay of America’s democratic institutions did not begin with Trump. In fact, the very cracks in its system facilitated his rise. In 2016, the nomination of Hilary Clinton was emblematic of a dangerous consensus in Washington. That the economic, social and cultural forces of the last few decades had been a success. The partisanship, corruption and lies that abounded in the capital, made feasible a candidate with questionable character to lead the world.
Meanwhile, America’s inability to handle the pandemic exposed social inequalities and its weakened power. In February, Trump closed the country’s borders. The virus had already taken hold. Reflective of its position in the Middle East and Asia, America could no longer dictate the rhythms of the world.
In March, New York entered lockdown. For a city that symbolises America’s cultural and economic successes, the infrastructure of the state was unable to cope. Hospital staff in New York were left wearing bin bags for PPE.
The racial tensions of the summer marked a turning point in America’s conversation on the topic of race. Not since the 1960s had the discussion been so widespread and international. The impact this had on the interpretation of its history was profound. The New York Times’ 1619 project, which incensed critics with its claim that the arrival of twenty slaves in Virginia marked the founding of the country, took on greater significance. America began to question its national story.
A crisis of self-confidence
This questioning of the past marked a national crisis of self-confidence in the future.
Binding the three pivotal events together is not pride or a sense of imaginative creation. No. That belonged to an America when it was still feeling young at heart. Oscar Wilde would hardly recognise the country today. What unites the above events, is a crisis of confidence. In the face of grave political and social failures, America has been forced to look inwards.
In 2016, the political class could not believe what it discovered. They stared on, unable to comprehend the anger and alienation that elected Trump. In 2020, it is the public that now looks on; unable to understand how a country once so creative and strong could let more than 200,000 people die, while admitting that it is ‘unable to control’ Covid-19.
Resultantly, the people feel vulnerable. Unique to 2020 is that this emotion binds both the state and its people. The state’s failure to close racial inequalities is felt by millions fearful of police brutality. The state’s failure to maintain and invest in key infrastructure has culminated in a virus spreading out of control. The failure of the political class to provide leadership has only compounded such a lack of confidence. For those reliant on financial support, Congress’ inability to agree on a relief package, proves democracy is not working.
This feeling of national vulnerability was encapsulated on October 2nd, when Donald Trump was flown to hospital after contracting coronavirus. This was on a day when 865 people died from the disease, and permanent job losses amounted to 3.8 million, with a further 4.6 million experiencing temporary lay-offs.
Yet the theatre of that Friday evening also revealed something the Trump campaign had been attempting throughout the election. The helicopter, the saluting troops; all of this was meant to be emblematic of America’s strength and power. The props were there to hide the reality of the situation. In the face of critical weakness, with the commander-in-chief hospitalised, the country presented a show of strength.
For Trump, the presidential campaign was all about the need to hide America’s flaws. He had to remind people of his economic success before the pandemic and he needed to translate racial tensions into questions of law and order. On both counts, the course of events and his own deficiencies meant that a difficult task became an impossible one.
On Covid, Trump has vacillated between arguing that he handled it well to ignoring the virus — proclaiming it to be almost over. As we approach election day, things are getting worse. This week, new cases have risen by 17.3 per cent, deaths by 8.2 per cent and hospitalisations by 14.5 per cent. Significantly rapid rises are happening in some key swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, with increases also occurring in places previously untouched. The most rural corners of America are now meeting the virus.
The ‘Race’ question
On race, the conversation has remained stuck around racial discrimination and police brutality — rather than, as Republicans had hoped, moving towards images of riots and arguments about the need for greater law and order. The Republicans had faith that videos of burning streets would be sufficient for winning the suburban voter. Instead, with such incidents now being rare, voters, particularly women, remain wary of Trump’s incendiary character.
In fact, it is the character of his opponent that has allowed failures to determine the nature of the campaign. Joe Biden has fought one of the most low-key, underwhelming campaigns in history, successfully allowing the limelight to remain on Trump’s failures.
Biden’s reluctance to be drawn on policy, meant that his answer to America’s woes rested on his character and personality. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, he presented himself as a man who had been through tragedy and who has the character to pull America through. Associating his own personal tragedy with what the country is experiencing, he said:
‘Of those of you who have lost the most — I have some idea how it feels to lose someone you love. I know that deep black hole that opens up in the middle of your chest and you feel like you’re being sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes’.
Biden ended his speech with a quote from the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney:
‘History says don’t hope on this side of the grave, but then once-in-a-lifetime, the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme’.
As America looks in on itself and finds thousands of its people feeling horrid because of the country’s failures, Joe Biden hopes that this is his ‘rare moment’ when events have collided to allow him to become the answer.
What does America really need?
Is comfort what America needs, or just something the electorate wants? In 2016 there was a divisive cry for change. That has not been placated. Instead of implementing policies to answer such calls for change, Trump has only carried forward the rage of the 2016 campaign. That, coupled with the current vulnerability experienced by many, and one cannot blame America for wanting some love and care.
Nonetheless, it is wrong to believe that one man’s character can fix the divisions and problems.
Trump’s inauguration speech left many Democrats horrified at the dark image of America that he painted. This time round, Biden seems to echo that prophecy, talking of America being ‘cloaked […] in darkness’ and ‘broken’. Both campaigns have degraded democracy’s central function, the vote, by scaring the public with the possibility of illegitimate results. On Tuesday, America’s soul — its democracy — will be tested.
Is Biden the symbol of America’s collective despair, or a short-term sweetener that’s incapable of addressing the genuine problems ahead?
At a critical juncture for America, there has been no significant debate about its restructuring. China, foreign policy, and fundamental questions regarding the future of the country and its people have not been discussed. This has, somewhat idiotically, been a campaign dominated by one man’s failings and another man’s character.
On Tuesday, democracy will be challenged by voter suppression and the risk that early votes will be counted later in some states, possibly reversing an earlier result. Remarkably, this will be happening in a country that once represented democracy’s youthful birth.
America does not feel or look young today. It has aged, and with it the western world. When Tocqueville visited America, he experienced a process of growth where transformative ideas and values paved the way for infrastructural strength and dominance.
Today, democracy and authoritarianism gave the same solution to Covid-19: Lockdown. If America continues to look inwards, it will be overtaken by China. The world cannot afford for America to have a crisis of self-confidence.
The world and America cannot afford to opt for domestic comfort alone.