By Robert Wilson
December 5, 2016
As I write this, it has been only a week since the election, and I continue to waver between despair and the stubborn habit of a lifetime to feel hopeful. First among the many causes for despair is knowing that a reversal or even a delay in the world’s efforts to allay the worst consequences of climate change might well hasten their arrival. The hope is that the office is bigger than the man, that when the new president wanders the halls of the White House late at night and stares at the portraits of his predecessors, they will school him.
Part of the sickening realization of the results had to do with what it said about a near majority of American voters. Could so many people really forgive the things the winning candidate has said and done—a list of transgressions too long and too familiar to repeat. Does the outcome mean they actively support the many forms of hatred in his speech? And then came the thought that the thin layer of the losing majority known as elites might share responsibility for the result. Has there been too much self-satisfaction and too little attention given to the needs of those still left behind by the steady economic recovery of the past eight years?
If so, and I’m far from ready to concede the point, who or what has disappointed all those red-state voters? It’s too easy to accept the blame—as easy as it is to assign it. But who or what could make their lives better in the future? The answer can only be the government. Individuals are not going to create vast numbers of new jobs, enhance border security, deport immigrants with criminal records, defeat ISIS, keep the country safe (all of which the government has steadily been doing, never mind the false claims that it has not), rebuild infrastructure, and on and on. Only government can do these things, and the executive can do them robustly only when Congress does its job.
If the new president succeeds in keeping even some of his promises to his voters, then the lie that government is the source of their problems will become evident. May other lies also be fact-checked by reality. The Mexican government is not paying for a wall, the unsuccessful candidate is not going to jail, the widespread reindustrialization of the United States is not about to happen. Lying early and often appears to be an effective path to being elected president, but the darkest prospect for the next four years is that the nation might not fight its way back to a respect for the truth.
Still, “We must not be enemies,” as Lincoln wrote in his first inaugural, at a much scarier time. The distinguished scholar Amitai Etzioni offers in our cover story a communitarian view of how the majority might begin to know the other side. He gives no quarter to those motivated by hatred, but seeks to understand what we must believe is a large number of voters with whom we merely, if strongly, disagree.
Robert Wilson is the editor of the Scholar and the author of Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation.