The results of this election matter. But regardless of the outcome, I find myself deeply distraught thinking about the broader state of our society, our media ecosystems, our institutions, and our democratic norms and structures. I’m not by nature a pessimist or a fatalist, but, in thinking about the future, I can’t see any viable path besides an inexorable decline into a dangerous tribalism, with the real possibility of system failure lurking on the horizon.
No hegemony lasts forever, and there’s reason to think the American global order has peaked and started its self-reinforcing process of decline. The United States is split in two factions, each of which lives in its own world. In terms of demographics, one faction is rural, Christian, white, relatively less college-educated, and its average age skews older. The other faction is urban, less religious, racially diverse, relatively more college-educated, and its average age skews younger. Yes, this is painting with a broad brush. But the increasing division of politics and society along these lines of stacked identities is an undeniable, evidence-based reality, and it’s one of the many factors in our society’s feedback loop of polarization. The two factions hardly intermingle. They listen to different music and wear different clothes. They shop at different stores and like different foods. Most importantly, the two factions consume different media — think Fox News versus the New York Times. The issue with that is not simply that the two factions aren’t watching the same news; it’s that one side is watching a news source that peddles in boldfaced disinformation, with absolutely no regard for the truth and no remorse for the acrimony and social mistrust its broadcasts foment.
It’s almost clichéd to say at this point, but Trump is a symptom of the problem, not a cause. I guess he’s a catalyst. He busts wide open the fissures that already exist in society by bringing to the surface the dark, dark tribal instincts that rest so deep inside people that they wouldn’t otherwise feel emboldened enough to let them out. He gives people permission to say the quiet part out loud. His feverish rants about the “deep state” have sowed a conspiratorial mistrust of the integrity of the government institutions that have long hummed along behind the scenes, quietly delivering crucial services the American people rely on in their everyday lives. Trump’s incessant harping on the “fake news media” has led tens — if not hundreds — of millions of people to believe that only Breitbart and The Daily Wire will supply them with objective truth. So while Trump didn’t create the fiery polarization our society faces today, he certainly did pour gasoline on the spark. The flames of hatred and division will long outlast Trump’s stay in the White House.
What is the solution? It doesn’t appear to me that there is one. Whenever I have a discussion with somebody from the other faction, somebody who’s been inculcated with the intoxicating allure of right-wing propaganda, it always ends in futility. When two people can’t even agree on basic facts, or can’t find a single source of information that each agrees is credible, there is no foundation on which to have a good faith discussion. Even worse, when our identities (race, religion, gender, sexuality…) are so clearly instrumental in determining our faction, and when our faction stands obstinately behind a very extreme and all-encompassing worldview and ideology, any discussion about politics becomes an attack on our identity. And there’s nothing that makes a person raise their guard and close their mind more quickly than an attack on their identity.
No matter who’s in the White House, there is no force in the world today that will make people coalesce around a common set of facts and values. Polarization will continue to worsen, and it will become more radicalized and violent. It will lead to the breakdown of institutions and norms that were once bipartisan. It will extend the political gridlock that has stymied the policy action necessary to confront the biggest challenges of our time. That is an especially dire prognosis in an era marked by the climate crisis: The biggest, most existential collective action problem humanity has ever faced.
So while I am relieved that Trump will soon vacate the White House, my relief is fleeting. The structural problems in society run astoundingly deep, and I fail to see any reason to be optimistic that some panacea will suddenly materialize. We’re in dark times, and I’m profoundly worried.