A Sociologist’s Reflection the Morning After Election 2016

Gary T. Marx, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, M.I.T.

All these tidal gatherings, growth and decay,
Shining and darkening, are forever
Renewed; and the whole cycle impenitently Revolves,
and all the past is future.
Robinson Jeffers Practical People

Well not quite, but below are some quick thoughts that I had the morning of November 9, 2016, for European colleagues who wonder how the heck this could have happened (or why I worry a lot, but am not yet moving to Canada).

Without denying the monumental disappointment, sadness, and the risks and fears for the future of last night’s election, some contextualization may offer a way to weigh it all.

1)    In a perverse sense this very reaction is in response to the deep and rapid changes we are seeing in the world with respect to the advancement of human rights on many fronts as well as globalization and increased awareness of environmental disasters. Given a systemic view of societies thatstresses interconnections, gains for one set of interests usually means losses for other interests. Reactions against are hardly surprising. But is this the last gasp of a dying fire, or an ever growing wild fire burning out of control? Is it the darkness from the final fading of the light, or simply part of the cycle that will see the sun rise again, perhaps stronger than ever?

2)    When elections are over it is common for there to be some reversion to the center, or at least away from the more extreme rhetorical positions. Campaign promises are rarely fully, or at least broadly, achieved. The image in popular culture of politicians as opportunistic and untrustworthy shows awareness of this.

3)    There are cycles in elections and it is common in the U.S. for a party that has been in office for 8 years to be voted out.

4)    The American value system, as that of any nation–but perhaps more so–is a mix of good and bad. The country that gave us the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and streets for immigrants that were sometimes lined with real or metaphorical gold, also has ugly strands of racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, nationalism, machismo, protectionism, mechanistic, industrial and digital conquering of nature, unrestrained capitalism, and a rampant individualism, which, when taken to extremes, means indifference to community and to the suffering of others. Sometimes you get the elevator and sometimes the shaft. They are both part of the same structure.

5)    Returning to the idea of system, a complex society with so many conflicting values, interests, institutions, and checks and balances is rarely captured and changed radically overnight. The same factors that inhibit rapid progressive change also inhibit rapid reactionary change. In Europe a strong civil service system minimizes the impact elected political leaders can have. That is also true of the maxi-bureaucratization of government in the U.S.  The scale is so immense that even with political appointees, their ability to permanently shake up an institution is limited. The bureaucracy simply waits them out.

6)    In the U.S. with its federal system and vast array of laws, policies and rules and so many at the local level and from the private sector. In complaining about Washington, the new president offers an implicit (and in some ways democratic) appeal to state and local governments and private organizations to have greater voice.

7)    Among the most worrisome issues is the power to appoint supreme court justices. But even there, those trained in the law, regardless of whether they are on the left or the right share (at least to judge from recent history) some common constitutional and human values. They also can change their minds. The great Chief Justice Earl Warren is a case in point, but there are many other examples.

8)    The U.S. is deeply divided and the new president hardly has an unequivocal mandate to do what he might want to do. To be effective and to feed his ego and place in history, he needs to take account of what can be done and citizen responses and those of opposition political leaders. To be a believer in negotiation implicitly acknowledges the resources of your adversary. Even if the public was not so divided, rules such as those permitting the filibuster and freedom of speech and economic boycotts offer some protection.

Finally between Pangloss and Sisyphus, I’ll opt for Henry James’ middle position: “we work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have”.

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