When Trump refuses to concede and threatens to stay on, we get a sense of the extent to which stable societies depend on shared assumptions of good will. This point was observed by the nascent discipline of sociology in the late 1800s, and given the dull name "norms" to mark how social cohesion can't possibly be achieved by explicit rules or force.
It's too complicated. It requires innumerable unstated agreements. In his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, internet maven Jaron Lanier writes, "the fact that the buildings don't all fall down and you can eat unpoisoned food that someone grew, is … evidence of an ocean of goodwill and behaviour from almost everyone, living or dead. We are bathed in what we can call love."
In effect, it comes down to concessions all around. I concede the money you hand me is not counterfeit, or the signature on your card matches one on your bill. When Trump breaks that faith by not conceding, we sense how fragile social order is.
Who says the networks get to call the election? Networks aren't in the U.S. Constitution. But everyone there concedes it, till someone doesn't. It's a big deal to dismantle these assumptions that let daily life proceed, and they're best taken apart carefully, with as much general agreement as possible.
The apparently deep roots of social cohesion are really quite shallow, since they must be replanted by each generation, who arrive in the world assumption-free. What's surprising isn't that social cohesion is precarious. It's how strong it usually is, despite its shallow roots. Not so difficult, then, for Trump to menace it.
God willing, this election will mark the end of the U.S. as the "world's leading democracy" and a "beacon" (The Globe and Mail). That's Biden-certifiable malarkey. The Senate and electoral college are deliberately anti-democratic, as per the original intent of the "framers." Slaves couldn't vote, nor women. Even Brazil runs better, more efficient elections.
Americans still lack majority rule. (Nor is Canada better, with our first-past-the-post voting system.) The Trump movement itself is largely about democratic failure. Those tens of millions don't feel "represented." The U.S. was always a piece of democratic crap, albeit with excellent PR.
Its democratic impulse emerged not in its politics, but through public schools, public libraries and a vigorous press -- as Jefferson, among others, insisted. (See Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's latest indispensable column in the Los Angeles Times.) This produced citizens who could debate perspicaciously, but within a political frame that thwarted them. And even that has waned, with monopolized media and privatized education.
Its greatest success wasn't in politics but in culture, largely produced by those treated least democratically, first as slaves, then via Jim Crow laws and later systemic racism. There's a genuine "beacon" for the world.
It would be therapeutic -- and honest -- for the U.S. to see itself politically not as a beacon, but as a failing, flailing work in simultaneous progress/regress. World's leading democracy, my butt. Look elsewhere for inspiration, SVP.
John King, square hero. CNN's King has pretty much made being square a good thing again, as it was in the 19th century ("fair and square") before the jazz era turned it into an insult. His suits are so square they're boxy. He's like Robert Young's dad character on Father Knows Best from 50s TV, plus a magic wall. But almost alone in the mainstream media, he has held aloof from the self-congratulatory gushing over Biden's victory. He sternly stuck to the numbers, and urged restraint and perspective.
There's now little functional difference, aside from ideology, between CNN and Fox. They're cheerleaders too, even Anderson Cooper, showing a total lack of humility for everything they got wrong for five years: Trump's appeal, Hillary's unelectability, the vacuous Russia uproar, the pointless impeachment. They're all wankers, though only Jeffrey Toobin so far has got caught.
Nearly alone, King believes in his numbers, in staying cool (in a charming old term, he calls it "patient") and in objective journalism. Even if he refers to a Trump "lie," he makes it clear he'd rather not. He does it if it's objectively verifiable, but as a conventional (albeit rare) mainstream journalist, he finds it distasteful. As if he senses that it leads to a slippery slope. Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.
Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.
Image: Donald J. Trump/Twitter
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