Notes on the US election

The German institute for political education, Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung asked me to provide commentary on the US election on Tuesday night, something which I was both happy to do and overwhelmed by. How do you explain an entire culture and a volatile political situation in less than 20 minutes? Here’s a few notes from my attempt:

The first thing to understand is that the US is not a monolith. Each state, each city, each region, has different mentalities, different interests, and different demographics. They also have different ways of getting their information and that, more than ever, plays a vital role in understanding the variations in worldview. When asked what the major cultural differences between Germany and the US when it comes to politics are, my first thought is to consider where people gather their information from.

Whereas older Germans watch the Tagesschau somewhat religiously, Americans have a selection of 24-hour newstainment networks — ones which developed the dopamine-releasing chyrons in the days after 9/11 so that we get addicted to watching, “just in case.” This addiction drives fear and anxiety and the format gives way to a lot of nothingburger stories or takes highly local stories national in order to fill airtime. This need for constant entertainment (see i.e., Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death) has been fueled further and complemented by social media and tech companies’ foray into journalism. This isn’t unique to the US but the media landscape is quite different in Germany, even as the latter works to adopt more of the former’s practices.

What does that mean for political education? It means that as the national starts to feel local, the anxiety of the unfamiliar increases, the air space gets filled with non-vital information in a way that can be overwhelming. Politics, which most people want to forget about, is now on view 24-hours on one channel. It fills air time on another. It also means that the dialogues are driven by journalists in a way that is not always useful to ongoing dialogues.

This has led to a different kind of polarization. While the discussion in Germany is of how divided the US is politically — Repub vs. Dem — there’s another way of viewing this, as the Hidden Brain podcast nicely clarifies. The division is between people who are highly political (and extremely online), often including members of the media versus people who don’t want to talk politics at all.

But we also have to know that when we talk about politics, we’re not always talking about it from the same footing. Germans see the role of the government differently, firm believers in the idea of a social safety net (which has its holes, but the belief is there). After decades of reinforced individualist rhetoric, many in the US do not; when we hear about issues that are inherently political, such as the 10% unemployment rate in the US right now, the first instinct is not to consider a political solution to that problem. This rhetoric is founded in racism and props up the upper class. The lack of political solutions to poverty, for example, is made possible by appealing to that fundamental individualist thinking that creates a race-based hierarchy about who is “deserving” of government assistance. It puts the onus on the individual while also alleviating any pressure on politicians to do something. We know that people relate to issues that impact them. When an issue directly affects a person, they’re more likely to take interest in it. As the exit polls now show, voters were driven by different issues, but in Wisconsin at least, the majority by far were driven by the handling of Covid-19. This jives with what I’ve heard from friends and family in northern Wisconsin, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus — where accurate information is scarce, hospitals are at capacity, and the decision to wear a mask is considered political.

Yet in an atmosphere where many minds have already been made up, the best political activism to reach the apolitical doesn’t actually come from having political discussions about what’s going on in Washington. It’s the everyday conversations with neighbors and coworkers, the temperature taking of a community that’s decisive. People are swayed tremendously by what they see (or, less often, read) on the news. But they are also moved politically by their book club, which is why a lot of white women started anti-racism book clubs this summer while doing little else. They can go to a march on Washington because their friends are. They’re swayed at church, because their pastor makes a relatable political analogy or because their Mama Bible Study group discusses the role of the family and how party positions align with that narrow understanding. Politics, in these instances, can often look a lot like an MLM leggings-selling scheme.

Our rural communities are considered by the majority to be political safe spaces (this is true in Germany as much as it is in the US). If you run into trouble — your car gets stuck in a ditch during a snowstorm, say — you want to be able to rely on others in town to help you out. So you don’t speak too openly about divisive politics. When I say talking about politics is considered impolite, this is what I mean. The influential role of the community stems directly from the psychological need for belonging and in the US, where towns and villages can often be tiny and distant, it’s important to feel as though you are a part of something. You don’t want to offend anyone. The Canadian tv show Schitt’s Creek is an incredible example of this.

It’s this urge to fit in that created the surge in political branding that we’ve seen this year — as someone mentioned during the event, lawn signs are huge and obnoxiously omni-present. They’ve always existed but not to this extent and it’s absolutely not something you’d have seen in Germany before (although the Refugees Welcome and now No Neighborhood for Racism has shifted that). Yet they play an important role: the signs are a way of signaling your position within the community. They represent your brand values in a world where people have been told to view themselves less as individuals and more as personal brands. They also lead those of the minority opinion to remain silent in order to retain their position in the community. This is only possible, however, for those whose skin color isn’t politicized.

Politics reveals itself in other ways in these communities. If you consider yourself political and want to advocate for change, the quickest way to make inroads is at the local level, running for school boards and so on. School boards are not seen as political, even if the decisions they make about education inherently are. You can talk about school choice at the dinner table but you don’t talk about the privatization of the public school system there if you consider yourself apolitical.

This also explains why polling is off. If you think your view or vote will not fit with your neighbors’ or even your husband’s expectation, you’re not going to openly express that view. You certainly won’t do it in a conversation with a stranger. Opening up this conversation, as many of us have done with our families and friends over the last several years, has led to greater rifts than maintaining silence ever did.

I’m sure there are lessons in all of this, whatever the outcome. But these are a few thoughts I shared on Tuesday. Hope you enjoyed.