Widespread fear and anxiety about the consequences of 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, that is the policies, actions, and words of both candidates, pervades the body politic. The conclusion of the election has of yet not provided any respite from the articulations of fear, that perhaps ironically, is a common form of expression shared by those across the spectrum of political ideologies.
However, in the maelstrom of this ‘moment of collective uncertainty,’ there is a point that I hope is stressed. This fear was perhaps accentuated by the campaign, but the campaign, in no way, gave rise to it. Nor are the underlying reasons unique to the United States. Quite the contrary, they are globally produced although personally felt.
To gain a sense of what might be going on, the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election can be analyzed with the concept of “liquid modernity,” most thoroughly developed by Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Cast in the light of a “liquid modern” world where our ability to keep pace with change is, in an almost gravely amusing kind of way, far outpaced by the speed of the change itself.
Let’s look at some voter statistics that suggest the idea of a reaction to liquid modernity is worth further exploration. As Richard Lachmann of the University at Albany notes “idea of bigotry and economic despair,” along with the “racist invective(s) and … completely incoherent policy proposals” created a situation where voter apathy seemed to have increased. As per Lachmann and other data from the Pew Research Center suggest, Clinton was unable to recapture key elements of the Obama coalition. African Americans and younger voters, those who are college graduates, more so supported Clinton, but not by the numbers they did for President Obama. Non-Hispanic whites, both those with some college or less, and college degrees, supported Drumpf, even if the latter case was with a narrow margin.
At the time of this writing, Hillary Clinton has surpassed Donald Drumpf in the popular vote by over two million (*note – as late December the number has increased to over three million). Yet, her totals are still off by six million and ten million voters given for Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections, respectively.
Taken in light of Bauman’s “liquid modernity,” another metric further sheds light on the voting outcomes. Shannon Monnat of Pennsylvania State University noted that areas that voted for Drumpf correlated with those scoring high on an “economic distress index.” The index measures rates of “people who are in poverty, unemployed, disabled, in single-parent families, or living on social assistance.” She asked how we can be surprised “because when you think about the underlying factors that lead to overdose or suicide, it’s depression, despair, distress, and anxiety.” These are precisely the areas where key components of the Obama collation abandoned Clinton.
The anger, frustration, resentment, anxiety, and hostility so passionately displayed before, during, and after the election has causes, and therefore possible solutions, in the ‘global space’ where many of the forces of liquid modernity are at work. This deserve more of our collective attention.The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election is one instantiation of just how pervasive this globalized world institutionalizes insecurity, which impacts are felt throughout the capillaries of social life. Complimented by the speed and pervasiveness of social media, the lingering effects throughout civil societies and states across the globe are still playing out before us.
Globalization has brought an increase in wealth, but that advancement has not been felt by all. In fact, some of that wealth relied on the very dismantling of the institutions that provided people with the material support for their existence, identity, and ‘place’ in the world. In other words, markets grew, costs dropped, more ‘jobs’ were produced. Yet, benefits were not spread evenly, and, in some cases, the ways of life of large segments of the population were decimated by uprooting the institutions that sustained them.The election, and what the results portend, serves as important and austere example of a problem that is truly global in scale, yet we seem to only fight on a local level, if at all.
Let’s just look at work. Fields and industries have radically changed, and for a large part of the American citizenry the benefits of increasingly globalized capitalism were not felt, and the rebound after the Great Recession never truly manifested. Borrowing terms from Bauman again, those who were ‘left behind’ became the “collateral damage” of our form of globalized neo-liberal capitalism.
Whether stripped of their place, or the now precariousness of their place, they can not longer be understood as ‘unemployed’ or ‘underemployed.’ The terms denote something temporary. The prefix, ‘un’ will be stripped once the latest economic downturn, a natural and expected part of the capitalistic cycle, runs its course. In the meantime, a variety of institutions including the state, can mitigate some of the more deleterious effects and smooth the transition. The message is that there is a way back from the ‘un,’ and collective measures are in place to help ease the ‘temporary’ blow.
This is no longer the case for all too many in the U.S. The same trends that have already impacted billions around the world are now felt quite viscerally by many of those who supported Drumpf. They are not among the ‘un’s.’ They have been rendered ‘redundant’ by these global processes. No longer useful they are relegated (or are on their way) to the “refuse tip.” Clear paths ‘back’ from redundancy and obsolesce are not easily found, if they exist at all.The only recourse for political power at this point, to retain support of its citizens, now rendered redundant, is to transform this anxiety of being tossed aside in a real and permanent sense into causes not market generated. Rather, threats become ‘localized’ or ‘personalized.’ These are no longer hardships we face together. We all must face them alone.
Luckily for us, the ‘fixes’ abound. In other words, what the state is less effective combating, global flows of power, become transformed into personal threats to safety. Legitimacy is retained by still providing security, or at least the claim to provide security.
Donald Drumpf, perhaps unwittingly, gave “name” to this anxiety , but it is important to remember that neo-liberalism gave us Drumpf, as well as the anger, frustration, and despair he effectively tapped into. But the reasons he and his surrogates gave for why the anxieties exist, and therefore unsurprisingly, the prescribed solutions they offer are woefully inadequate. This is important, and we as a country ignore it at our own peril.
Drumpf taped into the suffering caused by these processes, but as Bauman and others suggest, strong man authoritarianism that seeks to pare back the ‘freedom’ and offer ‘security’ is what politics in the United States share with other nation-states as they grapple with the same issues.
However, Drumpf did so through vitriolically profaning and ‘other-ing.’ For those who are redundant and have been ignored, and for those who are fearful that they are on the precipice of becoming redundant (more of us than you might suspect), it is easier to fix on targets you can see. The economic migrant (which is an expected ‘product’ of neo-liberalism), the asylum seeker (whose asylum is part of the American narrative) are criminalized, and subject to one of the powers the state has left: law enforcement, often accompanied by the withdraw of state protection. A panoply of Americans identifying with (or in some cases being labeled by others as) members of racial, ethnic, gender, religious, or sexual group are likewise seen as suspect, and, at best, ‘moochers’ on the productive efforts of others. They threaten whatever it is that makes America, “America.” The tragedy is that these same groups that have struggled (and continue to do so) to truly become part of the national community, a place most assuredly deserved. What is even more ironically cruel is that many of these very same groups are in the same position of being threatened with redundancy and exclusions as those leveling charges.
In a “liquid modern” world, the possibility of becoming redundant, and therefore expendable, is all too real. Dangers now come from all directions, which can strike without warning, and have causes that are hidden from view; the only solutions on offer are often rendered impotent because they seek ‘local solutions to systemic problems‘. Most importantly, no one needs to ‘do’ anything to become redundant. Redundancy is the destiny of the deserved and non-deserved alike. Therefore, one of the more deleterious outcomes of power dynamics in our globalized world is the sense of the losing one’s place in the world both individually and collectively. However, the globalized ‘institutionalization of insecurity’ that permeates the “liquid modern” world is not an unexpected or accidental outcome. In fact, the ‘institutionalization of insecurity,’ and all its implications are principle features of liquid modernity, not an unintended effect or an aberration.
Bauman suggests a humble first step that needs to be taken to truly combat the causes, and not just triage the symptoms. The exigent circumstances, the visceral divisions, upticks in hate incidents (that continue to rise at the time of this writing), demand that we do not fall into the trap of ‘bystanding.’ We must continue the discussion and action. This means facing ambiguity, confronting, listening, and most importantly, living with those that are different in body and mind. It means real, and at times uncomfortable dialogue is necessary. After all, real dialogue, as Bauman writes, “isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you.”
Our Guest Blogger is an educator and researcher who has held positions in higher education, government, non-profits, and IT services. He writes and teaches about contemporary social issues positioned at the intersection of politics, culture, technology, and globalization. Andrew earned a BA in Political Science and Sociology, and a PhD in Sociology from the University at Albany, SUNY.