By Dr Clayton Chin and Dr Daniel R. McCarthy. School of Social and Political Sciences
In the aftermath of the most surprising American election result in recent memory, politicians, pundits and prognosticators are desperately casting around for answers to an outcome no one saw coming. Explanations ranged from a ‘whitelash’ and economic dislocation to a straightforward rejection of ‘PC culture’ and liberal elitism.
Important to this hunt for causes is understanding what this election tells us about the fundamental characteristics of American society. The United States has often been understood as the democratic state par excellence, a living experiment in the democratic project of finding strength and unity in a diverse population and a sign of how liberal politics could ideally be conducted.
That these ambitions have never been reached did not undermine the sense that, as Barack Obama argued in his 2008 acceptance speech, the ‘arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. Indeed, Obama’s election, which seemed the culmination of American narratives of hopeful progress, made the full achievement of American pluralism seem closer than ever.
In the wake of Trump’s election, and in a global context in which Western liberal democracies continue to march further to the right, we need to understand where American pluralism now stands.
As an immigrant and settler society, the US has traditionally lacked any universal cultural markers to define the nation as a nation. While European societies point to specific cultural artefacts as theirs, in the United States an absence of common culture meant that the source of national belonging was sought elsewhere.
American national identity is distinctly rooted in politics itself, in the foundational moment of the American republic that stated that “all men are created equal” that all humans are potential Americans, potential contributions to the ever more flavoursome melting-pot.
This was the core of the American Credo and, as Michael Foley noted in his authoritative treatment of American political thought, while there were diverse political positions in the United States, they all formed around a central belief that American values (such as liberty, equality, democracy, and individualism) uniquely provided the distinct balance of unity out of multiplicity that made the American identity the first truly universal one.
The stark question now is what the Trump presidency and the various divisions it represents means for these values and this project of the universal American identity.
The implicit worry behind progressive reactions to Trump, those that highlight the racial, classist and gendered consequences of his election, is that this election heralds the death of American pluralism. The progressive expansion of the rights and duties of citizenship to minority groups will be foreclosed, and a thicker conception of American identity will take its place.
In the future, this logic goes, American identity will be defined by the nationalist, nativist, and isolationist forces underpinning Trump’s core support. Frightening examples of such a shift have manifested already and Trump’s early appointments seem only to reinforce this part of his project.
Hillary Clinton’s failure in this regard seems to speak just as much to this concern as Trump’s success. One of the clearest messages she offered was in no way novel. Like Obama, she hearkened back to the core values embraced by every progressive reformist American political figure from Martin Luther King Jr to Susan B Anthony.
That “we” (as women, African-Americans, the working class, homosexuals, and so forth) must be included, because ever-widening inclusion is the American democratic hope.
The assumption that American identity could never be defined in explicitly exclusionary ways was underpinned by the repeated failure of past attempts to do so. Clinton’s “stronger together” appealed exactly to these values and the consensus around ideals of American citizenship they expressed.
The (possible) failure of this agreement as the normal expression of identity in the United States raises the single most important question of the state of American democracy. Will American citizenship in the future be increasingly defined by white, nationalist, rural identity, closed down and unwelcoming to the inclusion of others?
Or is this the last great push, the wave that will finally break and roll back allowing American pluralism, a reality that has never actually been as rosy as its ideals, to finally achieve itself?
In the immediate aftermath of an ugly campaign it is, perhaps, wise to withhold any ultimate judgement on these questions. Nonetheless, it is much less wise to suggest that nothing is up for grabs at this moment of political turmoil.
Americans, left and right, now stand at a critical juncture over the foundations and character of their democracy.
This article has been co-published with SBS