With a mainstream politics seemingly devoid of answers, many vote for the previously unthinkable

In a country divided by race, class and the growing chasm of ideology, 2016 seemed to offer very little common ground between Clinton and Trump supporters. They appeared to represent not just competing political desires or interests but two fundamentally opposed worldviews. On one side stood a tried and true vision of tolerance and incremental progress. On the other misdirected hate and an impassioned cry for the complete sweeping away of the status quo.

First appearances, though, can be deceiving. Amidst these profound differences was a shared sense of alarmism tinged with optimism. Democrats were terrorised by Trump and his supporters’ fascist overtones and excited that this would most likely spell the end of the Conservative extremism that had taken hold of the Republican Party since Obama’s inauguration. For those on the Right, they feared a Clinton monarchy and the continuation of an economy and society that seemed content to leave them behind.

Even more fundamentally, both camps passionately embraced candidates who offered them little more than false solutions in a country that had seemed to run out of answers to its most pressing economic, social and political problems. Trump is the most obvious target for such a critique. The now president elect showed himself throughout the campaign to be a emotionally resonant con ma extraordinaire – promising to make American Great Again even while insulting a growing portion of its population. Clinton, however, was by no means free of such political sins. She offered high minded platitudes and piece meal reforms in place of a genuine record or vision of bold progressive change.

Emerging was a more chronic and serious disease afflicting American democracy. If the 21st century had thus far shown the American public anything – it was not just that government was ineffectual but that it was completely unimaginative. Amidst its sound bites and carefully staged debates, it spoke little to the real concerns and experiences of those they ostensibly represented. This was especially deplorable in a time when inequality was on the rise while economic and political power firmly rested in the hands of elites. Internationally, America seemed stuck in a vicious and costly cycle of militarism and terrorism. The country was further torn apart over issues of police brutality, mass incarceration and the looming threat of climate change.

The insurgent progressive candidacy of Bernie Sanders was to a new generation a potential antidote to this cultural paralysis. His rejection of corporate money and call for a “political revolution” showed glimmers of jumpstarting the sputtering nation from its ideological malaise and entrenched partisan battles. It was a call to take back the government for the people. Yet it also held out the hope that it was still possible for everyday citizens to mobilize and shape history rather than simply being shaped by it.
The elite Liberal dismissal of such efforts reflected just how deeply the cynicism from the Centre ran and how scared it was of radical change, regardless of which political direction it came from. Conversely, Trump tapped into a populist outrage with the “establishment”, dragging it down to the lowest common denominator of racism, sexism and discrimination. Without any alternative, most Americans chose to stay home discontent with having to choose between (to quote one popular meme) “An incredibly shitty status quo” and a “dystopian nightmare future”. 

The cultural theorist Fredric Jameson famously declared “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”. On November 8th many Americans voted for the unthinkable after years of being told that their longing for a truly better future was little more than a naïve dream. The rest of the country now must wake up and confront our worst political nightmare.