The first time I went to Washington D.C. I was struck by the extreme polarity I saw there. That day, the Tea Party was staging a demonstration against Obamacare on the Mall in front of the Capitol building. But this wasn’t the only event happening. The Mall was jammed with gatherings of all types – from all political angles: the right, the ultra-right and left, the rich and poor, the eager and entitled, the sage and stupid. The discourse was loud, passionate and boisterous. It was – in a word – chaos.
That chaotic polarity is, of course, defining the current election. After the second presidential debate, commentator Bob Schieffer said, with a mixture of incredulity and disgust, “How have we come to this?” The presidential debates may have hit a new low in presidential decorum, but if you dig deep enough, there is something great here.
A recent PR campaign has asked Canadians to tweet why America is great. I’m going to do it in a column instead.
You’re great because you argue loudly, passionately and boisterously. You air out ideologies in a very messy and public way. You amplify the bejeezus out of the good and the bad of human nature and then put them both in a cage match to battle it out in broad daylight. You do this knowing there will be no clear winner of this battle, but you hope and trust that the scales will tip in the right direction. There is no other country I know of that has the guts to do this in quite the way you do.
You personally may not agree with Donald Trump, but there are many that do. He is giving voice to the feelings and frustrations of a sizable chunk of the US population. And as much I personally don’t like how he’s doing it, the fact is he is doing it. Your country, your constitution and your political system has allowed a man like this to take a shot at the highest office of the land by questioning and attacking many things that many Americans hold to be inviolable. It’s scary as hell, but I have to admire you for letting it play out the way it has and trusting that eventually the process will prevail. And it has for 240 years. Candidates and elections and campaign rhetoric will all eventually disappear- but the process – your process – has always prevailed.
The polarization of the US is nothing new. It defines you. For a quick history lesson, watch The Best of Enemies on Netflix; a documentary on the televised debates of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal clashing on left vs. right during the 1968 Nixon vs. Humphreys vs. Wallace election. What started as an intellectual dual ended with Buckley threatening to smash Vidal’s face in after being called a neo-proto-Nazi on live TV.
If you look at the US from the outside, you swear that the whole mess is going to end up in a fiery wreck. But you’ve been here before. Many times. And somehow, the resiliency of who you are and how you conduct business wins out. You careen towards disaster but you always seem to swerve at the last minute and emerge stronger than before.
I honestly don’t know how you do it. As a polite, cautious Canadian, I stand simultaneously in awe and abject terror of how you operate. You defy the physics of what should be.
You’re fundamentally, gloriously flawed..but you are unquestionably resilient. You are an amazing example of emergence. You, in the words of Nassim Nicolas Taleb – are Antifragile:
“beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
You are discordant, divided and dysfunctional and somehow you’re still the most powerful and successful nation on the planet. I suspect you got there not in spite of your flaws, but because of them.
Perhaps you’re embarrassed by the current election cycle. I understand that. It has been called “unprecedented” many, many times by many, many commentators. And that may be true, but I would say it’s unprecedented only in the vigor and volume of the candidates (or, to be frank, one candidate). The boundaries of what is permissible have been pushed forcefully out. It may not be what certain constituents think is proper, but it is probably an accurate reflection of the diverse moods of the nation and, as such, it needs to be heard. You are a country of many opinions – often diametrically opposed. The US’s unique brand of democracy has had to stretch to it’s limits to accurately capture the dynamics of a nation in flux.
I don’t know what will happen November 8th. I do know that whatever happens, you will have gone through the fire yet again. You will emerge. You will do what needs to be done. And I suspect that, once again, you’ll be the stronger for it.