I think that we can all breathe out now and accept that Joe Biden will be the next President, and hopefully a bit of normality will take hold again.
Biden won with a record number of votes, but Democrats down the ticket did worse than opinion polls suggested. From Brexit in 2016 to Trump vs Biden 2020 polls have found it hard to accurately measure the extent of support for reactionary politicians and their causes.
There a few possible reasons for this.
Conservatives would claim that there is a silent conservative majority that exists beyond the understanding of effete metropolitan liberals and polling companies. This is hard to sustain with regard to US elections where the Republicans have lost the popular vote in 7 of the last 8 Presidential Elections. They lost the popular vote in 3 of the last 5 senate elections too, despite winning the most seats in all of them. The US doesn’t have a Conservative majority, silent or noisy, it just has a political system that magnifies their votes.
It is also possible that the result in the US is caused by voter suppression. The gap between the opinion polls and the actual result would be consistent with the suppression of the votes of 3% of the electorate, disproportionately targeting Democrat voters. This however wouldn’t explain the sheer size of the Trump vote, or the Brexit vote – there may have been dishonesty and cheating by the leave campaign, but no actual voter suppression.
I think there is a more likely answer – loneliness, or at least social isolation.
I have written about the impact of loneliness in politics on a number of occassions, and I think that we underestimate how big an impact loneliness and social isolation has on politics and modern life.
The less human contact you have the easier it is to think the worst of people. Authoritarian politics has a rather grim view of human nature, and the less you see of your fellow humans the easier it is to believe it. The more time you spend interacting on line the easier it is to get sucked into crazy ideas and obsessions that would sound ridiculous if spoken out loud.
This isn’t new.
What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience …
– From The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) by Hannah Arendt
Research in the US from the General Social Survey and the American Values survey shows a big increase in American social isolation.
The number of Americans reporting that they have no-one in their immediate social circle has increased from 8% to 17% over the last 7 years, and the numbers are highest among those with the lowest levels of academic achievement. The number of people who only know people of the same political persuasion has increased. 53% of Republicans only mix with other Conservatives, and 55% of Democrats only mix with their fellow. Liberals. Among Republican voters there is a big difference based on education – less well educated Republican voters are much less likely to mix with people with different political views.
White Americans are much less likely than Black Americans to have racially homogenous social networks, with 77% reporting no close social contacts of different racial groups, rising to 83% of Republican voters. Non-college graduate white Republican voters had the least diverse social network of all, politically and racially.
This suggests that there is a group of non-college graduate, white, Republican voters who have high levels of social isolation and very small and highly homogenous social networks.
This would explain why it is so hard for pollsters to get an accurate picture of the voting intentions of this group – the group that is most enthusiastic about Trump. If the same is true in the UK, and instinctively I think it is, this would explain why people missed the Brexit vote or the fall of the Red Wall. The more socially isolated someone is the more likely they are to support authoritarian right wing politicians and movements, and the harder it is for pollsters to engage with them.
The last year of lockdown has had a big impact on the levels of loneliness and the spread of crazy political ideas. Before lockdown I didn’t know anyone who believed in QAnon or Covid conspiracies. Now I know several, who are adamant in the righteousness of their beliefs, and baffled by my scepticism.
I think that social isolation has come to define the US and the UK in a very unique and awful way. That is why there is so much indifference to the terrible death toll from Coronavirus and so much reluctance to follow the rules. We no longer know each other, and we no longer know the older, poorer people who die. We don’t care who suffers, just as we found it so easy to turn our backs on the victims of austerity.
And both countries have ruling parties which have stopped bothering themselves with the boring business of Government and which exist entirely as propaganda machines, the distinction between Party and media almost totally forgotten. The fantasy cast at the top of the Republican Party are the stars of the Fox cinematic universe. The leadership of the Conservative Party are politicians and spin doctors. The once close relationship between right wing politicians and the press has become seamless, an endless cycle of slogan and soundbite with less and less connection with reality. Even if Fox fall out of favour with Trump there will be investors keen to finance ever crazier media outlets to trade in likes and shares. Conservatism is now longer a political movement, but a business model.
And after another few months of Government enforced social isolation we will know each other less, trust each other less, and believe more crazy things.
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. […] under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness. – From The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) by Hannah Arendt