Fairy tale endings

In November 2016, following the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the American presidential election, I wrote a blog on election outcomes and the values of the university. Now that the Trump era has been brought to a close by the 2020 election, it seems right to come back to American politics and what they might have to say to our mission.

I imagine that almost all of us, when we were young, were read fairy tales. The point of the fairy tale is that whatever happens to our hero or heroine – and a good number of fairy tales feature painful experiences of bullying, torture, death or injury – it all comes good in the end: ‘they lived happily ever after’. This early exposure to fairy tales exercises a powerful hold on our psyche. Despite all the evidence the adult world throws at us, our deep-seated yearning for a happy ending won’t go away. The Ancient Greeks were much more sanguine about this: ‘count no man happy until he is dead’ – though personally, I cannot believe that ancient Athenian children were not told fairy tales.

Almost anyone who had followed the last four years of boorish chaos, ferocious temper tantrums and self-regarding narcissism which flowed from Trump’s White House was desperate for a happy ending. Surely, went the argument, the American people must see through the wild tweeting of the showman in the White House. Civil society would re-assert itself. The opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the election appeared to give credence to the view. Joe Biden, the Democrat challenger appeared to be eight, ten or even twelve points ahead. A Democrat landslide was predicted: the fairy tale ending.

Of course that’s not what happened. Biden has won, but it was all – through the late-night news, too-close-to-call recounts and ballot validation – a near run thing. Biden won more votes – 75 million and counting – than any other candidate in American history, but Trump won ten million more votes than he took in 2016. At the same time that Biden won enough votes and states to take the Presidency, the Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives and failed to make expected progress in the Senate. Biden clawed back the Democrat cities of the ‘rust belt’ – Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit – which Trump had snatched in 2016, but rural America swung more decisively to Trump. Trump secured unexpected success with socially conservative hitherto Democrat voters in the Latino-heritage population. There’s some evidence from the exit polls that racial and ethnic polarisation in American politics seems to be decreasing.

Many commentators anticipated a more substantial victory, but the key observation about the American 2020 election – and one, surely, with resonance here too – is that the country remains bitterly, and almost evenly divided. If the Democrat vote is becoming embedded in the cities and the suburbs, and largely the choice of more highly educated voters, so the Republican vote is becoming yet more dominant in the vast American rural hinterland and with less highly educated, and more socially conservative voters. This – once again – appears to be that division between those who are comfortable with diversity, social liberalism and change and those who see themselves as left out, embattled and threatened by a rapidly changing world. Exit polls, again, show that employees most at risk from rapid technological change were more likely to vote Trump. In ways almost no-one has predicted for two generations, culture appears to be trumping (an unfortunate but appropriate word) social class and economic interest in voting patterns. One of the most compelling analyses I’ve read ends with a conclusion that on these results “it’s hard to believe anyone, at least in the short term, has a compelling or even plausible strategy for consistently winning elections”.

As we grow older, we all learn that the world is all much more complicated than fairy tales led us to believe. America has voted for a president who has a commitment to civic values and to evidence, to decency and respect, but it has done so narrowly. Perhaps – to draw on a different narrative stereotype — a narrow victory is all you need.   There was a strikingly emotional response to Biden’s victory from the American political commentator Van Jones, “it’s easier”, he said, to be a parent this morning….it’s easier to say character matters”.

But narrow victories tell us something, too. Perhaps all advanced economies are deeply divided in the face of rapid social, cultural and technological change, dealing with the economic fallout of the 2008 crash and now the long-term impacts of a global pandemic. For those of us in universities this is a challenge, of course: we have to find ways to engage with those who don’t necessarily share our world-views. We are drivers of opportunity. We are champions of diversity. We are shapers of the future. We also have to find ways to articulate our purpose and values, and to ensure we have a dialogue with those who are troubled and concerned about their world.

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