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American Pathos

Monday, November 14, 2016  | 

This commentary originally appeared in the Sunday edition of Greece’s Ethnos


The entire country – indeed, the entire world – is still trying to make sense of Tuesday’s Presidential election.  How did this happen?  What does this mean?  How was everyone so wrong?

Politico Magazine just published a story identifying Hillary Clinton’s “complacency” as the reason she lost the election.  Yet the Clinton campaign is not the only actor in politics that can be accused of complacency.  Complacency is a sin that too many of us – politicians, media, activists, citizens – are guilty of.

It is very important to understand the context of the latest American elections.  Over the last decade, there have been a series of what analysts call “wave elections”.  A wave election is commonly considered one in which a political party wins a large and lopsided number of House and Senate seats while sustaining minimal losses.    These wave elections started in 2006, when Democrats won 31 House and six Senate seats; continued in 2008 when Democrats gained 21 House and eight Senate seats, and Barack Obama won the Presidency in decisive fashion; then took a right turn towards the Republican Party in 2010, when the Republicans won 63 House seats and four in the Senate and in 2014 when Republicans took the Senate majority in a commanding sweep, winning nearly every contested race across the country, gaining governor’s mansions and adding to their majority in the House of Representatives.

By this standard, Tuesday’s Presidential election was not a wave election.  But it might be the election that explains all the previous elections.  At a glance, one might conclude that the American electorate is bi-polar.  How can the same country sweep Barack Obama to power only to decisively defeat his allies two years later?  How does one explain the same country handing Barack Obama stinging rebukes in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, but giving him a convincing reelection victory in 2012?  How does the same country elect the first African-American President of the United States and then direct him to peacefully transition power to a candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Clan and Golden Dawn?

All of this makes sense only when one goes beyond the polls, beyond the media, beyond the opinions of experts and politicians.  It makes sense when you consider that the United States is susceptible to the same trends that influenced elections in Greece, the Brexit vote, the Colombian referendum on the peace process.

There are three methods of persuasion – ethos, pathos and logos.  Anyone who doubts that voters worldwide are being guided primarily, if not exclusively, by pathos is not paying attention to what is really going on.  Get off the road of civil discourse on national television or in the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.  Anger is the dominant emotion is American politics.  Listen to the voices of the alternative right, to the chants at Trump rallies, to the rhetoric at an Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter rally.  Americans are angry.  We may have been deluded by the joyful chanting of “Yes We Can” in 2008, but for over a decade, Americans have been saying “No” over and over again (two of those times – in the 2008 primary and this year’s election – they said “No” to Hillary Clinton.)

We are living through an age of disruption.  Americans, for the first time ever, no longer believe that their children will have a higher standard of living than they do.  The state, here in the U.S. and across Europe, is structured to deal with economic challenges of the 1970’s more effectively than the challenges of the 21st century.  People feel less physically and economically secure – even when they may be doing better economically and do not face any immediate safety threat.  If someone has such a mindset, you cannot tell them to stay the course, be patient, or make progress one step at a time.  This is what Hillary represented, and both in 2008 and in 2016 she lost to someone who promised “Change” and expressed anger against the system.

What does a Trump Presidency mean for Greece?  To be fair, one cannot reach conclusions until Trump appoints his entire national security team.  Yet, on the eve of President Obama’s visit to Greece, there are reasons for concern: Trump’s only statement on the Greek economic crisis did not indicate sympathy for the position that Greece needs debt relief; Vice President elect Pence had a bad, if not outright hostile, record on Greek issues when he was in Congress; potential Administration officials like John Bolton, Newt Gingrich, and Jeff Sessions have a long record in government; and on Election Day Lieutenant General Michael Flynn – one of President-elect Trump’s top national security advisors – published a piece promoting relations with Turkey, declaring: “We need to adjust our foreign policy to recognize Turkey as a priority. We need to see the world from Turkey’s perspective.”

It is too early to say with any certainty what any of this means, and anyone who insists that they know exactly what is going to happen has about the same credibility as the prognosticators who gave Hillary Clinton a 90%+ chance of winning as recently as Tuesday morning.  We have all been advised at some point to never make a decision in anger, but we are doing so over and over and over.  It is time that we add ethos and logos to the pathos that we have come to rely on so much.

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