Elections are a blunt-force instrument we use on the body politic to move it forward, much like a mahout prods the elephant with a goad. Votes by themselves tell us almost nothing about who we are or what we think. One pile of ballots is simply higher than the other and things change, usually quite slowly. History is a series of zigzags.
The U.S. just zigged unexpectedly to the right with the election of Donald Trump. Is this a good thing? I am hesitant to make a prediction because all my predictions this year have been dead wrong. I am a little more like Socrates this week, because I am quite certain I know nothing. This is no help, because everyone at my dinner table still looks to me to explain the world.
For most of the past year, pundits told me Trump’s support was coming from disaffected, middle-aged, uneducated white guys who lived in the country. This bothered me because I happen to be a middle-aged white guy who lives in the country. I do have a university education and I’m not that crabby about my lot in life. Still, according to the polls, I was in a demographic that was about 50 % inclined to vote for Trump. I thought this ridiculous until I filled out one of those on-line political quiz forms. According to my score, I agreed with 48 % of the things he stood for. That came as a jolt. It almost made me forget how completely opposed I was to the other 52 %.
Election night came and a thick fog settled over the land. Listening to the media, I began to feel that rural people were on trial. A look at the American electoral map showed tiny urban blocks of blue surrounded by vast swaths of red (that’s what it looks like in Ontario, too, if you switch the colours). The filmmaker Michael Moore claimed that Trump woke up a mob of uneducated white folks in the flyover states who mailed in a collective middle finger to Washington.
Except that he didn’t. As the weeks went by, the media grudgingly began to accept that the country has simply shifted very slightly to the right, just as they shifted slightly to the left eight years ago after two terms of George W. Bush. In our last election in Canada we did pretty much the same thing. In each example, voter turnout was low and the margins surprisingly narrow. On balance, a lot of people think government should back out of our lives and learn to get by with less.
How scary a notion is that?
The most startling part of it was the sheer volume of absolute nonsense churned out by all forms of media, day after day, about both presidential candidates. “Everything is true and nothing is true,” lamented outgoing President Barack Obama, quoting a French philosopher. “A lie goes around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” That was literally true if you saw any of the fake news sites on Facebook from Macedonia.
The latest buzzword is ‘post-factual,’ a word often used in the same sentence as ‘democracy.’ This is a genuinely troubling development and contributes more than anything else to our sense of worry that a sickness is about to creep across our border.
One of the reasons I don’t think it will is this thing I call ‘farmer thinking.’ Post-factual is not a term likely to gain any traction in farming because there is no such thing as a post-factual chicken. There is also no post-factual way to deal with wireworms in soybeans. I’m sure you could find some website with a Macedonian address which will advise you to spread coffee grounds on the field and then do an interpretive dance in the moonlight, but our natural scepticism makes it unlikely any of us would act on it.
Farmer thinking helps to explain essential Canadian characteristics: Our basic decency, our scepticism and our tolerance. I like to think these qualities were born on the concession roads to neighbours who knew that rugged individualism was not the best approach to a Canadian winter. Exported to the city, those qualities gave us old age security, employment insurance and public health care. They encouraged a belief in the value of neighbouring, the strength of communities and the need for civility in our public life.
And that makes me cautiously optimistic that we and our neighbour to the south will somehow muddle through.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.