Midterm elections and happiness

Underneath the surface, the United States of America is passing through the deepest identity crisis in its history

09.11.2018 - Giorgio Vittadini
Midterm elections (LaPresse)

The Midterm elections of the United States, which were held this past November 6, when seen with the eye of a political commentator, were nothing exceptional. No one was made a “lame duck,” to use the expression that describes a president without a Congressional majority. In extreme synthesis: The Democrats retook control of the House of Representatives and won certain important gubernatorial races, such as Illinois, but, at the same time, lost crucial and symbolic challenges in states such as Florida and Georgia. With a reinforced Senate in his favor, Donald Trump will not be conditioned on his foreign policy, which is solely his own competence, and could be confirmed in all of the most important nominations that he will make, even if, having lost the House, he may be blocked in the attempt to pass fundamental laws on domestic issues, such as taxes and immigration.

Considering the fact that the Midterm elections are traditionally used for redistributing power between political forces and, for that reason, are often used to penalize the current president (something that happened even to those presidents who were considered successful leaders, such as Reagan and Obama), then one might conclude that there is nothing new under the sun.

However, underneath the surface, the United States of America is passing through the deepest identity crisis in its history. It has gotten to the point that anguished questions are being posed by the entire society. As a friend from California put it: “Is there still an American people? What does it mean to be American? What can unite us?” Another, speaking about those who are for Trump and those who are against him, told me, “I have never seen a country so radically divided in two: there are two societies that are clearly divided and seem to have nothing to say to each other, nor do they even seem to want to bridge that gap.”

In reality, well beyond two groups, factions abound, to the point that language of “tribalism” has returned to the forefront of the national conversation.

The United States was born with the great ambition of affirming the right of all men to pursue progress and happiness, as the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, a document that clearly echoes the original spirit of the Constitution, reads: “The American peoples have acknowledged the dignity of the individual, and their national constitutions recognize that juridical and political institutions, which regulate life in human society, have as their principal aim the protection of the essential rights of man and the creation of circumstances that will permit him to achieve spiritual and material progress and attain happiness.”

It is the idea that anyone can become rich and climb the social ladder, bolstered by the exceptional vigor of economic life. At the end of the day, it is the idea of conquering the West, the idea of the frontier, in which daily life becomes a dynamic challenge: even when facing enormous difficulties and dangers, even when encountering violence and abuse (which abound, compared to the rest of the world), you can make it through. Success in such circumstances is based on merit, on capability, and on value, as so many American films depict.

As we know, the affirmation of the equality of opportunity has produced, instead, deep inequality. Think about the genocide of the Native Americans, or about the racial discrimination that not even the Civil War was able to resolve. Think about the innumerable victims that still populate this society.

In any event, a unification of the people based on a project of personal and social realization had been holding up since the beginning of the 20th century. This effort was continuously relaunched even in political forms, from the New Deal of Roosevelt to the New Frontier of Kennedy, from the “Great Society” of Lyndon Johnson even up to the figure of Ronald Reagan.

This balance has been broken. The push towards financialisation in the Nineties, September 11, and then the great crisis of 2007 have dramatically damaged the American Dream, which contains the idea that being accomplished and achieving success is a decisive part of the definition of one’s self. A society has emerged with, on one side, the world of finance, the rich, the cultured classes of the large cities of the East and West, all of whom live privileged lives. On the other side, there are the ex-working class of the Rust Belt, the people in the Midwest who depend on their local Walmart, the proletariat abandoned even by the Democratic Party. In the educational world, access to the best schools and universities remains the privilege of the elite, be they conservative or liberal, while the middle class is vanishing from those campuses.

In recent years, unemployment has been decreasing, but work is as precarious as ever. For young families, life in big cities has become economically impossible. In New York, three friends of mine, who got married in the Eighties, were able to sustain their entire families, including their wives, send their children to private schools and stay behind a mortgage in order to pay for their homes. Their children have recently begun families of their own in which both spouses work, private schools for their children are out of the question, and, above all, buying a house is impossible. Some of them have emigrated to the Midwest.

The electoral campaigns of the Nineties furthered the identity problem, using marketing strategies that contributed to dividing groups on the basis of their ethnicity and lifestyle. From then on, the preoccupation of every politician has become, for example, how to capture the vote of African American women, or the vote of young, white men from the costal regions, considering their different needs. As a result, the cure has become worse than the disease, as the defense of the rights of minorities, while legitimate, has become the obsession of the “politically correct,” resulting in the exasperated need to create “safe spaces” in which a person can protect oneself from those opinions of others that are different from theirs.

And so, the American people, feeling insecure and threatened, chose a billionaire populist like Trump who has only exacerbated the divisions, recalling, as he does, those original values of an American identity that, in part, does not exist anymore.

Americans do not know who they are anymore, to the point that their common history is taught in a different way from state to state. It has even reached the point in which, as an example, many in the State of California wanted to forgo the celebration of Columbus Day, based on guilt towards Native Americans.

What shape the United States will take remains to be seen. One thing, however, is certain: they can begin again by looking at their daily lives and circumstances in order to understand that happiness, the right to which is enshrined in the Constitution, can be reached: not in the success enjoyed by the few, but by beginning from the non-truncated desire of each and every person.