I suspect that I am not alone in being both bewildered and alarmed by the Presidential Election Campaign in the United States. Here in Britain we have had our own recent experience of negative campaigning and have learnt for ourselves that the casting of votes does not remove the underlying issues but can serve to expose them more fully.
It is widely recognised that the Leave Vote in June’s Referendum included a large element of protest and allowed people to voice their sense of frustration that somehow they had been left behind in life’s race or that others have benefitted at their expense. Parallels are never exact, but it would appear that Donald Trump’s support has its roots in a similar sense of discontent.
Because of their particular personalities and characters, it is easy to be dismissive of figures like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, but that is to ignore they way that both can serve as ciphers for deeper issues. They allow a voice to be heard and of course both have played on fears. For that reason despite being ‘big’ figures the votes that they garner are not based on their personality or character at all. Accordingly their apparent supporters should not be dismissed.
Many years ago I spent a summer travelling around the United States and remember having a number of conversations about British and US society. One comment I have not forgotten was the summary that a young woman offered to me; ‘You see’, she said, ‘the United States is a society built on disappointment’.
Her reasoning was that, founded as a religious utopia, the land they reached was never quite as promising as the Founding Fathers thought it would be. The further west the settlers went, the greater their expectations and subsequent disappointment – at least that was her argument.
Hers was a striking and grand narrative but I am beginning to wonder if it contains quite a lot of truth.
If such high expectations are then combined with a strong culture of consumption, the continuing quest for ‘something more’ leads to a society which contains both energy and anxiety, both of which are characteristics of the United States.
Religion plays a much more prominent part in public life in America than in Western Europe, but it seems to have failed to instil in its adherents a different way of valuing things and themselves. For at the heart of faith is the conviction that all humans are precious to God and valued as such. Contentment can therefore be found in the present rather than imagined in the future.
“We are to grow Rich, not by seeking what we Want, but by Enjoying what we have”, wrote Thomas Traherne in the 17th Century. Advice that might be tailor made for both sides of the Atlantic
For days after June 23rd, lots of us talked of nothing but the Referendum. The same may apply to the US Election in the days following November 8th.
On Thursday 10 November there will be another session of Pub Theology when we meet in the Green Dragon at 7.30pm. Do come and join the conversation!