Elections 2020

Many have done and are doing a great job describing the legal and political ways that the 2020 elections have been “historical” and “unique.” So I will steer away from that, and instead I would like to give a few broad stroke observations of what I believe are the wider societal transitions underway. These societal transitions underpin many of the political divisions we have been witnessing, and they can be described as:

1) A transition away from political parties as representative of ideological beliefs, to parties as representative of biological identities. Of course, this is not an overt nor formal position of the parties, but it has been amplified by a media quick to promote stereotypes and it is starting to take on deep psychological meaning for many voters. This development historically has been a precursor of political violence.  

2) The parallel expansion of two distinct ecosystems of mass media that are in a de-facto state of incommunicado. On the one hand an institutionally owned and endorsed system of news media, social media, and professional network based public conversations (of which this very event is a part). On the other a decentralized and unruly ecosystem of fringe opinions and unconventional beliefs.  This second system “hacks” the first, as in it uses the former’s infrastructure but without the former’s sanction. Like an immune system fighting off a virus, the official system finds itself scrambling to discredit, disqualify, and de-platform the hackers. It is an interesting development that the current President of the United States is now officially a hacker, posting what a Twitter algorithm qualifies as misleading and incorrect information. A civil servant, legally if not emotionally, represents the entire nation, from which he or she gets his or her mandate.  A private entity is mandated by its shareholders.  This public-private tension over the public discourse will not be easy to figure out.

3) A silent, yet profound, division over the role of the constitution and in particular between those that champion “unalienable rights” versus those that champion “positive rights.” Unalienable rights are those that cannot be taken away by government (right to speech, faith, happiness), positive rights are those that government should proactively give to individuals (right to shelter, food, safety). The balance between the two defines the role of the state and the very meaning of freedom (freedom “from the state” alongside freedom “guaranteed by the state”). Both have a role to play in our modern social contract.

Too much freedom from the state can lead to chaos, injustice, exploitation, and too much freedom guaranteed by the state can lead to tyranny (as it opens the struggle for power over control of those freedoms). Yet when half of society only sees and cares about their unalienable rights, and the other half only sees and cares about their positive rights, it no longer becomes a matter of how to mix the two, but of pitting the one against the other. Getting that balance right is possible when both sides see the value and danger of the other side.  I believe we are not just witnessing a “historic” election, but a re-definition of the social contract.