Is America Better Than This?

I wrote the first section of this on Facebook, and it got enough of a response I thought it was worth preserving. I’ve also added a less poetic bit on the psephological implications.

I posted this previously because I thought it was funny, and also because the response is true. But some friends (and millions of people on Twitter) have looked at America’s history and said Biden is wrong, and actually that’s not my position. Here’s why.

Most, if not all, of us have had the experience of watching a loved one prepare to do something reprehensible and saying to them, “You’re better than this.” That doesn’t mean what they were about to do was the first, or even the worst, bad thing they have done in an otherwise spotless life. It means that they are not always like that. Humans are not simply a catalogue of our failings, we are a combination of the good and the bad, and that means that, as a whole, we are better than the worst, even though the worst is part of us.

I believe the same goes for nations. Yes America is centuries of slavery and the slaughter of its first peoples. It’s also millions who risked their lives to end slavery and its about to be Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior. It’s freedom rides and the need for freedom rides.

America is it’s astonishingly broken medical system and the polio vaccine, and also an inventor who refused to make money off stopping polio. It’s the Hiroshima bomb and treating post-war Japan (and Germany) with a generosity almost unprecedented for a conquering state.

America is the children Trump locked in cages and the deliberately lost records so their parents can never find them, and the acts of lesser cruelty by previous administrations, Democrats most definitely included. It’s also the words stamped on the Statue of Liberty and more refugees taken in than any other nation in the history of the world and the lawyers who work endlessly for little or no pay to save some of those children and the judges who sometimes let them.

And when you put all those things together then yes, yes America is better than a bunch of white supremacists storming the capital and the police who let them in. Because while it is them, it’s also the people who stood in line for 8 hours in the rain so their vote would count. It’s the shortage of polling places that meant those people had to stand so long, and it’s their belief it was worth standing that long.If we pretend none of this happened, then it will happen again, and again. But if we let ourselves think that America (or anywhere) is nothing more than its worst features then eventually that will be what it becomes. Only by seeing both can the future be better.

Psephological postscript

One of the most commented upon features of the last US election was the dramatic swing to Trump among Hispanic voters. Exit polling is particularly unreliable this year because of all the people voting by post, so we don’t know exactly how large this was. However, it was obvious something along these lines was going on from the moment Trump got swings to him in Florida counties where more than 70% of the population is Hispanic, and even larger changes were seen along the Texas/Mexico border where the population is almost entirely Hispanic.

A lot of explanations have been proposed for this. I’m pretty sure most of the ones I have heard have some truth in them, and people will be arguing for a long time about their relative importance.

One thing a few people have commented on, but probably deserves more attention, is that Hispanic voters have been swinging towards incumbent presidents as far back as we have data (which seems to be 1988). Contrary to some misrepresentations, that does not mean Republican incumbents have ever won a majority of people who identify as Hispanic, or indeed even got all that close. Nevertheless, the difference between Democrats getting 65 and 75% of a large and growing constituency can be crucial, particularly with Florida, Arizona and Nevada being swing states.

Many Hispanics have been in the US for generations (in some cases before the places they live were part of the US, but the majority are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Someone on Twitter noted that if you’ve gone to great lengths to change countries – sometimes risking your life – you may not respond too well to a message telling you the place you have moved to is terrible. For some people that will apply even if they are on the receiving ends of those problems on a daily basis. Any incumbent campaign will end up talking up the good features of a country, and any challenger will highlight the defects, at least to some extent, it’s possible this contributes to new immigrants being more supportive of those in office, allowing for general political lean.

How large a factor this time, given all the other factors at play, I don’t know, but it deserves to be considered. It certainly needs to be thought about in the way campaigns pitch themselves, not just to Hispanics, but to other immigrant communities.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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