A butterfly flaps its wings in the US and, some poor farmer in a distant part of the world can now send his children to school. Or maybe he loses his access to the local market. What happens in the US impacts the rest of the world, whether the effects are intentional or otherwise.
In fact, it has been argued that the rest of the world should be allowed to vote in American, particularly presidential elections. In its role as a global policeman, a techno-economic powerhouse, and as the focal point for the global financial market, the US sets the agenda and imposes the costs of its actions on the rest of the world. But the extent to which its cultural influences set the trend for conversations across the world is an important measure of its power and position. Reference to soft power?
I have never really cared much for elections in the US. The odd Dubya comic strip and a small ‘thumb my nose’ celebration to indicate the end of US hegemony after the 2016 election was the extent of my involvement. But the level of the discourse surrounding the upcoming presidential elections has made me re-think the extent to which these elections matter for a world struggling to deal with a pandemic, economic distress, and an increasingly aggressive China. More astute and experienced commentators than I will be addressing these concerns in the days and months to come. My concern is limited to how the discourses around these elections will affect conversations in other countries.
Watch: World outlook towards the US Elections (2016)?
Joey and Chandler from Friends are the prototypical friends for at least 2 generations, Oprah the epitome of a do-gooder. Rambo and Terminator were our muscular avenging heroes, the skywalkers saga a never-ending reminder of the dichotomy of the light and dark sides. These references are almost universal, as easily understood in Arkansas as in the bylanes of Cairo. But cultural references are also metaphors that we use to make sense of the realities of everyday life. The more our metaphors derive their sustenance from the American landscape, the more intertwined the rest of the world becomes with the developments there. We see ourselves in and find ourselves limited by the categories created to make sense of American socio-political realities. For a generation whose first engagement with political news was courtesy the brilliant work of Jon Stewart of the Daily show or his philosophical successors, the terrain of their immediate surroundings will only make sense in the language used by them. I do not mean to undermine the achievements and uniqueness of the many countries that comprise, not least my own. My objective is to merely point out that US soft power, long seen a more benign compliment of its military might, perhaps unwittingly lays out the framework which millions use to understand the world around them. This assertion does not undermine the influence of local factors unique to different parts of the world, but it is very likely that (to a limited extent) if US polity is divided or polarised, the rest of world will catch up, not least because the language used to describe the divide in the US will soon spread and have a similar inflammatory effect.
Many of the ills that have afflicted the US in recent years have been explained as tribalism. But almost all of us have felt the need to belong at some point or another: family, friends, celebrity fan club. There cannot be anything fundamentally wrong with a primal need that has been with our species for millennia. But what happens when the tribe that we presume to be a part of has no mooring in our lived reality?
Possibly the most benign expression of this can be explored by examining football clubs. A blue-blooded manchester united fan born and brought up in the city is likely to carry the full weight of the club’s rich legacy. Its triumphs, failures, claims over their great players, and animosity towards fans of other great clubs of the region. An animosity that could and has led to alterations and acts of hooliganism with each incident feeding into the next.
While the sports community is not likely to condone such occurrences, most understand it as an unavoidable outcome of a mix of our innate tribalism and love for the sport. But consider the case when a young kid from Singapore puts on a red devil jersey. The jersey acts to hand over a curated identity that the kid can adopt. Consequently, other football fans in that neighborhood of Singapore, each with their imported curated identities, will have their interactions amongst each other mediated by the color of their jerseys.
Watch: Tribalism in the US
Now replace the jersey with a category name of your choice: Conservative, Far-Right, Left-Liberal, Communist, Antifa etc. Do not worry if you cannot think of one, somebody else will do it for you. Many would think the choice to be only of academic interest. And it would be, except for the reality that our understanding of many of these terms is very likely determined by the stories we hear from the US. If the language that the most educated and therefore most likely to be at the vanguard of political tumult speak is derived from America, then if conservatives and liberals cannot agree on anything in the US, they are unlikely to be able to in other parts of the world.
Do not judge a book by its cover. We have all heard it and yet we all do it. There is not much of an option when you enter a book store full of books. There is just too many of them for anyone to go through in any degree of detail. Instead, we rely on heuristics, simple strategies like looking at a book cover to make a choice. In the absence of these simple mental references, we would be buried in an avalanche of information unable to make decisions. As useful and integral to our lives, as they are, a good heuristic must fulfill two criteria: simple and accurate. For instance, relying on race or gender to decide on skill level is a bad (biased) heuristic. It is simple, but it is not accurate.
It must be obvious that socio-cultural training can go a long way in determining which decision-making heuristics we rely on. In this context, consider a person sitting in Mumbai relying on heuristics derived from shows written in Los Angeles or New York to understand and interpret her lived reality. Not are they not likely to be accurate, they are not likely to be simple either. A saffron jersey might have to be understood as a red one in the absence of options, driving a series of actions that inevitably lead to misunderstandings and discord. Again you need to show this link what is the implication of how the jersey is understood
The next 4 months
If tribalism affects the coverage of the elections as much it is purported to affect voting, then the spillovers will make the rest of the world even more discordant. At a time when we must seek new and innovative ways to cooperate, nation-states might be paralyzed by the disagreements within. Inadvertently, in their efforts to win a local electoral battle, the media elite in the US might end up fomenting a war that threatens the achievements of all of human civilization.
The US was possibly the first country to fully appreciate the need to celebrate the individual to undermine the destructive power of collectives fuelled by tribalism. A collective is always more powerful, so they went out of their way to protect the individual. If this de facto protection weakens, even if it is intact de jure, the only reasonable way to face up to a mob is to be part of another one. There are many smart, responsible people who are the face of American soft power across the world. I can only hope that they internalize their impact on the rest of the world into their programming. The only little advice I can give is to quote one of their best to them, George Carlin:
“People are wonderful. I love individuals. I hate groups of people. I hate a group of people with a ‘common purpose’. ‘Cause pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs. And a list of people they’re going to visit at 3 am. So, I dislike and despise groups of people but I love individuals“.