US Elections and The Absurd
After World War II, a series of philosophers looked at the chaos and unpredictability of the world and believed that this, among other factors, proved that the world is radically free and ultimately meaningless. These existential philosophers deduced that one of the core problems with humanity is that we all search for meaning in a meaningless world — this problem was later identified as “The Absurd.”
Today we as a country are undergoing our own form of existential crisis — from the seeming meaninglessness of the political process.
Whether you voted for Trump, Clinton, a third-party candidate or none at all, you can agree that this election and its aftermath has been nothing if not bizarre.
Every political group has something to gripe about, and this heightened rhetoric makes it easy for each of us to feel as though our participation in the system doesn’t matter. Whether it’s the electoral college, the media, the two-party system, or something else — it’s easy to feel that participating in the political system is pointless. Nothing matters, nothing changes when you post onto Facebook, and credentials mean nothing anymore.
This may sound rather pessimistic, but it isn’t. Rather, we are confronted with the absurdity of the political process (and I mean Absurdity with a capital A, not absurd as in “ridiculous”).
Albert Camus, Nobel Prize-winning author and leading existentialist, wrote that there are three alternatives we have when faced with the absurdity of the world:
- Physical Suicide — We have the freedom to choose to end our lives in a meaningless world
- Philosophical Suicide — We have the freedom to ignore the absurdity of the world and continue as if we haven’t realized this fundamental fact
- Acceptance — We can face the absurd head-on and choose to remain happy
Now obviously I’m not condoning any sort of suicide, and neither is Camus (but really, if you have thoughts about suicide, please seek help). Camus argues that the only right response to the absurdity of life is to accept it and remain happy in direct defiance of the absurd. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus addresses this directly. In this essay, Camus explains how Sisyphus had angered the gods, and was thus condemned to roll a boulder up a hill every day only to see it roll back down the hill forever. Again. And again. And again.
Now naturally, this again seems extremely bleak. But Camus argues otherwise. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Ultimately, Sisyphus accepts the absurdity of his situation and remains happy in defiance of the gods.
Today, regardless of what your political affiliations are, we are all Sisyphus. We just rolled this boulder up a hill for almost two years, and just watched it roll down the hill on November 8. Maybe you liked watching that boulder roll back down, maybe you hated it, maybe you’re terrified that the boulder has rolled down again after you’ve worked so hard to get it so close. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
And guess what? We’re going to have to roll that boulder up the hill again. And again. And again.
But that’s not a bad thing! Sure we can become pessimistic, we can argue that nothing matters and that the boulder rolling down the hill once more means we should give up on elections, politics and our country as a whole. But I disagree.
When I said “it doesn’t matter,” I’m not arguing that politics doesn’t matter. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t be excited or terrified or fearful or exhausted by this election. Rather, these emotions are normal. Feel them. Take them in. Don’t forget them.
Then start rolling that boulder back up the hill.
See, that’s the great thing about democracy: we get to continue to roll the boulder. Let me be more specific: we get to CHOOSE to continue to roll the boulder (or not). And I think we should.
Sure, our political system is broken in one way or another. Sure, our country is divided. Sure, Thanksgivings across the country are going to be tense this year.
But that’s exactly why continuing to roll that boulder is so important. If we ignore the boulder, if we choose to commit philosophical suicide and ignore the political system as a disaffected voter, we CHOOSE to ignore the absurdity and the other side wins.
Happy about the election? Great! Go forth, and don’t get complicit in your victory. The election is over, but governance is just beginning.
Upset about the election? Great! Use that energy for positive change, and don’t despair in the absurd. Enact change in ways you can.
Didn’t/don’t care about the election? Well first of all you’re probably not reading this far down but IF YOU ARE I challenge you to start rolling the boulder.
Ultimately, the biggest threat to democracy in America isn’t:
- The Electoral College
- The Media
The biggest threat to democracy is philosophical suicide. Too many voters see what has happened and think to themselves “my vote doesn’t matter,” “what can I possibly do to change the outcome?” Apathy is like a plague that seeps into our collective consciousness and convinces us that nothing matters.
And, in truth, this is largely correct. Your singular vote probably had no impact on the overall election. You were not the deciding vote on who won the Presidency, or the Senate race, or whatever ballot measures were up for consideration. You aren’t a special snowflake in the political world. You are meaningless.
And that meaninglessness is exactly why we need to continue. Jean-Paul Sartre, another leading existentialist, argued that existentialism is humanism and that we are “condemned to be free.”
By this, he meant that we are painfully free to make our own decisions — there is no person or institution that can control who you are or what you do. He also argued that you should act as if the whole world is watching your choices. While you are free to choose, you are implicitly choosing how you would like the rest of the world to act.
But there is no right answer. There is no guidance. And that philosophical and political solitude is exhilarating.
Again, that seems bleak. But we can use our radical freedom to laugh in the face of the meaninglessness of our vote, our work on elections and our political Facebook posts. We continue, despite all reasons to stop, because we can.
America isn’t broken. America is absurd. Democracy is messy, gross and really really uncomfortable — but we have the radical freedom to choose. Sure we chose on November 8, but that wasn’t the only choice we made or will make. We make choices every single day that impact more people than by voting in an election. That’s what really matters. The ridiculousness of our meaningless world is suffocating, but that’s what makes it so amazing to be alive.
Yes, we are living in a political world that makes no sense. Yes, we are full of emotions about the future of our country — both positive, negative and ambivalent. Let’s use that.
Don’t ignore the boulder. Keep pushing it up that hill.