Today, I walked past a stand whose last remaining newspaper showed a photo of our candidates for President on the debate stage. A phrase came to my mind and just floated there, seemingly out of place. The most powerful man in the world.
I’m a white American male who voted twice for Barack Obama. I will this November cast my vote for a woman to be president of the United States. At the same time, I’m a citizen of the EU with extensive experience abroad, enough to allow me to see America from the outside even when I’m Stateside.
If I’m unable to watch American culture and customs with the eyes of someone who has never lived or visited the US, I can certainly sense the confusion so many abroad feel when they see our spectacle (this “debate” between a blowhard bully and a constantly interrupted woman many times his superior in everything from her knowledge base, experience, empathy, intelligence and political savvy) and wonder “How is it possible that someone should want to vote for this fiend?”
I know plenty of the fiend’s supporters, as I grew up among them. Some of them will vote on an anti-immigrant platform despite themselves being immigrants, displaced persons or the children of refugees. Some continue to hang on to a whitewashed Nelson fantasy of an America that put everything…everyone…in the “right place”. They now look at America and see a country where next to nothing is being arranged as their fantasy would have it.
It’s this perception of disorder that I want to consider. The election of a black man as President of the United States sent many into a panicked fit. The world was supposed to be one way, but it turned out to be another. Everything was supposed to make a kind of sense they were used to, but now nothing made sense anymore.
What was to blame? It wasn’t their worldview. No. The problem was that the world had gone wrong; it had been taken from them, its rightful owners, by rogue elements. It needed, as quickly as possible, to go right.
Originally, quickly meant either less than or no more than four years. But in 2012, it meant yet another four. Now, in 2016, those people stand at a threshold that, in their view, presents a chance for everything to go right again, for the world to be returned to its rightful owners.
Of course, to their great fear, there’s a chance for it to head to even greater disarray.
How can these people possibly perceive even greater disorder? Think of how often we throw around the phrase the most powerful man in the world to describe the President of the United States.
The phrase is significant to our collective consciousness. Part of the problem is that we think in hierarchies, but for the sake of my example, let’s take it at face value and agree that, indeed, the President of the United States is the most powerful. Think for a moment, then, of what it will mean when the planet’s most powerful individual is a woman.
Germany and The United Kingdom and Lithuania and Austria and San Marino and Liberia and Georgia and Argentina and Costa Rica and Brazil and Switzerland have selected women heads of state. But those elections of women did not require the key phrase to be revised. How would we revise it? The most powerful woman in the world, spoken today, has a ring only slightly different from the world’s greatest female athlete. Both phrases assume there is someone greater and more powerful, and that person is most definitely male. But if we say the most powerful person in the world and end up meaning she’s a woman, the panicked see their order of things fall further apart.
Americans love power and success perhaps more than anything else. One person might have a high level of skill in something, but they won’t matter to anyone until they have presented success. Success is always money, as money determines one’s ability to impose or influence. You might be benevolent or evil, but in America you are only real and worthy when you’ve got enough power.
We don’t hate cons. In fact, we’re almost forced to love them. I am among those Americans who work in a place that’s pretending to be one thing (a college) but is actually another (a business). Others of us sell a product nobody needs, a tool or gizmo we know harms much more than it aids. Selling something, from a drug to a “service” or “course” is its own justification. And the more of it we sell, no matter the method or outcome, the more successful we are. The best sentence is the one bought more often than any.
That explains, partially, the appeal of a wealthy yet blatantly sexist fiend and con. But his act is only part of the gig. Alongside it stands a test of our collective identity. Sure…some people are voting against Clinton because they have some set of immovable reasons that have less to do with the fiend and more to do with how they perceive her nature. I’m driving at a larger sociological point: People are fine, to a degree, with a powerful woman, but they’ve never been faced with the prospect of her being the most powerful person of all. Electing Hillary Clinton to America’s highest office—a woman, mind you, more prepared than any candidate running in my lifetime, far better prepared than Obama was the first time around—would require us to rewrite the descriptive phrase.
To what consequence? The revision would push us further towards thinking not of people as men but of women as people. Quite naturally, it would also require us to rethink our concept of power. Let’s not pretend huge numbers of Americans are not prepared for either shift. Like their candidate, they like to settle things without any admission of guilt.
Photo: Mural, East Garfield Boulevard, Chicago, IL