There Is No Such Thing as an Ultimate Winner in American Politics

Simple-minded dichotomies have replaced ideas of progress with those of domination

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Americans of all ages see the world in terms of Hollywood genre movie narratives. Good versus evil. The Rebels versus the Empire. The Avengers versus Thanos. These simpleminded dichotomies, ingrained in our nation’s thinking by decades of big-screen storytelling, where “us” versus “them” ends it, the triumph of “us” has polluted our social and civil discourse to the point that we can’t think straight — only right and left. This way of viewing the world is not just ahistorical but leaves precious little room for the nuances and complexity of real life.

It’s very obvious how this reductive view pollutes the right in America. Well before Trump’s rise, the GOP was the party of easily demonized straw men. Back in Ronald Reagan’s day it was welfare queens, tax and spend liberals, and communist regimes. The Trump era version includes Mexican immigrants, rich Black athletes, Antifa, and China. However, it’s remixed foreigners and Black folks are always featured players in nightmare scenarios.

No movement, on the right or left, is dominant for more than one or two election cycles, much less forever. This country exists on a swinging pendulum of ideas where coalitions come together and then break apart, where philosophies gain supporters, burn out, and get discarded — only to be refashioned by new nomenclature and technology.

But the left, in all its earnest anger, falls into its own particular trap of language and vision. I’m always struck how forces on the left fall in love with using “end” as an organizing idea: “end police brutality,” “end poverty,” “end racism,” etc. I just have to say that none of these things will ever happen. There will be no triumphant moment when they all disappear from the earth. Nirvana happens in movies, not life. Progress against all these problems has been and can be made. But the desire to dominate others with race, class, or sex as an excuse is baked into man’s DNA.

Where pop culture storytelling can helpfully inform our thinking, though, is understanding the serial nature of struggle. Whether in comic books or long running dramas, stories of characters locked into ongoing struggles, filled with victory and defeats, are closer to real life and therefore more instructive. No movement, on the right or left, is dominant for more than one or two election cycles, much less forever. This country exists on a swinging pendulum of ideas where coalitions come together and then break apart, where philosophies gain supporters, burn out, and get discarded — only to be refashioned by new nomenclature and technology.

We have collectively been seduced by the romantic idea of “ultimate triumph” aka we win and they lose. Because the ultimate triumph of any set of ideas is a moviegoer’s illusion and the real world much more complex than a simple win or lose, there’s often widespread disenchantment among Americans when elections or court decisions don’t go their way. In the last year, I’ve interviewed a lot of veterans of the Black radical left; all spoke about the depression they experienced when American capitalism didn’t collapse and the FBI moved to successfully derail their organizations.

But while groups like the Black Panthers and the US organization didn’t “win,” their broader ideas, from free lunch programs, to the prison reform movement, to Kwanza, the Black anti-Christmas holiday, have informed our nation’s development. In fact, if you look back at the most radical social movements of the ’60s and ’70s (feminism, gay rights, ecology, Black power) it’s clear that they transformed the United States so much that Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and their cronies are still fighting against the cultural shifts they ushered in. The sense of grievance that drives so much right wing agitation is in fact a decades-long response to agitation on the left.

My worry is that as the desire for the unattainable ultimate victory festers amid a depressed economy, failing education standards, and social media rabbit holes, that the threads that hold us together, already badly frayed, will tear apart. We’ve got to put slogans aside and deal with the messy, unsexy details of running a country — not by putting ideology away, but by embracing the fact that there are not simply Democratic or Republican ideas, but a multitude of them that have little to do with party registration. The two-party system plays into lazy right-versus-left debates that are worthy of a Marvel movie and result in a range of nonpolitically-approved options being ignored or delayed. There are not just two ways to do anything, yet our civic life is trapped in a duality that rewards ideological rigidity when clearly things like solving our homelessness problem, dealing with Covid-19, and fixing our health care system need nuanced ideas, not boilerplate.

The Trump years, whether they are four or eight, won’t end in triumph. But they won’t end in defeat either. They’ll end because all periods of power based on celebrity have an expiration date. Black Lives Matter won’t end all policing as we know it, and neither will boycotts by Black athletes. But they will have an ongoing effect on policing. Despite the rhetoric of Trump’s supporters and BLM activists, both are part of a perpetual battle for America’s soul that will not suddenly be decided in the favor of one single idea. Each side views themselves as “good” and the other “bad.” But if we value this democracy, we’ve got to liberate ourselves from movie metaphors and deal with the untidy story known as real life.

Author and filmmaker. Current books: a novel, The Darkest Hearts (Akashic); music collection The Nelson George Mixtape (Pacific) www.pacificpacific.pub.

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