Outside the Asylum
...but that was in another country; And besides, the wench is dead.
This week I’d like to talk about elections, but I don’t want to analyze the specifics of the horse race. The “Who’s ahead? Who is failing? Who can win?” sort of analysis has come to dominate campaign journalism and even informal discussions among ordinary voters. A decade ago, when ordinary people chose their candidates and debated with each other about which candidate was best, electability was not their central concern--certainly not more than twelve months out from the election. For one thing, we didn’t usually think we knew who was electable twelve months ahead of time.
So, if we didn’t think we knew for sure who was electable, what did we talk about? One answer is that we started talking about campaigns much later, creating a much shorter campaign season for the populace. Candidates might start their run for president 24 months before the election, but ordinary people were not, generally speaking, paying much attention until a few months before the primary. Back then we would have been starting to talk about candidates in September or October of the year before the election. In other words, about a month ago. Compare that to when the campaign season started this year. Or perhaps consider that the last campaign, like the last war, never stopped. Perhaps we no longer have an electoral off season, just as we no longer have peacetime.
Another answer is that we talked a lot more about policy. When we were arguing about whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama was the best choice for 2008, we talked a lot about their positions on the Iraq War, healthcare, unions, or even mass warrantless surveillance. Here in 2019, we have actual journalists come on CNN and say that the election is not about policy, with nary a talking head disagreeing. The scary thing is that there are people who agree with them without being paid to do so.
I don’t want to pretend that we only discussed policy and not character. Indeed, the two discussions were linked. A great deal of time was spent deciding how reliable the candidates were. Because we were pretty smart, we did not necessarily try to figure out whether the candidates were altogether trustworthy, but rather on which issues we felt we could trust them and how much. Could we trust Hillary Clinton on foreign policy despite her Iraq War vote? Could we trust her to follow through on what she said about abortion? How much could we rely on Barack Obama to get us off fossil fuels? Was Obama’s bad vote on mass warrantless surveillance a deal-breaker?
This level of nuance has now mostly been lost. Instead of a factual inquiry into how reliable a candidate is on a particular issue, we get coordinated media campaigns intended to discredit candidates, otherwise known as hatchet jobs. These proceed mostly unencumbered by discussions of a candidate’s current policy positions, their political alliances, or their past behavior regarding a particular issue. Rather than asking how much I can rely on Obama to end the petroleum era, and postulating how far he is likely to go, we ask whether or not Tulsi Gabbard is a dangerous fundamentalist Hindu who somehow also manages to be an Assad apologist (which must be a pretty neat trick). Speaking of Gabbard, without the Sanders and Gabbard campaigns, which pose questions that cannot be answered except by debating policy, that level of nuance would probably have been lost altogether, drowned in a sea of personality politics. Elizabeth Warren’s list of plans exists because Sanders and Gabbard brought up policy concerns which grabbed the attention of the populace—and she needs to defeat them. And you'll notice that, for all her plans, her reason for running is to stop Trump. Stopping Trump is not a policy.
An entire essay could and probably should be written about the reduction of our politics to a personality parade, especially since, in recent years, the personality parade has been put on steroids. It has been injected with fear and loathing, so that it produces paranoiac witch hunts directed at both political leaders and ordinary people guilty of nothing but having an opinion. It has been injected also with an absolute devotion directed toward certain leaders, who then become infallible and unquestionable. The overall effect is to divide political leaders, and the population itself, into irrevocably bad guys on the one hand, and unquestionably good guys on the other. Participating in politics means deciding which set of people is which, so you can hate the one and give blind loyalty to the other. This political scheme is, of course, authoritarian: neither suitable for a republic nor a democracy.
But what do elections, and particularly candidates, mean to us? Why do they exert such a gravitational pull on our imaginations? Secondly, what impact do elections, and particularly the campaigns that lead up to them, have on us and on American culture?
I want to discuss these ideas more over time with everybody who’s willing, and those discussions hopefully will complicate my beliefs and make them deeper. But for now, here’s my simple belief: we invest in candidates because they give us hope, and they give us hope because, to an ordinary American without wealth or position, elections are power. They give us our most basic sense of agency in the world. Even those of us who have reason to be cynical, such as those who have regularly been denied the franchise, often fight passionately to secure that right against all threats, and consider those who have died in pursuit of that right to be the greatest of heroes. In 2000, the American system made it brutally clear that political ascension can and will be tolerated by both parties even if its stair-steps are the disenfranchised bodies and minds of Black voters. In 2004, the American system repeated the lesson, in case anybody had missed it or thought that the non-election of 2000 was a simple error. Yet many black voters still invest their hope in elections. Like most Americans, they need to believe in them.
For my part, I believe that the election I’m watching is a cruel farce, a caricature of democracy rather than the real thing. That belief is founded on facts and logic that so far have been unshakeable. Yet the spectacle compels me nonetheless, and it’s not because it’s good theater. It is, in fact, very bad theater. Its narratives and characters are far less plausible and far less pleasurable than those provided by All Elite Wrestling or Korean soap operas. Maybe that’s partly because the performers in All Elite Wrestling and Korean soap operas are much better actors than most politicians, which is sad, given that acting is now a politician’s primary job.
So why do I pay any attention to campaigns, or any aspect of next year’s elections? Because I am an American, and I have been socialized within an inch of my life to believe that I have an impact on the world through my vote. No matter how little power I have, I have that. To lose my belief in the franchise is to fall into an abyss. The only reason I bear it with composure is that I first experienced it a little more than nineteen years ago. The cultural vertigo, head-swimming and nausea-inducing, is something I’ve been living with a long time. Unless any of you knew me when I was Nobby on Daily Kos, when I published an account of my personal experience of Bush election fraud in Florida, none of you has witnessed me freaking out over this. My freakout was in another country, and besides, that girl is dead.
--Doris Haddock ("Granny D"), paraphrased from memory
This is the “hope” Barack Obama was selling us. “Yes, we can” depended largely, though by no means entirely, on the franchise. Later, Obama and his surrogates would try to convince us that the reason change wasn’t coming was that we thought our responsibility ended with the vote. We were lazy people who wanted to elect a leader to do everything for us. I’m not sure they understood that they were making an argument against the system of American government, since electing a leader to do the work for us is basically the definition of a republic. They probably did understand that they were lying, not only about the reason change was, shall we say, delayed, but also about the assertion that Obama supporters were couch potatoes. It would have been more believable to say that change didn't come because the Internet's tubes got filled.
The heated nature of people’s fights over candidates derives from our need not to fall into the abyss that awaits those who question the efficacy of the franchise, or, more correctly, the honesty and effectiveness of the American system of government. Our candidates keep us from falling off the edge. In exchange for money, time, labor and faith, they give us hope. To attack a person's candidate is to attack their hope. To question a person's candidate is to question the basis for their hope. I am not, of course, talking about people who support a candidate, shall we say, professionally, like the employees of Mr. David Brock. Nor am I talking about the innumerable sockpuppets that pollute conversation on line by posting all sorts of damned things. I'm talking about actual people and why they fly off the handle when another person does not give them the wholehearted acceptance of their candidate that they desire. Anything other than acceptance of the candidate undermines the supporter's hope.
But change is a far different thing than hope. Tune in next week for my meditation on change.