Outside the Asylum
I’ve said many times that I’m writing my last essay about elections. It’s become almost a joke, since every week’s essay is “the last,” and there’s always one more essay I need to write. Well, this is (finally!) the last electoral essay.
Now that I've had some time to think about it, I understand that it's less that I've stopped talking and thinking about elections, and more that my way of talking and thinking about them has completely changed. Like most Americans, I used to see our elections as contests that shifted our politics according to the will of the people. These shifts in politics then necessarily led to changes in policy.
I no longer see elections like that.
I don't even see American elections as contests that shift our politics according to the will of wealthy donors (though that is closer to the truth). I think most politics, and most policy, is going to remain the same regardless of how elections turn out, or whether we have elections at all. Or, to put it more precisely, America is going to continue in the same policy direction, and in the same political direction, regardless of who gets elected.
It's not our politics or policies that will change as a result of elections; it's our beliefs and assumptions: our expectations of our political system, our country, and our lives. The purpose of elections these days is not to make political or policy changes--as a member of the Obama administration said of single-payer healthcare, "All that was decided when Barack Obama was in law school,"--but to make psychological and cultural ones. The idea is to move the American people's expectations ever downward and to the right. Elections do not alter the political map of America; that stays mostly the same. Elections rarely alter American policy, foreign or domestic; our policies are more unchanging than our politics. What changes as a result of elections is our minds, and they almost always change in the same direction: making the unacceptable acceptable, disposing of principles, standards and norms. Elections are the tool that move the goalposts for us, that tie us to a Procrustean bed and lop off inconvenient bits of us that, if they do not provide us with a way to effectively oppose our elites, provide us with a too accurate, too unflattering, assessment of them.
Political administrations, once seated, have been doing this kind of cultural engineering for decades. The issue of torture provides a good example of how it works. Although American government officials did indeed torture people (both overseas, via the CIA and other organizations, and domestically, in our prisons) for many decades prior to George W. Bush, the idea of torture was not acceptable in this country for most of my life. Torture was what other countries did: Nazi Germany, the Stalinist Soviet Union.
It’s easy enough for a leftist to say “Well, that was just a lie!” and leave it at that. “Well, America is a pack of lies; what do you expect?” But in fact something very important was lost when the American public decided that "torturing some folks" was not something one should get sanctimonious about. Torture became acceptable, normative—and like most normative things, it promptly disappeared from view. How many years has it been since torture was even a serious topic of discussion? Even as the establishment told me that Trump was a Manchurian candidate and an existential threat to American democracy, the fact that he inherited a presidency that allowed him to torture and assassinate at will never came up.
Before Bush, America had to hide its torturing ways. Meaning that, if America got caught torturing, it would look bad. People would be shocked, and there would be repercussions. Bush took away the possibility of repercussions. But Obama took away the possibility of being shocked. He rewrote the American culture to make torture fundamentally acceptable. That was, in essence, Obama's job: to make Bush's authoritarianism normative.
Since 1988, the electoral process itself has been used to shift the American people’s fundamental cultural and political expectations (and thus re-engineer the culture). As I wrote two weeks ago, the 1988 presidential debate was a highly successful piece of propaganda that convinced the American public that being liberal automatically disqualified a person from holding public office. This use of electoral campaigns (and elections themselves) as a propaganda tool has continued and intensified in the 21st century. I don’t have the heart to catalog the horrible ways in which the 2016 election re-engineered our culture, except to cite one example: instead of politicians having to measure up to voters’ standards, voters are now blamed for not being loyal enough to politicians—an idea that would have seemed ridiculous to everyone in the nineties, when we believed that one’s vote was a matter of almost sacred privacy, like choice itself. And now, in the 2020 election, Americans are being asked to embrace the concept of an executive figurehead, to vote for someone knowing that he is not competent to hold the office—meaning god knows who will actually be holding the reins. The vote itself has become nothing but a loyalty oath to one party over another. What has been lost is the idea that the citizen has any influence over who becomes chief executive; indeed, the citizen has no idea who she’s voting for when she votes.
That is how I see American elections now: tools of psychological manipulation that provide, to the analyst, a map of how the elites would like American culture to look, and a view of the mechanisms by which they are reshaping the culture by changing our expectations. But there is one thing about the 2020 election I haven’t yet said; a leftover from the time I responded to elections as if they were genuine. This is the last time I am going to analyze an American election as if it were the determinant of our political and policy future.
Here, at long last, is the last thing I have to say.
Many of you know I spent many years working in electoral politics. I don’t want to mislead you; I’m not saying I was a David Plouffe-style mover and shaker. I never held an official position on a statewide or national campaign. But I did successfully manage a race for state senate, and I worked on many campaigns in a lesser capacity. I also studied campaign politics, the way you study something that you think will be your lifelong vocation. I signed up for every workshop I could find and talked to anyone who could teach me something. Getting Democrats elected was my main purpose in life and my highest priority other than my family. It’s based on this experience that I must point out, as my final statement on American elections, the utter absurdity of what we are expected to believe happened on Super Tuesday, 2020.
We are supposed to believe that Joe Biden won almost every Super Tuesday state on earned media alone.
In other words, we are supposed to believe that Joe Biden won almost every Super Tuesday state without campaigning.
Not a dime spent on ad buys in those states. Not a single phone bank. Not a single door knocked on. No GOTV on Election Day, or before. The doors of his campaign office in southern California were literally locked.
When I was in college, my Latin professor once said to me, “FDR proved that one can become President any number of times. Truman proved that anybody can be President. And Reagan proved we don’t need a President.” Well, Joe Biden has not only proved that you can run for President any number of times; in 2020, he proved we don’t need presidential campaigns.
When does a presidential candidate refrain from campaigning in a state? Or, to put it more broadly, when does any candidate for political office refrain from campaigning in an area? It’s when they have no doubt of the outcome. They either know they’re going to win, or they know they’re going to lose. If the issue were in doubt, they would campaign to get the outcome they desire.
When does a presidential candidate refrain from campaigning in all the Super Tuesday states? Ordinarily, that would signal that the candidate knew he wasn’t going to win the nomination; it would be a sign that his campaign was winding down its operations. Because, unless you are an incumbent president, you cannot be sure that you will win your party’s primaries in that many states while making no effort whatsoever to win them. With that many delegates at stake, only a crazy person would be so confident as to make no effort to win. Unless, of course, he or his staff knew that his victories would be arranged for him.
I’m now going to ask you to put yourself into the shoes of various people. First, imagine that you are a high-level Biden staffer. Your candidate has decided he’s not going to campaign in a single Super Tuesday state, even though he has so far won only one contest while his biggest challenger has won three. Polls in many Super Tuesday states are looking good for your candidate’s challenger. And your candidate has decided not to campaign in any of them. (You must also imagine that the election is honest and not rigged.)
How would you react?
I know how I’d react. I’d be tearing my hair out. And if I couldn’t convince my candidate that we should actually try to sway people to vote for our cause by running campaigns where they live, if I couldn’t bestir him to make some effort to win on Super Tuesday, I would quit. That’s grounds for firing your client. I am not joking.
Now put yourself in the shoes of the media. You are watching the weeks tick by. Joe Biden is not campaigning in any Super Tuesday state, even though Bernie Sanders has won in New Hampshire, Nevada, and has won the popular vote in Iowa. Biden has won South Carolina. That’s it. One win to three—or, if you don’t choose to regard the popular vote in Iowa as indicative of anything, one win to two. And Biden has decided to rely solely on earned media.
How would you react?
No major candidate, no-one remotely considered to be seriously contending for the Presidency, has ever NOT campaigned in so many delegate-rich states, unless he or she was an incumbent President. Not in the 52 years of my life, and probably not in the 72 years of my mother’s life, has anything like this happened in American electoral politics. Ever.
Why wasn’t this the primary topic of concern amongst media covering the Democratic primaries? Why was it only on alternative media that this was a serious topic of interest?
Stay in the shoes of these imaginary journalists. Because now Joe Biden has done the unthinkable. He has won almost every Super Tuesday state—without campaigning in a single one. Quite apart from the shock of something that unlikely happening, something which hasn’t happened in the past fifty years, this phenomenon presents profound questions for the future. It implies that presidential primary campaigns might be unnecessary. Think for a moment what a huge change that is, and how it is a change without explanation. You are a journalist who habitually covers American electoral politics. Is this not the very definition of news?
Let me put it this way. If you are that journalist, your question the next morning would not be “What did Bernie Sanders do wrong?” It would be “What the hell is going on?” Even if your bosses’ bosses were backing Biden with all their resources, you wouldn’t be breaking out the bubbly or engaging in schadenfreude. You’d be engaging in some of the deepest, most serious analysis of your life. Because American electoral life just turned upside down.
I’ve been talking, so far, as if Joe Biden were just an Everycandidate, as if his earned media were equal and interchangeable with every average candidate’s. But Biden’s earned media is not average. It is abysmal. It is worse than Hillary Clinton’s or Mitt Romney’s, which is saying something. It is even worse than Donald Trump’s, because Donald Trump’s flaws are marketable to a certain kind of right-wing American. Biden’s flaws, visible in his earned media, are of such a nature that they make Americans ask whether or not he knows where he is and what he's doing.
You are a political journalist. Joe Biden has just won most of the Super Tuesday states on earned media alone. And he has the worst earned media of any candidate in recent memory. It’s Wednesday morning.
What do you say?