Outside the Asylum

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Hope and Change

Part I: Hope

...but that was in another country; And besides, the wench is dead.
--Christopher Marlowe

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.

The idea that the American government is MY government is an idea which is a joy to my heart, though it often does not feel like my government. When it does, I am part of it. It is part of me. I influence its decisions through my representatives in its great councils. In this way, through them, I fulfill my responsibility to the world. If I cannot fulfill those responsibilities, a soul sickness comes over me and over the land itself. There is a high price paid, in America and around the world, when the American people, whose values are profoundly fair and generous, do not believe that they are in control of their government, or that they are, indeed, a self-governing people.
--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.

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Comments

Current incarnation of guiding the mass mind beyond reason.
People are led to believe in the exceptional nature of the greatest
Social experiment in history, by god.

One little problem. The citizens do not have a say in military expenditures.
Nor global and domestic policy priorities.
The 'elected' representatives have that power.

This is why people around the world are rebelling.
How to wrest the power away from the dominators?
Back into the hands of the vast majority favoring consensus.

Good essay can't stop. Thank you.

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May we be united and strong -- laurel

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@QMS

Always good to "see" you.

Just so we never forget.

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Lookout's picture

For my part, I believe that the election I’m watching is a cruel farce, a caricature of democracy rather than the real thing.

We will not vote our way out of this mess. We have a decade to fundamentally change our society and energy systems. People are protesting all over the world. They recognize the political and economic system is rigged against them.

I like the idea of a consumer strike which I briefly discuss at the end of my column today. Imagine for a week no one buys things. It could be done without much difficulty or hardship by gathering the things you need for one week ahead of time. The 99% have the power of our purchasing to impact the oligarchy. Some folks are suggesting a major bank collapse in the near term...Max Keiser thinks Deutsche Bank and/or J P Morgan is already bankrupt. At any rate change seems to be in the air. I have more hope for that than politics at this point.

Hope you are all having lovely fall weather. Color is good and it's nice and cool here.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Lookout

John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hitman, was talking about this some years ago.

The incredible size of the businesses we're dealing with, and, even more so, the financialization of the economy, weakens that tactic but does not make it useless.

And yes, we're having lovely weather. Once November hit, it turned beautiful.

Nastiest, hottest Halloween I've ever had, though.

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10 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

enhydra lutris's picture

await the next one. A lot said and a lot to contemplate.
This couldn't be more true:

It has been injected also with an absolute devotion directed toward certain leaders, who then become infallible and unquestionable.

I recall more than once trying to convince some of a major clique of Hillary fanatics and their leader that when you insist that your candidate is beyond reproach and above any and all criticism and analysis, you are claiming that they are perfect and hence a deity. This, in turn, renders your alleged "politics" mere idolatry. (It later dawned on me that she was a goddess, Eris, to be specific. A Goldwater Democrat who Joined forces with a Reagan Democrat and sundry political operatives to usher in the brave new world of the New Democrats and their corporatist agenda.)

I immediately recognized the rhetorical and quasi-mythic impact of Obama's "Hope" campaign, which my cynical self almost immediately rendered as "Hope for Change", but had not, prior to reading this column, made the connection that hope is the primal driving force in US politics and that one should not challenge that hope in the hearts of others. (Hope, the thing with feathers, having been plucked and tossed into the pot long ago from my twisted viewpoint.) This is something I need to keep in mind and remember in my interactions with others.

THIS:

The idea that the American government is MY government is an idea which is a joy to my heart, though it often does not feel like my government. When it does, I am part of it. It is part of me. I influence its decisions through my representatives in its great councils. In this way, through them, I fulfill my responsibility to the world. If I cannot fulfill those responsibilities, a soul sickness comes over me and over the land itself. There is a high price paid, in America and around the world, when the American people, whose values are profoundly fair and generous, do not believe that they are in control of their government, or that they are, indeed, a self-governing people.
--Doris Haddock ("Granny D"), paraphrased from memory

and the soul sickness, and, arguably anomie, lurking therein, can all be erased from the cerebral chalkboard with one little shift in frame of reference, a bit of more realistic semantics, as it were. As corrected --
"The idea that the American rulers are MY rulers ...", for we are not governed, but ruled, for the consent of the governed is absent in all but the braodest and most remote sense.

Have a good one.

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

Anja Geitz's picture

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.

The paranoia also bleeds into real life. Accidentally not seeing a person of color as the next person waiting in line, targetted me as a "racist" when a customer complained to my manager that I took a white person next in line, "on purpose". This of course was not true. I really didn't see the young woman. But that didn't matter. For a lot of people these days, we are being defined by one of two sides, and everything is now being filtered through that binary political lens. At our peril.

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There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

lotlizard's picture

@Anja Geitz  
has reached a point where a musician who for twenty years had had the vanity plate TRUMPTR1 now feels forced to give it up.

https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2019/10/200pm-water-cooler-10-18-2019.ht...

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Anja Geitz

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

I would like to say that having absolutely no hope whatsoever is not a bad state of mind. I have no hope at all that any candidate will improve our current status. It is actually giving me a sense of freedom and clarity I have never had before.
I also think the majority of the public, non-voters, feel the same way.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@on the cusp

I aspire to be like you. I have a hard time with despair.

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

magiamma's picture

Great column. I still have some hope peppered with assurance that everything will be done to disenfranchise the vote, the people, the planet. No se. Quiero el cambio pero problemente no. Yin Yang. Hope No Hope. Dancing on the head of a pin. Passing through the eye of a needle. All is possible until it is not. Thanks for this. Have a good one...

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Stop Climate Change Silence - Start the Conversation

Hot Air Website, Twitter, Facebook

lotlizard's picture

https://caitlinjohnstone.com/2019/11/04/the-incredible-shrinking-overton...

And from 2017:
SF public power agency under attack
which I’m linking here mostly for this great reminder of how things actually work:

Environmentalists, much of labor, and good-government advocates pushed hard for the public power agenda, but under a tidal wave of PG&E money – and some very funky election-night actions – public power lost by 515 votes.

It was crazy: On the night the ballots were being counted, with one of the public power measures looking like a winner, Elections Director Tammy Haygood announced that she was afraid there might be anthrax in some of the ballot boxes and had them removed from City Hall. By the end of the counting, PG&E had won. The Coast Guard later found parts of ballot boxes floating in the Bay.

Even though it was ostensibly a woke progressive woman of color who was in charge …

https://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/NEWSMAKER-PROFILE-TAMMY-HAYGOOD-...

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@lotlizard We can say with certainty that elections have consequences.

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