Outside the Asylum
We will drive America so far to the right that it will be unrecognizable.
--a Nixon administration staffer, on the way to prison
Last week, I argued that American electoral politics runs on hope. Hope is the reason that Americans, at least Americans who are not members of the elite, participate in the electoral process. But just as hope inspires Americans to take part in the electoral process, electoral politics also functions as one of the main sources of hope for the American people (indeed, for secular Americans, electoral politics is often the only source of hope there is). Hope is, therefore, both the fuel of the electoral engine, and also one of its outputs.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s a particular kind of hope that is provided. It’s not just the idea that life could get better. It’s the notion that we could make it so. Another name for this kind of hope is agency. Americans’ fundamental sense of agency is bound up with the ballot box.
Understanding this clarifies the reason Americans have such a difficult time accepting the corruption and irrevocable brokenness of their political system. It also clarifies why Americans are extremely sensitive about the viability and integrity of their chosen candidates. Those candidates represent their supporters’ ability to take action that changes the world for the better. They represent their supporters’ ability to improve their lives. For an American, losing the possibility of electoral change is like falling into an abyss. Questioning the validity of an American’s chosen candidate is taking that American to the edge of the abyss and making them look in.
Change is, of course, deeply intertwined with hope. It’s what the people hope for; it’s the goal and proof of agency. The basic idea of America is that change emerges from election results which emerge from the will of the people. At this stage of the game, it’s pretty obvious that that idea is, at best, seriously flawed. The clear message of the Obama administration to the people of the United States was No matter whom you elect, policy won’t change. People’s attempts to explain away that message for the past ten years have revealed few substantive changes in policy by the Obama Administration, but much about people’s need to believe in the so-called democratic process.
I could spend hundreds of words on the ways in which the Obama administration did not bring about change. I could spend hundreds of words describing the ways in which Obama and his people simply continued or expanded Bush administration policy. But that’s not the kind of change I want to talk about today, because, after ten years, that’s been pretty well covered. We spend a great deal of time talking about the change that hasn’t come because of elections. What about the change that has?
Obviously, electoral politics doesn’t exist simply to sustain itself. It has more outputs than the hope it requires to keep itself going. It is also one of the primary devices for social engineering in this country, not because the people elect representatives who will change policy according to the will of the people, but because the choices of those in authority can set or reset cultural norms. Back during the Bush Administration, we used to track the ways in which we were being changed by Bush’s terrible decisions (including the disastrous manner in which he became President in the first place). We tracked the ways that he and his fellows brutally rewrote American political, moral, and legal norms. Keeping track of these changes kept us connected to our history. It reminded us of who we were and gave us insight into where we were going. It prevented our minds from becoming infinitely malleable in an Orwellian sense.
During the Obama Administrations, most of the left abandoned this effort. Some no longer wanted to know where we were going, because knowing that would require abandoning their hope for change. Others didn’t want to know where we were going because they had created an idealized narrative in which Obama’s victory represented the victory of Black Americans over racism—not a change hoped for, but a change achieved—and to undermine that narrative was intolerably painful. These people, with professional help that they were often unaware of, rode herd on those who were intellectually non-compliant. Many of the non-compliant became exhausted and fell silent; all who continued to speak were continually embroiled in ugly fights and smear campaigns based on nonsense.
This left the keeping of the historical record in the hands of the right wing, who were, for the most part, ill-equipped for the job. Though I admit that they, too, had professional help of which they were often unaware, it’s still unfortunate that so many of them wasted so much time and energy on nonsense like birtherism. Indeed, a great deal of their critique of Obama spun its wheels in the mud of bigotry. When the change you object to is, even in part, the fact that a black man has become president, it impedes your ability to make a rational critique and distorts your relationship with the past. Their attempt to keep in touch with the past was, for the most part, morally and intellectually compromised by racism and xenophobia.
The effect of all this is that we have, for the most part, simply abandoned history and memory (beyond a few oversimplified and misapplied generalizations). We have ceased to remember where we were, and that it was different than where we are. At this point, even the non-compliant often simply accept changes that ten or fifteen years ago would have been considered outrageous. Much of what I’ve been trying to do with my Outside the Asylum series is to continue to track those changes and to hold the ground of the past beneath our feet. I do this not because I believe the past to be ideal, though I do believe that most of the changes that have befallen America in the 21st century are for the worse. I do it because we should at least retain enough independence to be able to see the direction in which we’re being driven, and get an idea of who’s doing it, how, and why.
I’m going to end this essay with one example of these changes. I have about four more that I was going to write about, but I’m already at nearly 1500 words, so I guess I will need to write separate essays on the others. I’d like you all to think about how often we simply accept these changes as part of the political landscape, impersonal and inevitable as the weather.
I wonder sometimes if anybody else has noticed that this campaign season has introduced an entirely new system of ranking candidates. In fact, before this campaign season we had NO formal system for ranking candidates. We had a general idea of which candidates were entirely out of the running and which ones were likely to really challenge for the nomination, but this idea was not formalized and had no immediate effect on anything. For this reason, Kamala Harris’ “top-tier candidate” comment probably would not have happened in 2016 or before. Harris’ comment seems much more appropriate to the world of sports than the world of primary politics. Even the neatly even number of 24 candidates resembles the number of teams in a professional sports league (the NFL, after its merger with the AFL, began with 26).
I might have shrugged Kamala's comment off as an odd fluke except that one day, I chose to click on The Washington Post’s website for their Democratic debate coverage. I don’t remember why I did that, because whatever I was looking for was wiped from my mind by the spectacle of the Post’s Democratic debate front page. Across the top was emblazoned the words “WHERE YOU SEE THE CONTENDERS.” Beneath were the pictures of the candidates, though not, as I almost expected, entered into a bracket. Look, up on the TV! Is it a boxing match? A playoff game? No, it’s the Democratic debates!
The expanded debates have been used to create, in essence, a playoffs for the Presidency. Candidates now have to “qualify” for successive “rounds.” Since invisibility is, as someone once said in a different context, death, not qualifying for the debate pretty much disqualifies you from the Presidency—or at least, so it seems. But how do we know whether someone has qualified? How does the candidate achieve their win/loss record? Why, through the polls. The polls are like games in the playoffs—if you don’t do well enough in enough of them, you are eliminated. But not all games, or polls, count. Who decides what counts? Who decides what constitutes a win?
Why, CNN does.
So where once, a politician might have no obstacles apart from their own or their campaign’s incompetence or lack of appeal, now the primary season is divided into “heats” and the media corporation hosting the debates gets to decide who wins and who loses, who is a “contender” and who isn’t. An unelected, arbitrary corporate authority gets to determine which candidates deserve serious consideration by the American people and which don’t—and they determine this, not just by talking respectfully of one candidate while disrespecting another, but through a formal procedure. Afterwards, they award TV time to the meritorious as a prize for leaping the hurdles.
Given that what they are awarding—and restricting—is not only the candidate’s ability to be seen but the people’s ability to see, the entire process is morally questionable and anti-democratic. I’m certain CNN would defend it as democratic because it’s based on polls. But even if polls were unquestionably reliable as a measure of public opinion, not all polls are allowed in the reckoning of a candidate’s merit. CNN gets to decide which polls count. Based on what? Well, we don’t know. CNN won’t say.
Further, is it really democratic to curtail the public’s ability to see a candidate because the candidate is polling in single digits? Might that not mean that the public has not seen much of that candidate? Wouldn’t it be the democratic thing to do to provide equal time to ALL candidates so that the public could make an informed choice? Would it not be better for the Republic if the public were able to see all the candidates? At one time, the demands of an all-inclusive political debate might have been too onerous for media companies to manage. But with a 24/7 news cycle and constant digital access, such an excuse has worn so thin as to be threadbare.
What is most disturbing, however, is not the change itself, but how easily we accept it. As if things had always been thus. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace's 2007 essay "Just Asking,"