Nihilism as politics

It is difficult to attempt a 2020 post-election post because there is no clear point where we will be “post-election.” Which feels nonetheless very compatible with repeating my reflection from two years ago that the increasingly frenetic rituals which America calls electoral politics seem divorced from any genuine point.

There won’t be any clear moment when the 2020 election ended and the results were settled. Team Trump’s campaign to reject his definitive defeat does not seem like it will prevent Joe Biden taking office, but it does seem like it will succeed in persuading millions that a “real” 2020 election result has been unfairly forestalled, intensifying already-toxic revanchism. Partisan control of the US Senate won’t be formally settled until after a nationwide tug-of-war for Georgia runoff elections, which won’t even take place this year.

Meanwhile none of this will really, actually, resolve anything. I don’t believe that the processes at work even can.

All the political convulsions of the past quarter-century in America seem to defy any wish to see meaning in them. The two consistent phenomenæ at a national level have been 1) Republicans’ steady transition from being a political party to being a sabotage campaign, and 2) the failure of people or institutions to penalize them for this or indeed treat them any differently at all. No matter how toxic Republicans get, they still receive similar electoral support, and are only really “punished” by voters for being in the White House, something for which voters punish Democrats just as much. Yes, bad rules exaggerate how much power Republicans have relative to their popular support, but said popular support is still remarkably durable.

I make occasional attempts to dig into this, but the reality is the reality: both parties have about equal chances of capturing the presidency, and whichever one does is then punished by voters until the presidency changes hands. The consequences of election results absolutely matter. But every effort at influencing those results—money, organizing, issues, policies, all of it—seems either fundamentally ineffective or net-ineffective because it all cancels out. With no disrespect to the organizers who have done so much to make possible a stunning result in Georgia, even this seems essentially anomalous for now, and at bottom dependent on demographic conditions which are basically random noise compared with any hypothetical rational debate on merits.

In this context, the two notable exceptions to meaningless “pendulum-swing” voting over the past quarter-century are 2004 and 2020.

In 2004, the president’s party was not punished, it was rewarded. This disproves a thesis that it’s absolutely inevitable that “the president’s party is punished.” But even if we imagine that the persuasion of voters to depart from their customary reflex represents a hypothetical category—not just a complete anomaly “because of 9/11″—it doesn’t seem like this persuasion can be achieved by conventional messages, platforms, organizing or any kind of campaign at all.

This year, something persuaded voters to terminate, early, the de facto eight-year term to which most presidents are elected, in such overwhelming numbers that not even voter suppression and malapportionment could overturn their decision. (Still waiting to confirm that nothing else will.) While impressive, any meaning this result had was essentially negative. It would be nice to think that America voted for Biden’s and Harris’s progressive formal policy platform, but really it was a referendum on Trump and he lost after surpassing nightmarish parody levels of corruption, depravity and destructiveness and he still turned out enough votes that the Republican Party suffered no real rebuke.

It’s difficult to imagine what could disrupt, in any lasting way, the reality that both parties have about equal chances of capturing the presidency, and whichever one does is then punished by voters until the presidency changes hands.

I presume that something will, at some point. But it seems like it will almost have to be more disruptive and probably more destructive than everything we’ve experienced this century so far.

Republicans have their theory of how to overcome this cycle of futility, and it’s simply “a boot, stamping on a human face, forever.” Rig the rules, rig the maps, rig the courts; transfer power away from democratic processes to a corporate oligarchy and its culture-warrior junior partners. Frankly, it’s working. I think this strategy involves risk of explosion, and eventually near certainty of explosion, but that seems not to concern them.

There is no coordinated Democratic strategy to thwart either Republicans’ strategy, or the cycle of futility. I don’t believe that Joe Biden is going to bring America together by reaching out and appealing to our better angels blah blah. I had thought that COVID-19 might be a transformative moment but it doesn’t look, now, like it will be any more than the Great Recession was. I would like to think that some means exists to defeat the stalemate, defeat the Republican cabal, and avoid complete catastrophe. But I think that even if a time traveler could hand it to me, all written out, our cultural and institutional inertia are such that I probably wouldn’t be able to get the strategy actually implemented.

Most likely, America will remain a toxic, ungovernable failed state under a Biden presidency, and the 2022 midterms will be a bloodbath for Democrats. In 2024, Democrats will presumably face a choice of running an octogenarian Joe Biden for reelection, or ceding the considerable advantage of incumbency; Republicans’ candidate will likely be either a Trumpist or a Trump.

People will donate and phonebank and sacrifice and shout and weep and push as hard as they can on a rope, and it will make no difference to the critical bloc of voters voting for “partisan balance” regardless of issues, events, whatever.


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