Improv pandemi-coup-cession

Political processes and ordered society itself are fundamentally a form of theater which most people agree to take more or less seriously. When that goes it all goes.

This observation, which I made a couple of weeks ago about the significance of even performative cosplay coup attempts, is about as close as I can get to any kind of theme at the moment.

What’s the use, after all? I have been addressing this for a while in various ways; you don’t “organize to fight” faced with a hurricane; if you’re pushing on a rope then “try, try again” is not a virtue. In recent years I have dreamed up increasingly unlikely scenarios for how America might be repaired and renewed from within existing systems, while recognizing the trend away from plausibility with each new corruption of the system.

At this point I think the motion away from plausible repair scenarios has reached escape velocity. What does one do, say, or think amid this? Even believing that intervention still matters, a big picture ongoing cluster-crisis is kind of distracting. So I will try to collect some scattered thoughts in an assortment package, since developing all or even most of them as complete essays may never happen.

Nonlinear political shifts: One thing which I think is important about interpreting the 2020 election results, and which I haven’t seen offered elsewhere, is that it’s misleading to compare them with 2018. Natural, probably, but misleading. The results of 2020 should be compared with 2016, then with 2018, in that order.

This is nonintuitive but that’s where we are. There is no obvious, sustained trend in American politics as a whole now. Different electorates turn out without any obvious pattern or meaning; sometimes one electorate may turn out multiple times with little change from one time to the next, but a completely different electorate may turn out in-between. The 2008-2010-2012 sequence was an astonishing demonstration of this, but now we have another one almost as defiant of linear narratives.

In 2016 and 2020, America had presidential elections with Trump running against a familiar central-casting centrist Democrat. Both were difficult years “down-ballot” for Democrats. In between Democrats had a much better 2018 election, but that result is only a context for judging the 2020 results, not the most relevant comparison. Realistically, Democrats had better results in 2020 than in 2016, up and down the ballot; in 2016 Democrats not only lost the presidency but won only a minority in the U.S. House. Winning the presidency and a small House majority in 2020 is thus progress. It’s meager progress, yes. But without excusing the hapless blob which is our Democratic Party, scoring 2020 results as a setback simply because they occurred chronologically after 2018 misses how American politics has come to function.

All politics is national celebrity feud: For whatever it may be worth at this point, it feels to me like I have “cracked the code” for electoral patterns at a national level. Forget “all politics is local.” Almost everything has become caught up with feelings about who is president and who is running for president.

  • Open elections for the presidency are chaotic, and no result should be assumed, let alone a rational one.
  • Incumbent presidents win reelection outside of extraordinary circumstances.
  • When there is an incumbent president, downballot voting moves in response to that president’s approval rating, whether he (so far) is halfway through a term or seeking reelection.

This seems to hang together as far as it goes. Incumbent presidents’ approval numbers were in the dumps in 1994, 2006, 2012, 2014 and 2018; all rough years for their parties. By contrast, Clinton and Bush II were both polling above 50% in 1998 and 2002, respectively, and their parties made gains in the US House. “Win the presidency and sustain popular approval” may not seem like sophisticated insight, but I think it’s badly missing perspective from all the effort sunk into e.g. policies and local scandals and peer-to-peer contact.

All of this functions within a framework of partisan lean, for states, districts, etc. But that changes slowly, for the most part, and seemingly more and more in response to demographic sorting.

What’s the Point? Well that’s difficult to say. For whatever reason, the opposing coalitions have been pretty evenly matched for a generation now, which brings to the fore the fundamental senselessness of our election rituals. What conceivable point is there in oscillating back and forth between heads of state who reverse as much as possible of what their predecessors have done? I believe that it’s ridiculous to insist that this makes sense, and that acknowledging this fundamental failing is missing from all the earnest exhortations to “save our democracy.” The suggestion isn’t wrong, but it’s evading way too much.

The role of distrust. I suspect that most elites haven’t the faintest notion of what the formally documented collapse of social trust in America actually is like or means. Sociologists have measured this. But I think most elites are just inevitably very removed from its reality; not only does the system work relatively well for them, they are also as participants in it pretty much certain to believe in it on average more than nonparticipants do.

I think distrust is critical to making sense of political forecasting failures, particularly in the context of many people flat refusing to provide information to contract tracers. When I read about the latter, it seems pretty natural to me that they are also refusing to answer political surveys. It also seems pretty natural that the low-social-trust population skews Republican, and even more so toward Trump who has been so effective at motivating them to vote despite low social trust.

This also explains a lot about the persistent advantage of incumbency, which might seem nonintuitive when people are distrustful. In addition to distrustful people often just not voting, when they do vote, I suspect that it’s very difficult for most challengers to win their support because if you think everyone is a bum, “better the devil you know…” Thus do senators like Brown, Tester, Manchin and Collins survive, along with, probably, the multiple Democrats who have held on to statewide elected office in Iowa for ages.

I also think the problem, here, is beyond reversing through good policy or peer-to-peer outreach. The latter is not going to catch up to conspiracy theories spreading online, and the former is made basically impossible by the toxic effects of distrust and Republicans’ cynical exploitation thereof. As I’ve reflected before, 2009 seems like kind of a last chance when the system might have been reformed from within successfully. Democrats failed to understand that the previous two elections had not been expressions of trust in them, or even rejection of Republicans, but votes of no-confidence in the entire system. The subsequent appearance of elites committed above all to working within the system for its preservation was a catastrophe.

AOC gets some things. On both the issue of distrust, and the failure of the old regular-order elite to recognize how detached it has become, the ability of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to address these things may actually be a more significant reason to appreciate her than any policy agenda. I have never played the game Among Us, but I could instantly make sense of this Slate article suggesting that it’s a good metaphor for our contemporary politics because it’s fundamentally about deception, bad faith and sabotage. Also I think AOC is an influential figure less, again, because of her policy platform and more because she sounds like a person with some appreciation of reality, i.e. very different from most of what’s on offer from political elites. I presume this is at least made possible because she did not spend years and years going native in an obsolete political culture, learning to speak and even think in archaic codes and clichés.

The fact that she is still very marginalized—by a Democratic power structure which has come through recent years’ crises welded tight to the same old seniority system, the same old habits, the same old faces aging in place even as some are incontestably in cognitive decline—seems not ideal.

Words. I have a lengthening list of words and phrases which ought to be junked, in my opinion. The reasons vary, but the most pressing category is that of sociopolitical clichés which are horrendously misleading in our current environment, “Congress” probably being the worst of all. The assumption that there exists an entity “Congress” which it makes sense to reference as a whole is nonsensical. To paraphrase Kissinger, “who do I call when I want to call Congress?” Who is in charge of Congress? When one party is united behind doing X and the other party is united in blocking it, writing that “Congress needs to act” is inexcusable disinformation.

Just recently, it has occurred to me that a few obsolete political terms have declined in use, and that this is also worth noting. It seems like the phrase “culture wars” is heard less than in the past; if so, the explanation is not that the phenomenon has gone away, but that it has devoured other kinds of politics. Much like the term “gridlock,” there’s little need for a term to describe a constant, universal situation.

World War I and the trenches. I have dwelt many many times upon World War I, in the 20 years since I first read James Stokesbury’s history of the war, a magnificent book which I’ve re-read again and again. Recent years’ dismal failures of people and institutions to adapt, even in the face of appalling disaster, have brought an unnerving new reality to the last re-read or two. The events of the first world war also offer, in turn, some help comprehending the multi cluster fuck that in a variety of ways has proved difficult for people to process.

The futility and stalemate are much on my mind, now. As in America’s national stalemate, neither of the opposing sides could get the better of the other. The attrition of the front lines was matched by a bigger picture strategic stalemate; such individually significant gains or setbacks as one side experienced tended to be matched on the other side, year after year.

This fall I also thought often of the World War I leaders’ insistence that more resources were the solution. More shells, more men, more pressure; if only the generals received all they demanded they could and certainly would break through. Obviously not. The 2020 campaign seemed really to parallel this. Resources were poured in like never before. ActBlue was flooded with money. Text banks and eventually even phone banks were running out of numbers to contact. Vote Forward surpassed its goal again and then again. While as noted above the result was better than 2016, it was nothing like that sought or expected and I think a lot of this activity must be judged as not really addressing the problem. Even the conviction that driving turnout is the solution is really exposed as misleading. America shattered voter turnout records overall, and it didn’t really change the stalemate. Infrequent voters or nonvoters may in some overall sense lean Democratic—maybe?—but in practice that pool is vast and deep and Republicans haven’t yet exhausted its potential for their side.

Meanwhile, naturally, both sides generally remain attached firmly to their long-held beliefs about voter turnout anyway.

More men! More shells!

I spent a while pondering how the stalemate finally ended in World War I, and my ultimate conclusion is that it took 30 years, millions of lives, and forcibly (perhaps brutishly) changing the conditions. In 1918, overwhelming pressure finally compelled German surrender—but in a very real and practical sense that only paused the war rather than ended it. The Allied coalition did not achieve a lasting end to the problem of German expansionism until 1945. An optimist would like to believe that the superior results had something to do with the differences in peace terms, but it certainly had something to do with the armed conquest of Germany itself, occupation, de-Nazification at the ends of nooses, and political dismemberment of Germany for 44 years. What’s more, the political dismemberment of Germany was partly an accidental policy, and the rebuilding of West Germany (as well as Japan) had motives which included fear of a yet another enemy along with enlightened humanitarianism.

Fantasyland. Two cheers for Jen O’Malley Dillon, who in a recent interview stated the obvious that Congressional Republicans are fuckers, and Mitch McConnell is terrible. Biden’s campaign manager and deputy chief of staff went on to propose that “big bipartisan deals” would still be possible, which I regard as fantasy, but if Jen’s in la-la land at least she is aware of reality’s existence and knows something about it.

That would put her ahead of most people in or near authority, in the hapless heterogeneous blob which we call the Democratic Party. Who, truly, is more delusional: Red hat flakes convinced that Biden lost and somehow the Trump campaign is going to expose this? Or people who imagine that Republicans will start “being reasonable” once they are “free of Trump”? I can’t say for sure but Democrats have now installed a leader who seems convinced of the latter.

Most of the party’s leaders seem at least stuck in habits and clichés and quite possibly thinking which is completely out of touch with 20-30 years of developments. The problem is indeed so widespread that it’s difficult for me to damn any person or group for it, too harshly; the systems themselves just seem to prevent their reform. I believe in progressive policies, but if other progressives believe in spite of tremendous evidence that the Democratic establishment’s rebuff of these policies is the problem, run on the policies and prove it. Again, the “Democratic Party” is not so much an organization as it is a phrase used to gesture toward a sprawling heterogeneous blob of a coalition. Lamenting the mere existence of messages, besides one’s own, even being associated with that phrase—a grievance shared by many of the centrists who control most levers of party power that exist—is somewhat like lamenting gravity. It isn’t going to stop existing any time soon. Next?

So what gives and when? Wish I knew. I recall reading earlier this year that the Transition Integrity Project concluded that an ugly, messy contested election outcome was likely, and that in such event the presidency would probably end up with “whoever makes the first bold move.” I don’t think this was exactly wrong about this election; I do think it could be more fully correct about what lies ahead.

That’s bad given that “whoever makes the first bold move” is incredibly likely to do so on behalf of fascist oligarchy rather than the democratic coalition.

The main problem for Republicans poised to shove democracy down one of the trapdoors gaping open (and near certain to remain unsecured in the years ahead) is the same problem that has thwarted that outcome this time: Trump. There’s no evidence that Republicans are soon to wrest back “their” party from the Trump phenomenon. Trump seems much like the juvenile instigator who is great at starting shit and in no way fit to see it through. Rather than attempt a swift, bold post-Election-Day move this time, he binged on cable news and ranted on Twitter. (His more aggressive attempts to overturn the election, since, have been like bad improv and simply too late.) This being what he does all the time, it seems a poor bet that he will be more help than hindrance to Republican hopes for lasting victory in future.

Judged so far, Trump’s role in this cold civil war seems rather like a World War I advantageous move and its own canceling countermove combined in one person: the result is no real advantage for either of the belligerent coalitions, just for destruction and suffering.

What’s the Point, Seriously? I distinctly do not know, at least as far as the pushing and pushing between deadlocked coalitions within a failed system that seems incapable of producing any resolution let alone a positive one.

Americans have given the system a failing grade. Reality is now giving the system a failing grade in the form of this nightmarish out of control pandemic. Republicans’ elites and base seem increasingly ready to give the system a failing grade.

We know the system has failed. If there is no other consensus reality in America, there’s this one. Some sort of playacting continues along with multiple, rival directors handing out incompatible scripts, but they’re all continuing to lose the actors as well as the audience.

Republicans may be, for now, trapped within their own sub-problem of Trump, matching Democrats’ problem of attachment to the larger failed system.

We desperately need something new, but I don’t know exactly what, or how it might thrive and grow despite the hungry revanent failed systems jealously guarding their territory even as more and more is destroyed. For now, the solution is not disengagement, but it is not carry on with the same things either.

I will write about “The Resistance” probably at some point in the next month, but my summary conclusion is that it was a fair try judged by where we started from, but a lot of it has proved itself to be basically a re-expression of the same failed systems which left us vulnerable to the ongoing cluster-crises.

Changing even my own habits isn’t easy, particularly when I don’t know exactly what to do instead. But it’s time to change some things, somehow.

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