Hell is the impossibility of reason

Counterarguments to my theme seem to be losing their force, gradually but steadily.

My theme is all too well established, here. I have written repeatedly about an irreparably poisoned political system, about an ungovernable America, about the seeming pointlessness of the political rituals, about the deeper hollowness of the culture, and about the nightmarish reality that the processes don’t work or make sense yet people keep going through the motions and about how the repetition is maddening.

I would like a practical way out of this doom-loop to demonstrate that I’m wrong. But that really isn’t happening. To the contrary.

What seems missing from all the popular reactions to the narrow but high “red wave” at work in yesterday’s Virginia and New Jersey elections is the possibility that it has next to nothing to do with events, policies, or issues.

I have written some version of this before, too, but it’s worth being more direct: America has now gone about 20 years in which the large minority of not-totally-committed voters votes to destroy the sitting president’s party at midterm elections, and it really strains credibility to insist that this pattern simply happens to be the result of a politics which is still meaningfully about events, policies, issues.

Again and again since the mid-00s, voters have on-net voted to annihilate the president’s party in non-presidential elections. Is it really the likeliest explanation that the recurrence is just a coincidence, and that each of those elections was about its own story, issues, etc.?

I don’t think that it is.

People besides me have already questioned the morality-play narratives; I recall Ezra Klein writing years ago that the preceding decade’s election results defied any rational explanation. Nothing since has reinforced the proposition that there is actually a logical problem, here, for which a practical solution exists.

Republicans seem not to have any way to change this dynamic, at least; their response is to intensify the undemocratic features of our political system so that voter rejection of them has less and less effect. But I see no evidence that Republicans have much more mastery of the large minority of not-totally-committed voters than do Democrats. Those voters voted to annihilate Republicans in Bush’s second term, and throughout Trump’s term. (Also fwiw, since 1988 voters have voted Democrats for president every time but one.)

I see no evidence that anyone else has a practical solution or response.

For progressive reformers, the belief that broadly popular policies and lots of them is the solution seems like it is not even wrong. While by no means a bad idea, I think that two or three problems move it further and further out of the realm of practical or even meaningful.

First, this seems not to happen reliably. Virginia Democrats replaced Republicans, and expanded Medicaid, a very popular policy which the Republicans opposed; voters just bashed Virginia Democrats. New Jersey has in recent years implemented even more progressive policy on e.g. taxation, but while New Jersey’s Democratic governor hung onto office the swing against Democrats from last year was even bigger than Virginia. Biden supports the most progressive economic agenda of any president in decades, but his approval rating is an albatross around the party’s neck. Etc.

Second, there is what we might call the Our Revolution Problem or the Shontel Brown Problem. Let’s say you’re absolutely convinced that the solution is to run on and deliver transformative progressive policy, and it just hasn’t gotten an adequate try yet because of corporate Democrats, boo! Okay fine, what do you propose to do about them? Voters keep nominating them. If you propose that the (largely mythical) party is to blame, what do you propose to do about that? Let’s say that in theory the Party of Bernie/DSA/etc. would sweep all before it, if it could only get entirely implausible unity of all Democrats behind transformative progressive policies. Since that hasn’t happened, despite extensive organizing for it, presumably the popular platform which will be a smash hit with the electorate at large simply cannot defeat all competitors within the Democratic Party; whatever the reason might be, “go left” still seems disqualified as a practical solution. (Much the same applies people who emphasize a belief that Democrats are just consistently worse-than-average at strategy and tactics, and that the critic can supply much better messaging, targeting, whatever.)

Third, I think part of the reason is what we might call the ColoradoCare problem. People tell pollsters that they like progressive policies as ideas, but that isn’t the same thing as trusting anyone enough to implement them when there’s any opposition warning against (which there always will be). Even on an a la carte basis, people have often voted down progressive reforms. It seems farfetched that any message could persuade a supermajority vote to entrust vast power to one party, let alone sustain that trust for multiple elections.

What else even is there? Safe, centrist custodianship seems more than ever like it has had ample chance to work. Biden supports some transformative progressive policies, but in practice he has been limited to modest and moderate change in 9.5 months. Thanks, voters still hate it. What is the secret to a winning economic formula supposed to be? Do voters want low inflation, and very slow tepid economic expansion—as long as it has lasted at least several years? Is it credible that if Hillary had squeaked through in 2016, voters would have given her credit for the same economy which they found very disappointing under Obama, and would at the very least have permitted Democrats their kindest midterms since 2006? Actually I really think that sounds like bullshit. Voters would have voted to annihilate Democrats in 2018.

Where is the meaning in any of this? I would like to say that some things matter, over time. But the systems we have move so slowly, if at all. If it’s true that this is part of why they are collapsing in the face of assault, we don’t seem to know what to do about that. The right uses power to rig systems, the left looks for permission to do something, voters lean Democratic in some overall sense but smash either party equally if it’s in the White House. We go on telling stories about “why” as though it’s a given that this makes sense. Does it?

Where is the moral of the reality, rather than of the story? In the story, Republicans supposedly made hay for years from outrage over Obamacare, then Democrats supposedly won big from popular outrage at Republicans closest-ever (if incomplete) attempt to repeal it. In the story, voters are supposedly angry because Biden isn’t delivering enough change, or because the left wants too much, or because the pandemic is dragging on even though right now we actually seem further than ever from the disruptions of lockdown.

In reality, none of this makes sense. That includes the immovable obsession with events, policies, and issues. I’m reminded about House Democrats’ early 2019 reluctance to go after Trump at all, and someone remarking that an anti-Trump vote swept Democrats into a big House majority, yet every freshman who flipped a Congressional seat was convinced that their win was a product of just the right bespoke messaging and campaign organization.

I think a lot of people can, on some level, believe that those House Democrats were just outright silly. But I think it’s much harder for people to process the idea that the anti-Trump vote, itself, was substantially meaningless.

Yet, how do we maintain otherwise at this point? The similar voting swings to annihilate Obama’s, Trump’s, and Biden’s parties during their presidencies challenge rational explanation and—even for those who insist that much bolder progressive transformation would work if only it had a united party onboard top to bottom—to defy any practical solution.

It’s tough to beat something with nothing, though. This I presume is why customs and religions and zombie systems can endure so long regardless of whether or not they are effective or even benign. So what alternative can I offer to continuing to take seriously the popular belief that American electoral outcomes are rich with meaningful issues, policies, etc.?

By way of alternative explanation, I might have some ideas. If there is a coincidence at work, perhaps it’s a simpler one; perhaps instead of these suspiciously consistent patterns all being the product of meaningful issues, ideas, tactics, etc., perhaps they are instead the product of a consistent background. Perhaps the coincidence is that we have ended up with sort-of equal committed voting bases, with massive power therefore tossed around senselessly because a lot of people just vote to annihilate the sitting president’s party. As to why they might keep doing that, perhaps part of the explanation is the reinforcing effects of societal distrust, obsolete political machinery, and shitty corrupted information infrastructure. Distrust prevents most good policies from amassing the supermajorities needed to overcome permanent Republican sabotage. The very important differences which do exist between a Trump administration and a Biden administration are smudged by the combination of a rightwing media which tells millions that a corrupt criminal administration is a a champion of virtue while dull responsible administration is corrupt and evil, and a mainstream media which doesn’t want to “take sides” and basically just runs loud critical coverage 24/7 whether a president’s performance is a 5 out of 10 or a -200. This, and the resultant dysfunction, deepen societal distrust. Run:doomloop.

It’s also possible that it’s difficult for any leader to be popular in a large, boisterous state. I read just this morning that French president Macron’s “approval ratings are in the low 40s, high for a late term French president.” Maybe America’s problem is less routine dissatisfaction with any and every president, and more that the country is ungovernable unless the president sustains unusually favorable public opinion. (France knows as well as any state that rules matter.)

By way of alternative response, well, as I have written, I think that people first have to be honest about the problem, then start discussing options like peaceful divorce which might actually free us from the doom loop of playing a dumb game which offers no way of winning within its existing rules or of changing those rules.

Yes, that’s a tough sell. People aren’t very good at abstract ideas. Neither news nor most other institutions are in the business of responding to history rather than to news, events, etc. It’s hard to beat something with nothing.

But it’s at least as hard to create something, if we won’t even discuss explicitly why we might need something genuinely new instead of just another try at the same old.

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