Walking back through political interpretation

I make and take a lot of notes. Even before the more or less daily news chronicle which I began in 2017, I have collected and organized political, economic and other notes throughout my adult life.

Lately I’m doing some spring cleaning, and in the process, this weekend I revisited two or three small, ad hoc collections of notes. They are interesting, especially cumulatively as a walk back through 10 years of struggling to make sense of political dysfunction.

A virtual folder on my Mac, which began as a catchall for interesting texts which I wanted to save and meant to file eventually, has turned into a cross section of 2011-20 political perspectives. Some just seems quaint. Remember when the “war on terror” or “free trade debates” were national preoccupations? One is a rant from February 2017, responding specifically to local affairs and posted on a local message board, but which rails against complicit unwillingness to say that a lie is a lie; a general relevance existed at a time but has grown since, I think.

Three or four excerpts from Vox articles published after the 2014 election seem, now, like the beginning of the conclusions I eventually arrived at in my recent book Nemesis.

  • …the Democrats hadn’t actually discovered dark arts of GOTV that allowed them to survive a GOP year. The polls were wrong — but they were wrong because they undercounted Republican support. As often happens, Democrats fooled themselves after the 2012 election into believing they had unlocked some enduring political advantage. They learned otherwise. (source)
  • If the economy drives whether people vote to re-elect the president, and presidential approval drives midterm voting, then surely the economy should should drive midterm voting through the mechanism of presidential approval, right? (source)
  • The last five elections, taken together, wreck almost every clean story you might try to wrap around them. They show an electorate that veers hard and quickly between left and right and back again — shredding any efforts one might make to draw deep ideological conclusions from a single campaign. They show that Democrats can, in the right circumstances, win midterm elections. They show that incumbents can win presidential campaigns. They show an electorate that seems to be searching for something it cannot find. (source)

One sentence, from the same period, is so exact: “American politics is descending into a meaningless, demographically driven seesaw.”

It’s humbling that it took me seven more years to process this even into what I hope is some kind of useful model for making sense of things.

(Summary: this bullshit is not cutting it, but people and our cultural creations [including me, see previous sentence] are very reliant on known tools for our practices, perceptions, and basic conceptual framework.)

Paper notes which have kicked around here for years, meanwhile, document some of the active struggle to fit things into a pattern, and look for a route out of the nightmare.

One, different kind of note, written as the Warren for president campaign was ending, is also a very poignant conclusion to that struggle. It’s mostly a personal outpouring of grief, at the failure of something which assumed such importance to me. That importance is noteworthy, for a few reasons. I had intended to stay on the sidelines of Democrats’ presidential primary, for one thing. In some ways the naivete of inexperience determined otherwise; I had never done a presidential campaign, before, and even after years of immersion in political campaigns, that’s a category of its own, especially if you’re 24/7 online. The feeling of community and movement-building is intense.

Even now, though, I still think that Warren in particular offered us a vision which significantly complemented the addictiveness of any big presidential campaign. America as a modern country, at last. A leader who actually hadn’t spent decades inside the system and contracted hopeless Senate Brain. Above all, a vision which at least aspired to scale with the problems facing us. Not just “restoring regular order,” not even just better policies or better personnel, but big structural change to the system itself. We were going to win the war.

It was all a dream. Among other things, I realized after the Democratic primary that it was probably over the instant that a vice president got in the race; Democrats always nominate the VP when one runs. In 2019, I probably would have dismissed that. At this point, realistically I don’t see that it’s even a very relevant question. (Democratic vice presidents nominated by the party, without first serving as president, also lost consistently for nearly two centuries until Biden. But, so what? He broke a statistical streak. He is not breaking the streak of political corrosion.)

It was probably foolish, by 2019, to believe in a dream like the Warren vision. I don’t think it is even possible now, at least not for me.

Cross-reference: home archeology

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