Brexit via exhaustion

My interest in “Brexit,” at this point, is mainly entertainment. I suppose it always has been. The points of comparison between British and American politics are interesting—sometimes downright eerie—but mostly I look at Brexit news for a diversion from our domestic dysfunction. A friend and I refer to it as The Daily (Shit) Show.

This week, at last it’s more or less official. Years after the referendum the UK is leaving the European Union, with a replacement trade agreement being rolled through a political system which seems mostly to be reacting with sheer exhausted resignation.

Far more informed people have already analyzed this from countless angles and will go on doing so for years. My primary “take,” as such, is the same one I arrived at two or three years ago: the key word for interpreting all the thrashing and contortions of Brexit is “plus.”

In an earlier season of the show, the word “plus” was an indispensable suffix. What practical model for relations with the EU should follow the egregiously vague 2016 referendum verdict? The answer was always something-plus. Canada-plus. Norway-plus. Etc.

The repeated insistence on some model different and better than any which existed seemed, and seems, to encapsulate the denial which produced years of fumbling to little apparent purpose, which turned the English left inside-out, and which may disunite the UK.

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Ungovernable

I pitch around terms like “failed state” and “ungovernable,” in referring to our crashing nation state, but I imagine that these are just words for nearly all who may chance by.

The dramatic difference between where we already are, though, and how much more functional our political systems were just within my lifetime might offer helpful context.

An approximate and abridged timeline of dysfunction:

  • c. 1980 amending the U.S. Constitution becomes impossible
  • c. 1990 multi-day government shutdowns enter the picture
  • c. 2005 steady growth in filibusters takes hockey-stick upward turn
  • c. 2010 significant reform via legislation becomes impossible
  • 2011 gerrymandering approaches perfection; debt ceiling brinkmanship
  • 2015 total blockade of cross-party judicial appointments
  • 2018 Violence Against Women Act cannot even get renewed
  • 2019 total blockade of cross-party legislation
  • 2020 broad Republican consent for schemes to reject a presidential election defeat

I don’t think this pattern points to “an epiphany” followed by a sudden return to cooperation and responsible good governance.

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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.

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A flicker of awareness

There’s just a hint that some more elites began to recognize the reality of the Republican cabal, since witnessing this past week’s straightforward effort to overturn a presidential election.

Not just a Slate article. Not just Marc Elias, although he had quite a platform at this point and has seen his intervention against the coup lawsuits succeed again and again and again; the fact that he is saying the opposite of “the system works” is notable.

No less than U.S. Senator Chris Murphy has also realized that the problem goes way beyond Trump, and articulated this quite well both on the Senate floor and in a frank interview with the Washington Post.

Murphy describes how the penny dropped for him:

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The Beer Hall Putsch

On Sept. 13, I wrote this in my 2020 campaign/election/events diary:

Seems real likelihood that future is either

1. beerhall putsch

2. reichstag fire

My thinking was that Trump appeared to be on the way to rejection by voters, and would plainly attempt to sabotage democracy in some way; it might end up a failed farce(Beer Hall Putsch) like many Trump projects or it might deliver America wholly into authoritarianism (Reichstag fire).

I hesitated to give any public expression to this thought, owing to anxiety about which event was in the making. That hesitation continued after the election, even once it seemed pretty firm that Biden had met the conditions to “win.” The relevant institutional machinery is full of trapdoors, after all, and while Trump’s efforts to reject democracy have been a farce, pratfalls on an unsafe set can still be unsafe.

Eventually, I realized that oh, huh, then this is America’s Beer Hall Putsch, and would be even if somehow it were to “succeed.” The real story is that our situation is that far gone, it wouldn’t take much for even a halfassed-farce coup to succeed.

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A narrative void begets a void narrative

We continue watching, each day, to see how the magic duel is going between the narrative of elected government, and the narrative of Republican conspiracy theories. So far, Trump’s wizards are doing very badly on points, but if the bizarre spells they’re casting don’t win this duel for them, they are still poisoning the opposing narrative permanently.

In this regard, we already know the outcome, conclusively: “You’ve already lost,” America.

A growing number of people seem to realize that there is no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. It’s still a relatively tiny minority which understands this. Interestingly this minority includes participants at Marcy Wheeler’s mostly deep-in-the-legal-weeds blog. Marcy herself has asserted that “We need a new story about America.”

I also believe that, whatever more stable configuration may eventually replace the ungovernable present United States, it will involve some new narrative magic which binds society together in a way that the old narratives just don’t.

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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.

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When democracy was set back more than a century

Many Democrats would probably agree that George W. Bush’s capture of the presidency, 20 years ago, was a big injury for democracy.

It was, but the biggest injury was inflicted by default, by Al Gore and other leading Democrats, well before Florida’s “hanging chads” and the Supreme Court entered the picture.

At the start of 2000 it was not at all destiny that “the Electoral College decides, not the voters” would become a 21st century rule. What we think of as “how the Electoral College works” is an extra-constitutional custom which emerged after its intended operation jammed hopelessly in the 1796 election. As of 2000, this mechanism was in practice little more than a footnote, as the winner of the most votes had always become president for more than a century.

Realistically the Electoral College had never overturned a majority vote of the people prior to 2000, because in previous splits with “the popular vote” there was no real popular vote. In the 1888 election, the vote was still denied to women, to most nonwhites, and to all adults under 21. More than a century later, there was no precedent for the Electoral College to overturn a free and fair election with universal adult suffrage. Nor was it inevitable that such would be the case. Republicans fully intended to delegitimize the Electoral College if it disfavored them, as many believed it might that year:

NY Daily News: So what if Gore wins such crucial battleground states as Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania and thus captures the magic 270 electoral votes while Bush wins the overall nationwide popular vote?

“The one thing we don’t do is roll over,” says a Bush aide. “We fight.”

How? The core of the Bush strategy assumed a popular uprising, stoked by the Bushies themselves, of course. In league with the campaign – which prepared talking points about the Electoral College’s essential unfairness – a massive talk-radio operation would be encouraged.

“We’d have ads, too,” said a Bush aide, “and I think you can count on the media to fuel the thing big-time. Even papers that supported Gore might turn against him because the will of the people will have been thwarted.

Republicans got to enjoy the benefit of planning to raise hell, if the Electoral College turned out to disfavor them, then having their opponents defer to it as proper and fair when it turned out the other way.

This was a huge, hugely costly mistake.

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America’s government isn’t fighting in its own defense

The Republican Party is at this point very literally a cabal hostile to the American state, and actively warring against representative democratic government. Yet rigid cultural taboos prevent the state from acting in its own defense, and suppress even discussion or recognition of this ongoing assault.

None of that is an exaggeration.

Republicans have been quite openly talking about the American state as their enemy for four decades, and I suppose people initially interpreted this as mere campaign rhetoric, then learned to tune it out entirely because Republicans’ practical activity diverged from the rhetoric for a while. Into the early years of this century, Republicans still made some attempt at maintaining a functioning state at the national level.

We are now a dozen years into a sustained campaign of sabotage, and only sabotage, however.

This is not just Trump. This is not just Trump and McConnell. Republicans spent the entire Obama presidency engaged in reckless, toxic sabotage. Government shutdowns; taking America’s credit rating hostage; actively and openly attempting a parallel foreign policy to undercut a sitting president halfway through his term. There has been no controversy among Republicans about any of this.

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The Consortium Calls It

Friday evening a friend wondered “Are they gonna call the election in a Friday news dump?” I laughed, and had been musing on the same question earlier in the day. Though the notion amuses, the alternative carried out today by “they” is much richer.

Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020 concludes a week which is a microcosm of contemporary America:

  1. Political debate has conceptually been devoured by a sectarian/race war
  2. Bad rules thwart the majority from doing anything effective about the above, or about the bad rules, or about much of anything
  3. In this dysfunction, power defaults more and more to corporate capital
  4. For ordinary people, conditions get worse, intensified by a dangerous natural phenomenon which could easily be controlled by a functional modern civilization, but which in this case is largely allowed to burn as it will because that’s the option most suited to short-term corporate profits
  5. Meanwhile few people even give much notice to any of this, because our information and conceptual infrastructure is hopelessly misaligned with what’s really going on, owing to a combination of senescence and sabotage
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