Tag Archives: Presidency

2020 Primary: Plus ça change…

I tried watching one of the Democratic Primary Debates, some months ago. It was basically unwatchable.

It’s just deeply awkward and unpleasant, for one thing; not only does it seem much like the collision of noises in a typical ESPN yelling-heads show, it’s worse because in theory the presidential debate is consequential and it certainly imposes this debasement on some genuinely intelligent people.

In a bigger sense, it’s hard to keep watching when it’s fairly obvious, before the debate even begins, that it’s basically a ritualized, desperate waving around of American culture’s absurd decay. The set design would have seemed like a grotesque parody if you showed it to someone a few decades ago. As visual metaphor for a culture trapped in rituals which no longer function, yet so hollow it can manage no response except to tart them up with ever more neon and mirrors, it would be rather hamfisted. Except this is what passes for reality. This reduction of national dialogue to a ridiculous game show, in both function and form, is not critical art but a miserable cynic’s disgusted counsel of despair.

lol, says the debate format, nothing anyone does matters just give up.

The debate content and the larger primary provided a lot of support for that counsel, and some interesting but very limited exceptions to it.

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Peak President

The proposal that America fixates too much on the presidency is not exactly new or novel.

It has probably been more than a decade since I began marking midterm elections’ completion by suggesting, sourly, that “it’s so nice this is out of the way, and journalists can devote themselves exclusively to presidential politics once again.” I believe it has been at least a few years since Matthew Yglesias argued—I don’t recall whether it was at Vox or Slate, and in any event it was probably not a totally new suggestion—that liberals in particular have invested too much in pursuit of the White House while neglecting every other component of American government. Earlier this year, Yglesias’s Vox colleague Dylan Matthews wrote an essay suggesting that the eventual outcome of America’s political dysfunction will be neither collapse nor coup but, instead, gradual transformation of the presidency into an “elective dictatorship.” I found Matthews’s scenario quite easy to imagine.

Today, though, it occurred to me that revisiting this issue might permit some fruitful juxtaposition of two or three phenomena that have been bugging me, lately.

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