Quick, I See Political Furore, Pass Me the ‘Healing Balm’

Kevin M. Kruse‘s Op-Ed in today’s New York Times opens thus:

Steven Spielberg, whose “Lincoln” biopic opens Friday, recently said he hoped the film would have a “soothing or even healing effect” on a nation exhausted after yet another bitter and polarizing election. [link in original]

I have heard that line, or variants of it before. Many times. Nothing quite animates some folks in the political domain like the urge to be balm-appliers, all the while muttering an ostensibly soothing refrain, much like one might calm down a crying or upset child: there, there, it’ll be better, chill out, take a seat; stop getting so worked up. What seems to happen all too frequently, somehow, is that a nation in which political activism, dissent and disruption–outside the froth, fuming, grandstanding and obstruction on Capitol Hill–is generally imperceptible and only rises to interesting levels in relatively confined pockets–as in the 2011 Wisconsin protests–is all too frequently described as being ‘exhausted’, ‘worn out’ by too much politics.

I have news for Spielberg. If the ‘nation’ is ‘exhausted’, it is made so by content-free political discourse, by inane political commentary, by non-stop vapidity on television, which mistakes analysis for entertainment and force-feeds the polity a warmed-over  mix of political pablum. This is not a nation worn out by politics; it is worn out by an absence of politics, by the constant attempts to make politics and its daily intersections with our lived lives invisible. It is worn out by being fed too much of the tranquilizing, lassitude-inducing fluff that Spielberg and his ilk would have us consume on a daily basis. All so that we can have our attention diverted from what goes on outside our windows. (These so-called ‘bitter and polarizing elections’ have, as yet, not resulted in any substantial change in the political cartel of the Republican and Democratic Parties, which continue to take turns sharing the reins.)

As I noted in my post on Sunday, it is all too common for a curious mule-breed class of politicians and media folks to harp on how the nation must get back to calm acceptance of the status quo. Nothing quite animates this class to issue its warnings–as it did, breathlessly and  frenetically, in the aftermath of the 2000 election–like the possibility that political fluff like presidential electioneering might actually spark a closer look beneath the hood, that  a volatile, street-home-school-workplace level of political organizing and activity might somehow be sustained. But that would mean a disruption. Hence, a need for medication, for balms for the irritated, and Cassandra-like warnings about the evils of instability and of a nation ‘at odds with itself’, of too much ‘bitterness’. The language of ‘soothing’ or ‘healing’ is not accidental: we soothe the agitated back to inertia, we heal the wound that might fester or spread its infection.

The cure for this ‘exhaustion’ is not too curious: a movie about a venerated figure from the past. The frame thus is set. Disputation is to be replaced: perhaps by common adoration, perhaps by a familiar hagiography directed at ‘our ancestors’.  Better to return to quiet, adoring contemplation, the holy scriptures in hand: Behold the Great Constitution; Behold the Fathers of the Nation; fall on your knees, you chattering, talkative, irritable, querulous ones.

We are healed.

Election Fiascos: Unlikely, and Unlikely to Provoke Serious Protest

John Heilemann at New York Magazine suggests four ways in which the election on Tuesday, November 6, could be headed for a nightmare of narrow ‘illegitimate’ wins or deadlocks. I don’t think any of these apocalypses are likely. They are based on the assumption that the election outcomes talked about will result in widespread protests. In doing so, they reveal a common misunderstanding of American political life: that it features so much partisan wrangling, so much political disputation that a narrow or ‘illegitimate’ election will plunge the nation into crisis. Au contraire, political life in the US is more quiet quiescence, more calm acceptance of political shenanigans than anything else. As you read below, remember that the 2000 election handover to George W. Bush, engineered by the US Supreme Court, could have sparked similar protests but any chance of that was shouted down by both parties, eager to get back to business as usual.

Here are Heilemann’s scenarios.

1. The Romney Squeaker Scenario

[I]t’s perfectly possible for Romney to end up with a bit north of 50 percent of the popular vote. Then proceed to the electoral vote, where the GOP nominee has always faced a difficult path to 270. But imagine that Romney achieves the first step of carrying the three southern swing states—Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia—which he may well do. And then either (a) takes Ohio plus Colorado, Iowa, or Wisconsin; or (b) falls short in Ohio but wins both Colorado and Wisconsin as well as Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada; or (c) conquers Colorado or Wisconsin plus all three of the smaller swing states. In any of these eventualities, Romney would win the White House with 271 to 276 electoral votes. This would amount to the narrowest possible victory—and one that would all but certainly provoke the left into a howling fit.

My call: unlikely to happen. Not the squeaker itself but the ‘howling fit’ part. A little huffing and puffing, and then, back to the usual programming.

2. The Reverse Gore Scenario

[I]t’s not hard to conjure a scenario in which Romney wins the popular vote narrowly, as Gore did then—but Obama winds up playing the role of Bush….Obama’s national popular-vote weakness is to no small extent a result of his staggering weakness in the South and Appalachia, where he trails Romney in many states by 20 or 30 points—far more than his advantage in the deep-blue West and Northeast…despite the tightness of the race nationally, the margins of advantage he holds with Latinos, African-Americans, young voters, and college-educated white women, and their concentrations in the battleground states, are what gives him many more routes to 270 than Romney has. How would the right react to seeing Obama reclaim the presidency after he lost the popular vote? In much the same way the left would respond to scenario No. 1: with wailing, gnashing, and a dudgeon so high that if you reached the top of it, you’d be able to touch Pluto.

Again: unlikely. Would the opposition that Obama would face be any worse than he already has in the past four years?

3. The Recount (or Recounts) Scenario

This campaign has already featured extended legal wrangling in several states over those voter-I.D. laws—which means both sides have litigation-ready boots on the ground and are raring to engage already. Given just how corset-tight the polls are in Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida itself, a Florida Redux scenario might be more likely than anyone imagines—and could even, perish the thought, play out in more than one state simultaneously. Remember how bad 2000 was? This would be much worse. And not simply because the level of partisan vitriol heading into the fracas is so much higher, but also because the disruption in terms of governing would be so much greater….in the aftermath of the election, the federal government will be staring into the abyss of the so-called fiscal cliff: the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the sequester, and another fight over the debt ceiling. Now consider the prospect of two or more months of 2000-style paralysis in the face of that challenge.

What 2000-style paralysis is Heilemann talking about? That business got settled pretty quick. Remember all the calls for putting the election behind us?

4. The Tie-Goes-to-the-Romney Scenario

 Now we come to the most nightmarish possibility of all: Obama ekes out a popular-vote victory but he and Romney are deadlocked, 269-269, in terms of electoral votes….all it would require is the following (entirely credible) chain of results: Romney wins the southern battleground trio and Ohio, Obama holds on to Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and Wisconsin but loses in New Hampshire….The election would be thrown to the House of Representatives, where the Constitution ordains that every state receive one vote as determined by the party makeup of its congressional delegation. Today, that would likely mean 32 Republican votes and 18 Democratic ones, a composition unlikely to change on November 6—and hence, voilà, President Romney.

 To be crystalline, this would not be a nightmare because Romney would prevail. It would be a nightmare because he’d prevail in opposition to the popular vote and outside of the Electoral College—through an unprecedented process in which Idaho and Wyoming would have a weight equal to New York and California. For millions of Americans, and not just partisan extremists, it would call into question our entire system of selecting the dude in charge, and make the U.S. look like a superrich banana republic around the world. To be honest, though, it would only be barely worse than Scenarios 1, 2, and 3 in terms of rending the nation asunder.

Indeed, of all the scenarios listed by Heilemann, this strikes me as one that has the makings of a genuine disaster. It would not ‘rend the nation asunder,’ but it would force a closer look at the Constitution, which might be interesting for a while, before everyone decides that it’s better leave it alone. If it were to happen, which according to most polls, seems unlikely.