The 2016 Elections: Chronicles Of A Disaster Foretold

In October 2008, I went door-knocking in Wilkes-Barre, PA–for the Barack Obama campaign. (Earlier, I had donated a total of $100 to the Obama campaign, making two contributions of $50 each.) I was assigned a map of a neighborhood, along with names and addresses and an indicator of whether earlier in the election season, the voter at the indicated address had said they would vote for Obama or not. I met a mixed bunch during my travels; some of those who opened their doors to me were friendly, some were brusque. (I did not bother visiting homes which bore a McCain-Palin sign outside.) On one occasion, I ran into a gentleman standing in his driveway, made a few initial queries, and then got down to inquiring into whether Barack Obama could rely on his vote in the upcoming election. He said yes, because he was sick of ‘things not changing around here’–but then almost immediately launched into a loud and vitriolic diatribe. Against Hillary Clinton–who was not a presidential candidate, having been defeated by Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries.

It was all there–the standard elements of the critique of Hillary Clinton that American voters are used to hearing from ‘the right’: she’s untrustworthy, she lies, she’s a crook. As my interlocutor spoke, he grew visibly irate, waving his smoke-emitting lawn-mowing implement in my face. I came away shaken, having been made very aware of the fact that there were voters in this supposed ‘swing district’ in a ‘battleground state’ who were willing to vote for the Democratic Party’s candidate, but not for Hillary Clinton.

In 2012, I did not contribute money to the Obama campaign and neither did I go door-knocking; it did not seem like the campaign needed my help on either front. Like many others who had voted enthusiastically for Obama in 2008, I had felt some of my enthusiasm ebb; not enough hope and change I could believe in. I wondered whether Obama would take Pennsylvania again; he did. In the 2016 election season, I wondered again about that man in the driveway; I could sense there were others like him in that part of Pennsylvania; he was a recognizable member of an identifiable demographic. A working-class white man who had seen better days and was tired of waiting for ‘politicians’ to hear his voice. (My friend was wearing a baseball cap, natch, with a pick-up truck parked at home.)

Throughout this election season, over and above my expressed criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I remained uneasy about her deep and abiding unpopularity with large segments of the American electorate and with her visible identification by yet others as ‘part of the problem.’ In 2008, Obama had presented himself as the candidate of change; it had been easy to portray Hillary Clinton as a member of the establishment. Eight years on, Clinton had become ever more entrenched as a member of the establishment; when she ran in 2016, the best she could offer was ‘more of the same.’ To folks like that man in the driveway in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Donald Trump won the 2016 elections not just because of folks like that; he won because wealthy and upper-class whites voted for him too; he won because racism and sexism and xenophobia and chauvinism have not lost their power to seek out scapegoats and indict them for a host of crimes. He won because millions of voters who voted for Obama in the last two elections, could not bring themselves to, and indeed did not, vote for Hillary Clinton. Some of these voting predilections were visible early in the voting season; they formed the basis of the skepticism about her candidacy, and for some, the greater hope of the Bernie Sanders campaign. (Trump also won because of the vagaries of the American electoral system, which has been broken since time immemorial.)

Sanders’ primary win in Michigan indicated that: a) polls were not working as well as they might have been expected to b) Democratic strongholds and ‘bluewalls’ were not reliably so c) that in areas with economic downturns, job losses, and particular demographics (like Wilkes-Barre, PA) establishment candidates would suffer in comparison to ‘outsiders’ promising to shake up the ‘system.’ Very few seemed to care or listen; the Democratic Party was committed to getting its candidate across the finish line by any means necessary, including, if needed, the systematic denigration of the Sanders candidacy and the coalition that supported him. It was a fatal mistake.

The populist appeal of Sanders was lost, as was the energy and idealism of his campaign; those vital ingredients remained visible on the Trump side. The folks who attended Trump rallies all over the country were not any more racist or chauvinistic than the ones who came to McCain-Palin rallies in 2008, alarmed about the possibility of a black man with a Muslim middle name becoming president; they can be counted on reliably vote for the Republican candidate every four years. They were not the ones spelling trouble for the Democratic Party; the ones that were really the harbingers of electoral doom for the Clinton campaign were those who had thought change was coming in 2008 and 2012, who could not abide the thought of voting for an establishment that is now viewed as only concerned with its personal enrichment. The weight and power of party machinery would bring a candidacy for Hillary Clinton; it wouldn’t bring a presidency. It especially would not bring a presidency because there were some voters Clinton would never be able to persuade to vote for her, the ones who would unify any unease about a Trump candidacy into a solid anti-Clinton electoral bloc. In the last days of the election season, I had come to believe the polls myself and confidently predicted a win for Hillary Clinton; I had forgotten about that man in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

All has become ashes; American has elected a fascist to the presidency. Those who castigated the Sanders campaign for its lack of realism and chose to live with their own particular fantasy will be reconciled to this new state of affairs much more quickly than those who saw this disaster coming, and whose personal fates will be severely implicated in a Trump presidency.

Jon Meacham On Misunderstanding Darwin And The George Bush ‘Legacy’

During the 1988 election season’s presidential debates, George H. W. Bush described his opponent, Michael Dukakis, as ‘a card-carrying member of the ACLU.’ This was supposed to be a zinger, a devastating put-down line that would show up his opponent as a radical, a wanna-be hippie, an out-of-touch member of the East Coast elite, an un-American, unrepentant, defender of–civil liberties. You know, those things enumerated in the Bill of Rights and enshrined in the American Constitution, which every patriot, suitably armed with his Second Amendment-protected guns, is sworn to protecting against the ravages of commies and pinkos and terrorists everywhere. The line worked; it went down famously with the Republican ‘faithful’ and the ‘base.’ The continued strategy of painting Dukakis as an effete pointyhead disconnected from broader American realities worked; Republican pollsters knew their party, and the folks who voted them in power.

We should keep this in mind every time we come across an instance of the ludicrous ‘Republicans were so much better, so much more moderate and balanced in the good old days’ line. The latest deposit of this bovine excreta may be found in Jon Meacham‘s ‘Nostalgia for The Grace of George H. W. Bush‘ the tagline for which reads: “The Journey from Bush to Trump disproves Darwin.”

That tagline gives the game away. The journey from Bush to Trump does not ‘disprove Darwin.’ Rather, it does the exact opposite. The journey from Bush to Trump shows that the American political environment furnished adaptive niches for political creatures like racists; their traits were suited for flourishing in it. That environment was set up by Republicans, their base and their party; it was sustained by the actions of supposedly genteel folks like the Bushes and the Reagans. They fostered racism and chauvinism and xenophobia and, surprise!, a ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ view of society in which the poor and the unfortunate and the systematically oppressed and disenfranchised were to be kicked to the curb by those in power. And God help those who, like the ACLU, spoke up on their behalf.

This environment was fertile breeding ground for those possessed of the traits with which to exploit it. Enter Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump. The line of progression is clear and visible; it is clear too which political creatures’ offspring flourished in the environment created and sustained by the Republican Party. Along the way, America committed mass murder in Iraq; it tortured; it refused to punish those who had committed those supposedly un-American crimes. It should not be surprised that Donald Trump has shown up on its doorsteps demanding to be let in; he’s been on the inside, and he’s seen what works.

Meacham’s invocation of Darwin here shows two things: 1) He does not understand Darwin and 2) He has not been paying attention the last twenty-eight years. The former might be forgivable; after all, many people don’t. The latter is not. Meacham thinks he is offering a diagnosis; unfortunately, he is part of the problem.

The Republican Party Will Be Just Fine, Thanks Very Much

The supposed collapse of the Republican Party–in the face of an insurgent onslaught led by a motley crew of Tea Partiers, Donald Trump devotees, and Rush Limbaugh fans (which may indeed, be the same demographic)–during this election season is extremely wishful thinking on the part of election pundits and journalistic commentators. What animates these fantasies of an implosion in the Republican Party is, of course, yet another American political fantasy: that one day, there will be more choices on the political landscape besides the ones our current political parties offer. It also makes for entertaining speculation during a never-ending election season and offers more fuel for ‘discussion’ and ‘analysis’ on our twenty-four news channels.

The Republican Party will be just fine. When the smoke clears, after or before its convention, it will have found a way to package this election season’s supposedly ‘new lunacy’ into its platforms and manifestos, which are not too different in content from most of the central positions Donald Trump has adopted in his stump speeches. The Republican Party likes its fascism in the crypto, not the overt, varietal. Very soon–once he has locked up the nomination, if not sooner–Trump will begin to sound like that mythical creature, a ‘moderate Republican,’ and the party will close ranks around him. Just as it did last night, when his opponents at the Republican debate, after spending two hours abusing him as a con man and a fake, said they would still support him in the general elections. Trump’s racism and outright flirtations with white supremacism have not exactly caused a dramatic distancing from him on the part of party operatives and leaders either. Indeed, as many political observers have pointed out, among the Terrible Trio of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, Trump is the least dangerous, precisely because he is the least ideologically committed, which is why he is anathema to Republican leadership, who would prefer someone crazier in the dimensions of their choice. They’d rather eviscerate this nation’s Constitution and polity in their own distinctive style.

Most importantly, as Corey Robin has deftly pointed out, nothing Trump has said–or promised to do–marks him out as a singularity in the pantheon of Republican leadership and political thought over the past half-century.  Lest we forget, the Republican Party has provided us a stolen election in 2000, a president that declared an illegal war and sanctioned torture, and let Sarah Palin run as their vice-presidential candidate in 2008. Let that sink in for a second. This is a political party that was willing to take the chance of letting a person with the intellectual nous of a daffodil take command of a nuclear arsenal had John McCain shuffled off this mortal coil during his presidential term.

A few more floating turds will not radically change the character of this cesspool. A foul bubble or two,  a few roiling waves, and then the sludge will roll back over to conceal the depths below.

Against Political Speeches, For Political Speech

I’m not sure why I dislike political speeches. By ‘political speeches’ I do not mean ‘political speech’: I am in favor of the latter, the more the better, with some caveats having to do with–among others–Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Karl Rove, Bill O’Reilly, and Sarah Palin. Rather, by ‘political speeches,’ I mean, quite precisely, speeches given by a politician–a party animal, to be exactingly precise–at some political forum: a post-election rally (for victory or concession), a party convention, a campaign rally; these remain resolutely inaccessible to me, a movie show that I can’t sit through. (This definition, should, I hope, make clear that certain species of political speeches in public fora remain impervious to my criticism.)

Along with this dislike goes indifference to political speech hagiography, the admiring dissection of speeches, which elevates them to the level of rhetorical masterpieces. Consider, for instance, Robert Lehrman on Obama’s victory speech on the night of 6th November, comparing it to the 2008 post-election victory speech:

[T]he 2012 model showed all the strengths that Obama and his speechwriters consistently exhibit, producing the best drafts of any president. He used concrete details and repetition (“You’ll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer who’s working his way through college … You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door…”); antithesis and echoes of John F. Kennedy (“America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together”) and stories that have the ring of truth (“And I saw it just the other day in Mentor, Ohio, where a father told the story of his 8-year-old daughter…”). You also see flashes of wit (“one dog’s probably enough”), and the skillful use of pause, emphasis and variety of tone that makes public speaking teachers like me use him as a model for students. [link in original]

That last sentence reminds me that perhaps the best thing about a ‘good political speech’ these days is that it might serve as a model for those trying to become better public speakers: high-school or college students aspiring to debate club membership, teachers themselves, budding actors, Toastmasters clubs, interviewees, and so on. But I don’t think they shouldn’t copy or emulate everything they see and hear.

Most prominently, because, like almost anyone disillusioned by political speeches in electoral democracies, I see them as heralds of betrayal and disappointment to follow. They are all too often infected by too many promises, too much insincere wheedling. The political speech, now, in this landscape of relentless electioneering, has come to stand for misleading obfuscation, one that serves to obscure the truly political behind a veil of elegant wordsmithing.  This is not necessarily because the speaker–the party political animal, remember–is extraordinarily mendacious, rather it is because he or she is made to appear as a figurehead that misrepresents the forces that are all too often arrayed against those subjected to the speech.

The speech then, comes to serve as beguiling distraction, and not just rallying cry.

Tales of Three Morning Afters

The 2004 Presidential election was my first. I had not voted in the 2000 election because my naturalization came a few weeks too late for me to participate; I had observed the election itself from afar, in Brazil, and watched, amazed by the Supreme Court’s intervention, as the final, lame denouement came about. In 2004, I was cautiously optimistic, hoping that somehow, John Kerry would pull it off. He didn’t; Kerry was never a particularly effective candidate and US voters too, remained bizarrely trusting of the spectacularly mendacious and incompetent erstwhile inhabitant of the White House. I went to a election-result-watching get-together at a friend’s place, ordered Chinese food, and sat down, chopsticks and food cartons at hand, to watch the news. Not too long before midnight, it had become clear Bush was headed for a second term. I left, walking a long, cold walk back home, passing a traffic light that could have looked like a surfer’s greeting but, amazingly enough, that night, looked like it was giving me the bird. The next morning, when I awoke to read of four more years for George Bush, I felt a little sick. I felt guilty too, that my ignoring the Kerry’s campaign’s calls for donations, for help with getting out the vote by phone-banking or door-to-door knocking had somehow contributed to the loss. I couldn’t console myself my inactivity had nothing to do with it.

Four years later, my reactions were very different. I felt I had to contribute somehow–financially or with my time–to blocking any possibility of an extension of the idiocy that had ruled the White House for eight years. The memory of that November 2004 morning was still too strong. I worried I might wake up the day after, convinced I had enabled a John McCain-Sarah Palin White House. I did my bit–sent in money, knocked on doors etc–and after election night, awoke feeling much better than I had four years before.

This election season, I didn’t contribute money to the Obama campaign and I didn’t participate in voter turnout. I did though, fear the same outcomes as I had worried about in the previous two elections. The dissonance in my beliefs about the political monopoly of the Republicans and Democrats, my hopes for a third-party alternative, and my disappointment with Obama’s first four years, had by the end of the evening crystallized into a fairly simple desire: that Obama win, that though no matter how Tweedledum and Tweedledee I considered the two parties, I knew one of the two possible outcomes would upset me much, much more. So by the end of the night, I cheered for an Obama victory and when I went to bed, I did so knowing I would not wake up with a repeat of the 2004 hangover.

Obama’s victory is cause for relief, not exultation. Substantive progressive legislation still looks doubtful because, well, there is a Republican Party and a Democratic Party to deal with. And besides, there’s Obama himself, and the question of how he wants to run his second term. In the end, I’m sobered by the fact that fifty million Americans found an incoherent platform good enough to vote for, the election was as close as it was, and that so much political change still remains necessary.

Debates: Good for Drinking Games

In 2008, during that year’s interminable election season, bars in my neighborhood posted signs they were showing the Democratic primary debates, the presidential debates, the vice-presidential debates; we all seemed to be comfortable and enthusiastic about the notion of election debates as spectator sport. I made plans to watch the vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden in company; I got together with a friend, we drank wine and bourbon, and laughed uproariously at that bizarre pair; I keenly watched too, the presidential debates between Barack Obama and John McCain. Eight years of a Bush administration were coming to a close, and I allowed myself to believe that, yes, change was in the air, that deliverance from that grinning fool and all he represented was possible. On election night, I hosted a results party. Friends came over, we checked laptops and television screens, whooped and hollered, groaned and moaned, drank champagne, nibbled nervously, and finally, when the Obama-election was announced, I opened my window and yelled out into the darkness: ‘Fuck you Sarah Palin!’

Nothing like that will happen this year.  Last night, as the first presidential debate kicked off, I finished dinner, sliced up an apple or two and sat down to watch the penultimate episode of Friday Night Lights. Later, I checked the news–the Yankees had clinched the American League East–and my Twitter timeline and noticed much chatter about the lameness of it all: the lying Etch-a-Sketch Mitt Romney, the dull Barack Obama, the ineffective Jim Lehrer. I posted a couple of facetious Tweets, read the opening chapters of Sanford Levinson‘s Our Undemocratic Constitution, and went to bed. I doubt the basic pattern of dinner, Netflix watching and bedtime reading will change on the nights of any of the debates to follow. In the case of vice-presidential debates, to quote an old friend, I would sooner slit my wrists with a butter knife than voluntarily watch Paul Ryan on television for even a second.

Part of the adverse reaction to the debates, as my remarks above indicate, is based on some weariness. But mostly, it seems unclear to me they offer voters anything useful in a political dimension. As my friend and ex-student Tara Mulqueen succinctly noted:

[I]ts very premise and construction of politics effects a massive closure on anything that might be deemed properly political.

To wit, it seems implausible that the format and staging of the modern debate offers anything remotely close to what might be termed a political dispute; the moment this political ‘encounter’ is placed on television, we lose any semblance of political struggle and descend into posturing built up out of the bare-faced presentation of talking points, the avoidance of analysis and argument, the evasion of difficulty. It’s almost as if some public spectacle were required to serve as the summum bonum expression of the vapidity of the election season i.e., the skirting and skimming of the most difficult problems that face the nation, and the debate does so, no pun intended, spectacularly. And puzzlingly enough, it isn’t even clear whom the spectacle is intended for: if undecided voters are undecided because they aren’t paying attention, then what is the point of watching?

The debates remain a spectator sport; fuel for Twitter-and-Facebook-chatter and drinking games; I paid up in 2008, but now I’m done.

Not Nearly Enough Change I Can Believe In

Yesterday’s post and Dan Kaufman’s comment on it, have prompted me to pen some thoughts on Barack Obama (and elections).

In 2008, I made two separate donations of $50 to Barack Obama’s campaign. I also drove down with some friends to Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania and spent the day walking around several neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and talking to residents about their possible election choices, thus helping the Obama campaign build up a map of voting patterns that they could use in estimating their chances in the region. I’d like to think that in some small way, I actively helped Obama’s victory in the elections that followed. I took these actions because, besides  wanting to vote for Obama in New York State, I wanted to contribute as much as I could elsewhere, to help the Obama campaign in the so-called swing states.  My vote in New York, a state that votes overwhelmingly Democratic, and where Obama was all but guaranteed the Electoral College votes, didn’t feel like that it would be that useful to Obama; at most it could help some him make some talking points about the size of his mandate.

By late 2008, as the elections approached, I was alarmed in a way that I had not been in 2004 (when I had voted for John Kerry). In 2004, I had merely voted; that was the extent of my involvement in the election process. But in 2008, I might have been described as a member of ‘the energized base’. I was ‘energized’ by Sarah Palin, by eight years of GW Bush, by the chance for change that I saw in Obama’s election. Back then, I was happy Obama had trumped Hilary Clinton’s campaign; even though her election would have been a historic event, I was made just a tad bit uneasy by her connection with the ‘old’ Democrats. Thus, I should have been more alarmed than I was by Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as vice-president; it was the first serious indicator, for me at least, that this candidate would indulge in a great deal of the ‘ol same-‘ol, same-‘ol.

Some three years on, as this election season heats up, and writing the day after Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage,  my disappointment remains acute. The language of betrayal is tempting, but I’m too weary to deploy it. Rather I’m inclined to think that I’ve just been reminded of the cartel-like nature of party politics in our nation, and of the disappointing inability of politicians to recognize where historical opportunities lie. Obama could have been a great one-term president; he has chosen, instead, to aspire to be a disappointing two-term president. I do not think I will send $100 to his campaign this year, and I most certainly will not take the time to go door-knocking for him in Pennsylvania or anywhere else. I wonder how many there are like me, and how much that will hurt Obama (Obama will have gained some new supporters in these past few years and perhaps they will be enough to get him over the finish line.) But I do not intend to fall for the tired old Democratic line ‘if you don’t vote for us, the bad old Republicans will come to power’. I do not feel like voting for Obama, and I certainly do not intend to vote Republican. Perhaps the Working Families Party? Who knows? November is still a long way away.

But there is a far more fundamental problem in all of this: it centers on my disillusionment with elections–especially in modern politics in this nation–and with my evolving understanding of my political responsibilities. More on that in a follow-up post tomorrow.