Subj: politics 1
Date: 10/17/2004 6:21:22 PM Eastern Standard Time
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To parody an ad for John Kerry, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the future of America, and one of them is that election day is coming and the Republicans still have a chance to win. In a sane world, this race would not even be close. What is it like to live in the days before a disaster? History provides examples, but none are just right. What was it like to be a Roman citizen hanging out at the garum shop when Caligula purged the Senate? Was that you strolling with careful elegance in Unter den Linden mocking the Bavarian brownshirts? Or you, writing poems when the one-eyed General crossed from Morocco? Or waiting for your husband to come home from the Santiago factories in 1972? People are even starting to come up with names for what we’re living through, names like Sheldon Wolin’s “inverted totalitarianism,” but these still rely on European models. The coming disaster will be all-American, red, white, and blue, and be ours alone. History gives us our unique lives and our unique chance to screw up.
I live in denial a lot. As best I can, I continue doing the everyday things, preparing with great half-hearted confusion for the academic job market, to live for the future. I read the newspapers, the magazines, and the blogs with the awareness that much of my mind is desperately trying to hide elsewhere. A headline in Friday’s Times, “Can we survive another Florida?” Did we survive the first one? The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott observed that the feeling of a breakdown in adult life is actually the memory of a real breakdown that occurred earlier. A healthy democracy unlike a healthy psyche requires that we forget our earlier breakdowns, if only to have them again and again. At the end of each election we’re supposed to emerge confirmed in our faith in the process even if we’re unhappy with the result.
That, at least, is the liberal assumption behind the Democrats’ 2000 capitulation to fraud and the odd complacency that still exists among the Shrums, Clintons and other elites of the Democratic party. If not now, then 2008. But really, if not now, when? What if all the libels, brazen lies, gerrymandering, and fake voter registration groups that tear up the cards of Democrats are a shift from the symbolic violence of games to real violence in a real war where anything goes and not even the past will be safe if the enemy wins? Where I sit, the Republican party seems the greatest actual threat to American democracy, since the Republicans are inside a system they manipulate but no longer believe in. Its power base is composed of people who cannot forget their earlier losses: the solid Dixiecrat base that conflates the Confederacy with the grand old cause of Cromwell’s Puritan Republic (see Newt Gingrich’s latest novel) and feels betrayed by the Democrats over the Civil Rights movement, the populist opponents of the income tax who cannot forget 1913 [get the right date for establishment of graduated income tax], the Nixonians who believe that their man’s only crime was getting caught. These people are playing for keeps, and they’re not playing anymore.
Whenever I write something like this, I hear the snickers of my comfortable New York friends, as though I’m tacitly advocating extremism in defense of liberty. Zealotry and liberalism cohabit uneasily and cause paralysis. Who would imperil their best selves to save a creaky process? I’ll be the first to admit that in the weeks before the disaster I looked at the fashion ads in the New Yorker‘s Politics Issue with sighs of pleasure and relief.
Date: 10/18/2004 2:14:49 AM Eastern Standard Time
I’m a bit more optimistic, though it’s not clear why. The weekend polls don’t look so hot. Of course, my official position is I don’t believe in the polls. In 2000, seeing the glint in my eye, Nick Confessore gave me the password to a site that had some kind of top-secret state-by-state polling. I lost the password, then I asked for it again. The point is, I was pretty big on the polls, and a lot of good it did me.
This time around, I thought, Well, at least Zogby knows what he’s doing. He’s up in Utica, a place near my heart, and he hires these nice old ladies to do the polling calls, pumping money back into the upstate economy, and he almost alone had Gore up in the national vote in 2000, and he already had Kerry up last week, which felt right to me. Now he has Kerry down by 4. So forget Zogby. He probably pays those nice old ladies in soup.
But there’s something about the polls, about how wrong they always are. Four years ago I read all the campaign books ever written, and the scene that stuck with me most out of all of them was the one in which George McGovern sat down with Hunter Thompson after getting trounced by Nixon by far more than anyone had predicted, and Thompson, who’d spent the year betting on all the electoral outcomes with McGovern’s staff, had all these theories about what had happened—for one thing, McGovern’s initial nominee for VP was Thomas Eagleton, who, the Republicans were pretty quick to inform everyone, had several times checked into a mental hospital and been treated with electro-shock therapy—and so anyway Thompson had all these theories, and so did McGovern, who after all had done some wondering after the vote, but finally McGovern said, “You know, Hunter, no one really knows what’s going on out there.” And if you read all the campaign histories in chronological order, you really feel how the technologies of voter prediction are improving and improving, but also that nothing actually changes—no one knew what was happening then, and no one knows now. I just finished reading Stephen Elliott’s new campaign book, which is very good, and he also ends up with a scene at the end in which his friend Josh Bearman says the exact same thing. All the polls are wrong. Nothing is known.
And yet, in retrospect, everything always seems so obvious—or maybe not so obvious as so explainable. Well, Gore ran a terrible campaign, I suppose we knew that even while he was running it. But did we know how gullible people were? Did we know there was some weird kind of attraction in Bush’s bluster—that people would actually vote for the mean little kid who could never back it up? In retrospect a lot of people blame Gore’s schizophrenia during the debates—and also Nader. (Incidentally, when did it become the consensus view that Nader actually cost Gore Florida? I always thought that people who voted for Nader would otherwise not have voted at all, or voted libertarian.) But Bush’s schizophrenia during these debates is not likely to stick to him. And now people are saying—in part to explain the Kerry dip in the polls—that it was his outing of Mary Cheney. That would be a great story, if Kerry went down for perceived homophobia.
Which pretty strange comment, incidentally—I don’t know whether they’re saying now that it was ad-libbed or one of Kerry’s geniuses had planned it—does get into some of the interest these things retain on a human level. There is such an incredible amount of scientific armature now to these campaigns—this is especially what everyone was saying after 2000, that polling technology and all the other social-science methodologies were allowing campaigns to be so effective that from here on out all elections would essentially be 50-50—that you start wondering why they can’t just scientifically manufacture a candidate. But you can’t! If you try to raise one, as Al Gore Sr. did, he turns out real nervous, and if you try to not raise one—well, actually, I don’t know how they raised W., but wouldn’t we all have been better off if they’d hired a governess and taught him some basic math and verbal skills, and French? So if you can’t raise them and you can’t bionically engineer them, you should at least run some kind of reality tv show, The Next Great Presidential Candidate. I guess the punchline is that the party primaries are that show. But in that case the show is rigged. And anyway they should still do a show.
As for the polls, I keep thinking that they’re like that scene outside the bar in A Bend in the River—”I saw what looked like a drunken pushing and shoving, a brawl with slaps, turn to methodical murder, as though the first wound and the first spurt of blood had made the victim something less than a man, and compelled the wounder to take the act of destruction to the end.”
Well, not quite like that, but, you know, people do like a winner.
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