Thursday, 1st November 2018
On next week’s US midterm election:
1. Advance polls are meaningless. Remember two years ago. Everyone has an advanced poll, and will claim accuracy after the fact depending on what happens. Yes, there is a science of sampling and extrapolating – and there is also lots of lying, lots of avoidance of answering polls (I do that), and lots of both wishful and ominous thinking, all designed to motivate action, either to vote or to not vote, depending on the desired outcome. Advance polls are rhetorical tools, not crystal balls. It’s best to ignore them all.
2. Everyone votes. There is almost 100% voting record in the US. As Sartre said, we are condemned to be free, so choosing to not be free is also a choice. And choosing to not vote is also a choice, which amounts to a vote. Sometimes, that vote is for “I don’t care”. Sometimes it is for “I got too busy and couldn’t get there.” Sometimes for “The status quo is fine with me.” Sometimes for “The bad stuff doesn’t directly affect me so I’m not really motivated to do anything.” And sometimes for “I don’t think my vote makes a difference anyway in this place, since its already so weighted one way or the other.” And, of course, lots of other things too.
Now of course, there are active campaigns to disenfranchise people. Some try to vote and are not allowed. These too are recorded as attempts, not in the final voting tally of course, but they add to the record of bias for a particular place. Georgia is particularly egregious, with very active campaigns to reject legitimate voters, because the Rep. candidate is also the elections commissioner (this, by the way, is something that makes people in other countries just shake their heads and wonder whether the UN should send election observers into the US to report on elections irregularities).
Anyway, the point is that even when a vote doesn’t count in one election, it adds to the understanding, and resistance, in that place. That’s unsatisfying, obviously, when extremists end up in office, but justice has short, medium, and long arcs, and all need attention. None of this means that people shouldn’t get out to the polls and vote, just that we need to ask why “non”voters don’t go to the polls. Some of these answers are easy – draconian laws designed to keep specific groups of people from the polls. Some of the answers are not so easy. While I’m not sure we could go as far as Australia and require everyone to vote, I don’t see why we couldn’t automatically register everyone to vote when they come of age, and also believe the science about how many people fraudulently attempt to vote (hardly any).
3. Even more than the 2016 election, this election shows the logical absurdity of one foundational concept of American life – the concept of individualism. We still think that the individual is some magic thing that initiates action, ideas, and everything else. We all know that there are influences in media, but it is part of the American DNA to think that the individual synthesizes all of the currents of thought, of influence, and turns them into something pure and original. We want individual freedom. We want individual choice, and somehow in the exercise of that there is supposed to be creativity, innovation, all that is good in the world. That is the key, and that’s what elections are supposed to do – be the exercise of individual freedom of choice.
This is nonsense, and it becomes more obviously nonsense every day. If we added up the individual choices of leaders in this country, we would have an entirely different array of policies and priorities than we do now. The majority agrees with the idea of universal health care, with reasonable restrictions on guns, with a number of other things. Right-wing extremism is a minority, although a sizable one. And, given the nature of fear and hate, it is an easy minority to manipulate and fan into a bonfire. Razor-thin margins of victory are not seen for what they are, but as 100% mandates for extremist politics.
In other words, individual choice does not lead anywhere, and does not synthesize and focus the world into anything significant. It is not the beginning of anything, it is a component in everything. Those who are loudly defending individual freedom are, in general, covering for a political position, and not recognizing that individual action is only one moment in the ways in which freedom is constituted. Individual choice does not cause freedom, nor is it magically unleashed in the context of freedom.
All these people who claim that they weren’t free before because of international trade agreements (“The Chinese are stealing our jobs!”), or because of immigrants (“Immigrants are stealing our jobs, and attacking us, and draining our social services!”), or because of some group or other in the US (“liberals are preventing me from praying!”), or some other boogeyman, don’t understand freedom. Or, they do understand it and are being disingenuous – it’s a political weapon to claim that you aren’t free, when in fact you just weren’t willing to make a choice. Or, when the social or economic forces that constrain you are in fact the same ones that constrain the people you think are the cause of all your woes. Or, when in fact you’re doing just fine and the claims about having no freedom are in fact just the claims a free person can make when they have time on their hands, a keyboard, and an audience.
No matter which way this election goes, it will not be a magical insight into the free will of the people. Unless, of course, we keep in mind #2 – everyone votes. But we won’t.
4. The midterm election will change nothing. I don’t mean that there will be no governmental structures that will change – they might. But we had gridlock before, and we’ll have gridlock after. If the House and the Senate changes sides, it will not stop the President’s tweets, and indeed, it may accelerate them, as part of the narrative is about grievance and threat. That would only get stronger. And if the House and Senate do not change hands, it will be taken as a mandate for more extremist action. Either way, we get more of what we’ve had before.
5. The midterm election will change everything. It is a culmination. On the right, it is the test-case for every trial balloon, every dog whistle, every presidential statement that went too far, was sorta kinda retracted but not really, was turned back on those who were outraged by the latest whatever (“No, YOU’RE the racist!”). And, they don’t have to win, just not lose badly. It will be spun as a vindication, as a reason to go even further. There is nowhere to go but deeper for the most committed to the fascist cause.
On the left, it will be mile 25 of the marathon, or it will feel like it. If results are lacklustre, will people have the energy to keep fighting, to stagger to the end? What’s the alternative? For some, there’s no choice. If you’re black, or Hispanic, or trans, or any of the above and a women, or otherwise in the cross-hairs of tweets and statements meant to put you on the other side of the divide, you have to keep going. But what about the allies? What about those who don’t feel the sting directly? Do people double down, or do they turn to their own small joys and compartmentalize everything else? We will see.
And if things do turn out well for the left? Well, probably renewed hope that the Mueller commission will be able to chip away at the crime syndicate (no, the President is not going to get impeached, not ever, but he doesn’t have to if everyone in the syndicate gets picked off and indicted, including his kids), that some House committees will change leadership and therefore their priorities (I’m looking at you, House Intelligence Committee), and that some new rules of conduct will get put in place to prevent the most egregious behaviours in the future. This is the legendary “checks and balances” of the American system that everyone hopes actually exists and is not just a fairy-tale for schoolkids.
6. Thanksgiving this year is going to be sullen and grumpy, no matter what.