Sunday, October 09, 2016

Our Postmodern Election(s)

Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton at the second presidential debate
at Washington University in St. Louis.
Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times        
The Presidential election is less than a month away, and as J's Theater readers are probably aware, unlike the 2008 election or even the 2012 edition, I have hardly written anything about it. I could chalk it up to the farce that I've found the entire campaign season to be since early 2015, and to exhaustion after the last eight years of political paralysis and crisis in Washington (I did and continue to support President Barack Obama, though I have many criticisms of his policies), but more than anything, I wanted to move away from writing about electoral politics, which I had done quite a bit during the final, horrible years of the George W. Bush administration, as well as before and during the 2008 and 2012 elections. It's hard, however, not to write something about the debacle underway, so here are a few non-systematic thoughts. I should begin by saying that I supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, and will vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton in November.

The Postmodern Election
Postmodernism is dead, long live postmodernism. During the 2004 election, journalist Ron Suskind famously reported in the October 17, 2004 issue of  The New York Times Magazine on the chasm between what an anonymous source linked to the Bush termed the "fact-based community" and the faith based, epistemically closed world of turn of the 21st century conservatives around the sitting president:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

One way of reading this statement is an assertion of raw Nietzschean reshaping of the truth to the dictates of power. It would not be out of place in any dictatorship, or, to be less strident, any real political power center anywhere.

Another way to look at it is as postmodernism in its contemporary and diffuse, political form. We now live in a society in which multiple, conflicting "truths," which is to say subjective or discursively shaped impressions of reality, do not and cannot cancel each other out. Instead, much like postmodern stylistic antecedents of the late 1970s and early 1980s onwards, they sit side by side, often awkwardly and, unlike their literary and artistic predecessors, often antagonistically, rendering any possibility of a unifying, ideologically coherent master understanding or reading of reality not impossible, but difficult and often futile. Our politics now consist of contrasting regimes of truth, some as manufactured as any work of fiction on a library bookshelf, which hold sway and constitute "reality," or the kinds of "new realities" that Suskind's interlocutor was talking about, thereby allow agents of that reality--Congress, corporations, what have you--to reshape reality as they see fit.

While it's easy to point the finger at Fox News as the main progenitor of this situation, critic Bob Somerby has shown on his Daily Howler site how, since the 1990s in particular, the legacy--supposedly "liberal"--media have been repeatedly at fault, nearly sinking Bill Clinton's presidency with the fake "Whitewater" and "Travelgate"s scandals, their embrace of "truthiness" and creating false equivalencies between candidates such as George W. Bush and Al Gore, while also penning damaging, untrue stories or inflating created narratives (those Gore "sighs") about the latter candidate, thereby helping to ruin his chances of victory in 2000; and vitally aiding in the push to send US troops into the debacle that we now know as a the Iraq War. These are only a few of the many examples from the last 20 years, but the process has been underway for quite some time.

I hate to say because it represents real cynicism, but I think this situation is only going to get worse no matter who wins, and it will require a deep and thorough reckoning from people on all sides to think through how ideologically requisite critiques of the status quo and the political, social and economic spheres, which is to say, attempts to understand and challenge the dominant discourse and the systems that constitute it, can function without a complete dismissal of any baseline of factuality or, to put another way, any recourse to a foundation of empirical and coherent truths. As far as this election goes, it seems, it's a wash.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders was the candidate the Occupy Movement made possible; he was, to some extent, the one who, in political and economic, if not symbolic and social terms, they--or we--had been waiting for.  Given the deep vein of frustration about the slow and unequal recovery, wage stagnation for most workers and student loan debt for millennials, and the steadily widening post-Great Recession wealth gap, Sanders spoke to an enthusiastic constituency on the left. Indeed he went further than nearly any major candidate I've seen in recent years in offering a vision and proposing policies that would fundamentally reform and transform our economic system for the better. It was, to paraphrase, Noam Chomsky, a kind of New Deal 2.0., and badly needed. At the same time, however, Sanders sometimes came off as a one-note herald--important though that one-note was!--who did not seem to grasp how important and necessary it was to take a more intersectional approach to the country's pressing issues and challenges.

His relentless pursuit of addressing economic inequality, the rigged tax system, corporate power, and Wall Street's manipulation of Congress, was and remains invigorating, but he also has seemed blind at times to our longer and more problematic history, including the basic fact that Black Americans in particular have never started out or been on the same economic, political or social footing as White Americans, despite all attempts by the the GOP, Libertarians, some Democrats, and others, to dehistoricize our past. (He did attempt to respond to and incorporate some of the important critiques put forward by the Black Lives Matter movement.) To put it another way, he critiqued the structural depredations of late US and global capitalism, but did not always appear able to articulate how structural racism, misogyny, etc. have intersectionally inflected the economic situation we find ourselves in today. Also, having witnessed now for most of my adult life how our political system works, it was also clear to me that, like most previous progressive Democratic candidates, Sanders wasn't going to surmount the hurdles erected by the legacy media or the Democratic National Committee, beholden as both are to Wall Street and global corporations. Yet even in failure Sanders' candidacy has proved to be invaluable. He was there to push the party, the discourse, and his main opponent leftward, and to some extent, his efforts have worked.

Hillary Clinton
So, instead of Sanders, we have Hillary Clinton. She is brilliant; she is accomplished; she has a long record of public and governmental service. She would--and likely will--become the first woman president in the history of the US. That will be a major achievement, particularly in symbolic and historical terms; it's easy to forget that only 100 years ago, women in the US could not even vote in presidential elections. As New York's junior US Senator Clinton voted reliably along socially liberal lines, but  then as she has again and again during this campaign, she has shown that her initial instincts are usually primarily neoliberal in economic terms and neoconservative in global interventionist terms. (The recent Wikileaks document dump of emails to her campaign chief John Podesta suggest that her core beliefs are decidedly pro-market and "open borders," and that she views progressive positions as nothing more than a "public face" to gain political and electoral support.) One reason I absolutely could not support Clinton in 2008 was because of her vote for the Iraq War, against all better judgment and evidence, and the Patriot Act. Little in her campaign suggests to me that she has completely reoriented her thinking about the path she has helped to lead us down. And yet, other than voting for Jill Stein, who will not win, or not voting at all, what choice do we have but to vote for her, and for every possible progressive candidate running for Congress, and then demand that they not reprise the 1990s or early 2000s?

Moreover, her history on race and racism leave a great deal to be desired. Beyond her role in the Clinton administration's triangulatory economic and social policies, which often had a racial--and racist--component. More than a few commentators have noted Clinton's adoption of conservative language pathologizing black adolescent criminals in the 1990s, and her support of the odious Welfare Reform legislation, Three Strikes laws, and so forth, and her failure to speak out initially about Stop and Frisk and Broken Windows policies. In fact, I can recall how her husband left his federal judicial court nominee Lani Guinier twisting in the wind because of conservative screeching about her eminently reasonable approach to the voting system, at which point Hillary Clinton cut her longtime friend loose as well, greeting her with the casual and dismissive "Hey Kiddo" when they ran into each other in the White House.

As I acknowledge the reality of Hillary Clinton's record, I want to aver that I believe she will govern along mostly along the lines laid out by President Obama, who has enacted far more socially progressive legislation and some economically progressive policies than he is given credit for, and if she improve and advance some of his signature policies and goals, like climate change and renewable and clean energy, a Medicare-for-all or public option for the Affordable Care Act, closing Guantánamo and winding down the wars in the Middle East, while also reforming the prison-industrial complex, rethinking immigration policy to make it fairer and not just another element on global corporations' wish lists, making college free or subsidizing public higher education, especially community colleges, more fully, and addressing police and state violence against black and brown people, she will be more transformative than she ever imagined. What's clear is that she won't have to lay the foundation, since it's already there. Her major challenge will be to deal with the recalcitrant and ideologically purist--extreme--Republicans in Congress. Given the ongoing collapse of the Trump campaign, she might even have a Democrat Congress to work with, at least for two years, so she had better be ready to hit the ground running.

Donald J. Trump
Under the circumstances of most presidential elections since 1944 or so, a candidate who launched his formal campaign with hateful, racist, and lie-ridden attacks on a friendly, neighboring country and ally, its people and people who have immigrated from it and their descendants, would probably have met enough censure to drop out of the race immediately.* That did not happen with Donald J. Trump, however. Instead, as became clear by the middle of summer 2015, to a large degree because of pockets of dissatisfaction and rage on the right, and because of his incessant lying and hateful rhetoric against Mexico, Muslims, China, immigrants, Latinxs, Black people, women, war heroes, the disabled, and his fellow primary candidates, as well as his outrageous, unworkable, substance-free policies, like building a wall on the US's southern border or rounding up Muslims and putting them in detention camps, he was soon polling as the Republican to beat. Infamously, a roundtable of media commentators, whose performance around Trump's run has been atrocious over the last year and a half, laughed out loud as Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) tried to warn them that Trump might win. He got the last laugh but we got Trump as the Republican nominee.

There has been a great deal of commentary about Trump's candidacy since his launch, about his support and supporters, and so on, and I will not rehash it here in full. What I will say is that he has run his campaign, beginning with the GOP primary through the general contest against Clinton, like a reality show, which shouldn't be surprising since his fame today primarily derives from his successful show The Apprentice (which I watched, often with some amusement in its initial years). What does seem surprising to some pundits, however, is that his political persona derives from the simulacrum he presented there. Instead of a business leader or entertainer-as-candidate, however, we have gotten The (Bullying, White Supremacist, Lying Narcissistic, SociopathicAuthoritarian. (Is there any question why Vladimir Putin spurs Trump's feelings of bromance?) This new reality show, in which we're all playing part, whether we want to or not, has excited a core of white mostly male voters whose support of him tracks well with people polling strongly on feelings of racial resentment and backlash, His quasi-populist proposals, involving revoking free trade, tearing up the US's NATO commitments, and limited family leave, have also appealed voters unhappy with Clinton's candidacy, and with the two victories and tenure of President Barack Obama.

In the case of Trump, the media have been his major abettors, even more so than the Republican Party, which, in real time, took its time coming around to supporting him. There are quite a few Republicans who still refuse to back Trump; one, John Kasich, was one of the leading contenders for the Republican slot, and had he won probably be 10 points ahead of Clinton at this point. Not just Fox News, but CNN and MSNBC, which I've taken to calling Trump Central, turned their screens over to him for hours at a time. None could be bothered, for example, to examine in a sustained way at his tax plan, which would balloon the deficit and federal debt and widen the inequality gulf without resulting positive Keynesian effects, or, until recently, deeply investigate the fact that he probably had gamed the federal tax system and not paid taxes for years, as New York Times bombshell underlined. In fact, it has taken nearly the mainstream media nearly the entirety of the election season to investigate with any doggedness Trump's multiple corporate fiascoes and reliance on taxpayer dollars to keep his bankrupt businesses afloat, his allegedly criminal interactions with Cuba, his flawed and potentially illegal shenanigans involving his foundation, corporate activity and campaign, his sham of a university, and so much more.

His arrogance and self-absorption have finally blown in his face, however. During his first debate with Hillary Clinton two weeks ago, he was the clear loser in terms of substance and style. In it she came off as calm, unflappable, eminently knowledgeable, moderate Democratic politician prepared to handle anything he or the moderator, Lester Holt, threw her way, and to step into the presidency tomorrow. Trump, however, descended quickly into petulance, talking and at times yelling at and over her, mansplaining, uttering patches of peeved gibberish, and finally expressed exasperation that he was faltering against so fully against someone he had clearly underestimated. The debate crystallized what many people, I included, already knew about the two candidates. The Vice Presidential debate last week appeared to boost his running mate, the ultraconservative Indiana Governor Mike Pence, more so than him.

The true showstopper, however, might be the Washington Post's publication on Friday of a 2005 Access Hollywood audio and videotape featuring a live-mic'd conversation between Trump and show host (and George W. Bush's and Jeb Bush's first cousin) Billy Bush, in which Trump utters misogynistic vulgarities and appears to admit to sexual assaults with impunity, saying that he has regularly "kissed" women without their permission, because he is famous and can get away with it, that he has even "grab[bed] 'em by the pussy." Similar recordings, from his appearances on The Howard Stern Show, also have been released. The resulting firestorm was swift and has steadily grown, though he issued a videotaped non-apology early Saturday morning.

Trump's campaign is looking increasingly doomed, with dozens of Republican officials denouncing him, renouncing support for him, and urging him to drop out of the race. Trump will probably hold onto his diehard base, but his support from educated white women voters, whom he must have for any chance of winning, looks increasingly dim. I should note that he's on state ballots across the country no matter what; the cutoff date was September 1. Should he drop out or should his running mate, Gov. Pence, step down, the Republican Party, through the RNC, would be tasked with finding a replacement, either by convening all the national delegates or via an executive board vote. The leading candidate would like be Ted Cruz.

Ratf*cking & Dirty Tricks
One element of the election that I don't think has gained enough coverage is the use of dirty tricks, not just by the two campaigns, but by foreign countries. As we learned this past summer, the Democratic National Committee's servers and accounts were hacked, possibly by Russian state or private actors, or some combination of both, and other major, non-corporate hacks have occurred as well. Information dumps, many of them laundered by Wikileaks, have dribbled out periodically, with one of the most damaging concerning the machinations the DNC former head Debbie Wasserman Schultz's took to ensure Sanders did not win the nomination. As I note above, I figured from the campaign's start that, based on who runs and funds the Democratic Party, this was a foregone conclusion, call it cynicism, realism, pragmatism, or nihilism as you see fit.

In any case, it managed to enrage many Sanders supporters in advance of the Democratic convention, in Philadelphia, from which Clinton nevertheless emerged with a noticeable bump in the polls. The recent emails, which appear to be authentic, again portray Clinton in a bad light. I'll be interested to see what we learn after the election's conclusion about foreign influence and domestic dirty tricks--or ratf*cking as it was called during the Nixon campaign; I imagine it's far more extensive than most voters, or even many journalists, envision. (A Nixon operative, Roger Stone, is closely allied with Trump's campaign.) What's been a bit dismaying is how easily people seem to fall for such things, but then the people behind trickery of this sort tend to understand how human nature and our emotions, even when dealing with obvious propaganda, work, while most of us, unfortunately, do not.

The US Senate
Most predictions I've seen suggest that the GOP will retain the House of Representatives, though were Clinton to ride a wave-type election, it could flip. Only a year ago what appeared more likely was that the Democrats would take back the Senate by a slender margin, thereby enabling a newly elected Democrat's plans, or giving them the power to frustrate a Republican's. The Democrats currently hold 44 seats, with 2 held by independents who caucus with them, and the Republicans hold 4, meaning that the Democrats would need to gain 4 seats to control the Senate if they win the Presidency, with the Democratic VP breaking the 50-50 tie, or 55 seats if they do not win at the top of the ticket. 10 Democratic seats were up for grabs, versus 24 Republican ones.

Right now, those four net seats seem tenuous, though not out of reach. Democratic candidates in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Pennsylvania seem poised to win and take seats from incumbent Republicans. In Nevada, however, the Democratic seat held by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is in currently leaning towards the Republican candidate, Congressman Joe Heck. This would mean only a net gain of 3 seats, and not enough to allow the VP to cast tie votes. Should Nevada, which was trending mildly toward the GOP until recently turn more blue, Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic candidate, could slip, and seal the Democrats' control. Another seat on the line belongs to New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, who has been leading her challenger, Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan. A recent Ayotte gaffe, in which she called Donald Trump a "good model" for children, along with a shift toward the Democratic ticket, could send her home on November 8. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight site suggests that it could either be 50-50 or 51-49 on behalf of the GOP at this point, but again, the volatility of events and the electorate's feelings about the choices before them suggest that even with the best models we won't know until November.

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