January 9, 2021

The Tensionpanning for hope in a very angry America

Mix, muddle, and stir:

And therefore, if the established powers are sensitive and well-informed, if they are visibly trying to meet popular feeling, and actually removing some of the causes of dissatisfaction, no matter how slowly they proceed, provided they are seen to be proceeding, they have little to fear. It takes stupendous and persistent blundering, plus almost infinite tactlessness, to start a revolution from below. Palace revolutions, interdepartmental revolutions, are a different matter. So, too, is demagogy. That stops at relieving the tension by expressing the feeling. But the statesman knows that such relief is temporary, and if indulged too often, unsanitary. He, therefore, sees to it that he arouses no feeling which he cannot sluice into a program that deals with the facts to which the feelings refer.

I know your pain. I know your hurt. … We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel, but go home, and go home in peace.

And lest we forget there is poetry in our language:

demagogue, n.
In ancient times, a leader of the people; a popular leader or orator who espoused the cause of the people against any other party in the state.
In bad sense: A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious popular orator.
Oxford English Dictionary

Bookends.

That this week’s political events bother me comes as an unwelcome and humbling surprise. These events were symbolic. They were photogenic. They were dramatic. They were shallow and incendiary. In short, media schlock of the lowest order. Fodder for newsmen, dross for historians.

I suspect these events will matter little or at all, beyond our shared recollection, in a month or two. I see nothing of material national importance that has suffered real damage to hold our frenetic attention. Apart from the lives lost, which will surely bring a great deal of true pain for those personally connected, there is little to mourn as a matter of public affairs, distinct from solemn private ones. Even if Trump is somehow removed for it, that is a difference of something less than two weeks. At running rate, 35,000 Americans may die of the virus during that time.

The blow falls instead on our perceptions. It defiles whatever feelings of sanctity we may have left for the federal government, or at least its iconic seat, where the blessed work is supposed to get done. There were people in chambers of Congress who did not belong there, were not invited, and showed themselves in by force—laughably little force—and a lot of brouhaha. They trashed the place. Like Jello Biafra pissing in a church.

Because they lost an election and preferred to accept a version of events in which they’d won. Because they had been pointed that way. But having made it so far, they seemed as surprised as anyone they hadn’t been stopped. They evidenced no particular plan from there, nor any capacity to concoct one, as we’ve seen from college kids in Hong Kong. Especially since the legislators they may have liked to roust had long since rousted themselves. So they posed for pictures. Or, as we say in the biz, evidence.

Thanks to them, I am finding I harbored more sentimentalism for the Capitol than I thought. More than I now like to admit. On those hidden heartstrings, the crowd struck its petulant, haphazard chord, like a ruddy, infantile drunk banging on the saloon piano as the sheriff drags him toward the swinging doors.

I am glad the presidential election is over, and that someone else will be president this year. I don’t particularly look forward to Biden personally, and I am already tired of hearing him speak. But I look forward to passably competent administration. Especially considering all the things that have lost the front page to the District of Columbia.

Biden will have the bureaucratic machinery of his party, a big hat of Approved Persons from which to draw names for this and that, the kind of which only the mainline Dems and GOP credibly possess. He won’t fill gaps with unqualified relations, or sulk back to reluctant and bewildered allies for subs. He won’t leave desks in the bowels of critical public apparatus vacant for months on end. There will still be scandals. Likely the trite, familiar kind.

I find no bliss in this brand of competence, or in many ends I expect it to serve. I’ve had a look at Joe’s record, and it is what it is. His brand of constructiveness, on the matters I’ve studied, bespeaks a deeply entrenched reflex to lick a thumb, stick it above his head, and take off, smiling and shaking hands on the way, caring little whence the wind blows, so long as it blows. He’s been around long enough to make mistakes, inevitably. But some of those worst are the pressing problems of today, our contorted criminal justice system among them. ‘Twas a time when “law and order” was his cringey brand, snatched from Republicans who ran not as fast when all heard the whistle.

In throwing open his party’s administrative stable, Biden will welcome its fashions, pettinesses, fealties, corruptions, debts, and patrons back into government, too. That is the way the big hat—patronage—works, at least since Andrew Jackson. I do not look forward to learning what other hopeful expectations I may have left, just the same, by means of the inevitable disappointments that will bring them to light. Obama 2.0, indeed.

I regret the encouragement his inauguration will lend those in the worn leather seats of Democratic Party power, who tapped Biden the Bland before the rest of us got a choice. I have not enjoyed reading the ivy-consulting-think-tank-bank bios of so many of his appointees, or musing on how much they’ve made “speaking” to firms they will now ostensibly regulate. I suppose he may rehire some friends of mine, lower down, to put on a real class of 2016 reunion. But I’m not allowed to count that in his favor.

In short, I know American political par, and watching an old man swat and putt his way to an even zero hardly inspires Hope for Great Change. Even if blue has increasingly been my color, when I have had to make the wretched choice.

My upshot this round, such as it is, is a renewed capacity to feel safe ignoring government more of the time. Such a restoration, from bad to bluster back to bad again, might represent progress, if you draw the timeline very short. But for real, giddy optimism here, you have see the last four years as an act of God, or of the Devil, unrelated to that which is now restored. A rare union of the blatantly ahistorical and the intuitively wrong.

I fear, most of all, that the party of the victors will take the vanquishing of Trump, Notorious Personality, as psychoactive substitute for victory over many meaningful conditions that fed his rise. That they will personalize politics, as they tend to do whenever convenient, and conclude that dethroning the demagogue—in the bad sense—means banishing all the grievances he so ably channeled, and so completely failed to address, back into the shadows. That we will go back to hearing “the mob” through the Greek chorus in the mind of every college boy, this one included, rather than from any actual mob.

Not all of Trump’s tributaries were racist, fascist, or crazy. Conflating all his voters with the nuttiest denies earnest people recognition at a basic level, no matter what their proportion of the total may be, or whether it’s rising or falling. The result is sober, pragmatic, understandably pissed off people who cannot feel heard. This is a slop in our politics that repeatedly lashes back and binds our gears.

There is no Single Unified Theory of Trump Support. Even among those grazing in a daze about the chambers of Congress this week, one would doubtless find wide variation, both in what Trump seems to them to be and why they support it, if indeed they all do. But among Trump’s supporters—in their millions—there are those who desperately sought, and rapturously celebrated, a politician on the national stage finally willing to name and declaim just how much intolerable shit the disposable heroes of American labor and war have had to take for the last half a century.

Many of these folks were relieved—some even felt delivered—to hear a voice expressing their harsh truth in a manner coarse enough to fell through the callouses where their anger used to be. Others, of course, were happy to see that rage lashed by chance to a vehicle towing their preferences: social, financial, idiosyncratic, all of the above. But populism in a party does not dissolve populism away. No material political conditions have agreed to walk off and die.

There are whole families in this country, once self-sufficient and proud, now cast out of every empowered vision of progress. They cannot reach even the first rungs of the ladder out of the mud, except by impressive luck. Having slid down the great slime slope in the back alley of the Market, in their own time or by accident of birth, they find themselves in the great economic POW pit of our society. There they wait, learning to enjoy advertisements as entertainment, until one of the flock of carrion industries circling above—finance, food, medical, housing, justice, education, salvation—picks the last fiscal or political gristle from their bones. All to the tune of “allocative efficiencies” or other nebulous principles, ever popular at great heights, near the apex of predation.

Temp and contract labor. Evaporated pensions and savings. Medical bills and opioid addiction. Degenerate foodstuff. Payday loans. Title debt. Lotteries, gambling, and rampant gamification. Contract sales and “innovative” mortgages. Student loans at predatory institutions. The latest crypto scam. Second-tier banks, phones, homes, cars, and religious observance. No mercy, or justice, after the damage is done.

It recalls nothing so well as a B-film knockoff of our country’s vicious dejection of former slaves after Reconstruction—and former soldiers after pretty much any war—as America relaid its cornerstones of prosperity and security elsewhere. Now it has nearly rebuilt itself again, without the need of the local 8-to-5 working man, “white” though he may be, former conspirator in racial and nativist suppression though he may be, veteran though he may be. At the top, superfluous men. At the bottom, same, but in squalor.

In short, real Springsteen shit. The verses, not the chorus.

These grievances are popular because they are populous. No single law can be fingered as smoking gun, like the execution orders of dictators abroad. It’s in the practical sinews between the laws that a group was defined, and as a defined group, damned. We judge the rules by the game played on the field. We judge them by the score.

But for all this, I can remain mutely optimistic, on tentative balance. Because there is a chance, a fleeting chance, that we might have a government that does things again. The other great paroxysm of our politics, the fantasy of Total Victory, of domination by one party, free of “obstruction”—bipartisan rather than factional compromise—has come to pass, flaunting all notion of karma in representative government. I would not be surprised to see us spit it out, and quick. But while it lasts: Deliver or die. Politically, I mean, recent events notwithstanding.

We all know the issues. Healthcare. Immigration. Tax reform. Drug policy. Electoral engineering. Law enforcement. Education. Since it’s Democrats, climate change.

Don’t get the wrong hopes up, I tell myself. Reading any bill Congress manages to pass will be impossible—I have neither that much paper nor that much time. Snippets picked out by the better press and Wikipedia will disappoint. But any possible return to reelection by legislative record, rather than partisan fight card, is hopeful. There is no longer pointing vaguely across the aisle. There is only pointing at one’s name in the record, or on the bill. The framers actually provided for this kind of accountability, as opposed to the kind we’ve had, which they hastily theorized away.

At this point, I don’t care which chatting club of ideologues likes it best. I don’t even care if we keep it long-term. I don’t even really care how riddled with whose donors’ interests it may be, as long as it works. If it makes it off the lot, we can keep it running.

Meanwhile, there’s Americans bleeding down here. The way they see it, they’re running out of what to lose. I see it, too.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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