Sunday, October 29, 2017

Worse Than Fiction

“No one yet knows how all this will pan out. My hunch is that the liberal media are helping Trump greatly by setting expectations at rock bottom. Any sign that this isn’t, after all, the end of days is going to look like success.”
—Historian/columnist Niall Ferguson, writing in the The Times (UK) in January
This blog is feeling a bit neglected. Posts have become fewer and far between, and there is a simple reason for that. Over the past year and a half, writing about politics has become much less satisfying than writing fiction. And, yes, that was a not-so-sly way of once again bringing up my new novel, Lautaro’s Spear, which is still available from fine online booksellers everywhere. Christmas is fast approaching, and nobody who gets a book as a gift ever returns it because it is the wrong size.

Here is the question that currently preoccupies me. Was political conversation always so dreary or am I myself only noticing it now? Yes, the most recent American presidential election was extremely unusual in all sorts of ways, and it does bring words to mind like unprecedented and atypical. The election did not, however, occur in a vacuum. The divisions that brought it about how been roiling for some time.

The really unsatisfying thing about discussing politics these days is that there is less and less common ground on which to base a conversation with people coming from different political mindsets. In my actual real life—as opposed to conversations that happen entirely online—I find that people either want to avoid politics altogether or else they want to simply go on and about how awful President Trump is. Personally, I am less interested in who can come up with the best enunciation of his awfulness than I am in understanding how exactly he managed to get elected.

One thing that does not help is that people who are interested in politics habitually phrase their comments in terms of principles and fairness but then apply them completely differently in different situations. In other words, they are selective about their high-minded arguments entirely to justify the outcome they would like see. I will give you an example.

After the Brexit referendum last June, I heard many people arguing that the result was illegitimate because, even though the referendum won the popular vote, it was not fair for London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—which all voted to remain in the European Union—to be bound by the wishes of masses of English voters outside London. Then, after the presidential election in November, I heard some of the same people making the argument that Trump’s election was not legitimate because (and I am paraphrasing here to emphasize my point), even though he won majorities in a large majority of states and congressional districts, it was not fair for the popular majority to be bound by the Electorial College.

Do not take the fact that I point out this inconsistency to mean that I do not sympathize with those people’s frustrations with both elections. I do, however, fret about so many people’s willingness not to have more respect for the legal electoral process in both cases. If you do not like the Electoral College, then by all means work as hard as you can to eliminate it from the U.S. Constitution (and good luck to you), but talking up the possible illegitimacy of an elected leader because you do not like him or his policies will ultimately not just undermine the guy you do not like but also successive leaders. It was not a healthy thing when people like future President Trump raised questions about President Obama’s birth certificate—or for that matter similar talk about President Bush’s legimacy after the 2000 election. The fact it is now erstwhile birther Trump who is the object of illegitimacy accusations does not make it any less unhealthy. There has to be a way to disagree with people without criminalizing them or their standard-bearers.

Frankly, the worst thing about the Trump presidency for me is the fact that his political opposition—in both the Republican and Democratic parties—tend to go so over the top that, when I comment on it, it comes off sounding as though I am defending Trump. This is not the place I want to be.

I worry about our two-party system but, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, I worry more about the Democratic party. There is a lot of craziness among Republicans and their voters, but a lot of it is just the raw craziness of diverse opinions and stubbornness over beliefs and principles. The Democrats could actually do with more of that kind of craziness. Both parties—especially Republicans right now since they have majorities—are prone to the dysfunction of career politicans comfortable in office, campaign contributions, lobbyist money and playing it safe. Democrats, I fear, are much less relevant at the national level than they appear. Ample and sympathetic media coverage belies Democrats’ numbers in federal offices. I can forgive them for going crazy over Trump—in fact I would be more than a bit disappointed if they didn’t—but they should focus less on the last presidential election and more on the most recent congressional elections. You cannot explain all those losses on gerrymandering, Russian collusion and AM radio. Nor can you realistically expect that a changing tide will automatically sweep in that many Dems back next year.

The aging party leadership should ask itself, what is a better prediction of future elections? Daily or weekly opinion polls and media coverage in Washington and New York? Or fundamental economic indicators?

For people who are depressed because they think today’s Washington D.C. is as bad as a government situation can get, I do have an antidote for you. As soon as you get the chance, run to see Armando Iannucci’s brilliant The Death of Stalin.