5 min read

On not saying what it all means

Dr Essai does not read entrails post-election. But he was heartened by a few things in the 2022 mid-term US election.
On not saying what it all means
Jason DeCrow / AP

or, this democracy business is nuts, isn't it?

Dr Essai, The World’s Most Attentive Man™, does not deal in What It All Means. Don’t be mistaken: He does in fact know what it all means, but that isn’t what’s up for discussion here. He does not deal in the What It All Means reading of the entrails after an election. Was democracy saved on Tuesday? Have the voters renounced MAGA and the election deniers and a new clutch of the dim and feckless who somehow made it through primaries and on to the ballot? Does Republican underperformance foreshadow the end of Trump and the rise of DeSantis? Were long lines at polling stations a sign of vitality or voter suppression at work? Can you be too dumb to get elected in Georgia?

The doctor cast his first vote 50 years ago. In that time, American elections have rarely been about contending ideologies. In this country, the communists do not run against the fascists who run against the free-market conservatives who run against the social democrats who run against the monarchists who run against the Greens, with some seats left over for the anarcho-libertarians and the wiccans. (Plus that one flat-earth guy who keeps his seat because everyone in his little district likes his mom.) In the States, there is a single conservative party with a left and right wing (Gore Vidal’s formulation, but the doctor abides) that argue over who would be better to maintain the status quo. Questioning that status quo — really questioning it — doesn’t get you far. Yes, Bernie Sanders sits in the US Senate. But he hasn’t done much more than become that guy who every four years yells at the neighbor kids to get away from the car.

The interesting thing about this political moment — if you’ll permit Dr Essai to expand “moment” to include the last six and the next six years, give or take — is that a really big wheel has come off the machine.

The Founders’ bold concept for a new kind of democratic republic rested on wide dispersal of power. Power of all kinds: political, economic, social, legal, cultural. Enough of a dispersion to let people defend themselves and fashion a pretty good life. The legislature controlled the money and reined in the executive’s power to wage war. The executive could say no to what the leglsature ordered. The judiciary was supposed to step in now and then and say “you can’t do that” to the elected government, and otherwise relax and comb their wigs. Citizens had rights and unprecedented room to wield whatever leverage they had to protect their own wellbeing. “Dispersal of power” during the let’s-write-a-constitution days meant dispersal among white men who owned land, but the idea was so potent it quickly (on a social change timescale) broke out among former slaves, immigrants, even women, for god’s sake.

The beating heart of the idea, it turned out, was that by dispersing power, you could create a status quo most citizens would work to preserve, even fight to preserve.

In no time, people began to do what they do, which was find ways to game the system. The holders of capital don’t really want to share power with labor. Christians don’t want to share with Muslims and Jews, and aren’t all that crazy about the Catholics, who are Christian but always suspect. Whites don’t want to share with anybody, America Firsters don’t want immigrants at all, much less immigrants with rights, the cities are sick of the heartland and the heartland is sick of the cities, the even slightly prosperous don’t want to share with the poor, and if you are a trans teenager,  you really are shit out of luck.

Still, the self-correcting mechanisms of democracy and capitalism and free expression have kept us wheezing along as a pretty good place to live, most days. Prone to bloodshed on large and small scales, heartbreaking and infuriating decade by decade, but still functional and earnest about that whole more perfect union thing.

Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, we began to pick up some rattles, some vibration, some shakes that we chose to ignore. Misalignment doesn’t announce itself with a thunderous chord from the brass section; it slowly worsens in the background while we’re distracted by more immediate concerns. One day, we wake up and it’s 2016 and power is no longer so dispersed. It more and more resides in the financial sector, in global corporations, in the White House, in sparsely populated rural states, in the national security economy, and in jittery white guys who wear a lot of camo and brandish big guns.

Under those circumstances, the status quo benefits a shrinking minority with a lot to lose. Convincing the hoi polloi to keep voting for it requires all those beholden politicians to persuade the people to overpay for ideas. Not just embrace those ideas in an abstract way, but pay vastly too much in support of them, no matter how dubious. If the idea is “the United States faces existential risk from terrorists,” overpay in treasure and blood for military operations in dozens of countries, and squander undisclosed billions to support a national defense state accountable to no one. Only the free market can provide the best health care system? Overpay for a ramshackle “system” that may be the worst in the developed world. You’ll never achieve a good life without a college degree? Grotesquely overpay for education of dubious intellectual merit and social utility. In America you’ve the right to keep whatever you earn? Overpay by way of refusing even to question the wisdom and justice of permitting vast quantities of wealth to be removed from the social commons, where it rightfully belongs, and locked away for the aggrandizement of a tiny portion of the populace.

Politicians could extract this overpayment so long as enough voters remained convinced that the status quo included them. That’s the wheel that has come off. Tens of millions of Americans who always thought they had a stake in the SQ realize their passes have been revoked. They find themselves rubbing elbows with all the other disenfranchised, and they don’t like it one bit. What’s most dangerous is how many of them believe all the other out-groups are to blame. They didn’t lose their status because the people with the real power and money disdain them and have less use for them all the time — they lost because all those black and brown and queer and city people stole their birthright.

Dr Essai was heartened by evidence that the old ramshackle self-correcting mechanism might still have life in it. We’re a long way from where we need to be, and the path will likely be scary and expensive and maybe bloody. But Tuesday suggested we still have a chance. That’s the closest the doctor intends to come to What It All Means.

He still has no idea what’s up with Georgia.