Since I’ve lived here, my governor (who doesn’t in theory represent me, but as we’ll see has begun starting to) has been Gavin Newsom. [UPDATE: This is untrue; he’s only been governor for 4 of the 19 years I’ve lived here, and I’m struck by what it means that I so fully wiped Jerry Brown from my memory.] My U.S. representative is Nancy Pelosi. My senator, for a smidgen of years after Barbara Boxer (who once starred in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm) stepped out was Kamala Harris. Likely you’ve not only heard of these people, but you can pick their faces out of a lineup.
I don’t think I could pick out the faces of Florida’s or Texas’s governor if there was a prize involved.
Anyway? It blows.
I’ve been thinking about representative democracy a lot this weekend, after reading first this L.A. Times article on my governor going on Twitter to tell
another governor his own fans that the two should debate. ‘[C]learly you’re struggling, distracted, and busy playing politics with people’s lives. Since you have only one overriding need — attention — let’s take this up & debate,’ Newsom wrote, a pot calling the kettle smutty (as Montaigne once put it).
People in different parts of the country tell me they like my governor. Why don’t I? And why I don’t I like my representative in Congress? When I try to think clearly about it, I run again into my lifelong contrarianism, my distrust of quickly beloved people and things. I spent ten years in Nebraska and Alabama feeling not once represented by the officials my fellow citizens elected. Why can’t I just let myself be happy now?
Let’s table those questions and look at the other thing I read: Adam Gopnik’s review of some recent books on democracy in the New Yorker—headline: ‘Can’t We Come Up With Something Better Than Liberal Democracy?’ (Short answer: not really.) Gopnik is unmoved by the belief these authors hold that we can have a better republic once we improve our democracy’s workings. Here, for me, was the operative ¶ (mind the wacky Oz analogy, which refers to points made earlier):
The perennial temptation of leftist politics is to suppose that opposition to its policies among the rank and file must be rooted in plutocratic manipulation, and therefore curable by the reassertion of the popular will. The evidence suggests, alas, that very often what looks like plutocratic manipulation really is the popular will. Many Munchkins like the witch, or at least work for the witch out of dislike for some other ascendant group of Munchkins…. The awkward truth is that Thatcher and Reagan were free to give the plutocrats what they wanted because they were giving the people what they wanted: in one case, release from what had come to seem a stifling, union-heavy statist system; in the other, a spirit of national, call it tribal, self-affirmation. One can deplore these positions, but to deny that they were popular is to pretend that a two-decade Tory reign, in many ways not yet completed, and a forty-nine-state sweep in 1984 were mass delusions. Although pro-witch Munchkins may be called collaborators after their liberation, they persist in their ways, and resent their liberators quite as much as they ever feared the witch. ‘Of course, I never liked all those scary messages she wrote in the sky with her broom,’ they whisper among themselves. ‘But at least she got things done. Look at this place now. The bricks are all turning yellow.’
I’m a leftist tempted perennially by this line of thinking. I Know In My Heart that we can have a better world if social media was outlawed and everyone in this country got a quality education in how to think critically. It took a while after November 2016 for me to accept that D. Trump had won the election fair and square (well, as fairly and squarely as anyone wins elections post–Citizens United). Even if the majority of voters didn’t vote for him, there were 62 million people who heard what he said and saw what he did and said, Yes. Please be our leader. And in 2020, there were 74 million people who wanted to keep going.
D. Trump is a fascist the way I’m a native Virginian. It’s in everything he says and does. I know this because I’ve read about fascism, and I also know that no fascist government has ever taken power by force. Fascists get voted in. They give people what they want. It boggles my mind how many people—and how many different kinds of people—deeply and passionately want authoritarian men to rule discompassionately.
But they’re my fellow Americans. Gopnik’s conclusion is that human variation will always make democracy a mess, and it’s the job of politicians (and all of us) to manage the stresses of living in a mess without the bridge between us crumbling to bits.
I like messes. I find myself most content when I accept and even enjoy that life is chaos, and as I’ve written about before, I distrust any
thinker pundit who claims to ‘make order from the chaos’:
[I]f you can’t handle chaos you can’t handle the everyday mess of life on a globe of difference. And if you look for leaders, charismatic or otherwise, who promise to lead you away from this discomfort, they’re going to need to make that messy world smaller, and more sterile. They’re going to point you to a future where that seems possible. And the only way that’s truly possible is by controlling people until they make sense, or eradicating those who don’t from the face of the planet until the planet makes sense.
I’m far off my train of thought now, so let me steer us back. I’m talking about accepting two things: chaos and the (to me awful) desires of the right. I’m not talking about centrism, about ‘meeting those people halfway.’ I’m talking about recognizing sameness across differences while holding on to our differences.
Let’s go back to the Gopnik ¶. Typing it out, it hits me what a shame it is that these good ideas are so inaccessible to the people who may need them—i.e., who may not already agree with them. I’ve complained about activist language before, but I feel I’m in need of activist language that crisply and forcefully demands greater nuance in our thinking.
THINK FROM YOURSELF might be the sign I’d most like to hang in my street-facing window.
If I can be allowed to simplify Gopnik’s somewhat brainy language, I start to see something interesting come through his ideas. Something instructive:
Leftists believe time and again that the reason their ideas aren’t more widely popular is that rich people keep lying about them. The solution: remind the public that we outnumber the rich, and remove those liars from power. Except: history has shown, time and again, that the public often wants exactly what rich people want.
Okay, so I’ve removed some of the nuances to the ideas, but not to the main argument. What I like about looking at it this way is that when you swap ‘Trumpists’ for ‘leftists’ and ‘politicians’ for ‘rich people’ you get the ideology behind Drain the Swamp.
That Gopnik’s idea applies, through transformation, to a different voting bloc helps me see how much I have in common with them, and how my political imagination—though aimed at different ends—is made up of much similar stuff than I’d otherwise like to admit.
This sounds like Trumpist ‘both sides’ rhetoric, but it’s not. Both-sides centrism reduces or denies difference between groups—even when done in a positive light, as with the current president’s message of UNITY. UNITY is such a shitty message because it implies that one group ought to conform to another, or that we ‘need to set aside our differences’ to come together as one, an impossible proposition that’s never once occurred in the history of this country.
The better slogan, though it would look worse on a placard, is basically this post’s whole thesis: PLURALITY. Or the weird phrase on all our money: E pluribus unum. The ‘one’ that we are as a nation is ‘out of the many.’
I feel like a happier person, and a more contented U.S. citizen, whenever I try to fathom the manyness of that many.
When I tailgate somebody going 10 miles less than the speed limit (not everybody on the road can play defense), three things happen: they speed up, or they move out of my lane, or they do nothing. Maybe they don’t notice me, or maybe they don’t care to correct their behavior.
But sometimes a fourth thing happens: they slow down even more.
It’s a power move, wielded in a moment I imagine the person in the car in front of me feels that power has been taken away from them. It baffles me. I’m just trying to get off the road as quickly as possible. But it’s this drive, fully nonpartisan, that I’m getting at: I don’t like what that person is doing, I don’t share their values, so their values are wrong to me, and so I’ll either hurt them in this small way, or feel better when I see they’ve been hurt.
Why it blows to be represented by celebrities is that they too often play to this desire, having as they do more fans than constituents. What benefit is it to California for our governor to debate another one? And rather than tell me how she plans to serve the needs of San Franciscans in the next congress, what does it say that the Pelosi’s campaign website offers me this sticker to buy:
I’m likely in the minority by feeling ashamed or embarrassed when my representatives dunk on conservatives. I wish this wasn’t as much a drive on the left as it seems to be on the right. As I argued in my previous post, letting politicians go on TV to ‘debate’ each other benefits nobody except the people on TV, because they’ve been given more time to be, again, on TV. Nobody’s debating anything about policy. They can’t afford to take that much time away from their image.
Back in Pittsburgh, when I was young and online so much that I felt very connected to this 2-sides, dunk-on-the-GOP mentality, I remember loving Michael Moore—not so much for his films but for his position. They’ve got awful Rush Limbaugh, and he’s our version of that, I remember telling a friend.
‘But why do we want our version of awful?’ he asked.
I was liking Moore the way many people outside California like Newsom and Pelosi, the way many gays I imagine bought this terrible hat. I wanted a version of This Conservative Thing Getting Lots Of Attention which instead affirmed my values, forgetting, as Audre Lorde reminds us, that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
The high road, if it ever existed, was bulldozed decades ago. Another myth I’m tempted perennially to believe in.