It has become a commonplace, or a truism, or, let's face it, a dilapidated cliché, that this is a terrible election, and to bemoan the fact that it has been essentially reduced to a contest between the worst each side can offer.
As I awoke this morning from a sleep of dreams troubled by such horrors, it suddenly struck me to ask: Why is that a bad thing?
Canon Ball Run
When I Introduce Literature to freshmen, I sometimes begin the discussion of what we really mean when we talk about "and the moral of the story is" by suggesting an important distinction between the Star Trek canon and the Star Wars canon. It's something virtually all students are familiar with, even the ones who begin by claiming, accurately I trust, and there's a lot more of them than you might think, to have never seen anything in one or the other or both canons. To one set I'll ask, "But you've heard of Captain Kirk, right? And Mr. Spock?" to the other I'll ask, "But you've heard of the Force, right?" When they unanimously agree, as they always do, I say "That's all you need for now. Allow me to explain."
The heart of all enduring literature, I tell them, is in the moral conflict intrinsic to the tale. This is true, I say, even for works like Frank Norris's McTeague, Nabokov's Lolita, or Ellis's American Psycho, where the very idea of morality is apparently rejected, or even the preface to Twain's Huckleberry Finn which explicitly makes that claim. The interplay of setting, plot and character all serve to explore and illuminate the moral crisis expressed in the tale.
Sometime around now, or the passage I'm about to write, depending on how quick-witted they are to see where I'm taking this, the committed Star Warriors or Star Trekkers in the class, usually both, will erupt with objections, well-reasoned and strongly supported by references to the canonical texts [oh the irony]. "Wait," I command them. "I'm well-aware of all that. Do you think I'd be silly enough to give you this lecture without being familiar with the interpretive criticism surrounding it? Allow me to finish, then I'll let you respond."
Star Trek's Prime Directive, I tell them, the principle that the Federation may not interfere in developing civilizations whatever the cost to either those civilizations or to the Federation, is a rational precept, not a moral doctrine. We know that because if it is strictly adhered to, it leads to plainly immoral outcomes like the extinction of sentient races either by their own hands or by natural forces. It thus presents us with either virtue versus virtue conflicts: Self-determination versus continuing development; or, evil versus evil conflicts: Imposition of alien values by technological force versus annihilation.
The Force in Star Wars, by contrast, offers us a moral doctrine, not a rational precept. No matter what horrible choices or moral compromises we have to make along the way to ensure survival or resist the Dark Side, ultimately, we know what is Good and what is Evil and we must commit ourselves to the Good. If you haven't learned by the end why Luke Skywalker is the good guy, you've missed the point.
Both tracks, I tell the kids, make for good literature, enduring literature, profound literature. When I am not being a literature instructor, I tell them, that is to say, when I am being just some coach potato with a remote in my hand, I generally prefer the Star Trek canon to the Star Wars canon (cue deafening shrieks), but, I console half of them, that is purely a matter of taste. Your preference in that regard is as valid as mine. If I'm drawn to Captain Kirk and you're drawn to Darth Vader, good for you.
Oh, and speaking of Darth Vader, when Hillary set up an FDR quotation in her speech last Thursday, I and a total of about ONE OTHER PERSON ON TWITTER were hoping it would be the "I welcome their hatred" quote, echoing as it does Vader's importuning his son to "Give yourself to the Dark Side," although of course we all knew it would the Fear-Itself bit. Between that and the troubled dreams I mentioned earlier, I suddenly understood both the causal forces that brought us to this moment and the most useful frame of analysis going forward, and why, whatever the outcome, this election provides us not with one of the most terrible choices conceivable within a democracy, but one of the greatest, though perhaps great and terrible.
To be blunt, what happened was this: The primary electorates on each side of the partisan barricades cast their votes to troll the opposing electorates. According to Public Policy Polling's first full polling encompassing both conventions, the dominant trait of Trump voters is hatred of Hillary, and a strong force in Hillary voters is hatred of Trump. In other words, the question asked was: Given the selection of candidates before us, which one is likely to most infuriate the other side? And I don't have to tell you how the Republicans and Democrats answered.
In other words, "the worst each side can offer," was not only the point of each side's offer, this election would be of limited import if it were not. Although the victorious side would claim vindication for their "ideas" and "issues" and "ideology" and all that other rigamarole, the defeated side would simply rationalize it away believing, justifiably, that they had only lost because they had put up their worst choice while the other side did not.
It is as if given the choice of ice cream and brussels sprouts, the Democrats chose brussels sprouts not because they didn't want ice cream but because they knew the Republicans would gag on brussels sprouts. And that given the choice of cake, cookies, brownies, an assortment of candy and cauliflower, the Republicans chose cauliflower because they knew it was the one thing that would make the Democrats wretch.
And you know what else? That's a fair challenge. It's the kind of civic question we are not typically confronted with, or that when we find we may be confronted with, when wisps of it waft towards us, we retreat from into comforting platitudes and mythologies. Or shallow rationalizations grounded in the fiction of ideological commitments despite the tsunami of cognitive dissonance such claims must surely entail.
Well, we can't escape it now.
Not Your Father's Quicksilver Messenger Service
The question of this election isn't even truly the Lesser-of-Two-Evils question it has so often been claimed to be. It's not Who do you like? Or Who do you dislike less?
It is this: Who do you hate? Positively hate.
This element, I think, was probably stronger on the Republican side than on the Democratic, at least directly, but in neither case do I think it was it was a majority motivation. But it was certainly a critical factor, either explicitly or by implication, and probably the deciding factor given the rules and regulations of the states and the respective National Committees operated under. Again, although Republicans probably trolled to a greater extent, Democrats trolled too.
Before I unpack this idea, let me repeat for emphasis all the things I think that core question does NOT entail. The question "Who do you positively hate?" is not the lesser-of-two evils question. It is not a characterological question (if anything, the opposite). It is not a question of qualifications for office nor is it a question of choices between competing arrays of policy preferences.
I mean, look at Michael Bloomberg and Peter Thiel. Early-entrant tech billionaires with a range of heterodox, not to say, eccentric, opinions not especially congruent with either of the political parties they sided with or the candidates they endorsed in convention speeches. Why? If either of them had addressed the other convention, would that have been such a terrible shock? It was not and was never about who or what they like, or agree with more, or dislike, or agree with less, or any of those other prosaic things we delude ourselves into thinking politics is "about." It's about who they hate. Positively.
All of those other things matter some ordinary bit to this election, as they do in all American Presidential elections, but they are not the core question this time around.
Those are the kinds of questions that would matter if The Force were the moral foundation of the story of the 2016 American election. But it is not. The Prime Directive is, so we are obligated to carry our rational precept to its logical conclusion, as morally odious as we know that conclusion must be whatever the outcome.
Having suffered the psychic trauma of this profound revelation, I also realized that it was predictable and why it was predictable.
What Sort of Ideological Sort are You?
Most political professionals, including but not limited to, political scientists, historians, elected officials, staff, activists and polemicists of all stripes, have recognized that the American electorate has been sorting itself ideologically for the last generation or two, with punctuated intensity in 1964, 1980, 1994 and 2008 (or 2008/2010) after a period in which the two major-party coalitions were not especially bonded by ideological coherence or consistency.
But by consciously and deliberately infuriating their opposition, the primary electorates did something else, something else that is much more important: They forced moral ambiguity onto an element of their own side's electorate--I believe as the last paroxysm before the two major parties are finally ideologically sorted.
Thus the Trump voter was confronting the self-styled Constitutional Conservatives represented, say, by those like Jay Cost and The Weekly Standard and Luke Thompson and a segment of National Review, or the Dominionists represented by Ted Cruz and Glenn Beck, saying, Yeah yeah yeah, we get it, Tenth Amendment and all that crap, Kingdom of God blah blah. We know that We believe that. That's not the question we Trump voters are asking you. What we want to know is, Who do you really hate? Do you hate Hillary (and the Hillary voter) enough to be committed to our side regardless?
And thus the Hillary voter was confronting the self-styled Independent or Civil-libertarian Left, represented, say, by those like Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, or First Wave Feminists like Maureen Dowd or Camille Paglia, or the Social Democrats and/or Democratic Socialists represented by the likes of Cornel West and Jacobin Magazine, saying, Yeah yeah yeah, metadata NSA, and National Security State and all that, we get it, and gender relations are difficult, maybe moreso than we imagined, and Capital exploits Labor through control of the means and distribution of production, aw heck, we've known that all along. That's not the question we Hillary voters are asking you. What we want to know is, Who do you really hate? Do you hate Trump (and the Trump voter) enough to be committed to our side regardless?
And also thus, the mini-manifesto pinned to the top of Greenwald's Twitter timeline, "Is it really necessary to spend next 6 months pointing out that 'criticism of Clinton' ≠ 'support for Trump'? Just get a different tactic," is as reasonable, rational and true as such arguments go. And also perfectly trivial to the point of irrelevancy because such arguments are not the heart of this story of the 2016 American Presidential election.
Scroll down from that pinned tweet covering a few days and see if you can answer the question asked above: Who does he really hate?
Or consider the theologically-trained Evangelicals. Not the masses, who are simply following the attitudes in which they have been inculcated, but the ones that have devoted their lives to study, writing and preaching. Wayne Grudem's positive endorsement of Trump is risibly attenuated and qualified. It's not about good things about Trump, it's not even a weighing of the relative qualities of the two candidates as if Hillary were ever a possibility. Simply put: He hates Hillary and her voters.
Do the same in Jay Cost's timeline, or Emmett Rensin's, or listen to Ted Cruz's convention speech again in light of this new question, or read Jacobin Magazine or The Blaze or listen to Cornel West (with Bill Maher) or read any Dowd column from anytime in this cycle. Who do they hate? Positively hate?
Finally, to take the question of this election one step further, the next question is simple, and it's a question we spend our lives evading, and it's a question that very, very few elections are ever about. To return to Lit Intro for a moment, the question this election asks must be one that promises--or threatens--Catharsis.
Although the consequences of even asking the question in such a way may be catastrophic, it's a question that if we do not answer from time to time we have no right to claim the legitimacy of sovereign democracy:
WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?
Which Side Are You On Florence Reece Original
As I asked at the top: Why is that a bad thing?