Tuesday, February 18, 2020

William H. Harrison's Ball

In my ongoing quest to read a biography or memoir of every US president, I have finally arrived at William Henry Harrison, whose tenure lasted just 31 days before he became the first president to die in office.

As with previous presidential biographies, the Harrison biography I read, Gail Collins' slender William Henry Harrison, serves as a reminder that, as much as early era of our nation is romanticized in some circles, the early political system was not super democratic. Nominating conventions were run by party elites who handpicked candidates, and even in 1840 only certain classes of white men could vote, with some variation in specific eligibility rules by state.

But, similar to now, presidential campaigns built mythological narratives around their candidate, such as the notion that Harrison was a simple "Log Cabin" sort of guy even though the reality is that he was raised on a plantation and was the relative of a Founding Father.

And also, at times, campaigning could get really fucking weird:
"The average American voter in this new era [of Jacksonian political campaigning] lived on a farm, where he and his family worked incessantly, spending their nights in small, dimly lit houses in relative silence. There were no sports and few public entertainments. So the chance to sing, parade, or lift a flagpole for a presidential candidate was a marvelous diversion. People would turn out for almost anything that offered a break from their usual routing, even if was just to cheer the arrival of an oversized ball being rolled from town to town in honor of their party's nominee. (The balls were generally made of paper and covered with political slogans. The Whigs in Cleveland constructed one of tin, twelve feet wide, and pushed it all the way to Columbus in Harrison's honor....)."

Monday, February 10, 2020

On White Daddy and Electability, Again

When you think about it, a white male Democrat hasn't won a US presidential election since Bill Clinton did in 1996, a quarter century ago.

At the same time, polling data from the past year or so consistently have white men - specifically Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders - as performing better against Trump in 2020 general election matchups than do the candidates who are women and/or people of color. Here's one sample poll from early February 2020, for instance, from Real Clear Politics:

General Election Poll vs. Trump, 2/2/20: Biden +6, Sanders +4, Warren +3, Buttigieg +1
Interestingly, the numbers for Trump tend to stay about the same no matter who he's matched up against. It's voters for the Democratic candidate who tend to peel away the further away from "cishet white man" the Democratic candidate is. Some polls, for instance, even show billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who entered the race relatively recently, doing about the same as Joe Biden.

Another data point is that historical polling data from February 2016 shows that Hillary Clinton was polling at about where Joe Biden currently is polling versus Trump. In fact - unlike Biden or any other 2020 candidate - she regularly had a double-digit advantage on Trump at around this point in the campaign. Current numbers, of course, are also before Trump and the Republicans really start going after the nominee. Although I'm sure their efforts to cause chaos and in-fighting are already well underway, we can expect such things to amp up after the Democratic National Convention when they can really solidify around different narratives and attacks on the nominee.

All of these factoids together concern me for our 2020 prospects.

Hillary Clinton bested Trump in the 2016 popular vote by literal millions of votes, of course, and Trump squeaked out an electoral college win in swing states after a, to put it mildly, clusterfucked cascade of colliding factors worked against her. The thinking this time around is that Bernie or Biden or, I guess, Bloomberg would be able to win at least some of the swing states that Clinton lost, a premise that seems to rest largely on the usually-unstated assumption that these men would win because they are white men.

Yes, I know other reasons are put forth as to why these men would win, and they usually involve some variation on the narrative that, unlike the fine specimens of politicians that these white men are, Hillary Clinton was History's Worst Candidate Ever.  As white male politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and even Martin O'Malley (yes really) looked around the post-2016-election aftermath and thought the world needed their gloat-bragging that they could have done what "the woman" didn't do, they helped write into existence the pervasive narrative that the USA was in dire need of White Daddy to come to the rescue.

Now, I don't think it's even necessarily sexist to point out that much of the electorate has bought into the sexist hype around the dire need for a white male candidate "because of everyone else's bigotry." What was largely lost in the national discourse, if one can call it that, around whether Bernie Sanders actually told Elizabeth Warren that he thought a woman couldn't win the presidency, is that a presidential contest is not like a one-on-one chess game. It's a popularity context, the results of which are an expression of millions of voters' prejudices, hopes, dreams, fears, and countless factors outside of the control of the candidates themselves.

That supposed frontrunner Joe Biden, who would perform catastrophically in a debate against Trump anyway, is treating the match-up like a boxing match and, like most 2020 candidates, has yet to acknowledge everything Clinton was up against, demonstrates primarily that he is not anywhere near equipped to face the challenges of the general election that are yet to come.

Trump is unquestionably so terrible that I think many people and institutional powers are circularly settling for mediocre candidates who don't, actually, have a great chance at beating Trump because they "reason" that "everyone else" is settling for these candidates because these are the only candidates who can win.

Or, they felt deeply threatened by Clinton's near-win in 2016 and so are implicitly or explicitly demanding consolidation around certain white male candidates. We are, I believe, still experiencing the fallout of a 2016 election cycle that was deeply misogynistic across the political spectrum and in which, in true American form, many people demanded everyone immediately stop "relitigating" (ie, processing, analyzing, writing about).

And so, here we are, with many of the same issues cropping up. That one of the major players in the 2016 Democratic Primary decided to run again while the other was largely told to go knit in the woods for the rest of her days hasn't helped the situation.

But, such is life, here in the backlash.

On the Bernie front, I think hardcore Bernie supporters, many of whom operate in a rhetorical environment as though Republicans simply don't exist, are in serious denial about how he would fare against Trump/Republican attacks against him and "radical socialism." In the recent Iowa Caucus, Bernie halved his support in the state after 5+ years of campaigning for president and ended up essentially tied with the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana that no one had heard of a year ago.

My strategy for 2020 is therefore to vote for the candidate whose policies I most agree with and who I think would be most effective as president. For me, that person is Elizabeth Warren. If that person, for you, is Biden or Bernie, more power to you. But, if you're only supporting certain candidates because you think a white man is the "safer" candidate against Trump, I think that's questionable logic.

No candidate is a safe one in this age of propaganda, disinformation, and foreign collusion. Certain candidates have been granted a huge assist from the hype about white male electability, but none of that has accounted for all of the additional noise that exists in our current political landscape.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Thoughts on Atwood's The Testaments

One of the books I've read so far this new decade is Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments.

It was interesting to revisit this universe, and its characters, 10 years after I initially read The Handmaid's Tale (and wrote about it here, at this very web-log), and I understand (or think I do) why Atwood herself would want to publish a sequel in this particular political moment, 34 years after she published the original.

[Note: this discussion contains plot spoilers]

The events in the sequel occur 15 or so years after the events in the original and lead up to the fall of Gilead. Two of the main characters are the two daughters of June (aka, "Offred"), one of whom was raised in Canada and one of whom, Agnes, was raised in Gilead. Another main character, whose account we read in the first person, is Aunt Lydia, a villain character in the original, which I'll discuss shortly.

My first thought about the sequel pertains to Agnes. With her, and her young female peers in Gilead, we saw how it took just one generation for previous cultural knowledge and female empowerment to be virtually eliminated. Consistent with fundamentalist Christian doctrine in Gilead, young girls were not taught to read, were taught to be subservient, and were taught that their prime duty in life was to become wives and mothers.

Cut off from wider knowledge and other cultures, that was their normal. They had no other ways of living to compare their own to.

To me that speaks to the reality, as I've said before, that liberation is something that every generation will have to contend with and fight for. We can help light the way, just as others before us have done for us, but it really is a constant struggle. Progress can absolutely be wiped out and reversed.

My second thought is about Aunt Lydia. In The Handmaid's Tale, we saw that the role of the Aunts was instrumental in maintaining order among, and indoctrinating, young girls and women into their proper roles in Gilead. I saw the Aunts, upon my first reading of the original, as unambiguous villains. They were, to me, obvious conservative gender traitors who were politically aligned with the male supremacists running the show.

In The Testaments, Atwood provides flashbacks into the Gilead "revolution" from the perspective of Aunt Lydia. In short, before the revolution, she had been a family law judge, and afterwards, was broken down through violence, imprisonment, solitary confinement, torture, and threats of death. Her options were to either become an Aunt in this new society, or to be killed. So, she cast her lot with the oppressors.

Yet, in a twist, we learn that Aunt Lydia is instrumental in the plot to take down Gilead. When recounting her conversion to Aunt, and the objective detachment she felt when she was being beaten by the Gileadeans, she writes:
"This kicking and tasing procedure was repeated two more times. Three is a magic number. Did I weep? Yes: tears came out of my two visible eyes, my moist weeping human eyes. But I had a third eye, in the middle of my forehead. I could feel it: it was cold, like a stone. It did not weep: it saw. And behind it someone was thinking: I will get you back for this. I don't care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it."
Aunt Lydia did terrible things to women and girls as an Aunt, after the Gilead revolution. She was also playing a long game, born from her lived experience of her own oppression.

A truly putrid thing about patriarchal rape culture is how it stains everyone who lives in it by virtue of it, simply, being our all-pervasive environment. Aunt Lydia's is an extreme example, sure, but many of the choices we make in such a society are bad ones because, for any given problem, all of the choices we have available to us are bad ones.

The other lesson with respect to Aunt Lydia is that forcing people to "bend the knee" for one's political revolution is rarely a viable political strategy for the long-term, given that it mostly leads to a long-festering rage that will ultimately lead to vengeance.

Lastly, and on a more minor note, whenever I read Atwood, I remember how much I appreciate her sardonic wit, even in the smaller details of the worlds she builds. For instance, Gilead places the responsibility for executing various "criminals" onto the Handmaids, order which they carry out as a group. Atwood calls these events "Particicutions."

It seems like a word that could be repurposed to describe what often happens on Twitter nowadays, when hiveminds of bots and bad faith actors pile on users in the most dehumanizing ways imaginable.