I said in my last post that I was distressed by Obama's inability to vanquish McCain more handily, despite the historic efficiency of the Democrat's campaign and the historic incompetence of the Republican's. Several people I respect read this, worried about my indifference to the cold logic of US electoral politics, and told me so. So let me explain. The best response I got puts it this way:
The country's just too divided for any Presidential candidate to get a large margin. The GOP could run a dead fish (well, wait a minute...) and it would get 40% of the vote. Remember, there are still 30% of Americans who think Bush is doing a good job. For an example, I give you the 1996 election race, between Clinton, who was a popular incumbent and Bob Dole, who was [essentially] a dead fish.... Despite that, Clinton only managed 379 electoral votes and less than 50% of the popular vote. Clinton won MO, ARK, and LA, but couldn't get CO, IND, VA, and NC.
I'm sure this is the right analysis, not least because the person who wrote this knows infinitely more about such things than I do. My remark was meant not to dispute this iron law of US electoral politics, but to express despair over it. Our political lives are so ossified, so calcified, so locked into disastrous routines, that not even two wars, an historic economic crisis, the sinking fortunes of the US brand around the world, and a colossally bad Republican candidate can shake loose some of that hard-core opposition? We might consider other iron laws. Think, for example, of the political scientist's 'voter paradoxes,' which mean to disabuse us of the illusion that elections are expressions of some rationally evaluable majority will. Perhaps I'm looking for reason in all the wrong places - not because people are stupid, but because large-scale voting just doesn't issue in rational outcomes. My response, in brief: democracy is, or ought to be, about more than voting. It is also about the aspirations and the critical sensibilities that shape our orientations to the vote - and, if we're vigilant, that help frame the options we have when we vote. The iron-clad, dead-fish 40% is in part an artifact of a political apparatus that allows only certain options, and only certain ways of registering our preferences in regard to them. This, all of this, is what I find distressing. Or: Is it too late to embrace Palin-style secessionism, and let the dead fish party have its own country? I said also in my last post that the Obama presidency may be subject to a kind of cultural white flight. The idea was that a black person's ascension to the office might strike some as the last, best sign that the federal government is in fact the enemy of goodness and light. Soon afterwards I ran across some clarifying words from the inimitable James Baldwin. This is his description of the more prosaic forms of white flight: '[T]he border which has divided the ghetto from the rest of the world falls in the hands of the ghetto. The white people fall back bitterly before the black horde, the landlords make a tidy profit by raising the rent, chopping up the rooms, and all but dispensing with the upkeep, and what has once been a neighborhood turns into a 'turf.'' Is it just me, or does the behavior of Baldwin's landlord sound like what the Bush-Cheney administration has done to the federal government?