As much as I like Bernie Sanders and hope he prevails in the Democratic primary, I confess that there’s something gray and depressing about a crusty, seventy-something, New-Deal liberal representing the great electoral hope of the American left. There are, of course, a number of engaging young progressives in office now, but the fame and near-celebrity profiles of newcomers like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez belie the still fundamentally local power bases of these congresswomen, none of whom has yet been tested even in a statewide election. Victories at the state and local levels have been far outpaced by gains by so-called moderates and centrists, and even these barely dent the thousands of seats and offices lost to radical conservatives during the desultory administration of Barack Obama.
In the campaign for the presidential nomination, and in the aftermath of the multiple “Super Tuesday” primary contests, the Democratic race has become a two-man contest, pitting the insurrectionary Sanders against the increasingly incoherent Joe Biden. In Biden, Democrats are presented with a former senator for America’s onshore but off-shore-style tax haven, Delaware, and a man who was selected as the most demographically inoffensive running mate for the then-seemingly-radical campaign of Barack Obama.
Until an eleventh-hour victory in South Carolina, the predominant narrative in the media was that Biden was cooked — a spent force whose residually strong national poll numbers reflected name recognition and reserves of nostalgia for the Obama years. Biden’s revival was buoyed by the support of the state’s relatively conservative, older African American population, and then by his Super-Tuesday success just a few days later. (It didn’t hurt that the vagaries of election season allowed him to avoid another crackpot debate performance or other testament to his rambling incomprehensibility in the interim.)
But that single victory and the synchronized withdrawals and endorsements by Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar created a new narrative. Seemingly overnight, Biden had become a scrappy fighter with a never-say-die attitude, a Clintonian Comeback Kid.
After blowing half a billion dollars on a vanity campaign that won him American Samoa, Michael Bloomberg promptly bowed out and endorsed Biden as well, promising to dedicate his vast resources toward electing Joe.
Beyond the quixotic and indefatigable Tulsi Gabbard, the only candidate left standing was Elizabeth Warren—also in her 70s and running on fumes since an ill-conceived and ill-fated pivot away from “Medicare for All.” This ruined her relationship with the socialist left and any chance of serving as a bridge between the activist wing of the party and its constituency of urban professionals, if one could have existed to begin with. (Editor’s note: Warren has since dropped out.)
Looming is yet another septuagenarian, Donald Trump, whose ongoing mental decompensation remains the great unspeakable truth in corporate media. Although frequently hostile to him, with the obvious exception of Fox News, mainstream outlets continue to edit his transcripts “for clarity and concision,” as the publishing saying goes, laundering the self-evident lunacy of his almost every public utterance like a gaggle of Soviets turning the somnolent ravings of an agèd commissar into readable prose for the next day’s news.
I use the Soviet metaphor consciously. Long before I started dating and then married a scholar of Russian, I had a certain soft spot for the country, alternately maligned as an eternal basket case and an implacably cunning enemy that had sacrificed something like fifty times the number of Americans killed in every American war combined to defeat the Nazis. And now that I am shacked up with a Russianist and have visited the place a couple of times, I’ve come to see it not as a shadow or opposite of our own vast, weird nation but as a sibling of sorts.
The crass red-scare fantasies that characterize so many of the present narratives around election interference and the criminal Trump-Russia demimonde are as infuriating as they are baroquely silly. And yet there is a certain late-Soviet pallor hanging over America, even if on a material level our empire really does seem more robust than theirs ever was. (Once again, it bears mentioning that we never lost fifty million people in a war.)
There is a sense, despite the apparent ideological contestations of our ongoing presidential elections, of a group of gerontocrats battling to run what looks less and less like a traditional state than the palace apparatus of an ancient empire that has acquired its imperium almost by accident. As the press critic and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen observed in the fall of last year, “There is no White House. Not in the sense that journalists have always used that term. It’s just Trump — and people who work in the building. That they are reading from the same page cannot be assumed. The words, ‘the White House’ are still in use, but they have no clear referent.”
The hollowed-out nature of the American state has been evident for some time and certainly predates Donald Trump, even if his simultaneously feckless and malicious administration exacerbates the sense of social and economic precariousness. Our biggest city can’t build and maintain its transit system. Our bridges collapse. We can’t marshal our resources to even pretend to do something about climate change.
The few actual achievements of the Obama administration — its rapprochements with Cuba and Iran — collapsed almost immediately on the whims of his successor while his cruelest policies — the drone assassinations; the militarized border; the detentions — metastasized and grew crueler.
Our municipal jails have become debtors’ prisons as strapped municipalities turn to shaking down poor people and people of color to manage shrinking tax bases. Meanwhile, our health care system is the worst in the developed world — an impenetrable skein of rent-seeking local monopolies that cost society trillions and bankrupt hundreds of thousands of individuals each year.
Nowhere, though, is the rusty, rickety nature of America’s civic society more recently evident than in the hilariously, harrowingly inept response to the advent of the COVID-19 virus as a global contagion. Whether it is more or less dangerous and deadly than the media portrays is quite beside the point. The abject incapacity of any government, least of all the feds, to offer even simple, sensible guidance, much less mobilize national resources to examine, investigate and ameliorate the potential threat to human health and well-being is astonishing, even to a tired old cynic like me. At present, the most proactive step has been to pressure the Federal Reserve into goosing the stock market — the sort of pagan expiation of dark spirits that you’d expect in a more primitive world, when a volcano blew or an earthquake hit.
Even elections seem beyond our capabilities at this point. In Texas, people waited for up to seven hours to cast votes on decrepit machines, and we still do not have official final results from the Iowa caucuses — a fact little mentioned now that the primary season has moved on.
On the eve of the French Revolution, the Swiss-born theorist, journalist, and politician Jean-Paul Marat wrote, “No, liberty is not made for us: we are too ignorant, too vain, too presumptuous, too cowardly, too vile, too corrupt, too attached to rest and to pleasure, too much slaves to fortune to ever know the true price of liberty. We boast of being free! To show how much we have become slaves, it is enough just to cast a glance on the capital and examine the morals of its inhabitants.”
Donald Trump is in the White House, and his allies in Congress, smarting from his impeachment and failed Senate trial, will now come out with allegations about the sketchy business dealings of one of his likely opponent’s adult sons. Well. Here we are.