Other people on social media have said all the things I would say about the outcome of the 2016 presidential election better than I ever could. So I’m going to talk about past ones instead.
TL;DR summary: I’ve been walking this land long enough to learn this tune too well. Let me sing the chorus for ya, and you can hum along.
Disclaimer: I’m ranting from memory, so if I elide, blur or bend facts as you know them…well. That’s memory. Check before correcting me though, and go beyond Wikipedia, because lived experience sometimes covers topics official records don’t.
1968: the first election I recall. (I was around for 1964 but had more pressing issues on my mind like rolling over and teething.) My mother wept openly on election night because the candidate whose ideals she passionately supported was assassinated and his replacement was not charismatic enough to inspire the voter turnout he needed. And so a man she called a criminal (yes, even then) became our country’s leader. Yeah. I learned about handling political loss early.
I survived that Nixon presidency, which was marked by blatant legalized support of racism and misogyny as well as the establishing of institutional frameworks that fomented class hatred and victim-blaming. And yes when I say “survived,” I know that survival was a matter of luck and advantages I did nothing to earn. My ethnic roots, my family’s economic status, and other flukes of fate sheltered me from the bloodshed and brutal discrimination others faced.
That despite my advantages all I will claim is survival throws a blazing light on the extent of the rot the Nixon presidency bequeathed to the future. The first countermoves to the civil rights movement and the culural battle against women’s emancipation happened behind closed doors, in clandestine meetings, and under cover of diplomatic secrecy.
In 1972 I saw criminal actions and institutional bigotry rewarded with re-election. The Watergate scandal afterwards shook the country’s faith in the political process to its roots but changed nothing in the rules of the game–and the extent of Nixon’s criminality remained hidden for decades more, masking how deep the systemic rot had been spread.
A disillusioned population just reaching the age where leaders should enter public service learned to hate politics, and worse, they made cynicism popular with righteous zeal. “Oh, politics. Nothing but a bunch of dirty, rotten scoundrels and smarmy self-important jerks breaking promises. Ew. What decent person would get into that? Count me out.”
That’s important, because politics isn’t something other. It’s what happens when human beings get together to cooperate or compete or both. Political discourse isn’t something you can opt out of, any more than you can opt out of defecating.
Ignore politics at any level from home association to national legislature, fail to understand how the whole messy, conflicting process works, or try to avoid dealing with it at all… and you’ll eventually find yourself knee-deep in shit, wondering how you got there.
Like we are today. Anyway. Back to my wayback machine…
1976. Washington insiders are all corrupt! Bring in an outsider! Well, that sure worked well. Not. IMHO Carter was one of history’s most ineffectual presidents. (He’s been one of its BEST ex-presidents, and is one of the few people on the planet I wholeheartedly admire on principle.) But at the time he had no concept of how the complex machinery of a national government worked, and by the time he figured it out and began to lead…
1980 happened. Reagan swept in on the strength of the electoral college, due in no small part to a third party candidate who got 5 million “principle” votes because he appealed to Carter’s base without sharing his bad record. (DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR TO ANYONE ELSE?) Reagan was a charismatic Washington outsider, waving at his successes as Governor, promising to do for the country what he’d done for California. Give credit where it’s due, Reagan delivered on that promise. He did on a national scale what he’d done on a state scale: bankrupted the budget, destroyed the educational system in the name of measurable results, religious interference and regressive social policy, pissed off the neighbors, deployed punitive racial and sexual policies and used up the goodwill of all potential allies. At the 1984 mark the cracks were barely showing, and he rolled over his uncharismatic, workhorse wonky Democratic opponent with barely any effort.
I survived the Reagan presidency too, through luck and privilege–and now I was old enough to know about “First they came for…” and understand how everythign that daunted me could destroy people I lived and respected.
I argued with friends who insisted Reaganwas the best thing since sliced bread, but the truth is that reality can never win against story. The realities of past failures, of scandalous behavior and impropriety–even clear signs of mental incompetence– none of these could not compete with repeated, emphatic promises for a better future if we just trusted him…yeah, I know. That sounds chilling, doesn’t it? I sure as hell hope so.
1988 Bush the first. Reagan with a new paint job. He was just as popular as Reagan and won easily. I was there. My friends thought he was the best thing since sliced bread just like Reagan, despite the job market that had no room for recent graduates like us, despite facing blatant discrimination and harassment etc etc.
Things will trickle down, they insisted. He’s promised us the land of milk and honey, he’ll keep taxes down, keep American jobs in America, and if we have nothing to hide, why should we care about giving up rights? I wish I could say Bush was a bad president, since I disagree with so many of his decisions and policies, but I can’t. He was the one surfing the wave when the economic and social tides finally turned, though.
1992. By then the elephants in the election room couldn’t be promised away. The only thing trickling down the economic pipeline was piss, drug crime was getting worse not better (despite punitive laws and loss of privacy) workfare wasn’t working, and the world was beginning to suspect we were the Evil Empire and not the scrappy Rebellion.
Bill Clinton had all the charisma none of his three Democratic predecessors had. He could sell ice to Eskimos. He had the narrative. He was another outsider with a “good” record as a Governor, he was the Democratic Reagan, and he came in with the same high goals of making the country succeed, some great ideas…and a lot of horribly bad ideas.
This was the decade when I struggled watching things falling apart around me. Too many friends thought Gordon Gecko was the hero of the movie Wall Street, the way they thought real estate speculation was a great way to make money and would never go bad. “Who cares who it hurts as long as I profit?” was elevated to a valid life choice.
And people began to mutter about religious persecution while others, liberals and progressive in most ways, bemoaned as “political correctness” the lived testimony of those who suffered ever-increasing systematic bigotry, misogyny and sexual harassment. THIS DECADE is when it got bad. Not the next. And in the last few years of it, divisive politics hit the big leagues. Endless, escalating infighting between the executive branch and the legislative one turned even more people against politics as a whole. And I got tired of arguing.
The 90’s, by the way, are when I started writing science fiction. I specialize in hopeful stories about broken people in unpleasant post-breakdown societies. Apocalyoptimistic fiction, my friend Rachel calls it. (Hi, Rachel!) Back then I was told it was “depressing and unrealistic.” The future was coming up roses. The future was now.
2000. An election mired in controversy to this day and deservedly so. Kudos are given to Al Gore for taking the high ground and conceding. Me, I wish he’d broken the whole thing wide open and flung us into a constitutional crisis. There is no high ground when the opposition is the swamp itself. 2000 didn’t prove our presidential election system was badly, BADLY broken. 1980 did that. But we ignored it in 1980 and we ignored it again in 2000 because of a culture that rewards cynicism and despises politics as something separate from society.
Anyway. It should have been a wake-up call. But it wasn’t. Nor was 2004, when the media really came into its own with its emphasis on news cycles, sound bites, and flexed its muscular ability to skew public opinion with lies, big lies and more lies. Retractions in tiny type or muttered in asides were all the rage then.
My headcanon is that Gore conceded in 2000 because after fighting the muddy fight to an honorable end, he no longer wanted to serve a country that was becoming a cesspool. If so, who can blame him? He was an uncharismatic, wonky, workhorse of a politician who gave his life to represent others, he was respected by peers but un-beloved of the media who crave shiny, flashy stories and found an easily mocked target in him. (as an aside, don’t get me started on Tipper and her scariness as a potential First Spouse and how Gore was vilified through her actions) HOLY COW THAT SOUNDS FAMILIAR AGAIN DOESN’T IT?
And so we spent 8 years flailing around in an unwinnable war (Princess Bride 1987. “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” America 2001 “Hey, let’s get involved in a land war in Asia AND a second front in the Middle East.”)
To put shit frosting on the cake, one front of it was a war based on lies known to be lies by those making the decisions. We bled our national treasury dry and spilled our citizens’ blood like water overseas fighting this war, all the while lining the pockets of oil barons and munitions companies with dollars.
And all the while we slashed back the pennies we pent on our roads and our schools and our poor, getting more and more and more fearful at home and blaming private citizens for their failure to climb out of the pit our economy was becoming while we subsidized their taskmaster employers.
And when the whole house of cards fell apart in 2007..well. Then what? I think most people reading are familiar with the last couple of election cycles, and with the still escalating pressure of media necessities on the fragile social framework of political decision-making.
How does a reality star become president? The same way a movie star did. Indulgent press, excellent oratory (I didn’t say coherent oratory, but he surely knows how to work a crowd) and opponents who failed to fight fire with fire suppressant, who mistook a savvy, manipulative bully for a buffoon, and who the press found to be a better target for mockery.
Hello, rampant old-fashioned misogyny. (HELLO, I HATE YOU.)
Im summary, none of this is new. It’s another spin on the spiral of civilization. We can go up, or we can slip down. It’s been a hard fight, so much harder for some than others. The rights battles of the sixties never ended for most. For decades progressives have preened about making social, economic, racial and sexual advances, but many of those gains were horrifically inequitable–or blatant failures. The privileged people so proud of being problem-solvers were as divisive and destructive as their conservative counterparts–and a million times more smug and holier-than-thou about it.
Do not even get me started on third-generation college kids waxing poetic about how good it was to help the homeless at a soup kitchen one minute but sneering at “lazy poor people” living in the local trailer park the next. WTF, over? I long ago lost count to the number of times in my life I’ve said, “When you say “those people?” Those are my people. Just an FYI you might want to keep in mind.”
I said that to my father last year. He offered back a quizzical smile and blank confusion.
Our institutional support systems are founded on racial hatreds, religious judgments that have no place in secular settings, and ignorant classist arrogance. Anyone with with eyes to see it knew bigotry in all its guises never left our society. Some didn’t see it. Many others didn’t want to be impolite (!) by speaking up. Or they looked away. Or dismissed those who spoke up because it was “not that bad.” But it was. It never went away. Refusal to look at a problem does not erase it.
The merest thread of a silver lining to all this? All those festering problems are out in the open again, seething and rotting under the light of day.
Our incoming president is a racist, misogynist, isolationist, clueless, born-rich-and-gauche-with-it, I-know-better-because-look-at-me hardcase. Those aren’t labels other people throw at him. He embraces them himself. He’s proud of it all, for fuck’s sake.*
But we are not living in the end times. We’re standing in the doorway of the future, holding our noses because the house is full of shit. Time to step up and grab a shovel.
I don’t mean running for Congress or even school board, although if you have the spoons for it, gods bless and I will cheer you on and help get out the vote ( if you run on a platform I can support.) We don’t all have to be leaders of our community. Hell, we can’t all be. Nope, I’m not agitating for political activism. You don’t even have to vote.
I want to see more people who are present — vocal and visible and unashamed of our beliefs, our wants, and our needs. That also means raising voices for those who cannot advocate effectively for themselves. And we must pick better leaders from the pool of the willing and hold them accountable by staying involved.
Important point: I definitely don’t mean speaking out by dishing insult and ad hominem attacks on those who disagree or who voted…well. For what we got. Dismissing opposition as stupid, wrongheaded, foolish or evil isn’t helpful.
It’s how we got here.
It’s possible for wants and needs to conflict in fundamental ways. When I can’t find middle ground, good politics means standing my ground proudly and firmly not scorning the other side. Wrong is wrong, but it’s often better to say, “I disagree with you, and I assure you I am righteous,” and see where it takes you rather than starting with, “But you’re wrong, OMG so wrong, how can you even think that?”
If you want to go for the bonus humaning round try saying, “But I want to understand. Convince me. Go ahead and lay it out.” And then listen to the answers instead of arguing on points.
You will learn that people believe what you find impossible. That people don’t care about ideals you think necessary. You will be astonished and disgusted and possibly nauseous.
But if you ask, then you have the power to ask other questions that lead to more questions. And that’s a conversation, and that’s a step back from conflict. (Like I said. Bonus round. Most people aren’t ready for the boss fight.)
Straight up, we are living in an era when the works we do on a daily, personal basis will make a huge difference in how American Society As We Know It ™ gets through the next few years.
We could destroy ourselves in a huge series of socio-political tantrums, or the United States might actually, finally begin to grow out of its awkward socio-political adolescence into a proper modern republic. It’s up to us, frightening as that is.
Apocaloptimism. I haz it.
* And if anyone is wondering, that pride is exactly why so many bitter, hurting, beaten-down people clinging to the end of their economic ropes love him to pieces. He has exonerated us and blessed us and said, it’s okay (even though it isn’t.) It isn’t our our fault we’re losing a rigged game (he’s right about that.) And then he points at ready villains, and encourages immediate, viscerally-satisfying action, and he does it all from the big, glittering pedestal a hungry media machine eagerly created for him. Never mind if the pedestal is made of tinfoil and not gold. It’s there, it’s his, and he’ll keep it as long as we let him.