I've seen enough!
On the most depressing election cycle of my lifetime
Top notes: I took what felt like a risk last week and wrote about a topic that many people don’t care about at all but which deeply animates the small niche audience that does care about it. That felt like a pretty good recipe to get 80% ignored and 20% yelled at, but in practice I received so many thoughtful replies from every imaginable angle and well, that was very nice. Thank you.
Also: I know I’ve been beginning these with some sort of call to action about supporting The White Pages with a paid subscription. I do so because this is my actual job and I need to support my family and I believe in asking your community for the actual thing you need. It’s still such a beautiful surprise, though, that every time I ask, a few more people help. Thanks to all the new subscribers from last week.
This week: I’m bummed out! For electoral reasons! And I’m about to find out if I’m the only one (and also if Tuesday late afternoon is a terrible time to send this out!)
I had an entirely different newsletter queued up for this week. I wasn’t going to write about the midterm elections (again!) but then I woke up this morning and had what passes for an epiphany these days, which is usually a good cue to put some thoughts in writing. I hesitate to use the phrase “American politics finally broke me” because that seems at once melodramatic and not terribly descriptive but I’m not sure if I have a better one close at hand.
Ok, let’s try this:
I think all American election cycles are fairly soul crushing, but this particular midterm election cycle has been the worst of my lifetime. It’s been more cynical, more depressing and more damaging to the emotional and spiritual muscles that we need to actually build a better world.
That’s saying a lot! Because I’ve seen a lot of depressing elections! Do kids these days know what it was like to be on an actual liberal arts college campus in the year 2000? We had been told that the world would end in January because our computers couldn’t do math, but that didn’t happen! We lived! We were basically Gods on Earth at that point, convinced we could save America if only we made the perfect knock-out punch “Nader vs. Gore” argument. And so that’s what we did! All the time!
We argued and argued and argued with each other and it all felt incredibly important and then the Bush campaign and the Supreme Court got together and did the wonkiest, most boring coup ever and everybody sort of shrugged it off. Then there were wars and we protested those wars but the wars kept going and before I knew it I was a twenty-something in a swing state being told that John Kerry was the voice of my generation. You do not believe me but there was an actual arena rock concert tour and everything. R.E.M. or Dave Matthews or one of the (presumably) five members of Jurassic 5 would get on stage and presumably be like “you know what’s cool? Voting for a man so old-money and WASP-y that his great great grandfather was the actual Plymouth Rock.” Sean “Diddy” Combs told us that our only two choices were voting or dying. John Kerry accepted the Democratic nomination in the least cool way possible. A bunch of Republicans made up ads that were basically like “every single American casualty in Vietnam was John Kerry’s fault because he was a coward and a loser” and those ads worked and we were all like “well I guess this is what politics is” and Bush won again.
I am skipping a lot, of course. I am fast forwarding past Citizens United and Obama and how we all came to realize that sometimes winning can feel like losing if the big money boys are still pulling the strings. I am ignoring Bernie vs. Hilary and Everything Trump and all that other stuff we’ve lived together.
I am skipping all that both because I’ve made my point and because any elders reading this are rightfully accusing me of stolen valor. How dare I try to claim to have weathered depressing election cycles if I wasn’t alive for Nixon! He literally sabotaged a peace process to win an election! That’s objectively more traumatic than “John Kerry had uncool vibes!” And that’s a good point. How dare I, indeed!
I’m just saying, I’ve been dispirited before being dispirited was cool.
More importantly, I had— prior to the previous few months— figured out how to be pretty even keeled about this whole electoral politics thing. I wasn’t a nihilist. I hadn’t given up on the whole affair. I voted for the candidates whom I thought would do the most good and the least harm. When inspired— either by fear or hope— I’d give money and knock on doors and make some phone calls. I moved more of my attention further down the ballot and tried to not get distracted by big attention-seeking personalities. I reminded myself that the electoral stuff was only a small sliver of the work and that there was community to be built and boring but crucial meetings to attend and occasionally a street or two to blockade.
I hadn’t resigned myself to the shallowness of American politics: the egoists and their hangers-on, the focus grouped messages and the corporate money defining the terms of the debate. It’s just that it rarely felt necessary to re-litigate those points. We all knew the game is stupid and rigged. None of us liked it. None of us were having any fun. We knew the drill: do the right electoral things to stave off disaster and try to ignore the parts that are unspeakably depressing.
So why now? Why this midterm election? Why haven’t I been able to tamp down the noise? Why haven’t my normal coping mechanisms (seriously limiting my time on social media, avoiding cable news, unsubscribing from emails) been enough? Why am I so distracted this time around?
I mean, it’s the text messages, right? I have wireless headphones and I held off far too long before disabling the feature where a text comes in and the computer voice reads your message to you. I know, I know… but it’s pretty useful when I’m out running and I get an urgent text from my wife. Or at least it was until every time I started hearing the little electronic “bing” it was immediately followed by a “you have received a long message and an image from the telephone number —- —- ——-” and I’d just know that when I’d check my phone later there’d be another picture of Nancy Pelosi or James Carville or Stacy Abrams looking at me disapprovingly and telling me that democracy was on the line in Georgia. They didn’t mean it. I knew that. They just wanted money. I’m sure they knew how much I hated all of this but I’m also sure that they didn’t care, because every time they sent one of those texts their little fundraising dashboard lit up and suddenly there was enough money for another month of D.C.-area consultants ordering Sweetgreen on the company card.
It’s the text messages, but it’s also the “Oh my God you have to see this” clips that reduce all of this to gossip-y mush. It doesn’t matter if I limit myself to fifteen minutes a day on social media. The clips still find their way to me. If I don’t see them on Twitter, I’ll see them in some newspaper aggregation column further down the line. We are in debate season, which means that fifteen minutes is more than enough to learn that Herschel Walker has a silly fake badge but he claims that it’s a real badge and Ron Johnson wonders why Mandela Barnes hates America if he has nice parents and Tim Ryan apparently did an epic takedown of J.D. Vance and kept saying “kiss ass” and OH MY GOD DID YOU HEAR WHAT MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE SAID, SHE IS STILL TALKING ABOUT LITTER BOXES IN HIGH SCHOOLS EVEN THOUGH JOHN OLIVER JUST DEBUNKED THAT MYTH.
It’s all that, of course, but how can I not mention the ads? I’ve talked about the ads already. There isn't much more to say about the ads, but they are always there, just making you hate this whole enterprise, just making you distrust your neighbors a little bit more.
Speaking of neighbors, I normally love political canvassers but lately the canvassers around me have resigned themselves to superficial quick hits around our neighborhood— just putting signs up and not staying to talk. Yesterday, I was sitting in my living room looking out my window and saw a canvasser walk up my steps. I quickly got up to open the door, but they hurried off before I could even say hi. They left a flyer; it was branded with the name of a local community organization to which I donate monthly, one that sends me weekly emails promising me that they’re doing “relational organizing” and “deep canvassing” across the city. I would have loved to have talked to a neighbor, but instead I just got one more scary flyer reminding me that TIM MICHELS AND RON JOHNSON ARE TOO RADICAL FOR WISCONSIN.
If I’m really being honest, though, I made a rookie mistake early this summer. I let my guard down and became too optimistic too quickly.
Like a lot of us, I remember the Kansas abortion referendum and how clearly that victory for reproductive rights was won through grassroots conversations and hold-on-tight-we’re-gonna-save-our-community-together gumption. It was exciting enough that I tricked myself into imagining that maybe this could be the moment that the Democratic Party would get the message. Maybe, with such a clear attack on so many Americans coming from the Supreme Court, we could start actually talking about what it meant to be a country that takes care of one another. I imagined candidates campaigning on reproductive justice, of course, but also how we are all fending for ourselves and there’s no social net and yes the price of groceries is up but that’s because the corporations will always screw you for an extra buck. I was excited for what that might mean for the fall. I was up for a conversation about the government's role in a broader network of care. I was ready for some righteous fury and some galvanizing hope.
That was dumb of me and I should have known better. Instead I’ve felt empty and manipulated as I’ve watched an issue I legitimately care about (reproductive justice) run through a cynical messaging machine. It is clear that somewhere in a thousand soulless consultant offices there is Very Strong Polling Data showing that abortion galvanizes both “the Democratic base” and “key swing suburban voters” and so we are in fact hearing about abortion, but only in the most narrow, individualistic way possible. We are not hearing about what it would look like to be a country that takes care of one another. We are hearing about Specific Radical Republicans Who Support Bans Without Exceptions. We are told that if we vote out those Radical Republicans we will feel better. That is all we need to do. Our job will be done.
I feel dirty after hearing these messages— whether in a news article or an ad or a website pop-up. I don’t feel like a citizen. I don’t feel like a resident of a community. I feel like a lab rat who the scientists have determined will run through my maze if they put the right piece of scary-looking cheese at the end. And there’s a good reason for that feeling. I mean, that’s basically what I’m being asked to do. And that’s all my conservative neighbors are being asked to do, too— their maze just has, like, thin blue lines on it while mine has a nice space for me to write my pronouns down.
I wish I had a better term for all this, but it really did break me yesterday when that canvasser ran away from my door without even trying to talk to me. And no, I don’t know their story and context and I’m sure there was a good reason. It would have been mathematically stupid for them to talk to me. I am already voting the way they want me to vote. My box comes pre-checked, and I know that’s all that matters in this “Get Out The Vote” moment. There is never any time to spare during this, the fifteenth consecutive Most Important Election of My Lifetime.
I was just looking forward to talking to them, is all. I wanted to hear why they cared so much about this election that they were out on an extremely cold fall day knocking on doors. I wanted to hear what would need to be true for them to feel like their government and their neighbors cared about them. I wanted to hear what gave them hope that we could build that here and what made them frightened that we’ll miss our moment. I wanted them to invite me to a meeting and I wanted to go, even if I knew that meeting would probably run on too long and accomplish too little. I wanted to go and hear what it felt like for everybody when that Supreme Court decision came down, what it feels like to have to buy fewer groceries these days, what it feels like to know the city doesn’t have the money to fix the holes in our roads. I wanted to get mad in that meeting, and then I wanted to go to another one.
I know that’s what I really want, and I know that’s accessible to me, and so that’s what I’ll keep doing. Slowly but surely, I’ll get less distracted by the nonsense again.
I have a hunch, though, that I’m not the only one who is feeling a level of electorally-triggered grief and distraction and hopelessness right now. I have a hunch that I’m not the only one whose angst goes beyond worrying that our political team might lose in a few weeks. I have a hunch that I’m not the only one who hates being treated like a means to an end for a self-supporting industry.
And so, I will go to those meetings. I will focus on the work that makes me feel more human rather than less human. But some days, I also need to admit that it’s too much, all of this. If you’re there too, I see you. You’re not wrong. You’re not imagining this feeling. We really do all deserve something so much better.
This week’s song:
I referenced how 2004 was littered with efforts to make voting for John Kerry seem cool and urgent amongst young people. One of those efforts was a (get ready for the most 2004 White liberal sentence possible)… Dave Eggers/Moveon.org project called A Future Dictionary/Future Soundtrack For America. I bought both, because I am one of the most responsive members of a target demographic you’ve ever met. The CD was pretty weird (OK GO! covering The Zombies in their “pre viral treadmill video” era). The best song was Jimmy Eat World’s cover of Game of Pricks, but I’ve already chosen a Game of Pricks cover as a song of the week so instead let’s go with the second best song, a typically angular and energetic Sleater Kinney song called “Off With Your Head.”
This week’s subscriber’s only discussion:
Tomorrow’s discussion will be a companion piece to this essay. We’ll be sharing “electoral survival tips”— races or candidates that actually inspire us, cool stories of politicians not being self-interested jerks, hints on how to avoid getting sucked into depressing media holes, etc.
It think that’ll be fun, but I really want to tell you about last week’s discussion. We did top “five lists about anything” and they were, quite honestly, the best. Top five apples! Top five pop duets of the ‘90s! Top five books where the characters have a crisis of faith in a fictional religion! Top five ways/places to drink a Coke! And so many others!
You should join us! And if the cost of a subscripiton is the issue, don’t let it be! Email email@example.com and I will comp you, no questions asked.