Thoughts from the Ledge of Democracy

Today was a gorgeous, disquietingly warm day in early November. New York’s trees had a soft-lensed sunlight (Like God had just finished his second semester of film school) to work with as they staged their climactic scenes of swooning, poetic decay. Say this for autumn: it has perfected the art of dying. It makes it seem lovely and painless. It’s enough to make you believe death can be an aesthetic ideal to look forward to.

It was also, in my area anyway, oddly quiet.

Aw, This Feels Like It’s Going to Be a Gentle, Reflective Post. Nice. Although This Death Metaphor Feels Worrisome.

This site is meant to be a space dedicated, in one form or another, to the freedom of expression. That’s a beautiful idea for a glorious concept: freedom of expression, thought, passion. I’ve taken that freedom for granted all my life. But this weekend, watching the leaves cascade to the ground as nature closes its final chapter before winter and staring down the barrel of what may well be the most consequential American election in at least a century, taking such freedoms for granted feels obscene. Because the election of November 8th, 2022, is all but assured to be a tragedy, regardless of the vote totals.

Crap.

Let me explain what I mean by this. If one side wins, to be specific, the side that’s upfront about repurposing state legislatures into de facto rubber stamps for their party, the notion of democratic elections with integrity will die off to a potentially lethal degree. This party’s nominee for governor in Wisconsin, for example, has told supporters at rallies more than once that if he’s elected, he will guarantee his party will never lose another election in that state.

In way, he’s a breath of fresh air: why even pretend to care about democracy? Politics in America (and in countries such as Hungary, Italy, Turkey, Poland, and a growing number of others) has metastasized into a gleefully naked power grab, in which the basic assumptions that make democracies function have been replaced by an electoral mosh pit, a zero sum game in which the sole object is the accretion of power.

This endless hunger to control the levers of government is not born from a desire to further any political aims. Yes, there are, of course, tribal shibboleths leaders pay fiery lip service to. These grievances dressed up as policies are usually based on cultural divisions and a relentless othering of those in different demographics. But those at the top of this toxic food chain, with a few exceptions, are merely parroting these policies because they are the easiest means to their ends.

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And the crueler the means of grabbing this power, the better. Many in the OTHER party insists on dissipating its energies on shock at the other party’s vigorous cruelty; they refuse to accept the fact that the cruelty is the entire point. All the better to dismiss your adversaries – no, enemies – views as stupid, weak, and dangerous.

Seriously, Jack, Maybe Stop Watching The Handmaid’s Tale For a Few Weeks.

But OK, wait a minute. I’m acting like the results of this election are a given. They’re not. In fact, in many places, things could break the way of the other party. So maybe I should take a freaking Yoga class and chill out.

But that’s the thing. If the election does break the way of the second party, the first party has already said they won’t accept those results. They’re not even waiting until the votes are tallied. The only way the election can be legitimate, they and their acolytes maintain, is if they win. A loss isn’t a loss: it’s proof of fraud. In this way, they have inoculated themselves against any of the pernicious pitfalls that normally attend democratic elections, like the chance your side might lose.

Democracy can only operate under the implicit assumption that we know we can’t always get our way, that we will have to at least to try to find common ground. But for all too many people on both sides of the political spectrum view common ground as a fetid swamp. Compromise is surrendering to evil, because the systematic othering of our political adversaries makes opposing viewpoints not just disagreeable. They are, in fact, moral abominations. To try to meet people half way, therefore, is to enable the other side’s unmitigated evil.

Surely, This is Where I Find the Silver Lining, Right?

I have an audio play coming out next week (have I mentioned that yet? I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned that I have an audio play dropping on all podcast platforms for free on November 9th called Step 9, produced by New Normal Rep. I probably should mention it more to cover my bases). In it, a character remarks that her brain has become, “An endless hall of broken mirrors.” This is how I feel when I look at the days ahead for many of the democracies in the West.

OK, Obviously That Wasn’t the Silver Lining Part. But I’m About to Quote Lincoln. And That’s Gotta Be the Uplifting Conclusion We’ve Stuck It Out This Far For.

Years before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln once pondered what could bring about the end of the American Experiment. He mused:

“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”

Et Tu, Abe? OK, I’ll Give It A Crack

For all of my talk earlier of how one party has turned the democratic process into a Catch-22 (If we win, it’s fair. This is proven by the fact we won; if we lose, it’s unfair, proven by the fact that we lost), it’s not like America, to say nothing of Europe, hasn’t faced grim political atmospheres before.

We’ve all had our share of seemingly intractable conflicts which ultimately, often after years and much blood, sweat, and tears have been shed, have ended on the side of the angels. Or at least the non-devils.

We’ve found a way to pull the forces of freedom off of the ledge of despotism. So the national “suicide” Lincoln spoke of isn’t inevitable.

But looking at the ever-thickening carpet of pretty, dead leaves piling all around me today, and sitting in the day’s quiet, the fall feels already here.

What are your thoughts?

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23 thoughts on “Thoughts from the Ledge of Democracy

  1. Love the headings. Just reading through them makes me chuckle all over again.

    And I agree about the feeling about next week. It feels like the air is just crackling.

    I’ve been reading Anand Giridharadas book The Persuaders and the premise dovetails nicely with the Lincoln quote and your point about finding common ground. It’s that we start failing as a country when we dismiss each other – when we give up trying to talk to each other. And he points out that our tendency now to do that is what the Russians were trying to exacerbate in 2016.

    Two things make me feel hopeful. Of course, the Step 9 release for one- because if the country is going down at least we’ll be well entertained.

    And secondly, Giridharadas also points out that the US is a country of immigrants has done some amazing things in trying to welcome all. Which works well with your point that we’ve “pulled the forces of freedom off the ledge before.” He also presents some great ideas about how we can restore meeting each other where we are at and hopefully we’ll have the chance to do that peacefully.

    I just wish Step 9 was coming out the day before the election, instead of the day after because it would greatly help with my nerves. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Jack.

    1. Ok, I have to ask: what is Step 9?

      I, too, am feeling anxious about this election. Holding my breath things might change here in Texas. But, like, like you and Jack, I hope regardless of the outcomes, we can, as a nation and as communities, start trying to find our way back to one another.

      1. “Finding our way back to one another” – what a beautiful phrase, Belle! Goodness, I hope so – and I believe that most of the people in our country want that too so hopefully we can start making steps to get there.

        Step 9 is a play that Jack wrote that is being produced as a theatrical podcast and will be released on Wednesday. It’s the story of someone who receives an apology as the 9th step in a 12 step program and then has to decide what to do.

        Here’s the description from the site, “STEP 9 tells the story of Emily, a woman wrestling with the implications of prosecuting the man who raped her in college 30 years ago. Is she willing to relive the horror of that night in the pursuit of justice? Pressured by both her strong-willed, pragmatic mother and her daughter, a passionate 21-year-old social justice warrior, Emily grapples to balance her need for due process with her emotional well-being. ”

        Hope you are enjoying the weekend even as you are holding your breath. 🙂

      2. Oh, awesome! Thanks for telling me about this play! Is there a place I can find the podcast? It sounds like a very interesting and complex story.

        I agree that most people want to come together rather than keep feeding these divides that are occurring. At least I hope this is the case. Keep the faith, my friend.

  2. The citizen in me shares your election concerns but the writer in me loves that first paragraph!

  3. Thank you for the opportunity to laugh and sniffle. 😉 Commiserating is good, right?
    But this: “A loss is a proof of fraud”. Lunacy that summarizes so much…like Wynne said…feels like crackling air, a foreboding in a “…by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes” kinda way.

      1. Yes, indeed, we do…and while it doesn’t rock the world or change big outcomes, having like-minded soul sisters…and brothers 😉 helps to shoo away the scaries (mostly).
        xo, Wynne!

      2. Well said, Vicki! I just wish we could get together for a cup of tea while to wait this one out. I’m sure we will one day… 🙂

  4. Re “democracies”

    Any alleged expert who talks about “democracies” AS IF a real democracy ACTUALLY EXISTS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD (or has existed at any time) is evidently living mindlessly and blindly in the propaganda world fed to them since a kid and/or is part of the (unconscious, ignorant, naive, willful) crowd who disseminates this total lie — see “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” … https://www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html

    “All experts serve the state and the media and only in that way do they achieve their status. Every expert follows his master, for all former possibilities for independence have been gradually reduced to nil by present society’s mode of organization. The most useful expert, of course, is the one who can lie. With their different motives, those who need experts are falsifiers and fools. Whenever individuals lose the capacity to see things for themselves, the expert is there to offer an absolute reassurance.” —Guy Debord

    Isn’t it about time for anyone to wake up to the ULTIMATE DEPTH of the human rabbit hole — rather than remain blissfully willfully ignorant in a fantasy land and play victim like a little child?

    “Separate what you know from what you THINK you know.” — Unknown

    1. You seem very angered by this post; that must be frustrating for you. I don’t think of myself in any a way an expert on democracy. Or really, anything.

      Personally, I find Debord’s writings insightful at times but by and large painfully reductive. Of course much of our culture is predicated on Spectacle. Perhaps that was an interesting insight in Parisian cafes in the 1950s, though I doubt it.

      Most of us get it. The idea of some sort of pure and untainted democratic ideal is, at best, aspirational, and more likely closer to naive.

      But he’s also – and your quotes here are wonderful examples of this – often cringingly reductive. He writes inevitably in such sweeping and absolute statements that leave no room for the nuances of reality.

      In his reductive philosophy, with which you seem to adhere, there is no qualitative difference between a government headed by Donald Trump and the MAGA shock troops and the admittedly compromised (at times downright sclerotic) Democrats or Mitt Romney Republicans. Such a stance may sound tenable in theory, but in the real world, it’s disconnected from the world.

      It’s neither revelatory nor relevant that democracy has never been, well, purely democratic. and in fact I think the tenor of your response here strikes a nihilistic note. I personally find it hard to engage with such a mindset.

      Of course democracies have never been perfect, and usually aren’t within an affordable cab ride of being so.

      But arguing all democracies are nothing but unalloyed con jobs and utterly without value means that all political platforms and parties are indistinguishable from each other.

      It’s apt one of his books was published with a sandpaper cover so as to damage any other books placed near it. It’s apt because it’s both hilariously obnoxious – quite literally abrasive – and symbolically aimed at erasing any hope of meaningful dialogue.

      Not to mention such an attitude lets its adherents off of the hook. It demands no action, as all is futility.

      It’s also narcissistic and adolescent. The absolutes he wrote in reflect, to me (and many others, of course. I’m not being remotely original here) disqualify such views from serious discussion.

      His thinking and writing might as well be in all caps.

      More to the point: what’s your alternative? Decrying the obvious – that democracies inevitably fail to live up to their ideals – seems a waste of time to me. We all know this. It’s not as sweepingly bad as Debord claimed, but then, his pronouncements hold currency only in theoretical, academic circles (and less and less so as time goes on). It doesn’t help quell insurrection, it doesn’t ameliorate the upswing of antisemitism, or give women their bodily autonomy back.

      But if you feel it important to prioritize the given that democracies are never pure or even wholly democratic over the aforementioned concerns, well, that’s what comment pages are for.

  5. I can only agree on this very good article. What I find scary is that the “looser” is not prepared to accept the results. Maybe we should start thinking in a different way, getting rid of this dichotomy winner – looser, and those who loose could begin to work on their own project. What I mean is that in my country, Italy, I don’t see a project (social, economic, industrial, ecological,…) from those who lost the elections. They are against the winners’ programme but I think that they haven’t built their own identity and therefore are incapable of offering a different vision of the world. Just some thoughts.

    1. Excellent points, Cristiana. I think if we retired the winner – loser dichotomy and expected the losers to still participate in some productive way maybe we’d have a lot fewer sore losers. But you’re right, the idea that if I win, the election is real but if I don’t win, the election must be fraudulent is really scary. Hoping that the ship holds together….

  6. How do you feel now, Jack, after what happened on Tuesday? I have to admit that I feel a touch calmer. Things may still go to hell in a handbasket, but my BP is now back to running at pretty much normal. I’m really a “half glass empty” type of guy, but I’ve always wanted to see it as half full. Today, at least for the next five minutes, I feel a touch optimistic. It’s not a feeling I’m accustomed to feeling…

    1. I also am pleasantly surprised. The thing that makes me most happy is it buying large all of the MAGA candidates lost and buying large all of them excepted that loss. That’s the thing that surprises me and gives me some hope

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