If Biden wins, it is not going to feel like you want it to feel. That’s what I wrote in the piece that went up yesterday on MSNBC, about the two sets of plans that people were having to hold in their heads: one for the scenario that we’re living through right now, with a potentially contested election, and another for what to do if Biden won, and some sort of change felt possible. I don’t know what’s going to happen, or how it’s going to unroll, even if signs do seem to eventually point to a Biden victory. What I do know is that this, right now, feels nothing like relief, or catharsis, or joy.
It doesn’t feel like shock, like 2016. It doesn’t really feel like rage. It feels like exhaustion soaked in national and personal grief, which is also a fitting description for the last eight months. “My head knew it would go like this,” the writer Seyward Darby tweeted this morning. “My heart—apparently—wanted something different. I am trying today to bridge the gap between those parts of myself.”
The sadness, to me, is that people looked around them in this moment, and said, this, I want more of this. Not wanting substantive change in this moment — whether in regards to the climate, racial and social injustice, widening inequality, or this fucking pandemic — feels incomprehensible. But there are millions out there who are scared of or outright hostile towards change, protective of what little they have, and resent the change scenario set forth by the left. If change means masks, if change means regulations, if change means giving up their place in the class and racial hierarchy, if change means less of something for them and theirs, they don’t want it.
Regardless of who wins the presidential election, we are still stuck between a highly defensive, individualistic paradigm and a optimistically collectivist one. Each paradigm sees the other as anathema, and each paradigm has a media ecosystem built up to convince itself of its righteousness. If you’ve read this newsletter for any amount of time, you know which one of those paradigms I embrace, which one I feel is the way forward.
And as hopeful as I was, and am, about the future of that paradigm — I’m also not sure it’s been made irresistible, as Garrett Bucks pointed out a few weeks ago, invoking the work of Toni Cade Bambara. Last week, I read Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s new book The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. Putnam, a Harvard sociologist, is most famous for his book Bowling Alone, which traced the gradual disintegration of social and civic ties over the late 20th century, from social clubs like The Elks to, well, bowling leagues. In The Upswing, Putnam and Garrett build further on that work, looking to a full century’s worth of data on economic inequality, political polarization, and civic unity (in short: whether society thinks of itself as a “we” or a bunch of “I”s.) They argue that 1) the US has been in this shitty place before, back in the Gilded Age of the late 1800s; 2) a progressive coalition pulled us out of it societally, legislatively, and economically, with a brief regression during The Depression; 3) the US hit all-time collectivist highs, with far greater economic equality including for people who weren’t white, in the 1950s; 4) It all began to fall apart over the course of the 1970s and ‘80s, largely because the collectivist vision was still, at its foundation, unequal when it came to race.
The good news, Putnam and Garrett argue, is that we’re primed for another upswing — a new movement, ushered in by a coalition of progressive advocacy that at last accounts for and redresses racial inequality, and a new vision for what the United States could be. When I read the book last week, I felt like I was underlining every other sentence. But I couldn’t bring myself to start transcribing the quotes — the next step whenever I’m trying to think through an issue.
At the time, I thought it was an election stress avoidance. But now I wonder if it’s because part of me wanted to believe it — but couldn’t. It’s not that I don’t buy Putnam and Garrett’s argument; I do. I just think we haven’t quite hit the bottom of the downswing. That’s why this moment, even if Biden wins, is so exhausting: knowing there’s still real darkness to come before we can we start the work of climbing out of it.
And the darkness, at least in this moment, feels unnavigable. Polls? Wholly unreliable. Pundits, who cares. After all, the loudest, clearest voice to emerge from the 2016 election was the dude who wrote Hillbilly Elegy, and if wasn’t already clear, that dude can truly go fuck himself. I think white people have a lot to learn from what Garrett Bucks sent out this morning, and the work he’s doing with the Barnraisers Project. I think COVID and the singularity of Trump as a figurehead make it difficult to extrapolate any enduring lessons from this particular election, other than the fact that the Latino vote is not a monolith, something Latino journalists have been trying to say for years. I think this year’s turnout is to be celebrated but voter suppression in many states remains virulent and largely unchecked. I think we’re still living under minority rule, and the point of minority rule is to make you feel like shit and give up.
I think there are a lot of people who have not had confidence in the American project for a long time, if ever, and it’s worth listening and attending to not just what’s broken now, but what’s never been fixed. I think the glass is still half fucking full. And I think the work is not done, and we are not done with the work. ●
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