Granted, it’s never entirely not about the issues. The lawmakers we elect will invariably make decisions that will affect any number of human lives in any number of ways, and we the electorate know this. And yet it is for that very reason, in a bizarre twist of political irony befitting the absurdity of these times, that the issues our would-be lawmakers are pontificating on with apocalyptic fervor in their bids for our votes are presently of secondary concern. Secondary, that is, to one power-drunk man’s potential license to affect countless human lives unilaterally.
That man, who need not be named, has been making every effort to game the very system designed to prevent this sort of thing, to work around those pesky checks and balances by getting all three branches of government firmly in his pocket. He may be very nearly there; indeed he may already be there, albeit precariously so. Having manipulated his way to the top of executive government by playing to public fears and frustrations, and in the process securing a tight congressional majority for the party he hijacked for his personal gain, he was in an easy position to lure that party into a Faustian bargain, giving them (nearly) free reign to pursue the legislation of their dreams in exchange for (nearly) unwavering loyalty – the trait he, like any autocrat, appears to prize above all others. He and the GOP most likely had differing motivations for entering into this bargain, but judicially those interests dovetail: Republicans have their coveted right-liberal (the term I yell back every time I hear a news reporter call it “conservative”) Supreme Court majority, and their hijacker has a court stacked to rule in his favor if a case is brought against him. In fact they are already ruling in his favor (though thankfully not as reliably as he might like) in ways too undramatic, under present chaotic “norms”, to be more than a blip in the news summary, not to mention his capacity to even more undramatically fill the lower courts with presumed loyalists. This is what it’s like to have a democracy tottering on the brink of autocracy, accomplished not by a sudden violent coup d’état, but just gradually enough to avoid causing unmanageable levels of alarm, like the proverbial boiling of a frog. This is where we are.
I am not suggesting that the solution to this crisis of democracy is as simple as voting straight-ticket Democrat. I am not planning to do so myself, especially since I live in a state that’s beginning a hard-won implementation of ranked choice voting and has a fairly strong showing of independent candidates. What I am instead suggesting is that we vote for the candidates we judge most likely to keep their heads, rather than those who get us most fired up with hate for half of our compatriots. I would further suggest that the political dysfunction with which many of us, myself included, have been legitimately frustrated has only been exacerbated by the fervent favoring of “outsiders” to the point that a lack of qualification for public office is itself seen as a qualification for public office. We should have learned the hard way by now that governance doesn’t work that way.
All that being said, any real solution must go well beyond the midterm elections, and the least it will require of all of us is that we keep our own heads. To say this is not to underestimate the seriousness of the present situation by any means. Quite to the contrary, it is only by keeping our heads that we can hope to avoid playing into the hands of anyone who, from without or within, might profit from our division. Even with the possibility of our electoral process being susceptible to outside intervention, what I find most disturbing is not that this is the aim of a “foreign adversary”, but that we are so susceptible to it in the first place, so easily manipulated by and toward hate and fear. In that sense any external blame, too, is secondary to the sobering reality that we are all to blame for making such large-scale manipulation possible. (The post linked in the previous sentence is one I wrote five years ago; its final sentence was, “We haven’t seen the last of the nastiness, but hopefully we’ve seen the worst.” I only wish that didn’t sound so ridiculously naïve in hindsight.)
An essential function of democracy must be to keep self-interested power plays in check – especially when coming from its highest office. This is a necessary consideration at the voting booth, where the single most important question in this case may be who is most likely to be the least manipulatable, whatever their party affiliation. And it is no less necessary to consider the question beyond the voting booth, and to redirect it toward ourselves: how can we be less manipulatable? The answer will depend on a lot more than who we elect to represent us (and if we realize this, we are already less susceptible to their manipulations). It will depend on all of us, however we vote and whatever the outcome of this or any future election. It will depend on our capacity and willingness to keep our heads, to keep sight of our own and each other’s humanity, to rediscover what Abraham Lincoln, at an even more fractious time, referred to as “the better angels of our nature“, which is not merely to be nice, but to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (cf. Matt. 10:16). The profound uncertainty of this contingency leads me to a more somber conclusion: it remains to be seen whether the state of this democracy and its social fabric may yet get worse before it gets better.