Every American public intellectual must eventually face a hard truth: American electoral politics are not worthy of sustained analysis. Only when placed in a broader context of economic transformations and extra-electoral struggles do they take on any genuine interest, and even then the strictly electoral aspect is bound to be the least compelling part of the narrative. Taken as a whole, our ruling classes are beneath contempt — an ensemble of short-sighted, corrupt mediocrities — and the few exceptions are basically a rounding error.
The response to such a dispiriting situation might seem obvious, namely, to avoid talking about or engaging with electoral politics unless strictly necessary. That difficulty, however, is that the whole of what passes for American public life is oriented around electoral politics. Policy decisions are normally discussed solely in terms of possible electoral strategies and outcomes, and even private conversations about politics tend to devolve into a binary choice between Democrats and Republicans. It is not enough for us to show up to vote — we must be perpetually campaigning for our preferred side, which means maintaining the party discipline of all those around us.
There is a difference between Republicans and Democrats. It is not as large as I wish it were, but it is large enough to make a difference and large enough to make the trouble of voting worth it for me as a harm reduction measure. Whenever there’s a primary, I vote for the left-most Democrat, and whenever there’s a general election, I vote for the Democrat. These elections happen, at most, once or twice a year, and they represent an important, but fundamentally uninteresting binary choice. No one needs the amount of political news the average American — much less the average “very online” American — consumes in order to make that choice. If the goal is to affect election outcomes, then we are all wasting an unfathomable amount of time, in the outer reaches of a region light-years from the point of diminishing returns.
We used to hear a lot in the early Trumpocene that we should not allow Trump’s latest antics to “distract us” from the truly important things we should be paying attention to. People seem to have grown tired of that rhetorical pose as it has become increasingly clear that there is no underlying agenda behind the antics — he really is as racist and callous and self-aggrandizing as he appears. The surface is the reality. As annoyed as I was by their rhetoric, though, I’d suggest that the distractionists actually did not go far enough: all of it is a “distraction,” none of it is real. Yes, it has real effects, and yes, it makes a difference. But all of our politicians are, with certain admirable but marginal exceptions, corrupt opportunists who are responding to forces more fundamental than those tracked by polling and pundits. The really interesting questions are why they act like they do, why our ramshackle apartheid “democracy” keeps producing these results, why the news media invests billions of dollars annually in convincing us that the petty grievances and bad-faith arguments of this class of sad losers is the most important and interesting thing in the world.
The challenge, though, is that to be heard at all in what we laughingly call the public sphere, the intellectual must — or at least feels they must — somehow contextualize their point in the struggle between the sad losers everyone hates. So that sucks.