America’s Autumn

“The end of something I did not want to end/Beginning of hard times to come.”

Autumn comes again, heavy of campaign ads. (Conjoining a The Streets lyric with a politic-paraphrased Chaucer line? Oh, gird yourselves, my fervent fans, because we’re departing on a real self-indulgent Anglo extravaganza! And I haven’t even gotten to Her Majesty’s passing yet. Rest in regal peace.)

Unless you’re a cenobite monk secluded from the piercing attention suck of social media, you know it’s officially election season. Candidates are pounding the pavement, pressing the flesh, hustling on the hustings, and kissing more kiddos than Joe Biden at a Chuck E. Cheese, just to clinch that last bit of support before that fateful first Tuesday of November.

No doubt your poor ear drums are being accosted with more seasonally shopworn clichés than a HR slide deck. Most important election of your lifetime! Vote like democracy depends on it! MAGA fascists! Liberal commies! [Trump/Obama/Biden/Reagan/FDR/Lincoln] is on the ballot! Vote America-First! Vote preferred-pronouns first! The next generation is counting on you! Save the children! Save the elderly! Save the teachers! Save the middle class! Save everyone, you lazy, self-centered slugabed!

Media airwaves are saturated with pitches and pitchforks. Campaign spending is on course to hit $9 billion this cycle—more than 18 times the amount spent on pumpkin spiced coffee, cakes, cookies, candles, cones, candy corn, Cheerios, cream cheese, comestibles, and various non-edible confections. (That raises the question: why didn’t Donald Trump make a play for the right-elusive educated-young-white-girl demo by branding himself as the pumpkin spice pol? Hello, RNC, I have a zillion-dollar idea!)

Same as it ever was at the horse races. Yet this particular election season feels like a last breath, a final heave of an older order clinging to power before the last rattle. Cloying candidates and monochrome adverts aren’t going away, sorry to say. But the politics they represent—the stances, the ideology, the conciliatory dispensation—is changing, morphing into something more accordant with the rollicking demos.

Call it an autumn-onset augury. Or the lingering feeling of loss after seeing my oldest off to her first year of school. Or play pop alienist and diagnose the notion as residual shock from Queen Elizabeth’s death. Or the knock-on nostalgia produced from a Teen Vogue piece on how Disney Channel honored America in 9/11’s jarring wake.

Whatever the case, the current political class isn’t long for this country. The biological clock is ticking. President Biden can only replace his teeth veneers so many times before the chiaroscuro contrast with his liver spots starts giving children nightmares. If Nancy Pelosi botoxes her maw any more, her mandible might hit the floor. Hillary Clinton’s varicose veins are only getting bluer, and will soon resemble hubby Bill’s nethers at a Little Rock clip joint. Donald Trump has to be running out of his Aquanet stores by now. John Kerry resembles the graying Ents he jets around the globe to save. And Mitch McConnell can only lap the Aldabra giant tortoise’s lifespan so many times.

That’s all to say that American gerontocracy is on its way out. Washington will soon stop resembling Shady Acres and start looking like a Gen. X lounge room, minus the flannel.

Consider the current presidential administration. Or don’t, rather—because only the doe-iest eyed sap actually believes Silent Gen. Joe is running the show. The President can’t decide if Trumpies are little Mussos or mostly “very fine people,” let alone ensure the correct gender nomenclature is being printed on official White House correspondence. Don’t bother bringing up the cackle-bubbling Vice President either. Harris—wait, that’s her surname, right? *Googles quick to make sure.*—is a functional non-entity in the White House, not even bothering to refresh her stump speech. After a slew of expensive legislation that plants Tesla chargers at your local 7-11, the Biden Administration’s key players are all but out the door. Republicans capturing either congressional chamber in two months will only reinforce the eviction.

It’s 2022, so everyone’s spyglassing 2024. Congressional Democrats are openly enjoining their near-octogenarian leader to step aside. One recently rubbed out rep. bid Biden to refrain from running, before running the advice back herself. Kamala2024.com is for sale for a song—not exactly an early vote of confidence from campaign operators. Whoever the Democratic nominee is, he or she or they or ze will have assuredly ditch pragmatism in favor of DEI militarism.

Across the aisle, a Trump retread seems likely, though enthusiasm is waning for 45. Many MAGA personalities are boosting inheritors of the Trumpian mantle, such as Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator John Hawley. Meanwhile, Trump spends most of his days “truthing” away in his echo chamber while awaiting an indictment.

Speaking of, the entire January 6th-elector-scheme dragnet the DOJ is trawling with is symbolic of the encroaching era-change. The President legally pursuing his predecessor is the stuff of banana republics south of our border. Barack Obama refrained from going after Bush fils over illegal interrogatory methods (read: torture). Trump enjoys no such deference despite his catchpenny, and ultimately futile, schemes to remain president. Moreover, his twin-impeachment is inspiring a tit-for-tat retaliation that will make use of Article II’s deposition tool a regular event. A handful of blood-sniffing Republicans in the House are already champing at the impeachment bit.

Our politics are becoming more beholden to populares who, like online virality chasers, try to fill the insatiable cravings of instant-gratification voters. Trump wasn’t the catalyst to this change, but he certainly played his bit. Bernie Sanders helped spark the revolution, though, like Robespierre in stock, he probably doesn’t yet understand he’ll rue its fruits. And despite their advanced age, both Trump and Sanders have paved the way for the passing of the post-war liberal-democratic order and all it has represented.

Uniparty consensus is fracturing into rage-hustling cliques: MAGA patriots pitted against Green New Dealers; red states baiting blue state exoders; super-nationalism versus globalism; direct democrats versus anti-liberals; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the GQ cover versus Marjorie Taylor Greene screeching on Facebook Live.

The center isn’t holding, and in some ways that’s inevitable. Millions of Americans continue to voice dissatisfaction with the country’s trajectory.

The wild swings in congressional control over the past decade, and ousting of long-time incumbents by angry upstarts, shows that Fenno’s paradox won’t be making it into the latest edition of American Government.

Tocqueville, who knew a thing or two about the state’s evolution, said the “most dangerous time for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform.” We’re certainly in a reformist period—the worry is what government we get on the other side. Will the America-Firsters finally be first? Will the woke socialists establish an equity regime? Will the Libertarian Party hit a long-sought breakthrough moment amid the angst? (The trolls who run its New Hampshire Twitter are determined to not let that happen.)

Here comes the self-conscious disclaimer: Maybe I’m pining for a peaceable past that never existed—the Pleasantville years of Harry & Ike where everyone got along, all men wore rayon suits and shook hands, women had dimples and dinner ready on demand, and Congress only bickered over marginal tax rates. American politics has long been an uncivil sport. Congressmen used to beat one another senseless over slights. The country famously split and shed fathoms of blood to reunite. Fifty years ago this very year, major cities were hit by almost 2,000 domestic bombings.

“Only those who are belated can observe a ruined form,” wrote Susan Stewart. Time in its grand sweep may prove me wrong or right. Most likely wrong—no Nostradamus am I. But if I’m right… well let this be a proto-I-told-you-so.

Perhaps I’m overselling how wobbly my legs feel on so much shifting ground. And perhaps our post-cordial years will, like so much internet chatter, be so much sound and fury atop the same-old, same-old. We may find such a state to be a blessing in disguise.

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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