Are we heading into a “vibes” election next year?
I suppose I owe it to my more back-numbered readers to define my millennial slanguage. (And to apologize for being a millennial—I know we’re all insolent swine who scoff at requests to convert Word docs to PDFs.)
By vibes election, I mean a political contest based on pathos, not logos. (Sorry, Libertarian Party. You’re in for a tougher go of it than usual—not that you’ll be on the ballot in all 50 states anyway.)
Andrew Sullivan thinks so. He’s getting that 2016 feeling all over again. Discontent roils the west, webbing cracks in its liberal foundation. Orwell’s plebeian “tug from below” grows stronger, like a toddler growing more and more impatient awaiting its Snack Pack.
Argentina just elected an an-cap president. Geert Wilders won big—or groot—in the Netherlands on a hard-line anti-immigration platform (and dashing platinum mullet.) Tattooed brawler Conor McGregor is supposedly serious about a presidential bid in Ireland. Polls everywhere find immense dissatisfaction, especially on key electoral variables: crime, economy, hope for the future.
Just the perception of elite arrogance brought us the Trump-Brexit blowout in one year. Since that seismic season, we in the U.S. have lived through a plague, two new wars, a racial “reckoning” that was a euphemism for marauding lawlessness, a surging inflation bout, a gas shortage, weekly neo-Nazi marches, the DOJ prosecuting a presidential frontrunner, Nicolas Cage decamping from Tinsel Town, the New England Patriots struggling through the worst season in franchise history, and Ridley Scott butchering a hyped Napoleon biopic.
President Biden’s approvals are stuck in a tailspin; ditto Vice President Harris. Both were elected on a competence ticket, not a let’s-have-a-beer-and-chat platform. (The only drink worth enjoying with cochlea-crushing Kamala is cyanide.) They’ve been unable to lift the national spirit despite inheriting a rebounding economy, reopening schools, a spending bonanza, and a return to relative “normalcy.”
Sullivan takes our tachycardiac pulse and determines: “All I can say is I can feel the rage that’s destroying incumbents the world over. It isn’t deep down what I know. But it is how I feel.”
His foreboding feelies aren’t unique. Matt Yglesias offers that “incumbents have been losing across the English-speaking world.” Biden, Yglesias reckons, is hard done by an exogenous malaise he can’t counteract with reasoned appeals. The American economy “technically” grew by over 5% last quarter. The unemployment rate just fell a few notches to 3.7%. Businesses are planning to expand. Yet the same halting presentiments keep popping up in polls. The flesh is willing but the Gemeingeist is weak.
Aggrievement doesn’t quietly pool. It must be channeled somewhere. The easiest, most cathartic means to express outrage is giving a plebiscite punch to the reigning power. The Oval Office is a big bullseye, and Joe Biden sits behind the Resolute Desk, either napping, spacing out, watching “M*A*S*H” reruns, or mumbling to himself about ice cream. But he presides nonetheless.
Is it fair? Is it fair that feelings often win over facts in elections? Doesn’t it violate some imagined civil code to accept that feewings are the voters’ mainspring—not careful consideration of the “issues,” a prudent balancing freedom with responsibility, and personally sacrificing for the common good?
That’s asking the wrong questions. Of course elections are unfair… unfair for the loser that is. Voters aren’t coldly rational calculators, crunching numbers to see which candidate will best boost national GDP. Martin Amis wrote that in fiction people become coherent and intelligible even though we know they aren’t like that. Political analysts engage in the same projection. (Except for yours truly!) The forecasters, pundits, commentators, columnists all try to make sense of the demos by assuming every potential ballot-caster bothers to use good sense.
Not to get all Walt Whitmany, but everyone, from the grizzled factotum who thinks voting is useless after a 12-hour shift to the Cook Political Report-reading Beltway drip who gets off on Election Day, holds beliefs that are loose, hardly formed, contradictory, and fragmented by many other notions.
Bill Kauffman once told the story of how he was walking to the polls in 2016 with a hippy-dippy friend who was planning on voting for Jill Stein. But then halfway there she flipped, declaring, “To hell with it; I’m voting for Trump to stick it to the media.”
The rapid ripensamento may not make sense. But giving the establishment the shock of a lifetime must have felt pretty good for those few short minutes in the polling booth. Sometimes it takes one bitter hind kick to really vent.
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of,” Pascal famously said. The voter too has his reasons the commentariat can’t quantify.