• postmortems-yael-burstein
November 30, 2016

Election /// Postmortems

On election night we posted a translation of Nicolas Grimaldi’s foreword to The Twilight of Democracy, his 2014 essay on the fragility of the least worst form of government. What follows is the update to our original introduction, which we thought it made sense to re-post separately.

The results are in. Everywhere the effort is underway to determine just what they mean, and what they don’t. I imagine by now we’ve all read a number of reasonable and less reasonable postmortems, some more rageful, some more tearful, some more sober than others. The shock, from all corners, is what is most palpable, which says to me that, however subtle or conspicuous the forces that gave us the current President-elect, we have either so far not understood them, or not properly identified them, or not acknowledged them, or not correctly weighted their real influence or real import. It is not unusual in a democracy, and certainly not in this democracy, for approximately half the population to be disappointed by the outcome of an election, but no election in my lifetime has produced such anxiety, confusion, and dismay. Where exactly are we now, and where do we go? The stakes are indeed high, and people have reason to be afraid, but then: did they not have reason to be afraid a week ago? A year ago? Ten years ago? What is most obvious—and it is by no means trivial—is that the seams of a certain decorum, now long on the fray, have definitively come apart. What should also be obvious is that the various professional data and narrative purveyors—really all of them—got the numbers, and the story, dramatically wrong.

Right or wrong, many claim to be afraid, above all, of Trump’s “normalization,” afraid that his personality, tone and platform will become normal, acceptable, and therefore, if not unassailable, at least more difficult to blunt or overturn. The philosopher Justin E. H. Smith (who together with Yascha Mounk and  Masha Gessen has founded aftertrump.org and its accompanying Facebook group) is especially concerned about the potential geopolitical consequences of a Trump presidency, in particular with regard to Putin’s Russia. As a tactical consideration, he appears to believe the best move is simply to refuse to grant legitimacy to anything Trump might propose on any front regardless of its apparent merit from whatever political perspective, the idea being that, “to the extent that [Trump] articulates views in coherent language at all, he shows no commitment to the truth of these views, and no interest in holding to them.” It is hard, on a glance, not to see this as a permanent commitment to crying wolf (which has its own foreseeable consequences), so the question then becomes whether this would be more or less damaging to our political traditions and institutions than to follow another American democratic tradition and, despite our fear and/or loathing of him, give the man a chance1. The answer to that question, of course, will depend both on one’s political leanings and on one’s political style, but it also returns us to the problems Grimaldi raises below. “For as indefensible as democracy may be, it alone stands between us and the worst, holding at bay the ever-latent peril of despotism or totalitarianism.” The contention of many—both in the lead-up to this election and now especially in its aftermath—has been that Trump himself represents, if not the very worst, then a short bridge to it. Whether or not such fears are justified may be beside the point. My own sense is that we entered the era of permanent wolf-crying some time ago (UPDATE 11/18: read Scott Alexander on one critical facet of this phenomenon), and that the current situation is to some degree the result of this. For the most part we display (and promulgate) a collective inability to recognize and prioritize, let alone work toward addressing, the most pressing political and cultural concerns of the people we either say we represent or hope to persuade. There is hardly such a thing as persuasion anymore. We have made a bad habit of foregoing compromise, all the while sighing at our rivals’ benightedness, and now, to meet anywhere near a plausible middle looks to both sides like a long trip down into a dark, perhaps bottomless gulf.

Cleverness won’t be enough, and neither will despair. The state of our union is decidedly troubled, but familiar analogies with old horrors might do more to skew our vision than focus it.

The conviction that everything that happens on earth must be comprehensible to man can lead to interpreting history by commonplaces. Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.2

Reality is underway—not in the past but in the present. Let’s see (for a start) if we can be more attentive to it.

[Image credit: YAEL BURSTEIN “Kitchen” 2009 (detail) (Montage / 115 x 95cm)]

  1. From somewhere further right on the Never Trump spectrum, Ken White, First Amendment lawyer and lead counsel at Popehat, makes the case in favor of, not exactly normalization, but a more traditional American democratic approach to opposition
  2. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1958), p. viii.

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