No, we can't talk about it later

Published 3 Nov 2020, last modified 3 Nov 2020

Classic Dr. Seuss political cartoon depicting "The Great U.S. Sideshow," where the long beard of a swastika-wearing Nazi is connected to the beard of someone wearing an "America First" slogan, as if they were twins conjoined at the beard. A barker says to the audience, "And on this platform, folks, the most perplexing people... the Lads with the Siamese Beard! Unrelated by blood, they are joined in a manner that mystifies the mightiest minds in the land!"

It’s a TikTok video that seems almost deliberately calibrated for social media backlash. An androgynous young adult in a black turtleneck and wire-frame spectacles is sitting alone in their car, parked beside a nice little sunlit hedge somewhere, making the case for disheartened young progressives to vote for Joe Biden in the 2020 U.S. presidential election:

Listen, kiddo. I get it. I don’t like the two-party system. I think our country’s corrupt. And, quite frankly, I don’t want to vote for Biden. It feels like voting for a Republican. But I’m going to do it! You want to know why? Because the alternative is a fucking fascist! A fascist! It’s a fascist! Maybe we can have a conversation about dismantling the two-party system when a fascist isn’t running! Maybe we can do that later, kiddo! Champ! Chief! Maybe we can talk about it later!

It might be the video’s performance that doomed it to social media ridicule moreso than the actual content, the way the speaker starts off with a note of what sounds like condescending sympathy, but rapidly crescendos to a full-throated scream as they shakily pull the camera in close to their mouth, and that kind of aesthetic critique of what I found when I tried to find the video just now in order to transcribe it. (The original was taken down, presumably after a deluge of negative feedback and/or harassment, which is why I’m not identifying the video’s creator here or sharing anything more than a transcript.) But I don’t actually care about the video’s alleged aesthetic transgressions. If I agreed with its message I could look the other way.

But I don’t agree. I was pissed off when I first saw this video—pissed off in that very particular way that one tends to be when faced with someone else who embodies an aspect of one’s current or former self. This is the kind of cringe I could almost imagine myself posting to TikTok several years ago, had the platform existed then. This isn’t someone I know, what they put on TikTok really shouldn’t impact my life, and there’s no reason for me to add my voice to the chorus of jeers over their little rant about voting for Biden. But it’s maybe worth exploring why I’m pissed off, for my own sake and so I can articulate what some people are evidently missing about the political situation in the United States.

This is someone who expresses concern with some of the same fundamental problems I see in U.S. politics today but, from my perspective, betrays a very fundamental misapprehension about this election. We cannot wait to talk about corruption and how the two-party system constrains the policy horizons of our supposed democracy “when a fascist isn’t running,” in part because after the election, institutions will find other excuses to deflect criticism as the Democratic Party has since losing the 2016 presidential election, but also because now is precisely when we have to face the failures of democracy in this country.

At this specific moment, our fascist president, Trump, would not be the incumbent in the presidential race were it not for the distinctly antimajoritarian instituton of the Electoral College, which awarded the presidency to Donald Trump even as his opponent Hillary Clinton won about three million more votes; now would seem a very good time to kvetch about that particular instituton. Moreover, Trump would not have ascended to the Republican Party nomination if it weren’t for the particular democratic constraints and

Fascists do not rise to power in healthy democratic societies; they arise from conditions of dysfunction and discontent. Since the Reagan administration especially, the two major parties of the United States settled on a bipartisan neoliberal consensus of endless-war imperialism abroad, a dismantling of the welfare state and social safety nets, such as they existed, at home, extreme tax incentives for corporations and wealthy individuals (predicated on an as-yet-unproven theory of “trickle-down economics”), and unbridled free trade.

For years, the Democratic and Republican parties pursued nearly identical foreign policy platforms; even the infamous 2003 invasion of Iraq had significant bipartisan support until the ensuing years of conflict proved what a fruitless and abhorrent exercise it was. In trade negotiations and domestic affairs, the Democratic Party expressed a preference for mild restraint in the government’s austerity policies, relative to the Republican Party, but otherwise they were so close in their policy goals that they had to foster a string of culture war battles to set themselves apart; the Republican Party began to sell itself more abstractly as the party of shameless, masculine, God-fearing patriotism while the Democratic Party positioned itself as an institutional proponent of enlightened social progress, and they zeroed in on social affairs they could turn into banner policy positions: abortion, firearms, same-sex marriage, &c.

Meanwhile, the very things the two parties agreed upon created an ever-worsening disaster for the working-class majority of Americans. Free trade agreements created the conditions for U.S. corporations to offshore more and more jobs, wages for those who did remain employed stagnated, and because this country’s policies do not guarantee healthcare, housing, or sufficient food for the long-term unemployed or for minimum-wage workers, huge populations within the country entered a kind of perennial precarity. Over half of Americans will live below the country’s official poverty line for at least one year between the ages of 20 and 75, as estimated before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Obama administration, for all the symbolic hope of its initial campaign, maintained the prevailing interventionist foreign policy and essentially limited itself to filing some of the sharp edges off the country’s treacherous economy in the wake of the 2008 recession, stabilizing the financial industry and forcing the nation’s byzantine private health insurance system to cover more people.

By the end of the Obama era, the neoliberal policy consensus had created a highly unstable nation plagued with bizarre social ills. New opiate, methamphetamine, and heroin addiction epidemics appeared all over rural and suburban communities. Mass shootings occurred at an alarming frequency, including horrifying school shootings.

Trump has not meaningfully addressed these problems at all, but he acknowledged them in a particular, crass, reality TV-informed way that convinced enough people he might present a viable alternative to the calamitous status quo, while simultaneously accelerating the Republican Party’s culture war narrative to new heights of white supremacist reaction.

If Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidency and his administration does not dramatically change course, we will remain vulnerable to some other Trump-like figure in 2024 and beyond. But it’s hard to imagine the Democratic Party of today as capable of that kind of change. In the past four years, even as figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have used energized voter bases that the party had struggled to retain by harnessing an ecosocialist-adjacent platform, the #NeverTrump movement of conservatives exiled from the Republican party have worked to nudge the Democrats back toward the old neoliberal consensus, especially on foreign policy. The very presence of “a fucking fascist” in the political mainstream seems to preclude any meaningful national dialog on the actual policy changes we desperately need: single-payer healthcare, “green” infrastructure, universal housing, and a humane immigration system, for starters.

But now, especially now, while we are watching the country stumble through this election amidst a once-again-accelerating pandemic and sporadic incidents of street violence, we have to talk about how we got here and how we will work toward getting ourselves out during the next four years. It can’t wait until later. We have to talk about it now.

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