American Politics Is Turning Into A Bad Rerun
Earlier this month, there was a political demonstration in Wilmington, North Carolina. Rival groups of citizens assembled to yell slogans at one another, although in vastly diminished numbers than a year before. The local newspaper described the event as follows: “Chants of ‘protect trans students’ and ‘Black lives matter’ were met with ‘teach character not color’ and ‘all lives matter’ as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the New Hanover County Board of Education Center.”
In June 2020, virtually the entire country — including Wilmington — was convulsing on an unprecedented scale. Protests and riots were more widespread than anything seen in the previous 50 years. Fast-forward to June 2021, though, and all that’s seemingly left are the stale remnants. A small subset of the population appears to have been habituated into reciting the same catchphrases over and over — exactly the same ones they did a year ago, in many instances — because they either can’t think of anything better to do with their time, or haven’t figured out a more productive way to vent their still-lingering frustrations. It’s almost as if they’re yearning for the nostalgia of… last summer? (Which was itself borne, in part, of nostalgic yearning for the 1960s.)
Deprived of the main force behind a frenetic five-year Culture War (Donald Trump), American politics is beginning to turn into a bad rerun. Or, to continue the television metaphor, it has “jumped the shark” — the thing that happens when a once-beloved series runs way past its shelf life, loses its novelty, and becomes a sad parody of itself. Does it seem like an appealing prospect to spend the next however-many years fighting nonstop about Trans Sports Leagues and Critical Race Theory, with the occasional interlude for Israel-Palestine? If not — if you’re still clinging to sanity, that is — now may be a good time to change the channel.
Take even New York City, with the stale familiarity of a candidate deemed anathema by the left-liberal media and activist class — a former cop who made a big deal out of rising crime rates! Gasp! — prevailing in the one jurisdiction where you’d think the left-liberal media and activist class would have the most electoral pull. Adams did the opposite of what the City’s professionally progressive milieu wanted, and (preliminarily) won the Democratic mayoral primary with ease. There’s nothing new about that story, either: Joe Biden already did it on a much grander scale in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, even though he’s now muttering the word “Latinx” in a kind of tired, lifeless tone that’s emblematic of the present political era. By June 2022, expect prospective NYC Mayor Adams to steadfastly affirm his support for whatever the latest convoluted iteration of the Trans issue is.
There are many people whose job requires them to pretend all that’s happening politically today is extraordinarily fresh and compelling — people who have a direct incentive to hype the excitement of the present. As someone who works in media, I have to include myself in this category. Telling one’s readers and viewers that current happenings are in fact becoming mind-numbingly trite, and they’re better off focusing on other interests and pursuits, is probably not the smartest marketing strategy. Substack might boot me off!
But it would be fakery to not admit this. Less than a year ago, it was commonplace for pundits across the ideological spectrum to posit that all-out Civil War was right around the corner (lots of clicks to be mined by hyping that non-existent specter) and also to insist with a straight face that if decades-long DC fixture Joe Biden lost the presidential election, US Democracy would literally collapse (lots of clicks there as well). That was all hyperbolic fakery too, but at least the hyperbole was attached to something resembling actual high political stakes. The 2016 election cycle had genuinely marked a shift in the orientation of the two major US political parties and American culture writ large. This was accompanied by a period of all-consuming hysteria that might've been bad for society’s mental health, but was an economic boon to the media industry.
Legions of newfound political hobbyists could tell you everything you needed to know about the latest developments surrounding Trump-era bit players with names like Gordon Sondland, Alex van der Zwaan, and George Nader. (Do you remember, without Googling, why those people became objects of bizarre fascination? If so, congratulations, you’re probably an incorrigible political hobbyist.) But notwithstanding those silly ephemera, 2016-2020 created such a frenzy because there was a real sense of the country’s tectonic plates shifting, however fitfully.
Now, in 2021, what’s left? Who are the people that genuinely feel excited by the prospect of consuming this content?
A limp, self-referential pantomime of politics is what’s predominant today; a piddling attempt to relive the very recent past. Among the most pathetic nostalgists are pundits clinging to the glory days by trumpeting the supposedly ongoing threat of Florida-bound Trump, in addition to the so-called “insurrectionists” who were swiftly dispersed over five months ago in what was apparently the shortest “insurrection” in recorded history. The cheap thrills won’t come back easily; it’s like a middling drug-dealer who’s been forced into retirement regaling the youngsters with embellished stories of his heyday in “the life.” Except he probably has a few stories that are reasonably exciting; Trump-era stories were never really that good to begin with.
The bottom line is that the cross-society explosion of political engagement between 2016 and 2020 was unsustainable. It was one dramatic flare-up in the larger process of hegemonic decline, which is an intractable reality in the United States. Today that decline continues apace, except it’s just not titillating anymore. Oh well — remember to tune in next week! And don’t forget to like and subscribe!