For an election that’s supposed to be about a clash of diametrically opposed agendas and wildly different personalities, an election, taking place in the shadow of a global pandemic, so bitterly contested that it could finally be decided in a courtroom rather than in our polling booths, it’s shaping up to be a remarkably dull affair. It may well be, as each candidate likes to say, the most important election in our lifetime (or, if you’re our president, never one for understatement, the most important in the history of the world), but one thing’s for sure: it’s uninspiring.
This isn’t to say we won’t vote. Millions of us already have. But there’s a pervasive feeling of ennui, the sense that we’re all just going through the motions. Why does this nation-defining election feel so anticlimactic?
One reason is that we know too well how this movie goes, at least up to a point. A plurality of the electorate will vote against Donald Trump, just as it did in 2016. It’s sad enough that it will be a negative vote, but that result could itself be negated, again, by the winner-take-all machinations of the Electoral College, which we’ve proved ourselves too jaded or partisan to do anything about. Another defeat of the vaunted “will of the people”? Ho hum.
The pandemic has a lot to do with it, too. Shrunken rallies, virtual town halls, no door-to-door get-out-the-vote campaigns. No debates, really, unless you consider two old men insulting each other or a man and a woman trading catchphrases through Plexiglas a debate. We wistfully assure our grandkids that yes, there once was a time when people actually got together, physically, over meals and drinks and card tables, and sometimes allowed their conversations to drift into politics, and were able to be civil to one another and laugh at their differences rather than regard them as personal insults or threats to the republic.
But those days are long past. We’d already learned to communicate through screens, from within our impregnable online silos of preconception, preaching to the like-minded while talking past those who aren’t, confusing opinion with news and shared animus with community. And then a virus comes along and makes all that mental, philosophical isolation a physical reality as well, as though granting us the very world we’ve been practicing for.
There’s not even a gesture toward persuasion. The candidates are figureheads for sets of prejudices rather than slates of proposals. Each campaign addresses its base, ignoring the rest of the electorate. The airwaves are full of ads making the usual extreme claims in the most histrionic ways, the op-ed pages are sharpening their prescribed and ever less nuanced arguments, but none of it moves any needles.
The talking heads needn’t be listened to; we know in advance what they’ll say. We’re already locked immovably into our belief systems, and have been for some time, possibly all our lives, and we’re not changing our minds. If there are really any “undecideds” out there, odds are they’ve either just emerged from protracted comas, or recently arrived from other planets and can’t vote anyway.
Everything’s predictable except the outcome. An October surprise in Trump’s Covid infection? Hardly. Nothing surprises us; we’re inured to it all. A few news cycles and that potentially instructive moment was reduced to the same old grist for the political mills as all the other issues of the day.
A Supreme Court justice will be appointed after a brief procedural charade, not because it need be done now, or should be done, but because it can be done, the votes are there and there’s nothing to stop it. And in our own small ways, we emulate this brute partisanship at the local level, where our civic discourse has been reduced to petty larceny — stealing political signs from one another’s lawns.
Even the threat of post-election chaos has been normalized. Several recent books and innumerable articles (including here) have tried to rouse us with scenarios of polling place vigilantism, vote-count litigation, Trump’s refusal to concede, a constitutional meltdown — and even these terrors have quickly taken on the patina of cliché, to be greeted with a shrug, partly because we have no blueprint, no precedent for what to do about so savage a disregard for public order, and partly because it’s just too sad to contemplate.
It’s already done, really. We’re all voting early, by mail or in person, eager to get it over with, hoping this bitter taste will leave our mouths. And we’ll keep counting long after, through the shouting and the lawsuits and the predictable gracelessness. November 3rd will be just another day. We know what’s coming, and it’s harder and harder to care. The pandemic, the election, they’re almost one and the same; they can’t be over soon enough.
This is the real cost of our separation from one another, our inability to meet halfway, politically or physically. An election that should be a celebration of one of our greatest freedoms, a catharsis no matter who wins, has become something to dread.
2016 taught us this, of course. The expected outcome, the grownup outcome, didn’t happen. A deeply cynical electorate rolled the dice. We’ve come to expect a crapshoot and, worse, to accept it. Who are we, really? What kind of country are we living in? Sometimes, too often, we’d rather not know. And yet every four years, we must.