David Simpson — About “Bedwetting Democrats”

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by David Simpson

The phrase is James Carville’s. It slipped by without comment during an MSNBC interview just before the election results began to come in. Carville blustered that only “bedwetting Democrats” would doubt the upcoming Biden landslide, already in the bag. The remark is offensive in any number of ways, not least to those many people who suffer from incontinence. The posture of aggressive masculinism fits well with Carville’s dogged good-old-boy self-projection. A one-time Bill Clinton warhorse, Carville never appears on TV without a US Marine Corps cap or sweatshirt, sometimes both. Perhaps he has anxieties of other sorts than election results. Anyway, I felt like punching him out for suggesting that anyone with doubts about the election had to be some sort of psycho-physiological failure, a wimp. It brought back memories of “pointy-headed intellectuals.”

He was, of course, completely wrong. It was a very close election in a number of key states, notwithstanding Biden’s massive victory in the popular vote. But some seventy million people voted for Trump. If they are being fooled—and some surely are—then they have been fooled twice, and after relentless and seemingly unignorable evidence that Trump himself has proved completely deficient and deplorable in almost every way. Others, it must be assumed, are getting exactly what they want.

Like many of our sort, I have been depressed since the 2016 election, not least about the evidence that there is little if anything I can do to change things. I took some grim solace from looking back at Richard Hofstadter’s wonderful 1962 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which reminds us that Trump can be seen as just one more scoundrel in a tradition of con-men, self-merchandisers and reactionaries who have on a pretty regular basis captured popular support by denouncing expertise. But this is hardly consolation. Nor is it cheering to be made aware once again that the American tradition is one founded from the very first in an apparently intractable racism, and that every step away from it has been bitterly and violently contested by reassertions of white suprematism. Intellectuals have pointed this out over and over again, and are still doing so. It seems not to matter much to the march of history. Even charismatic leftist intellectuals like Chomsky and Said, known and listened to all over the rest of the world, get no exposure in the mainstream American media. There seem to be even fewer opportunities for most of us to contribute in a professional capacity, except in the classroom, to the redirection of a fundamentally unjust world.

And yet . . . giving in to the too-much-TV syndrome has brought me to the wonderful MSNBC daily show, The Reidout, where host Joy Reid has produced a whole string of superbly gifted and mostly black politicians and commentators, including the amazing Stacey Abrams, who seem to know exactly what is happening and why. They are the talk-shop wing of the Black Lives Matter movement, but some of them are also on the streets, and they leave little doubt that if the votes can be assembled there is a deep pool of talent, many of them women, standing ready to redirect national politics. A few already hold office. But can the votes be assembled? What will it take for a realignment large enough to put enough such persons into significant governmental power?

On good days I think that this may already be happening. Events in Georgia are hugely encouraging. The nonwhite vote, and especially the black vote, is going to be at the heart of any future for the left. But even in white majority Maine, one Green Party candidate for State Senate, Chloe Maxmin, won in a rural district that otherwise went for Republican Senator Susan Collins, attributing her own success to “deep canvassing,” talking at length to voters instead of just leaving leaflets at the door and ticking boxes. Would I know how to talk to “them,” getting beyond the Trump signs and American flags on the porches in search of some sort of common ground? Is Trump’s base dominantly made up of ugly white racists with a desire for violent acting-out? Are there seventy million of such people? I don’t even know what to say to the Evangelicals who make up a large segment of Trump’s base, or to the “hundred percenters” (as Hofstadter calls such types) who see no complexity whatsoever in their commitment to banning abortion. But I could perhaps find some common ground with those who want to pursue an isolationist foreign policy, even if my reasons for considering it have less to do with the exceptional sacredness of American lives than with the conviction that American interference has as or more often been malign than positive. And there is surely a discussion to be had about climate change, or about protectionism and free trade, even if it will not resolve the incremental loss of traditional manufacturing jobs.

The fact is, of course, that I don’t know any Trump voters; or, to wax Rumsfeldian, I don’t know whether I know any. I’ve had loud disagreements with my British relatives about Brexit, but I’ve known them forever, I grew up with them, and I know they won’t pull a gun. During the run up to the election, there were fewer signs in our suburban college-town neighborhood than I have ever seen before on similar occasions. People were keeping their heads down. My wife was spending hours on the phone banks but she was calling out of state—Georgia, Arizona, Iowa, Kansas and so on, on behalf of down-ballot progressives who seemed to have a chance. When one of her voters told her to fuck off, it was over the phone and a thousand miles away. Our town and our state are overwhelmingly Democrat, but I have to think that the parsimonious signage was both self-protective, a fear of Trump’s goon squads who were rumored to be in the area from time to time, and also a refusal to participate in a spectacle that had been so wholly adopted by the nasties: the honking, flag waving, paintballing convoys and assemblies that appeared on the national news.

One thing seems clear: we should not give much credence to those pundits and politicos who are intoning a reverence for “the American people” as driven by core values of decency and peaceable decision-making. At this point I don’t see a traditional coup in the offing; I don’t think Trump has the support of the military (though some police departments might well pull more triggers at his beck and call than they are pulling already). But I can imagine a subversion of the deeply troublesome and vulnerable electoral college vote by a cabal of state legislatures. Or a manufactured crisis of some kind, a Reichstag Fire event, between now and January 20th. Nothing probable, perhaps, but definitely conceivable. Enough so to suggest that we must all be on maximum alert and be prepared at the very minimum to take to the streets. Another of Richard Hofstadter’s important contributions was a study of the paranoid style in American politics. But that does not mean they’re not out there. Indeed, the recent history of gerrymandering and of voter suppression stand as an examples of what amounts to a de facto coup by a thousand pseudo-legal cuts, one taking years to put into place.

Meanwhile, one of the besetting conditions of Covidworld is loneliness. More of us are spending more time without more others than before. Sociability itself, with the Trump rallies, has been captured by the right and celebrated as a rebuttal or rebuke of scientific expertise. At such a time, I am more grateful than ever for the spirit of the collective embodied in the boundary2 effort. Not in our name sounds so much better than just not in my name.

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