Election 2020: this frozen moment, this confrontation of the ghosts
It is a time of confrontation, this transition, the time of transition of the old society to a new one that does not exist yet, but it’s being created with the confrontation of the ghosts. -Paulo Freire
I’m writing this on November 4, the day after America’s national elections. While some state races have been settled, others are still open, and the presidency remains on a knife edge. Counting, recounting, lawsuits, claims, counterclaims, incursions, probabilities are in the air.
The thing might be settled tonight, or in a few days, or in weeks, depending on actions in a handful of American states. I’ll have more to say once that’s done. For tonight I wanted to focus on this suspended moment. What is held in place during this terrific pause?
Four years ago I was in Helsinki, generously hosted in a short residency by Arcada University of Applied Sciences.
This was right after the 2016 American election, and the locals were most keen on my thoughts about how Trump defeated Clinton. Many questions and many of my answers turned on details — turnout, the Democratic neglect of the Midwest, how the Electoral College works, gender attitudes at the time, etc. — but I kept thinking about larger trends, bigger currents, trying to understand it in terms of the macro picture of the unfolding future.
Tonight I’d like to return to that latter way of thinking. It seems almost perverse to do so on the day after Election Day, when so much attention is devoted to the micro, practical details of voting, counting, announcements, and legal options, followed by the shambolic uncertainty of key results. The nation is trembling at the cusp of decision, caught in a liminal moment.
Let’s take a couple of steps back.
During that Helsinki November — which was definitely, seriously cold and snowy — it seemed to me that the United States was teetering on a historical edge. Trump felt like an openly retro candidate, a one-man attempt to reclaim some vision of mid-20th-century America, while Clinton’s supporters sometimes urged a very different path forward for the nation, grounded on technocratic prowess and the empowerment of both women and ethnic minorities. The contest reminded me of a famous quote from Antonio Gramsci, written nearly a century ago:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
Thinking of that quote in seminar rooms or walking along dark streets, gaping at Finnish language signs, the passage felt like a perfect descriptor. Trump was the old, of course, trying to roll back civil rights, blocking climate change study and mitigation, proclaiming his masculinity and sexism, standing athwart a generation of increasing globalization. He personified age, biologically. Clinton, in contrast, positioned herself to an extent as the new, an avatar of women’s progress. Her campaign anchored itself on a post-industrial vision of the creative class in growing, ethnically diverse cities and suburbs. Climate change activists supported Clinton.
And so on. Obviously both candidates articulated different visions, which is precisely their job in a campaign. Yet they seemed broken up by time to an unusual extent, with Trump fixated on (a certain model of) the past, and the Clinton campaign banking on demographic, cultural, and political trends that they saw building up into the future. Voters mapped themselves onto this by age, with a majority of senior citizens voting Republican and a majority of younger folks Democratic.
(Note: this isn’t to say I find any affiliations between Hillary Clinton and Italian Marxism! I’m speaking here of cultural currents broader than the nature of individual candidates.)
While in Finland I came across two other passages in my reading that resonated with this theme, although from very different sources. In a great book about pedagogy, We Make the Road by Walking, Paolo Freire describes massive changes in Brazilian society during the 1960s in terms similar to Gramsci’s:
It is a time of confrontation, this transition, the time of transition of the old society to a new one that does not exist yet, but it’s being created with the confrontation of the ghosts. (218)
“confrontation of the ghosts” — what a great phrase! What a fine metaphor for a struggle between two epochs, or visions thereof. It’s not about armies clashing in person but dueling plans, nostalgia battling futurism, a pair of imaginaries locked in struggle. Neither can be fully realized, as the old is already compromised and shaken, while the new cannot fully manifest.
Another passage leaped out at me then, this one from Margaret MacMillan‘s excellent First World War book The War That Ended Peace. It was a quote from Harry Kessler, a border-crossing (English and German) aristocrat, bon vivant, and prolific diarist. In it he characterized the WWI European era as a grand succession struggle, a sequence of generations caught in mid-stream:
Something… was growing old and weak, dying out; and something new, young, energetic, and still unimaginable was in the offing. We felt it like a frost, like a spring in our limbs, the one with muffled pain, the other with a keen joy. (Kindle location 7428)
Muffled pain called to mind the white Trump voters in 2016, while the keen joy suggested black and Latinx people fighting for equality and visibility. The new was “still unimaginable” in the moment, or at least it was for Kessler at the time of writing those words. In contrast the presence of something new and different was clear, just not fully in operation. Meanwhile the older order was still in charge, yet struggling with decline.
I wrote about these passages and thoughts after I returned to the States. In that post I went on at great length about the differences and possibilities. Readers are welcome to examine it; I won’t recap the points here.
As the Trump presidency shambled on, this “confrontation of the ghosts” seemed like a good description of events. Trump celebrated his image of the past and did his best to bring about its resurrection, but repeatedly fumbled in getting things done, because of a mix of opposition, arrogance, incompetence, and staff turmoil. His opponents saw Trump’s ghost summoning clearly, and went further, deeming his administration to be focused on summoning the worst parts of the 20th century, from climate denial to racism and even fascism. Following the Gramsci/Freire/Kessler pattern, some Democrats — but definitely not all — championed a rising younger generation, from star New York Representative AOC and her squad to the youthful climate change movement, whose avatars included the teenaged Greta Thunberg.
Today, November 4th, as the election flogs itself on into uncertainty and complexity, it seems to me that that dueling temporal vision, that struggle of the ghosts, is still very much in play. And the election’s spectacular failure of decision shows we’re still locked in that intermediate stage, with something new struggling to be born and something old clinging desperately to power, fighting to re-seed the present with the past.
It’s not a simple divide. The ghosts overlap in their struggles. For example, as Florida and other states show, Republicans seem to have won significant black and especially Latinx votes, despite racist and antiracist campaigning. Meanwhile, both Biden and Trump see China as a major adversary in their respective foreign policies. Trump blames Beijing for unleashing “the China virus” on the world, while Biden wants to resurrect the multi-party, anti-China coalition of the Obama administration. Trump accuses Biden of being weak on China, which sounds, appropriately, like a slur from the 1950s, and also seems to just be wrong.
Yet in general the vision split persists. It’s how each candidate campaigned. And now, in this moment, neither has won.
And neither will be able to govern with their ghosts. Neither party looks likely to have control over Congress, as the GOP gained ground on Democrats in the House but remain a minority, while retaining (it seems) a thin lead in the Senate. Historically high turnout levels proclaim vast numbers supporting each vision.
Tonight’s uneasy balance may well be what we experience for the next two years, until Congressional elections. Yes, a president will continue or be installed, but they — and we — will maintain in this paused position, caught between ascending and declining visions, neither having won out.
This is the election’s meaning. We are stuck with one another, seeing no way out and no apparent way through, sinking deeper into a state of mutual incomprehension and loathing.This is the election’s meaning. We are stuck with one another, seeing no way out and no apparent way through, sinking deeper into a state of mutual incomprehension and loathing.
It might be that living in this liminal state is too much for some of us to bear. It’ll probably drive some to disengage from politics. Others might shift towards various forms of direct action to drive out the opposing ghost, from monkeywrenching to assassination. We could see more small-level secessions, people forming intentional communities, or just living with like-minded folks. Packer goes on to forecast that “[t]he possible exits — gradual de-escalation, majority breakthrough, clean separation, civil war — are either unlikely or unthinkable,” but American history teaches otherwise. This is where Gramsci’s “morbid symptoms” come in.
Caught in this electoral pause, embedded in a battle of ghosts, wracked by keen joy or muffled pain — perhaps we’ll have to get used to it.