Middle-finger voting is driving the entire country mad

How politics became schadenfreude

A middle finger.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

An essay appeared recently on the website of National Review under the headline "The Only Middle Finger Available." Here, only a few years removed from an entire issue dedicated to the myriad ways in which Donald Trump is morally and intellectually unfit for the office of the presidency, and thus undeserving of readers' votes even for the best of reasons, was Richard Lowry, the magazine's editor, tacitly urging support of Trump's re-election for no reason at all.

Trump, Lowry tells us, is "the only middle finger available — to brandish against the people who've assumed they have the whip hand in American culture." (Are we to understand from this that in contrast to those who merely "assume" the "whip hand" in our society there are others who hold it in earnest? Against whom is it to be wielded? The mind reels.)

The essay tries too late to qualify itself with the assertion that a rude gesture "may not be a very good reason to vote for a president," but it is still well worth reading. This is not because its argument is striking or novel, but precisely because I have heard something like it over and over again in bars and coffee shops and in casual conversations with friends and relations in the rural Midwest. It is a good thing for the self-appointed foes of reactionary populism to make arguments that reflect the actual feelings and aspirations of the voters for whom they presume to speak.

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I am not myself immune to the feelings Lowry describes. Nor do I wish to give the impression that such "middle finger" voting is the exclusive province of the right wing in this country. Indeed, I think it is probably the case that the vast majority of votes in presidential elections are cast for reasons of naked self-aggrandizement. But to confuse elation over the prospect of seeing one's real or perceived enemies discomfited with the object of democratic politics seems to me a very grave error.

It has been a great many years, stretching back to preadolescence, since I believed those hoary myths about the Constitution and "our way of life," if indeed I ever did believe them. But electoral politics is not professional football, nor even professional wrestling. It is, or should not be, understood as sport of any kind. It ought to be the means by which a civilized people appoint representatives to engage in prudential debate about questions of common importance: the administration of the mails or the construction of roads and bridges. (These are distinct from the philosophical assumptions that make up the fundamental organizing principles of a society, which are properly cordoned off from legislation behind the rope of constitutions, written or otherwise.)

It is precisely the sort of activity Lowry is describing — "virtue signaling," in the cant phrase he himself employs of his opponents — into which all of American politics has been subsumed. The animating principle of our public life is the performance of certain rituals that set us apart (or so we fondly imagine) from persons utterly unlike ourselves whom we despise. With the advent of digital communications technology, politics has become all-encompassing, a digital war of all against all from which those questions which our grandparents debated under the heading of "the issues" shrink like neutral Switzerland.

Such an arrangement cannot be healthy. Indeed, all the available evidence suggests that it is driving the entire country mad. This is one reason I hope for the Supreme Court to redress the ancient evil of abortion. Removing moral issues such as the licitness of murdering the unborn from the sphere of public debate will allow millions of Americans to consider anew the basic questions of government: the best means of making provision for medical care, for example, or trade policy.

I am not optimistic. Neoliberal political economy is, as the Chinese have shown us, a force vastly more powerful than democracy. The two may ultimately be incompatible. This at any rate is the only conclusion I can draw from the absurd spectacles into which our elections have devolved, contests in which the only meaningful issue at stake is the right of schadenfreude. Sooner or later we will all grow weary of it.

Which is why it seems to me unlikely that the democratic process as we know it will survive my lifetime. Instead in the decades to come I expect the soma of cheap consumer goods, digital entertainment, and perhaps a basic income scheme to bring the American people around to the rule of a supposedly benevolent despotism. Amazon, YouTube, and the National Football League will remain, as will the forms — the presidency, the Senate, and, of course, the Supreme Court recycled just as the basic constitutional machinery of the Roman republic was by Augustus. But the scope of public life that is open to the deliberation of citizens will contract narrowly until it becomes vanishingly small or non-existent.

Perhaps this will own the libs.

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