Adversarial Binary Messaging
First, vote by November 8th, and do NOT give yourself some lame excuse or rationale for NOT voting. Fuck that; vote. With a bit of luck it may even count.
Why is doing so more urgent than usual? As you read each of this issue’s articles (and a good portion of our first 15 issues) the message is that we are living in an extremely dangerous period of our history, both in America and internationally. There has been a historically lengthy period of relative stability (the Cold War notwithstanding) and progress, a period at risk of coming to a crashing conclusion. The soon-to-arrive date of November 8th will come to be seen as a harbinger of democratic revival, or alternatively as fascism on the march. Nothing is set in stone, but after November 8th the cement could begin to harden.
Peter Blume, “Eternal City,” 1934-37, oil on composition
board, 34 x 47 7/8”. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art
It has been a century since the rise of sociopathic authoritarians drew the support of enough voters to replace democracies with dictatorships and the rule of law with the rule of the jungle. The rank and file of fascist and communist supporters have, in all cases, paid the cost of this blunder with money and blood. The remorseless sociopaths abscond with the money and with no sense of moral culpability over the loss of life. But much of this cost is paid willingly by many who would describe themselves as patriots (better yet, super-patriots). The thirst for violence is out there, seen not only as necessary to defeat a supposedly evil force or group, but as part of the larger purpose. That fervor and willingness to sacrifice for Führer und Vatterland resulted the sheer barbarism of over 70 million dead and over 6 million Jews and other “degenerate” groups deliberately exterminated.
Otto Dix, “The War,” 1929-32, oil on four wood panels. Courtesy of the Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany
To call the world’s response to that war a backlash is ridiculous. It was a war that produced a very different century than what Herr Hitler had in mind. But now we have a rising generation of sociopaths whose message has a fresh appeal to people with no memory of that war, of the death and suffering that it entailed. There is Trump to start with, who not only has no historical memory, but sees no one other than himself. By now the home-grown fascists who venerate this moral pigmy have usurped the Republican Party. Would-be fascist dictators extend beyond China (I will overlook for the purpose of this article that it is, yes, a ruling Communist Party) and Russia, expanding recently to Italy and are a continuing possibility in France. Fascism seethes beneath the surface in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and (despite Lula’s recent election) Brazil.
Peng! Collective, “Antifa: Myth and Truth,” 2020, installation view. Courtesy of Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Germany
Our upcoming midterm election, as many are suggesting, may prompt the birthplace of modern democracy to dismantle what it invented and stuck with for about 250 years. The terms on which this pitched political battle is being fought? Gravity versus weightlessness. The consequences may be both ugly and unpleasant.
Consider the dominant pair of messages the two major parties bring to the closing weeks of the 2022 election. We have Democrats pitching voting rights and privacy rights, both of which they would codify into law, competing against Republicans’ pitch that they will stop inflation and crime.
Top: Sandow Birk, “A Liberal Map of the World,” 2019, ink and acrylic on paper, 42 x 60”.
Bottom: Sandow Birk, “A Conservative Map of the World,” 2019, ink and acrylic on paper, 42 x 60”.
Both images Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery
As Republican candidates and their ads tell the story, the fault for both lies with the Democrats because, well, it’s what Democrats do. And the solution to both is to elect Republicans because, well, that’s what Republicans do. It’s an argument not rooted on problem solving or imagination but on stereotype and blind repetition.
Democrats messaging of voting and privacy rights is, by contrast, based on some only-too-real things that Republicans have done and supported: passed a slew of voter suppression laws in a number of states that date from SCOTUS’s Shelton decision, and scurried to adopt laws prosecuting pregnant women and their supporters in the wake of the Dobbs decision.
Not only are Democrats in power addressing both the economy and crime constructively, they are also correcting horrible policies put in place by none other than the recent Republican president. The Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 lay much of the groundwork for inflation and possible recession, adding $1.5 trillion to the national debt in order to benefit large corporations and the wealthiest individuals. Not the Republicans’ fault was Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has produced much of the increase in energy and food prices. Neither were the global distribution bottlenecks cause by the Covid pandemic. I’m hesitant to blame that on the Trump administration, but, like their handling of the Covid-19 crisis, they were clearly more concerned with protecting Mr. Trump’s perceived reputation; not so much to mitigate the problem.
Arvie Smith, “Bacchus,” 2022.
Courtesy of Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago
The impact of partial sanctions on Russian oil and gas has cost most Americans some money at the pump to the tune of an extra $1-2 per gallon. It has been a mystery to me in the closing weeks and months of the campaign season that Democrats have not forcefully made this point. The cost of our alliance with Ukraine, along with NATO and a number of other allies, has basically been $1-2 per gallon of gas. Ukraine has not only proven its mettle against Russia, but provided a large political, not just military, win for the U.S. and NATO. Think, or read, about the sacrifices Americans make during the 1940s. A buck a gallon is not just a small cost for ridding the world of Putin’s putrid presence, it’s fucking cheap. None of our kids’ lives are at risk. Drones are not destroyed local homes, churches or Whole Foods markets.
Ukraine is also, it turns out, winning. A war to bring an emerging democracy into the fold while destroying the imperial dreams of the likes of Putin is a smart if necessary investment. This is a guy who has decayed into a little monster, only interested in feeding his personal appetite, shoveling down more and more of Russia’s wealth for himself, and at the cost of millions of innocent souls. Sooner o later his regime is going to burst. I expect to see him leave office feet first, though preferably in a limo ride to The Hague. If Democrats’ bubble bursts, failing to make this point and drive it for all its worth will have been their primary political error.
Unlike the complexities of the economy, the causes of the rise in crime are primarily domestic, and similarly rooted in the pandemic. Republican voters don’t quite see it that way. Their bloated and racist impression is that the criminals are crawling, locust-like, across our southern border in order to rape and steal. But the increase in crime, due to the multiple effects of the pandemic and long-term trends impacting many of our cities, is (once again) the fault of neither political party. Both parties are justified in promoting competing visions for how to bring it back down.
As with inflation, Republicans have had some success selling an assertion based more on a stereotype of the opposition than a good faith effort to craft a policy. An idea briefly embraced by some on the left was the notion to “defund the police,” that whole departments needed to be dissolved and then rebuilt from scratch. Former California Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown termed it “the worst political idea that I have ever heard.”
Karin Haeckel, “Transition,” 2022, acrylic on jute, 59 1/8 x 47 1/4”.
Courtesy of Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco
Police accountability and reform, not “defunding,” are the basic frames of Democratic policy for maintaining law and order. But the phrase signifies another stereotype. As Alabama’s Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville put it, Democratic policy on crime is to assist the criminals and get the rest of us to pay for it. As a concept for Stephen Colbert to build a monologue on it’s pretty good. The idea that this describes the intent of Democratic leaders is ridiculous; yet this guy was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Democrats have reasonably pointed out that crime, and homicide in particular, is directly impacted by gun possession, and that the largest numbers of gun deaths occur in Republican-run states with the most permissive gun laws. Why Democrats have not seized on these statistics and argued that actual Republican policies worsen the problem is beyond my ability to understand. The “defund the police” line deserves to be fully debunked, which is easier said than done. One approach that I find convincing was provided by the twice-impeached former president himself. After the FBI got involved in recovering the many boxes of paper he stole from the White House, we began to hear chants of “Defund the FBI” from his MAGA supporters. I wish we would see any Democrat, particularly those running for local office, to jump on that hypocrisy proactively: reject the terminology as early and as often as possible without waiting for their opponent’s prompt.
Edra Soto, “La Distancia/The Distance,” 2022, photo composition digitally produced on archival paper.
Courtesy of Engage Projects, Chicago
Some Democrats run away from these issues on the assumption that merely to address them is a net vote loser. I disagree; it is by rightfully turning the blame on the other party that Democrats will win. Like inflation, Democrats’ messaging on crime has not been effective at changing the dynamic.
Abortion is on the ballot as well, and polling suggests that it has faded relative to the other three concerns. This is mystifying. The reaction to the Dobbs decision was swift and predictable. Why would it somewhat dissipate in just four months? I expected it to build and resonate powerfully. If there is one factor that can dramatically affect the outcome of the midterms, this is it. What happened in Kansas with its state proposition should now be happening everywhere. But that presupposes that a wave of reaction, perhaps below the surface, is forming in response to Dobbs, and forming right now. If so, there is real hope rather than merely a conviction. Obviously, this remains to be seen.
Like the current contrast in ethos, there is an asymmetry between the two parties in the formulation and intent of both messaging and policy. But the obvious logic that should strongly favor Democrats may not play out. The silly generalization that the party out of power always makes gains is vacuous even if empirically true. So it is now time to learn what the voters decide, but please remember that Republicans have given up on the idea that voters should decide.
Even if we win on November 8th, do you think we can all go home at that point? All it buys is two very challenging years.