"The Lost Bet," 1893. Library of Congress
I’ve just come back from voting in the New York primary, usually an exercise in little more than futility—a.k.a. civic duty, as New York votes relatively late in the primary season, when candidates are well on their way to victory and election results have less consequence. And of course in the general election, our state is so strongly blue that no presidential campaign bothers to visit or run ads. This year was different. While we were not bombarded by political ads morning, noon and night, we did see pitches for both Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and John Kasich, and even had a Clinton campaign worker ring our doorbell. Perhaps due to these unaccustomed stimuli, plus a TV clip of Stephen Colbert joking with Hillary about the trials of eating campaign food, the strange currents of the subconscious set to bubbling last night and lurched my perceptions out of their usual quotidian track.
I awoke this morning from a typical dream: one of those scenarios that seem eminently rational until you awaken and realize they are absolutely absurd. This particular dream involved trying to set up a portable outdoor shower (normally used when camping), but this time in the middle of a downtown sidewalk…and awakening to say, “What on earth was I thinking?” Then almost instantly remembering it was primary day, the day to vote, and also realizing what a fever dream the entire presidential selection process has become. What on earth are we thinking?
Here we are in April, with almost half a year of campaigning yet to come, and already the race seems to have gone on endlessly. For the candidates, the ritual has become sheer torture. Exploratory visits to Iowa years in advance, Trump riding down the escalator to announce his bid nearly a full year ago, pundits opining by late last August that if Joe Biden didn’t move instantly to get in the race, it would be too late. Endless county fairs and breakfasts and listening tours, town halls and family profiles and straw polls. Ever larger clown-cars stuffed with candidates rolling along New Hampshire highways and byways. The process has simply metastasized. The Iowa caucuses first made their mark decades ago when Jimmy Carter won them in 1976; before that election cycle, New Hampshire provided the effective starting gun. Now in debate after debate, moderator after moderator goads the candidates to attack one another until inevitably they become soul-sick of the endless sniping and name-calling and we become soul-sick of watching. A year and a half of constant bear baiting. The Web and cable news turn the process into a 24/7 marathon—fever dream indeed. Setting up a portable camp shower on the sidewalk seems utterly rational by comparison.
How to put a stop to it? The political parties try after each election cycle to reform the process, or rather to control it to their advantages. After 2012 Republicans rejiggered their primaries to have more winner-take-all contests earlier, supposedly to make it difficult for rogue candidates to come out of nowhere and to get a nominee in place that everyone could get behind by the beginning of May. Hah. The Democrats established super-delegates in order to keep left-wingers like George McGovern and outsiders like Jimmy Carter from gaining outsized influence. The law of unintended consequences seems to argue against political parties solving the problem.
We can blame the parties, the candidates, the media. But I am reminded of a lame joke my father used to tell. Two construction workers sitting on a girder, open up their lunch boxes. One guy pulls out a sandwich and rolls his eyes. “Peanut butter! Peanut butter again! Monday, it’s peanut butter, Tuesday it’s peanut butter, Wednesday…every day it’s peanut butter!” The other guy says, “Why don’t you get her to make something else?” “Oh,” comes the reply, “I make ‘em myself.” It wouldn’t happen this way if we didn’t turn on the TV every night and get caught up in the horse race, or click on the website for updates.
But it’s an insane way to run an election; positively inhumane to its participants and degrading to its spectators; a process that if you sat down and tried rationally to devise, you would never create.
Okay, I’ve got to go turn on the TV. They should be releasing the first exit polls any time now.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors