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?

library_Helsinki U

The Helsinki University library, just across town from Arcada.

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.

George Packer observes:

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.

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25 Responses to Election 2020: this frozen moment, this confrontation of the ghosts

  1. Tom Haymes says:

    Wow! Nicely done! Both poetic and profound, nicely capturing the spirit of the age. I am reminded of Konrad Adenauer who engaged in “innere auswanderung” (internal migration) during the Nazi years as he supposedly withdrew to his garden and avoided the concentration camp. He was hiding from the ghosts. I wonder how many are tempted to do the same today.

  2. Todd Suomela says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments on this strange moment we are all living through. I agree with all your points, but wanted to push back a bit against the new / old dichotomy you raise between Clinton / Biden and Trump, especially when you say this is “nostalgia battling futurism.” I don’t think either side has articulated a future.

    There are as many ghosts being revived, called to, and invoked on the left side of the political ledger as there are on the right. Both Clinton and Biden directly called back to the Obama administration by being members of that team. ‘More of the same’ and ‘a return to normalcy’ were both backward-looking appeals. Clinton and Biden have both been in political roles for many decades. I would even say that Biden’s major call to action was for a return to the past. We don’t know what will happen during a future Biden presidency, or even if that will come to pass. Even planks in the Democrats agenda, such as the Green New Deal are explicit calls back to a past – just look at the name.

    I suggest that we should be hesitant with how we use the divide between the young and the old. Your quote from Harry Kessler leans heavily into a value judgment between the old and the new. I worry that too much emphasis on that judgment may make it even harder for us to live together with each other and all of the ghosts you describe. No matter what happens, I don’t believe we will ever be able to escape the ghosts.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Todd, thank you for the kind words and especially for the thoughtful response.

      You are completely correct to identify the backward-looking nature of much of the Democratic party. I saw one comedian refer to the election as a “pick your favorite old man” contest. And both Biden and Hillary Clinton were certainly looking to restorations.

      But their platforms have some key forward-looking elements. Dem campaigns since 2000 have emphasized certain demographic shifts that they foresaw continuing, and that they could capitalize upon: the migration from country into city and suburb; the growth of certain nonwhite populations (Latinx, Asian). They linked these to certain policies and ideologies. The key text here is The Emerging Democratic Majority: Judis and Teixeira.

      Along with this Dems also focused on gender in a certain way. They saw, and see, the continued movement of women into professions as something to rely on, again both for practical results (these people being more likely to vote Dem) and ideologically (these women tending more towards certain Dem ideas). “The future is female” slogan neatly evokes this.

      I would like to repeat the climate change theme, too. Yes, the framing of GND does look backwards – as well as forwards.

  3. Sandy Jensen says:

    Beautifully written, Bryan, and beautifully thought out. You helped me think in a different way about this suspended moment in time. And taught me a new word, “shambolic.” Thanks for that, too!

  4. Jeremy Stanton says:

    Thank you, Bryan, for another very poignant and thought-provoking post. Yesterday morning I realized we had achieved the ultimate Election of Separation – an outcome so perfectly split at almost every level, there would be no legitimacy or clear mandate for the winner, not a strong enough margin for the loser to concede, and a Congress poised for deadlock while tribal factions fight it out in the streets.

    But this situation also yields an insight–perhaps the idea that rivalrous systems can produce better outcomes for the participants has finally been shown for what it is: a dead-end. We’ve optimized our competitive tools to the point that the only outcome is a perpetual stalemate, achieved with ever more powerful and collaterally-damaging technologies. We thunder back and forth across the playing field only to end up where we began, while the playing field itself has been degraded to the point of collapse–our information ecology, social fabric, economies, institutions, climate, and biosphere are all deeply dysfunctional and rapidly unraveling.

    Packer is right, “We are stuck with one another,” but that hints at a way out. What if those others that we are stuck with, are, in fact, ourselves? What if the people over there on “team bad” have needs, fears, and hopes every bit as legitimate as we here on “team good?” Is it possible that every time we define some group as an “other”, an enemy to be beaten, persuaded, won over to “our side”, we actually degrade the playing field (and ourselves) a little further, by reanimating the old story of separation and control?

    So perhaps the dueling ghosts are two faces of the same phantom. Perhaps what’s waiting to be born, after the phantom devours itself, is a new way of seeing ourselves, each other, and our place in a world that is, at its core, about interconnection and relationship.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Jeremy, what an elegant response. Also, what a fine aspiration at the end.

      Your comment reminds me as well of the GameB movement. Did you intend that?

  5. Glen McGhee says:

    Fascinating that all of the Gramsci, Freire, Kessler quotes relate to “the problem of generations,” which was first articulated by Karl Mannheim, “a grand succession struggle, a sequence of generations caught in mid-stream.”

    The coming clash between generations is unavoidable, given the present circumstances. Lessons from the financial collapse and the housing bubble — what we now call the Great Recession — are now repeated, as described by Anne Case and Angus Deaton (2017) and David Blanchflower (2019) as “deaths of despair,” and Lisa Kahn (2010) showed vulnerable youth suffered the most.
    Job scarcity (Brown, Lauder, Cheung, 2020) mounts, possibly tilting into revolution (Collins, 2013). Baby Boomers defend their jobs by not retiring and their entitlements politically, shutting out and excluding youth.

    The clash between Covid and the Classroom reveals a generational divide. We’ve hearing about Covid-fears prompting “aging” staff and teachers to “bail” out before reopening in fall — creating staffing problems. This important aspect of reopening/ not reopening demonstrates how Covid is making the generational divide quite visible — in towns, on campus, and especially in the classroom.

    As Karl Mannheim and other sociologists have pointed out, the interests of each “generation” differ, and can even be in conflict, as now. With extremely low fatality levels, students aren’t nearly concerned as much as older adult professors.

    • Tom Haymes says:

      There are some fundamental paradigmatic shifts going on between Industrial Age thinking (hierarchical, rigid, linear), which still permeates many of our business, governmental, and educational systems and Digital Age thinking (holistic, customizable, visual).

      There is a definite schism between those who grew up in a world that is infinitely customizable and “production” no longer requires immense assembly lines. I would say that the issue has more to do with power structures and Boomers holding on to remnants of hierarchical structures while “millennials” and “Gen Z” don’t take that all seriously. I used to work in a company where this was clearly evident with a Boomer management team and a large group of recent grads (and very little in between). I remember sitting in on a management meeting where the management team was railing about the reviews that employees and ex-employees were giving the company on Glassdoor and what they “could do about it.” As a lifelong constructivist (at least since I knew what that meant), I found their attempts to impose order on a fluid media environment very humorous.

      We are seeing a lot of this in all of the hand-wringing about millennials. They’ve grown up in a world where TV isn’t defined by “Gilligan’s Island” reruns. They can watch and create whatever they want. The world is a malleable object, not what Walter Cronkite says it is.

      If you teach this way, you can reach them. If you are rigid and insist on talking instead of listening, then it’s very hard to reach them. My government class is entirely project-based. They spend the entire time building various pieces of a semester-long project (a web site). Once they get over the inevitable shock of “none of my other teachers do this,” they engage much more fully than under the more rigid approaches I used to apply. As an added bonus, this class has transited almost seamlessly to remote learning because was already almost entirely involved in the collection, analysis, and creation of digital objects.

      But Bryan is right, systemically, we’re still processing what this means and these periods of transition are dangerous. The last time we crossed this kind of systemic barrier was in the first 40 years of the 20th Century. Congress refused to process the Census results from the 1920 census because it showed for the first time that more people were living in cities than on the farm. The other impacts of this were far more dangerous, however. I hope this transition is far more peaceful but this election does not reassure me on that count. A hung jury is rarely satisfying.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Glen, thank you for bringing in sociology, as ever.
      I’ve got Mannheim on the shelf and have been meaning to read him since 1990 or so.

      Thank you, too, for raising Case and Deaton. They are heroes of mine – and it’s terrible how rarely Dems will mention them.

      I would take your generational divide further. Already I’m hearing complaints from teenagers that they resent having to sacrifice their glory years for senior citizens.

      • Glen McGhee says:

        A recent article by John Connolly at Dublin City University on generational conflict narrows our focus to the generational conflict over access to occupational positions and other social resources.

        There is also the idea that the “construction of the Baby Boomer problem was an attempt to mask and/or justify other socio-political decisions around pension, housing and healthcare provisions” citing Bristow (2015). What this amounts to is a kind of generationally-based “dream hoarding” (cf. Richard Reeves).
        Following Covid, “it would be interesting to to examine career channels open to younger generations as well as access to desired life changes, and the extent to which older (Baby Boomer) generations may currently monopolize these.”

        Drawing on Elias’ analysis in “Studies on the Germans,” Connolly reminds us of the power of generational-shame and closed-opportunity to set the stage for violence and wars, especially in regard to the Freikorps in the aftermath of WWI.
        Sadly, this fits the dreary mood of “ghosts” that linger on as shades from the nether world that remain with us.

      • Glen McGhee says:

        On the other hand, Jennie Bristow argues AGAINST “boomergeddon” (slide show) https://www.actuaries.org.uk/system/files/field/document/A4_Jennie%20Bristow.pdf
        And a brand new book — “Stop Mugging Grandma : The ‘Generation Wars’ and Why Boomer-Blaming Won’t Solve Anything” (Yale, 2020). What a title, eh?

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Great title. I’m curious, especially as Bristow cuts against common wisdom.

          Her pdf is just a sketch, but I am sympathetic to one of its final points: that intergenerational politics can be a distraction from other issues.

          • Glen McGhee says:

            I’ve been looking at Bristow’s criticism of the press and alarm over Boomergeddon, but I think that she’s missing the point. I mean, she IS responding to the emotional media portrayal of the generational war that is breaking out — I’ll grant her that much. But media, of course, exaggerates (Postman). That’s *not* the only data there is.
            When it comes to things like the Great Recession, the student loan debt problem, opioid crises, shrinking job opportunities (Kahn, Blanchflower, Case and Deaton), these are completely ignored. Really, really dumb.

      • Glen McGhee says:

        Apparently there are 3 million children of school age that are being raised by their GRANDPARENTS. That’s a lot of victims.

        Biological parents are incarcerated, addicted, have died, or are otherwise incapacitated, so much so that the state has awarded guardianship to grandparents. I’ve spoken with enough grandparents in this situation to know that the social fabric is beyond frayed for these kids — it has been utterly destroyed for them.

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