What to Hang the World On
I went to the polls in search of a metaphor, because I am desperate for something, and some days that something is for someone to decide my ideas and words are worth broadcasting, and clearly a central metaphor would help with that. Some spectacular link of the personal and the social, some microcosm of the hell we’re in, something to explain it all to myself. They seem like the most useful things in the world, so insightful, so elegant.
A butterfly caught under a wheel for man’s brutality of the world, gravity standing in for political attraction, the tides for the ups and downs of history, existential dread and global warming as twin manifestations of minds too capable for their own good. It’s not that I could write a novel around any of these, but I could definitely think about it. I wanted to find one in the form of my vote, a metaphor for the American experience, a miniature of the election as a whole, something.
It was all hypocrisy. I’ve come to disbelieve in the metaphor, really any manner of simile. Reasoning by analogy just leads to bad thinking. We only refuse to take things on their own terms because we’re too stupid or lazy to allow more than a few models to pass through our minds. A rising tide lifts all boats is, to my limited knowledge, an accurate descriptor of hydrodynamics; it says next to nothing about the economy unless you stitch on a dozen other analogues, gravity and snakes and lemmings and such, enough to make the final comparison an impenetrable morass rendering basic economic theory and statistics a much better bet.
Any analogy condensed enough to be worth making reduces reality past the point of recognition, for the sake of the questionable virtue of brevity. A rising tide lifts all boats, but maybe gravity is more apropos because the sheer mass of wealth attracts more than a smaller quantity, but maybe it’s more like adhesion, money sticking to itself, until eventually you have to acknowledge that an economy is rather complex and not particularly similar to gravity or hydrodynamics or much of anything else.
But I’m not better than anyone else. My mind casts about for easy comparisons, my ego longs for a shortcut to brilliance, and I duly headed into the voting process in search of a hook. It seemed a small betrayal of the self in the context of these weeks.
I voted on my second attempt. My first came the day before, 20 miles from my house, victim of both some bizarre county decisions and my own desire to drive far and fast for a little while in the late morning. In the afternoons, a set of satellite offices would open across the spread of the county, but before 1 p.m. the 724,080 registered voters of Fairfax County were restricted to voting at the monolithic headquarters of their local government.
The building looked as if it was designed by an architect who had forgotten the existence of cranes. Told he had to make the building larger, he simply went lateral again and again. The final product was so broad, such a pervasive filler of the skyline, it looked more like a shadow projected upwards from the ground than a building pushing down on it. I heard as I walking up that the wait was about an hour, the row of expectant voters pointed somewhat absurdly down and up the green median aimed directly at the front door, where a large red tent, a crowd of people, and a passel of signs awaited us. The line wrapped around the column of bushes that bisected the peninsula of grass; partway through the U-turn over the crest of the verdant wave, little yellow arrows appeared to direct us where we were already headed. The sun blazed down directly on us and, having put on a sweater but not a hat, I realized I was in for some misery. After ten minutes of little movement I could feel my burning forehead begin to throb, and I realized it wasn’t worth waiting when I had the chance to vote any afternoon at the polling place closer to me. I decided to wait until the line reached a gab in the hedgerow, and then dart on through.
I feared that, as I walked away, someone from the crowd would shout out to me, extol the virtues of the vote, implore me to stay, and I’d be forced to engage, to explain my fear for my almost pallid skin, to timidly offer that if it were my last chance I’d certainly stay put. But no one in the massive line decried my departure, or much seemed to notice, and I was free to go and let this semblance of democracy keep working itself out.
I drove to a high-end shopping center and stopped at a coffee shop to use their bathroom, buying a coffee out of a sense of obligation and only realizing too late that they’d shut off the restrooms, and I carried a superfluous hot coffee through a half-deserted wasteland of pastel furniture stores on a crushingly sunny day until I guiltily discarded the cup and drove away. No doubt I could say ‘no doubt there’s a metaphor there,’ and simply leave it at that. The mind can fill in the rest.
This vote was set to be dispiriting, but then again, they all are; I’m not really sure it could be otherwise, and I’m not really sure what the alternative is. There’s a material difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, just as there’s a difference between all Democrats and Republicans, and that is that as disappointing as they may be, Democrats aren’t in favor of the pro-active immiseration of the world. We can long for a better choice than that between the cessation of some bad things and their acceleration, but, despite my primary votes and my dyspeptic tweets and my sad, ritual attempts at writing a more comprehensible world into existence, it wasn’t yet so. The same goes for millions of others, even as they exist only as abstractions, digital allies, small personal celebrities divorced from the ever-declining real substance of my life. When describing an experience of politics, it’s almost impossible to process the scale of what the country is doing collectively. We’re forced to focus on the actions and beliefs of those we know. The widely mocked, apocryphal Pauline Kael quote about not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon is a pretty good stand in for how we collectively dissociate from the broader polity and instead share the experience primarily with those around us. But this process doesn’t describe how I experienced the primary. It was the same for relatively few people I know (personally). So many were driven by a desire for a vague ‘this’ to stop, rather than any proactive agenda. I’m not sure I can precisely blame them. We’ve all had some illusions shattered. For some it’s the first time.
I tried for quite some time to write a passage about why voting for even a disappointing candidate is worthwhile, one with a couple sentences I’m a little proud of and quite a few floating loosely in the middle of the blank space of the page, unmoored from the broader thrust of my paragraphs, unable to articulate the exact line of thinking I was constructing. The temptation to lay everything out in a neat little logical sequence, to make the best argument possible, is almost irresistible. But that’s not how I found myself filling in the bubble on the ballot, and I don’t think it’s how I’ll get anyone else to either. Joe Biden is far from the candidate I wanted to see, and even in a fantasy world in which he was able to accomplish everything he wanted, in which the republicans and his fellow democrats and the courts and his own imperfections proved no obstacle, the manifestations of his dreams would leave the country heartbreakingly short of one I could call just, let alone ideal. All of that is irrelevant to the choice I had before me. On some level, a mature political culture relies on all of us giving up on the ideal; the lived experience of the world is that progressive change tends to rely on this as well. I think there is a massive gulf between the world we’d see under a Joe Biden administration and what we’d get under a second Trump term. In that context, I couldn’t consider not voting for Joe with any level of seriousness. There’s no reason to walk anyone else through a thought process I didn’t consciously follow, though if that’s the standard there’s not much reason for any of this beyond my own gratification.
The day after fleeing the field at the government headquarters, I went to the satellite polling location closer to my house, a smaller ‘government center’ containing a fairly large police precinct, a fire house, and somewhere within its hallways the office of the district supervisor. The line appeared long when I arrived, on a half-cloudy day about to commit to sun, and it turned out to be much longer in practice.
Here, in condensed form, are some of the notes I took in line, written in the past tense as they were happing, a symptom of our narrative obsession, a symptom of my own pathologies and desires.
Fearing the crowds at the government center, I parked in the shopping center across the street, by a Peruvian chicken place I’d haunted in high school.
I arrived at 1:23 to a line wrapping the equivalent of a few city blocks around the fenced parking lot of a police station; the only person who talked to me was an older man offering me a republican sample ballot, who looked quite put out when I declined. Three cops left on motorcycles while I was there; a couple probably not out of their teens in athleisure showed up and had a maskless conversation with the Republican ballot guy, against the fence instead of getting in line.
At 1:40 a man walked past from behind filming the whole of the line; he never came back. The sun came out around the same time. In 17 minutes I’d gone about as many meters.
Plenty of people brought folding chairs to sit on; a man in a Notre Dame hat brought a paint bucket
Several police cars had their lights come on without explanation, projecting blue in empty silence
The only questions anyone seemed interested in asking the referendum volunteers was how long the line really was
There’s a sad impotence in the way the solidly democratic voters of northern Virginia came out in droves to vote against Trump, knowing how unimportant running up the margin here was but with little else to do
After an hour I’d gone about a hundred feet
Disembodied, perhaps experimental sirens at 2:12; an unmarked car that had entered the parking lot clean moved out covered in leaves
Sporadic comings and goings, inexplicable perhaps even to those on the move
There was a loony tunes jacket and a 24-ounce coffee, a couple belt buckles, and oh so many sweats. Being a government office, signs weren’t allowed everywhere, but in the metaphorical walled gardens where they were allowed a thousand flowers bloomed. Given the presence of the cops, there were plenty of guns. It was all so very American
An hour in and the sun was fully out, and I was caught between overheating and sunburn, putting my jacket in a state of flux
I was less than halfway through the line
The referendum campaigners left at 2:27, leaving me unsure if they were tired, hungry, hot, or bored. It was not as if voters had stopped arriving. Every few minutes someone would vote, every few minutes someone would show up, occasionally someone would bail
A young kid left and came back with chips and water
A communications tower was silhouetted beautifully against the sky
The couple before me took selfies of themselves in line; I’d never seen people take photos of their voting lines before, but this year I saw dozens. It seemed to be the done thing, so I did it too
The democrats had a novelty-check size sample ballot, but none to take into the booth
A couple in matching trump shirts, full of confidence, drove up and walked straight to the front of the line. They eventually went to the back, the man tried to speed ahead once or twice more
A car drove by with a face mask attached to its antenna like the little flags people fly for football teams
By the end of the line I was beginning to really sweat
Volunteers brought ballots out to some cars
Yellow Porsche convertible with a ‘PSU Jedi’ vanity plate
We came to a dead stop for a long time
One cop nonchalantly carried a rifle, largely unnoticed by the crowd
By the door the Republican volunteer started giving out candy. Everyone was pretty friendly
Proposed amendments to the state constitution in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Korean
A reporter called to say he was coming in 45 minutes; the poll workers joked that it was a pity the youngest, prettiest election worker was leaving (Note: In their defense, they were not lecherous men, pathetically flirting with a much younger female colleague; they were instead older women seemingly looking with a sort of happy jealousy on an avatar of youth. It was an oddly touching scene)
That last note indicated that I had waited two hours and fifty-six minutes to vote. I’d never waited more than ten or fifteen minutes in the past; this longer line was both an unacceptable outrage and a relatively quotidian occurrence compared to the six, eight hour waits that many are forced to endure even in pandemic-free times, waits that have only increased in this awful year, particularly for the poor, the black, the urban. Our society uses the disadvantaged as a trial run for the indignities that will be visited on all but the most empowered, most fortunate of us in years to come.
None of this seemed to stand in for much of anything, but then again, my notes grew much less frequent the longer I stayed in line; my phone was dying, and I desperately didn’t want to lose access to my podcast, to be forced to think on my own for hours. Maybe I’d missed something. Outside of this particular search, god knows we all had.
As it turns out, a metaphor was easy to find; America is often the most obvious nation on the planet. Perhaps our most admirable trait is our inability to stop showing our collective ass at every turn; it represents some small form of honesty. One of the gates to the police parking lot was being repaired, and it opened and closed over and over as we stood in near stasis by its side. Four people were gathered around, acting out a strange caste system. A sole Latino contractor did the physical work with a white contractor standing over his shoulder offering some sort of guidance, occasionally pitching in; a plain-clothes county official supervised from further away, all with a uniformed officer silently watching, not interfering. Sometimes it all just stares you in the face, as much as you want to think logically. For all I knew, the gate had been stuck for weeks; I knew full well that my voting location was one of more than a dozen open before election day proper, a notable departure from the many municipalities proactively attempting to stop their people from voting. But the allegory was just too alluring. Four people stood tending to one of three gates to one of dozens of police stations as their fellow citizens sweltered alongside them, waiting to participate in a woefully inadequate electoral process. The minor inconveniences of law enforcement will be seen to, as the crumbling of the civic state continues further and further and further in their midst. All too obvious, and no less true for it. It was a decent illustration of what we commit to make work.
Metaphors do some of our work for us; they allow us to elide the hard, painful work of describing this world as it is. This election is hard to write about for the same reason that this period, this country is hard to write about, and that is that the right thing is so very obvious, and no one with more than a modicum of power has any interest in that. It would have been right for Ronald Reagan not to shatter the economy and it would have been right for H.W. not to enable Nicaraguan death squads. It would have been right for Bill Clinton not to demagogue this country’s faltering attempts at a welfare state, it would have been right for George Bush not to start a pointless war with an extraordinary death toll, and it would have been right for Barack Obama to not support the murder of Yemeni civilians. It would be right for Donald Trump to do almost anything other than what he has done to fill our days these past four years.
It’s right, as far as such things go, to vote for Joe Biden, and plenty of people won’t do that, and it would be right, if he’s elected, for Joe Biden to try to tear down the stanchions holding up the crumbling relics of the apartheid state founded on this land and replace it with something else, and he won’t do that. It’s obvious almost beyond the point of requiring explication, and anything other than a plain statement of the facts obfuscates the truth. We’re left with only an unfortunate vantage of a nation we find cruel and we find largely impossible to fix. We’re left looking at a world that is a rough continuation of the one we’ve seen thus far, and without any obvious options to change this status quo. And nobody wants to see that.