The Way to Win Elections is to Win Elections

Scott Alexander included something I wrote among a group of essays he counter-critiqued as unfair mockery: “Some Groups of People Who May Not 100% Deserve Our Scorn.” His list of recently, unfairly maligned groups includes

1. Celebrities Who Speak Out Against Donald Trump

2. People Who Compare Political Events To Harry Potter

3. People Who Like Hamilton

4. Vox

5. Matt Yglesias

6. Pundits Who Failed To Predict Trump

6.1. Pundits Who Failed To Predict Trump, Because They Are Out Of Touch With Real Americans

7: People Who Are Worried That The Russians Hacked The Democrats To Influence The Elections

Now, first of all, I was happy to be included in the list of unfair mockers, mostly because now I get to write, “One of the Internet’s Most Self-Important People According to the New York Times” on my tombstone. I’ll come back to his response to #2 later (I’m not sure we really disagree that much), but let’s just note that all of these unfairly mocked entities have something in common- they are all, more-or-less, Hillary-aligned, center-left, social justice-neoliberal groups of people. Scott is aware of this: his alternative title is “Contra A Convergence Of Lefty and Far-Right Twitter Making Fun Of The Same People.” But it’s important to think about why all of these objects of mockery go together, and I think that Scott himself articulated it beautifully in his essay endorsing anyone-but-Trump shortly before the election, in explaining Trump’s appeal:

It’s about the feeling that a group of arrogant, intolerant, sanctimonious elites have seized control of a lot of national culture and are using it mostly to spread falsehood and belittle anybody different than them.

The people on his list are subject to ridicule and abuse because, to many people, they are arrogant, intolerant, sanctimonious elites who are are unwilling to admit that the election convincingly demonstrated that they didn’t have as tight control over the national culture as they thought they did.

Now, personally, I don’t think liberals should go around hanging their heads or even worry all that much about their “bubble” like people like Chris Arnade say they should. Democrats are in their worst electoral shape for nearly a century not mainly because they kept going on and on about Hamilton but because they convinced themselves that going on and on about Hamilton was a substitute for winning local, state, and national elections. Some of the only meaningful Wikileaked revelations concerned the degree to which the Democratic National Committee forced a non-competitive primary on their voters, even after the investigation of Hillary’s e-mails were well underway and the chair of her campaign understood perfectly well how damaging they were. My own feeling is that a nice, boring,  female, clean, Democratic politician with conventional credentials like, say, Amy Klobuchar or Kirsten Gillenbrand would have wiped the floor with Hillary and probably Bernie in a more competitive race, and would’ve been harder for Trump to run against- but you can only find these things out by allowing a competitive primary. Nobody thought that Trump winning the wacky Republican primary against seventeen thousand qualified opponents meant he had general election strengths, but I’m not convinced that Rubio or Cruz would’ve won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and so it seems that Republican primary voters at the very least didn’t shoot themselves in the foot. The way to win elections is to win elections, small ones then big ones.

This isn’t to say that the people in Scott’s list of the unfairly maligned don’t understand this- I’d say Matt Yglesias certainly does. But the fact remains that the entire thrust of Democratic  politicians’ rhetoric and Democratic-aligned media have been in the nearly opposite direction, with constant shrieking about this “white supremacist Administration” and “hacked elections,” (along with all the “Voldemort has taken the Ministry” stuff) and hardly any attention paid to putting their electoral base to work winning state legislatures, many of whom are contested this year, or even opposing Trump’s policies on terms that might appeal to the demographics of people who have turned out in midterm and state-level elections in the past. This is a problem even if you don’t agree with many current Democratic priorities: we should want political parties to view winning elections as the means to attaining power, not judicial fiat or Deep State quasi-coups or even movie star speeches.

To go back to Harry Potter, lest the second line on my tombstone be “Doesn’t Like Harry Potter,” here’s what Scott says:

Comparing politics to your favorite legends is as old as politics and legends. Herodotus used an extended metaphor between the Persian invasions of his own time and the Trojan War. When King Edward IV took the English throne in 1461, all anybody could talk about was how it reminded them of King Arthur. John Dryden’s famous poem Absalom and Achitophel is a bizarrely complicated analogy of 17th-century English politics to an obscure Biblical story. Throughout American history people have compared King George to Pharaoh, Benedict Arnold to Judas, Abraham Lincoln to Moses, et cetera.

Well, how many people know who Achitophel is these days? Even Achilles is kind of pushing it. So we stick to what we know – and more important, what we expect everyone else will know too. And so we get Harry Potter.

“But a children’s book?” Look, guys, fantasy is what the masses actually like. They liked it in Classical Greece, where they had stories like Bellerophon riding a flying horse and fighting the Chimera. They liked it in medieval Britain, where they would talk about the Knights of the Round Table slaying dragons as they searched for the Holy Grail. The cultural norm where only kids are allowed to read fantasy guilt-free and everybody else has to read James Joyce is a weird blip in the literary record which is already being corrected. Besides, James Joyce makes for a much less interesting source of political metaphors (“The 2016 election was a lot like Finnegan’s Wake: I have no idea what just happened”)

Harry Potter is not the national mythology I would have chosen. Probably I would have gone for Lord of the Rings. I’m not sure we as a nation deserve The Silmarillion, but a man can dream.

But Harry Potter is at least better than some things (we could have ended out with our national consciousness being shaped by Twilight!), and the point is that comparing your politics to those of a more interesting fantasy world is a natural human urge and probably not indicative of some sort of horrible decay.

Look, I like Harry Potter. I went with my wife to wait for the release of the sixth book at midnight at the Park Slope, Brooklyn, Barnes-and-Noble (really, how disgustingly bourgeois can you get?!) Jim Dale has been intoning the audiobooks from one or another of my kids’ rooms more-or-less continuously for the last decade. We brought the first movie with us the first time we went camping as a family, and my oldest then belted out “Cabot Draconis” at the tent flap when she went in and out. One of my more insane bouts of dad-dom was getting my oldest to read the first book, five pages a night, out loud to me the summer before she started school. I highly recommend the new editions of the books, illustrated by Jim Kay, which are coming out once a year in the fall.

My point in the post wasn’t mainly to mock the people name-checking Harry Potter as much as to ask why it was entirely coded as a liberal book. Now, obviously Rowling herself is a center-left liberal, but her various words describing the books as a “ prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry” and other liberal values aren’t entirely convincing to me- Harry and his friends are slightly more in line with liberal values than the Slytherins, but the books (and the English School Story genre they draw so successfully from ) aren’t really objectively “left” in their narrative structure or content. Even if you just say, as Scott did, you gotta have myths and Harry Potter is our myth, you have to ask why it is liberals are the ones quoting and referring to it. Maybe liberals as a group read more than non-liberals. (Trump certainly doesn’t seem to read a lot.) Or maybe they have an identity that is more in line with identifying with books, or with education, or with certain kinds of authority over others. That is itself interesting, and suggestive of the ways, that as Scott wrote elsewhere, that “right is the new left.”

But the bigger picture is that, while the culture is an important arena for political conflict, and myths are an important way of articulating the relationship between the private and the public, between the family and the state, they aren’t a substitute for winning elections. We should want clear distinctions between those things. As Hannah Arendt argues, one of the central requests we should make of our leaders is that they can tell the difference between the social world of culture, the political realm of voting, and the private world of the home.The first and third of those might well be more important than the second. But we should want politicians to understand that they aren’t the same thing, and that the way for losing politicians to get their jobs back is to convince legal voters to flick the right switches in the voting booth, not to holler and stomp until somebody says that voting booths no longer count.

4 thoughts on “The Way to Win Elections is to Win Elections

  1. We are a storytelling species. Ben Rhodes success in getting the Iran deal for Obama was creating a narrative replete with heroes and villains that the (in his own words naive) media played to the public. The man has no foreign policy knowledge, but is a storytelling genius. As a Harry Potter fan, I bet you’re geeky enough to remember the Star Trek Next Gen episode where Picard had to learn to speak in mythological allegories to communicate with a species where the translators wouldn’t work.

    Here’s the conclusion paragraph of a good piece by Zipes (2012) “Fairy tales were not created or intended for children. Yet they resonate with them, and children recall them as they grow to confront the injustices and contradictions of so-called real worlds. We cannot explain why the origins of the fairy tale are so inexplicable and elusive. But we can elucidate why they continue to be irresistible and breathe memetically through us, offering hope that we can change ourselves while changing the world.” http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9676.pdf

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  2. It doesn’t seem to me that “tolerance” is the progressive project as Rowling would have it, on several counts.

    1. Tolerance implies accepting and dealing with people and things you don’t like, and you are permitted not to like them and for this dislike to be known, at least within limits. One is not automatically cast out and called a witch for it oneself, for the mere thought. Progressives want all to ostentatiously love who and what they love. Love, especially compulsory love, is not Tolerance.

    2. Progressives do not in fact themselves love everything or everyone, or condemn all bigotry. One is permitted to mock a “knuckle-dragger” or “redneck” with impunity, and many others.

    3. Progressivism is therefore the imposition of one set of loves, hates, bigotries and favoured groups over others. This is normal in human history.

    George C Scott, as George S Patton, “I know I’m a prima donna. I admit it. What I hate about Montgomery is he won’t admit it.”

    Or words to that effect.

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  3. On Potter, one can see where Rowling is coming from when considering elements like Hermione being muggle-born, with the prejudice she faces and overcomes. OTOH,

    1. Hermione is nevertheless born with wizarding powers from muggle parents. This suggests the possibility of magic latent in muggle bloodlines. It also perpetuates one of fantasy’s most durable conventions- the secretly special person with hidden powers from a humble background. So, not an aristocrat by blood and heredity but rather a natural aristocrat by what amounts to divine intervention or superior genetic mutation. Good job JK.

    2. Harry Potter is a wizard born of wizards, AND has the greatest latent powers around, albeit he had to grow up among muggles. So Potter is an aristocrat by blood heredity, from a wizard line, AND has the special favour of whatever divinity or genetic heritage governs such things in his world. He is the trueborn prince, and the hidden hero, and the Chosen One. ALL of them the myths and motifs of the world of lords, princes, and sacred blood.

    3. The wizards don’t actually seem to do much in the real world at all, keeping to themselves and playing their magical games and warring amongst themselves. I can’t remember whether even Voldemort’s plans involved the conquest of muggleworld or not. So in that sense the wizards are not as intrusive as they could be. Still, they form a quasi-caste in the world, controlling their own ranks, operating in secret, etc. Sure seems like a hidden aristocracy. Fewer checks and balances than the Habsburgs.

    4. It’s true Voldemort seems to embrace a form of Nietszcheanism, quite explicitly. In opposition to him, his foes rely on tradition, the authority of the school, the old ways of the wizarding world, and the power of the chosen one. Sounds like Nietszchean Neoreaction versus Christian Reaction or Paleoconservatism. Or Wagner versus John Boorman’s Excalibur.

    And of course Hogwarts itself is like school stories in general- glorying in the hierarchy and traditions of the school, the permanence of the endeavour, and the years long process of the students forming hierarchies among themselves.

    I see no way around it. The next title must be Harry Potter and the Right-wing Metaphors.

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