November 6, 2012

The Morning After the Non-Election

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This morning, I will stumble from a thrice-snoozed alarm towards my coffee grinder and wait awkwardly for the annoyingly loud noise to produce coffee grinds. I will then pack the coffee into a filter and wait for my espresso machine to squeeze out a cup of espresso. As I drink my espresso, I’ll think, “Oh yeah, Obama was reelected.” I drink coffee not because I stayed up all night to see whether Obama or Romney won Alaska, but because this is my daily routine and I have an unhealthy obsession with coffee. Unlike the nail-biting 2000 and the electrifying 2008 elections I feel strangely calm today, and many others do too. Romney wrote off 47 percent of the population and riled up the Obama base, but then it faded away. Obama’s lackluster performance at the first debate gave the Romney base some momentum, but that disappeared too. Pundits surface every four years to explain why this or that election is the most important yet, but they are actually right this time, like how a stopped watch is correct twice a day. The bifurcation of political ideology, at the price of centrism, means that this election would vindicate which way we go as we set sail upon a sea of doubt. Why, then, is there a crisis in enthusiasm?  It is not just that the election presents, as The Economist magazine wrote, an “unedifying choice.” Rather, there seems to be no election. Blogs like FiveThirtyEight run complex statistical models to predict with alarming accuracy the results, the margin of winning and the demographic breakdown of the voters. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, run by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, correctly predicted 97 percent of the 482 races in 2008. But we don’t even need the statistics models to see this. New York will always vote Democratic. Ohio, Florida and Virginia are the swing states that decide the election. “It is the camera lens that, like a laser, comes to pierce lived reality in order to put it to death,” the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard writes. In this case, it is the incessant data gathering and the supercomputers running election simulacra that put the election to death. In 1948, President Truman was up for reelection against Thomas Dewey. Virtually every prediction, scientific or otherwise, predicted that Truman would lose by a wide margin. The Republicans played it safe, and Dewey avoided any type of risk taking. Meanwhile, Truman toured the country, making fiery stump speeches from a constantly moving railway car. He ridiculed the Republican-controlled Congress as obstructionist and attacked Dewey for being a distant New York elitist who would do anything to get elected. On election night, the pundits noted that Truman had an early lead but were still confident that Dewey would overtake Truman eventually and win. The Chicago Tribune was so confident that Dewey would defeat Truman that they published their now infamous headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” For the rest of his life, Truman gleefully mocked the media for its unwarranted hubris.But as polling science has become more sophisticated, the contentious nature of the electoral process has inevitably disappeared. $5 billion have been spent, SuperPACs have appeared and one million ads were aired, but on Tuesday night the states fell into place in an orderly fashion. The chaos that we heard about — the ballot stuffing, the voter disenfranchisement, the close race and the undecided voters — edged towards implosion until it was quickly interrupted.In one fell swoop, election coverage broadcasts imposed normalcy last night and turned the 50 states red or blue, as if that chaos had never existed: The reported reality gives way to the predicted reality in a controlled manner. Baudrillard once notoriously declared that the Gulf War didn’t happen, because it was meticulously planned with “suffocating and machinic performance, virtual and relentless in its unfolding” as a media spectacle. In this view, the election becomes a non-event: Candidates win simulations. They are not elected like Truman; they are constructed through prophecy and defaulted towards. Of course, these are not excuses to abstain from voting, even if someone correctly predicted who you voted for. When you step into a voting booth or you mail off your absentee ballot, the spectacle disappears. A third reality emerges: Someone will still become president, and your vote still counts.  Claiming that the election is a non-event means just that: You should vote based on the issues. You shouldn’t vote based on reports that Obama is a secret Kenyan or that Romney is controlled by the Mormon church. Statistical models may have put the election to death, but they paradoxically give us some breathing room to repudiate the reported reality. It is the breathing room to puff away Donald Trump’s thinning coiffure, to ignore the outrageous discourse and to maybe, just this once, seriously elect a president.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng