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Today I’m on a shoot with a cameraman whose daughter, 13, has been suicidal for many months. He’s stopped working, says he’s on suicide watch 24/7. His explanation for what’s happened is largely sociological. “There’s just this atmosphere of doomsday,” he says. “Global warming, and then there’s too much information coming in - kids can’t process it. And then Covid was the nail in the coffin.” He talks about going trick-or-treating on Halloween and all the other parents shared his experiences - hospitalizations, mental health crises, etc. “The system in this country is so fucked,” he says. “My wife and I have all these skills, I have money - or used to - and still, working on this around the clock, we’ve made like no progress. Her psychiatrist and therapist both bailed on her - probably she was too much of a liability risk. Insurance won’t cover any of it. And you just know that there are so many kids exactly like her and it’s like what’s going to happen to them if their parents don’t have enough money that they can stay with them all the time. It’s crazy how in this country, the system just leaves you to die.”
That’s my morning conversation. It’s an interesting disjunction for me. Today’s the day when, as everybody I know feels, dawn’s breaking across America - or at least there’s a respite from the madness. I went to an election watch party last night, and it was the first time in years that I genuinely enjoyed thinking about politics. There was something so cozy about it - back to the way that it felt like a sport in the ’90s and ’00s: John King’s endlessly reassuring tone - now not so much like single-handedly holding back the tide, which was how he talked in 2020 (reminding everybody that the mail-in ballots hadn’t yet been counted), as reiterating the eternal verities of retail politics, the importance of paying attention to one’s district, “cutting the ribbon,” etc; CNN’s pundit pods, with like four different war rooms in each of which a different set of pundits argued raggedly about the results with one another. The feeling, on TV, in my watch party, was that everybody was basically having a good time - some sort of moderate consensus had reasserted itself; the country had delivered a polite, firm rebuke to extremism.
On a call a friend of mine says that it’s like the end of a fever dream. There was Trumpism and Trumpism seemed to be pointing in a very clear direction - towards a questioning of the legitimacy of the democratic process, towards political violence. And the takeaway from Tuesday was that enough people had finally had enough (at least for now). Every time the control room cut back to John King, it was like he was dismissing another element of the fringe - this candidate who had been “at or near the Capitol in January 6,” that candidate who promoted QAnon, that candidate who declared that they wouldn’t accept the election result - all of them running at about 40%, and King saying or holding himself back from saying that if only the Republicans had nominated somebody close to reasonable they would almost certainly have taken that race.
That sense of the fever dream breaking extended as well to the left. I was really shocked - I dedicated a whole Commentator piece to it - by the set of ‘retractions’ that appeared in legacy liberal publications over the last couple of weeks, with an implicit understanding that liberals had dropped the ball and allowed extremist progressive positions to push too close to the mainstream (these included a condoning of cancel culture and internet censorship, overzealous interventions during the pandemic and on global warming, as well as - although the articles discussed last week didn’t happen to be about this - an indulgence of defund and abolition movements). Defund - and the hands-off law enforcement practiced in San Francisco, Portland, etc - almost meant disaster for Democrats. Crime turned out to be a winning Republican issue, just as it had in the ’80s, nearly balancing out abortion and extremism. And Democratic politicians - the people who spent the whole cycle distancing themselves from defund positions - must have by now an acute sense of just how readily an association with progressivism can backfire and how quick the GOP has been to turn that to their advantage.
That’s the mood this morning - relief, like the ghost of the old Democratic Party managed somehow to hold the line, Fetterman riding into battle like the Cid and still somehow winning a close election even without being able to, you know, debate or speak or do any of the things one would normally expect of a politician; Biden himself a bit like the Cid, no longer in fighting trim but keeping things together just enough for the cause to survive.
There will be a need for some sort of massive regroup by 2024 - a dynamic candidate for President, a message of optimism that’s distinct from reactivity to Republican extremism - but something significant seems to have happened on the left, a distancing from extreme progressivist positions, a sort of note-to-self that elections, in the end, are won by retail politics and by appealing to voters who want stability, who are not fundamentally ideological.
The feeling - I’m thinking again of my cameraman friend and his daughter - is of something having gone terribly wrong over the last half-decade: technology disrupting our relationships to ourselves and our surroundings; an apocalyptic sensibility and a tendency towards over-correction (for instance, the school closures in 2020 that have caused so much lasting damage); ideology filling in a cultural void. For my cameraman friend, the lesson of all this has been to panic less, to trust his intuition a bit more - he made the mistake over the summer, he says, of having put his daughter in Bellevue thinking that the professionals could help. Instead, they just ratcheted up her Zoloft prescription, which, as he could already see, wasn’t working. “Hospitals are like prisons - the way that prisons teach you how to be better criminals,” he says. “The one thing I’ve learned is that I know my daughter better than anybody else - and I’m not putting her back in that fucking place.” He shows me a video he took. To cheer his daughter up, he and his wife set some firecrackers across the street, told his daughter what time to slip past the nurses and wander to a window. For him, that was a perfect metaphor of what this time of his life has been like - the video of Bellevue off in the distance, his daughter on the 22nd floor, and the fireworks going off in the foreground; he and his wife doing whatever they could to keep sane.
Oddly enough, the cameraman and I are both in a pretty good mood. His daughter went to school today - for the first time in a while. He’s working again. The red wave (which I fully expected) didn’t consume us. It feels like back to reality, back to brass tacks, keeping things together, a day at a time.