On Monday afternoon I was going about the normal business of being an informed 21st-century news consumer—skimming Twitter, wandering over to my favorite websites, watching with amusement as the debate over Nate Silver’s polling aggregation techniques turned vicious—when I began to feel bad. Physically sick. I got a headache and my stomach clenched and unclenched—I got up to walk around and my left leg decided to develop an inexplicable ache. Maybe this was just because I sit in front of a no-doubt-radiation-emitting computer screen for most of the day and drink too much coffee, but it’s possible I was having a physical reaction to a realization that was growing in my brain like a cancer: We are actually picking a president this Tuesday.
I don’t know what finally tipped me off to this reality. Maybe it was the trickle of celebrity endorsements on Twitter—Clarissa of Clarissa Explains It All cast her ballot for Romney!—or the flood of usually snarky folks on my Facebook feed reminding each other to vote in suddenly earnest tones—“It’s the most important election of our lifetimes, it really is, guys!” It really hit me once I read Choire Sicha of the Awl (he’s sort of like the cool RA of the liberal young New Yorker blogosphere) telling all the cynical little shits out there to suck it up and vote for Obama. By the time I read a mirror-image piece on National Review’s blog lecturing right wingers about how Obama really was that bad, I was massaging my temples and softly moaning to myself. The campaign was so much fun—why did we have to spoil it all by putting anyone in the White House?
Back in April of 2011 (that’s how long this thing has been going on), there was a great story about Benjamin Foster, a 24-year-old who was the first full-time campaign worker in Iowa hired by Tim Pawlenty, who was a guy who ran for president, in case you forgot. Young Benjamin was so excited about his burgeoning career, apparently, that he went out one night and got so drunk that by 3 AM he was staggering around a family’s yard and trying to break into their house. He woke up a 15-year-old girl, who started screaming; then he puked on the lawn and got arrested by cops, and was fired shortly afterward. The whole primary was full of moments like that. It was a comedy, a reality show where the contestants subjected themselves to humiliation after humiliation, desperate not to get voted off.
And what contestants they were! Herman Cain thought the skills he learned as the head of a pizzeria chain would make him a natural leader of the free world, and figured that all the sexual harassment accusations he knew he had dealt with in the past wouldn’t disqualify him. Michelle Bachmann lived in a paranoid fantasyland where the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the government. Newt Gingrich kept on talking about the moon. Amazingly, all three of them led the polls at one point or another. Rick Perry was touted as a political heavyweight who would wipe the floor with these clowns—until he forgot his own policies in a debate, got stuck in a mini-controversy over something called “Niggerhead Ranch,” and made an ad that was embarrassingly homophobic and over-the-top even by GOP standards. In this crowd, Romney was always the inevitable nominee, so none of this stuff mattered and you were free to laugh it off. When some Republicans favored Rick Santorum, an out-and-out theocrat, over Romney at the last minute, it was just an opportunity for jokes about sweater vests and a fake story about Santorum thinking gay hook-up ap Grindr had something to do with coffee.
Even when all the nuts dropped out and it was just Obama and Romney, the campaign remained a meme-generating machine rather than a discussion of ideas and policies you’d have to take seriously. Remember Mitt’s car elevator and Ann Romney’s dancing horse? Remember “You Didn’t Build That”? Remember Texting Hillary? Remember “What About Your Gaffes?” Remember Eastwood and the Empty Chair? Remember Big Bird? Remember Binders Full of Women? Remember Legitimate Rape? Remember those photos of Paul Ryan working out? Remember Bad Lip Reading? Remember Unskewed Polls? Remember the 47 percent? None of that shit mattered—but it was something to talk about, to share with your like-minded social media buddies, to spread through Tumblr and argue about on political blogs desperate for clicks. Following the gaffes and the spin and the bullshit-slinging was a fine and entertaining hobby to have during the campaign; it was better than anything on network TV at the very least. What the election came down to, of course, is what it would always come down to—Obama’s terrific get-out-the-vote operation in key states, and the fact that the GOP has responded to America’s changing demographics by catering even more to Christian white men rather than backing off its more extreme positions. But that kind of analysis is neither fun nor clickable.
The problem is that all of these molehills that reporters and bloggers discuss and the glued-to-the-monitor public get outraged over eventually add up to a mountain of an election. With the media stuck in campaign-meme mode—collecting and disseminating all these micro-scandals over several hundred daily news cycles—no one is taking seriously the idea that after the election comes governing. For all the talk of how the two candidates had “diametrically opposed visions for the future of America” or whatever, Obama is going to spend the next four years working with a squabbling, hateful Congress to keep the country from going bankrupt or being destroyed by a series of environmental disasters, which is also what Romney would be doing if he won.
It’s awful to think about that future; it’s even worse to think about how it will be reported on by all the media outlets that trade exclusively in ephemeral gossip and partisan squabbling. On Politico’s home page right now, there’s a story that begins, “Tuesday’s split decision in the election triggered a morning-after scramble on Capitol Hill to frame the results to each party’s advantage for the looming, high-stakes negotiations over the fiscal cliff.” Yup, we’re going to keep talking about “framing” things, and in all likelihood “optics” and “gaffes,” even after all the campaigning has stopped and the people who run the country have to actually run it. The solution to this, is, of course, to never stop campaigning. At midnight last night, less than an hour after the election was called by NBC, Matt Lewis of the Daily Caller asked his Twitter followers who they liked for the GOP nomination in 2016. That’s going to be a fun race to watch.
More post-election stuff: