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Sisyphus, With People Throwing Knives At Him

You know the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who had to push a large boulder up a hill; and just as he finally got to the top, the boulder would slip away, and crash down to the bottom of the hill, and Sisyphus would then arduously push it up to the top, and it would crash down again.

It can be seen as a story of futility. It could also be seen as a tale of perseverance, and human indomitable spirit even in the face of endless frustration. I think that is what Camus might have seen it as, though I have not read his book about it.

Watching the election returns on Tuesday night, I was thinking about how difficult and frustrating it has been to be a liberal in America. Just when it seems that we are finally making progress, and turning the corner, as in the elections of 2018 and 2020, we fall back again and slide down the hill, where we have to pick ourselves up and start again.

It is not as though we lost a whole bunch of races, but we lost just about everything in Virginia: the Governor’s race, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. I think we had won ten straight major races in that state, and we lost three of them on one night. The governor race was not nearly as big a margin as it looked early, when people on TV were saying “rout,” and “bloodbath” McAuliffe is gong to lose by a bit over 2%. But of course a loss is a loss, particularly in this era. We also lost control of the Virginia House. I think we control their Senate by 21-19. But Youngkin can make deals and manipulate things, and it is not at all good to have a Republican governor in Virginia for the first time in nine years.

In New Jersey, it is not decided; it looks like Murphy will barely pull it out, but maybe not. Biden won New Jersey by 16 points a year ago, and Virginia by ten points. So what happened?

There will be statistical analyses and political theorizing. And as always, people will be apt to project their own preferences onto the analysis, so that they see it as “Because the Democrats did not do (the thing they wanted).” They were not progressive enough; they were too progressive; they didn’t argue the issues correctly, etc. So we should always take these analyses with skepticism.

Even so, I will offer my thoughts that Afghanistan and invented cultural issues were the two main factors. Afghanistan, because that is where the media joyfully piled on President Biden, for something that I think he mostly handled well. Given the Trump deal with the Taliban, and the fact that the Afghan government had already capitulated, and arranged to immediately flee with their money, Biden did about as well as he could, I think. But the media, accompanied by the videos that they showed over and over again, made it look as it this was a “debacle,” to use their words, and the statements of some of the ex-military officials they would interview. Others would get on and say that Biden had done this about as well as we could have, but the coverage relentlessly emphasized a view that this was a terrible mishandling of things.

And once that started, it became the new Republican metaphor, something like Carter and the hostages in Iran. Biden was portrayed as incompetent, and his favorable ratings shot down at least ten points, where they remain today, at about 43%, even in Virginia. To me, this is ridiculous and unfair. I have seen bad presidents, and Biden is not one. In fact, even though I certainly was never a great fan, I have been impressed with how much he has done so far, with almost nonexistent majorities, and a Republican Party which does not help one bit in regard to anything, even uncovering the terrifying traitorous insurrection at the Capitol.

And by most accounts, he and the Democrats in Congress are very close to passing the Senate and House bills on infrastructure and “build back better.” Whatever one might think of the bills, they certainly do represent a major legislative achievement, with such small majorities. And if they had passed two weeks ago, it might have helped McAuliffe win, but perhaps not, one cannot say for certain.

And then of course the cultural issues that Republicans love to run on That was why I captioned this, “Sisyphus, with people throwing knives at him.” It is difficult enough to trudge up the hill of trying to win votes, and trying to explain to people that your ideas for improving people’s daily lives are far superior to Republicans’ non-ideas. But then you have to somehow avoid the knives that the Republicans keep hurling at you, in the form of lies, misrepresentations, and fear tactics.

There is no Critical Race Theory taught in Virginia schools, but Youngkin vowed to eliminate it. The schools in Virginia are highly regarded, but Republicans convinced many voters that they were in dire shape as liberals/intellectuals/Black people were trying to indoctrinate students with CRT and novels about slavery and racism. Sadly and predictably, “education” became the second top issue for Virginia voters, per exit polling, only behind the economy. This is almost inconceivable, but a perverse testament to the ability of Republicans and their vast media echo chamber to convince voters to focus on what they tell them to.

Their tactics are not complex, but they work far too often. The issue is flag burning: or avoiding the draft: or sighing at a debate; or the candidate’s wife; or emails: or “a caravan, or “defund the police,” or CRT, or making students read a particular book for class. Their audience responds to this, and the campaign then becomes about that, and Republicans win. The only time that they could not get traction with their misdirection and lies, was against Obama, who was protected by the Republicans’ fears that an attack on him would be seen as racist, and also by the fact that John McCain was a decent person. And Biden avoided some of it, because Trump was such a hated symbol, that even the media stopped helping him in his second campaign.

The point, of course, is that this is what we have to face. It is not going away. Republicans are not going to relent, they will even do more of it, based on tonight’s results. Why is Murphy tied at this moment? Why would people vote for what is apparently a real jerk of a candidate, even by Republican standards, in a state where the Democratic governor valiantly battled against the effects of the pandemic which the Republican President kept saying was a hoax, or should be ignored, even as the hospitals were overrun with patients, and people were in despair?

Do people have such short memories? Obviously. Plus the key issue for those people in the blue-collar districts which were going heavily Republican, apparently was, “No one can tell me to wear a mask!” Do they want the pandemic to surge again? Perhaps they do, or they are just too stupid to understand cause and effect.

So we have to pick up the boulder, and try to push it up the hill again. We know that he media will be full of weeks and months of dire pronouncements; that the Republicans are going to sweep the midterms, and then take over the Presidency. That the Biden Administration is a failure and cannot rebound. That whatever bills are passed came too late, and that Democrats look petty and quarrelsome. That people want Republicans to run the country. That now that Youngkin showed how to support Trump but not admit it, this will be the template that that they will follow.

Who wants to listen to that? There is an alternative narrative, that these were not even national midterms, but off-year elections in two states. That when the major bills pass, the Democrats will have something to run on next time. This is certainly possible. But even so, it feels very effortful to think that way immediately following these results. Of course, we know that had McAuliffe won by 2%, the media would still stick to the first narrative, because the races were so close in blue states.

Ir is frustratingly hard to make progress. I had really hoped that there was a continuing Blue Wave in much of the country, and that Virginia was now reliably Democratic. But no. We have to continually fight for every inch of ground, and then fight to hold it. It is enervating. But the alternative is to give up, which we must not do. There are various anomalous results in off-year elections. But Republicans did win the governorship in one of the few remaining states which has great access to the vote, and that has to be sobering, given the states which are passing laws to significantly suppress the votes of Democrats.

Of course we will all have various thoughts about what we must do better. The one thought I have right now, is that we absolutely must do two things: 1) Support President Biden, because if the populace loses faith in him, the downticket candidates in highly contested races cannot win. Also, the party leaders had better be able to articulate what he will have done in his first two years. Right now, people seem to have the idea that he is a failure, which is completely ridiculous by any reasonable standard. 2) Come up with issues, cultural or not, which will make people understand what the risks are in electing Republicans. Fascism for one. Climate change that cannot be vitiated. A growing economy halted by Republican economic plans which only benefit the very rich. Mobs of seditionists creating violence. The return of the pandemic.

One of the ironic problems which Democrats always face, is that when they fix the collapsing economy, people are more sanguine, and do not think that they need the Democrats any more, and they put the Republicans back in. This may be happening faster than usual, helped along by the phony culture wars misdirection.

Well, I will try not to think about it for the rest of the evening. Tomorrow is another day, as a famous fictional character said. Pick up the boulder, not by oneself, but together with like-minded people; start pushing it up the hill again; dodge and duck the knives being hurled by the enemy; and hope that the task is ultimately not as doomed to frustration as that of the famous myth.