October 28, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Will the midterms end the age of gothic politics?
The possibility of nothing changing.
In August, I argued for what I think is a more pragmatic way of looking at this year’s midterms. Instead of one party winning or losing, perhaps we should see the possibility of nothing changing.
I argued that, until 1994, flipping the Congress was relatively rare for most of the 20th century. Power changed hands after a total of six midterms. That’s 19 out of 25 cycles over the course of a century.
Flipping took on speed after 1994 but especially after Sept. 11. Afterward the GOP succeeded in making all things liberal seem, to the public imagination, treacherously in league with Al-Qaeda. The trend gained even greater speed after 2008 when a man who “looked like a Muslim,” aligned with America’s enemies, won the presidency.
That’s where things have stood for the most part. That’s also where the conventional wisdom has stayed, to wit: The party that controls the White House loses a chamber of the Congress in a midterm.
At some point, there will be a reaction against the half-century dominance of the Republican Party. That’s why I’m still bullish on 2022 being similar to 1982. That year was the start of our current cycle of political time, ushered in by Ronald Reagan. That midterm featured high inflation, too. Nonetheless, it produced no change.
A midterm producing no change would be a return to a historical norm after a long period of gothic politics, as I’m going to call it.
By gothic, I’m talking about a political and cultural milieu in which the ubiquity of greed, decadence and decay evoked a feeling of things being upside down, backwards and prolapsed. It made good things bad, bad things good. The concrete became unknowable. The unknowable became concrete. It atomized society, alienated individuals, disillusioned citizens, all with a dread-awe of doom.
The signs of gothic politics are many. The economy is still growing, unemployment has rarely been lower, but the press corps is focused with fears of inflation and a subsequent recession. Meanwhile, voters who want to choose the Republicans, but need a reason, have convinced themselves that the political party that ushered in the 2007-2008 financial panic would be better economic stewards.
Crime rates have rarely been as low as they are. But a majority of Americans, 56 percent, according to Gallup, believes crime rates are climbing in their communities. A stunning 78 percent thinks there’s rising crime nationwide. Their worry about specific crimes – like children being assaulted at school – has also grown significantly.
Rightwingers are purging school boards, who are banning books, on suspicion that teachers are indoctrinating students into trans culture or “critical race theory.” Fact is, students are usually assaulted by people they know, and indeed brainwashed into thinking that violence is love when perpetrated by uncles, fathers and brothers.
The rightwing reaction to gains made after George Floyd’s murder turned the term “woke” from a hallmark of antiracism into a political trope in wide circulation that’s infused with gloom and horror, an ominous miasma of mystery and death inherent to gothic politics.
The result has been a word that no one can define accurately but everyone, even defenders, can feel acutely. A feature in gothic literature is an atmosphere of suspense that feels so cringe-y that instead of sticking around to engage, most people want to flee. That, to me, is pretty much how things pan out when “woke” comes up.
More people have died from COVID-19 in GOP-controlled counties than in Democrat-controlled ones, according to two studies. Many Republicans believe face masks were intimations of treason and that vaccines symbolized disloyalty or even surrender to the enemy.
A new report shows that people die younger in counties controlled by Republicans than in those controlled by Democrats. It “revealed changing state policies to fully liberal could have saved more than 171,000 lives in 2019, while changing them to fully conservative may have cost over 217,000 lives,” according to a USA Today report.
The GOP says crime, death and disease are attributes of liberalism and the big urban centers drawing from it. But like all gothic politics, it’s the diametric reverse that’s true. The more rural a region, the more likely it is to see its residence die sicker and younger.
But perhaps the greatest achievement in gothic politics has been transmogrifying, in the minds of those in thrall to gothic politics, a potential life – such as an embryo – into a life so vivid and insistent that some states have banned access to abortion, forcing some women to carry dead babies in their wombs until their due dates.
The rhetoric of “pro-life” may be the most gothic form of gothic rhetoric, as it focuses the mind on the upside down, backwards and prolapsed nature of gothic politics such that it reaches new levels of aesthetic experience, something close to a sublime grotesque.
This age of gothic politics, which I’m describing, began in 1994. That was the year that the Republicans took the House for the first time in decades. Their success has been traced to House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s style of discourse, which was to transmogrify real people – Democrats – into avatars of corruption and graft, allowing anyone to pour all their free-floating fears, terrors and sorrows into them.
Once established, it was only a matter of time before gothic politics permitted the Republicans to hurt their own – for instance, by refusing to adopt provisions from the Affordable Care Act in states run by Republicans – if that’s what it took to hurt the Democrats.
Now, in the months leading up to this year’s midterms, gothic politics has reached peak purity in the hands of the Republicans. They need not campaign on anything concrete, like an actual policy or piece of legislation, but on nothing more than gothic politics itself.
In time, all things come to an end.
Let’s hope the midterms close the age of gothic politics.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.