Review: Political Fictions

I experienced a large range of low emotions in the wake of the 2016 presidential election: disbelief, shock, anger, indignation, confusion, revulsion, despair, depression, anxiety. This book was a necessary choice for this moment at the end of this particular year, in part, because I wanted to settle back in to Didion’s exacting language after enjoying two of her books so much, and because I was seeking some political and historical perspective.

The connecting theme of this collection is the creation of narrative – the media appearances, showmanship and public relations efforts that create the image and stories we the people then digest about the politicians for whom we vote and in whom we place our trust, such as it is. There are two essays that qualify as brilliant and one real dud (about Newt Gingrich). The best essays in this collection come first, and my favorite, “Insider Baseball” (about the 1988 Bush-Dukakis campaign; linked below), provided some of the historical perspective I’d been seeking. (The comparisons between Dukakis and Jackson are especially interesting when viewed through the 2016 lens of Clinton and Sanders.)

The key idea I took from this book is simple, but I hadn’t fully articulated it for myself before. It is this: Not only is the increasing disenfranchisement of the American citizen – the shrinking electorate (only an estimated 57.9% of eligible voters voted in 2016) – is not actually a “problem” for those in power, that small insider political class. It is, in fact, the desired outcome. It is to the advantage of this political class, and this disenfranchisement has been going on for many years worth of news cycles, the political system operating almost completely outside of the experience and concerns of so-called regular people.

Of this political class, Didion writes: “These are people who speak of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns.”

Of the Dukakis campaign, Didion writes: “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.”

It is at once comforting and cruelly disheartening to reflect on the notion that “things” (the political process, the media, the machinery of American government) are not really getting “worse” – they may have always been a tangled web of lies. Media cycles move faster now, and I grow older and, I hope, less naive, but even the most cynical and analytical of us may still “buy in” to “the story” sometimes, to our peril.

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Here is “Insider Baseball” in the NY Review of Books, available to read for free.

Book review: Political Fictions, by Joan Didion
4/5 stars