An Election About Nothing

Current Events, On the Campaign Trail

An article published in the Washington Post this past weekend notes that unlike previous midterm elections, this campaign has yet to see the emergence of a dominant, national theme. No one issue—or even set of issues—has taken center stage, cutting in, through, and across the various races. What we have instead is an election constituted through diverse, often locally- or regionally-defined issues that at the end of the day lack any sort of common ground.

An article published in the Washington Post this past weekend notes that unlike previous midterm elections, this campaign has yet to see the emergence of a dominant, national theme. No one issue—or even set of issues—has taken center stage, cutting in, through, and across the various races. What we have instead is an election constituted through diverse, often locally- or regionally-defined issues that at the end of the day lack any sort of common ground.

A more charitable reading of that lack of focus could emphasize that that’s the way it should be: different districts and states have different concerns, so the lack of a dominant, national theme is more in line with the ideals of representative government. Such a reading, however, ignores that when it comes to congressional elections, all elections are, in a sense, national, both in funding and in legislative ends. It also ignores the fact that a lack of focus often results in an emphasis on the relatively trivial (as evidence, see the “plagiarism scandal” that ultimately forced Democratic Senator John Walsh out of his race in Montana) or simply nothing. Nothing, that is, other than gaining or maintaining the seat in question and the power in and behind it.

In order to avoid any hasty overgeneralizations of this latter claim, we can point to the senate race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis in North Carolina. I mention this race partly for convenience (I live in NC, so it’s one of the races I’m most familiar with) but also because it pointedly exhibits this focus on nothing.

Thom Tillis’s campaign for Hagan’s seat amounts to little more than attack on Hagan. Tillis, in other words, wants voters to vote for him because he is not Hagan, because, he assures voters, he would vote differently than Hagan on any pertinent issue, though his favorite has been the Affordable Care Act. That’s really his whole campaign (if you think I’m exaggerating, have a look at his website).

When Hagan is not countering Tillis’s claims or reminding voters that she is not Tillis, she spends much of her energy painting herself as a moderate; her most recent television ad reminds viewers that she’s “not too far left, not too far right. Just like North Carolina.” Hagan, in other words, wants to appeal to everyone, everyone, that is, in the “middle class” (the same ad assures viewers, “That’s how I get results for folks here at home. Republican or Democrat, if an idea works for middle class families – I am all for it”). But that also means she appeals to no one, which is why it’s hard to find anyone really excited about her campaign.

Indeed, speaking to Politico, Tom Jenson, director of Public Policy Polling, notes that Hagan currently enjoys a “-10 approval rating, and usually if you have a -10 approval rating it means you’re doomed.” That’s not a problem, Jensen continues, because Tillis “has a -23 favorability rating, so that race remains very competitive despite Hagan being an unpopular incumbent, because voters really don’t care for her opponent, either.”

 

I’m, of course, not the first to complain about “negative campaigning,” and perhaps elections—especially midterm elections—are always a little short on substance. This particular go around, however, has really struck me, especially since there’s actually a lot that candidates could be talking about: Israel, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine . . . the past month or so has seemed especially volatile, yet one would have to search extremely hard to find Hagan or Tillis mentioning any of this. We also hear hardly anything about unemployment, student loan debt, gun violence, wage stagnation, climate change, and any number of issues that directly and indirectly affect the “middle class.”

Hagan and Tillis are, in other words, playing it safe, and I’m sure the case is similar in many of the other campaigns. Hagan’s recent ad basically admits as much, if one has ears to hear. I’m sure an army of pollsters and political advisors has assured both Hagan and Tillis that this is the path to success. Although that may be good election strategy, it’s not very good for voters or for democracy more generally. It almost seems as if the cliché of a “do-nothing Congress” has now also lodged itself in elections themselves: the race is about nothing except the race itself and the seat it promises. Although such calculated strategy is usually couched in the language of lofty goals and big ideas, of “change we can believe in,” even that strategy is dropped here, as the political process is publicly reduced to its most base element: power. Perhaps that’s one reason why, as the same Politico article mentioned above puts it, voters think that “everything is terrible.”

What does all this have to do with religion and, more specifically, political theology? To begin to answer that question, we can note that our usual response to this state of affairs is some form of acquiescence to it. We criticize, protest and, in certain instances, lash out at the political process, but despite our dissatisfaction we continue to vote along our respective party lines, because we either think it’s the least bad option or are afraid of the other side gaining power.

That’s certainly the case among those in the middle of the political spectrum but also, ironically, for those on the far end of either side, which is one of the reasons why we only have two viable parties. We could label this response cynical, along with Slavoj Žižek; or a form of passive nihilism, along with Simon Critchley; or a type of reactionary or obscure subjectivity, along with Alain Badiou.[1] Whatever we call it, the Hagans and the Tillises depend upon our acquiescence to “politics as usual,” which also means that they depend upon our acquiescence to power. They can, in other words, campaign on nothing, resting assured that one of them will come out victorious.

 

The notion that “politics as usual” seeks little more than its own repetition usually never becomes visible as such, of course; power is much more effective if it can hide itself behind electoral choice. When that repetition does become visible, however, it becomes possible to expose the fact that its power rests on nothing other than itself, which also means that it is void or empty.[2] This is, I would suggest, the opportunity that the Hagan and Tillis campaign presents us with, and perhaps other campaigns as well. In light of the situation in which politics is about nothing, the theological-political task is certainly not acquiescence, but neither is it to bemoan the current state of our elections and political institutions and call for a more “authentic” politics from within the confines of current arrangements. The theological-political task is, rather, to seize the nothingness or void at the heart of politics and put it to a new use, in order to think and act otherwise, in order to create.[3]

That’s a tall order for at any time and in any situation, much less a midterm election, and what it looks like concretely waits to be seen. Until we move in that direction, however, we’ll likely be stuck with what we have, or worse—and we’ll still be complaining about nothing in 2016.

 

[1] See, for instance, Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 2009); Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding (London: Verso, 2013); Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds, trans. Alberto Toscano (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

[2] Or, as Giorgio Agamben might say, underneath our politics and economics is nothing but an “empty throne.” See his The Kingdom and the Glory: For A Theological Geneaology of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa and Matteo Mandarini (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[3] Although I’m not sure he would agree with my brief analysis, I consider Daniel Colucciello Barber’s work essential, here. See his Deleuze and the Naming of God: Postsecularism and the Future of Immanence (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

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