Mon, Apr

2022: The Year of Rediscovered Limits


GELFAND’S WORLD - Back in the good old days, L.A. Times music critic Martin Bernheimer used to do a year-end feature called The Beckmesser Awards. This feature was named after the irritating character from Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg, a critic who had no sense of taste or art -- in short, a clownish caricature. The Beckmessers went to performances and productions that were sufficiently irritating to catch Bernheimer's eye and ear. 

In more recent years, I wrote what I called The Borrowed Beckmesser Awards, named as a tribute to Bernheimer's droll sense of humor. Sadly, Bernheimer departed this world a few years ago, but I still like the idea of a year-end search for the humor in the year rather than the continuing concerns that the real world puts upon us. What comes out of this search is the realization that our 2022 world was one where limits were rediscovered, and some of that story is broadly amusing. 

So, to start, it was a deadly, sad, shocking, surprising, vengeful, and happily surprising year. 

It was the year that limits were found, once again, to actually exist. 

The limit to political purchases 

Rick Caruso spent $104,000,000 on his campaign to buy the mayor's chair in Los Angeles. I know -- ordinarily, the expenditure would be typed $104M, but it was kind of fun to type out all the digits, even if the real figure probably isn't a round number ending in all those zeros. Caruso lost to somebody who didn’t have a lot of name recognition at the beginning of the campaign. He lost to somebody who couldn't possibly spend that kind of money, or even half that much money. He lost to somebody who turns out to be a natural politician, meaning that she can connect to people even if she doesn’t say a lot of shocking or insulting things. And she was able to do it on a bargain basement budget. 

What was the limit that Caruso ran up against? 

This is going to sound a little strange -- even optimistic perhaps -- but I think there is a limit to how many times you can say the same thing and expect the repetition to buy you more voters. After people have heard the message for, say, $20 million, just repeating the same message for another $80 million doesn't help very much. It just reaches the same people who have mostly made up their minds anyway. Those who are against you are just made a little more irritated (that word keeps coming up, doesn't it) and make sure to send their votes in. 

Amusingly, the authors of Freakonomics predicted something along these lines a number of years ago. They found that people who spent the most money sometimes lost, and concluded that adept, popular politicians raised a lot of money because of their personal characteristics. The ability to raise funds was, often enough, the effect rather than the cause for the successful campaign. 

So, what didn't Caruso's $104 million buy? I would suggest that Caruso never convinced the majority of voters of his own sincerity or even that he is, in some sense, a Democrat. It didn't cost the Karen Bass campaign a lot to question the sincerity of Caruso's claimed positions on abortion or homelessness. 

One further explanation. At least some of the voters were smart enough to see through all those campaign promises about hiring hundreds of sanitation workers and building facilities to house tens of thousands of the homeless. 

The Limits to Russian Military Power 

How many of us believed that Ukraine would continue to be successful as a military power at this point, ten months into the invasion? How many of us would have foreseen the pathetic showing of thousands of Russian tanks and trucks and troops as early as two or three weeks into the war? 

We have had explanations for the early Russian failures and the continuing survival of Ukraine. But it's easy to be a great prophet after the fact. It turns out that the deep corruption of the entire Russian governmental system -- including the military -- was enough to cause the ruin of trucks and tanks and military discipline. How many of us knew that you have to move trucks every now and then so that their tires are not destroyed by the concentration of sunlight on one place for years on end? There is a lot more to this story, but it's been communicated adequately in thousands of comments and testimonies. 

The limits to the right-wing militia idea 

It's been a long time coming, but the idea that any rough-hewn American patriot can buy himself some rifles and body armor and attack the government may have reached its peak on January 6 of 2021. The attempt to kidnap the Governor of Michigan was another slightly smaller bump associated with the overall peak. 

There seems to have been a fantasy about real patriots -- those who believe in the independent spirit of a country and the widespread ownership of weapons to preserve that independence. The fantasy was founded on a negative belief that at some point, the patriots would find their freedoms at risk due to people who want to take their guns away. And at this point, they believed, they would be forced to rise up just as our American founders rose up. And much like the original Revolutionary War and somewhat like the Civil War, they would take up arms and be joined by untold thousands and then tens of thousands of like-minded warriors. 

They may have had a point, in the sense that there are millions of Americans who would like to see strict limits placed on gun ownership. But the political process by itself has, so far, prevented any such thing from happening. They still have hundreds of thousands of guns. 

Instead, the right-wing revolution was set off by a phony crisis about a challenged election sold by a lying demagogue. But a lot of the hard-core bought into the idea that they ought to be following the orders coming from Donald Trump. Instead of their guns being taken away, they bought into the fear that their country -- their democracy -- was being challenged. They didn't have to know the details of the big steal, they just had to believe. 

There are some people who cannot believe that any normal person would vote against Donald Trump. Perhaps it's not so surprising then, that they considered the election defeat of 2020 to be rigged; they were being told that lie every single day. 

Many of them have learned a hard lesson. Those who entered the Capitol building became subject to federal prosecution, even if they didn't understand the criminal nature of their acts at the time. Now they understand. The ones who have been found guilty of the more serious crimes and haven't made some show of contrition are facing multi-year terms in the federal penitentiary. Others have engaged in self-abasement and statements of sorrow for their actions in trade for spending less time in the pen. 

One interesting thing is the relatively small number of people who have been charged with crimes stemming from January 6. The rebels would have imagined that they would be joined by thousands upon thousands, and that once they took control of the Capitol building, they would remain there until they (and Trump) got their way. 

It's curious but painfully obvious that there is a substantial chasm between the political beliefs of the professional Republicans and of the rebellious and radicalized militia types. Notice that the upper crust Republicans were begging Donald Trump to call off the rebellion, and it was finally Trump who succeeded in doing so. 

One other clue to the state of the union: The American military did nothing to support the rebellion. It was directly to the contrary. We have evidence that high ranking officers in the Pentagon were quietly making sure that the separation of civilian command and military command was upheld, and that Trump did not succeed in any of his crazy ideas in the post-election period. 

January 6, 2021, along with the convictions and severe sentences handed out to the perpetrators -- along with even more severe sentences handed out to the Michigan kidnappers -- signal a peak and subsequent downward trend in the militia movement and in right wing criminality. That doesn't mean that it will never happen again, but it does signify that the criminal movement in the far-right wing has been served with a substantial dose of reality. Those who have been arrested and tried did not enjoy any fantasized mass uprising. And Trump didn't pardon them. 

A limit to political extremism at the ballot box 

The 2022 midterm elections were a follow-up to the 2020 elections, in those Republican fantasies of winning the presidency and both houses of congress failed them. They finally fulfilled the standard prediction of gaining House seats against an incumbent president, but even in that they failed to gain enough Senate seats to win that chamber. Importantly, the most extreme candidates, the ones who ran as election deniers, were mostly defeated. And this even happened in red states such as Arizona. 

Have we reached a definable limit to phony Democrats? 

The phony Democrat we are talking about is Kyrsten Sinema, and we don't know if we've found that limit. We have every reason to believe that Sinema will lose if she tries to run for reelection to the Senate, but there is also every reason to believe that a Republican would take her place. What we have discovered is that being Senator Sinema has reached its limit, in that she has little support among Democrats, Republicans, or even independents at this moment. 

A political limit to Covid-19 precautions 

The experts and authorities continue to recite the standard speeches about how it is wise to wear your mask indoors. I don't see anybody, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative obeying. The authorities seem to have forgotten that the rest of us have been waiting for an end to the restrictions. We seem to be seeing things differently. The scientific mindset that has data that mask wearing does have some preventative power hasn't gotten any less true just because it is a year later. But for the rest of us, we've been through a lot for 3 years and recognize that the rate of illness and death have both gone down a lot. 

Limits we'd like to see but haven't yet 

The anti-science movement remains, including its two most malign examples, the disbelief in global warming and the anti-vaccination movement. The global warming deniers are gaining less and less traction merely because the bad effects (level 5 hurricanes) have been dramatically apparent. The anti-vaccination movement has been partially successful in the sense that more people are avoiding vaccination for themselves or for their children. 

Another limit we would like to see 

How about an end to all those spam telephone calls? I think that liberals and conservatives alike could agree on that happy ending. 

Happy New Year.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)