We Will Reach The Promised Land: Liberal Science Fiction at the Fall of Democracy
There isn’t any promised land. This is just… it’s a superstition that you have picked up from all the humanity you’ve stuffed inside yourself. – Doctor Who, “Deep Breath”
I’ve been on a weird media kick for the past month. It started with that HBO Max West Wing reunion, which sparked a nostalgia for a show whose impeccable craft of writing is matched only by its absolutely dire sense of politics. That led to rewatching some favorite episodes in the lead-up to the election, a carefully tailored medial junk food to wash out the obvious taste. Then, in the wake of the election, as Donald Trump’s idiot coup meandered onwards, I found myself reading Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land. And around that time Season 4 of The Crown dropped, which Jill and I watch, so obviously I sat down with that, and by the time it had roughly caught up with Earthshock I’d well and truly fallen down a very strange rabbit hole of ritually fetishized liberalism.
Consider this essay my climb back up.
Let’s start with The West Wing, which has aged more strangely than any other critically acclaimed TV show I can think of. On the one hand, its sparkling dialogue and immaculately precise construction stands up as one of the finest writing lessons out there—one that you can tell Steven Moffat studied intently. On the other… woof. Its most rightly acclaimed stretch of episodes features a plot in which it’s publicly revealed that the President has repeatedly lied to the American people (in his case, concealing the fact that he has multiple sclerosis). The result of this, which can in hindsight safely be called breathtakingly optimistic, is a concrete process of accountability in which transparent investigations take place and there are clear public consequences. These admittedly do not ultimately involve the President losing his reelection campaign (which plays out as a repudiation of a thinly veiled George W. Bush, culminating in a debate in which Martin Sheen’s bookish yet folksy New Hampshire scion Josiah Bartlett roundly humiliates the dunderheaded governor of Florida), but the fact remains that The West Wing portrays a world in which the President lying to the American people matters.
More than that, however, it portrays a world in which the President lying to the American people is something that can be straightforwardly handled by the existing system of structural checks and balances. Where, in fact, this system is a reified and beautiful thing, certainly not blind to whomever is in charge of it, but fundamentally capable of handling the prospect of those empowered within it engaging in egregious misconduct. To put it mildly, this was an extremely strange thing to watch in the leadup to an election that Donald Trump came very close to winning and, at the time of writing, may yet manage to stage a coup to overturn.
Thinking about it, I realized what the experience most obviously resembled: watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its easy and woefully unexamined confidence in the utopian potential of post-scarcity capitalist imperialism. Indeed, I’d long remarked that West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin would be a perfect fit for Star Trek, the nauseating liberal utopian instincts he’s so frustratingly capable of turning into sparkling repartee a perfect balm for that franchise’s staid vapidity. Alas, I always reckoned, Sorkin has never really shown any interest in or flair for science fiction. But watching The West Wing in the waning days of 2020, I realized that he already has written four seasons of a sci-fi series about utopian liberalism.
There’s an artful structural comparison I could make here about the structural similarities between the West Wing’s core cast of a President, his close friend and second in command who he loves deeply but platonically, and the larger cast White House aides and the structure of a Star Trek ship. Heck, there’s no shortage of West Wing episodes you could rewrite as Star Trek episodes with relatively few changes; take out a container ship of Chinese refugees seeking asylum for their Christian beliefs and put in some dissident Cardassians and you could basically rerun the Season Two Thanksgiving episode, and you’d probably have a solidly entertaining time figuring out how to revamp the c-plot about Charlie trying to buy the President a carving knife into a heartwarming story of Data trying to buy Picard a birthday present. But that’s not actually the point I want to make here. What interests me is not the fact that a procedural is a procedural and that you can substitute helming a futuristic spaceship for running the White House as easily as House could turn detective fiction into medical drama. What interests me is the idea of liberal democracy as technology.
Broadly speaking, this is a mode of analysis that works. Take the institution of states as a fundamental constitutive element of the USA. There are a lot of things that went into the decision to create a government that was built out of thirteen semi-autonomous regions some of which were given disproportionate power compared to their actual populations, including the pre-existing structure of English colonies. But one thing that the creation of states was in 1787 was a piece of governmental technology to reckon with the fact that the United States occupied a very large amount of land at a time in which the speed of information was capped by how fast a horse was. Much of the structural antidemocratic nature of the US Government in 2020 is simply a product of continuing to use this technology long after information transmission had become instantaneous and same-day travel was possible between any two points in the country. This certainly isn’t the only way to look at structures of government, but it’s both a coherent way and one that provides useful insights.
Looking at The West Wing from this perspective in 2020, one is reminded of Frederick Pohl’s observation that good science fiction should not only predict the car but the traffic jam. The West Wing failed miserably at this task, imagining the structures of liberal democracy (or at least documenting them, Aaron Sorkin blessedly not being one of the founding fathers) but singularly failing to anticipate anything that could extend from this beyond how rapturously wonderful the basic idea is. In Sorkin’s view, the underlying structures of democracy are a tool essentially indistinguishable from modern medicine or crime scene analysis—a set of technologies more than capable of solving the problems they are designed to solve. In the hands of the right people their use might provide enough competence porn to sustain twenty-two hours of television a year, but crucially, the tools also simply work. The West Wing is not so naive as to think that a malevolent or incompetent President could not cause tremendous damage, but it has a deep and abiding faith that the larger systems of American Constitutional democracy limit this damage. More to the point, it has a faith that the weight and moral rectitude of the office is somehow capable of elevating those within it, getting them to aspire to worthiness of the office itself. And it is very clearly the office itself—not power or responsibility, but the specific piece of governmental technology itself. In Sorkin’s world, Republicans are the noble opposition—well-meaning idealogues with whom Sorkin’s characters happen to disagree, but with whom they are positively eager to find common ground (and thus fulfill the lofty promise of the office).
The queer theorist Lauren Berlant, writing a few years before The West Wing’s debut, advanced a notion she calls infantile citizenship—a naive form of citizenship invested primarily in the fetishes of American politics. But The West Wing offers something else—a notion of infantile governance. To Sorkin, running the country is just a matter of putting good, smart people into the machinery of government, at which point the natural tendencies of the machine will attend to things. An exchange early in the third season highlights the nature of this, as Bartlet explains his decision to allow a forest fire to burn itself out. “It’s the end of the season and the fire isn’t anywhere near tourists. Letting this fire burn is good for the environment. You know how I know? Because smart people told me.” This is the function of government: great men enacting the judgment of smart ones. Do that and everything will be fine.
Which brings us to A Promised Land, the first volume of Barack Obama’s memoirs. Obama, of course, offered a sort of empirical testing of The West Wing’s notions of governance—America as governed by an intelligent and principled man who sincerely wanted to make it a better place. My interest here is not in talking about how well he did—the fact that we’re watching a fascist coup unfold less than four years after he left office kind of gives a definitive answer anyway—but in looking again at the machinery of government—at how the system functions.
In many regards A Promised Land cycles through the same basic story with different details. It goes like this: Obama confronts some significant political issue facing America (health care, the financial crisis, climate change, terrorism) and vows to fix it. Immediately a team of wizened advisors (typically some subset of David Axlerod, Robert Gibbs, and Rahm Emmanuel) inform him that this will be very hard. Obama declares that this is why they’re here, and that they will try to do it. At that point, a lot of legislative wrangling begins as Obama confronts the reality of the Senate filibuster and the sheer intransigence of the Republican party. Nevertheless, Obama prevails and is able to do something that addresses the issue. At this point, Obama will acknowledge criticisms of his efforts as being inadequate and address the accusation that he should have done more, which he will respond to by throwing up his hands and pointing out the political realities he was operating under.
Obama is not, to be clear, unaware of the bad faith with which the Republicans are operating, or of the structural flaws of a system requiring a sixty vote supermajority in the Senate to do anything. He acknowledges the flaws of doing things this way at length. But he always returns to the cold political reality: that he did as much as he possibly could. And for what it’s worth, he is ultimately persuasive on this point. He documents the barriers to doing more in detail, explains their intractability, and makes it clear that even doing what he did was very hard. All of this comes off as a reasonable assessment. It genuinely sounds as though Obama was the best President he could be.
What’s puzzling, then, is what Obama thinks the book is doing. As he explains it, the point of the book is to inspire young people considering a life of public service. To quote the end of the preface, “More than anyone, this book is for those young people—an invitation to once again remake the world, and to bring about, through hard work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us.” But this is a frankly baffling account of the book he wrote, which appears to be a very thorough argument about how fundamentally inadequate electoralism is. It’s genuinely strange—Obama is clearly an intelligent man. His book is well-written, cogently organized, and clearly the work of a thoughtful and perceptive person. And yet he is singularly unable to come to the most obvious conclusion—that an aggressively antidemocratic system in which bad faith actors can prevent legislation to avoid cooking the planet even in the face of an overwhelming voter majority against their party is fundamentally doomed. Indeed, not only can he not bring himself to come to this conclusion, he genuinely believes that his account of this system constitutes a moving story about the merits of public service.
Between these two examples we can see the central mechanism of liberal science fiction. In order to sell the idea that the technology of American liberalism can offer meaningful solutions to the world, it is necessary either to aggressively redefine the mechanisms of American government or to define success downwards into the tautology of “whatever is possible.” The world, in other words, is cut down to fit the imagined technology. This realization has profound implications for how we understand science fiction, since it’s scarcely a move limited to liberal science fiction. This is, in the end, its central trick: to tailor the world to its purposes and hide this fact behind the illusion of technological consequences.
But in the context of 2020, the comforting lie of liberal science fiction is less intellectual comfort food than the seeping narcosis of a fatal overdose. We have just witnessed a four year sustained attack on the much vaunted American democratic system, and it has failed on virtually every count. An idiot kleptocrat has made it clear that corruption can absolutely go unchecked and that there is no abuse of power severe enough to get the Republican party to turn on you. Meanwhile, the ability of a fanatical minority to exploit the deliberately undemocratic distribution of power across the fifty states to retain power in the face of a consistent majority against them remains unchecked. A majority of one of the two major parties believes that election results that go against them are prima facie fraudulent, while a majority of elected officials have been perfectly willing to abet an absolutely farcical coup attempt. And over this backdrop we have hundreds of thousands of people dead.
In the face of this, the best immunoresponse that American democracy has been able to offer to any of this is to elect a doggedly cautious centrist without a working majority in Congress. By all accounts Biden isn’t even inclined to take the basic step of prosecuting someone who has been perpetuating a comprehensive fraud and theft against the American people for four years. He’s transparently unwilling to do the kind of root and branch reform necessary to make the resurgence of Trumpism difficult. As an openly queer leftist woman, it is difficult to view the next four years as anything other than sufficient lead time to get to where fleeing the country is feasible.
None of this is surprising, of course. As I (and countless others) have noted before, fascism is well-engineered to exploit liberalism’s flaws. And it’s notable that neither The West Wing nor A Promised Land offer any thought about fascism. It’s not that it’s entirely absent from liberal science fiction, but, well, I’ve already written about what that ends up looking like. By and large, however, fascism is the thing that liberal science fiction pointedly refuses to see, a silence as conspicuous as Obama’s failure to reach the most obvious conclusions about the story he tells. It does not and in fact can not acknowledge fascism’s presence, because fascism’s presence exposes its deception.
Which is in fact a pretty accurate account of the Biden transition, with its scrupulous revival of Obama’s typography and its empty bromides about unity and governing for all Americans as if a sizeable chunk of the electorate isn’t openly declaring they’ll view his Presidency as illegitimate. This is liberal science fiction cosplaying as actual government, and is every bit as transparently, self-evidently doomed as that sounds. But crucially, it would have been an accurate account of *any* transition. Even the most utopian of counterfactuals, in which Sanders won the nomination and Presidency and had enough coattails to ensure a Senate majority that was willing to throw out the filibuster was going to run into the problem that there are simply too many centrist institutionalists in the Democratic Party to ever do the sort of aggressive reform necessary to fash-proof American democracy, or even to break the back of the already existent fascist movement. It’s worth recalling that denazification in Germany involved hanging people for war crimes, barring others from future political participation, and the actual outlawing of nazi views. Anybody who imagines there was a single Democratic candidate who was going to accomplish that is encouraged to read A Promised Land for a thorough overview of what is actually possible in American politics. Electoral politics were never going to offer a credible solution to Trumpism, and any fantasies about how Biden could just use recess appointments to pack his cabinet full of leftists are just writing their own versions of liberal science fiction.
The laws of narrative structure decree that I turn this essay towards something hopeful now. This is, of course, a form of science fiction all its own. And I’ll stand by a degree of anarchist science fiction, not because it’s immune to the basic deception by which the genre operates but because in spite of that deception I think the genre illuminates more than it conceals. All the same, the move seems dishonest. The truth is that the political situation in the US and, by dint of its power, the world is very, very dire. In the short term, there are some modest but meaningful changes coming, most obviously an actually coherent pandemic response. Anyone who is not relieved to know that it will be the Biden administration handling vaccine distribution and not the Trump administration is, bluntly, an idiot. And a number of basic protections for women, people of color, and sexual minorities are likely to go into place. That these are obviously inadequate does not actually diminish my relief that the executive order declaring it legal to deny me health care for being trans is not long for this world.
The medium term, however, is likely very fucked. There exists a fascist bloc of sufficient size to influence decision making. Literally nothing good can possibly follow from this, while a great many bad things can. As Jack points out in what’s currently his pinned tweet, “The Beer Hall Putsch was an attempted coup. It failed. The leaders were lightly punished. Their movement grew. Under ten years later, with the assistance of establishment reactionaries waging a war against the left, they took power. Coups are processes not events.” If your politics are treating Biden as an endpoint as opposed to an opportunity to regroup, you are making a very big mistake. Frankly, even if Trumpism fails to successfully retrench and the Republican Party deescalates into the normal level of moral horror that characterised it from the Reagan-Romney period, the prospects of right-wing terrorism alone should have you deeply anxious. And I don’t have any plausible way to spin this as good. The awful reality that there is not a global consensus to tackle climate change within the at this point desperately short window we have in which to do it remains horrifyingly present. Frankly, I could cut the first four words from Neoreaction a Basilisk at this point.
That leaves the long term. My on the record advice, to haunt the future, stands. But I’ve never really offered any sort of explanation for how to do that. In part that’s because it’s not a one size fits all sort of approach. The sort of gothic wound necessary to generate a good haunting is definitionally transgressive, sitting beyond or in excess of what the world imagines. Like the Situationists, I am being reasonable and demanding the impossible. Scarring the world enough to force a future reckoning is necessarily left as an exercise for the reader.
What I’ve been doing for the past four years, though, has been a process of trying to build a radical community in Ithaca that will be able to survive this. There is no shortage of privilege involved in this. I live in an extremely progressive town that makes investing in a leftist community easy. The financial advantages of a polyamorous family combined with the fact that Anna and Jill both work well-paying professional class jobs means that we have disposable income that can be put towards activism. More to the point, it means we have the budget to just directly help people—we’re currently helping support two broke queer kids on top of doing things like contributing substantially to the local bail fund and helping the local street art organization create a repairs fund for when some racist dicknob vandalizes something.
The endgame here is bluntly simple: create a community that has a plausible chance of enduring in the face of climate change, and that has the resilience for long-term resistance to fascism. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got: try not to die. Its horizons are as meager as its ambitions—a single small town in upstate New York and the idea that maybe, if we work very, very hard at it, we’ll still have a functioning community that keeps each other safe after it all comes crashing down. I want to imagine more. I look at Jack’s dreams of a mass workers movement with a certain degree of puzzled envy that he’s capable of seeing such a thing as plausible. But the reality is that most days imagining that we get Ithaca over the line feels audacious.
The world is in a very scary place, and a lot of us aren’t going to survive that. Maybe there’s something better that follows from that than what I’m capable of imagining. But if so, we’ll have to start by admitting what we are, and more to the point what we’re not dealing with. The future is coming, and it isn’t science fiction.
December 8, 2020 @ 10:38 am
“Frederick Pohl’s observation that good science fiction should not only predict the car but the traffic jam” –> current dystopian SF: no cars, only traffic jams
Sorry to be flippant. On a general note, I always joke that when I see the words “post-apokalyptic fiction” (as a subset of dystopian SF), my aesthetic flight instinct kicks in and I run in the other direction.
December 8, 2020 @ 12:11 pm
The only marginal upside I have been able to see (writing from the other side of the Atlantic in a country that is in the middle of its own version of self-immolation) is that forty years of this have hollowed the Republican party out so much that there aren’t even any semi-competent folk left. We looked at the W administration and wondered in awe at how they could be so terrifyingly bad (in every sense); we looked at the Trump administration and merely wondered how they could walk and chew gum at the same time.
Of course, one might argue that this is the key requirement for fascism to really take hold at all – because fascism can only ever be attractive to idiots brought up by idiots since it is clearly utterly unstable. It’s just that for the period when it is in the ascendency, it is destructive and horrible for everyone.
December 9, 2020 @ 10:35 pm
One of the things I’ve found myself constantly reminding people about for the last four years:
Mussolini was an idiot. If you read Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” one of the constant themes is that the German high command considered Il Duce to be a bumbling simpleton.
It didn’t matter. Italy bought the whole ticket and took the whole ride.
December 8, 2020 @ 3:50 pm
I agree with the grand point of this essay, and really enjoyed reading it.
However, I don’t quite understand how Star Trek is a society “post-scarcity capitalist imperialism”? It always seemed like socialism done so lightly and unclearly viewers don’t notice it instead of being a capitalist society. I’ve never seen this argument before and feel a bit confused by it.
Thanks for the essay though El!
December 9, 2020 @ 11:22 am
“Let’s start with The West Wing, which has aged more strangely than any other critically acclaimed TV show I can think of.”
Rewatching “The X-Files” these days is a sobering experience. The most laudable aspect of the show’s legacy is surely “The Scully Effect” – a generation of young women who were inspired to pursue careers in STEM fields – but goddamn, is Mulder and by extension the show’s narrative raison d’être problematic. I watch “The X-Files” now and when Mulder invokes conspiracy theories involving a shadow government controlling everything, cover-ups, insidious inoculation programmes on an unsuspecting populac, and all manner of wild theories that are almost always proven to be correct over Scully’s rational scepticism…all I can think of is how the show’s edgy, paranoid cool has metastasised into the disproportionately influential right-wing socio-cultural paradigm. These days “The X-Files” seems to have more kinship with InfoWars, Alex Jones, anti-vaxxers, Deep State theorists, Trumpists, and hell, the entire Republican Party.
Basically, I used to think Mulder was cool, now I think he’s a dick.
(Not That) Jack
December 12, 2020 @ 11:09 pm
When the show came back and had Mulder sympathizing with the in-universe equivalent of Alex Jones, I realized the same thing that you did: Mulder is precisely the sort of man who would be telling us Hillary Clinton ran a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor and that the Deep State was out to get Trump. Massively made me re-evaluate that show in hindsight.
December 13, 2020 @ 9:15 am
Yeah, I remember thinking it wasn’t necessarily surprising for the revived X-Files to have an Alex Jones analog, inasmuch as the show had to acknowledge the changed media landscape, but to depict Mulder as sympathising with him threw into sharp focus what a problematic character Mulder is – and I wonder if that was the intent of Chris Carter et al.
(I dug the goofy monster-of-the-week episodes of the X-Files revival but the “mythology” stuff was even dodgier now than it was 20-plus years ago.)
Mulder kinda reminds me of Oliver Stone, another edgy conspiracy theorist who seemed cool in the 1990s but these days is an embarrassing loon.
(Not That) Jack
December 15, 2020 @ 12:45 am
The thing we all forgot back then: the government that Mulder railed against was Bill Clinton’s.
Suddenly things start making sense when you think about that.
December 9, 2020 @ 11:11 pm
“Bad Faith” is an understatement. The last fourteen years have revealed to me a level of malice in American Conservative politicians that I did not know was possible.
(Not That) Jack
December 12, 2020 @ 11:19 pm
Conservatives have been that way for a very long time. The principle problem the Republicans had with Trump in 2016 was that he was saying the nasty things they did in private, and when they figured out he could get away with it, the sky was the limit. Nixon bought into actively running on racist hatred to peel the South away from the Democrats. Reagan was a colossal racist who made using racist dogwhistles into an art form. Jesse Helms basically spent the latter half of his career running against African-American candidates by saying “don’t vote for that black man.”
I watch clowns like Joe Scarborough and Michael Steele act like the Republican Party just suddenly turned into what they are today and want to slap them. They were racist monsters when you signed up, and you knew it. Waiting for both of them to have another epiphany and resume being openly, proudly Republican again now that Biden won.
Austin George Loomis
December 14, 2020 @ 9:34 pm
I watch clowns like Joe Scarborough and Michael Steele act like the Republican Party just suddenly turned into what they are today and want to slap them.
You are driftglass and I claim my five pounds.
(Not That) Jack
December 15, 2020 @ 12:46 am
If you’re saying that’s my site…ah, no, it isn’t.
December 9, 2020 @ 11:40 pm
The aforementioned Sanders is the same one who loves the West Wing and calls it reflective of actual American politics, no?
December 9, 2020 @ 11:42 pm
Also, I recall reading a synopsis of a movie from the early 1990s where the big deal was that the president had a financial conflict of interest he had concealed, and that was supposed to turn the mechanisms of government against him. And I thought “pfft, yeah right, get out of here, Trump blows that whole story out of the water.”
I also recall that Ronald Reagan got away with worse in the 1980s by pretending he was an old forgetful geezer, and plenty of people bought it.
More to the point, every American president lies. It’s a basic feature of using the military for foreign policy. So I have to wonder where the hell Aaron Sorkin was paying attention to, that he thought being caught in a lie would do anything to an administration.
December 10, 2020 @ 3:51 pm
Probably a mixture of not paying attention to things outside a high school civics class, and assuming that the outrage of the Clinton scandal was genuine and not party politics.
This is the guy who hadn’t heard of the Chicago Five until Steven Spielberg asked him to write a script for it. I don’t think he pays much attention to these things.
December 29, 2020 @ 9:26 am
“Fascism is the thing that liberal science fiction pointedly refuses to see”
Which is rather bizarre as almost all of it was written during the post-war consensus, which was itself a reaction to Hitler and Stalin. It’s as if those two people, and the systems which created them, were written off as aberations of history.
The exception, of course, is RTD and his Years and Years. I suppose it didn’t really predict the new fascism, as it was already a thing, but shows how it works , including how it seduces left wing critics of liberalism.
February 26, 2021 @ 12:42 am
Not to throw cold water on you here or anything, but tell that to the legions of “ex”-Nazis after the war who continued to occupy high positions in the West German government and security services, in the anticommunist covert operations of US global empire, and even in the formal military command structure of NATO itself.