At this momentous hour, all across our great state (and, indeed, across the slightly less-great states that make up our nonetheless glorious nation), people are talking about the election. You can see them on the news every night. They’re talking in quaint little coffee shops and telegenic blue-collar bars, in sun-dappled town squares and storm-ravaged trailer parks, in snooty boutiques and cavernous superstores. They’re not talking among themselves; they’re talking to reporters. And what they’re saying is, “Hey—I’m on TV! Hi, Mom!”
Oh, they’re not actually saying anything so lame and needy. That would be uncool. We postmodern Americans may not ever get the entire 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol promised, but we know how to act when the video camera swings our way. We don’t get all giddy and flustered and deer-in-the-headlights the way folks from the Lawrence Welk generation did. We have been swiveling our heads toward luminous screens since before we could focus our newborn eyes, and we’ve learned from journalists and talk-show hosts and celebrity spokespersons how to pose an inane question in a thoughtful tone, how to string together catch phrases and buzzwords on the fly, how to look straight into the lens and form a connection with the viewing public, and how to demonstrate our unique humor and humanity to that public via judicious employment of the ironically cocked eyebrow. The eyebrow is key. If you don’t use it properly, you risk being seen as too earnest, or a bit stupid, or possibly foreign. You risk being seen for what, down deep, you are: a “Hi, Mom!” person, just like everybody else.
But what if we did talk among ourselves? What if, moreover, the mass media were removed from the exercise? What if we took prospective voters from opposing camps and stuck them, two by two, in a drafty icehouse on Mille Lacs, at night, without lanterns or flashlights? There they sit, on rickety stools, in borrowed snow-mobile suits and cracked galoshes, on either side of a freshly augured hole. All they know is that they’ve been asked to discuss the election. In the dark. With a stranger. It’s no wonder they’d start on a note of bravado.
Voter A: My guy is so totally going to clean your guy’s clock on Election Day. It’s going to be awesome.
Voter B: I don’t know why you’d say that. Especially when the reverse is true.
Voter A: I say it because my guy is the one who embodies the American dream, the American story, the American character, while your guy stands for everything that’s inauthentic in our national life and culture. The things your guy stands for do not ennoble us. His campaign is an attempt to exploit the weaknesses in our collective psyche—nothing more.
Voter B: Again, it’s funny you’d say all that, because it’s pretty much what I was going to say about your guy.
Voter A: Oh, no. Uh-uh. That’s not the way this is going to go. I don’t intend to sit here having my words turned around and used against me, and vice versa.
Voter B: Hey, I’m terribly sorry, but I happen to be sincere. My guy inspires me, okay? He touches a place deep in my soul. It’s a repository of all the things I know about the best traits of the American human being, and my guy is completely at home there. Whereas if your guy were to set foot in my hushed and holy place, I think I’d have to call in the fumigators and the electroshock-therapy techs just to make it livable again.
Voter A: Wow. Such loftiness and intolerance in the space of a few breaths.
Voter B: I beg your pardon. I’m a very tolerant person.
Voter A: You don’t sound like one. But it’s okay. I get it. I know how you feel. One of the things I like best about my guy—and I’m only admitting this because we’re sitting here in the dark and you can’t see me—is the way his candidacy allows me to indulge my bitterest, most judgmental tendencies.
Voter B: If you’re talking about the soft bigotry of low expectations, well, I can see where your guy would tend to bring that on.
Voter A: Hilarious. Hee-larious. In fact, I’m talking about the hard bigotry of believing that I am better than you and everyone else who supports your guy. I’m morally superior, mentally sharper, physically more presentable. When my buddies and I talk politics, we have so much fun holding you all up to ridicule. When we’re in a magnanimous frame of mind, we almost feel sorry for you, with your sad little wagon hitched to such a futureless star. Not quite, of course, but we give ourselves decency points for even considering pity.
Voter B: That’s rich, coming from a gang of dweebs who don’t have two nickels to rub together, brainpower-wise. Do your mommies know you’re out after your intellectual curfew? Do you have loathsome Dorian Gray–style portraits of your moral selves locked away in attics, turning more hideous with every dishonest cheer you utter for your guy? Do you see wispy plumes of smoke when you drive past your local cemetery? They’re rising from the graves of your high-school civics teachers. It’s friction. From all the spinning they’re doing down there.
Voter A: You want to talk about posthumous freak-outs? Try Abe Lincoln. He freed the slaves—so why don’t you let him off your parade float? There’s not a shred of your bogus rhetoric that would resonate with him.
Voter B: Abraham Lincoln is our touchstone, pal. You’re the ones who have misappropriated his words and his legacy—hell, even his image. You have no right to that big solemn magnificent—
Voter A: Shhh! Did you hear that?
Voter B: Hear what? The telltale beating of your democracy-hating heart?
Voter A: I heard a noise coming from that hole in the ice.
Voter B: Probably just a fish. A strong, capable, fiercely beautiful American fish who sides with my guy.
Voter A: It’s very faint, but I’m reasonably sure I’m not imagining it. And it’s familiar, but I can’t quite place it.
Voter B: You know, I do hear it now. It sounds like a swarm of gnats, only sloshy. You don’t think it could be—
Voter A: Pundits!
Voter B: Yes!
Voter A: I’ll bet Katie Couric is down there in a wetsuit with a whole panel of talking heads and a camera crew equipped with digital night-vision technology. Does that sound crazy to you?
Voter B: Yes, because it’s far more likely to be Anderson Cooper. But the rest of it makes perfect sense. Otherwise this ramshackle hut in the middle of a frigid wasteland would be nothing more than a heavy-handed metaphor. America’s dank, dark, oil-depleted, tribalistic future—some artsy crap like that.
Voter A: Or it’s real, not metaphorical. In which case we’re going to die out here. I already can’t feel my feet. And I’m starving. The thought that eventually I might have to dine on your anemic, disloyal flesh has crossed my mind. It’s nauseating, yet compelling. So, yes, let’s go with the scuba news-show concept. (They both peer down through the hole in the ice. Outside, the wind howls and snow crystals pepper the plywood walls.)
Voter A and Voter B, in unison: Hi, Mom!
Contributing editor Jeff Johnson thinks pundint is the new nucular.