Thursday, September 14, 2023

Political Fictions by Joan Didion

We don't call it "suspension of disbelief" when we talk about non-fiction, but there's a similar mechanism in play: do we trust this writer? Do we believe she is telling, not just the truth as she understands it and saw it, but that she's coming from a viewpoint we understand and can follow, that we accept that her conclusions will naturally follow from her premises?

I've been reading Joan Didion's non-fiction over the past couple of years, in the big early-Aughts omnibus We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, and one interesting thing I've noticed is that I was willing to believe her instinctively about the '60s and '70s, when I was either non-existent or a child, but I started to question her premises once we hit the '90s and events that I saw myself as an adult.

I don't necessarily disagree with what she says, but I find I'm more skeptical, more interested in thinking through the implications and wondering what she's saying and not saying, what her premises were and how they rolled out over the years since.

Political Fictions is a collection of essays from 2001 - I say essays rather than reportage because Didion was always Didion, but these are close to reportage, some of them I-went-there-and-saw-this pieces and some of them what-all-of-these-things-mean pieces. Didion's introduction notes that she started being asked to write about politics with the 1988 presidential election: this has two pieces coming out of that campaign, one on 1992, a couple from the mid-90s leading up to '96, and a cluster around the Clinton impeachment and the lead-up to 2000. She's never engaging in horse-race coverage, which she disparages several times; her aim is to see larger pictures and bigger implications.

The through-line is the rise of the puritanical right wing, though she doesn't identify it as such; the first few pieces position this impulse as more bipartisan, frankly: as both parties narrowing their focus to "likely voters," to the relatively affluent and suburban and engaged. And she's never as plugged into specific campaign and political strategies as the "insiders," hers is specifically a view from someone elite - in the general, often derogatory sense - but not part of the quote-unquote Washington elite, a smart and engaged writer who knows a lot and has written about a lot but doesn't speak and think in the code of campaigns and elections.

Post-Gingrich, and especially post-impeachment, Didion is clearer-eyed about who is pushing the moral line, why they're doing it, who they hope to influence, and some inkling of the world they're trying to make. (We live in that world now, though that impulse fractured once it succeeded with Bush II and other strains of the right-wing coalition grabbed their own pieces of power, especially the war-hungry neocons.)

But I found myself wishing she had a longer view, and a clearer one, in the early essays here. There's an unspoken long shadow of the bland Reagan prosperity that she never mentions, the way the economy was good enough for those younger and/or poorer potential voters to quietly drop out of the process and let a mostly white, mostly suburban, mostly middle-aged (as of the late '80s, so Silent and Greatest and some early Boomers) bloc's concerns become cemented as "what America wants." She doesn't mention race at all, except obliquely, when talking about Jesse Jackson during the '88 campaign, but the US was a whiter country in those days, and the voting population even whiter still.

(She may have meant that, all of that. She may have thought she was implying it clearly enough. It's hard to say, thirty years later, when premises and expectations have shifted repeatedly.)

So there's a lot of interesting thoughts here, and a lot of interesting moments in the momentum of the American political world. This is a book that helps explain how we got to where we are today: not conclusive, not definitive, but indicative and useful.

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