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The Kilgore Trout Effect

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Well, shit.

That was more or less my reaction and the reaction of people around me while watching MSNBC last Tuesday. There was a Jersey housewife a little more frantic than that, and a New York writer a little less concerned, but the general attitude was as if we had collectively stepped in... well, shit.

And while anger, fervor, despair, not to mention weltschmerz and ennui (we are, after all the party of uppity francophiles and -- apparently -- left-wing Nazi socialists) are all common reactions to this undeniable setback for a progressive agenda, let me suggest another, less acknowledged reaction: comfort.

My sample size here is admittedly small (one), but it seems like there is something undeniably comfortable in being out of power again. Or, at least, not entirely in control. I've been wondering why I'm OK with it. Partly, I'm sure, it is the Hudson and East River insulating me from the realities of US politics and the US economy; partly, it stems from the comforting fact that the Senate and White House remain in Democratic hands; partly it is no doubt due to a strong and somewhat vulgar desire on my part to let the Tea Party get the government it deserves.

But there's also the Kilgore Trout effect.

Kilgore, you may remember, was a Kurt Vonnegut character. Vonnegut lionized Trout. He stumbled through Vonnegut's novels as the one honest man, comfortable in his depravity and capable of puncturing the overblown egos of the maniacs around him. No one listened to Trout, but he was vindicated when the world went to hell in a hand basket (a pretty-much universal theme of Vonnegut's novels).

Trout, was the guy who sat on the sidelines griping and was happy to be proved right when disaster struck, just as he had foretold.

He was, more or less, the political template for the vast crowd on the national mall a week-and-change ago at the Daily Show's Rally to Restore Sanity.

He was certainly a character template for the people surrounding me in the bar watching election returns. A friend of mine, a writer, even went so far as to say: "I care a lot less about the results of this election than about jokes I could think of about it."

I fear that I'm comfortable with a Democratic loss because I, like many Democrats, identify with underdogs, losers, freaks, and social outcasts. As a party, we may have developed something of a martyr complex. It's charming, in a Woody Allen sort of way, but the Kilgore Trout effect has some major problems. To the bullet points!

  • it's a somewhat schizophrenic position: on the one hand, I'm desperately hoping that a progressive agenda works; on the other, I really want the forces of unabashed coal-use, reactionary religion, and anti-postal-system-no-government zealotry to run the country into the ground so that I can say 'I told you so.'
  • it's a deeply unappealing attitude to the unconverted. Who wants to listen to the snide critic on the sidelines griping about the various dooms that are awaiting us? Gallows humor is appealing only if you've already acknowledged that you are standing on the scaffold.
  • it left the progressives sitting at home on election day. We were ready to lose. If the country didn't realize what was right for it, then screw it, we would mumble snide remarks at cocktail parties and blog ferociously (mea culpa) without doing any actual organizing.
There is an upside though: the Trout effect tends to cure itself. It's easy to be frustrated with the Democratic party when they have no serious opposition. Progressives can sit back and lament the corruption and ineffectiveness of American government itself rather than the short-sighted nastiness of those who control it. But the Boehner-run house ought to jolt us out of complacency fairly quickly. His is the party of Michelle Bachman and George W., after all. A couple anti-gay rants and a refusal to fund welfare extensions ought to get progressives and independents back into fighting shape fairly quickly.

Trout himself may have had the best message to progressives going forward to the elections to come. To quote him from Timequake, Vonnegut's last novel: "you were sick, but now are well again. And there's work to be done."

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