The Bloody Math

An examination of the institutionalist perspective upon the election. A series about the election. Differentiators: Part 3.

The Bloody Math

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One day a woman who had been caught having sex without securing the proper permission from men was brought before the Great Teacher. The Great Teacher had many women among his followers, so legal experts of the day watched the Great Teacher very closely, to see what he would do.

Many legal experts read the law to mean that such a woman should be put to death, and one of them said to the Great Teacher: "Look, here is a woman who was caught in an act of illicit sex. Now what do you say should be done?"

Instead of answering, the Great Teacher began to gather stones in a pile. When they pressed him, he said "I deplore all sexual crimes, but I think we should ensure the safety of all such women, for none of us is without sin." Then the Great Teacher began distributing stones among the legal experts, one to each, and doing so he said to them "let he who has the best arm cast the first stone."

Then he left that place in order to go gather more stones. And when he returned, the first woman was dead, and many more women had been brought to that place, and the Great Teacher gathered many stones that day, but also he distributed bread and shields made of bark to the many women who had been brought there to be accused, and he commiserated with them as they awaited their fate.

From that time on, the women among the Great Teacher's followers began to leave him in large numbers. And the Great Teacher's disciples scolded the women vigorously, saying, "are you forgetting all the things that the Great Teacher has done for women in the past?" and "would you rather the Great Teacher was not there, to distribute bread and shields to these poor women?" and "don't you see that the legal experts were going to stone the women anyway and the Great Teacher held no authority to prevent it?" and "would you rather that the Great Teacher had died too by opposing the legal experts, who are great in number, and are armed with stones besides?" and "you leaving the Great Teacher's side is exactly why all of you are getting executed."

And yet the women continued to leave the Great Teacher. And when it was seen that the Great Teacher's support had faltered, the Empire saw there was no need to kill the Great Teacher anymore. (In case you didn't know, killing is what Empire does to teachers if they become Great—to such an extent that if the Empire doesn't kill you, it's very hard to keep your license as a Great Teacher, in the long term¹ anyway.)

The teacher's disciples returned to their homes and villages, and began once again to fish. And they bitterly blamed the women who had abandoned their teacher, for preventing his ascension to Greatness, for they had all been planning to write books and get halos, but now they were going to have to work for a living. And the disciples sought to find the women, in order to scold them some more.

But in the land, there were no women to be found.

Everywhere the teacher's former disciples looked for women, they could find only piles of stones.

OK, so that was a parable. With parables there's usually a single point being made, and not all the aspects of the extended metaphor map precisely to reality. When Great Teachers tell parables, they're skillful enough to let the main point go unsaid and allow those whose minds are open enough to get the point to get it all by themselves, and then the Great Teacher would just let everybody else misunderstand the point being made, because Great Teachers are enlightened and realize that if somebody wants to misunderstand you, they're going to misunderstand you no matter what you say.

I'm not a Great Teacher, so my parables are crap and I still care if I'm misunderstood, and I'm sorry about that, but this means that I'm going to explain the point to you, so that you know the point and can ignore any parts that aren't the point. If you don't want to ignore any parts that aren't the point and explain to me the imperfections you've detected in a metaphor I have already admitted is imperfect, I still won't be able stop you, which is something any Great Teacher would warn me about, if there were any in the vicinity.

Here's the point of the parable:

If you're facing a real threat of harm or abuse, and a person who holds some form of power or influence to protect you doesn't protect you, then you tend to stop thinking they're aligned with your safety, even if they speak for your safety, and you're less inclined to follow them. If the person who holds some form of power or influence to protect you actually provides material or rhetorical assistance to the people threatening and harming you, you tend to start thinking they're aligned with your harm, even if they are helping many others, and you're even less inclined to follow them. And if that person is the only option you have for safety, then you might start to despair, particularly if a great portion of the threat of harm has already converted itself into actual harm.

I think of despair as the belief that you don't have much of a future in the world. Thinking you don't have much of a future in the world can make you stop caring so much about either the future or the world, or at least any world that has been configured into indifference about your existence within its future. And despair might lead you to care less when the future might end for other people, even if that's not the nicest way to be. It might even make you want the future to end for other people, which is a form of despair called vengeance.

People who are less threatened or less harmed by the configuration of the world, or people who are for whatever reason more resilient against despair, might still care about the future and other people in it, but if they are wise, they will understand that vigorously scolding somebody who has been abandoned to abuse and harm and is in despair because of this probably won't help them leave despair behind, and blaming them for their pain probably doesn't differentiate the scolder in the minds of the abused from the people engaged in the abuse.

The difference between the end of the world and the continuation of it isn't much of a difference, if your world has already ended—even if there actually is a difference. The difference between a monster that will quickly eat everyone and a monster that will slowly devour only some of us isn't much of a difference, if you are one who has already been eaten—even if there actually is a difference. The difference between a monster handler who will give the monster free rein or one that maneuvers it into specific areas isn't much of a difference to someone already in the monster's mouth—even if there is a difference.

What would provide a differentiator, I think, would be a monster fighter.

Is that too obvious a thing to say? I feel like it's pretty obvious. It's almost like an mathematic equation, just simple bloodless math. If you do x, then y will happen.

I might have gotten some of this wrong, too. In truth, I've always been bad at math—even worse than I am at parables.

For example, I was sure Joe Biden was going to lose the election in 2020. I wasn't enthused about his nomination in the first place because I think our culture is terribly sick and I want radical transformation. Yes, and Biden is very much a status-quo guy who ran on a return to a normalcy that I consider unsustainable and unattainable, because I see that our society is founded in and runs on supremacy, and I think that accommodating supremacy makes open fascism inevitable, and I think that fascism means a long bloody smear down history's wall for all of us. But also as a matter of purely bloodless math, I thought that Biden wasn't going to be able to provide enough of a political differentiator between himself and his openly supremacist opponent, and so he was going to lose.

And I was wrong. His bloodless math was better than mine. He won. It was close, but he won.

So I'm less certain of my bloodless math now. I'm less likely to make assured predictions.

What do I mean by bloodless math?

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By "bloodless" I mean I'm not assigning any moral value or human cost into the calculations—not yet. And elections are numbers games. There is a certain bloodless math to the process and the choices.

Joe Biden like any other politician is going to alienate somebody no matter what he does. If he tacks left he'll alienate some on the right who might vote for him instead of Trump. And if he tacks right then he'll alienate voters on the left, who are choosing between him and a protest vote against him—most likely either voting third party (which since we're talking about math means somebody who will not win) or not voting at all.

These are contingent voters, insofar as they may or may not vote in support. They're often called swing voters. These are distinct from non-contingent voters, who are going to vote in support no matter what. Trump's got lots of these kind of voters. Biden does too. They're called the base. This is a gross simplification, I know, but elections tend to lend themselves to gross simplifications, and I think this one will make the discussion a little easier.

Biden's choice (and Trump's, too) is which swing voters he wants to alienate, and how he wants to alienate them. If he alienates voters to the right, then swing voters on the right will be less likely to vote for him, but voters on the left will be more likely to do so. If he alienates voters on the left, leftist voters will be less likely to vote for him, but voters on the right will be more likely to vote for him. Again, a pretty simple equation.

Neither Biden or Trump gets to choose whether or not to do this math. They get to choose how they want to do it, and whoever gets the answer closest to reality wins the election, at least in a functioning system. ("A functioning system" is always an open question when you're facing fascists, because in elections fascists will only obey the results they have to obey, and Republicans like any fascists are moving to demolish any mechanisms of our elections that they can't capture. But that's a different essay.)

Trump isn't much of a math guy, so he's gone with simple arithmetic. He's promising people who want authoritarian supremacy that he will give them authoritarian supremacy, and he's very convincing. "Supremacy" is the belief that some people matter and deserve to rule, and other people don't matter and deserve to be used if they are compliant to the comfort and benefit of people who matter, and brutally punished if they are not compliant, and systemically murdered if no use can be found for them. It's a very popular view in the United States with a majority of men and Christians and people who consider themselves to be in a category that they made up called "white," and it's enjoying growing popularity with some other groups as well.

This means that Trump is going to get all the voters who know that they want authoritarian supremacy, and all the voters who want authoritarian supremacy but have talked themselves into believing that they don't, and a lot of votes from people who aren't really paying attention and don't care either way, but find themselves naturally inclined toward and comforted by supremacy. It also means that he's going to pick up swing votes on the far right, like KKK members and other proud and open Nazis, who have traditionally sat elections out or voted for 3rd party Nazis. It also means that he's not going to get very many votes from people who are paying attention and don't want authoritarian supremacy. He's chosen to make this support map rather inevitable, whatever you think about it. That's his bloodless math.

Like most Democratic politicians, Joe Biden is performing some more complicated equations that involve trying to tack just far enough right to get some of those voters who aren't decided, while still keeping enough of the support of people on his left flank from getting so alienated by this that they don't leave him. So Biden and Democrats are doing the sorts of things that progressives want—things like student debt forgiveness, like appointing progressive judges, like abortion protections and equitable redistricting in states such as Michigan, or school lunch programs in states like Minnesota, and they've actually been pretty effective. Then they're also doing things that comfort people who are aligned with supremacy (which is not a category completely distinct from self-professed progressives), things like supporting and funding our militarized police gangs and our apparatus of empire and war, and things like capitulating to Republicans on their fascist-inspired rhetoric about invasions of brown people at the border, and things like facilitating the bombing of lots and lots of brown people in the Middle East, all of which are very traditional and status quo things for a president of either party to do.

And Joe Biden knows very well that by doing this, he will inevitably lose some support of people on the left, just like he knows that if he instead tried to pick up support on the left by not doing those things, he'd lose a bunch of those undecided voters on the right. And I'm sure his team does a lot of work to get the math just right, but in the end siphoning votes from the center-right and losing them on the left is a support map that Biden has chosen to make inevitable, whatever you think about it, which I take to mean that either he thinks there are more votes there or that those votes matter more. This is his bloodless math.

And there are these instruments out there called "polls" that check each candidate's math to see whose is better. For whatever it is worth, right now some polls say that Trump's math is trumping Biden's by just a smidge and some say Trump's beating him by a lot. This could mean that Biden has done his math wrong, or it could mean that authoritarian supremacy is so popular there isn't any math that would give Biden a win. Or it could mean nothing at all; I note that the polls have been inflating Republicans' chances for the last many election cycles. Polls were wrong in 2016 and inflated the chances of Democrats; Republicans won. Maybe they'll be wrong again this time. Maybe not. Who knows? Not me, that's for sure.

Anyway, that's the math. Just pure simple equations without talking about relative morality; the equations are what they are.

So now let's put some flesh on it. Let's make the math bloody.

My last couple essays were about this idea of differentiators, using the election as a context. You can read part 1 and part 2 if you want to fully understand my points, and you can not read them if you don't want to fully understand. How's that for a math equation?

Trump's differentiator is authoritarian supremacy. This means that his pig ignorance, his grotesque indecency, his sexual assaults, his fraud and corruption, and his ability to walk around as a free man and enjoy press coverage that treats him like a normal participant in the democratic process even though he is an insurrectionist traitor to the constitution who threatens the families of the judges presiding over the 91 felony charges he faces are all positive qualities for him, because they are a way of demonstrating that he truly is an authoritarian supremacist. And so, as long as he promises maximum brutality against the people that our entrenched supremacist power systems don't favor, he gets to continue to rule over the public discourse and the law and basic human decency and even observable reality. His supporters' unshakeable support is how we can tell that authoritarian supremacy is what they want: they don't support him despite the fact that he is a rapist and a confederate criminal that enjoys total impunity, but because. Additionally, the fact that people who aren't paying much attention might slide his way is a pretty good way of detecting that brutality and supremacy and corruption are totally digestible parts of our status quo, intrinsic foundational aspects of the way things are.

Biden's differentiator involves maintaining the status quo; a promise that things will go on relatively steadily rather than dropping immediately and completely into fascist tyranny run by by and for creepy Christian fanatics who want to control our bodies and our lives to satisfy the bigotry and self-regard that they worship as their god. That's a compelling differentiator, at least for those that our system hasn't yet consumed. Thus, even though I still don't like Joe Biden, I feel I must vote for him, because I can clearly see that the other way this can go gets much worse for far more people—trans and gay people, disabled and sick people, people in poverty, people who are pregnant or can get pregnant, Black people and Jewish people and other marginalized people, and even eventually coddled little me, because the threat of open emboldened fascism is vast, and the end of any form of democracy in our country is real.

This is different from saying that things are not already very very bad for such people, as part of the status quo that Joe Biden promises to maintain.

Biden's problem is that many of us can clearly observe that our culture, our arrangement of power, and our government is built to consume people, and the easily observable proof of this is all the people it consumes. For people who would rather not be consumed, what is needed is not for us to stay the course, but to find radical change not toward fascism, but toward diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion, in opposition to our nation's standard traditional unsustainable supremacy, for the same reason that a cancer patient should seek cancer treatment, rather than creating inevitable disaster in pursuit of a return to a unmodified life that their sickness has made unattainable.

That means that even as I vote for Biden, I have to hold my culpability for voting for him and all the horrors that he is accommodating by maintaining and accommodating our status quo. On the other hand, if I didn't vote for him, I'd have to hold my culpability for not doing my part to prevent even worse from coming to even more people. And either way I must hold my culpability for my existence as a beneficiary of our supremacist system. I don't really have a position to take that frees me from culpability; that's how a supremacist system works. Trying to free myself of that culpability instead of holding it would just be another way of aligning with supremacy, which always blames its victims instead of itself.

I return again to differentiators.

I talked already about two simplified groups: contingent voters and non-contingent voters, or base voters and swing voters.

There are all kinds of voters in the base and all kinds of swing voters. In each group you'll find people who aren't paying any attention and are totally checked out of politics outside of the occasional act of voting (or not), and some of the most political engaged people we have: people who are involved on a daily basis organizing and demonstrating and agitating and building networks of support in their communities. You'll find people who have spent their lives coddled by our supremacist culture and people who have spent their lives being oppressed by it. I find all kinds operating within the Democratic base and also outside of it, engaging with democracy in ways that go far beyond semi-annual voting, or engaging with it in ways that are only simplistic and nominal. I guess what I'm saying is, while I find these points of differentiation within these groups along all these lines, I don't necessarily find differentiators between these groups along these lines.

The differentiator I see in swing voters when it comes to the election is what they want from their political representatives—why they hold their vote contingent. When you stop doing the bloodless math and start making it bloody, you notice that not all swing voters are of equal moral weight, nor are all base voters.

Swing voters on the far right want Nazism, and the Republican party is pretty openly giving it to them. They have their candidate. So much for them.

Swing voters on the center-right want their government to promise that if any progress comes, they won't have to pay any price at all for it, not even the price of their comfort, and the moment they detect that there might be some price, they withdraw their support. Some of these swing voters don't even care about the results of the election, so confident are they that they will remain the first priority of whoever wins. And Joe Biden is mostly doing what Democrats have traditionally done for the last many decades, which is mostly going after the support of this group. His bloodless math was right last time, by the way, so maybe you feel this is the right thing for him to do, because it will secure the election—but either way, it is his math, not the math of people who no longer support him because of it, and the support he loses was always an inevitable part of that math just like any support he gains is. Anyway, this has been Biden's method throughout his long and very successful career, so it seems to work, but it also means that right-center voters are hugely politically empowered and over-represented, even though their votes are at worst a mirage and at best perpetually and unchangeably contingent on being coddled.

Swing voters on the left, meanwhile, mostly want their government to stop killing them and/or their family and friends or even strangers, and to stop accommodating those who do. Some of these swing voters don't care about the outcome of the election anymore because the system has already devoured them or their loved ones, and so have fallen into cycles of despair or vengeance, because they correctly perceive that our existing system doesn't see them as a part of its future, and people whose future has been stolen tend to stop caring about the future. This means that they don't find arguments about the good things that Biden has actually done compelling, nor, because of how bad it has already become for them, are they compelled by arguments about how much worse it might get for other people if Biden loses—though it must be said that time and again, the most disenfranchised people are the ones who most consistently bring themselves to the polls to vote for the least bad option, even when that option is accommodating the people harming them. Anyway, this has been Biden's method throughout his long and very successful career, so it seems to work, but it also means that leftist voters are among the most disempowered and under-represented groups in American politics, even though many of them who in their pain and grief keep their votes strategically contingent through the election cycle do eventually vote to provide other people whatever scraps of protection are on offer.

And the differentiator I see within base voters is their response to these realities.

Some among the non-contingent voting base understand that their candidate's bloodless math will involve inevitable loss of support, and therefore don't spend time scolding those who fall away. They spend their time organizing, because they realize that democracy is at least as much about what happens between elections as it is what happens on election day.

Others within the base choose to vigorously scold fallaway voters and blame them for fascism's rise and Donald Trump's presidency, and even threaten them with what will happen to them if Trump comes. What I notice about this group is that they don't tend to scold all contingent voters—only the disempowered ones, the ones whose demands are not being addressed, the ones who are most harmed and abused and least represented. Center-right voters are just part of the bloodless math—we need their votes. If we don't go after them by accommodating them and enticing them, we don't get them, and that's just being realistic. Center-right voters holding their vote contingent based on their personal comfort doesn't make them selfish or childish or responsible for Trump. Them holding their vote contingent doesn't make politicians less likely to seek their vote—it makes them the people whose vote must be sought and won.

Somehow this isn't the case for swing voters on the left. When swing voters on the right hold their support contingent, I'm told it means that they obviously must be pursued as a function of simply bloodless math. When contingent voters on the left do so, I'm told it means they obviously have to be abandoned for the exact same reason.

And maybe so. I have heard all the arguments about elections. Everyone has. We're all invited to be election pundits, running bloodless math experiments to declaim with confidence that this path is preferable to this path, that this is the path that will secure the bag. So you can offer those arguments if you want. Maybe you even have the math correct. Maybe you're right when it comes to the question "how shall the election be won?" Again, I'm pretty bad at math, and I'm not nearly as confident in this sort of armchair predictive analytical game as we're all invited to pretend to be.

What I do know is that seeking the approval of coddled people who don't want to pay any cost of improvement doesn't differentiate us from fascists, even if the calculation is correct. I do know that.

I do know that blaming some of the least politically represented and most threatened and harmed people for the rise of fascism doesn't differentiate us from fascists, even if it so happens they might be making some bad political calculations. I do know that.

I do know that refusing to answer the demand that we change our violent supremacist culture into something more diverse, equitable, and sustainable, doesn't differentiate us from fascists, even if such changes would be costly and risky. I do know that.

I do know that forcing threatened and abused people to choose less death instead of offering no death at all, and taking their compliance for granted, and then treating any non-compliance as a betrayal justifying harm and abuse, doesn't differentiate us from fascists, because that is the exact fascist project. I do know that.

And I know that when we don't differentiate from fascists, we don't differentiate from supremacy and supremacy's status quo. The question for me isn't whether or not the traditional Democratic bloodless math that Biden is employing is correct or not; rather, it's this: if we presume it is correct, why is it correct?

Why is that equation correct?

Is it because our would-be progressive politicians realize that a huge number of us who say our votes are secure still far too aligned with the cost-free comfort that supremacy provides? Do they realize that if any politician offers truly necessary and radical change—like opening the border and embracing the strength that immigration provides, or taxing wealth to fund the public commons, or defunding police and our war machine, or ending our our corporate carceral regime—then many of us will become uncomfortable and frightened, and withdraw our support? Do our politicians notice the way we react to truly radical change toward diversity, equality, equity, and sustainability, and realize that many of our votes are actually more contingent than we claim?

I think they do. I don't think politicians do their bloodless math for no reason. Defending their math as what they have to do because it's what is politically realistic may be true, but it is also a revelation of our cultural sickness.

At the end of the day, I think that's where we put the chicken and the egg. Our culture isn't supremacist because politicians accommodate supremacy. Our politicians accommodate supremacy because our culture is supremacist, right down to which group of contingent swing voters so many of us who hold ourselves to be anti-fascist instinctively decide must be pursued, and which group we think should be taken for granted and blamed for any bad outcomes—which seem like choices.

There are things that fascists cannot do. We should do those things.

Last week, I pointed out that accepting culpability is something that fascists can never do. Another thing that fascists cannot do is support marginalized and abused people even if they don't comply with pre-assigned expectations. Neither can fascists refuse to blame the least empowered people for bad outcomes, or fail to threaten them with bad outcomes. Neither can fascists continue to support a political movement if it begins to make beneficiaries of supremacy finally and at last pay their rightful share of the cost of repairing our shared society. Neither can fascists support something if it doesn't accommodate their supremacy or if it threatens the benefits supremacy offers them.

Neither can fascists ever be the monster-fighters. Controlling the monster is no problem for them, nor is setting it loose. But they will never fight it, because the monster is supremacy, which fuels fascism.

Perhaps you are those who believes the traditional equation is correct. I hope you're right, because that's the equation that Biden and the Democrats are mostly going with. They're going with it because of the demands of those of us who supremacy empowers and protects and coddles.

We should find a better equation.

Maybe the math of the one we have now is correct, but it's bloody math.

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A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and the upcoming essay collection Very Fine People, which you can learn about how to support right here. He is also co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He should sleep late man, it's much easier on his constitution.

¹ In the short term, you can go on daytime TV and sell diet supplements.