from my bookshelf: political fictions by joan didion


political fictions contains 8 essays about the american political system. didion covers how american politics have been shaped by the institution of the presidency, specifically when presidents bring impeachment and scandal to the oval office. she also thoroughly investigates why americans vote the way they do, and explores the painful disconnect between american life and the government that controls it.


“That this was not a demographic profile of the country at large, that half the nation’s citizens had only a vassal relationship to the government under which they lived, that the democracy we spoke of spreading throughout the world was not in our own country only an ideality, had come to be seen, against the higher priority of keeping the process in the hands of those who already held it, as facts without application.”

“From the outset then, the invention of a president who could be seen as active rather than passive, who could be understood to possess mysteriously invisible and therefore miraculously potent leadership skills, became a White House priority.”

“This was a president who understood viscerally–as the young colonel also understood–exactly a foolish enterprise, a lonely quest, a lost cause, a fight against the odds: undertaken, against the best advise of those who say it cannot be done, by someone America can root for. Cut, print.”

“This world the candidate evoked, one in which the prime minister of Japan considered with welfare queens and deadbeat dads (referred to in Putting People First as ‘deadbeat parents’) to deride those who paid the taxes and raised the kids and played by the rules, began and ended with the wholly resentments of the focus group, and so remained securely distanced from what might be anyone’s actual readiness to address actual concerns.”

“It was frequently said to be the Year of the Woman, and the convention had clearly been shaped to make the ticket attractive to women, but its notion of what might attract women was clumsy, off, devised as it was by men who wanted simultaneously to signal the electorate that they were in control of any woman who might have her own agenda.”

“In this determined consensus on all but a few carefully chosen and often symbolic issues, American elections are necessarily debated on ‘character,’ or ‘values,’ a debate deliberately trivialized to obscure the disinclination of either party to mention the difficulties inherent in trying to resolve even those few problems that might lend themselves to a programmatic approach.”

“As presented by the younger Senator Gore, Carthage had its political coordinates somewhere in Reagan Country, as did the father’s one-room school, as for that matter did the entire tableau on the lawn behind the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, the candidate and the running mate and the wives and the children with the summer tans and the long straight sun-bleached hair that said our kind, your kind, good parents, country club, chlorine in the swimming pool.”

“At a time when the country’s tolerance of participatory democracy had already shallowed, what remained less clear still, and a good deal more troubling, was what kind of revolution might be made after the focus session in Sterling Heights or Paramus or Costa Mesa when ‘the American people,’ which is the preferred way of describing the selected dozens of narrowly targeted registered voters who turn out for the cold cuts and the $35, decide to say something else.”

“The preferences and attitudes  discovered through opinion research tend to be, no matter who is paying for the research, fairly consistent. A majority of American voters who end up in political focus groups are displeased with the current welfare system, believe that affirmative action has been carried too far, are opposed to crime and in favor of ‘opportunity.'”

“He took for himself, in other words, the ritualized role of breaker of new ground, marcher to a different drummer, which happens to be the cast of mind in which speculative fiction finds its most tenacious hold.”

“The tendency is to see history as random but reversible, the sum of its own events and personalities.”

“The genuflection toward ‘fairness’ is a familiar newsroom piety, in practice the excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking but in theory a benign ideal.”

“That a majority of Americans seemed capable of separating Mr. Clinton’s behavior in this matter from his performance as a president had become, by that point, irrelevant, as had the ultimate outcome of the congressional deliberation. What was going to happen had already happened: since future elections could not be focused on the entirely spurious issue of correct sexual, or ‘moral,’ behavior, those elections would be increasingly decided by that committed and well-organized minority brought more reliably to the polls by ‘pro-family,’ or ‘values,’ issues. The fact that an election between two candidates arguing which has the more correct ‘values’ left most voters with no reason to come to the polls had even come to be spoken about, by less wary professionals, as the beauty part, the b onus that would render the process finally and perpetually impenetrable.”

“That these specialists in opinion research were hearing a certain number of Americans express concern about their own future and about the future of America seemed clear. What seemed less clear was the source of this concern, or what inchoate insecurity or nostalgia is actually being voiced when respondents address such questions as whether they fear that ‘this society will become too accepting of behaviors that are bad for people,’ say, or believe that ‘a president should set a moral tone for the country.'”