In February 2017, one month after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the New York Times ran a story by Nate Cohn, with the headline president’s approval ratings are down, but how much does it matter?, that attempted to quantify what Trump’s unpopularity presaged for the 2018 midterms. It was a short article, one of perhaps a dozen produced that week by the Times’ data-journalism vertical, The Upshot, but I have thought of it often during the lifetime that has elapsed since.
Forget for a moment that Cohn—like most of his peers—had just gotten the 2016 election spectacularly wrong, and that he made no effort to explain why anyone should still care about his view on anything. Even if Cohn had called the vote perfectly, his eagerness to call the next should have been unseemly. In a sane world, political forecasting would be treated as seasonal work, like playing Santa at the mall, and a man who tried to give you odds on an election almost two years away would be looked on no more kindly than a man who put on faux velvet in April, headed over to Macy’s, and plopped strangers’ children on his lap.
Instead we live in a world where supply is expected to create demand. The media has invested heavily in its prognostication machines, and it’s inefficient to let them sit dormant, even for a few weeks. But the persistent need to view every political development through the lens of its potential influence on the next election points to a much larger problem. As I write this, in late October, I keep coming back to Cohn’s article, because it was what first caused me to suspect that our relationship to the future had turned pathological.
For most of human history, time was understood to proceed in cycles—the annual cycle of seasons; the generational cycle of life; in a longer view, the civilizational cycle of “ages”—each returning us to where we’d begun. For better or worse, people could be reasonably sure that a year from now they would be doing the same thing in the same place, just as a lifetime from now their children would be doing as they had done. There was still plenty of uncertainty—mortality rates were high, natural disasters arrived without warning—and a desire to manage that uncertainty through divination. But the occasional flood or fire or plague was ultimately just another link between the future and the past. The obvious cost of this regularity was fatalism, summed up starkly in Ecclesiastes: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
If you wanted to put your life into a larger context that might give it meaning, you looked to the past—the age of heroes, the age of gods, the time of the covenant, the time before the flood or the fall. It was then that some lasting standard had been established against which your own life could be judged. You related your present circumstances to history by telling stories about it.
I’m engaging in just this kind of narrative work here, so you’ll have to excuse some oversimplification. Of course, a linear sense of time has always coexisted with the cyclical one. And periods of great economic, political, and social disruption have seen surges of apocalyptic thinking, when the focus shifts from origins to endings. But in most places at most times, the emphasis has been on continuity, on the regular rhythms of life, and meaning has most often been found in the past.
Modern life has more or less reversed this state of affairs. We have undone cyclical time by effacing seasonal change, but also by abandoning the notion that certain tastes or ways of being are appropriate to different periods of life, and by failing to accept aging and death as unavoidable realities rather than horrors to be fought at any price. At the same time, we take radical change for granted. We live with the understanding that our children’s lives will look dramatically different from our own, just as ours differ dramatically from any that came before. This is partly the result of technology’s tireless march, but it is also a product of an economic system that not only expects but requires constant novelty—one in which everything solid melts into air.
This modern way of being produces feelings of great possibility—we are given our lives to make for ourselves, free from the constraints of the past—but also great anxiety, and the primary source of this anxiety is that despite our fixation on the future, we simply cannot know what it will bring. Meanwhile, social thought, which used to draw heavily on the humanities, now insists on its status as a science, and since the scientific method depends on constructing a hypothesis and testing it empirically, the quest for knowledge increasingly takes the form not of narratives about the past but of predictions about the future. There is an obvious tension here: the future is less legible than ever, yet we rely more and more on a picture of it to give the present its meaning.
U.S. elections are generally among the simpler phenomena forecasters face. To begin with, we know when they will happen and which names will appear on the ballot. Presidential elections usually offer two plausible outcomes. In our era of ideological bifurcation, when the voting public is split almost evenly between the major parties, neither can be ruled out entirely (forgetting that fact was our great mistake in 2016), but various indicators can tell us which is likelier. All this makes electoral prognostication far more manageable than predicting next week’s weather, next month’s job numbers, next year’s geopolitical crisis, or any number of other things that people make a living attempting to foresee.
But like everything else about this year, the 2020 election feels different. Outcomes that in the past would have been too unlikely to bother over seem worryingly plausible. For the first time in our history, the sitting president won’t commit to giving up power if he should lose reelection, and his own party cannot be relied on to intervene if he refuses to step down, so we face the real possibility of a protracted legal battle or a major constitutional crisis. Given the various efforts at voter suppression, the vulnerability of electronic voting machines, and the complications brought on by a surge of mail-in voting, there also seems to be a high chance that we will have reason to question the election’s legitimacy. The death of a candidate between the convention and the election has always been a possibility, but never before have we had two nominees in their mid to late seventies, which made that eventuality seem feasible even before one of them contracted a disease that is particularly life-threatening for men of his age. News of Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis also raised the possibility that he might be alive but incapacitated come Election Day, forcing his removal from the ballot.
One might wonder why I have wasted so many words running through possible scenarios for an audience that already knows what actually happened. The answer is that I think the uncertainty we’re all feeling in this moment—the one I’m writing from—has something to tell us, and I don’t want it to be forgotten once the moment passes. If something as straightforward as a scheduled election feels so unpredictable, perhaps the sheer volatility of this year will finally lay bare the contradictions of our relationship with tomorrow. Then we might stop treating an unknowable future as our only hope at making sense of our present predicament.
From where I stand, just two weeks shy of the election, it is impossible not to obsess over its outcome. But I write this to you who are now on the other side. Whatever may have happened on November 3, do not turn immediately to what will happen in 2022 or 2024. Listen briefly to this voice from the past. Then take a moment to look around.