Political Fictions


I read a collection of long pieces written by Joan Didion in the 1990s called Political Fictions this week.

It contained “the first of a number of pieces I eventually did about American politics,” she wrote in the Preface, “most of which had to do, I came to realize, with the ways in which the political process did not reflect but increasingly proceeded from a series of fables about American politics.”

She wrote about how the electoral process was manipulated by the elites, from the primaries to deciding on who would be deemed the ‘electable candidate’, to the way the issues were manufactured by Washington insiders in collusion with the most important columnists and opinion-shapers. 

One essay really stood out for me. Didion’s piece on the Monica Lewinsky witch hunt, Clinton Agonistes, portrayed those events as a failed attempt by out of touch elites to foist their brand of puritanism on a society where the majority felt the nation should stay out of the president’s sex life. 

Those attempting to oust Clinton couldn’t understand why their moralizing wasn’t having the electrifying effect they expected. 

On the contrary, the majority appeared to feel sympathetic towards the man who had transgressed in a way that was mundane and familiar, rather than the self-righteous puritan prosecutor Kenneth Starr who was gleefully digging up every detail of every sexual encounter to try to bring an elected president down.

Starr’s supporters seemed to believe that, if only the public knew every sordid detail of each illicit encounter, they would recoil in horror.

Didion pointed out the blindness in their position with a brilliant bit of writing:

“The average age of first sexual intercourse in this country has been for some years sixteen, and is younger in many venues. Since the average age of first marriage in this country is twenty-five for women and twenty-seven for men, sexual activity outside marriage occurs among Americans for an average of nine to eleven years. Six out of ten marriages in this country are likely to end in divorce, a significant percentage of those who divorce doing so after engaging in extramarital sexual activity. As of the date of the 1990 census, there were in this country 4.1 million households headed by unmarried couples. More than thirty-five percent of those households included children. Seventh-graders in some schools in this country were as early as the late 1970s reading the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, which explained the role of masturbation in sexuality and the use of foreign objects in masturbation. The notion that Americans apparently willing to overlook a dalliance in the Oval Office would go pale at its rather commonplace details seemed puzzling in the extreme, as did the professed inability to understand why these Americans might favour the person who had engaged in a common sexual act over the person who had elicited the details of that act as evidence for a public stoning.”

When the impeachment attempt failed, rather than sit back and examine why they got things so wrong, the ringleaders of the witch hunt simply doubled down in a way that’s so familiar to us today. 

“I want to find out who else in the political class thinks the way Mr. Clinton does about what is acceptable behaviour,” said conservative commentator George Will. “Let’s smoke them out.”

His vindictiveness has become depressingly familiar to those who watched representatives of the other side call for lists of people who supported Donald Trump after the Democrats had won the 2020 election.

Didion saw the Clinton era sexual witch hunt as a shift away from issues and policies towards fixating on a candidate’s ‘moral qualifications’. 

Ever since that time, one exposed transgression could sink a candidate — just as one random tweet dug up by a grievance archaeologist can today under the current brand of puritanism. 

Such self-righteous witch hunts aren’t a post-internet phenomenon.

Interestingly, Didion points out how this disconnect of political elites and their fables from what the majority of citizens actually valued coincided with a dramatic decline in American voting rates. Less and less people cared about these issues, saw little difference between the two sides, and could barely be bothered to show up and vote for a president, let alone in mid-terms or primaries. 

Those falling numbers suited the elites she interviewed, because their tiny constituency did show up, and their votes were what ended up counting.

I don’t have the cultural background of an American and don’t follow their politics very closely, but I see the same sort of disconnect happening in Canada between a pompous, moralizing governing class — supremely secure in the truth of their own convictions — foisting their tedious woke ideology on a country whose practically-minded working class citizens don’t buy their strange pronouncements on the unreality of biology, or simplistic single-cause ‘systemic’ explanations that plant blame for the world’s ugliness squarely on the personal bigotry of those same hardworking citizens.

I’ve been working my way through Didion’s nonfiction, mainly to study her incredible prose style, but I found what she wrote about in the 1970s, 80s and 90s far more interesting than I expected. 

It’s a snapshot of a moment in our recent past in the West, and the continuities are obvious.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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