Graffiti outside the bar where the Tulsi Gabbard debate watch party was held in Manchester, New Hampshire. Not a poor illustration of the political process, either.
Before we commence the seventh devastating round of these masochistic Democratic debates, we really ought to identify the eponymous masochist in this televised orgy of political sodomy. Is it the shameless politician who prostrates himself before a national audience, vowing his submission to the most ruthless desires of an insatiable electorate? Is it the voter who yields to the candidate’s lust for power, his machtgelüst, and makes himself the vessel whereby the powerbroker achieves his righteous climax? Or is it you, the reader, who, in your obsequious affections for Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, or Bernie Sanders—let us not pretend you are hard-hearted enough to support any of the other contestants—have emerged from the romantic depths convinced that your beloved will inevitably triumph?
Alas, even at their most humbling state, none of these could be as pathetic as I. While the politician degrades himself in the present, he does so only in the pursuit of a dignified future; and although the voters volunteer themselves for another’s service, they, too, do so in the belief that their work will eventually redound back unto them. I, on the other hand, stand to gain nothing at all from my continuous immersion in the squalor, in the swampy spectacle of wealthy warmongers squabbling like drunks at the bar—and not unlike drunks at the bar, bullying the few intellectual adults out of the discussion. Why do I subject myself to such bitter inanity when I lack even the foolhardy hope that good will prevail? Must I do so only out of a suicidal penchant for the grief that poisons my heart? Ridi del duol che t’avvelena il cor? Or is the grief laughing at me?
Masochism remains an unfathomable neurosis. Self-preservation is a straightforward instinct, but to take pleasure in the most convoluted, melodramatic, and unnecessary pageantry of this instinct betrays a depth of suffering that never can be measured. Even my own masochism bewilders me. Is it my way of preparing myself for the worst, a rational pessimism readying me for Gabbard’s inevitable electoral loss? It can’t be, because I take no pleasure in the slow political execution of Gabbard through the hemlock of shadow blocking, and in any case, I know whence this rational pessimism stems: I learned it from my own misguided, ill-fated confidence in Ron Paul’s campaign eight years ago. Meanwhile, the source of my masochism remains a mystery.
If masochism were unenjoyable, then we wouldn’t return to it time and time again. We must enjoy the Democratic Party’s presidential debates, too, or else we wouldn’t watch them over and over. How many times do we want to hear these unctuous elites condemn Trump’s racist rhetoric or call for the legal codification of abortion rights? Six installments of such tasteless sloganeering ought to be enough to confirm the hopeless nature of the process—but evidently, it has not been enough to persuade the American people to stop tuning in. Are they genuinely ignorant of the toxicity on display? If so, then their appetite for poison cannot be deemed masochistic, because they have no clue that it is damaging them.
For years, I was similarly clueless about the unsettling implications of my propensity to pain—my own pain, that is. When did I learn to relish my own pain? It must have been in youth, when I had the misfortune of growing up in a household governed by a sadistic mother and a sadomasochistic father. My mother took a vigorous delight in torturing me from the youngest age that I remember: when I was four, she snatched me out of my bed and rushed me to the top of the stairs, where she swung me back and forth as if to toss me over, laughing hatefully all the while. Although she never did throw me down the stairs, the threat of her doing so was palpably real.
Somehow, I managed to suppress that knowledge until much later in life. When I think back to that experience today, I take no pleasure in it, but I certainly understand how someone else would: the overwhelming adrenaline of imminent danger, complemented by the tantalizing threat of the plummet, might evoke the thrill of a roller coaster, except it is more harmless, because the entire scene occurs, for you, only in the imagination. Similarly, for those of us who watch the debates from the comfort of the lounge, the cataclysmic spectacle never trespasses upon reality: these are not real human beings playing the parts of politicians, but fictional characters in a soap opera, and their performances in the plot mean little to us. Individually, of course, they do not, but the system that they aspire to control poses a relentlessly credible threat, and the line between dreaming and danger is as vague and as light as a memory.
Sometimes, this tantalizing imminence is more of a tease than a threat. As we have come to expect during these debates, the sadists, like Biden and Warren, are given an absurdly outsized amount of time to speak; at one point, Warren was asked two consecutive questions. On the spectacular occasion that a respectable candidate like Gabbard is granted time to talk, we lean forward and cross our fingers, believing this is the transformative moment when the country recognizes her as the only truth-teller onstage.
Not only does this enlightenment never occur; it is becoming harder and harder to believe it will. During this debate, Gabbard challenged Buttigieg, a joyous cheerleader for the military-industrial complex, and while a thoughtful observer would easily see the preponderating strength of her argument, we must stop to remember that the American people are neither thoughtful nor observant. Once we understand that they are incapable of learning respect for our position, then our intellectual impotence is exposed.
Although my father often stood by in silence as my mother tortured me, he was always willing to participate in such torment, as well. On too many nights to count, he and my mother would scream at me for hours as I stood silently sobbing, and while I suppose the domination over something so weak might be enjoyable to uncommonly petty people, what I have never been able to understand is why my father was wearing only his underwear as he ran from one room to the next, spitting in rage in response to things I didn’t even do? And why did he have an erection the entire time?
Perhaps he was enjoying himself all too much. The candidates are enjoying themselves a lot, too. They shout at people they do not know about things that their audience does not understand, and although an awful lot of intense emotional energy is expended on this pointless ritual, we seldom attempt to understand the sadistic pleasure they take in such a demonstration. They know they are hurting the people to whom they appeal. They know they are lying to them. They know they are going to disappoint them, yet still they exploit them for donations and support—for submission, in a word. This is the pleasure they keep only thinly concealed, as if they must present it to remind themselves why they do it, what they’re fighting for.
Buttigieg furnishes another interesting example. He promises a functional universal health care system, but he knows perfectly well that what he advocates is neither functional nor universal, but an adaptation of the failed Obamacare program whereby only the wealthy can afford medical care, as usual. Sporting a mendacious grin all the while, he teases the millions with sensationalist promises, only to deny them when the layers are shed.
While the unknowing and overwhelmed child cannot be faulted for complying with this awful process, the responsibility for self-examination, and for overcoming this legacy of brutality and abuse by rejecting it and refusing to perpetuate it, ultimately falls on the developed adult. It is the adult who must break the chains and achieve liberation and master themselves psychologically, evolving to a higher state and acquiring a stronger, more refined taste—a taste not for the internal bleeding of the hapless sufferer, but a taste for the strength of a person who does not need to inflict suffering on anyone. The Democratic debates are one form of masochistic suffering, the sublimation of the candidates’ psychopathic wounding; let us move beyond the trauma of the juvenile.