If the US election is making you anxious, you're not alone, writes Greg Bruce.
My first visit of the year to the website of leading US polling authority Fivethirtyeight.com was around the time Joe Biden received the democratic nomination in August. As I looked at the proximity of the red and blue worms representing the respective polling averages of Joe Biden and his opponent, my stomach elevated itself into my lower chest cavity and my breathing became constricted. I thought to myself, presciently, "I can't be doing this already." I saw the next three months of my life flash before my eyes. I would fight the urge to check Fivethirtyeight.com for the next week or so, then would start visiting daily, then several times a day, then all the time, then I would just leave it open in a separate tab on my desktop for easy and regular refreshing throughout October.
I knew this would happen, because I'm an anxious person by nature and because there had been a clear precedent. In 2016, Fivethirtyeight had become the statistical crutch on which I had leaned, heavily and hopelessly, to reassure myself of the certainty of a Hillary Clinton win. As I returned to the site three months ago, the power of the memory of the futility of those efforts was matched only by the clarity of my awareness I was helpless to repeat them.
And so it has come to pass that my self-fulfilling prophecy has fulfilled itself. I have become lost in the thicket of rich, multi-platform content at Fivethirtyeight: Its seductive charts and graphs and numbers with their illusion of certainty; its polling averages, both national and state; its predictions of house and senate seats; its rolling blog posts and its stream of tweets from founder and sexy statistics nerd Nate Silver. I know what I'm doing - seeking certainty where there is none - and I know the pointlessness of it and the potential for psychological damage but if I can help myself, it doesn't feel like it.
Last week I discovered a meme on Reddit showing a picture of the Fivethirtyeight.com election forecast with the following superimposed text: "It hasn't f***ing changed since you last checked seven minutes ago." I laughed at that, because it's nice to feel seen, but I didn't laugh for long.
I contacted Stephanie Pemberton, a psychologist with the Anxiety New Zealand Trust, who didn't want to speak on the record but was happy for me to quote from a long email she sent addressing some of my many fears and questions. She suggested putting a time limit on worry. "Set aside time each day, for instance 30 minutes, in which you are allowed to deliberately worry," she wrote. I liked that idea but, immediately upon finishing reading that sentence, halfway through her email, I was overwhelmed by the need to open fivethirtyeight.com. From there, I went to Nate Silver's tweets and became caught up in a thread arguing about whether things were better or worse for Biden than the averages suggested, for various tortured and logically flexible reasons. That was four hours ago. I've done a fair bit of work since then but only if you count obsessive reading of US election content to be work, which I do. My question is: Does this all count toward my half hour?
Pemberton also suggested diversifying my online news sources, which may be broadly sound advice but not regarding US politics, for which there are only two types of sources: The reliable, which all say roughly the same thing, and the insane, which are apparently read by roughly 40 per cent of the US population.
Over the three months I've been obsessively watching Fivethirtyeight.com's algorithmically complex, statistically rigorous average of all US polling, I've seen an infinitude of fluctuations in the polls, none of which have been large enough to influence the result of the election but all of which have been felt as shocks in my body. As I write, I feel them afresh. I want not to have these feelings anymore but not as much as I want the non-election of Trump.
What am I so worried about? Primarily climate change, growing global instability leading to increased likelihood of war, the promotion and global growth of autocracy, the death of facts, the undermining of trust in international institutions, the wide dissemination and embedding of the belief life is a competition in which people are "resources" and the shifting of political debate so far outside the limits of decency and human goodness that we may never get it back.
On November 9, 2016, I tweeted: "Just know this morning that you are not alone in throwing up your breakfast and lying in a pool of vomit and tears while your kids look on." This tweet was not literally true but could not have been spiritually truer. It got 10likes and a retweet. Hardly a day has gone by since then, in the cavalcade of horrors that has filled my various news feeds, when I have not thought about the damage the President is doing to the world and my psyche.
I have seen no more succinct and clear-eyed summation of this damage than the account written by University of Auckland associate professor in politics Stephen Hoadley, which was published on the Newsroom website in July this year. In cold bullet points, Hoadley outlined the global achievements of the previous 20 US presidents (making the country the world's largest aid donor, human rights advocate, provider of global stability, etc), then outlined Trump's achievements: Personal outreach to autocrats, disrespect for traditional allies, withdrawal from or rhetorical undermining of UN agencies, the UNHRC, WHO, WTO and the Paris Climate Conference, reduction of budgets for aid, diplomacy, and human rights advocacy, disdain of trade agreements, imposition of arbitrary tariffs on China, Europe and Canada, etc.
Trump's policies, Hoadley wrote, have discredited US global leadership, undermined economic gains made possible by US-driven global stability and allowed autocracies like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea to fill American-sized power vacuums. Without the US's global leadership, he added, well-meaning but small democracies are less able to resist the challenges of anti-democratic forces.
I called Hoadley and asked him for reassurance that this catastrophe will not carry on for another four years. He agreed to try and reminded me that Hillary Clinton, who, like Biden, was well ahead in the polls in 2016, lost the election because she lost three states by a total of 79,000 votes, despite receiving three million more votes than Trump nationwide. If Hoadley meant that to be reassuring, it wasn't.
"The polls were correct," he said. "But the polls are not exact and that's the worry. Now, you don't want more worry. You want reassurance."
"Yes," I said.
"Okay, so what you do is you take the margin of error of the polls and you look at the gap between Biden and Trump and, if the gap is significantly larger than the margin of error, then that's reassuring."
That's all fine and well, because the gap, at the time of our interview and also at the time of writing, is more than twice as big as the margin of error but the problem is that at roughly the same time four years ago, Clinton's lead was also beyond the margin of error, until FBI director James Comey announced the reopening of an already-concluded investigation into her use of a private email server and there was a three percentage point swing to Trump and, yikes, four years later here we are in the pre-apocalypse.
"Does Trump need something like that to happen again?" I asked.
"Yes, he does," Hoadley said. "He needs the October surprise."
So far, though, the October surprises seem to be going in the other direction: It's been revealed Trump has paid more in taxes in China than in the US, the current head of the FBI has identified white supremacy as a greater threat to law and order than anything on the political left, Republican officials have turned against Trump, and the number of Covid-19 infections is rising in many states Republicans would normally win.
It's always possible something dramatic will happen, Hoadley said, but so far Trump has been ineffectually flogging the same issues: Obamacare, something about Biden's son, questions over Biden's mental capacity and so on: "Things that are just without foundation," he said. "And they're not new and so their impact has declined."
Trump has alleged the left is going to abolish neighbourhoods, schools and police forces, and claimed he's done a great job managing the coronavirus. "It's simply lies," Hoadley said. "Now, to the extent that these become more extreme, some people at the margins - we're talking about the undecided voter who hasn't yet cast a vote - may begin to see that Trump is increasingly incredible and they will either stay home when they would have voted for Trump or they will actually flip and vote for Biden. So that may be mildly encouraging."
I said: "But aren't these desperate tactics exactly what he did in 2016?"
"Well, no," he said. "In 2016, he was the outsider. He was hammering 'the deep state' and going to 'drain the swamp' and 'lock her up'. And now he is the insider. He's the government, he's the man in charge, and he has to take responsibility for four years of inaction, or bad action."
After speaking with Hoadley, I did feel better, but at that point Biden's average polling lead was over 10 percentage points. A few days later, it was down to 8.6 and our conversation might as well have been a hundred years ago.
In her email to me, psychologist Stephanie Pemberton wrote: "We are hardwired as humans to be afraid of uncertainty and the unknown, particularly when the event appears to pose a threat to safety and feels out of our control."
She wrote: "A helpful response may be: "I can control what I do, even if I can't control the situation. This means I can maintain a routine with good sleep, healthy eating and exercise. I can stay in touch with loved ones. I can do things that I know will help me relax'."
But these are things I'm already doing and still my body feels like a party to which all the world's cortisol has been invited.
What I need is more control over the things I can't control, specifically information. The quantity of content available to me through online media, and particularly social media, has made me a super-collector of anxiety-producing information. I have access to too much information, which is too readily checked, too often, to what benefit? Biden's average polling lead this month has never dropped lower than 8.6, yet while I was writing this article, one of the top stories on the Herald website was: "Why Donald Trump is actually winning." I clicked. Of course I clicked.
Eight days ago, Stephen Hoadley invited me to a live screening of the final US presidential debate, co-sponsored by the US consulate and University of Auckland, held at the University's Old Choral Hall on Symonds St and followed by a panel discussion featuring Hoadley, two of his university colleagues and TVNZ's former US correspondent, Jack Tame. I'm not sure how exactly this was supposed to reassure me. I hadn't watched the first debate and would ideally not have watched the second. The prospect of having to endure 90 minutes of Trump's fraudulent zingers, and the idea any one of them might be enough to sway crucial swing voters in Georgia or Ohio, was almost too anxiety-inducing to bear.
I sat at the back of Old Choral Hall's lecture theatre, watching the dual-big screen feed, and with every utterance from both participants, but particularly the dishonest one, I felt the familiar tightening in my gut, the low-level nausea. Just sitting there was an act of endurance.
After the debate, the panel ruthlessly and forensically examined the stream of off-the-cuff and frequently misleading utterances for traces of meaning, significance and election-altering substance. As I listened, I wondered about our need to analyse, to look for answers, to seek or attribute meaning where there is probably none, and I wondered whether any of it does any of us any good.
Afterwards, I told Hoadley how pointless it had all felt: "The deeper it got into it," I said, "the more I thought about the disconnect between the act of performing on the stage and the act of governing - what's the point of this? Is there value? It's more hindrance than help, isn't it?"
He disagreed but, in retrospect, I think I was talking less about the debate's effect on voters and more about its effect on me. Afterwards, walking down Anzac Ave in the early Friday evening, I felt churned up and chemically altered, like I'd just been in a fight. The thought of returning home to be a dad and husband, something that on most days comes relatively easily, on this day felt impossible. I wondered how to retrieve myself. I put my headphones on and listened to a string of morose and melancholy love songs, which wasn't the intention, necessarily, but was just the way things went.
Earlier that day, shortly after arriving at work, I had experienced a fleeting optimistic thought. I can no longer remember the content but I can remember the feeling of surprise. I texted my wife about it and wrote: "Is it possible I'm an optimist?" She replied: "I wouldn't say you're not optimistic but I wouldn't call you positive."
After returning home that night, I tried to convey to her my complex thoughts and feelings about the debate. She was making dinner and seemed to miss the point. She said: "You talking about Old Choral Hall makes me want to go back to uni. Don't you miss it? Just wandering around campus and saying, 'Oh, yeah, I've got a lecture over there soon'?"
I said: "No, I hated uni," which was something I'd told her many times before. Throughout my time at university, where I'd studied mostly philosophy, I had experienced intense social anxiety. The fear of going into a tutorial and having to talk to people before class was often so severe I would sit in a nearby toilet cubicle until the last possible moment. I never wandered around campus, almost never spoke to anyone and certainly never considered saying the words "Oh yeah, I've got a lecture over there soon". When I didn't have classes, I was either in the library, the toilet or at home. Hate is a strong word, but not too strong for the way I felt about university. But I guess Zanna didn't believe me because she said: "No you didn't. You loved it."
"No," I said again. "I hated it."
She said: "Then why did you do it instead of your full-time job?"
I said: "I hated my full-time job too."
She said: "And these are the words of an optimist?"
I laughed at that, because it was nice to feel seen, but I didn't laugh for long.
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