How to stay sane until the election's over

Oct 30 2020

How to stay sane until the election’s over

My struggle to preserve some semblance of equanimity amid the most emotionally destabilizing presidential campaign of my life has led to extreme measures: I’ve been delving into the literature on both Stoicism and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Turns out the two schools of thought have something in common: a therapeutic technique that the ancient Stoics called premeditatio malorum—which, loosely translated, means imagining bad things that might happen. Sounds like the kind of thing I’d be good at! Here’s how it works:

Suppose you’ve spent the last couple of months worrying that a presidential candidate you detest, though behind in the polls, might stage a comeback. Suppose you’ve already taken the obvious measures to insulate yourself from the vicissitudes of online engagement—like, say, reducing the number of times you check for updated poll results from 20 or so times a day to 18 or so times a day. And suppose you still haven’t found peace of mind. It’s time to harness the power of premeditatio malorum: you just imagine that it’s the morning of November 4 and the candidate whose victory you dread has won.

When cognitive behavioral therapists guide you through this exercise, they ask questions like “So, if the worst happens, how bad will that actually be?” or “Would what you’re worried about happening really be the end of the world?” If the therapy works as planned, you realize, on reflection, that the answers are “Less than catastrophic” and “No.” In my case, the answers, on reflection, were: “Really, really bad, like super-bad, like beyond catastrophic” and “Quite possibly, yes.”

So my premeditatio malorum was off to an inauspicious start. Though the technique is supposed to have an effect that Albert Ellis, one of cognitive behavioral therapy’s founding figures, called “de-catastrophizing,” it was instead having an effect that I call “scaring the shit out of me.”


Maybe America’s great tribal divide is being overstated, or at least misunderstood. In the New York Times, political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan argue that the biggest cleavage in American politics isn’t the ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans but the “attention divide” between political junkies in both parties and the less politically engaged masses. In both parties, for example, the masses consider low hourly wages a much bigger problem than do the people (15 to 20 percent of each party) who qualify as “deeply involved” in politics. And the deeply involved tend to have obsessions not shared by the less engaged members of their party—such as the influence of wealthy donors in the case of Democrats and drug abuse in the case of Republicans. Also, in both parties the deeply involved are much less open to their children marrying across party lines. The gap between “the politically indifferent and hard, loud partisans exacerbates the perception of a hopeless division in American politics because it is the partisans who define what it means to engage in politics,” Krupnikov and Ryan write.

In Aeon, neuroscientist Laura Crucianelli reflects on the psychological importance of physical contact among humans and the consequences of its becoming a scarce resource amid the pandemic.

In the American Conservative, Gil Barndollar assesses the foreign policy stakes of Tuesday’s election. Biden promises a return to the pre-2016 normal, while Trump offers policies that are closer to that normal than Biden might like to admit. “Whether possessing four or 40 years of foreign policy experience, neither septuagenarian is apt to reorient America’s role in the world, regardless of what the voters want.”

A Pew Research Center study finds that the average American is much more worried about various threats to America—terrorism, Russia, China—than the average international relations scholar. (The one big role reversal: climate change.) What I’d like to see is a comparison between such scholars and the foreign policy experts who populate DC think tanks and presidential administrations. On balance, I’d guess, DC experts find America more vulnerable to foreign threats than experts who spend their time on college campuses. In which case the question would be whether that’s because DC experts have a closer, clearer view of the situation or because their social status and job prospects are correlated with how scary the world seems… or some other factor.

In the Intercept, Murtaza Hussain argues that many crusaders against cancel culture aren’t equal-opportunity crusaders. They tend to ignore, in particular, the plight of pro-Palestinian activists who run afoul of such influential pro-Israel speech police as Canary Mission (when these activists support, for example, the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel over its policies toward Palestinians). Discussion of cancel culture “among journalists and intellectuals has mostly focused on their own discomfort as a class,” Hussain writes. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian activists may face fates more dire than the dreaded “de-platforming.” Namely: “threats to immigration status, personal lives, careers, restrictions on foreign travel, and more.” (I made a related critique of the Intellectual Dark Web last year.)