Joan Didion exposed political stories America is still telling itself in order to live

Didion crashed the political journalism party, revealing much about power, the mainstream press and America

By David Masciotra

Contributing Writer

Published December 27, 2021 7:30PM (EST)

Joan Didion (Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images)
Joan Didion (Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images)

The death of Joan Didion steals from the United States not only one of its best literary artists, but also one of its most astute political analysts.

Because Didion was so prolific and accomplished, it was always inevitable that certain aspects of her oeuvre would overshadow others. In this case, her political commentary and journalism fails to elicit attention equal to her cultural correspondences, novels, and the harrowing personal writing she published after the deaths of her husband and daughter. Given the ideological and mercurial biases of the corporate press, there are ground for suspicion that book critics, journalists and obituary writers have reason to overlook Didion's political work that goes beyond popular reputation.

RELATED: Joan Didion for Salon: "Election by Sound Bite," commentary on the 2008 election

There was no fog on the sightline of Didion. When she analyzed the absurdities of American politics, she identified and accurately described the racism, corporate restraints, self-serving myths and lack of ambition that paralyze the political system, rendering it unable, despite the country's inordinate wealth and educational resources, to adequately address the needs and concerns of the electorate. The inert process, Didion wrote in the foreword to a compendium of her political essays aptly called "Political Fictions," "proceeded from a series of fables about American experience."

With her brutal chronicle of the fictive nature of political debate, she committed a cardinal sin of the American press: She exposed the overwhelming failures of the boys club that was, and to a large extent, still is the New York-Beltway nexus of credentialed reporters. "Boys" is the best word, because of the patriarchal gender bias of the press corps, but also because, like children, mainstream pundits are often the most gleeful prisoners and propagators of political fable.

The story of Didion's entry into political journalism is all the more remarkable for her reluctance. In 1988, Robert Silvers, then editor of the New York Review of Books, requested that Didion, a frequent contributor, write a lengthy essay on that year's presidential campaign. He promised to acquire a press pass that would allow her to attend campaign events with insider access. She wrote that she was flattered, but largely disinterested. Domestic politics failed to capture her enthusiasm, and she worried that she lacked the political expertise of other NYRB writers, like Gore Vidal. Eventually, she relented and produced a series of essays of far greater clarity, insight, and ethical force than most comparably seasoned male and milquetoast writers of the New York Times and Washington Post school could ever muster. Didion's essays, like Vidal's, not only capture the reality of their time, but also undress ugly truths of the American experience, and the use of power more broadly, that make them, unfortunately, timeless.

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Almost immediately as a political writer, Didion was able to slice through the layers of foolishness and insulation that keep average Americans from seeing the truth of their democracy. This passage comes approximately 1,000 words into her first political essay, the cleverly titled "Insider Baseball":

When we talk about the "process," then, we are talking, increasingly, not about the "democratic process," or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and those who attend them; to the handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. "I didn't realize you were a political junkie," Martin Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who was married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, an American presidential campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.

Didion saw clearly that the structure, in the institutional sense, was under strict control of capital, writing about how it did not seem to concern most politicians or reporters that over half of the public did not vote, as long as commercial sponsors like Merrill Lynch were confident that the Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention would score high ratings with "an upscale audience." The "structure," in the more metaphorical sense — the vocabulary and discourse that dominated the political imagination — passed through the "upscale audience" filter. The filter, as Didion painstakingly argued, created a fictional narrative so vast that few could escape it. 

RELATED: The meaning of words: Orwell, Didion, Trump and the death of language

As a writer, not a "political junkie," Didion crashed the party by exposing the fictive status of the popular story. The prevailing obsession, then and now, with the personal biographies and foibles of the candidates prohibits other writers, and more importantly, politicians from doing the same clarifying work of her journalism. Didion wrote in "Insider Baseball" that "All stories, of course, depend for their popular interest upon the invention of personality, or 'character,' but in the political narrative … it is to maintain the illusion of consensus by obscuring rather than addressing actual issues."

It is important to note that Didion is using "narrative" not as a synonym for argument or theory, as many dense pundits currently employ the term, but to mean an intentionally crafted story with heroes, villains, a setting, a problem and a proposed resolution. The story of 1988 bears strong resemblance, despite the dramatic difference in circumstances and crises, to the story of 2021.

The 1988 race was the first in three election cycles that the smiling reactionary Ronald Reagan would not dominate. On the Republican side, Didion saw the influence and proliferation of "reactive angers" illustrating a "quite florid instance of what Richard Hofstadter had identified in 1965 as the paranoid style of American politics." Anyone minimally lucid can understand Didion's assertion — fear of Black people, immigrants, the poor, uppity women, and the "radical left" creates an extreme anti-government and antisocial form of anti-politics on the right, which has only intensified and grown more dangerous in the past three decades. Invocation of "law and order," as Didion and other analysts have well understood, is the Republican technique of telling their frightened voters that racial minorities, especially those who are poor, will not cut in on their action.

Democratic Party politics were and are more complicated. They are also more indicative of the middle class complacency that often inhibits societal transformation, and plays into the devilish hands of the Republican Party. There was one candidate in the 1988 race who Didion believed would present the U.S. with a profound opportunity to elevate itself out of the miasma surrounding systemic racism, oligarchic oppression, and the ongoing sabotage of democracy: Jesse Jackson. When I conducted research for my latest book, "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters," Didion was nearly alone in the mainstream press as treating Jackson with the respect and attention that his groundbreaking candidacy deserved. Demonstrating her keen political insight and her rare gift for literary flare, she wrote that Jackson "rode on a Trailways bus into the sedative fantasy of a fixable imperial America."

RELATED: Democracy vs. fascism, part 1: What do those words mean — and do they describe this moment?

While all the other candidates in the race, including the eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis, could offer nothing more than buffering of America's hard and often deadly edges, Jackson advocated for Medicare for All, tuition free public universities, a national public development bank, full employment through infrastructural programs, subsidized childcare, and paid family leave. He was the only candidate to articulate support for Nelson Mandela, and call for a reduction in the Pentagon budget and a withdrawal of American military from overseas bases and installations. He also was the first candidate, in American history, to make gay rights a major campaign plank. His policy platform was accessible in his soaring oratory, featuring rhetorical gems like, "We must leave the racial battleground to find economic common ground. Then, we can reach for moral higher ground."

Bringing together a "rainbow coalition" of Black, Latino, Native American, Asian American and progressive white voters, from family farmers in Missouri to beleaguered manual laborers in Milwaukee and Detroit, Jackson nearly won the nomination, scoring, at the time, the closest second place finish in the history of the Democratic Party.

Didion wrote that Jackson offered an alternative to "what had come to be the very premise of the process, the notion that the winning and maintaining of public office warranted the invention of a public narrative based at no point on observable reality." As part of his campaign, Jackson registered six million new voters. For his trouble, an unnamed Democratic superdelegate, while talking to Didion, likened Jackson to a "terrorist." Then vice president and eventual president, George H.W. Bush, called him a "Chicago hustler" and "con man." Didion, with the notable exceptions of Norman Mailer and Vidal, was the only mainstream white writer to identify the racism at the heart of opposition to Jackson, and the cruelty that those with power were showing not only to Jackson himself, but more important, the voters for whom he spoke. Bush's racially-coded ridicule shows that the supposedly "decent" forebears of Donald Trump were not innocent on the charges of using bigotry to provoke white hostility in the favor of reactionary politics.

Didion's most famous line is probably, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Her political writing had captured the real story of the "process." When she covered the 1992 campaign, she offered a perceptive examination of how the Democratic Party's compromises, while perhaps setting themselves up for short term victory with an undeniably charismatic Bill Clinton at the top of the ticket, would poison the long term public interest. Jackson and former president Jimmy Carter were relegated to "losers' night" at the Democratic National Convention, meaning the night that convention planners expected the lowest ratings, to make way for Clinton, running mate Al Gore, and a slate of corporate personalities to articulate a series of bromides: "forgotten middle class," "character and values," "an end to division," "big government is over." Gone was Jackson's language of justice, and so too had his platform of peace, equality, and working class economics vanished.

In its place was a hierarchal agenda with white suburban anxieties at the top, and the concerns of all other voters competing for placement at the bottom. The "political narrative" of 2021, with its fixation on suburban parents, rising crime rates, and backlash against Black Lives Matter and Me Too in the form of whining about "cancel culture," is a sequel to the story of 1988. 

Didion's conclusion was grim, but should resonate in the present, as progressives in the House and Senate struggle to pass relatively moderate social reforms against the corruption of Joe Manchin and the timidity of Joe Biden: The Republican Party, "standing for ideology and interest" and "not compromise," is the only real political party in the United States. The progressives, or what Howard Dean called the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," have grown more powerful and influential in the past three decades, and much of the future of America rides on whether they can transform their party into a force more united and authentic. 

Before studying and writing about politics, Didion explained that she was a "Goldwater Republican," whose reflexive political instincts were the consequence of spending her childhood and early adulthood in the almost exclusive company of California conservatives. Her experience and brilliance enabled her to accurately identify the self-preservation of power, wealth and majority status that motivated the American right. She cast her discerning eye not only on the machinations of presidential contests, but also the violent mechanisms of American power.  

In 1990, Joan Didion wrote a pamphlet-length essay on the Central Park jogger case — the miscarriage of justice that occurred when five Black and Latino teenagers were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for the assault and rape of a white woman after the police coerced confessions from the teens, violated their civil rights, and ignored any evidence that contradicted their assumptions of guilt. The prosecutor's abusive behavior was arguably worse. Eventually, all five were exonerated, when the actual rapist confessed to the crime. After their release from prison, the five wrongly-convicted men filed a lawsuit against New York, and settled for $41 million as recompense for "malicious prosecution," "racial discrimination" and "emotional distress." Because Donald Trump took out a psychotic advertisement in the New York Times calling for the execution of the teens, even before opening arguments, and Ava DuVernay directed an acclaimed miniseries about the trial and aftermath for Netflix, the Central Park Five story has become emblematic of systemic racism and the culture of paranoia and hatred that scaffolds it.

Hindsight makes the injustice painfully clear, but at the time, few white writers or political figures were willing to defend the teenagers without equivocation or apology. Joan Didion wrote the first major essay arguing that the boys were innocent, and that the rush to prosecute and punish them was indicative of a dark undercurrent charging beneath the city, and the entire country. With references to the literature of slavery and the autobiography of Malcolm X, Didion connects the case — and, in her then-correct but minority opinion, the persecution of the teenage suspects — to the myths and mechanisms of white supremacy. At work in the case and coverage surround it were the same institutional and cultural evils responsible for immeasurable suffering throughout the United States and around the world, as well as the perpetual suffocation of democracy. At the center of the white supremacist mythology, from the slave fields to the Emmett Till case, Didion identified "a special emotional undertow that derived in part from the deep and allusive associations and taboos attaching, in American Black history, to the idea of the rape of white women." 

Didion's essay not only castigates the racist criminal justice system, but also makes clear how the liberal establishment of New York, including then mayor David Dinkins and governor Mario Cuomo, contributed to the noxious atmosphere of hostility toward the boys. Eventually, the U.S. would learn that a single rapist committed the ghastly crime, but the press, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, did not hesitate to run wild with headlines and reports on the "wolf packs" terrorizing Central Park after sundown. The predatory "animals," of course, always have dark skin, and prowl out of the poorest neighborhoods. Almost in isolation did Didion state the obvious that such language, comparable to Ku Klux Klan propaganda, strips Black criminal suspects of their humanity in a society that is supposed to afford them legal protections, and can morph into a lethal weapon against all people of color.

"The attack upon the jogger," Didion wrote with contempt for conventional opinion," became "an exact representation of what was wrong with the city, of a city systematically ruined, violated, raped by its underclass." It was also convenient as a "frame in which the actual social and economic forces wrenching the city could be personalized and ultimately obscured." 

The "law and order" reactionaries made predictable calls for the police to, in essence, occupy New York, but Didion shows that leading feminists, supposedly progressive, did not dramatically differ in how they chose to "frame" and "seize upon" the problem. Quoting Anna Quindlen and other mainstream feminists, Didion attacks the "abstraction" and "sentimentalization" of the case. Because the suspects were named, but the victim was not, the press and political class were able to cast the white victim as a symbol of the city's "inspiration," to use the word Didion most frequently quotes as descriptive of the jogger, and the suspects as its "defilement" and "endangerment."

Not only was the nameless victim able to quickly achieve "favored victim status," Didion wrote, because she was "white and middle class professional," but the case arrived in the nick of time — perfect for exploitation from politicians who gain advantage by making interpersonal crime the main story in the life of a city, even the life of a country. The crime story, according to Didion, is "devised to obscure not only the city's actual tensions of race and class but also, more significantly, the civic and commercial arrangements that rendered those tensions irreconcilable."

The blunt force thesis that Didion posits complements her reading of presidential elections as theater in which nearly any topic is fair game, except scrutiny of the sociopolitical crises that collectively act as mockery of the Bill of Rights and patriotic verse:

Stories in which terrible crimes are inflicted on innocent victims, offering as they do a similarly sentimental reading of class differences and human suffering, a reading that promises both resolution and retribution, have long performed as the city's endorphins, a built-in source of natural morphine working to blur the edges of real and to a great extent insoluble problems.

The horrific development of the tabloid fascist who wrote the ad calling for the execution of the Central Park Five becoming president of the United States, even after he continually refused to apologize for that offense and his myriad other misdeeds, confirms Didion's argument that the inequities of racism, white panic, and class oppression extend far beyond bad cops, prosecutors and judges.

Joan Didion was a genius of story. Throughout her life, whether she was writing about the mourning of her husband and daughter or the failures of American democracy, she understood and was able to articulate, like few others, how the cultivation of narrative is an inescapable part of the human experience, and how it simultaneously liberates and shackles both individuals and communities. "We tell ourselves stories in order to live" is an equally promising and frightening summary of humanity.

With more sophistication, brilliance, and honesty than most American writers, she possessed a clarity of insight regarding U.S. inequality and injustice: For genuine reform to transpire, Americans must collectively change the story they tell themselves about their country, and its people.

Joan Didion's flaw was her cynicism. She often dismissed the idea of progress, and even questioned the notion of trying to "make the world a better place." As the United States faces an unprecedented threat against its already fragile democracy, and as the "tensions of race and class" continue to manifest in poverty and violence, it is essential to remember the faith that Didion's work, no matter how cynical, offers to readers. Telling the truth, especially in a society of political fictions, always requires courage. It is always an act of hope.

More Salon stories about Joan Didion: 

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of six books, including "Exurbia Now: The Battleground of American Democracy" and "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters." He has written for the New Republic, Washington Monthly, CrimeReads, No Depression and many other publications about politics, music and literature.

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