Sad

15 Nov

One story of the past decade of my life has been a general failure of an attempt to escape the highs and lows of national politics. I’ve spun this yarn on this blog before, from the moment I realized I could be free in a park in Mexico City ten years ago to an attempt to say goodbye to all that at the start of the Trump Administration. I made halting progress at times, especially when events closer to home came to fill my life. But in 2020, that endless mirror of a Zoom call that forces us to stare at our faces and contemplate our warts, an election day that turned to an election week forced me to use every weapon in the arsenal in an attempt to stay sane. It worked, at the price of exhaustion that has carried through for another week.

The outcome of the 2020 election was clear enough from the moment the New York Times’ Needle, that data-mining triumph and harbinger of doom, flipped on Georgia on Tuesday night. The eventual result was clear by Wednesday morning, even though it took three more days for the networks to declare a winner. The polls have taken a justified beating for their inaccuracy, but the data people—especially, I think, when one leaves aside their attention-grabbing probability numbers and focuses instead on what they write—were otherwise by far the best sources of information as the count dragged on. The two sage Nates, Nate Cohn of the Times and Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, laid it out clearly. The count was a simple math problem, and every piece of evidence showed that it would not be kind to Trump.

And yet, somehow, I couldn’t stop the endless refreshes in search of new results or interpretations. It was addicting, an endless string of hits off a drug. Part of it was the fact that I faced most of this alone: sure, my phone was blowing up incessantly, but there was no one right in front of me to distract me. Part of it is pent-up quarantine energy, restless at the tedium of life at home. In my work circle, a tacit pact emerged to enable this mindset: show up to your meetings and perform your basic tasks, please, but we don’t expect much more of anyone this week. We’re all in this together.

A descent into political obsession wasn’t all negative. My knowledge of the random county names across the U.S. has grown exponentially. The Twitters on my doom loop were universally insightful, with deep knowledge of random pockets of the country and instant, sharp analysis. At certain times of day, I learned to pull up the Twitter feed of a guy in Arizona with the avatar of The Count from Sesame Street who crunched numbers quickly. (“I cannot be stopped,” The Count calmly replied, after Trump emitted one of his “STOP THE COUNT!” tweets.) The endless stream of memes added some much-needed levity, with anything involving Nevada or Gritty taking the cake; the Four Seasons Total Landscaping adventure, meanwhile, will give me reason to chuckle years from now. I connected with old friends here and there, and enjoyed a socially distanced exhale on Saturday when our fate was, finally, sealed. Well, at least it was if you don’t live in the Trumpian fantasyland of unexamined conscience.

A lot of people thought Donald Trump was a descent into authoritarianism, and while he sometimes acted the part, it was only ever that: an attention-consuming act. Instead, his presidency was defined by weakness. It was a world-beating marketing campaign elevated by the puffed-up rhetoric favored by people whose self-confidence vastly outweighs their competence. Trump was never a third-world strongman: he was a reality TV imitation of one. His flaccid performance showed both the enduring power of American institutions and the overwhelming power of the entertainment complex to smother everything else.

The hoopla masked both the ineptitude and some of the more interesting nuanced achievement. We’re still waiting on that Obamacare replacement and that infrastructure package. The only major policy win was a milquetoast tax cut that any Republican could have pushed through, and Trump had the fortunate timing to get himself three Supreme Court picks in four years, while most recent presidents got two in eight. His foreign policy has been an incoherent slop, but it has avoided any catastrophic blunders and at times achieved some qualified successes. His trade policy likewise has proved a useful, if scattershot, corrective to the free trade bromides that dominated the previous quarter century. There’s reason to believe a more nuanced trade policy could be a point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans. The economy, which is usually beyond a president’s control, was good until it wasn’t, thanks in part to the Republicans’ drift away from their longtime fiscal and free trade orthodoxy. I expect them to rediscover it under the Biden Administration, but there is now potential common ground on a more middle-class friendly economic policy that didn’t exist four years ago.

If that were the extent of Trump’s legacy, it would be judged as fine, perhaps on par with other one-term presidents like Jimmy Carter and George Bush: a vital corrective to certain excesses, perhaps doomed by its heterodoxy and outside forces. But what will endure from the Trump Era is not any policy, but the scorched-earth warfare that politics became. It didn’t start with Trump, but it accelerated rapidly under him, enabled by the virtual world we increasingly inhabit: a barrage of tweets and own-the-libs raging that stayed relatively peaceful but opened the door to something different in the future. The left, in its sloppy and infighting-plagued and characteristic panic-over-anger fashion, responded in kind. American politics is now a battle between a Republican Party with no interest in being right so long as it wins and a Democratic Party with only a passing interest in winning because it must be right all the time.

The United States’ two major parties right now are reflective of a society scared of losing what it has built, scared of losing its culture, whether it’s that of a white settler nation with its myth of frontier liberty or a liberal empire bestride the world. Trump had a core of true believers who lapped up his rallies, but the vast majority of Trump voters I know are instead longtime Republicans who find the guy somewhat ridiculous but are willing to tolerate that because he more or less supported the causes that made them Republicans in the first place. (If you think abortion is murder or are scared Democratic policies are going to kill the industry that supports you or just value holding on to your own money above all else, a few nasty tweets aren’t a big price to pay.) The Biden campaign was perhaps an even more potent vessel of negative partisanship than the Trump campaign. It didn’t really matter what Biden stood for; it just mattered that he had the best odds of beating the other guy, which he did. Such is life under an empire teetering at the end of its apogee, at times calamitous but more often just decadent.

The coronavirus pandemic, for what it’s worth, did not prove much of a boost for Biden. Even people who know it’s bad just seem exhausted with it all now, few more so than those with kids. After reading of how low-income kids are falling through the cracks more than ever before and the extent of the mental health burden on kids who have lost their most formative years, I’m sympathetic to a desire to wish it all away. We live in dark times, and there will be lasting scars for many of us, especially our young. It is a great loss. But the fact that Trump’s approval did not rise, even as those of some relatively incompetent governors did, shows the emptiness of his effort. With leadership focused on resolve, we might have risen up united, as has happened in places like Germany or South Korea; clear expectations and national preparations could have at least this entirely predictable fall eruption. Instead, we got some tweets. Previous generations endured rationing, drafts, and mass mobilizations to endure wars with a vision of a better world; in 2020, people revolted at the notion that the government might tell them they need to wear a piece of cloth in public. That cue, of course, came from the figure at the top, not authoritarian but feeble and shallow, self-image elevated over real life, an American celebrity culture home to roost.

Given the polling errors, it is hard to know what exactly tipped this election. Biden surged in the polls after Trump bungled the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, but “defund the police” proved an effective talking point in the Republicans’ favor, particularly (and paradoxically, given their distance from urban unrest) among the rural white people who the polls missed again. A not insignificant number of Hispanics are religious and found something to like in the Trump economy and, as a reminder, came to the U.S. for a reason, and as such may be less inclined to view it as the sin-steeped failure that a binary discourse on race relations implies. Biden, meanwhile, enjoyed the suburban surge that turned Georgia and Arizona blue, and did enough to stop the Democratic bleeding in the Midwest. The race was remarkably stable in polls, suggesting that opinions on Trump and Biden (and, let’s be honest, it was mostly Trump) were baked in so long ago that no manner of outrage over 2020 could change much.

One theory that fits with this narrative suggests that, since polls about a year ago were pretty much spot-on, the virus didn’t change many votes, but it did change who responded to polls. With so many liberals stuck at home and more willing to socially distance, a group of people suddenly had the free time or flexibility to respond to answer phone calls or join the ranks of the Very Online. Once there, they became more and more ensconced in their algorithmic circles, deprived even of the brushing interaction with different swaths of the country. Oh, how I have felt this drift in my own life into that virtual realm over the past few months, an unwitting necessity that has had the expected consequences, even for someone well-attuned to the dangers.

A move away from a virtual life won’t cure all that ails America in 2020, least of all the virus that is now ravaging the American Heartland at unprecedented levels. But avoiding that path of least resistance can tamp down somewhat on the anxiety that comes with it, and it can offer something other than the echo chamber: perhaps some new pursuits, perhaps some dives back into old ones, perhaps some reckonings with the chambers in one’s own mind. National politics will lurch along, and I now accept that I won’t ever fully escape it. Nor should I want to: I am a political animal, and I have the tools to keep it all in perspective, to put my foot on the scales here and there.

And with any luck, a Biden Administration will feel somewhat less existential in its stakes. Four years of politics as a TV series culminated in a story to save for the grandchildren, a week I’ll never forget. But after it, I am ready to return to the joys and sorrows and the exhilaration and the tedium of good, old-fashioned reality.

2020 Election Quick Takes

4 Nov

As of this writing, Joe Biden appears to have leads in enough states to earn at least 270 electoral votes in spite of some substantial polling errors, which would allow him to edge past Donald Trump and become the next President. The Democrats’ hopes for winning the Senate, meanwhile, appear to be slipping away, and their majority in the House of Representatives looks likely to shrink a bit, but remain intact.  A lot is still up in the air, but I can’t resist the urge to play Wednesday morning quarterback some, and venture a few conclusions:

Trump is a unique force in American politics. He turns out his base like no other, thereby consistently outperforming his polls. The fact that we didn’t see this in the 2018 midterms suggest it is very much a top-of-the-ticket effect. Love him or hate him, he has completely re-scrambled American politics. It further underscores the power of charisma from the top, as Democrats saw in the Obama years as well.

Even if this is it for Trump—and I’ll have more to say on the subject if it is—these results clearly aren’t a decisive rejection. What that means depends on what exactly Trumpism is without Trump. Is it all about style and personality, or is it more of a shift in the Republican Party toward being the party of the working class? For that matter, he might not be going anywhere, since this one has been so close.

American cultural divides are deeply entrenched, and the result is, for all the insanity, stability. 2020 did everything it could to throw wacky wrenches into the race: coronavirus, racial reckonings, social unrest, Supreme Court drama, and on and on. And yet, so many things seem to be reverting to the norm. After Trump’s major inroads in 2016, Minnesota lurched strongly to the Democrats in 2018, but now seems to have found a middle ground, with some of the 2018 margins sliding back: solid, increasing urban Democratic majority offset by some gradual Republican gains further afield. Minnesota remains a divided state, though at a statewide level, it remains the Republicans’ white whale. Wisconsin seems to be mirroring its narrow Democratic win in 2018 as well. At the end of the day, most people are so locked in to their cultural categories that there isn’t much room to move in American politics. Only charismatic changes at the top seem to overpower the near-stalemate, and that only briefly.

The blue suburban swing is more of a gradual shift. The Democrats will most likely have gains in suburbs to thank if Biden does pull this off, but it’s not a tidal wave. They’re losing some of the house seats they won in 2018, and here in Minnesota, we’re seeing Republican gains in the state legislature. We should, if it wasn’t already obvious, be able to put the old narrative of the emerging Democratic majority to bed. 2008 and 2018 are high-water marks in our current alignment, not harbingers of a new permanent majority. The Democrats may continue to make gains in certain areas, and on the whole their position in American politics, with victories in the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, is the stronger one. But there is almost always an equal and opposite reaction to victories in one place somewhere else, sooner or later. This is, of course, how the rules of the game pretty much work in a two-party system. And, on a related note:

Current discourse on the left about race and ethnicity is inadequate. After four years of Donald Trump, one demographic category where Biden has clearly outperformed Hillary Clinton is…white men. This, of course, may say something about gender politics. But the lede in this election seems to be Trump’s performance among Hispanics, and to a lesser extent Black men. Without that shift in Florida alone, the state goes to Biden and we all might have been in bed early last night. I don’t know exactly what this means, but it probably means people on the left should listen to these people a bit more instead of imposing their academic theories on how they should behave upon them. The simple reality is that most people do not look at every aspect of their lives as potentially racist or antiracist, and if analysis gets too caught up in that lens, it will miss a lot of other things. Identity is a complex, multifaceted thing, and not everyone moves in lockstep.

The Democrats nominated the best option they had. No, Joe Biden was not a fount of charisma, and that probably came out in the tighter-than-polled races and down-ballot Democratic losses. But that wasn’t really a strength for anyone in the Democratic field, with the semi-exception of Bernie Sanders, and if Biden gets destroyed by Cuban-Americans in Florida because he’s seen as a stalking horse for socialism, I don’t see how an actual socialist would have done any better. Biden, meanwhile, seems to have clawed some votes back in enough of the Midwest, which was always his supposed strength as a candidate. Not in the rural areas, seemingly, but some of the mid-sized cities like his native Scranton in Pennsylvania and some of Wisconsin’s small industrial centers are showing stronger results. His margin was also noticeably better here in my home in St. Louis County, Minnesota, which fits the same category. Biden was able to pull back some blue-collar roots while at the same time consolidating suburban gains around Phoenix and Atlanta. I’m not sure who else in the Democratic field could have managed both of those trends simultaneously.

Biden ran his campaign with military precision and stayed the course. This is Joe Biden we’re talking about, so of course the end result isn’t going to be exciting or world-changing. But politics is the art of coalition-building—even a base-heavy campaign like Trump’s knows this, based on the efforts among Hispanics—and, in 2020, it looks like Biden’s is a winner. For whatever it’s worth, he’s going to have a commanding win in the popular vote, and may yet win despite the substantial polling errors. If the Democrats’ goal was to nominate the person who best matched up with Donald Trump, they did so.

Other random notes:

  • Mind-blowing for anyone with a sense of its history to see Orange County, California go 60% for Biden.
  • Sad to see my one very passing acquaintance in Congress, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, fall. The fact that she flipped that seat two years ago was astonishing in and of itself.
  • A few St. Louis County notes: Ashley Grimm’s win in a county board on the west side of Duluth shows that Democrats continue to shore up that part of the city, winning a race that may have gone to a more independent, blue-collar white guy in the past. On the Iron Range, the story is the demise of ticket-splitting: even though Biden held up fairly well on the core Range considering how much effort the Trump campaign expended here, the Democratic legislative candidates all saw their margins shrink, and Julie Sandstede, the state representative for the Hibbing area, appears to have lost very narrowly after winning comfortably in the past. Basically, existing trends are getting more pronounced.
  • Many congratulations to Grant Hauschild, Hermantown’s newest city councilor!

Passing Time with a Pastime

30 Oct

Call it a side perk of a pandemic, I suppose. With the social calendar on hold and weekend outings limited, I watched more baseball games than I have in years, and sucked up as much baseball as I could. The national pastime proved a marvelous diversion this summer: when my politics-related text strings wallowed in masochism during the first presidential debate, I blissfully sat back and watched the Yankees beat up on Cleveland.

The Yankees, the team of this Minnesota sports traitor, delivered on the entertainment value, if not always the wins. DJ LeMahieu won a batting title and Luke Voit won a home run crown and Clint Frazier, who I’d always wanted to succeed, broke out. The rest of the offense was an injury-riven or declining mess, which lent itself to a streaky and drama-filled season that came together at the end until it didn’t. A questionable pitching decision in Game Two of their Division Series with the Rays gets the biggest bit of the blame, but a starting rotation with only one truly reliable arm and a bullpen thinner than in years past created the separation. For a second straight season, the Yankees’ hopes ended on a late-inning home run off Aroldis Chapman. Yes, we now officially miss Mariano Rivera, knowing we’ll never see the likes again.

Baseball has undergone a revolution over the past twenty years, and after immersing myself so fully in the sport in the late 90s and early 00s, I’m still adjusting. Instead of checking the daily paper for a box score, I now enjoy MLB.TV and look up WAR and other various sabermetrics. Ever since Billy Beane and the Moneyball Oakland Athletics burst on the scene, baseball has herded toward a series of new insights into how games are won and lost, first valorizing on-base percentage above all else and now reaching an apex of openers, short leashes on starters, and extreme defensive shifts. I’m torn: I’ve always been a believer in using every piece of available knowledge to gain an advantage (Bill James’ 1984 Baseball Abstract remains a seminal text in my life), but sometimes the end result feels blandly scripted.

By 2020, that trend came to involve something we might call three-outcome power baseball, a game reduced largely to walks, strikeouts, and home runs. It might be a road map to success, but it’s also often rather boring. Baseball is at its best when there’s a full range of skills on display, but we’ve now learned that the game, as currently structured, often does not incentivize that. For some time I’ve held out hope that some losing team will start trying to intentionally beat the defensive shift with everything it has and start a new analytical revolution against it, but since it really is so hard for people not named Ichiro or DJ LeMahieu to exhibit the bat control necessary to spray the ball to all fields, I am now a card-carrying member of the Ban the Shift Club. I want baseball with high-average hitters, with speed and grace and not just station-to-station mashing.

Some of the realities imposed by 2020 made the game even less recognizable. The 60-game season turned a marathon season into a mid-distance push, a novelistic sport into a lurching novella. Empty stadiums in places other than Florida never stopped feeling unnatural, and while Atlanta’s all-dog section amused me, the cardboard cutouts mostly just seemed weird, and I was glad the Yankees stayed on-brand and snobbishly dismissed such gimmicks. The lack of travel outside divisions left fans in the dark about two-thirds of the teams, and the central divisions got exposed as posers when all seven of their playoff entrants accounted for seven of the eight of the first-round losers. At one point, it looked like the Yankees’ season might die on a couple of late August games played in Buffalo, the home-in-exile for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Baseball also got creative with some rule experiments only tangentially related to the pandemic. I didn’t much like the changes. The extra innings rules were wacky but excusable given the circumstances. Expanded rosters only exacerbated the spree of pitching changes and bullpen reliance, which only seems to slow games down and dim the luster of some of the pitching stars who should be the face of the sport. And I don’t care if it supposedly makes for better baseball: the complications that come from forcing pitchers to hit will forever entertain me more than a universal DH. Futility begets creativity, and sometimes genuine achievement. The expanded postseason was excessive for a sport whose marathon regular season should count for something, and too friendly to lower seeds. Three-batter minimums for relievers, on the other hand, are a perk that can help speed up the game, even if it may leave a few of my brethren, the LOOGYs (left-handed one-out guys), out of work.

For all the changes, the World Series still delivered the best two teams in baseball over the regular season, and it presented a collision between a team that embodies everything about the baseball analytics movement and a team that combines some of its sensibilities with a very large budget. Despite my annoyance with their style and their defeat of the Yankees, it was hard not to like the underdog Rays, especially when they pulled off that most improbable of wins in the Game Four instant classic. I was on the Rays’ bandwagon until manager Kevin Cash yanked the dominant Blake Snell after he gave up his second hit in the sixth inning of Game Six. They deserved a comeuppance for such mechanical thinking, and my schadenfreude surged with a vengeance when Nick Anderson promptly blew the Ray lead. Score one for the eye test, and the joy that comes from full immersion in sports.

The Bums who long ago left Brooklyn fully deserved their title after falling short with strong teams over the past three seasons. Corey Seager and Mookie Betts were the golden boy stars; Clayton Kershaw, perhaps the greatest pitcher of his generation, finally shook his reputation as a playoff choker. Julio Urías, the one Hispanic player whose name the FOX crew decided to pronounce with an accent, was reborn as a relief ace, a true example of how a manager should ride a hot hand. Their depth across the board made them impossible to match, and they did enough creative and different things that they don’t seem representative of the analytics era, even though many of their players fit the trends well enough. This was a dynamic team that did everything well, and there’s no reason to think they can’t go on dominating the National League for years to come. Baseball goes through all sorts of trends, from power to pitching to speed, but the best of the bunch can do a little bit of everything.

In Yankees circles, there’s a raging debate over where to cast the blame for the Bombers’ inability to reach a World Series over the past four years, despite Dodger-level talent and money: does it fall on manager Aaron Boone, a formulaic focus on the analytics in the front office, choking high-priced players like Giancarlo Stanton in past years and Chapman this year, or the sheer random happenstance of playoff baseball? For my part, despite the analytical grumbling, I still blame the starting pitching. The most predictable way to win a tight series comes when star pitchers seize the moment, whether it was the Nationals last season or the Astros’ aces before that or Madison Bumgarner earlier this decade. For all the hype of the Rays’ bullpen, it became rather less dominant upon repeated viewing, while Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler were simply their otherworldly selves, and Urías and even Tony Gonsolin filled in admirably behind.

In the end, the Dodgers showed us what a great baseball team looks like, even if they didn’t get to show that over a full 162 games. Baseball was a welcome preoccupation, and now it becomes still harder to avert one’s eyes from election-related blather. But we can start to speculate on what an offseason will look like, and find new rule changes to grumble about. Meanwhile, can we please clone Gerrit Cole?

Past Peak

13 Oct

2020 has been a year made for tents. Deprived of so many of our normal summer pursuits, Americans have taken to mesh walls en masse over the past summer, and I have been no exception. In mid-October, I head out on one final expedition of the year, barring some tempting Indian summer or a drastic change of heart in my appetite winter camping. It’s time to knock out one more stretch of the Superior Hiking Trail before I trade in my hiking boots for my cross-country skis in the next month or two.

I begin at the Caribou River wayside, which sits just west of the Cook County line and the shoreline village of Schroeder. I’d hiked the first couple miles of this trail a few falls ago and thought it would look better once the leaves were mostly gone. I’m not disappointed: the ridgeline here offers near-constant views down to the lake through the trunks of the nearly barren aspens and birches. On this sunny day, Lake Superior is as rich a royal blue as I’ve ever seen, a thick bar between a blurred out-sky and the grey of barren trees, broken only by the shimmering silver of the sun. From clearer vistas, the slopes below look spackled in gold dust, the last of the leaves still clinging to their bows. The wealth of the Shore comes in silvers and golds, the rippling glass of the lake shimmering from one to another based on the cloud cover.

The leaves along the Superior Hiking Trail are mostly past their peak, and this decline in chlorophyll leaves me ruminating about other things that are past their peak. For example, America. Or human life outside the digital sphere. Or the novel as an art form. Or myself. (I am now at the age where, when my favorite sports teams sign people my age, I question whether they’ll still have value by the end of their contracts.) Everything is in decline, along with the leaves. Isn’t that a happy thought to ponder?

The next segment of trail is new to me, and begins even more barren than before. Its highlight is serene Alfred’s Pond, where a few tamaracks are alight and glowing along its banks. The stretch rolls through tame ups and downs aside from one steep hill by Dyer’s Creek, and with little in the way of major attractions it is one of the quieter stretches of Superior Hiking Trail I’ve seen. I play leapfrog with a jovial older man on my way up and past my stop for lunch, and an orange-clad multigenerational crew out hunting grouse also rolls past. A stretch lining the Two Island River provides a leisurely river walk, and I pause to ponder the long-past-peak railroad line from the former LTV Steel taconite mine in Hoyt Lakes (dead since 2001) to the ghost town of Taconite Harbor (dead since its last remaining feature, a power plant, shuttered in 2016).

I come to the parking lot off Cook County 1, and decide that this looks familiar, albeit much smaller than it did the last time I was here. Somewhere there is a picture of my eight-year-old self next to this sign: in the summer of 1998, my dad took me on my first overnight backpacking trip from here to the Temperance River. My other memories of this trip mostly involve hornets, one of which stung me. My whitewashed childhood memories make me think I took the sting in stride, though I will have to run this theory by my dad. I climb a ridge and the forest turns to maple, affording me the chance to crunch through a several-inch layer of leaves. Along the Cross River I catch and pass two parties, feeling good about my progress: I’ve seen no other hikers going this direction who seem to be plausibly targeting the two sites near the bridge. Maybe I’ll have some relative solitude.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? When my dad and I stayed here 22 years ago, we were the only party at the two sites. Now, a tent city has sprung up, and the two sites have bled together into one sprawling metropolis. By the time the two parties I’d passed roll into camp, there are no fewer than nine tents and one hammock nestled in along the banks of the Cross River. My own tent pad is practically on top of the trail, though mercifully flat and right next to some roaring rapids to drown out any noisy neighbors. I grumble that it may be time to look further afield for my weekend hikes. Add solitude on the Superior Hiking Trail to the list of things that are well past their peak. 

Still, the site works. I spend a while reading and writing on rocks along the riverbank, safely reaching Zen. Everyone is quiet and respectful, and the dog with the largest party is mercifully quiet. I never need to poop, which is a relief, because the latrine perches on a ridge directly above the largest cluster of tents, the undergrowth that provides privacy long since fallen to the forest floor. The neighbors I do meet, a Duluth couple around my parents’ age named Paul and Eileen, are lovely company as we cook our dinners at one of the fire rings. I head back to the riverbank for some headlamp writing as the stars come out, and am surprised to see I’m the last light on in camp.

It is a chill night along the Cross River, but my new sleeping bag liner is up to the task, and I sleep well enough given the circumstances. My campmates are early risers, and many get on the trail before I do; I shoot past three parties in the first two miles, for a second time scaring one of the women I’d passed the day before by politely announcing my presence from about 20 feet off. The ridge between the Cross and Temperance Rivers features more of those autumn windows down to the lake. That seems to be the mood of this hike: exposed, but with little that needs to hide anyway.

I don’t linger much along the banks of the Temperance River; I’d already hiked the east bank, which seems to afford the better views, earlier this year. Carlton Peak looms up more prominently with few leaves on the trees; I can see its dome looming through the barren boughs, my final climb on this hike. I wonder vaguely if there’s a steeper vertical than this nearly 900-foot climb from the Temperance anywhere in the Midwest. When I get to the base of the bulk of the climb, a 300-foot shot up to the peak’s long western arm, I resolve not to stop on the way up: who knows if this climb has a speed record, but whatever it is, I want to push it. The exhilaration of summiting is one of the best raw emotions I’ve felt in a while.

An overlook on the western end proves underwhelming, so I pick my way toward the looming anorthosite dome and scramble up toward the final 200 feet to the top of Carlton Peak. I eat lunch at its highest point, which is surprisingly free of people, and make my last additions to my notebook over at the Ted Tofte overlook next to a plaque in memory of a rock climber who perished on Carlton Peak some 30 years ago. I was plenty warm in a long-sleeved running shirt while I hiked, but as I sit atop an exposed dome, the chill sets in quickly. I move past yet another peak and trudge on down the final mile of my hike to the parking lot on the Sawbill Trail.

Peaks never last, and it’s dangerous to linger on them for too long. Renewal can yet come. Winter has its merits, and spring will come again. The United States will have a chance to write plenty of different futures, and our past definition of greatness may not have been the best one. My crowded campsite shows there are plenty of people who still yearn to get off the grid. The New Yorker short story I read before bed in my tent is the most engrossing one I’ve read in years; the written word isn’t dead yet. The Yankees may be out of the playoffs, but their immediate future still looks pretty bright. We will have a hockey season this winter, limited as it may be. My legs are in as good of shape as they’ve ever been.

To see the mountaintop is not enough; to stay on the mountaintop remains an impossibility. But the view from on high is commanding, and the glimmers we catch can carry us all the way through to the end. The question remains: what do we do when we find ourselves past a peak, and how do we respond when old strengths may not be what they once were? With resolve, perhaps, or with an eye to lessons that might still hold true. Perhaps even with a hint of panache. These fallen leaves may just be the nutrients the soil needs for a rebirth at the other end of a cycle.

The Range of Control

6 Oct

Four years ago, not long after I moved back to Duluth and began a job that takes me to Minnesota’s Iron Range with some regularity, I drove down Chestnut Street in downtown Virginia. I nearly ran a red light as I gawked at boarded-up shops and strung-out addicts and imposing old architecture framed against a steely winter sky. The Donald Trump phrase “American carnage” was the first thing to lodge in my mind. I was a witness to the fracturing of small-town America, and I realized just how daunting my new job might be.

I work with Rangers on a daily basis and am the day-to-day economic development staff for a four-community economic alliance, but the coronavirus pandemic has deprived me of any effort to embed myself in the places I serve. Between March and September, I went to the Range exactly once, and that just a brief stop at a favorite coffee shop on a camping expedition further north. And so, eager to view it with new eyes, I guide my Twin Cities friends D and M on a day trip across the Iron Range on a Saturday in early October. M has never been, while D has only been for hockey purposes, so they head in with only loose preconceived notions. Just what do we make of a region that once was the engine of American industry, but has suffered steady population loss since the American steel industry convulsed through its greatest crisis in the 1980s?

We start toward the western end of the Range in Hibbing, the region’s largest city at 16,000 people, and long the capital of the American iron ore mining economy. The drive north from Duluth shows a Range in deep autumn, the trees near peak color and a fresh coolness in the air. For reasons lost on us, the road to the overlook over the Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine pit is blocked off, so we’re denied a vista of the hole in the ground that won two World Wars. We settle for a spin around old North Hibbing, a few vacant streets left from the days before the entire town picked itself up and moved south to make way for the mine. That power of industry to move cities is no relic of the past: just ask nearby Virginia, where the new Tom Rukavina Bridge towers over the Rouchleau Pit after a federal highway was rerouted off of mining land.

Hibbing impresses my travel companions more than anywhere else on this road trip, and the Iron Range’s century-old wealth is evident here. The homes in the center of town have a welcoming, well-tended feel, and the high school and Hibbing Memorial Arena are stunning monuments to past glory. Howard Street, the main drag through the old downtown, has enough refreshed storefronts to make it feel like a cozy slice of Americana. D has brought a Polaroid camera and snaps shots down the street, catching the old Androy Hotel with its columns and arches. M appreciates the crossed pick axe and fork on the logo of the newer Boomtown Brewery, a restaurant whose presence reminds me of a day maybe a decade ago when my mom and I spent a day spinning about the Range and failed to find an adequate lunch spot in Hibbing.

The progress feels uneven, though: whether due to the coronavirus or the proclivities of Rangers who would rather spend a sunny Saturday outside, the Range’s downtowns are quieter than I’ve ever seen them. We feel like we’ve stepped back in time to a preserved Main Street from yesteryear, a sense that D’s washed-out Polaroids under moody skies only enhance. When we make it over to Virginia, there are no addicts on Chestnut Street today; just more quiet, dusty grandeur. They feel like movie sets, a blast from the past; the carnage is gone, but the grit remains.

The Range towns are not uniform. M finds charm in Chisholm’s Main Street as it slopes down toward the rows of flags along a causeway across Longyear Lake. Eveleth’s downtown likewise still has that quaint feel, its hockey monuments adding a distinctive local flavor that D and I both eat up. Gilbert has the largest proportion of boarded-up storefronts, and on the far east end, Hoyt Lakes faces the challenges of any community whose major industry has packed up and left—LTV Steel closed in 2001—and whose housing stock is uniformly dated to a single era. A friend from neighboring Aurora tells a tale of how his high school graduating class declined by a third after LTV disappeared, and the numbers at Mesabi East have only inched down since.

The big news in the central Range these days is the impending merge of the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts. These two age-old rivals, just a few miles apart, are shutting down their big, old school buildings and building a new one off the highway between the two. The Rock Ridge Wolverines, leaving aside the misfortune of the identity-devoid lowest-common-denominator name and logo that seems to come with any new school these days, are in many ways a no-brainer. The two districts are next door to each other, have been bleeding students for years, and received a generous funding package to unite and provide their students more resources. Eveleth, Virginia, and Gilbert combined have less land area and population than Hibbing. The new school will pioneer an innovative academy model designed to prepare all students for the reality of the contemporary economy instead of cramming everyone on to a college prep track that may or may not make sense.

Still, it’s hard for anyone with a sense of history not to lament the merger, and D decries the changes afoot at the Miners Memorial Arena in Virginia, which will transform one of the state’s most unique, historic hockey venues into a more modern facility. Perhaps not coincidentally, two towns that have already lost their schools (Gilbert and Hoyt Lakes) are the ones M identifies as the biggest downers on the trip, though Biwabik, which like Hoyt Lakes has folded into the Mesabi East School District based in Aurora, still charms with its Bavarian Main Street theme. As economic development has lurched toward embracing the revitalization of old things and a skepticism of big box new development on the outskirts of town, the realities of enrollment numbers and repair costs for schools militate in the opposite direction.

I am often asked what it will take to revive or diversify the Range’s economy. If the answer were easy, we would have figured it out thirty years ago. The new economic development consensus emphasizes existing local assets, place-based development, and growing local business instead of chasing big new investments from outside firms. Broadband connectivity has become a bipartisan rallying cry, and the tales of kids parked in school and library parking lots after hours so they can do their homework exposes the depth of our digital divides. In principle support all of these things, though the Range has its own unique challenges on many of them, given its distance from major markets and rocky and swampy soil. We plug away and make incremental progress, even as national politics seems to have decided that incrementalism is for the weak.

On this trip, there are signs of that place-based formula going to work. The downtowns look better than they did four years ago. Recreational assets such as Giants Ridge and some new biking networks are certainly bringing in some outside cash and making the place somewhat more attractive to outsiders than it has been. Since the pandemic began, there is strong anecdotal evidence of urban-dwellers poking around the Range for affordable properties where they can live remote lives in wide open spaces, especially on the lake properties that dot the region. (Rarely, however, are those properties inside the limits of the Range’s towns.) The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, the state agency that collects a mining production tax and reinvests it in the communities, is now beating the drum of broadband funding and trail networks and downtown revitalization to go along with its longstanding business recruitment war chest.

Mining is still king, though, and taconite mining is not coal mining: while it will have its ups and downs, it’s not going anywhere. The big news this week is the purchase of ArcelorMittal USA by Cleveland-Cliffs, leaving Cliffs as the largest mining company on the Range and one of just two now operating (along with venerable old U.S. Steel). It’s a stunning turn of events; a few years back, ArcelorMittal USA (a subsidiary of the world’s largest steel producer) looked prime to rule Range mining, while Cliffs teetered on the verge of collapse. A series of aggressive moves by Cliffs have resurrected this now vertically integrated American company, and they’ve been on the cutting edge of new pellet technology. At the same time, domination by a single firm is never a reassuring thing, and the Range’s mining future is now in the hands of Cliffs’ bombastic Brazilian executive, Lourenco Goncalves. We’ve come a long way since the days of Congdons and Carnegies.

Any taconite mining intrigue, however, has taken a back seat to other proposed projects on the Range. The proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes received all of the permits it needed to mine before the inevitable rush of litigation, while Twin Metals near Ely is a bit further behind in the permitting process. Copper-nickel mining draws more concern over its potential environmental effects than the old taconite mines, and the resulting split has torn apart pro-mining Democrats (mostly the old guard on the Range) and environmentalist Democrats (mostly in the Twin Cities or Duluth) and almost singlehandedly taken down one of the longest-lasting political fiefdoms of a single party. Political implications aside, the copper-nickel debate is a fight for the Range’s soul, and a trip through Hoyt Lakes, the “mining town without a mine” on the far east end of the Range, makes it clear why so many Rangers want to revive the old engine.

After Hoyt Lakes, we head east on the Superior National Forest Scenic Drive, which takes us 60 civilization-free miles clear over to Silver Bay along the shores of Lake Superior. The leaves are brilliant, and from the overlook at Skibo, a golden carpet stretches back toward mining plants on the horizon. In Silver Bay, the parking lot for the Bear and Bean Lakes trail overflows so much that we see people parked half a mile from the trailhead along the road into town. We catch the glow of sunset by the Silver Bay marina and work our way down the shore at dusk, the leaf-peeping traffic stacking up miles outside of Two Harbors. After some dark days in spring, northern Minnesota’s tourism economy has roared back with a vengeance.

The past four years have been hard ones for localists. The escalating rhetoric of national politics has leeched down into every level, with Donald Trump and the leftist resistance as twin poles of totalized worldviews. It’s not wrong: there really are consequences to that national-level debate. But as we drive about, my fellow travelers and I—a heterodox group in our politics—are surprised at the relative lack of Trump signs in a region that became a national poster child for the white working-class flip to the red column in 2016. We’ll learn in a month or so if the romance has faded or if the transformation is now so complete that it doesn’t merit loud signs anymore. But it’s hard not to suspect that something else is afoot here.

As politicians bluster about tariffs and permitting battles carry on in distant courts, the Range sits at cold remove from so many of the trends roiling America in 2020. Its successes over the past four years, such as they are, have come from bipartisan or nonpartisan local efforts to clean up streetscapes and plow in fiber. The coronavirus pandemic has only heightened feelings of powerlessness over forces beyond immediate control, and the inability of too many Americans to make peace that lack of control has been revealing. But even amid crises near and far, humans still have agency over parts of their fates, and those who do seize the opportunities before them are the ones who write history. And because some people have, I have hope for the future of Minnesota’s Iron Range.

Congdon Living

29 Sep

An adjustment to homeownership after a decade of renting is an adjustment that runs the risk of leaving the new member of the housed gentry both drunk on and intimidated by the power one suddenly wields. Yes, I really can pound as many holes as I want in the walls. Yes, I really can plant whatever I want in the yard (providing that the conditions are right). That’s right, homeowners’ mortgage interest deduction, you regressive taxation scheme, you are now mine! And yes, I am most definitely on the hook when the hot water heater inevitably gives out in mid-January.

I have been a homeowner for two months now. In that time, I have managed not to break anything. I have successfully wielded a drill and invested in a chainsaw. I have spent inordinate amounts of time pondering paint palettes and improving my skills with a brush. I have faced my intimidating thermostat with a firm resolve and promptly dropped it to temperatures that will protect my wallet until I can replace the house’s aging windows. After much trepidation, I successfully started my lawnmower. I schedule my life around emptying the dehumidifier. I may even get a dining room table one of these months if the Covid era supply chains ever cooperate. Yes, I have most definitely entered middle age.

I have, with frequent self-doubt, cultivated my skills as an interior decorator. I turned the master bedroom into a beachscape and the room I’ve commandeered as an office into a worldly display of heavy non-fiction and literary art and artifacts from my time in Mexico. (You don’t want to know how long I spent curating my Zoom background. Not visible in the camera: a complete shelf of sports-related books and a rack of stray snapbacks favored by early 20s Karl.) The second floor sitting room currently lacks a real seat, but it does take visitors on travel around the globe through maps; the adjoining guest bedroom, meanwhile, maps out journeys closer to home. In the basement, a sort of proto-mancave is emerging, with stray baseball memorabilia on the walls and a hockey stick and some tennis balls I can use to amuse myself if I grow bored. The main room’s living space, meanwhile, is going in on the Congdon aesthetic: a mix of grand art over fireplaces and a showpiece bookcase alongside the bar and, of course, some hockey art. It takes all kinds.

Like most Duluth houses, my house is not new. The monster maple looming over the deck includes a time capsule from previous owners in a knot and includes a dog toy and a beer can and a frisbee and who knows what else beneath the leaves; I wonder vaguely what my own contribution will be. As long as the tree is still standing when I move on, that is: my greatest adventure to date involved the fall of a very large limb from said tree into the backyard. (Hence the chainsaw.) The home inspection revealed some necessary foundation work, which is now complete but has made a hash of my front yard. (Meh, it’s less grass to mow for now.) Evidence of the predecessors’ teenage boy lurks about, most amusingly in the pot-related art left behind in the attic. I’ve developed strong, and perhaps undeserved opinions on my predecessors and their seeming sloppiness. At least take down the curtain rod and the mounted TV when you paint. It’s not that hard.

My house is a 1950s mutt, a postwar part of a row that got lost on its way into some suburban subdivision and ended up nestling itself between the historic beauties of Congdon further down the hill and an array of later ramblers and McMansions further up in Hidden Valley. The interior is, thankfully, not very 1950s, with an open floorplan and a fresh kitchen and a spiral staircase and other fun perks that my predecessors have added in their more insipired moments. One neighbor, who has been in the neighborhood for a year or twenty, gave me the whole sordid history of my house’s recent owners and temporary life as a rental in the early 00s before it arrived in its current state. And so I take my place in a lineage straight out of the Book of Numbers, an heir not to a throne but to some crumbling drywall and a gaudy exhaust fan above the built-in bar and a garage built to withstand nuclear fallout and a marvelous autumn view out toward the stone beauty of a house across the street.

A pandemic is an awkward time to get to know one’s new neighbors, but I’ve managed a few chats over fences in the early going. I enjoy hosting a rotating cast on my new deck for housewarmings that accommodate others’ comfort with the conditions. The biggest adjustment to Congdon life after years in Endion and on Hennepin Avenue and right off a campus in DC is how magically quiet it is. When a couple of teenagers jawing loudly qualify as an evening disruption, the neighborhood is doing something right.

A lot went in to making Congdon the way it is, and my mind has spent some time dwelling on this move, as any introspective urban planner with Catholic guilt roots must. Buying real estate in one of Duluth’s most exclusive pockets (such as it is) just as the local market explodes feels uncomfortably like an insurance policy, and a retreat to the safe side of the drawbridge should the barbarians arrive. I’m the millennial who, despite a concerted effort to throw it all away in my early 20s, has gamed the system and come out, while not wealthy, at least on a clear road to comfort. So much more any youthful radicalism. But who are we kidding? The barbarians have been among us all along, and I can’t disown my own history. Accept that fate and use it for good, as the best of this neighborhood so often have.

I’m putting down roots, I think none too subtly as I push some dirt around a new baby tamarack in my front yard. I don’t think this is a forever house, but gives me the room I need to grow in this next phase, and will no doubt keep me occupied through pandemics and beyond. It blends so many things that are now a part of me: Duluth roots, East Coast class, easy trails into the woods, a short distance from northern Minnesota reality in all its complicated and tumultuous history, deference to grand old tradition and a nagging desire to stay forever fresh and young. Yes, it is home now.

The Arsenal of Democracy

19 Sep

The Joe Biden campaign decamped on Duluth, Minnesota yesterday. Through an amusing series of rumor mill connections with its origins in the State Patrol, a few friends and I found ourselves on the patio of a café named Amazing Grace for the former vice president’s “spontaneous” appearance in the center of the city’s bustling Canal Park tourist district. I had my share of chances to brush up against political figures of all stripes in my DC days, so to see this scene from my dreamy college years dropped into my beloved backwater hometown was at once both familiar and surreal. It matched the mood of Biden’s presidential campaign, both a predictable capstone decades in the making and warped by the twisted house of horrors that is 2020. Reality slows down for no one.

Any sympathetic skeptics looking to find some inspiration in Biden’s slow-but-steady campaign for the presidency can now find it from an unlikely source: George Packer, the elegist of the broken American Dream. In “Make America Again,” published in the October edition of the Atlantic, he finds an unexpected hero who could just become the most consequential president since Reagan. Biden’s campaign, Packer says, “is not the stirring language of a visionary leader, or the doctrinaire rhetoric of an ideologue. It’s the prosaic talk of a career politician shrewd enough to realize that he might have greatness thrust upon him.”

In 2016, my sense was that Biden, not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, was the most viable Democratic standard-bearer that year, the one person who could perhaps hold on to a fading part of the Democratic coalition that would prove pivotal in that year’s race. Clinton seemed too much a creature of the establishment, too devoid of charisma, to retain that demographic; I also didn’t quite buy the notion peddled at the time that an aging socialist would somehow speak to them, a position that the 2020 primary results seemed to vindicate. Biden chose not to run for both personal and political reasons, and we all saw what happened.

That confidence in Uncle Joe did not, in my mind, extend to the early primary season in the 2020 cycle. At 77, he seemed like a figure past his time, and he certainly looked it in the primary debates. The early Biden campaign seemed like a giant collective shrug, an effort that coasted on name recognition, vague Obama era good vibes, and the more acute weaknesses of some of his rivals. Just as his early pitch for the presidency was based on sketchy year-out polls that labeled him the most viable not-Trump, his ultimate triumph in the primary was by virtue of being the most viable not-Bernie. Unlike the Republicans in 2016, the Democrats showed off their institutional discipline and rallied behind their old vice president, a lowest common denominator that promised stability and maybe a few more of those white working-class votes in those crucial swing states. A van emblazoned with “Settle for Biden!” made its way up and down the streets of Canal Park on Friday afternoon.

The world has changed since Biden sewed up the nomination in early March, but in many ways, he is still an awkward fit for the moment. He is an old white man in an era when the Democratic Party spends most of its time celebrating racial and ethnic and gender diversity, a man who has spent the past 50 years in the swamp that both Trump and the rising left both claim to disdain. His age complicates campaigning during a pandemic. His handsiness and glad-handing are at best relics of a different era. There’s a legitimate concern that he will look at the Senate as the collegial institution it was in his early years, and not the bitterly partisan roadblock it has become since he left it, which could doom any legislative agenda. His well-cultivated image as a Scranton streetfighter squares awkwardly with the sprawling estate whose basement has been the base of operations for his campaign.

Biden, however, has two great strengths as a politician. First, he is adaptable, always responding to the tides; whether that makes him an opportunist or a careful listener who has his finger on the pulse of a nation is in the eye of the beholder, but because he isn’t beholden to any real platform, he can go wherever conditions lead him. Second, he knows what loss is, and is at his best when he speaks in raw, moving terms about it. In a time of death and plague, that knowledge of what it takes to overcome pain gives him an added gravitas. Watching his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, I remembered why I thought he could be the unifying force in 2016, and sure enough, pretty much everyone I know on the left is along for the ride, however begrudgingly. The internal warfare that plagued the 2016 campaign has been consigned to the sidelines, and the policy disputes that defined the primary race seem like quaint arguments of a different era. This is not a policy election. It is, as Biden has said from the start, the struggle for the soul of a nation.

As Packer notes, rarely have past great figures been perfect fits for their times. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were scions of old East Coast wealth who did more to break up concentrated wealth and build an inclusive economy than anyone in American history. Lyndon Johnson was a political creature with considerable, obvious flaws, but he also rode a moment of upheaval for long enough to ram through the most consequential legislative agenda of the postwar era. Just as Johnson followed the inspiring but ultimately rather tumultuous and technocratic Kennedy years, Biden could be the one who makes the promise of the Obama era real. Sometimes the people who know a system best are most able to change its trajectory.

I have frequently expressed exhaustion with Democrats’ efforts to resurrect the New Deal every time they try to roll out a semi-ambitious platform. Franklin Roosevelt’s effort, as Packer deftly notes, succeeded not because of the strength of its ideas, but because he found himself in a position of considerable power and had a mandate to test out an array of tools in a moment of crisis, some of which worked and stuck. Milton Friedman, of all people, understood this best: crises are the only times when real change happens, and “when that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

After a momentary feint in the New Deal direction, the Biden campaign seems to have recognized this. Biden’s policies listed on his website aren’t what matter; what matter are the myriad ideas with popular support that have germinated in response to ongoing American crises over the past decade or two, and the possibility that we just might have a Democratic President, a Democratic House, and a very narrowly Democratic Senate that is willing to kill the filibuster and go all in. This, at least, is Packer’s hope. It is a rare optimistic take from him, the “last best chance” of an effort to restore something resembling a participatory democracy.

My own sense is that reality lies somewhere between the declinist picture Packer has painted so strikingly in his writing over the past 15 years and the tired but sustainable decadence diagnosed by the likes of Ross Douthat. When I read Douthat’s book I agreed with his diagnosis of Trump era white nationalism as right-wing cosplay, and I’m intrigued by an argument advanced by Bruno Maçães in an upcoming book, History Has Begun (excerpted in New York magazine here) that the Trump era is just a drift of politics into virtual reality; not that it doesn’t have real-world consequences, but Trump is an entertainer using politics to peddle his product, delighting his fans by owning the libs instead of enacting any serious policy. (And, lest it sound like we’re blaming one side of the spectrum exclusively for this drift, a left that settles solely for social media activism and reading Robin DiAngelo probably isn’t much different.) “America is not poised to become a place like Russia or Iran, but rather is mirroring a television show about a place becoming like Russia or Iran,” Maçães concludes. We are all caught up in a performative charade.

This seems true up to a point, and we are right to ask questions about the implications of our increasingly virtual future. But the more people live out a fantasy world, the more the lines will blur, and the greater the risk that people will actually believe their roles in this fantasy are reality. People will accept their typecast roles in this left-versus-right squabble, and the slow burn in the streets of American cities of this summer will turn into a low-grade, steady war in which more and more people die. There is no fantasy in death.

Joe Biden, of course, knows death. He also recognizes that the country needs to mobilize, with World War Two as a better analogue for the effort necessary than the New Deal. Maçães rightly diagnoses the long-running weakness of Western liberalism: its lack of muscle, its contentedness with thinking that giving people health care and a base level of material wealth will fill the hole in the American soul. It’s a start, of course; far better than many alternatives. But it will never fulfill the more aspirational corners human psyche. The answer is not a march in the streets (though they can help) but a government led by the Scranton streetfighter that Biden purports to be, a potential lurch back to reality from a figure who has no desire to inhabit Trump’s world of performance as politics.

As he left Amazing Grace on Friday afternoon, Biden made his way over to the two hecklers in MAGA hats on the edge of the crowd. Told to stay put by the Secret Service, my friends and I couldn’t hear what he said. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, however, captured the moment: “Biden approached the man from the alternate reality, elbow bumped him, chuckled and assured him that if he does win, Biden would work for him, too.” It shouldn’t be refreshing to hear a presidential candidate aspire to be on the side of people who disagree with him, but this is where we are.

I don’t know if Joe Biden will be the transformational figure George Packer imagines he can be. Even if he wins in November, even if the United States pulls through this election without disputed results and violence in the streets, he’ll face a forbidding and sclerotic political environment. He could go down as a strange detour, a last gasp of a fading old order—just like Trump, from a different part of the political spectrum. But if—if—there is a way out of this troubling lurch in American democracy, it will most likely start in a basement in Delaware, and in the minds of enough Americans who see a pause in the performance as a worthy endeavor.

Democratic Coalition Politics

10 Sep

While this blog normally tries to avoid national politics, it is something I spent a fair amount of time thinking about, and as we draw closer to November, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room. I confess I check 538 polling averages daily now. But, rather than wallow in poll numbers, I figured I might as well try to offer somewhat original commentary now and then. Here is my first take in that vein.

This past weekend, I stumbled upon an article in Jacobin on the successes and failures of Bernie Sanders’ run for the presidency that took me back to my undergraduate days of writing theses about coalition politics. True to its name, Jacobin rather gleefully lobs bombs at people who do not share its ideology, as author Matt Karp calls wealthier newcomers to the Democratic Party “Halliburton Democrats,” among other such indecorous ordnance. His thesis, in brief, is that these so-called Halliburton Democrats joined the party in droves from 2016 to 2020 as they fled the Republican Party, and therefore played a decisive role in Sanders’ defeat in this spring’s primary. Joe Biden won, Karp claims, because he enjoyed the support of well-off people, many of them in areas that were right-leaning until very recently.

The Democratic Divide, Applied

I could raise any number of quibbles with the analysis, but I was curious to see how well it applied to my hometown of Duluth, especially since Karp twice mentions my city as an exemplar of Bernie Sanders’ wave of the future. Sanders did indeed win Duluth in the 2020 Minnesota primary election, though it was hardly an overwhelming margin; he edged out Biden by 289 votes, or 1.7 percent. So, here is a map that shows who won each precinct in the city (plus some surrounding areas). I included only the four major candidates who were still in the race at this point in the analysis, throwing out votes for drop-outs like Amy Klobuchar and hangers-on like Tulsi Gabbard.

The answer, it seems, is pretty obvious. Income is a straightforward, clear predictor of who won each precinct. Biden largely cruised up in the relatively well-off areas on the east side and over the hill, while Sanders dominated the Hillsides, Downtown, and Lincoln Park. Few of those areas were closely contested, and those precincts that were straddle neighborhood lines; see, for example, precincts 9 and 13, which encompass parts of both high-income Congdon and low-income Endion. The more working-class west side, which mostly falls between the central and eastern and hilltop parts of the city on the income scale, was, on the other hand, pretty closely contested. The tables below show the results by different areas of the city, and I did it twice to show how flipping two pro-Sanders precincts on the border between the east and the center of the city affected things.

The University of Minnesota-Duluth campus is also an obvious outlier. Sanders won there by over 400 votes; throw out that precinct, and it’s more than enough to swing the overall result in the city. Presumably the somewhat close vote totals in Kenwood and Hunters Park, which are otherwise relatively affluent Biden territories, are also attributable to college student voters. Duluth’s status as a college town, at the end of the day, is probably the main reason why it got a positive mention in a leftist magazine. Duluth’s relative lack of Black voters may also tip it more toward the Sanders column than might otherwise be obvious, though this could be offset by Sanders’ strong margins among Hispanics, who are also few and far between in the Zenith City.

Duluth Gets Bluer

While I’m amused by the notion of Lakeside bungalow-dwellers as “Halliburton Democrats,” it does seem Karp is on to something. (More so than Rolling Stone was, anyway.) Duluth has been a Democratic stronghold since the demise of the Hoover administration, but one doesn’t have to go too far back in history to find a much more heterodox local political scene. As several people have noted to me, it wasn’t that long ago that east side council districts would elect relative conservatives like Todd Fedora to the city council. Now, that prospect seems remote. Perhaps equally as significant a shift is the leftward drift in places like Duluth Heights and Piedmont. While these quasi-suburban areas are still the most conservative parts of Duluth, a city council district that was electing straight-up conservatives like Garry Krause a decade ago now has a labor-endorsed Native American woman, Renee Van Nett, as its council representative. The data is a bit scattershot—sadly, Minnesota used a caucus system until this most recent election cycle, making apples-to-apples primary comparisons impossible—but it seems consistent.

Relatively well-off urbanites are more and more firmly in the column in the Democratic Party, and while Bernie Sanders and his ilk may not be their first choice, they will generally follow the party lead. There’s little reason to suspect there will be much of any defection from a dyed-in-the-wool progressive like Jen McEwen when she goes up against Republican Donna Bergstrom in the Senate District 7 race this fall. Her primary election destruction of incumbent Erik Simonson, a man in the mold of many previous Duluth DFL elected officials, makes that abundantly clear.

That said, the national picture is obviously not all roses for the Democrats, and wins among higher-income people have been somewhat offset elsewhere. The sorts of people the Democratic Party has lost—rural white people—are almost by definition a small demographic in Duluth, which is why Duluth’s politics now seem more firmly left of center than they did twenty or thirty years ago, when Gary Doty (recently visible on a stage with Mike Pence) was winning mayoral elections. I included Duluth’s relatively well-off exurban surroundings in the map as well to show that this trend extends beyond the core city, too. Lands further afield, such as the Iron Range, are a rather different story.

A National Trend

In some ways this is hardly a radical change. It’s been true for decades now that central cities are the furthest left, while rural areas (with some, increasingly rare) exceptions were the furthest right. The suburbs used to be the middle ground, but the line of contestation has now pushed further out into the metropolitan periphery; these Democratic suburban gains have been offset somewhat by rural losses. This shift among well-off urbanites reflects their comfort with the party that now favors merit-driven expertise and wonky policy solutions, plus the surge of a college-educated class seeking to spread its more cosmopolitan cultural values.

Nor has their arrival dramatically changed the ideological composition of the party. Despite what Karp says, Biden is no less progressive than every other recent Democratic nominee, and in some ways is more so. This comes as little comfort to the leftward wing of the party, which of course wants more immediate change and someone who isn’t tied into the party’s establishment over the past 50 years, but it wouldn’t be right to suggest Biden primary voters have somehow stolen the party away from its roots. The loss of rural, somewhat more populist centrists has been offset by suburban, more technocratic centrists. Or, perhaps more than offset: given the Democratic Party’s performance nationally in the 70s and 80s and the simple reality of demographic trends, this seems like a trade-off with more pluses than minuses if one’s only goal is to win more elections.

I’m doing my best not to make any normative assumptions here and just describe things as they are. It’s not nearly as clean as this narrative would suggest, as 2016 showed; reactions can be swift and powerful, and it’s not hard to call out hubris or naivete in the so-called coalition of the ascendant. Thinking only in terms of voting blocs can be narrow-minded, and there are real consequences to leaving behind any sort of rhetoric appealing to a group that had previously been part of the coalition. (In Minnesota, just ask the Iron Range.) For now, we’ll settle for the conclusion that there are indeed at least two pretty distinct types of Democrat, one which does well in higher-income areas and one that does well in lower-income areas. The interplay between these camps will continue to define the Democratic Party even as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders fade away.

The Realities of Coalition Politics

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has observed that, in a European country, she and Joe Biden would be in different parties. She’s probably right, and while they too have their drawbacks, I would generally endorse proportional and parliamentary systems as more effective than the lumbering hulk the U.S. uses. But that’s not the system we have. We have a two-party, winner-take-all system that features some additional, bizarre, anti-democratic bugs like the Electoral College that privilege the votes of people in a handful of vital demographics in swing states. This system creates odd zombie coalitions in our two zombie parties. For a long time, segregationist southerners aligned with working-class northerners and a few intellectual backers to create a Democratic majority; later, the religious right fused with chamber of commerce-minded fiscal conservatives to create an era of Republican dominance. So long as it maintains its current institutional form, American politics will create some very strange bedfellows. Hence we have the coalition of comfortable suburbanites with an expansive version of their American Dream and a generally diverse and younger bloc that considers American capitalism fundamentally alienating, and it doesn’t even seem that unnatural, as they are united in negative partisanship against Donald Trump.

And so, though faced with serious institutional roadblocks such as the Electoral College and over-concentration in urban congressional districts, the Democrats seem to have a passably stable majority. No matter what happens in the Electoral College, Biden will almost certainly be the seventh Democratic candidate in the past eight presidential elections to win the popular vote, and the generic congressional ballot seems similarly aligned. The new Democratic fusion won’t be a permanent or tension-free alignment, but these groups have enough in common right now that they vote together regularly. Their opposition has, at least temporarily, become a vehicle for a single person’s whims, the traditional fiscal conservatism thrown out the door and the morals of the religious right mortgaged in a bargain for a few judges.

The power of a single personality can certainly win an election or two and define a brief era in politics. But winning with any consistency in a democracy requires large, often unwieldy coalitions. Even if the U.S. had a parliamentary system and Ocasio-Cortez and Biden were in different parties, they would still probably end up in a coalition government together, unless Biden’s party were to instead form a coalition government with a center-right party, which I doubt AOC and friends would find an optimal outcome. Alternatively, we have seen a few European attempts at far right and far left coalition governments that leave out the supposedly discredited and decadent center, but that’s nearly impossible to imagine in the United States given the racial dynamics at play.

Karp is confident that, given Sanders’ strong support among younger voters, it’s only a matter of time before his camp takes over the Democratic Party. I don’t doubt that this group has reason to feel optimistic about its future in the party, and another four years of Donald Trump could well be the accelerant that prompts a revolution sooner rather than later. (An old JFK line, written of Third World nations, comes to mind in an increasingly stratified society: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”) But coalitions can be fickle things, and groups can realign in strange ways: just ask any current Republican who, eight years ago, thought his or her party was a bastion of fiscal conservatism or free trade or an interventionist foreign policy. The U.S. election system is also designed to revert to a mean, with no permanent majority lasting forever. But for the time being, Biden Democrats and Sanders Democrats are wedded to one another, and have to find ways to coexist if they would like to win anything.

Exit John Thompson, Jr.

2 Sep

In sports, we often use words like ‘iconic’ or ‘monumental’ to describe people whose job it is to direct the athletic feats of others. We claim they have influences over society beyond their courts or fields or rinks, which can be a reach. But there are rare figures who earn every one of those accolades, and who use their tenures to do a lot more than pile up a few victories. Former Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson, Jr., who passed away this past week, was one of them.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Thompson was an exceptional coach who built a prestigious, small Jesuit school into one of the nation’s greatest basketball powers. He made three Final Fours and won one, in 1984, before winding up in the Hall of Fame. He made the Hoyas into Big Man U, coaching superstars like Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo, plus a little Allen Iverson for good measure. His teams won, and they won with style.

Thompson was a trailblazer, the first African-American coach to win a national championship, though don’t tell him that: he scoffed at the notion that he deserved any special recognition for achieving something that wouldn’t have been revolutionary in a just society. He was unapologetically Black and recruited so many Black players that the casual fan could be forgiven for mistaking stodgy old Georgetown for a Historically Black College or University. (Thompson likened his recruiting efforts to that of the hockey team at his alma mater, Providence University, which exclusively recruited Canadians: why not go back to the same well if you knew that was where the talent and hunger was?) He was decades ahead of polite society on questions of racial justice and bore his share of abuse for it, once pulling his team off the court at Villanova when they were subjected to vicious chants. But whether by inertia or design, he embraced it when his program become a symbol of an aspiration, an exemplar of Black greatness on its own terms. Georgetown Starter jackets became such icons of 1980s Black Culture that the museum of African American history features one in a display case.

Thompson’s toughness was legendary. Most famously, when DC drug kingpin Rayful Edmond tried to get close to some of his players, he ordered the godfather of the DC crack epidemic into his office for a meeting. Edmond was responsible for dozens of murders and countless broken lives; witnesses at his 1989 trial were hurt, the jurors were kept secret and hidden behind bulletproof glass, and he was flown from prison to the courthouse in a helicopter rather than risk a jailbreak from a vehicle. The one man he couldn’t break, though, was John Thompson. No one knows exactly what he said in that conversation, but Edmond never came close to a Hoya player again.

That legendary tale is just one: Big John also brought sky-high demands for his players’ conduct, demanding excellence on and off the court. “Don’t let eight pounds of air be the sum total of your existence,” he told his players, and graduated 97% of them from one of the nation’s more rigorous institutions otherwise populated by a bunch of East Coast Catholic bluebloods. At the same time, he pushed to do away with test score standards that could limit his talent pool, which drew its share of critics; Thompson countered that he was giving talented young Black men opportunities they would otherwise never have. Iverson, who certainly was a beneficiary of the changed policy, has repeatedly, and tearfully, insisted that Big John saved his life.

By the time I set foot on the Georgetown campus, Big John was a larger-than-life figure looming over the program. His son John Thompson III, fresh off a Final Four appearance early in his tenure, was a beloved figure, and there was no doubt his dad still had considerable sway. Those warm, fuzzy feelings faded some as JTIII’s restoration soured in the early 2010s, and the installation of Thompson’s greatest protégé, Ewing, whose tenure (which I fully thought was worth the chance at the start) gets an incomplete grade at best to date. Outside of the honeymoon of the early JTIII years, the Hoyas have never come close to returning to the elder Thompson’s heights in the 20 years since his retirement. In some ways the game has moved on; no longer do teams win on the strength of unmovable big men and a plodding pace, and in an era of one-and-dones, the benefits of a Georgetown degree may be less apparent to a budding basketball star than living like a king in Lexington or Chapel Hill.

Still, I refuse to believe Georgetown’s basketball glory days are only a thing of the past. The style may change, but the swagger of the Thompson era still looms from time to time, and the formula is still there. The brashness that led a young coach, fresh off an upset of 2nd-ranked Syracuse in their final game at a venerable old arena where they’d won 57 straight games, to grab the microphone and declare “Manley Field House is officially closed” is just as powerful today. The Thompson era is officially closed now, too, but that long shadow will continue to loom over the basketball program he built, the cloistered university he taught to be cool, and the ongoing admiration of disciples who learned something about poise, about self-respect, and about what it meant to chase greatness against a backdrop that so often failed to live up to its alleged equality. John Thompson, Jr. used basketball to show us how the world can be if it unflinchingly stares down reality, and anyone who touched his legacy, no matter how tangentially, is richer for it.

So farewell, Big John, and let the quote at the top of this blog be a reminder that, even if we cannot build Heaven on earth, we can still have Georgetown. And that can mean much more than a few wins on a basketball court.

Active Former Hounds, 2020

25 Aug

This annual accounting of Duluth East graduates playing post-high school hockey necessarily comes with complications this season. Winter plans are up in the air for just about all of us, and plans could change in a hurry; any Covid disruptions will leave all sorts of questions over junior and college eligibility and just generally what young people are doing with their lives. There’s a lot more to say here, but for now, I’ll stick to my annual task. This post will, perhaps rather naively, assume things will go ahead as expected in 2020-2021, as that seems like the only sensible way to proceed. Here’s the list, with asterisks denoting players who did not play through their senior seasons at East:

Zack Fitzgerald (’04 D)* One of the most elaborate, wandering careers of an ex-Hound came to a formal end this past season, as Fitzgerald retired from hockey to take a head coaching position with the Glasgow Clan of the English Ice Hockey League, the team he had played for the season before. Fitzgerald still makes the list, though, because he did appear in four games as an injury fill-in, accumulating no point or (more surprisingly) penalty minutes in the process. If this really is the end of the line, Fitzgerald’s 19-year career after his freshman year as a Greyhound included four seasons in the Canadian WHL, two seasons of shuttling between the ECHL and AHL, seven full seasons in the AHL, six in England, and a single NHL game.

Derek Forbort (’10 D)* Forbort’s fourth season in the NHL took a bit of a twist, as he started the season on injured reserve and spent some time rehabbing with Ontario of the AHL. He was dealt to Calgary at the trade deadline, where he got into seven games before the playoffs started. He has a goal and an assist in those playoffs, where the Flames were eliminated this past week, ending what probably has to be the latest date in summer that any Greyhound has ever still been playing hockey from the previous winter’s season.

Andy Welinski (’11 D)* After settling in with the Ducks a season ago, Welinski became an unrestricted free agent this past offseason and signed with the Flyers. He spent his entire 19-20 campaign back in the AHL, where he had a productive eight goals and 13 assists in a 42-game season. We’ll see if he can make his way back into the NHL regularly soon.

Dom Toninato (’12 F) Toninato’s career took a step forward this past season, as he stuck in the NHL all season for the first time in his three years as a pro. The former Minnesota-Duluth captain put up four goals and seven assists in 46 games for the Florida Panthers, and also took part in his team’s abbreviated playoff run.

Jake Randolph (’12 F) After starting in Tulsa of the ECHL, Randolph played a few games in Sweden with Vasterviks before hanging up his skates. The Hounds’ coach’s son had a productive four-year career at Nebraska-Omaha and played two professional seasons in his career after high school. It’s fun to see that, eight years after their high school graduation, all three members of that great 2012 top line were still playing professional hockey.

Trevor Olson (’12 F) The former North Dakota forward completed a second productive season in the ECHL, racking up 42 points in 59 games. He now has 74 points across two seasons with the Orlando Solar Bears and should be able to continue his professional career if he so chooses.

Meirs Moore (’13 D) Following his graduation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute a years ago, Moore started his professional career with the Pensacola Ice Flyers of the SPHL, where he logged eight goals and 11 assists from the blue line in 35 games. That productive performance, reminiscent of his high-scoring Hounds career, earned him a cup of coffee in the ECHL, where he played six games for Newfoundland and Adirondack.

Hogan Davidson (’13 F) Davidson wrapped up a four-year career at D-III Nichols College in Massachusetts, where he finished tied for second on his team with 18 points. He’s got his senior season ahead of him. He scored a career-high 22 points as a senior and logged a solid 71-point career there.

Phil Beaulieu (’14 D) In his senior season at Northern Michigan, Beaulieu was once again among the most productive defensemen in Division-I hockey. He had 25 points to finish a 121-point collegiate effort, and certainly will have options to continue his career; in recent years, he and Toninato were certainly the Hounds’ most dominant players in the college ranks.

Alex Trapp (’14 D) Trapp, Beaulieu’s old sidekick from 2013 and 2014, finished out a four-year D-III career at St. Thomas (there’s a phrase we won’t be using for much longer) with six assists for 23 total collegiate points.

Nick Altmann (’15 F) Altmann logged a quality sophomore effort at D-III Williams in Massachusetts, where he put up 16 points in 25 games, good for fifth on his team.

Ash Altmann (’16 F) The younger Altmann’s freshman season at St. Olaf saw him score a goal and collect six assists; those seven points, believe it or not, were good enough to tie for fourth on the team, just two behind the team leader, who had nine. Given that parity in talent, Altmann will certainly have his chances to slide into a more prominent role over the course of his career in Northfield.

Shay Donovan (’16 D) Unsurprisingly, Donovan started his D-I career at Wisconsin primarily as a depth player, dressing for just two games as a Badger. The fact that he made it this far is a testament to his perseverance, and he’ll likely have more chances during his time in Madison, which, after a brief hiatus, has once again become a hotbed for Hounds.

Garrett Worth (’18 F) Worth’s post-high school wanderings continued early in 2019-2020, as he put up just two points in a USHL stint and lost his place in Arizona State’s incoming class for this coming season. He started to find his old swagger again when he came home and played for the Minnesota Wilderness, where he put up 25 points in 28 games. Through his efforts, he earned himself a scholarship to Long Island University, the nation’s newest Division-I program. The upstart school could be the perfect opportunity for East’s greatest post-Spehar goal-scorer to make an immediate impact.

Luke LaMaster (’18 D) After losing an entire season to injury, LaMaster jumped right back in and had a solid 10-point effort from the blue line with Sioux City of the USHL. He’s off to join the Donovan brothers in Madison this fall and play for the Badgers.

Ian Mageau (’18 F) Mageau got into ten games in his freshman year at St. Thomas, where he put up four points. We’ll see if he can get more action as a sophomore and what the university’s plans might be as it prepares for its D-I move.

Austin Jouppi (’18 F) The Bemidji State recruit had a second solid season in the NAHL, where he put up 34 points in 50 games for the Bismarck Bobcats. His collegiate career starts this year.

Nick Lanigan (’18 F) In his second junior season, Lanigan logged four goals and eight assists with the NAHL’s Minnesota Magicians. He will be back in the NAHL this coming winter.

Will Fisher (’18 D) After bouncing around some in his first year of juniors, Fisher found a home with the Boston Junior Rangers of the Tier III Eastern Hockey League, where the defenseman put up 22 points in 45 games. He’ll join the D-III ranks back home this year when he starts in at St. Scholastica.

Porter Haney (’18 F) Haney’s story is one of resilience, and a demonstration of the depth of the Hounds of his era: while never really a top-nine forward at East, he had a strong enough campaign in the NA3HL (47 points in 37 games) to have a cup of coffee in the NAHL and make his way to Gustavus Adolphus, where he’ll play D-III this coming season.

Ryder Donovan (’19 F) The 2019 Mr. Hockey finalist and 4th-round draft pick jumped right in at Wisconsin and became a fixture in the lineup, where he logged five points in 32 games. We’ll see if he advances into a more prominent role now that he’s settled in.

Ricky Lyle (’19 F) The West Point-bound Lyle made the jump to the Madison Capitols of the USHL in his first year out of high school and put up 16 points in 41 games. He’ll make his way east for D-I hockey this fall.

Hunter Paine (’19 D) Paine, like Lyle, jumped in to the USHL and had no trouble amassing himself some penalty minutes. He’s committed to Air Force, and is currently listed as playing one more year of juniors before heading to Colorado Springs.

Jonathan Jones (’19 F) Jones got into a single game for the Minnesota Wilderness of the NAHL.

Logan Anderson (’20 F)* Anderson forewent his senior year in high school and had a respectable USHL debut with Des Moines, where he had 12 points in 44 games.

Jacob Jeannette (’21 F)* Jeannette, who left East after his sophomore year, played intermittently in Waterloo of the USHL, where he put up seven points in 23 games.

A number of names left the list this past year: while not listed as officially retired, Cade Fairchild did not play in 19-20 after a long career that featured three-seasons in North American minor leagues, five seasons in Europe, and five NHL games. Class of 2013 forwards Conner Valesano and Alex Toscano wrapped up three years of Division-III hockey at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, while Luke Dow chose not to play college hockey after three seasons in juniors. Defenseman Alex Spencer did not appear in any games for Wisconsin-Superior as a sophomore, and Reid Hill also dropped from the list after an abbreviated junior career.

We’ll see what havoc Covid causes for hockey plans this coming season, both in high school and beyond, but for now, this is where they all stand.