Minnesota Primary Election Reactions, 2018

15 Aug

In the wake of Tuesday’s primaries in this most unique of Minnesota election years, here are a few stray thoughts that worked their way through my mind today.

In the Democratic gubernatorial race, Tim Walz eased to victory on the strength of his performance across the state, particularly in his southern Minnesota base. Erin Murphy struggled to gain much traction beyond deeply urban areas (and dear old Cook County), which was always the concern with her campaign. Lori Swanson ran well in some initial polls, but from my vantage point, ran one of the more tone-deaf political campaigns I’ve ever seen. While any political campaign will make its share of calculated moves to win support, the degree of pure cynicism, woodenness, and poorly disguised politicking here was about as egregious as it gets. She did best up north, where she enjoyed the coattails of embattled running mate Rick Nolan, but struggled in the metro, and fell behind even supposedly rural-unfriendly Murphy in parts of southern Minnesota. The end result was surprisingly lopsided, and shows Walz’s strength as a candidate this fall.

Over on the Republican side, anyone surprised by Jeff Johnson’s win over Tim Pawlenty wasn’t paying attention. The political moment very much favored Johnson, and much like the Swanson campaign, Pawlenty’s efforts to dodge engagement and float in on name recognition and a money dump demonstrated a terrible sense of the pulse of primary politics. Johnson likely faces an uphill battle; he lacks Pawlenty’s fundraising prowess, and his path to victory likely laies in running up margins in rural Minnesota, where the Democrats have nominated the candidate most likely to resist that tide. That said, Johnson is a canny operator who was able to channel Trumpish political instincts without ever sounding very Trumpish, and that ability to seize the moment is going to win Republicans some elections in the coming years.

Statewide, there’s been talk of Minnesota as a unique opportunity for Republicans amid political climate that favors Democrats, and the attention is worthwhile after the razor-thin 2016 presidential election in this state. However, it’s worth recognizing how historically strong Trump’s performance in rural Minnesota was, and any Republican who wins a statewide race is going to have to outpace that rate. That is a very tall order for anyone in an election where the fundamentals will favor the Democrats, at least to some degree. The fairly straightforward race unfolding in the competitive Senate seat between Tina Smith and Karin Housley will also operate under these general political headwinds, and while I think it’s winnable for Housley, she will need some things that aren’t on our radar right now for things to break her way over the next two and a half months.

If there is a race where that is most likely happen, it may be in the contest for Attorney General. Keith Ellison has run as an unabashed progressive. Last-second domestic abuse allegations have now saddled his campaign, and there’s the lingering question of how well a Muslim man will play outside of his safe congressional district. The next few months will allow the former storyline to play out, and we’ll get a sense of just how much the latter matters.

Up here in the northeast corner of things, Pete Stauber rolled to victory, and will give the Republicans one of their best chances to pick up a Democratically-held congressional seat in the country. Joe Radinovich, meanwhile, had a very strong showing in the DFL primary, and has earned himself a battle with Stauber. Radinovich has a number of things going for him that could help keep CD-8 blue, including a fresh face amid a branch of the DFL that needed one and a lot of outside money. (I should call him by his proper title, Iron Ranger Joe Radinovich, as the outside Super PAC that clearly does not understand anything about CD-8 geography sold him in mailers to Duluthians. Meanwhile, the Stauber camp has already developed a Trumpism for Radinovich: Metro Joe, an attempt to shove him in with those Big City Liberals like Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, whose campaign he ran. It’s going to be a long fall, CD-8.)

Progressive favorite Michelle Lee finished comfortably in second, despite running a very low-budget campaign. Her rise was a signal of the base’s strength, but to win, she really needed Radinovich and Jason Metsa to cannibalize each other in the moderate wing of the party. Instead, Radinovich rolled while Metsa, despite the backing of the traditional DFL power players on the Iron Range, put in a surprisingly distant third-place showing. That says a lot about the state of the Iron Range DFL, both in terms of the influence of its bosses and their ability to activate a pro-non-ferrous mining wing of the party without seeing said wing just defect to the Republicans. Meanwhile, I give a lot of credit to Kirsten Kennedy, who ran even with Metsa despite no name recognition beyond a town of 10,000, no money, and no natural constituency in the mining debates that activated many CD-8 Democratic primary voters. I suspect we haven’t heard the last of her political career.

The Stauber-Radinovich fight is going to be brutal, and all corners of this sprawling district are in play. As a Cuyuna Country native, Radinovich has some base to work with in the western, reddest parts of CD-8, and a national map that favors the Democrats will stem any bleeding in the growing exurban part of the district. All signs point to Stauber making gains for the Republicans on the Range, where Trump’s coattails are longest and displeasure with the Democrats’ mining divisions runs deepest. That means the election could turn on the greater Duluth area, which has been an afterthought in recent campaigns, to the point that Stewart Mills didn’t bother having a presence in the city. But Stauber has local name recognition, while an activated base and high turnout in Duluth proper could be Radinovich’s saving grace. The real key, then: do the committed anti-non-ferrous mining activists plug their noses and vote for the vague Radinovich, or do they defect to independent Skip Sandman or stay home?

The Swanson and Pawlenty experiences, coupled with the results of other races dating back to 2016, have made me rethink a theory on how to win elections. In an era of negative campaigning, candidates often don’t win elections so much as they don’t lose them (especially if they have money), and the safest way to lose them is to lose the pulse of one’s base. Pawlenty and Swanson did, and while Walz wasn’t as attuned to the Democratic base as Murphy, he moved just enough to show he understood the moment, and avoided some of the unforced errors of his opponents. I don’t foresee him having the struggles to unify the party that Hillary Clinton had, or that Joe Radinovich will have. Radinovich didn’t run to the base, but did enough to keep much of it on board, and focused on the overall goal, which he pitched as keeping MN-8 blue. He, too, avoided any unforced errors, reacting well when Rick Nolan’s harassment scandal broke. Stable, mistake-free messaging can mean everything.

For all the talk of a progressive wave, meanwhile, Minnesota only really turned left in its areas that were already quite left, with the possible exception of Ellison’s primary win, which has a lot of asterisks right now. This is a pattern consistent with the rest of the country: Alexandria Ocasio Cortez won in the bluest of districts, and democratic socialism has not really caught on in places where one might not expect it to. The result is a Democratic Party that is running very different races in different parts of the country, with Ilhan Omar and Joe Manchin marching under the same banner, playing to the moods of their respective constituents. That may seem incoherent from a national standpoint, but the Republicans have managed to win plenty of elections over the past decade despite an ongoing feud between the Tea Party and Chamber of Commerce wings of the party, so on paper I don’t see why the Democrats can’t have a similarly broad tent. I’m not convinced that party unity is all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to winning elections. When it comes to governance, on the other hand…well, time will tell.

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More than Civility

9 Aug

Duluth was in the national news again this past week, and this time in a much more flattering piece than the dreck that appeared in Rolling Stone last month. This time, Gerald Seib at the Wall Street Journal lauds the Civility Project, an effort to establish norms for polite public discourse that he claims has made Duluth politics a bit more pleasant. (I’m linking to a Tweet that has the link because that is the WSJ’s bizarre method of allowing people around their paywall.)

It’s not quite that easy. It’s true that, for much of the past decade, Duluth city-level politics did coalesce around a broad, quiet, and largely civil consensus. I think that probably had more to do with the good vibes of the Don Ness era and his unique talent for making politics boring than the norms listed on a poster, but they certainly didn’t hurt. While still largely following in that same vein, it’s not hard to sense a few more cracks  in the Duluth consensus these days as both regional and national political forces have activated more people to express strong opinions.

It’s also not a universal experience. Critics of the school board will argue that the norms of civility have been used as a bludgeon to silence opposition, as honest and well-meant critiques are called uncivil; that point has had real merit at times over the years. Duluth also is a relatively homogeneous city, and there is pretty good evidence from social science that this makes political debate much easier given the shared culture; I’m not sure how applicable its lessons can be to a nation more starkly riven by questions of racial and cultural identity. (This is not to downplay the divides that do exist in Duluth, but more of an empirical observation on their centrality to day-to-day discourse.) It’s easy to look good when a large majority of people share a common culture agree on many things.

Even with those caveats, the Rules of Civility seem almost quaint now, as if they were a throwback to a more innocent era. Still, they exert a certain power. I would like to think that a bunch of well-meaning people can get together at the local level and build a healthier culture by bringing people together to talk in rational ways. There are, and likely always will be, scenarios where that can happen, and when they happen, that is only a good thing.

One of the more fascinating aspects of our current political moment, however, is how it has made cynics of us all. I try to be wary of narratives that pretend as if the loss of civility or decency is something recent. (Remember: if you want to understand a person’s worldview, figure out what the world looked like when that person was 20, or some comparable early formative age. It’s easy to imagine the decline and fall of political discourse is a new thing, when instead it just stems from the point at which the people in question gained a new level of political or social consciousness.) But I do think there is something particular about the milieu from which those norms of civility emerged from, one that has left us behind for something more complicated.

The Rules of Civility emerged in a time and a place when it seemed like a broadly liberal consensus was destiny. They are the guiding principles of a culture confident that it can bring people together under a common cause and include everyone in the push toward a better tomorrow. They are the rules of a world ruled by a meritocracy, where careful arguments win out and rewards flow to the people who have earned them through reason in the public square. This culture has always had some place in American political culture, but it reached its zenith after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when this worldview came to seem completely triumphant. There is still no clear alternative, but it has undergone a steady erosion amid endless low-grade war, the late 00s financial crisis, and now a wave of political backlash to the whole notion.

As a child of the 90s, I was a product of this largely unquestioned culture. I thrived in its environment, climbed the ladder of test scores and college admissions exactly as I was supposed to. It was a source of anxiety at times, yes, but on the whole I rather enjoyed it. The path was clear, as were the rewards, and I grew up in a community where playing by those very civil rules earned respect. No one ever really questioned whether or not I’d earned what I got, and those of us caught up within it learned not to question the rules of the game.

Now, however, the critiques of the system have emerged in force. The first is the internal one, common among liberals: the idea is right, but in practice our meritocracy has been far too exclusionary. Many people of color (and a chunk of mostly rural white people, for that matter) face such large systemic barriers that they cannot break through; women thrive in certain areas of the ladder but often hit glass ceilings when it comes to leadership positions. The answer, then, is to level playing fields, perhaps through affirmative action if need be, and ensure that social mobility becomes a possibility. If we all just follow the code of civility to its fullest extent, we’ll get there in the end.

A second critique attacks whole logic that the meritocratic winners who have been groomed to rule actually deserve to do so. The best and brightest who went to Wall Street ran the economy into the ground in the late 00s, and even the scholars and pundits who saw warning signs have been unable to devise a humane economy that gives the losers of the macroeconomic shifts of the past decade any level of dignity. The foreign policy consensus bungled its Middle Eastern adventures that decade, leaving thousands dead and no discernable achievement of non-military goals. Over in Europe, the European Union, instead of being some enlightened post-nation-state government, is instead a creaking and unaccountable machine with an egregious mismatch of fiscal and monetary policy that should have been obvious to anyone who’d taken Econ 101, but somehow got pushed through anyway.

While in college at the tail end of this era of good feelings, I read and listened to a lot of triumphal bloviating about the march of democracy and rights and so on that in retrospect seems wishful, if not naïve. And yet there has been little to no reckoning for these failures, and critiques of the elite consensus have often been left outside the bounds of serious political debate. Anyone who suggests otherwise is uncivil. Why should we trust the people who gave us all of these things, or the institutions that produced them, if they can’t get anything right? Our supposedly meritorious ruling class has much to answer for, and precious few of its members have attempted anything resembling an examination of conscience for their failures. Instead, they just drift into cushy lobbying jobs when they get voted out of office. The swamp, according to this take, is very, very real.

Both of these critiques capture some of the truth, but are inadequate on their own. The liberal critique is dead accurate, but fails to step out of the cave and consider whether this way of doing things is the best we can do. The new critique, which can come from either the left or the Trumpist right, raises that issue, but largely fails to present an alternative that doesn’t sound hopelessly idealistic or retrograde. Simply suggesting an alternative seems ridiculous: how does it make sense to run anything without a civil debate of the merits, or without the most qualified people? They may not know everything, or their expertise may come in unconventional ways, but there has to be a way to agree to a basis and sort and choose from there. We’re still a long way from mob rule or authoritarian whim becoming the law of the land.

Civility is great, but trying to cure the nation’s ills with a civility project goes nowhere near to the source of the malaise. Civil discourse can also only emerge at any scale from a common culture that agrees on at least some basic foundation of how to order a society. Without some underlying vision we are left only with critique for critique’s sake, an endless argument that aspires to nothing more than disruption, to use that useless, canned Silicon Valley word that dresses up chaos in the garb of progress.

On a national level, it’s easy to despair about the possibility of the common cause from which a civil governing consensus can emerge. Perhaps, then, the answer must be local. If Duluth’s history over the past ten-plus years is a model of anything, as I’ve argued (with much nuance) that it can be, it starts first with a common vision, and a common narrative that acknowledges but then breaks from a past. Civility is as much a product of such a vision as it is a precondition of it, moving in virtuous feedback loops as eclectic groups come together to advance some common goal. Building and sustaining such cultures won’t be easy; they all have flaws and require serious interrogation at every step, and even with the best of intentions, they will struggle to accommodate everyone in a community of any size.

We live in a world in which the underlying truths that sustain nations and foundations of faith have crumbled. In many, if not all, cases, there is good reason for the critiques. But the project of this century won’t come through continued disruption of already tattered truths, or context-free attempts to make politics nice again. It will come from a concerted effort to build a common future in spite of the myriad obstacles before us. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Summer Hockey Notes 2018

28 Jul

Last weekend’s Summer Hockey Festival at Braemar Arena in Edina offered a brief dose of hockey for those of us in need of some midsummer action. Twenty teams battled it out over the course of three days, giving the world its first real looks at Janne Kivihalme-coached Lakeville South, a somewhat improved-looking Grand Rapids, and a bunch of kids in bantam or other teams’ breezers who have made their way to a new hockey home for 2018-2019. Watching these sorts of tournaments always comes with a grain of salt, as rosters are incomplete and coaches are sorting through what they have, but they’ve also proven to have some decent predictive power in the past.

Duluth East eased any worries of a drop-off following the graduation of the likes of Garrett Worth, Luke LaMaster, and Ian Mageau with a strong second-place showing. Ryder Donovan looked every bit a Mr. Hockey frontrunner, and the top line of Donovan, Ricky Lyle, and Brendan Baker was tenacious and displayed strong chemistry. Upcoming bantams like Jacob Jeanette and Zarley Ziemski were noticeable in their Greyhound debuts, and the bevy of players looking to claim their spots in the pecking order beyond the top pair on defense largely held their own. The 2018-2019 Greyhounds will be big, tough, and in-your-face. While they still have some sorting to do on the back end an in goal, their forward depth and front-line talent will keep them near the top of the heap this coming season.

Still, the Hounds were not even the best team in their own section at Braemar over the course of the weekend. That title belongs to Andover, which rolled through to a championship. Last season, the Huskies’ top line pairing of Charlie Schoen and Nick Dainty grabbed headlines, and will likely lead the way in their senior seasons. But this time around, it was the rising juniors such as defenseman Wyatt Kaiser and the line of Hunter Zinda, Luke Kron, and Harrison VanderMey that turned my head. The Huskies’ depth will have them sitting pretty in preseason rankings, and with an early December meeting between the Huskies and Hounds, the 7AA dogfight will name its frontrunner early on.

The third power in 7AA, Cloquet, also had a solid showing in Edina. The Jacks, in my mind, are a step behind East and Andover in both star power and depth, but not so far in either that they don’t have a fighting chance at winning the section. There is also the small matter of their head coach following Kevin Smalley’s third arrest for driving while intoxicated and subsequent ouster. Just one year after an abrupt end to a long coaching career, Cloquet will endure another change at the top. There is a fair amount of politicking going on behind the scenes in all of this, and the outcome will have a lot to say about the future of Lumberjack hockey.

Elsewhere, there are rumblings of a power shift in the West Metro. Minnetonka, the defending state champs, will begin the season as #1, and have only reloaded. But beyond that, there are questions. Edina, down a couple of players to early defections, will try to put together a redeem team; while there’s still plenty in the tank for 2018-2019, the future beyond this season is as uncertain as it’s been in 15 years for the Hornets. Benilde-St. Margaret’s, after a two-year down cycle, is on the up and up, and Blake is looking to make waves and fill the void left by Breck’s decline in a certain private school niche. Eden Prairie has more Mittelstadts, Wayzata has the predictability of Pat O’Leary hockey, and Holy Family has had another successful offseason shopping spree. Cretin-Derham Hall, which is not in the West Metro but is stuck in a section with teams that are, will have its best team since Ryan McDonagh roamed the Raider blue line over a decade ago. After a period of relative public school power, the pendulum may be swinging back toward some of the privates in the Metro. The mix of rising contenders and the staying power of the old guard could give 2AA and 6AA as many as 10 teams in the top 25.

Usually, early defections to junior hockey to come from schools that don’t have great odds at a Tournament berth, or from teams that are so deep that they can stand to lose a player or two and still be front-line contenders. This season, however, the relatively low number of departures to date are instead sapping some teams that otherwise might have been home runs. Maple Grove, for example, could have been the next super team if not for three defections this offseason. While the Crimson may still be the frontrunner in 5AA, that squad is not what it could have been. Moorhead could have been a shoo-in in 8AA with Ethan Frisch; without him, 8AA starts to get murky. If Ben Helgeson bolts from Hill-Murray, the Pioneers will still be favored in a thin 4AA, but are more likely than not to continue a State Tournament losing streak that now sits at eight straight. The deep AA sections seem to get stronger while the thinner sections grow weaker.

While the wars brew in the West Metro, much of the rest of the Metro is more predictable. Andover has assumed frontrunner status on the north side, the east in need of someone to emerge to challenge Hill’s supremacy, and the Lakevilles are once again the default top two in 1AA. If I had to find a source of unexpected intrigue, I’d point to 3AA, where rising Rosemount may have enough pieces to win the thing, and Eagan should see its stock climb as well. St. Thomas Academy remains the frontrunner there, but is in need of a jolt to break out of its lengthening string of playoff upset losses.

Elite League rosters also came out this past week, and unsurprisingly, Minnetonka and Duluth East dominate the list for most players. The usual debates over the number of younger players taken have ensued, and there was also some justified angst over seeming competitive imbalance when the Team Southwest roster was revealed. What good does it do anyone to load up a Metro Elite League team like that? At any rate, we’re just over a month from the beginning of that action, which provides another teaser of what’s to come. Until then, we have a summer to enjoy.

On a closing note, this Tweet may be the most Northern Minnesota Hockey thing I have ever seen, and it is marvelous.

Greyhounds Reunited

15 Jul

After I finish this post, I’m going to put away the computer, grab a notebook, and start to write every memory I have from this past weekend. It’s something I’ve done on a handful of occasions before, a stream of consciousness for my eyes only, and a task undertaken only after events that left me with so many interactions I wanted to preserve that I couldn’t think of any other way to capture it all. The occasion of my Duluth East High School ten-year reunion was more than enough inspiration this time around.

A reunion for a public high school in northern Minnesota makes for a noticeable contrast with my Georgetown reunion last year, the last time I felt compelled to do this. The range of life experiences is much broader, the number of paths trodden more evident in what goes said and unsaid. This time there was no Ritz, no tents on lawns, no huge dose of patronage from another former class to those of us who were new to the reunion game. There was, however, an afternoon at a brewery, a range of after-parties, and some run-ins with the East Class of 1988 and the 2008 grads of the late, great Duluth Central, both of which had their reunions this weekend as well. Ten years allows for more changes than five, and while there’s been an increase in facial hair and piercings and some measure of maturity (sometimes), personalities haven’t moved all that much in a decade.

My Duluth East reunion was a healthy mix of people, old quirks and new insights all coming out, most carried by genuine desires to see one another, if only for a little while. Some came from across the country, some from down the street; some I hadn’t seen in ten years while others are regulars, and there really wasn’t much of a correlation between those two. It was a tidal wave of memories, all brought back. As an afternoon event turned into evening marathon, a few friends slipped off here and there, if only for a momentary escape, looking for their own little breath of freedom or reflection or chance to simply marvel in the perfection of a summer Duluth day. I pushed through until the inevitable end of the night at the Reef, and saved my own moment of solitude for a hike back to my own cathedral, that spot I’ve been escaping to since my days as Greyhound when I need it, on the following day. It’s not what it once was: a recent windstorm decimated its more frail pillars, and the trail, such as it is, now avoids the tall grass and loops around it. But that is no loss. It is only the way of things, as this hometown evolves and as the march of time makes short work of us all.

As I hiked, I stopped to marvel at how much a part of me my city has become, as the kid who spent his childhood memorizing the minutiae of world geography has become a staunch defender of tradition and local culture from the little pocket of a city where he grew up. Not a new thought, but still one that can strike me in its more defining moments. Culture can mean high culture, such as literature or the classical music many of us participated in, but it can also mean the shared rituals of sports teams or even the adventures into questionable activities that, in those formative years, take on an added edge that one starts to lose as one moves through one’s twenties. That culture is mine, and mine to defend and tend to going forward. I’ve become a Duluthian through and through.

While my perception of my Georgetown days has undergone some evolution since my graduation, my thoughts on my time at East are basically unchanged from a 2014 reflection on those four years. High school remains one of the more formative eras in my life, even as someone marked by other places and events, and it now seems only natural that I settle in here and look forward to raising some of my own little Greyhounds. Perhaps a curious evolution for someone with no shortage of ambition, but sometimes the most ambitious pushes we can make don’t follow conventional paths. Our stories, wherever they have taken us since, all have their roots here, and the initial participants in that drama, no matter where they may be now, are forever seared into the script. Take it away, Octavio Paz:

All of us, at some moment, have had a vision of our existence as something unique, something untransferable and very precious. This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall–that of our consciousness–between the world and ourselves. It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work. The adolescent, however, vacillates between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflection: as he leans over the river of his consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children, becomes a problem and a question…

The vision of the adolescent as a solitary figure, closed up within himself and consumed by desire or timidity, almost always resolves into a crowd of young people dancing, singing or marching as a group, or into a young couple strolling under the arched green branches in a park. The adolescent opens himself up to the world: to love, action, friendship, sports, heroic adventures.

May these weekends help us to never lose that openness to the world. Time for me to write, and hold on to another dose of that ever-so-powerful nostalgia.

Good Journalism, 7/9/18

9 Jul

This feature is no longer in a place where I can accurately call it “weekly,” but the content will, hopefully, make up for the prolonged absence. Here are some thought-provoking things I have read recently:

Jonathan Franzen, the Great American Novelist() whose work both inspired me to write both through its successes and its failures to talk about The Way We Live Now and other such grandiose themes, no longer cares. He’s a rebel against the court of public opinion, and instead of reacting angrily to a host of trends that in the past that he saw as sources of civilizational decline, he has found equanimity in ignoring Twitter feuds. The question is, has it come at the cost of his skills as a searing social observer? Can one write about The Way We Live Now without living it directly? Or is that very question the wrong one to ask about contemporary literature? If the new novel he’s starting mentioned in this New York Times Magazine piece takes place in the present, we may soon find out.

Why have I not been blogging much lately? One, because I have been having a social life, but also because I’ve been absorbed by the World Cup, which remains a delightful exercise is international athletics, even if Neymar flops too much. It’s been an odd one, with my ancestors the defending champs bombing out in the group stage, Argentina looking like a royal mess, the Spanish dynasty running out of gas, and the Brazilian whole once again failing to equal the sum of its parts. It’s provided some moments of joy; for me, the high water mark game was probably Uruguay, a personal favorite, using its lethal two-man strikeforce to vanquish defending European champion Portugal in the Round of 16. Now, however, we are down to a final four. The French are the mild favorites, with 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe being the breakout star of the Cup, but Belgium’s dynamic attack will pose a great test in a tasty-looking semifinal. On the other side of the bracket, England has been exorcising demons and look like a team on a mission under Gareth Southgate, but first must get past maestro Luka Modric and his orchestra from Croatia. (Few things in sports are as aesthetically pleasing than a diminutive midfielder slaloming around a pitch and singlehandedly running an attack.) But yes, the four semifinalists are all European. How does that happen in what should be a globalizing sport? FiveThirtyEight crunches some numbers on the question here.

Shifting gears: Mexico has a new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. AMLO has been a polarizing public figure for the better part of two decades since his rise to become the Head of Government of Mexico City and his narrow, contentious loss in the 2006 election. When I spent a semester in Mexico City as an undergrad four years after that election, there were still regular protests in the Alameda disputing the result. By 2018, however, the script has flipped: AMLO won last week’s presidential election in a landslide, and his fairly new party, MORENA, has huge pluralities in both chambers of congress.

Mexican politics has been flipped upside down. The conservative PAN, which led the way in Mexico’s democratic revolution in the first decade this century, finished a distant second. The long-ruling PRI, which was an exhausted relic even before Enrique Peña Nieto’s miserable six-year term, got shellacked. The original leftist party, the PRD, was eviscerated. The election could be a watershed moment in Mexican history. Something revolutionary is afoot in Mexico, for good or ill, and if AMLO, a fascinating figure, can deliver on his lofty expectations, it could have implications for politics in a lot of places. Here, Jon Lee Anderson, the New Yorker’s remarkable roving Latin America correspondent, profiles AMLO as he follows his campaign.

Another random World Cup season note: Cuauhtémoc Blanco, one of Mexico’s most accomplished fútbol stars, was elected governor of Morelos state under the MORENA coalition banner. I did a double-take when I saw that one.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic Socialist, has won a Democratic primary in New York. But what does that look like in practice, and how does it compare to the Democratic Socialism of the movement’s standard bearer, Bernie Sanders? Reihan Salam investigates in the Atlantic.

Finally, in the London Review of Books, John Lancaster pens a superb overview of global economy since the start of the Great Recession in plain English. It’s a thorough take that puts the macroeconomics of the past decade into sobering perspective. I particularly enjoy his note, paraphrasing Napoleon, that to understand someone’s view of the world, one must understand what the world looked like when he was twenty. Expect me to riff on this more in the coming weeks, both in terms of my own outlook at that of others.

A Return to Good Journalism, 6/26/18

26 Jun

After an unfortunate detour into rage-blogging inspired by a piece of bad journalism over the weekend, we now return to our normally scheduled array of good journalism I’ve read over the past week.

For a far more illuminating portrait of changing election trends in northeastern Minnesota (beyond Duluth), I turn to Iron Range blogger Aaron Brown. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s visit to Duluth last week, he penned an article on trade policy and its effects on the rural mining region in northern Minnesota, and why the argument about trade isn’t actually about trade. He followed up with a piece on immigration over the weekend. I always enjoy Brown’s work, but he’s been growing punchier of late, and his on-the-ground reporting from a region that is on the brink politically is vital reading, and I expect it’s illuminating even for someone who knows little about the Iron Range.

Speaking of communities that are in decline, The American Conservative’s New Urbs series has a bit from photographer Vincent David Johnson, who relates his travels in photographing the ruins of rural America. It’s a fascinating dive into towns that are fading from memory. Also, one of the reasons I enjoy TAC is the fact that it is the rare site where one can usually safely violate the cardinal rule of internet comments sections—which is, of course, Never Read the Comments Section—and come away not feeling awful about humanity. Instead, you’ll find that the vast majority of the commenters are intelligent people bringing a wide variety of usually interesting perspectives to the article, and this post delivers on that front.

Sticking again with our theme of small towns facing hard times: from Bloomberg News, about a month ago but still interesting, and related to the above articles: why do people stay in towns that are in decline?

And, to switch gears at the end, here’s a remembrance of longtime Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who died this past week, from Peter Wehner in the New York Times. I don’t share many of Krauthammer’s view on foreign policy, which was his main focus, but he was an idiosyncratic thinker who never quite fell into clean categories, and a powerful prose stylist. But the picture that emerges here, as a person in possession of great intellectual humility and in endless search of reality. He also handled both personal misfortune and his impending death with laudable grace. I will always celebrate such traits in people, no matter where they landed politically.

While this post is, alas, far less cathartic than my last one, I hope people find something of actual educational value in it.

How to Write Terrible Trump Era Journalism

22 Jun

There is a lot of terrible journalism out there, and normally I don’t bother my time with it. Ana Marie Cox of Rolling Stone, however, made the mistake of writing a piece of terrible journalism about Duluth, and will thus endure the full wrath of this blog. I know nothing of Ms. Cox’s work; who knows what she was directed to do by editors or higher-ups, or what wound up on the cutting room floor, or if she just had a bad day. I write, so I get it. The rest of her work may be sterling. But she has produced a remarkably lazy and awful piece, and while Mayor Emily Larson has already offered a much politer response than mine, City Pages responded with its usual elegance of a drunken elephant, and Perfect Duluth Day has devised a brilliant creative writing contest around it, it deserves to be dissected, line by line. Some opportunities are just too golden to miss.

The original article is in bold; my comments are in normal text.

Minnesota’s lonely island of electoral blue in the midst of Donald Trump’s upper Midwest Republican bloodbath was on the minds of nearly everyone inside Duluth’s Amsoil Arena Wednesday night. Every speaker, including President Trump, referred to it, though perhaps no one quite as dramatically as state GOP chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who warned the thousands in attendance about a “red tsunami rolling across Lake Superior.” (Just add it to the list of greasy Wisconsin imports, I guess.) 

Most of the eastern end of Lake Superior is Canada, which has interesting implications for both Ms. Carnahan’s claim and Ms. Cox’s witty repartee, but let’s not quibble with that stuff.

Trump does not tend to visit states he cannot in some way claim as his – blue states that fail to jibe with his hoary recitation of Election Night. If you’re wondering why the president came to Minnesota anyway, that’s because Trump did come within just a couple percentage points of taking the state. (He told the crowd this, of course.) If you’re wondering why Trump came to Duluth, that’s because Duluth is a reverse oasis in a place known for its natural beauty, good health outcomes, relatively low crime and high standard of living. Like the more prosperous areas of Minnesota, Duluth is strikingly white. Look deeper than skin and you’ll find Duluth is a struggling post-manufacturing cipher with the highest drug overdose rate in the state. U.S. Steel closed its gigantic Morgan Park plant in 1981, causing a slow cascade of desolation that stilled the concrete and hardboard plants and emptied out the grain elevators.

I wonder if Ms. Cox was time-warped to 1984 while on her visit. Duluth has certainly been to hell and back over the past few decades, and the opioid epidemic is real. I also understand how someone who drives in on I-35 from Minneapolis, winds past the paper mill and the port area, and stops only at Amsoil for a Trump rally before heading back south could come to this sort of conclusion. (Knock down some big retaining walls and put up a hill to block the view of downtown, and someone driving into Minneapolis from the west on I-94 would probably conclude the same thing.) An effort to attack these problems is no small part of why I chose to move back to Duluth and try to do some good. But, as I’ve noted elsewhere when discussing Decline Porn, Duluth is in many ways an exceptional Rust Belt city for the road it has traveled since the depths of the 80s. Some of this is probably just due to dumb luck and accidents of history, but it’s reality.

A few other blown details: as far as steel mills go, the Morgan Park operation was not large. Grain shipping trends have approximately nothing to do with the loss of the steel plant, and the regional wood products industry does only insofar as it fits into a concurrent rush of deindustrialization. Correlation is not causation.

Today, the small city of 80,000 scrapes by on tourism and as a port. There’s a paper plant that has been on the verge of closing for 10 years. Duluth has a poverty rate (21 percent) that would rank it among the most desperate counties in West Virginia and per capita income just below that of Wheeling.

This is a great example of bad use of statistics. Minneapolis (where Ms. Cox lives) and St. Paul both have poverty rates that are a tiny bit higher than Duluth. Other semi-comparable regional centers such as Mankato and St. Cloud have even higher poverty rates. If one knows anything about how urban development works, this is not a remotely surprising statistic, and comparing cities (instead of, say, metro areas) is pretty disingenuous. This is perhaps even more true for income statistics, which, if viewed in proper context, will show that Duluth is perhaps slightly below the average for other small Midwestern regional centers, nestling just below much faster-growing places like St. Cloud and Fargo, but hardly destitute.

Oh, crap. With this next paragraph, we have to go sentence by sentence.

Lake Superior’s merciless beauty crashes up against a town whose shoreside skyline is dominated by stolid, brutalist mid-century relics and precarious-seeming industrial shipping contraptions, rusty and mostly silent.

This amateur architecture student is very curious to learn where these examples of brutalist architecture are in Duluth. The Holiday Center, there’s one, sure. A few buildings on the UMD campus? Maybe the Radisson, though I’d say that’s more modernist inflected. The vast majority of the buildings in downtown and along the waterfront long predate brutalism as an architectural trend, and our handful of later-stage office buildings are fairly tame. Otherwise, yeah, grain elevators do in fact look like grain elevators. Ore docks are ore docks no matter where they are, and Duluth’s are pretty busy these days, with the exception of the one that’s under consideration for some pretty fun ideas.

But, if you want a catchphrase for how liberal America has completely lost any sense of what people in the working class actually do with their lives, “industrial shipping contraptions” does a pretty good job of capturing it. How lazy can you get?

Downtown, every surface is covered with a thin layer of grime.

Every day when I walk out of my office downtown, I brush off a layer of grime off of myself and wonder why I live here.

It is, in other words, potential Trump Country.

This is already a revision on Ms. Cox’s behalf: she added the word “potential” after a few people pointed out that Duluth went 2-to-1 for Clinton in 2016. However, even the revised version is bizarre and difficult to defend. Census estimates show Duluth has grown somewhat more diverse and somewhat younger in recent years, neither of which would predict a drift toward Trumpism. If anything, city politics have taken a noticeable left turn over the past few years. What exactly about this city makes it potential Trump country, then? The simple fact of whiteness? The fact that it has some things in common with other cities in other states that broke for Trump?

But, if you bother to look closely, places like Flint and Youngstown and Scranton remain strikingly blue on election maps. Rust Belt cities themselves did not carry Trump to victory in Ohio or Michigan or Pennsylvania. The suburbs to which some of their former residents fled, on the other hand, are a different story, and deeply rural areas another story still. Duluth has not experienced much suburbanization (see the decline porn piece linked to above), so that’s perhaps of interest; maybe there’s a good article that could be written about Hermantown, the suburban home of the Republican candidate in this year’s eighth congressional district race. Or maybe not; I believe Hermantown still went for Clinton by a pretty solid margin. But that might, at least, be worth exploring. Instead, we get a lazy narrative that is also flat-out wrong pretty much everywhere.

“I can’t believe he’s here in DULUTH,” one woman at the rally told me. When I asked another if she’d been to any other rallies, she thought for a moment and said, “Reagan. When I was little.” Another gentleman told me he’d seen Bush.

Um, okay. Why are these people’s past presidential sightings relevant?

Unlike other parts of official Trump Country, Duluth hasn’t received the disproportionate attention that comes with strategic electoral or even symbolic import.

Does this mean we’re a part of “Official Trump country?” Woohoo! That said, Minnesota’s eighth congressional district has gotten a fair amount of play in national media for its role as a swing district. The parties sure noticed too, given that it was the most expensive congressional race in the country in 2016. Its result also bucked the narrative Ms. Cox is trying to write, at least temporarily.

There haven’t been any deep dives into the local psyche by national reporters and it is far afield of any normal campaign trail.

As Mayor Larson noted, the Fallowses with CBS and Outside magazine have weighed in on the local psyche. I’m not saying they’re dead-on, but the claim as made here is untrue. Maybe there haven’t been any political exposés because…Duluth’s politics are pretty much unchanged? And because, only now that Trump has brought it to their attention, the national media is starting to recognize that Minnesota has a serious chance to flip to the GOP column in 2020? (I don’t totally blame the media for that; Clinton’s narrow escape here in 2016 wasn’t exactly the headline on election night.)

The next few paragraphs aren’t really about Duluth, so they don’t get my hackles up. Instead, they are standard fare of liberal reporting in the Trump era, in which our brave correspondent ventures in among the unwashed Trump masses to report back to the liberal denizens of metropolitan areas who are safe from contact with such mysterious people. Nothing we haven’t heard or seen before, but certainly not horrible journalism by any stretch. Moving on:

[The crowd] knew their [sic] lines: “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!”and “CNN sucks!” all rang out at the appropriate cues. When Trump indicated a pause for laughter – it’s hard to describe anything he says as a “joke” – they delivered the syllables with disciplined crispness, like we were on the set of a studio in Burbank and not in a musty arena named for a small-time lubricant manufacturer. Then again, there’s the Amsoil slogan: “First in synthetics.” 

A moment ago, Ms. Cox said the attendees “weren’t even especially practiced Trump supporters.” Now they are well-trained actors. Which is it?

Also, Amsoil Arena opened in 2011, and has typically been lauded as one of the nicer college hockey arenas in the country. (If we’re really measuring, these people even call it #1; I can’t attest to many out east, but I’d agree it’s equal to or better than most of the other Midwestern ones that inhabit the top of the list.) Amsoil pays homage to Duluth’s industrial past through an intentionally industrial feel with the exposed concrete blocks, but any mustiness is an awfully new development.

And Amsoil the company, for what it’s worth, is doing well, and provides over 300 fairly good jobs to people in the Duluth area. It’s the sort of enterprise we should celebrate if we want to see small cities succeed. But of course if Trump sets foot in an arena it sponsors, it’s important that a national audience’s exposure to it come through a quick potshot.

By the time Trump reached the end of his speech, it felt familiar even if you hadn’t heard it before. The phrases had the too-neat, predictable parallelism of a jingle: “We will never give in, we will never give up … we will never stop fighting for our flag, or our freedom. We are one people, and one family, and one nation under God.” The last lines were chanted out in half-unison, half-hum, the way you might mumble-vamp through the verse of “Sweet Caroline” only to land with ecstasy at the chorus: “We will make America safe AGAIN! We will make America strong AGAIN! We will make America GREAT AGAIN!”

That’s the way the end of democracy sounds, I think: People so eager to join a chant they do it before they know all the words.

I award a few points for poignancy here, though the actual words quoted sound like something any president ever has always said when firing up a crowd at the end of a speech.

There is a domestic violence center in the shadow of the Amsoil arena. When I stopped in on the afternoon of the rally, a mildly harried woman manning the desk behind the bulletproof glass did not need to tell me they were busy. A string of women were buzzed in and out the security doors in the 15 minutes I visited. Someone was picking up a set of dishes. Another wanted to know about the free dental clinic. Someone asked if her advocate was in – she needed to know if the restraining order had come through. The woman who worked there told me the beds at the center were always full and they get 12-to-14 referrals a night. 

This seemed impossibly high for such a town not much bigger than the Twin Cities suburb of Bloomington, but I checked the city’s crime statistics – an imperfect measure, since referrals don’t necessarily come from the police or involve an arrest. But still: In 2016 in Duluth, there were over 900 arrests for what Minnesota terms “violence against families/children.” There were 84 such arrests in Bloomington.

I asked the woman at the center what she thought of the scene at the border. Did she think it was fair to be paying so much attention to that, given what she was dealing with? Did she think what Trump was doing to those families was abuse? 

She looked at me gravely: “Trauma is trauma.”

Ms. Cox also made a correction to this part of the piece to fix another earlier error. But aside from how pedantic we could be about “being in the shadow” of an arena that is across a several parking lots, a freeway, and most of downtown from the location described, this is actually the hint of a good article. The facts about domestic violence are jarring and real, and she gives a bit of nuance to her crime statistics, though they are still crappy. (Don’t compare suburbs to central cities, please.) Juxtaposing a festive political rally with nearby trauma can be compelling. Weighing concern for people thousands of miles away against forgotten people just down the street is an interesting philosophical question. There are the makings of a very good piece here.

Unfortunately, that good piece is not the one Ms. Cox wrote. Instead, it is a cheap shot at a city that gets so much of its context so fundamentally wrong that no number of little edits here and there could possibly rescue it. It is exactly the sort of thing that a Trump supporter can hold up to show how out of touch those Metro Elites are from the places they breeze through and attempt to describe. I doubt Ms. Cox intended to do that, but the fact that it came off this way just shows how out of touch she was when she wrote it. It is emblematic of many of this country’s divides, and only reinforces them.  It is a shame it was published.

If Ms. Cox ever returns to Duluth, I’d be happy to give her a tour that includes equal parts decline porn and rebirth, and all of the murky ground in between. I hope that, then, she could write something more attuned to reality. In the meantime, I’m going to head out on to my porch and have a beer on a perfectly air-conditioned Duluth evening, and maybe wander down to the lake while I’m at it.

After I wipe the grime off my chair, of course.