Archive | September, 2020

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.