Tag Archives: democrats

Sobriety Amid a War

7 Nov

Whatever else one might say, I’ve never thought the United States doesn’t have the government it deserves. The results of the 2018 midterms reflect an increasingly polarized electorate, and promise two years of rancor to make the past two look tame. The polls were mostly right, though the Republicans can claim some real wins in the Senate and the Democrats now have power over the House. In a saner world this would prompt humility amid both parties, but we all know better than that by now. President Donald Trump again showed his peerless ability to turn out his base, and the Democrats now have some decisions to make as they decide whether to keep their gerontocratic House leadership or start anew, and whether to open up every possible investigation or learn from the 1990s Republicans’ excesses on that front. Let the fun begin.

Here in Minnesota’s eighth congressional district, Republican Pete Stauber collected a 5-point win, and gave his party one of its few bright spots in the House. The final result was almost in the dead-center of those two contradictory New York Times polls. He ran a very disciplined campaign, had massive institutional support, and had the distinct advantage of a clear field in the primary that spared him a bruising fight or a real need to take concrete positions on things versus a more Trumpy or more moderate challenger. (Sorry, Harry Welty. whatever you might say, you’re not a Republican anymore.) He stayed on point and rode a strong image, mild email flap aside, to a win. He outpaced 2016 Republican Stewart Mills by a fairly consistent margin across the district; only St. Louis County really held its margin for the Democrat, and the biggest Republican gains were not in the much-hyped swinging Iron Range, but in the rural counties that were already the reddest parts of MN-8. I’m very curious to see if Stauber now governs as the moderate suburban dad that was at the core of his persona as a candidate, or if the nationalizing forces in congressional politics lead him to vote in lockstep with his now-minority party in the House.

Joe Radinovich, on the other hand, didn’t enough to win in the face of an unfriendly district and some huge ad buys against him. He failed to control the narrative early, allowing his personal issues to dominate the race and set an ugly tone. Even when things stabilized somewhat, his messaging was a fairly generic turn to bread-and-butter DFL issues like healthcare, not the potentially race-flipping roar of old DFL labor power or some sort of independent fresh turn.

Radnovich, with his youth and lack of a professional life outside of politics, never could assume the rugged fighter’s mantel of a Tom Rukavina or a Rick Nolan. This isn’t to say another candidate from the Democratic primary would have outpaced him; the two who ran second and third were probably too disliked by one wing of the party to do any better, and everyone else was too much of an unknown. Instead, many of the more experienced Democrats who I think could have closed the gap somewhat—a cast that includes Tony Lourey and early retirees Tony Sertich, Don Ness, and Carly Melin—stayed out. (Yes, I think Radinovich’s fiancé would have been a stronger candidate than he was.) Incumbent Rick Nolan overreacted to the threat of a primary fight and dropped out, depriving the DFL of a proven winner; Leah Phifer overreacted to the contested convention, killing any energy the base might have mustered. The Democrats were left with a nice guy who was nowhere near their best option. After much hand-wringing in Democratic circles about Skip Sandman’s potential spoiler role, his ultimate share of the vote wouldn’t have made a difference either way.

So maybe a different Democrat would have made a difference, but maybe not: the results across the nation on Tuesday showed an increasingly nationalized politics, where national leanings are more and more accurate predictors of congressional seats. MN-8, with its very white working class population away from the shores of Lake Superior, is a Republican-friendly seat. As a whole, Minnesota is now in the advanced stages of a realignment, as the four flipped House seats show; it will be complete when Collin Peterson retires or Minnesota gets redistricted in 2021. The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party might now be more accurately called the Democratic-Suburban-College-Educated Party, while the Republicans are anything but the Independent Republicans (their name in Minnesota until the 1990s), and are now very much the party of Trump. I expect some plaintive cries from labor Democrats and country club Republicans in the coming days as they try to figure out where their parties have gone. The world has changed.

Unlike some other states, this trend does favor the Democrats as a whole in Minnesota, as the North Star State has a dominant, white-collar metro where there are more votes to collect than in dwindling rural areas. We certainly saw that in the statewide races, where Democrats maintained their stranglehold. That was no surprise with the dominant Senator Amy Klobuchar or with Tim Walz, the governor-elect with a throwback talent for retail politics. I was, however, a bit surprised to see Tina Smith track nearly evenly with Walz. For a candidate who did not exactly exude charisma, her comfortable win was one of the brighter spots for the Democrats on an otherwise rough night in the Senate. Keith Ellison’s narrow win suggests that a front-line Republican candidate could have exploited the controversy surrounding Ellison’s alleged spousal abuse, but Doug Wardlow was not that, and a rare opportunity slipped away.

In down-ballot northeast Minnesota races, there was little to write home about; the big news here, with the Democrats flipping back the state House, took place almost exclusively in the aforementioned suburbs. Moderate Republican Sandy Layman kept the Itasca County seat she flipped two years ago, while the Democrats did appear to claw back a Bemidji area district by an infinitesimal margin. (Expect a recount there.) In the one open house race vacated by MN-8 DFL nomination aspirant Jason Metsa, Dave Lislegard of Aurora cruised. In Lislegard one sees the increasingly rare figure who can still decisively claim Range labor power and could probably win a general election in MN-8, but his staunch support of non-ferrous mining is going to be a liability in any primary. While I don’t think it was decisive this year, that divide is going to be an anchor dragging down the MN-8 DFL in one direction or another until that debate is resolved, if it ever truly is.

Closest to home, the Duluth school referendums outpaced my expectations, with a comfortable win for the second ballot measure aimed at drawing down class sizes and a very narrow defeat for the third, technology-oriented piece. As has been the case in past cycles, the second referendum’s success relied on heavy support on the east side overpowering opposition out west, though this time around there were some exceptions around Denfeld and in Lincoln Park to run up the pro-levy margins. The passage of the new levy follows on the wave of strong support for establishment candidates in the 2017 school board elections, so it seems safe to declare any lingering rancor over the Red Plan thoroughly in the rear view mirror of most Duluth voters. This city supports its public education, and district leadership now must invest its new funds wisely. (Annoyed aside to the city clerk: why didn’t you publish the results of the five ISD 709 townships in your breakdown of precinct results, as you have in the past? And while you’re at it, maybe update your format to something that doesn’t look like a photocopy from 1956?)

As one friend and I observed, there was no real cause for drinks for either party last night, either in celebration or in sorrow. The semi-United States are divided and lurching in opposite directions, as blue areas get bluer and red areas get redder. That fact should be sobering, but for the partisans in their bubbles, it won’t be. The national political environment hews all too closely to that of Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way, and until some people figure out how to fight those battles while still pushing politics somewhere else, we will have more of the same.

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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.

The Lonely Resistance of Rick Nolan

11 Nov

On paper, Rick Nolan’s congressional career should have ended on Tuesday night. The incumbent Democratic congressman in Minnesota’s 8th district has always been on political thin ice in a district on the edge. Hillary Clinton got destroyed in this sprawling, 17-county rural district: four years after Obama carried it 51-46, it went for Trump by 16 points. While local candidates proved more resilient, Trump clearly had down-ballot effects in the state legislature and other Minnesota congressional races, with attrition from the DFL across the board. Democrats lost some ground on the western side of Minnesota 8, particularly around Grand Rapids. Nolan beat his opponent, Stewart Mills, by a razor-thin margin in 2014. He didn’t have much ground to give in this year’s rematch.

Little about Nolan’s biography suggests he should have won, either. He’s not some rural, conservative Democrat like, say, Joe Manchin of West Virginia: on most issues he’s basically a standard-issue liberal, and is even further to the left than his longtime Democratic predecessor Jim Oberstar, who was ousted in the 2010 Tea Party wave, on issues like abortion. He’s 72, and as a visting friend noted, his yard sign design looks like it’s straight out of his first congressional campaign in in 1972. He’s no social media darling of the youth a la Bernie Sanders. He’s had a few private sector jobs, but for the most part he’s spent his adult life as a politician and general policy wonk, an endangered species in 2016. He grew up in Brainerd, which is one of the most conservative parts of the district, and his first stint in Congress took place when Brainerd was in a different district; his political roots are not deep in the vast majority of Minnesota 8. His motto, “Minnesota Tough,” belies a thin, aging frame and a nasally voice.

Nolan’s opponent, Stewart Mills, was formidable. He polished himself up from his losing run two years ago, both in terms of his looks (goodbye, weird long hair) and campaign operation. His conservative bona fides were never in question, he never shied away from Trump’s coattails, and the demographics of the district were in his favor. The heir to the Fleet Farm fortune, he could self-finance a lot of his campaign. While Nolan had plenty of outside money pouring in, Mills outspent him by a 3-2 margin in what wound up being the most expensive congressional race in the entire country. By the end, a resident of Minnesota 8 couldn’t go through a single commercial break during a football game without seeing an ad bashing Nolan, funded either by the Mills campaign or a Super PAC.

The indicators aren’t all bad for a Democrat in Minnesota 8: it has a larger city in Duluth that is consistently and solidly Democratic, labor still has power on the Iron Range, and some rural areas like the North Shore of Lake Superior maintain a decidedly crunchy, liberal vibe. The lack of a Green Party candidate this time around probably also helped him. (Though only somewhat: I’m guessing that a number of the die-hard Greens in Duluth sat this one out, given Nolan’s support of mining.) There are very few people of color in Minnesota 8, and turnout drop-offs here hurt Clinton nationally, though Nolan still outpaced Clinton in the part of Duluth that does have a somewhat sizable non-white population. But in a sweeping wave election, it shouldn’t have taken much to oust Rick Nolan.

Yet Nolan persevered. He did it the old fashioned way: with barnstorming tours, patient conversations, and by building trust. I saw his blue bus rumbling around Duluth a number of times, and its frequent presence took me back to a certain Minnesota senator’s green bus we used to see in these parts, another man who, on paper, seemed too liberal to ever win in the region. Mills, on the other hand, copied Clinton in its narrow guardedness, and refusal to let him see the media or encounter people who might disagree with him. Mills’ ads were of the vicious variety we’ve come to expect in a bloody campaign (Nolan brings Syrian terrorists to Minnesota! Nolan votes against veterans’ care!), looking to tar Nolan as a weak liberal. Mills even doubled down on the Syrian refugee angle, so if some latent fear of brown people was the main motivator for the sea change in the presidential race, one would assume this would continue down ballot. (Hint: it wasn’t.) Nolan’s most frequently run ads, on the other hand, involved him sitting and talking with groups of people or behind the wheel of his car, simply talking to the camera. Aside from making one want to yell at Nolan to keep his eyes on the road, these ads did muster a certain genuine quality that Mills’ never quite did.

Nolan’s record was the most important part of his win: he’s very good at getting things done for the people that Hillary Clinton’s Democrats too often left behind. His vote against veterans’ care was, in fact, a protest vote against the lack of resources, and he was able to communicate this. He was a crucial figure in the re-imposition of U.S. steel tariffs, which helped bring about a partial economic recovery from last year’s dire straits on the Iron Range. He pushed through policy changes that streamlined logging industry logistics. One key policy difference separated him from doctrinaire Democrats: unlike many Twin Cities and even Duluth liberals, Nolan supports expanded mining operations. He is careful to emphasize a more responsible version of that mining support than Mills’ unequivocal stance, but there was no underlying doubt, no awkward statement about coal country like Clinton had. While this lost him some support on the left fringe, his firm support for mining kept him from losing ground on the Iron Range.

This isn’t to suggest the Nolan campaign was a loving tea party. It, too, had heaps of money, and returned fire without abandon. Black signs appeared all over the Range in recent weeks that drove a stake into Mills: “Stewart Mills III Supports Chinese Steel.” (The inclusion of the ‘III’, which he also did in his attack ads, was a subtle but clever dig at Mills’ inherited wealth, and almost certainly played well on the Range.) It had its vicious negativity, but the negativity was very carefully targeted, and Nolan knew his audience in the land where the American steel supply chain starts. Instead of blasting his opponent as a standard-issue member of the opposite party, Nolan nailed Mills specifically on issues that played to the voters he needed; the ones most vulnerable to flipping. Outside of the very red extremities of the district where Clinton had basically zero support, nowhere did he run up his margin on Mills versus Clinton’s margin against Trump more than on the Range.

stewie

Perhaps the dirtiest thing one can say about another man on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

Part of Nolan’s success was strong turnout in the Duluth area, where he improved slightly on his 2014 performance, even in the outlying townships that trend further to the right. But even in a random sampling of Duluth-area precincts, Nolan only ran somewhat ahead of Clinton. On the Range, however, his margins from two years ago all held up, even as Trump made major gains. Part of this is a reflection on Hillary Clinton, a singularly terrible candidate for rural Minnesota 8, but Nolan’s resistance outperformed everyone. He made gains in the four bluest counties in the district—Carlton, St. Louis, Lake, Cook—which combine for 40 percent of its population, and were enough to withstand further erosion in the rest. He turned out his base, and the people he’d built a relationship with over time. This is where Nolan fundamentally bucked the trend.

Time will tell if Rick Nolan is a model for Democratic resurgence, or simply the last roar of a fading dynasty. If the Democratic Party doesn’t reform itself, this hold in Minnesota 8 may prove short-lived. Nolan’s age may become a factor before long, too. Republican gains across the district, and the general improvement in the caliber of GOP candidates, are a good thing for democracy, lest places like the Range calcify into one-party rule where politicians aren’t held accountable. But the Democrats still have a lot to work with here, and a reasonably deep bench. Erik Simonson and Jason Metsa offer a new generation of the old labor leadership, while popular figures like Don Ness and Carly Melin, still quite young, could someday re-enter the arena. Duluth city government is brimming with young DFLers who could someday be in a position to win, so long as they can maintain an appeal to the whole MN-8 electorate. The DFL has cultivated a fresh, new generation of politicians in the region, which is a lot more than can be said of the national party in some places.

If the Democratic Party brass has any brains, it will look to people like Rick Nolan to learn how to rebuild from its 2016 defeats. The answer doesn’t come through a full-scale ideological move, or reliance on a demographic shift that may or may not materialize at the ballot box. It comes by abandoning any hint of condescension, or lectures on how failure to support the right candidate is in some way a moral failing. Instead, it lasers in on the most important issues to voters and backs them up with action. It involves a willingness to fight, sometimes even to fight dirty, but only in select battles that the candidate can be sure to win. It means getting out into communities, because the basis of all campaigns remains fundamentally local. Rick Nolan isn’t perfect, but he understands the landscape, and because of that, he’s lived to fight another day.

A Dream Sours

9 Nov

Whither the Democratic Party, after Tuesday’s stunning defeat? There will be time enough to contemplate how our new Republican majority goes forward, but for now, it’s time for an autopsy on the demise of a Democratic era, and the collapse of an Electoral College Maginot Line.

This begins by looking back on the past two elections. It’s time we recognize that Barack Obama was not at the head of a tide, or at least not one for the immediate future. He was exceptional. He ran on an agenda that did not have broad popular support, but swept to power twice on the force of sheer charisma, integrity, and ability to inspire optimism in spite of it all. The repeated decimation of Democrats down ballot across the country shows how quickly this wore thin. The wins at the presidential level masked some serious shortcomings in state and local races, and are an embarrassment for a party that had reason to think it was on the rise.

Obama’s presidency will thus go down as a paradox: a popular man whose legacy will likely not outlive him, unless President Trump truly surprises us. The economy performed steadily under conventional measures during the Obama years, but nothing reversed the widening gaps that preceded him. His signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, helped cover more people but has been fraught with issues throughout, and probably won’t resemble the original after a few months. His foreign policy was better than that of his predecessor and of the alternatives to him in 2008, but never quite amounted to a coherent doctrine. Everywhere else, he faced resistance and gridlock; he responded with executive orders, effective in the short term but setting a dangerous precedent for successors to roll them back and more. There were some momentous shifts on social issues, though future Supreme Courts may have some word on how permanent those are. The real question, I suppose, will be whether the Democrats can harness the electoral machinery he put into place and reuse it in the future, or if it will languish. Otherwise, Obama is just the bookend to an era of rising and falling global liberalism, a Washington Consensus that arose out of post-Cold War confidence and now heads into the great unknown.

It was bound to end, as all movements must; the question was how, or when. Even if Hillary Clinton had won, she probably was the end of the line; the Democrats just didn’t have a new generation ready to carry it forward, and its limitations were becoming obvious. It could have evolved, if there were an effective leader to bridge the gap, but there wasn’t. Instead, the Democrats had a candidate of the status quo, and when she crashed, so did the whole enterprise.

Our old friend Mitt Romney has been on my mind lately. In fact, I think there are a lot of parallels between the Clinton and Romney campaigns: blandness, occasional tone-deaf statements, inability to broadcast much of an agenda other than opposition to the other guy, reliance on sheer institutional inertia, certainty of ultimate victory. The unexpected polling error in both Obama and Trump’s favors are not coincidental; it’s just that one more clearly swung the election. Candidates who fail to be fresh will always underachieve, even if they don’t make any unforced errors.

I won’t wade into the discussion over the magnitude of Clinton’s email- and foundation-related sins, but the existence of these issues is a fundamental problem when the theme of one’s campaign is competence and reliability. When a candidate gives mixed messages on the thing she’s supposed to be good at, it’s a bad sign. I’d also add that, whether there were fires or not, there has always been an awful lot of smoke around the Clintons. Yes, Republicans have drummed a lot of this up, but eight years of the same efforts exposed practically nothing on Barack Obama. Clinton was a flawed candidate, and flawed in the worst possible way for the pitch she was trying to make. Her time would have been 2004 or 2008. By 2016, it was too late.

In retrospect, I do think Bernie Sanders probably had better odds than a lot of people gave him credit for, though not as good as his supporters would have liked to believe. He certainly would have played better among the rural white people around the city I live in. But gains in one place could lead to losses elsewhere. Clinton wrecked Sanders among people of color, and Clinton herself failed to generate the needed turnout from people of color. Maybe Sanders wins back some of those Midwestern states, but Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia might all flip the other way. Do the math, and it’s still a toss-up. That particular “what if” is a murky one, and the moment is past. The Democrat most capable of building a big tent was Joe Biden, and that ship has also sailed.

A lot will be said on the left about racism or bigotry, and its apparent triumph. But any discussion of racism has to get past that loaded word and look at the details. Two hundred counties that broke for a black man four years ago went to Trump. This wasn’t a rush of people suddenly discovering hate in their hearts. Instead, you have a lot of people for whom the battle with racism was not their primary reason for going to the polls. Many of these people probably have no real desire to discriminate, but live in places where racial issues aren’t really present in day-to-day life, and are far more motivated by other factors. And when a candidate gives voice to their dearer causes, it’s not hard to dismiss some warts; once that dismissal of warts is normalized, further revelations aren’t going to upend the process. Sure, Trump would take a hit in the tracking polls when he went after someone based on their ethnicity or gender, but before long, the dynamics of the two-horse race would have him trending back upward, as the latest spurt of outrage faded from memory and the persistence of day-to-day life on the ground rose up again.

It’s also worth asking some questions about the wide range of things that fall under that blanket label of “racism.” The working definition on the left considers both a card-carrying member of the KKK and a person who questions protest tactics when Black Lives Matter occupies the freeway and fouls up a commute as exhibiting racist tendencies. Deplorable as one may find all of these attitudes and the many shades in between, it’s counterproductive to treat these phenomena the same way, and slap the same label on the full range of people who hold them. Much as “47 percent” doomed Mitt Romney, the “basket of deplorables” comment left a lot of wavering people fundamentally alienated. Once again, Clinton was supposed to be the uniter, the candidate of “stronger together.” This made her failures to live up to that ideal considerably more impactful than those of Donald Trump, who made no such claim (or, at least, not one anyone took seriously). The candidate of unity failed to display it, and the other guy spoke to voters on a levels they actually cared about. If the Democrats continue to paint with the broad brush of racism instead of interrogating different cases carefully, they will continue to appear condescending, and will continue to lose.

These racial lines have an added drawback for Democrats: most people of color are tightly packed into cities, and as we’ve seen, this limits their odds of winning majorities in the House and of winning the Electoral College despite taking the popular vote. The Democrats, the supposed party of tolerance, are extremely likely to live just among themselves, and it hurts them. Sure, it would be nice to eliminate some of those structural issues that give rural voters added influence, but this is the system we have, and it’s not going to change without getting a hand on the wheel in the first place.

The hubris of so many Democratic operatives, the belief that a more diverse nation would create a firewall and a longer-term majority, might yet come to pass. But as I explained in my initial reaction, the rise in white identity on the right is the natural outflow of identity politics on the left, however justified it may or may not be. This is why identity politics is ugly and dangerous, and it is a major reason why so many struggling states around the globe lapse into ethnic groups squabbling over government. There can be no functioning state without a nation, and that nation needs to approximate some sort of broad identity, even while allowing for nuance within it. Sure, the Democrats may be on track to pick up Arizona and Georgia and maybe even Texas over the next decade. But if they don’t change course somewhat, and rely on demography alone while failing to reach out to large demographics, things will continue to flip. Minnesota—yes, Minnesota—will be the next state to go red, along with the rural northeast, and more will follow.

I heard from a reliable source that Obama wanted to go spend time in Appalachia, but that his advisers told him it wasn’t worth the time. If true, it may prove a fatal error.

I’ve come back to Obama a lot in this post, in part because he is very much my president. The first bubble I ever filled on a ballot was for him, and even as I’ve drifted away from doctrinaire liberalism into something a lot more complicated, I don’t regret either of my votes for him. I was in Washington, D.C. the night he won, and that night might be the most momentous bit of history I ever live. Temperamentally, I relate to the man: cautious and intellectual, prone to elevated rhetoric and a desire for communal action, while perhaps suffering from a certain aloofness and detachment at times. He had genuine empathy for the America that was left behind, but forces beyond his control—forces beyond anyone’s control—largely rendered him powerless to change things. George Packer put it presciently, back in 2010, as the Tea Party arose to face Obama and the failures of Middle East nation-building and the end-of-history Pax Americana became evident:

The noble mission to make the world safe for democracy ended inconclusively, and its aftermath has curdled into an atmosphere more like that of the Palmer raids and the second coming of the Klan. This is why Obama seems less and less able to speak to and for our times. He’s the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia. An epigraph for our times appears in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom”: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

The dream has soured, and it has done so on both sides of the aisle. Fortunately, we have ways to pick up the pieces.

Trump Cards on the Table

20 Mar

I don’t talk about national politics much on here. This is partly a reflection of my political priorities, as I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog before: if people spent half the time they do moaning about national politics on building up their own communities, they could make a much bigger difference than people in Washington ever could. This is also partly a calculation to avoid having my other work judged by any simple conclusions people might pull from my complicated thoughts on these matters. I think it is sad how much some people judge the character of others in completely unrelated arenas of life based on their political views, but it is what it is, and I try to avoid it.

We’ve now reached the point where I am compelled to write about Donald Trump. His candidacy has been an absurdity from the start, and at first I hoped not to write about it so as to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy of making his antics the center of political attention. No one has done more for Trump’s candidacy than the media figures who blow up his every single stunt while the candidates who play by the same old norms got lost in the shuffle. The outrage machine that is American political commentary created a perfect storm, and Trump has negotiated it masterfully. His maneuvers are some of the cleverest in the history of American politics, and now we must talk about him.

There are plenty of causes for his rise. There is a party that has stoked the anxieties of the voters who gave them their Reagan Revolution without ever giving them much of anything in return. With some, it clearly does tap into latent racial or ethnic animus, all still very much alive in American politics. On the left, we can blame a conscious move to largely write off the white working class, and the dismissal of a swath of the country as “clingers” to guns and religion whose share of the electorate will grow smaller and smaller over time. The cluelessness and lack of concern among liberals can be a sight to behold. We have a country that has gradually sorted into more and more rigidly defined society, with everyone separated by place and education and any number of other factors. The façade of a unified (white) middle class is falling away, and jilted, the people at the bottom are realizing they have no reason to buy in to a system that has left them behind. All of that in a time of ascendant mass democracy, when anyone’s opinion can get blasted about the internet and cause a reaction, makes the situation ripe. Along with the sensationalistic culture, though, I’d add a politics of protest.  Alasdair MacIntyre:

[P]rotest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility…the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises…the protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.

Trump is a protest candidate who will never be able to enact most of his proposed policies, to the extent that he has any. Even a fair number of his supporters understand that; they simply want to make it clear that they’re fed up with the status quo, and want to stick it to the “establishment.” It’s cathartic, I’m sure, and I’m jaded enough by Washington that I certainly appreciate the instinct to watch it all burn. But the unknown of what would follow should worry anyone, and when we stop to mull what pent-up forces the ensuing chaos might turn loose. Thousands of years of history suggest the track record is not very good for anyone who’d like to see a peaceful change. Democracy does a good job of funneling human emotion into respectable debate, but it’s all still there simmering beneath, and given the proper catalysts, there’s no reason the whole enterprise can’t collapse.

The protests on the left to Trump’s candidacy seem to affirm this whole dynamic. The clashes between the Trumpistas and the shut-it-down Chicagoans only seemed to empower Trump, and push his votes over the 40 percent threshold he’d previously failed to clear. The other secret to Trump’s success: the extent to which people go to trash him or shut him down creates a counter-reaction. This gets to the core of my gripe with left-leaning current of protest since it began occupying things a few years ago: these activists are speaking a language that only they understand. I’m well-aware this is an attempt to escape the narratives of power and forge one anew, but when one can only speak one language and the other “side” is not versed in it, the result is incoherence, and no one should be surprised when it only alienates people further. Questioning power is a necessary exercise, but when it simply aims to prop up an alternative form of power, we’re left with a power struggle in which all morals and sense of common humanity are liable to go out the window. I fear many people take the stability of the American system for granted, and for all its inequities and gross failures, we are all still incredibly lucky.

One thing is clear enough, from the words of MacIntyre and this well-written takedown of the “Trumpenproletariat” by Adam Garfinkle: this is not a rational campaign. It is its antithesis. It is an emotional volcano, a reach into the depths that taps into the dark side of daemonic passion and lets it explode outward. It’s exhilarating for those it has empowered, and given a chance at greatness: they haven’t had this sort of voice in politics in decades, if ever. This is the double-edged sword of belief and ambition, of the power of collective action toward some sort of final ideal. Trump exemplifies the worst of it, but it’s still an integral part of the human psyche, and trying to cut it off will prove as successful as trying to recreate the 1950s. Instead, American politics must learn to channel it toward genuine outcomes that reduce the alienation, or, if all else fails, to shut it down in the defense of a stable state.

The Democratic Party is hardly immune to these broader trends, though it is a few years behind in the cycle. The Democrats, too, may be approaching their reckoning, as Hillary Clinton is probably the end of the line for Third Way Clintonite liberalism, in one way or the other. We see looming hints of rebellion in the far left, and though that movement has yet to manifest itself in a political figure of its own. (Instead, it settled for a grumpy old socialist from Vermont, whose staying power despite some misgivings from the people of color who make up an increasing share of the party base shows what power he has.) It may never manage to coalesce into an electoral movement; never underestimate the radical left’s ability to implode in internecine warfare. But even if it doesn’t, a revolt against the establishment could yet lead to lasting damage. Either the party’s hold on the presidency will renew itself—and it has a chance to do so, perhaps through Clinton’s Vice Presidential pick—or it will come to an end. The Democrats’ bench at the moment is not especially deep.

I’m not a declinist; I think it’s always been a delicate balance to maintain an open and fair democracy, and have some faith that there are still enough checks on presidential power to keep this from getting too ugly. As long as there is no violence, this whole fiasco could use some levity. This does have the chance to be a wildly entertaining election cycle, as our caricature of silver spoon entitlement and crass nouveau riche lifestyle rides into battle on behalf of the downtrodden masses. As much of the rest of the world can tell us, sometimes we just have to shake our heads and get on with our lives as best we can.

Sooner or later, however, we are going to need a politics at some level that resists protest, Manicheanism, and spectacle for its own sake, or it will all stall into lethargy. I’m about as politically aware as people come, yet I didn’t even attend an Minnesota caucus this year, since I was so ambivalent about the options before me. I may feel the need to speak up in the coming months, and I’m willing to spend some effort battling to defend a stable state. But it’s good to have an escape plan, and the woods of northern Minnesota are looking more and more like a pretty good place to be for the next four years.