Twelve Takes on a Transition

As we roll through another transition in American power, here are 12 semi-related opinions on what we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks, and what may yet come.

1. The 2020 inauguration was surreal–and yet it wasn’t at all, either. A who’s-who of a greying political elite that has dominated the American stage for the past 30 years was strewn about a socially distanced stage, masked up before an empty Mall to perform its quadrennial ritual. In many ways it signified a return to boring politics, a development that may not be cause for celebration but at least offers a more familiar, navigable script. There was some fresh poetry and a very elaborate Lady Gaga brooch and some fuzzy Bernie mittens to liven it all up, but otherwise it seemed, in the end, what one might expect this moment to offer: the old gang back together again, and making deep concessions to a changed world.

2. I don’t have a ton to say about Joe Biden that I didn’t say back when he visited Duluth in September or immediately after his win over Trump. As one of the most entrenched establishment presidents ever, he is in many ways a bizarre figure to take charge in a moment of great crisis, amid a pandemic and on the heels of an insurrection, at the seeming end of Reaganomics and amid the highest racial tensions in 50 years. But here he is, anointed by history to take charge, and he has a great opportunity before him. The bar is relatively low: get people vaccinated and back to work and the national mood will lift considerably, and the opposition party has a fascinating struggle ahead of itself as it figures out where it stands in relation to its departed leader. Biden has a chance to be the president who really delivers.

3. The necessary caveat: never underestimate the power of the left eat itself alive. If the vaccine rollout gets bogged down in attempts to target narrow groups (as it already has in some states) or if Biden takes heavy internal heat for a stalled progressive agenda that needs Joe Manchin as its 50th vote, this could wind up as one of the most sclerotic presidencies ever. There is some reason to expect that it won’t. Unlike the Republicans, whose insurgency went straight to the presidency in 2016, the Democrats are a comparatively unified caucus right now; their loudest internal critics wield little actual power. But as the events of 2020 show a roiling frustration with incremental progress on American streets, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the Democratic center fails to hold.

4. The two previous points ask a fundamental question: is this the start of a new era, a swing in the American pendulum that went from New Deal consensus to Regan consensus and now turns toward something new? Or is it another lurch in a nation growing more and more ungovernable, one which the 2022 midterms will promptly offset? Transition or decline? The next two years will, I think, provide a definitive answer on the direction.

5. Pedantic international affairs major insertion: what happened on January 6 was not a coup. Coups d’état involve the active collaboration of the armed forces. The reaction of the American military establishment was basically the opposite of a coup. One could even argue that the events later in the day were constitutionally questionable, because the order to call in the national guard did not come from Trump. Mike Pence, in order to prevent the subversion of the democratic process, seemingly took control; we can only assume that a threat of the 25th Amendment extracted the eventual Trump semi-concession. It took a small dodge of the constitutional order to maintain the larger constitutional order, and was the only logical endgame for a form of politics built around trolling existing order.

6. Whatever failures occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the reaction of the American security state has been overwhelming. The FBI is hunting down the perpetrators with systematic precision, and with a military occupation in Washington DC, the inauguration passed without a hint of returned insurrection. (That said, as someone who once attended another inauguration, I can assure people that the monster security presence, while expanded in 2020, is no new development.) Let no one question the vast power of the American state when it mobilizes, and while it can be terrifying in its reach, it provides a reminder that the old Max Weber maxim, that the state is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, can be a force of great stability. Stability can be unfair and unequal, but it also tends not to kill very many people, and it usually offers ladders to those who can play its games. It has its discontents, no doubt, but it also has its merits.

7. On a similar note, the power and the social media giants to silence Trump shows their overwhelming ability to control the so-called public square. I have some low-level minor league experience in this world: as someone who has moderated a silly little hockey message board for over a decade, I apply a set of online content moderation standards on a semi-regular basis. (At one point, before I got my admin powers, my board even spun off its own little Parler of disaffected users, though that forum has since gone the way of the dodo.) The language of the Facebook and Twitter plutocrats over the past months is all too familiar because I have said some of the same things to justify some decisions: my message board is a private space, to be moderated by its owner and his designees; we are like bouncers at the bar, not a government, and our users have no inherent right to anonymity or unrestricted speech on our platform. I try to be consistent and just in this space, though I am only human.

8. In short, I think Twitter made the right decision. No one should be above the established standards of content moderation in an established space. What is galling, however, is the inconsistency: if Trump can get tossed for inciting an insurrection, why are oppressive if not outright genocidal regimes still around? The answer, of course, is profit, a trend that the flight of capital from Trumpland post-insurrection underscores further. On the one hand, this seems like a depressing comment on access to a major source of contemporary discourse; one the other, maybe we need to dust off Adam Smith’s old arguments about the moral underpinnings of markets. One can dream.

9. One of the greatest joys of the Trump social media ban: getting Trump out of the heads of the media. A relatively small number of Americans uses Twitter (they are no monopoly, so let’s stop pretending like breaking them up would do any good), but it is very much a major source for everything the news broadcasted over the past five years. No more Trump Twitter means no more real-time lib-owning and the glee or exasperation that came with it. The quiet is so, so very welcome. If a side effect of social media crackdown is that more people spend less time on social media, I will shed no tears.

10. The world will, I hope, become several degrees less crazy when Covid-driven lockdowns cease to be a thing and life frees people from refreshing their news feeds every five minutes, and this trend applies to the left, the right, and the center. Life has blurred more and more toward virtual reality over the past year, with people increasingly reliant on technology for so much of their social lives and their escapes. In some ways technology will only continue this trend, but we have also seen the horrible limits of this world over the past year. In a weird way, I take some solace in the number of people who are just done with lockdown measures. It’s a sign that, when some sense of normalcy returns, a lot of people will embrace that analog reality.

11. On a less obviously political note, I’m very curious to watch and see what happens with real estate markets and American migration patterns when Covid becomes less of a thing. Over the past year, the headlines have been dominated by flight from crowded cities as people seek escapes; anecdotally, some northern Minnesota locales that haven’t seen population growth in a long time have seen an uptick in interest. As someone who thinks that neither $3,000-a-month Manhattan rents nor $30,000 Iron Range homes are signs of healthy economic competitiveness, this pleases me. Now, can it keep up?

12. It seemed somehow fitting that the man who delivered the inauguration convocation was a figure from a strange, dream-like past. I spent my college days eating in a dining hall named after Father Leo O’Donovan, a former Georgetown University president who I’d simply assumed was long dead. Instead, there he was: aged but still vigorous, insisting that a critical moment was upon us. Tennyson’s Ulysses seems an apt metaphor for the start of this new administration.

Sad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 Election Quick Takes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other random notes:

  • Sad to see my one very passing acquaintance in Congress, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, fall. The fact that she flipped that seat two years ago was astonishing in and of itself.
  • A few St. Louis County notes: Ashley Grimm’s win in a county board on the west side of Duluth shows that Democrats continue to shore up that part of the city, winning a race that may have gone to a more independent, blue-collar white guy in the past. On the Iron Range, the story is the demise of ticket-splitting: even though Biden held up fairly well on the core Range considering how much effort the Trump campaign expended here, the Democratic legislative candidates all saw their margins shrink, and Julie Sandstede, the state representative for the Hibbing area, won by less than 50 votes after winning comfortably in the past. Basically, existing trends are getting more pronounced.
  • Many congratulations to Grant Hauschild, Hermantown’s newest city councilor!

The Arsenal of Democracy

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.

Interesting Journalism, 10/18/18

This blog has been a bit quiet lately. I intend to rectify that with the culmination of a large project in the not-so-distant future, but in the meantime, here’s another smattering of interesting news for your enjoyment.

First, to get the political hot take out of the way, here’s Masha Gessen from the New Yorker on why it’s probably not a good idea to run DNA tests on oneself to try to prove a political point. Much as I hate to start discussing 2020 when we’re only weeks away from the 2018 elections, it’s the sort of unforced error that leads one to have serious questions about Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy from the start. Reactions to Warren’s decision are almost uniformly negative, but Gessen does a better job than most at getting at some of the underlying reasons why.

Next, to get meta, here’s Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic criticizing lazy journalism, which in this case involves a review of a recent book called The Coddling of the American Mind. It’s an excellent explanation of why the critique (in this case, a Guardian author fails to do anything to question the underlying premises of the book, and instead ascribes ideologically-driven motives, almost always in vague and indirect ways, to the authors. It may be great, it may be bad, but at least please address the arguments in the actual book.

For amusement with a touch of poignancy, Rod Dreher writes a requiem for Sears, the now-bankrupt store that one had a ubiquitous presence in American life. Sears self-consciously defined middle class American shopping habits, and its death is symbolic of more than just the rise of Walmart or Amazon or leveraged buyouts.

Finally, a piece that is a few years old but got a plug in this week’s newsletter from Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center: an interview between the center’s director, Roger Berkowitz, and journalist Anand Giridhardas. Here, the two discuss Giridhardas’s book The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, which follows the lives of two men chasing some of American life in the shadow of 9/11. The sociology through Olive Garden practiced by one of the two is fascinating; the book, if it is anything like the interview, is journalism at its best. Incidentally, I’m on a library waitlist for Giridhardas’s latest book, in which some of my collegiate pursuits get a brief mention. Stay tuned for that review.