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.

Prodigal Pete

Normally the political biography isn’t a genre toward the top of my reading list. These books tend to be fluff pieces that don’t delve too deeply into existential questions; they’re vehicles for votes, not serious plans for governance. Much of that is true of the one I just finished, which I read not because I’m looking to hitch myself to a particular wagon, but because I’d been told it was relevant for people looking for some ideas on how to make things happen in local government. (It was.) But, much to the dismay of my reflexive resistance to zeitgeisty political trends, Pete Buttigieg’s Shortest Way Home fascinated me in ways I didn’t expect.

Sure, I will confess a fondness to millennials with short first names and unpronounceable last names. For some odd reason, I feel an affinity for children of academics who grew up in Rust Belt midwestern cities; those who left for snobby East Coast colleges on what felt like perfectly natural paths, and then sorted out their intellectual worldviews on the road to graduate school. I also can relate to people who took jobs in consulting, spent their 20s in an intellectual and work-driven tunnel that basically closed off dating life, and made their way back to their hometowns out of a commitment to the place and its rebirth. My life story, apparently, is just a knockoff version of Buttigieg’s, though I’m not using this blog post to announce I’m joining the naval reserve or coming out of the closet or running for office. But, hell, I’ve even been told I look like him.

Mayor Pete is having himself a moment right now, and that stems from his ability to bridge across categories. His roots are in Rust Belt America, that swath of the country the Democratic Party forgot in 2016, and he’s a military reservist and a devout Catholic: in many ways, the consummate heartlander. But he’s also a gay millennial who talks of intergenerational justice, one who tries to tap into that authentic hope for the future that has been at the heart of the most successful liberal campaigns of the past half century. He’s at home in a past America and yet a clear step toward a different one, which no other candidate in the Democratic field may be able to say to the same degree. He has less baggage than Joe Biden, more genuine accomplishments to his name than Beto O’Rourke; he is more personable than Elizabeth Warren, more attuned to Democrats who have fallen by the wayside than Kamala Harris, unencumbered by Bernie Sanders’ socialist label, not committed to moderation for the sake of seeming moderate as with Amy Klobuchar.

Still, despite our commonalities, I share David Brooks’ conclusion at the end of his column on Mayor Pete’s momentum: why, given all of his seeming reasonableness, does he think the moment calls for a 37-year-old with no elected experience beyond the local level, the equivalent of Duluth ex-mayor Don Ness deciding he’s going to enter the race tomorrow? (Spare me the Donald Trump whataboutisms, please.) Much of his allure comes from being a blank slate, and the careful relationship-building that makes one a successful local politician has little to do with the partisan war that the national brand has become. It’s easy to project all sorts of hopes and desires on to this type of figure (Barack Obama was a somewhat different flavor of this), and in the right political situation, it can win. It would flatter me to believe this skillset will transfer well to governance at a higher level, but is there any empirical proof of that?

The other critique of Mayor Pete, a somewhat more scathing one, holds him up as the anointed last gasp of a failing meritocracy. People in positions of power like him because his whole biography is one of someone who has done everything right in their eyes: climb the ladder, Harvard, Oxford, McKinsey, the smartest kid in the room taking his natural place. But people who climb that ladder are exceptional, not the norm; can they really govern with any hold on reality for the rest? Is a culture based on merit doomed to sneer down on those who don’t achieve such merit, the natural outcome of a society that has replaced inherited status with a Darwinian race to the top?

South Bend’s mayor is aware he runs some risk of losing touch. He relates one story of a critic who compared his data-driven efforts to those of Robert McNamara, another so-called smartest kid in the room who made a mess of the Vietnam War. I don’t think we yet know enough about Pete Buttigieg to know where he falls on the liberal elitism spectrum, but it’s an interesting critique, and one I’ve commented on before. For that matter, let us not forget that many of the most powerful progressive icons in American history were wealthy traitors to their own class. But to succeed, Buttigieg is going to have to surround himself with people who don’t worship his credentials or intellect for their own sake.

Still, in spite of his obvious shortcomings as a candidate for the highest office in the land, I think there are a couple of other reasons why Mayor Pete is particularly attuned to this current political moment. These three facets are all related.

First, he recognizes that different political instincts are appropriate for different political times. Like a lot of people whose understanding of politics formed as a student of foreign policy (another commonality I share with him), he has a very nuanced understanding of power. His own deployment, his college-era theses, and a fondness for Graham Greene led him to recognize the naïve innocence of the democratizing crusades of a previous era of American government. But today, he recognizes that nihilism, not innocence, is the more pressing moral threat to American political life. Different excesses call for different responses, and Buttigieg strikes me as someone who will want to understand deep root causes before he starts throwing around ideas on how to fix things. His lack of policy detail isn’t necessarily an evasion.

Second is an early appreciation of American decline. It didn’t set in right away: I found myself dutifully copying down Buttigieg’s descriptions of childhood in a post-industrial town, these tales of how he went past abandoned Studebaker factories every day but never registered what they meant, because they rang so true. But as soon as we developed our consciousness of that decline—something I expect Pete found in his Harvard days, but didn’t quite examine in the way I would have liked him to in the book—we know that it can’t come back, and that we have to build something decidedly different.

I won’t claim to know what this looks like as a national platform yet, and it doesn’t seem like Pete entirely does either, but it’s become increasingly clear that neither a return to some socialist ideal nor Clintonite third way progressivism is enough to build a governing majority. The unifying story has to be some out-of-the-ashes sort of narrative that admits all is not well—Donald Trump, after all, understood this superbly in 2016—and re-invigorates it with some optimism. This is why I think the meritocratic critique of Buttigieg may be inadequate: he got off the blind achievement train, found his loyalty to a place that needed fixing, and his ideas of good and bad governance stem from the immediate solutions he found (or, occasionally, failed to find) in South Bend. He is grounded in a way that a wishy-washy moderate is not, and the answer to the nihilist challenge requires that.

Third, Buttigieg understands the primacy of culture over policy. He will certainly need to flesh out his platform if he hopes to go anywhere; he can’t float above the fray between the hardened Hillary and Bernie camps that still divide his party forever. But by focusing on stories instead of the minutiae of policy proposals, he has a chance to bring along many more people than the Elizabeth Warrens of the world ever will. This distinction is especially important for Democrats, who are much more of a cultural quilt than the Republicans are, and need to bridge more gaps to build that governing majority. Like it or not, this is an essential first step to winning a democratic election in a sprawling nation. The policy details are secondary.

I’m not convinced Pete Buttigieg should be the next president of the United States. He has a lot still to prove there. I am, however, far more convinced that lots of small and mid-sized American cities need some Pete Buttigiegs: people who commit themselves to places. People who go out and see what the world has to offer, then bring what they learned home, and do it in a manner marked by humility, not as the golden boys or girls returning home as saviors of the unwashed masses. People who go home because roots are the right things to tend to, because they believe in more than that blind meritocratic chase, and because the grass isn’t really all that much greener in DC or New York or the Bay Area. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

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.

This Week in the MN-8 Soap Opera

Minnesota’s Eight Congressional District has chewed up and spit out a second Democratic frontrunner. Last time we checked in, I asked if Leah Phifer’s insurgent campaign was the foundation for the new DFL in MN-8, or if she was merely playing Eugene McCarthy to Rick Nolan’s LBJ. The answer is the latter, as Phifer has dropped out of the race following her failure to secure the endorsement at last Saturday’s hung DFL convention.

Phifer showed both the promise and the pitfalls of being the young person who inspires activist energy. She became a vessel for a lot of people’s opinions: first, she was a hero to the environmental wing of the party, as she became a rallying point for people who thought the incumbent Nolan had gone a bridge too far. While she herself was somewhat more nuanced, she’d had an image bestowed on her, and the Iron Range wing of the party was swift to strike back. When she left some daylight to her left on non-ferrous mining, in came Michelle Lee to siphon off some support, too. The more jarring blow, I suspect, came from the Latino Caucus, which burst in to denounce her candidacy at the party convention due to her past work for ICE. Her opponents, naturally, were none too sad to see her challenged here, and while she tried to explain herself and move on, the Latino Caucus didn’t flinch. With a plea for unity, she stepped away.

Perhaps in a different world the young woman who barnstormed the district on her motorcycle would have taken the MN-8 DFL by storm. With a background that included rural roots, time in law enforcement, and reliably liberal views, Phifer looked like a transitional figure to a new generation for the party in this sprawling district. But the fault lines in 2018, both in the local mining debate and the national immigration debate, are far too sharp. Spurts of heartfelt emotion in many directions, to say nothing of endorsements and fundraising power, overwhelm anyone’s cautious takes or nuanced pasts. Politics is war in this environment, and even a former intelligence officer didn’t seem to have the appetite for going into the trenches.

In the end, I think Phifer’s biggest mistake was trying to rely on the party caucus to secure her place on the DFL ticket. Perhaps her budget forced her hand there, but caucuses are not friendly environments for newcomers: the small number of participants means a few established players wield a lot of power, and the people willing to give up a random Saturday in April are also far more likely to be true believers in their causes. Despite what some people tried to project on Phifer, that was never who she was. She was an optimistic, perhaps naïve change agent whose candidacy rose and fell with tides beyond her control, as they toppled a powerful figure but left no clear path forward in their wake. Time will tell if this brave new world benefits the MN-8 DFL or not.

Who benefits most from her withdrawal from the race? Lee, potentially; while short on resources compared to the others, she is now the only obvious choice for the mining skeptics in the party. Her best hope is probably for a knockout fight between Joe Radinovich and Jason Metsa, where she could win a primary with 35-40 percent of the vote. Kirsten Kennedy could also possibly gain, but she needs a much stronger infrastructure to go anywhere. If anyone is set back somewhat, I think it’s Metsa, who would have benefitted from the institutional support that turns out reliable votes in a more crowded field. Given that backing, though, it’s hardly a knockout blow for his candidacy, and if the race gets bloody, Metsa has the benefit of having some of the Iron Range’s best fighters in his corner.

But for now, I think the DFL nomination is Radinovich’s to lose. He’s positive and telegenic; like Phifer he is trying to be a lot of things to a lot of people, but since most of his young life has been in politics, he does know what he’s getting himself into. Like Rick Nolan, he hails from Cuyuna Country, so he’s independent from the traditional Range power elite, but still from a similar place culturally. At some point or another there will need to be more substance there, especially if it comes down to him and Pete Stauber this fall. But if he can continue to float above the fray, he can find a middle ground where he is, if not the first choice of both mining and environmental wings of the party, acceptable. Unless there are some skeletons in the closet that we don’t know about, he’s in a good position for the primary.

As for the general election, well, I won’t chance a prediction there. Pete Stauber waits in the wings, and few congressional races in the country will say as much about the shifts in Trump era political coalitions as MN-8. Buckle up. We’re only getting started.

Programming note: I’d hoped to have another collection of news stories up today, but that got bumped by this more timely piece of news. It’ll be along tomorrow.

Of Congressmen and Mockingbirds

Time to make a rare foray back into political commentary on two Duluth area stories that have made national attention this past week.

A Congressional Free-For-All

Well, everyone else is doing it, so I’d like to declare my candidacy for—nah. Not a chance in hell.

Rick Nolan threw the race for Minnesota’s 8th congressional seat for a loop with his abrupt decision not to seek re-election last week. (For much more timely and thorough coverage than mine, visit Aaron Brown’s blog.) I pointed to Nolan as a survivor after his 2016 win despite the Trump tide in his district, but the center he held to pull together the MN-8 DFL—economic and social populism to satisfy the base, and unabashed support for mining projects to preserve the Iron Range votes—began to fray this term. He faced a spirited primary fight from Leah Phifer, a 30-something former intelligence analyst who argued it was time for a fresh voice in Washington. Gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Otto’s win in the MN-8 DFL caucuses was a sign that Nolan was going to face a real battle, though my own suspicions about his candidacy began to creep in a few weeks earlier when he called off a Duluth fundraiser.

I found it fascinating that Phifer became the rallying point for environmental causes when her public stance on non-ferrous mining is actually a fairly muted endorsement of existing processes. It goes to show just how jaded the DFL’s environmental base was with Nolan’s attempt to defund a U.S. Forest Service study that that came along with a late Obama-era moratorium that it flocked to a moderately more acceptable candidate. This is the wedge issue in the MN-8 DFL, and Nolan’s rock-solid liberal credentials neither assuaged the environmental left nor drove away Iron Range blue collar social conservatives. To her credit, Phifer also scored authenticity points with her early entry and trailblazing around the district, and a young, female political newcomer was a better fit for the DFL base’s current mood than some of the male longtime politicians like Nolan, and some of those who could now oppose her. Time will tell if she is a serious contender or merely playing Eugene McCarthy to Nolan’s LBJ, but she’s certainly made a splash.

There is room on several sides of Pfeiffer within the DFL for competition to emerge. If the pro-non-ferrous mining camp wants a champion of its own, its foremost options are Jeff Anderson, a native Ranger and Duluth city councilor in the 00s, and Jason Metsa, the state representative in the Virginia area. North Branch mayor Kirsten Hagen Kennedy, the first announced new entrant to the race, has loosely come out in favor of non-ferrous mining, and if no one from the Range chooses to enter, she could be the beneficiary, though she has a fairly large name recognition gap on the rest of the field. Meanwhile, we have an entrant to Phifer’s left, and it’s an intriguing one: longtime Duluth TV anchor Michelle Lee. She has the media savvy and the positive general perception that she could perform well, especially in a crowded primary where turning out a base will be key. Her announcement also made it clear she isn’t going to try to “thread the needle” on the big wedge issue, as she will oppose non-ferrous mining. Candidates who leave no room to one side of themselves on this issue, for or against, are going to get some vocal supporters.

On the list of people who will probably try to thread that needle, one candidate has already declared for the race: Joe Radinovich, a former one-term state congressman who had just taken a job as chief of staff to new Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey. Like Mayor GentriFrey, he comes off as a polished young candidate groomed for politics who will take some principled stands here and there—his support for gay marriage probably cost him his House seat—but otherwise speaks in sweeping, optimistic generalities. I could see his candidacy finding the middle ground, or crashing and burning in a crowded field. Duluth area senator Erik Simonson has opposed non-ferrous mining, but does have some union bona fides that might not totally doom him on the Range if he were to enter the race. If there’s a safe pick to bridge divides, it’s probably state senator Tony Lourey, who has a long track record in the legislature, has consistently won in a very rural district, and carries a valuable family name in liberal circles. But we’ll see if he has any real interest, and if his style can succeed in a political environment that would seem to reward turning out core supporters.

No one has an easy path. Skip Sandman still looms there to drain votes away from any Democrat who supports non-ferrous mining, but any DFLer who doesn’t support it is going to take some blows on the Iron Range. A Michelle Lee-type figure would need to limit the damage there, turn out the base in Duluth, and try to make inroads in the Twin Cities exurban portions of the district that don’t much care about mining debates. Lourey and maybe Radinovich might have the best odds in a general election, but 2016 reminds us that candidates need to inspire enthusiasm in addition to seeming electability, and they’ll have to get through a crowded primary. If the DFL has a saving grace, it is probably its ground game in the Eighth; if the primary winner comes through without too many burned bridges, he or she will have the backing of a very strong infrastructure.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have a much cleaner field right now. Pete Stauber, who has a lot of potential, remains the only declared candidate. Stewart Mills is apparently pondering a third run now; while he has the money for it, he feels like an also-ran at this point. That leaves Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt lurking in the shadows as the only likely person who could both win the nomination and the general. Conventional wisdom says Nolan’s withdrawal ups Republican odds of a win, since Nolan has proven resilient in past election cycles, but Nolan’s left flank on mining (and mining alone!) was exposed enough that I’m not sure that will be the case until we know who the Democratic nominee is. At this point, all Stauber can do is try to build familiarity as the Democrats squabble with one another, and we’ll revisit this if someone else jumps in.

To Kill a Reading Assignment

The other newsmaker in Duluth recently was a decision by the Duluth school district to strike two classic texts, To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, from the curriculum due to their use of racial slurs. I’ll concede that my initial reaction was visceral: I cringe at any seeming attempt to wash away unpleasant histories, and I’m a graduate of this district who read and was moved by both. The world of Mockingbird may be an idealized version of the South, but the standard it sets for childhood recognition of injustice and moral conduct in the face of it deserves the credit it has earned. I struggle to think of a book that inspired a more emotional reception from the classroom in my high school years.  Huck Finn, while probably less beloved, is still perhaps the most complex work of one of America’s most delightful authors, and is the rare novel with literary merit that unabashedly captures the voice of an adolescent boy. And while I acknowledge that there was a fair amount of discomfort among some (white) classmates of mine in reading a certain word over and over again, I would like to think that a high school classroom should aspire to be exactly the sort of safe space where students can come to recognize the full extent of racist sentiment in American history, and hold a productive discussion about what it means, and how far we have (or haven’t) come. If not here, then where?

Of course, I know nothing of what it is like to read these books as a black kid. (For that matter, there wasn’t a single African-American in either of my Duluth East English classes in which we read these books.) And while I will defend the concept of a historical literary canon that captures the best of literature, I also don’t think that these things have to be static, with certain books taught in perpetuity. Canons grow and evolve, and there are a lot of good books that can touch on similar themes without losing literary merit. Books in English classes shouldn’t just be “relatable,” as good writing needs more than that, but there are points at which books become so inaccessible that there are better alternatives. I’ve seen plenty of suggestions bandied about already, and would have a couple of my own, too, if there were space for a productive community conversation here. The district could have that very debate internally, perhaps while including community stakeholders such as the NAACP at the table, but instead decided to make the decision first and then respond later.

What irks me most about this was how it was handled. No teachers, nor even the school board, had any say in the matter. It was an edict handed down from on high, as has become the norm in this district. (I’ve usually heard good things about curriculum director Mike Cary, but how naïve did he have to be not to realize this would happen, as he seems to suggest in his claim that this “took on a life of its own before having a chance to talk about it,” when the very first talk anyone outside of a district office heard on this was the announcement that the books were gone?) All too predictably, this drew some fairly negative coverage, and now the district gets itself splattered across national headlines, and occasionally used as a punchline. I sometimes think that ISD 709 could find some way to turn getting the best test scores in the state into a PR nightmare. This is the direct result of its manner of engagement with its most important stakeholders, its students and its teachers. Some things never change.

Goodbye to All That?

Eight years ago, I spent inauguration day freezing to death in Washington D.C. I was a Georgetown freshman, and there was no other place to be, particularly in the aftermath of an election that, whatever one’s politics, was certainly historic. Living in what was then (but is no longer now) a majority black city also gave me an added window into what Barack Obama’s ascendance meant for some people, particularly on election night, when I saw tears and joy that, I understood, were for something I would never be able to feel.

Not that a Midwestern white boy couldn’t try. I made sure to drink it all in: a national day of service event at RFK Stadium, a star-studded inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial. My cousin and his friend drove in from Indiana for the spectacle–I didn’t sleep the night before, as I awaited his arrival–and my dorm became a boarding house, with bodies sprawled across the common room. A group of us started down to the Mall around 4:30 and stood, huddled and chilled, for hours amid a throng of millions. Barack Obama was just a speck in the distance from our spot on the lawn, somewhere near the Hirshhorn Museum. We had a better view of the snipers on the roof of the National Gallery than we did of the new President, and the hike back to the Hilltop involved dazed weaving through mazes of port-o-potties. Still, it was all worth it, and I’m reminded of it almost every day: a few of those American flags they gave us to wave about still decorate my apartment.

inaug

I knew I was living history. I knew that, somehow, I needed to capture what this moment felt like so that I’d remember it. And so I wrote a few paragraphs. I was nineteen, and had only started writing in any serious sense a couple of months before. I had potential, though I also had a rookie’s penchant for florid prose:

The ceremony is to be a re-affirmation of the American faith in democracy. Its venue, the world’s most austere cathedral; the vast morning sky reaching from horizon to horizon in its embrace. There is no ceiling, least of all one of glass; simply the sky reaching towards the heavens…”

Yikes. The glass ceiling line is kinda cute, but come on, Karl. Are you really shamelessly comparing your country to a church? And seriously, that verb construction in the first line?

Fortunately, despite being an idealistic kid consumed by Washington’s atmosphere at the time, I was not among those who expected some sort of grandiose change out of Obama. Not that it mattered. That sweeping rhetoric, both the root of his appeal and the eventual source of disappointment for a number of his allies and disgust for many of his opponents, created a mythology that distracted from the actual art of governance. Later in the essay, I nail it:

There are no messiahs in politics. There are only humans, resplendent in their glories and glaring in their flaws. Time is short; there is work to be done. Soon the aura shall fade into memory, and unforgiving reality shall continue its steadfast march. To see the mountaintop is not enough; to stay upon the mountaintop remains an impossibility.

But for one day, such realities can be cast aside, and the awe-inspiring might of symbolism can run rampant in the mind. Often the import of great events lies not in actuality but in the power they wield in the human perception. And in this sense, this day can trump them all.

I can only laugh wryly at my verb choice in that last line.

In retrospect, that last paragraph was truer than I imagined, and Donald Trump’s election is as good a sign of that as any. So much of politics is emotion and symbolic power—what is ‘Make America Great Again’ if not symbolic?—especially on a distant national level when we’ve never met the people involved. I can be, and often am, more pleased by some election results than by others. But I will never be able to say I understand the joy black people felt upon Obama’s election, just as I’ll never be able to understand how Donald Trump could cause great joy in others, either. This isn’t to claim these emotions are in some way equivalent, but merely to marvel at how much a person we’ve never met can elicit life-defining sensations.

Part of me has grown downright scornful of this impulse to put faith in someone’s election, no matter the reason. This is the most insidious of vicarious lives, to cast one’s hopes on to some inevitably flawed human; Caesarism at its worst, a hopeless projection of hopes and dreams on to some distant figure of power when the most important work one can do to secure those aspirations is right here at home. But another part of me suspects I’d be fighting a losing war against human nature if I were to rail against this impulse full throttle.

It’s something of a paradox. I have little trouble being coldly rational in how I weigh most things, including the effectiveness of politicians I agree with or my own reactions to momentous events. And yet there are few things that have as much of a pull on me as passionate youth, and (joking a few paragraphs ago aside), I pass no harsh judgment on my earlier words. We tend to experience the world more vividly in our formative years, to live more fully in emotional surges. And while it requires the proper mindset, I do actually enjoy revisiting some of my old writing, understanding it as an essential part of growth and not just some fixed moment of an incomplete self. Those glimmers we get in those formative years are among the most important moments we encounter. Joan Didion: “one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”

Inauguration Day 2009 was the peak of an arc that eventually swung through a park in Mexico City two years later, an outburst of troubled words in the days after I left Washington, and has landed me right back where I came from, delighted to be where I am. Joan Didion eventually said Goodbye to All That, and she was right to do so. It’s all happened before, will probably all happen again. There’s nothing so unique about this moment that past experience can’t speak to.

But that doesn’t mean the insight from this moment isn’t real, doesn’t mean the emotion that comes out of it can’t continue to course through what we do, in some way or another. So if I shrug impassively at this next inauguration, it’s not because I’ve abandoned what I felt eight years earlier. It’s merely its natural culmination. A deeper fire still burns. I have work to do.

A Fractured Vision for a Fractured Nation

Book Review: The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by Yuval Levin

I have a certain fascination with books about American decline. It’s part a case of morbid curiosity, and part genuine concerns about such excitement as declining civic institutions, lack of trust, segregation by race and ethnicity leading to new battle lines…the list goes on. It’s not difficult to drift this way given the current political climate, even as I try to stay critical of it all. Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism hits all these notes, so I made sure to snap up a copy right away.

Levin’s book follows in the recent tradition of alarm bells about divergence in American society, a topic that attracts authors both on the left (George Packer, The Unwinding; Robert Putnam, Our Kids) and the right (Charles Murray, Coming Apart). They all share a profound concern for a collapse of national unity and a thinning middle class, and wonder what may come of it. Levin falls on the rightward side of the debate, and fits in with the “reform conservatives,” a group that has mustered some intellectual heft and gets the occasional nod from the likes of Paul Ryan, who (along with Packer) gives the book some plaudits on the dust jacket. To date, however, they’ve had limited electoral success, and very little policy success. (One could almost see the rise of Donald Trump as a sort of cruel joke on them: here is a populist attacking the “establishment” thinking of the left and the right, paying attention to the grievances of Middle America left behind by our current political and economic climate…and yet instead of careful, wonkish solutions with strong philosophical backing, we get their antithesis.)

Levin offers his best insights in his historical analysis, in which he traces the U.S.’s march from its incredible post-World War II cohesion to our increasingly fragmented present state of affairs. Here, he usually avoids an ideological reading and critiques both the left and the right for their sense of nostalgia for varying forms of midcentury political situations that aren’t coming back. The left is still pushing for the same general things it wanted in the 1960s, while the right is stuck in Reagan-land. Levin calls out baby boomers for imposing a false history, as popular readings of the past 60 years map neatly on to boomers’ march through stages of life, from youthful rebellion to in the 60s, settling down in the 80s, and on into a decline into old age in recent years. Weirdly, because the old authorities have faded away, our era of extreme fragmentation doesn’t lead to diverse, new, creative solutions: people just hear what they want to hear, and fall back on the same old canards.

Both left and right can claim some successes since the 60s: the left has tended to win the culture wars, while the right has advanced its economic thought. Levin shows that these wins are two sides of the same coin: in each case, a philosophy of individualism wins out, whereas the collective worldview of leftist economics or cultural conservatism fades away. And the atmosphere that created the prior cohesion, a story of modernization and corporatism and responses to great crises like the Depression and the World Wars, is unique to mid-century America. It’s not coming back, so Levin concedes (too quickly?) that all future policy responses must acknowledge this reality and look to work with it and block only its worst excesses, rather than trying to turn back the clock.

The solution, Levin tells us, lies in the old principle of subsidiarity: the idea that we should find solutions to problems on the smallest practical scale, one that reflects the diversity of human experience. This may sound stupidly obvious, but it’s actually a fairly alien sentiment in modern political discourse, which tends to consider only the individual’s relationship to the nation-state. The left is certainly guilty of this, often viewing anything in the middle as something to be liberated from instead of a potential partner in solutions, and while Levin tries to argue the right offers more fertile ground, his practical evidence for this point proves sparse. Rather than framing it as a conservative philosophy, he could gain more followers by emphasizing the story of human interaction at its core, which can find adherents anywhere and everywhere.

The Fractured Republic faces something of a paradox in its attempt to rebuild the United States by giving the work of doing so to its smaller parts. We’re conditioned to think on a national scale, but if the solutions are frequently sub-national and experimental, how on earth do we come out of that with anything resembling a coherent republic? So often, critics of our federal leviathan take for granted the benefits of a nation-state; for all the flaws in our system, it’s a guarantor of incredible stability and opportunity for growth. If there really is no nation-building project to go along with all of the local work, the outcome may be far more radical than Levin intends. Whether this is a bad thing or not is up for debate.

Levin is a believer in the “laboratory of democracy” theory, where different states and cities try different approaches, and we all learn from one another. I like this method, but to my disappointment, he doesn’t touch on the most glaring criticism: experimental policy runs the risk of turning people into lab rats, and may underestimate the power of inertia in the failed experiments. Take charter schools, for example, which Levin tosses out as an unquestionably good idea: yes, some are very successful, but others are not, and empowering them consigns kids to failing schools, with potentially long-lasting damage. Is that worth the cost, and how do we hold the failures accountable? The public school system obviously can fail to do this also, but at least here we know how to navigate the bureaucracy, and all the data are readily available. If this is a laboratory, who’s running the experiment?

The worldview Levin draws from to build his case is one I know well. From Tocqueville to Nisbet, I spent a lot of time swimming in these waters when I went looking for a philosophical backstory for my shifting beliefs as I wrapped up my time at Georgetown and headed home. With some nuances, I still think this is a valuable place, and one that needs a much louder voice in contemporary America. It provides both as a realm to build close ties with people and build toward a vision of what a strong community looks like, and, as events warrant, as a place to pull back and build defenses against a wider threat of collapse.

Reading Levin, however, I found myself more on guard than ever before about this milieu. I need to make sure that my discussions of the “human scale” don’t replace one fetishizing ideology with another, and that my own nostalgia for the community I grew up in—one whose ability to provide options for everyone, I fear, is fraying, even less than a decade out of high school—does not cloud my judgment over how to order things wherever I end up. In tearing down Levin’s creative solutions to partisan gridlock, I run some risk of simply being the great defender of the status quo, too skeptical of the alternatives to trust any of them. But there are still a lot of lingering questions about our faith in local ties and altruism to really offer something profoundly different from the vicious cynicism of national politics.

A Fractured Republic offers a compelling history, but remains a bit too mired in that history, and a bit too vague on the details, to offer up a compelling vision going forward. I think that vision exists, and it has a lot to learn from Levin and his fellow travelers, but no one has quite written that book yet.

Trump Cards on the Table

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.

Against ‘The West Wing’

Strange kid that I was, I only watched one television show with serious regularity through my teenage years. That show was The West Wing. It was certainly better television than the alternatives, but behind the brilliant acting and clever wordplay was an all too accurate insight into our political world, one covered up by the feel-good veneer of Aaron Sorkin’s scripts. Pete Davis tells the whole story in a fantastic column over on Front Porch Republic. If you’re a Wingnut, click the link and read it.

I won’t rehash too much of the same territory, but my experience was exactly like Davis’s, and at Georgetown, I found myself surrounded by fellow West Wing junkies who would indeed have watch parties and use the show to inspire their political scheming. Its ethos fed Obama-mania, making people think politics was a simple matter of well-heeled liberals using lofty rhetoric and snappy arguments to drive their opponents into submission. Politics becomes something that wise people off in Washington do for us, not something we ourselves actually do. (Unless, of course, we expected to be those people in Washington someday, which many of us did.) Behind the lofty soundtrack we find an administration that has no great vision, yet somehow manages to come across as brilliant in its advancement of wonky, incremental liberal policies. And we wonder why the Obama Administration has had so much trouble being liked.

I don’t think this is a terrible failing of the show that renders it useless; in fact, it is all too illustrative of the siloed nature of the U.S. political elite. It is a pathology especially common among young college grads, in which people like to think they are not elites and care about the people around them, even dedicate their lives to helping them, yet do so from a distance, quickly losing touch. Internet culture aids this phenomenon, as people group together and only read the media they like and interact with like-minded people. Everyone smiles and feels all happy and warm, nodding gravely at the words of one’s fellow travelers. These people then head out into the world and try to do good and show everyone else the right way, and cannot for the life of them understand why their ideas are so harshly rejected. Political opponents are then labeled “dumb” and “crazy,” and the vicious cycle begins anew.

The West Wing is not a window into politics, you see; it is a window into one very narrow, wonkish dreamland conception of politics. The two shows Davis recommends at the end of the piece are far more accurate portraits of politics, despite the relative lack of actual political institutions. They are also the best two shows that have been on television in my lifetime. The raw grittiness of The Wire and the meditative humanity of Friday Night Lights allow TV to do what film cannot, weaving together stories of lives over five seasons, showing how personalities collide and interact and carve out little spaces for themselves, their ‘wins’ and ‘losses’ ever so fleeting. This is politics in the Greek sense, deeply (small-r) republican and lived out in daily life. While not without their flaws, they come much closer to approximating actual political existence within an inner city (The Wire) and exurban/small-town/rural America (FNL) than any explicitly ‘political’ drama ever could.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that the stretch of episodes most West Wing fans would label as its pinnacle is the conclusion of Season Two, when the news of President Bartlet’s long-hidden multiple sclerosis slowly comes out. This stretch is only peripherally about political practice, and is much more about the psychological inner drama of the President’s inner circle and, above all, the President, whose re-election decision hinges on his relationship with a deceased secretary and some daddy issues tied up in his faith. I don’t know if Sorkin and company really intended to create a model for how political culture should work, but on that level, the show fails. The West Wing is at its best when it’s a character study in the vein of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, examining the decisions people make in response to circumstances in their lives, and in revealing the thought processes of people caught up within a particular silo. Its reach is deep, but it is not broad, and if we try to pretend it is so, we’ve taken a good show too far and ruined it.

Like Davis, I still enjoy aspects of The West Wing, and have it to thank for much of my childhood political interest. In a roundabout way, it led me to where I am now. But its political culture is a terrible guide, and leads toward some sort of humility-free, revenge-of-the-nerds world that will never get us anywhere. The few reality checks are maudlin, and the characters are too caught up in their destinies as political operatives to ever show the rest of us the way. Washington will never change if we continue to think of it as a battleground, or a prize to be won. That process must start at home, and in practicing a humane politics in the places we live. If we’re looking for the good life, the Taylors of Dillon, Texas are far better guides than Josh Lyman or Sam Seaborn.