Monday, October 24, 2016


Over the past two weeks the Trump campaign has been pivoting, but not to the middle. He has made claims of a “rigged” election the centerpiece of his campaign. These assertions reflect a dangerous tendency among Republicans to use false rumors of voter fraud to disenfranchise people of color and to delegitimize Democratic officials. Sainted John McCain, supposedly a representative of a less vicious GOP, claimed that ACORN was going to engage in election fraud back in 2008. In the years since, those accusations have led to increased voter requirements and a pliant Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act.

One thing that has bugged me about the reaction to Trump’s execrable comments is the assertion that "America has always had free and fair elections.”


Until 1968, there was not a single election where everyone could vote. There was a brief period in Reconstruction where black men could vote, but women still could not. Until 1920, women could not vote. Until 1965, voting rights were still contingent on race. Considering that African American voter registration rates in the South were disproportionately low in 1968, even that election might not be able to be classified as the first free and fair presidential election in American history. But for the sake of argument, I’ll say that there were merely twelve presidential elections in this country’s history, from 1968 to 2012, that count. That’s out of 58 total.

It is the rule, not the exception, for the vote to be limited in American history. And since the Shelby decision, it looks like we are turning back the clock to before 1965. And yet the candidates were not asked about voting rights during the presidential debates. It is a vital problem that isn’t being dealt with by the political media, who cannot cram it into their fatuous “both sides do it” narrative. This is a case where Republicans are just blatantly trying to deny the vote to groups of people who tend to vote against them. The stenographers then report the "voter fraud" rationale and refuse to call voter suppression what it really is, since that would be taking sides.

A big part of the reason for this suppression, and for Trump's "rigged" rhetoric, is that a whole lot of Republicans simply will not accept the legitimacy of any Democrat in the White House. We saw this with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and we will certainly see it with Hillary Clinton, too. They assume that they are the "real Americans," and that if their preferred candidate is not elected, it must be due to chicanery on the part of the left, particularly with voters of color.

As I mentioned, the Voting Rights Act only held sway over the presidential elections from 1968 to 2012. During that time each Democrat elected president has done so without a majority of the white vote. The attempts to limit the vote seemed rooted to me in an assumption as old as the "Redeemers" who violently ended Reconstruction: a government without the support of a majority of whites is de facto illegitimate. This year Trump has merely made the subtext into text. Time will tell if this energizes white supremacy or if it helps expose its machinations to those previously blind to them.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Fela Kuti, "Zombie"

I can still remember the first time I listened to Fela Kuti. It was as if Miles Davis and James Brown had somehow been combined into one amazing, flowing, eternal music. I remember preaching the gospel of Fela Kuti, playing his music to anyone who'd never heard it.

Beyond the polyrhythmic, jazzy ecstasy of his music, Kuti was one of those very rare artists who wrote political songs that actually worked and didn't collapse under the weight of their own intention. (Bono and Jill Stein can provide some examples of the other variety.) His albums consisted of side-long jams, and "Zombie" is one of the best, both musically and lyrically. The groove is, as usual, irresistible and otherworldly, driven by a frantic rhythm guitar.

The song is directed at the soldiers of Nigeria's army, portraying them as mindless zombies following orders to kill innocent people. At one point he shouts out orders like a drill sergeant on the parade ground, with Africa 70's beat getting much more martial. The army didn't take kindly to this taunting, and attacked his commune, beating Fela Kuti and fatally injuring his mother. There's nothing that puts those with an authoritarian personality in a blind, violent rage more than questioning their blind obedience. (Exhibit A: the reaction to Colin Kaepernick.)

I've been thinking of this song this week, where so many crowds have thrilled to the words of an authoritarian who happens to be getting prominent support from police unions. Many zombies in their ranks have killed innocent people without remorse. If Trump were less of a buffoon he may well have been capable of using his zombie army to take power by force in a contested election. The story's not over yet, of course. And those zombies will still be around, still holding guns in their hands.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

How Long Will Our Legitimacy Crisis Last?

This has been a dark week in American politics. John McCain basically said that Republicans, who have blocked president Obama's Supreme Court nominee, would also block any nominee put forward by Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump and many of his surrogates have proclaimed that this is a "rigged" election, and are calling on their minions to take action.

I believe what we are seeing is the latest chapter in a legitimacy crisis that stretches back to the 1990s. Republicans since the Clinton administration have decided that any Democrat in the White House is de facto illegitimate. They impeached Bill Clinton over a hummer after years of obstruction. The levels of obstruction got even worse under Obama, with the debt ceiling used as a hostage taking device on more than one occasion. Worse than that, Congress has refused to act on Merrick Garland's nomination, something that in a normal year would be considered a constitutional crisis.

Why do Republicans assume that every Democratic president is illegitimate? It's a matter of ethno-nationalism, really. Republicans see themselves as the "real Americans," and thus if they lose, it must be the fault of anti-Americans, or a nefarious plot to subvert the will of the true majority. Keep in mind, no Democrat for president has carried a majority of the white vote since LBJ. Deep down a lot of Republicans feel in their guts (they probably don't even consciously think this) that a president not approved by a majority of white men or white people generally is not legitimate.

How much more of this can our nation endure? The weakness of the Republican Party in presidential elections means that they are likely locked out of the White House for the foreseeable future. If Clinton wins, they will have lost the popular vote in six out of the last seven elections. This era may soon resemble the period between 1860 and 1908, when Democrats won only two presidential elections over a 48 year period, with the parties reversed.  The "real Americans" will not stand for such an outcome.

If Democrats keep the White House, the paramilitary organizations (which is what militias are) will only get stronger. The white nationalists, who have used this election to grab a place in the political mainstream, will only have more and more disaffected white voters available to sway to their side. Above all, the Republicans, as long as they can keep winning off-year elections, will just obstruct obstruct obstruct, and get their way by refusing to cooperate. They will also deny the legitimacy of the other party's presidents, and keep ratcheting up the "rigged election" rhetoric and the fear of people of color, all while the folks on the fringe are oiling up their guns.

This state of affairs cannot last forever. A house divided against itself cannot stand. It must become either all one thing, or all the other.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Classic Albums: Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3

Last week's announcement of Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize win has put the Bobfather back on my brain. Every couple of years or so I go on a deep Dylan jag where his music dominates my listening habits, and it looks like this win may have started a brand new one. All of this got me thinking about the first Dylan album (in this case, box set) I ever owned.

I had never really listened to Dylan when I was a 16 year old in the October of 1991, but I'd heard so much about him, and even checked out Clinton Heylin's biography of him from the local library. I was at the moment where I was discovering music not on the Top 40, but without a guide, other than the occasional issue of Rolling Stone bought at Walgreen's. In a strange bit of serendipity, a record store in a neighboring town was going out of business, with cassette tapes 66% off. I noticed that the just released The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased, 1961-1991) box set was there for the taking for only ten bucks, and I took the plunge. (I also bought my first Replacements album at that same sale. It was a good day.) It was strange to dig into Dylan through cast-offs and B-sides, but looking back on it, the best way to be introduced to him. It meant that when I heard his more famous material, I could put it into a broader context. And even if you happened to listen to his official stuff first, these "bootleg" songs open up an entire world.

Dylan was the first artist to be widely bootlegged, and one of the few this side of Prince whose vaults can yield unending amounts of great material. (Nice try, Beatles Anthology.) The complexity of his words and his studied mask of mystery pretty much impel his fans to know more. The official Bootleg Series, several volumes long by now, emerged more out of necessity than anything else due to how much of Dylan's material was being put out in substandard bootlegs.

The first three volumes were all sold together, but all tell a vastly different story. The first tape or disc takes us only to 1963. This volume tells us the story of Bob Dylan young folksinger, the new Woody Guthrie singing topical songs with a harmonica and a guitar. This is the figure misguidedly canonized by so many hardcore Village folkies, the one they would later call "Judas" for going electric and rock and roll. It starts with "Hard Times In New York Town," about the Minnesota country boy trying to make it in the hard-shouldered urban canyons of Gotham. Volume 1 ends with Dylan at Town Hall, no longer just playing Village coffee houses. It ends on such a fitting note, with a poem dedicated to Woody Guthrie, the man who was the obvious inspiration for this part of Dylan's career. In between there are many gems, including the piano version of "When The Ship Comes In" and "Let Me Die In My Footsteps," perhaps the best song about living with the threat of the Bomb. When I was 16 I listened to this tape the most, mostly because it was the least challenging and most familiar, since my parents were big fans of the poppier acts of the folk boom, like Peter, Paul, and Mary and the like. In any case, topical, finger-pointing songs like "Who Killed Davy Moore?" appealed to a teenager first realizing that he was actually a progressive and not a Republican.

The second volume is the one I later gravitated to, but also the strangest. Whereas the first one captures a specific moment in Dylan's career, the second takes us from 1963 to 1975, from Dylan the edgier folkie to Dylan the electric master of mayhem to the post-motorcycle crash recluse to the reborn artist of Blood On The Tracks. This volume also has precious little from his holy trinity of mid sixties peaks: Bring It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Many of the songs from that period are also incomplete, perhaps reflecting the toll of touring and drugs. There's a weird, minute-long piano waltz version of the epochal "Like A Rolling Stone" that ends with Dylan tiredly announcing "My voice is gone, man." The promising "She's Your Lover Now" comes to a crashing halt. At the same time, there's a great version of "I'll Keep It With Mine," later famously sung by Nico. The songs seem chosen to imply that Dylan's years of quiet were the necessary result of exhaustion.

We get two precious little songs from the famous Basement Tapes, but both grabbed my attention so much when I first heard them that my obsession with what he recorded at Big Pink was born. There's the silly yet catchy "Santa Fe" and a jaw-droppingly beautiful rendition of "I Shall Be Released." From there, things get eclectic, reflecting Dylan's wanderings in the late 60s and early 70s, including the lovely, straight up country song "Wallflower," later put on wax by the great Doug Sahm. After hearing all the rock and folk, the bright country steel guitar on this song is jarring. The second volume ends on a much different note, however, with three songs from the Blood On The Tracks sessions. The version of "Tangled Up In Blue" on here is maybe my favorite, perhaps because you can hear the buttons on Dylan's jacket clanging on the guitar. It's such a great glimpse into his spontaneous recording process, a habit that can drive his collaborators nuts. "Call Letter Blues," which is "Meet Me In The Morning" with different lyrics, lays Dylan's separation from his wife bare. "Children cry for mother/ I tell them mother took a trip." It all ends with "Idiot Wind," completely and utterly different from "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie." The youthful hope has curdled into middle-aged bitterness. I love this version so much more than the one on Blood On The Tracks. It's more spare and wistful, less hateful. This version was perhaps too rare and real for the secretive Dylan to show the world. He had to cover up his vulnerability with vitriol.

I made a habit of listening to volume 2 on dark, lonely nights. The first side (remember album sides?) is the sound of a man breaking down in the midst of his career peak. The second is the sound of a man flailing and then hitting an emotional valley only to be shocked into making something great in response. That's an arc you can only get from the Bootleg Series, not from any compilation of Dylan's official recordings. Volume 2 might be the truest single disc picture of Bob Dylan that exists. It is not an album in the traditional sense, but is perhaps more masterfully organized and curated than any other compilation.

Volume 3, I must admit, is the least played of the three, but just as revealing. It starts strong, with songs from Dylan's mid-1970s comeback, including a great live rocking "Seven Days" and the pretty little baseball song "Catfish," about pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter. Unfortunately, it then gets into outtakes from Dylan's trilogy of Christian rock albums, and there's nothing here that revealing. His music in that era also imitated the dominant, middle of the road California cocaine rock. The real revelations come in the second half, with a passel of songs from the sessions for 1983's Infidels much stronger than much of what was officially released. "Blind Willie McTell" has become legendary as an example of how Dylan's outtakes in his 80s slough were better than the crap he put on wax. This fact is an enduring topic of conversation, but I think it just shows how bad his judgement had become, how lost he was. In 1991, listening to these songs I thought I was hearing the last gasp of a once great, but spent artist. The last song, "Series of Dreams," had an elegiac quality to it. Perhaps now, after thirty years, the dream is over and Bob Dylan has nothing left to say.

Of course, what I didn't understand then was that the Oh Mercy sessions that birthed that song gave Dylan the spark and confidence he needed to continue after many years of treading water. The great Signs Of Life entry in the Bootleg Series shows a second career beginning at this point, one with its own high points. In a way, the first three volumes of the Bootleg Series tell a story that the hits and well known songs never could. It shows a great artist able to weather two extended low points and still come back with songs just as good as any he wrote in his sixties heyday. If you want to hear the real greatness of Dylan, it's not on the broad interstate highways of "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Like A Rolling Stone," but in the potholed backroads of "Mama, You've Been On My Mind" and "Foot Of Pride." His cast-offs are other people's masterpieces.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Clinton Voters

Clinton voters.

That's a phrase we haven't heard much in this election cycle. Harry Enten of 538 likes to point out that never before has a voting bloc this big been so -under-analyzed. I keep hearing story after story after story about "Trump voters" in this election. They have become about the most tiresome thing around. A reporter goes to northeast Ohio or western Pennsylvania and interviews a resentful white person with a blue collar background and talks about economic anxiety and never racism or culture. With very, very, few exceptions, Trump voters are just Republicans. I find the Republicans who aren't voting for Trump a much more revealing and interesting group to examine, since they might be the fulcrum that future elections turn on.

But what about Hillary Clinton's voters? They gave her many more votes than any candidate in the primaries, including both Sanders and Trump. They are also poised to put her in the White House. We may be witnessing the creation of a new New Deal coalition, and instead we're spending our time hanging on every word from racist retired steelworkers from Youngstown. Reporters should be talking to politically moderate Asian and Latino voters, since they are the ones who will be putting Hillary over the top.

Here's a little secret: historically party affiliation in America has had as much or more to do with identity than with political ideology. Both parties are broad coalitions of different groups with a lot of ideas and interests in common, but also some cleavages. The party that builds a coalition of groups that are bigger than the groups of their opponents wins. This is what happened with the Democrats for decades after 1932. The New Deal brought together the traditional party constituencies of southern whites and northern urban immigrants with African Americans, blue collar workers more broadly, and educated liberals. Of course, the party could not maintain such a coalition, as African Americans had a much different agenda than the southern Democrats still pining for the Confederacy and violently defending Jim Crow.

What is the new Democratic coalition? African Americans, gays,  organized labor, educated white liberals, coastal city dwellers more broadly, Latinos, Asians, and perhaps now white suburban women. (White women went for Romney, it looks like Clinton will get them.) Asians and Latinos used to split their vote less decisively, but now that the Republican brand is tinged with white nationalism, the Democrats have been able to increase their advantage with those groups. While I am not happy with the party's economic centrism since the time of Bill Clinton, it has meant not scaring off middle class voters who might have gone Republican, and has allowed the Democrats to capture voters repelled by the conservative culture war.

The primaries this year showed the challenge of keeping this coalition together. Younger voters within the party are further to the left and not as committed to the party. Progressives generally are tired of New Democrat centrism. Either the voters on the left or the moderates could get alienated. However, these are small concerns next to what Republicans are facing. Trump has mobilized a lot their voters, but Mormons, some evangelicals, Republicans of color, women generally, and highly educated conservatives have been repelled by him. While the Democrats had a contentious primary and convention, the Bernie or Bust folks are not disrupting the party the way that the Never Trump faction has done on the other side.

So please, let's analyze "Clinton voters." They're the coalition saving us from the Trumpist nightmare.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Guess Who, "These Eyes"

In August of 2000 I moved from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana to start my doctoral program. While that was in this century, it feels like a million years ago. Back then radio still mattered, but it was in the midst of being strangled to death by ClearChannel in the wake of 1996 Telecommunications Act. The local radio in Champaign included a fine NPR station, but it was all talk (literally). At that time the college radio station was a godawful imitation of the "alternative" station in Chicago, complete with Limp Bizkit and shock jocks. (Thankfully that would change in a couple of years.) I ended up really digging the local oldies station, since their playlist still seemed formed by local whims, rather than a megacomputer in the Texas desert sending songs via satellite.

One song they played a lot was "These Eyes" by The Guess Who. This was a band I'd usually associated with their later, harder rocking incarnation with barn burners like "American Woman." I really took a shine to this song, which was also on the CD jukebox (remember those?) of my local bar, The Embassy. I had a friend who loved the song too, and every Friday happy hour our gang would get together at The Embassy and drink $6 pitchers of Leinenkugel and eat tasty sandwiches, my favorite being the grilled tuna steak.

The Embassy was a strange combination of bar types. There was occasional live music, but no stage. Undergrads never set foot in there, which was a big part of the attraction, but the beer selection was extremely basic. The walls had tasteful exposed brick, and it was a clean place while still maintaining a dive bar's soul. It did not countenance rowdiness; a friend of mine got cut off once after drunkenly knocking over his half-finished beer bottle. The aforementioned jukebox was heavy on good soul music and cheap to boot. Between my friend and I, "These Eyes" got a lot of spins.

I'm still not quite sure what attracts me to this song. I do have a kind of inexplicable love for the baroque pop of the late 1960s, which also explains my love of the Bee Gees' music of the era. I'm also a sucker for melancholy pop songs, and there's not enough good ones nowadays. All pop music seems to be about partying and self-affirmation. The whole Top 40 sounds like Reagan-era propaganda these days, no matter if the music itself is more daring than it was twenty years ago. "These Eyes" is also helped by Burton Cummings' -aka the Canadian Jim Morrison- passionate vocals. Sure, it's schmaltzy as all get out, he makes me believe it just enough to get lost in the song.

Nowadays I mostly listen to it for the memories of beer, food, friends and fun, and of a comfy little bar that is sadly no more.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Why Now, More Than Ever, We Need To Talk About Reconstruction

Reconstruction: America's greatest missed opportunity and proof that history does not move in a straight line

Today the ever-perceptive Jelani Cobb tweeted about how our history classes in school tend to tell the tale of progress over time and increasing democracy. This narrative, of course, leaves out a whole host of times when democracy has been shattered. He called for educators to show the fragility of American democracy.

However, due to the dominant historical narrative and many other reasons, Reconstruction is probably the event in American history least studied in proportion to its importance. Whereas schoolchildren used to get a version of the Dunning School's racist interpretation that it was an experiment bound to fail because only whites were fit to govern, now they get little to nothing at all. As I like to remind my students, Reconstruction is a depressing example of how history does not move in a straight line. The attempt to build a multi-racial democracy in the South ended in an orgy of white supremacist violence among former Confederates, and white supremacist indifference in the North.

The actions of many of the so-called "Redeemers" in putting an end to Reconstruction amounted to military coups, political terror, and violent counterrevolution. The Klan was America's first political terror organization, acting to specifically intimidate Republican voters. Armed white militias took power by force, including in Colfax, Louisiana, where dozens of black defenders of the town were massacred in 1873. The Grant administration did nothing to retaliate, and the Supreme Court later ruled that the victims did not have their 14th Amendment rights violated in the attack, since it was not carried out by the state of Louisiana. That response betrayed the unwillingness of white politicians in the North, including in the Republican party, to stick their necks out on behalf of African American rights. The moral failure of Northern politicians was sealed with the noxious deal struck after the election of 1876, where Republican Rutherford Hayes resolved a contested presidential election by promising southern Democrats "home rule" and an end to Reconstruction. In return he got the White House, and the federal government essentially stopped intervening to protect civil rights in the South until the mid-20th century.

It is a sordid tale that seldom gets told, in popular culture or in classrooms. When I look at the political mess of the last year and a half, I am reminded of the arrogance that so many in this country have in assuming that history moves in a straight line. When Trump showed up on the scene last year, he was treated as an amusing sideshow. Huffington Post famously said they would put his campaign news in the entertainment section. Even though he was engaging in noxious nativism and mobilizing white supremacists, the media seemed to treat him as a funny distraction who drove the ratings sky high. There was a tacit understanding that we as a nation were beyond the kind of open racism that Trump was spouting, that it was all a relic of the past, and that we shouldn't really take anything he said seriously anyway.

Sunday's debate showed how dangerous those assumptions turned out to be. Everything that happened in that debate should be overshadowed by the fact Trump directly threatened his opponent with being thrown in jail should he win the election. This is naked authoritarianism. Today Paul LePage, the openly racist Tea Party governor of Maine, said that the nation needed Trump's authoritarianism. This is what so many of Trump's supporters want, and what draws them to him. It is not an unfortunate drawback to his appeal for these people, it is essential to their devotion to this demagogue. Their hate of "political correctness" is just a fig leaf for their desire to protect white, male, hetero, and cis advantage, even if doing so violates the Constitutional rights of others, such as in voter suppression. The Democratic Party's slogan in 1876 was "This Is A White Man's Country," which is pretty consistent with Trumpism. When push comes to shove, a large proportion of white Americans are willing to trade democracy for white supremacy. That's one of the lessons of Reconstruction, and one that we should never forget.