Wednesday, December 4, 2019

My Fearless 2020 Election Prediction

It's December, that time of year where we look back on the past and think about the future. I'll think of some "best of" lists later, but right now I want to cut straight to the predictions.

I still remember the January morning in 2016 when I woke up to the news that David Bowie was dead. Few other musical artists ever meant as much to me, and his death coincided exactly with the moment where it looked like Trump could be president. Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars starts with "Five Years," a song about what happens when people on earth find out that's all the time they have left. I am beginning to see an eerie coincidence here, since January 2021, five years after Bowie's death, will also see Donald Trump's inauguration.

I now have little doubt that he will be reelected. I can now confidently predict that he will lose the popular vote again, but will also win the electoral vote again. His opposition is still fractured and the Republican Party has maintained its iron discipline. I don't really see many people changing their votes from last time. The election meddling last time will look like child's play compared to what we will see next year. We know voting machines are insecure and a few votes here and there can be easily fudged in a close election in a swing state. Many of those states have Republican leaders who are purging the voter rolls, eliminating polling places (leading to long lines), and putting voter ID laws in place. These measures have already been used effectively. Just look at what happened to Stacey Abrams in Georgia.

When it comes to the primaries, Democrats are in a no-win situation. They cannot nominate a moderate like Biden promising the status quo ante, since that lost them the last election. The economy is growing, which totally undercuts any appeal the turn back the clock message might have. On the other hand, social democrats like Warren and Sanders might have the populist appeal of promising a better life, but that has some pitfalls, especially against Trump. White Americans have never been willing to share with people of color, and policies like Medicare for All demand that. Once Trump tells white people that "your hard-earned dollars will be taken from you and given to THOSE PEOPLE" a lot of "socially liberal but fiscally conservative" dipshits will gravitate away from the Democratic candidate. If a Bloomberg-like moderate runs as a third party candidate then it will truly be curtains. The same goes if a moderate gets the nomination and someone like Tulsi Gabbard runs third party. Again, it won't be enough to give Trump a majority of the popular vote, but he doesn't need that to win anyway.

So this is a roundabout way of saying I don't really care all that much who gets the Democratic nomination. Whoever gets it will win a majority of the popular vote and lose the electoral vote. If I have to make a prediction I think it will be Biden because the Dems typically fall back on "electability" to give an uninspiring candidate the nomination. (Look at 2000, 2004, 2016, etc.)

In terms of electoral politics I want to put my energy into state, local, and Congressional races. The country is going up in flames, but federalism at least makes it so we can try to make our own little corners of the country more humane. Winning Congress keeps conservatives from being able to pass their extreme legislation. It's especially important to win the Senate in order to stop the wholesale bombardment of the federal bench by unqualified ideologues. But like the electoral college, the map doesn't favor it.

Our system of government was designed to thwart the majority will, we can't be all that surprised when it does exactly that. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Losing My Christmas Spirit

Current Christmas mood

The past few years of my life have been full of Christmas spirit, mostly because of parenthood. It's been a truly great thing to vicariously experience the holidays through my kids and to remember my own Christmases. I was a misfit in school growing up but I was lucky to have a very warm and loving family that made celebrating Christmas fun.

For some reason this year I am not feeling the spirit. Thanksgiving weekend will come and go without us putting out our decorations. My wife is feeling the same ennui, and our children's enthusiasm is not enough to shake us out of this.

After some reflection I think this has to do with Christmas on the meta level. Once you strip away both the consumerism, it is a holiday about hope. On the pagan level, it is the hope for the spring to arrive as we sit in the depths of winter darkness. On the more Christian level it is the hope that the birth of Jesus, savior of the world, represents. Christmas means that the broken world can indeed be saved and a kernel of that exists in even its more secular permutations. In recent years that hope has probably had a lot to do with my increased Christmas spirit, even if my children's zeal is the primary factor. In fact, the two intertwine because nothing forces me to think about the future and nothing absorbs as much of my hope as my children do. 

I think my loss of Christmas spirit reflects, deep down, my profound pessimism in this moment. In world affairs the dominoes keep falling, from Poland to Bolivia. In this country evidence that the despot has committed high crimes is out in the open and it will not lead to his removal. The 2020 election will be marred by voter suppression, disinformation, foreign meddling, and the reality that the electoral college will very likely preserve minority rule. (This is currently my prediction, btw). The world is burning up and apart from people posting Greta Thunberg memes little to nothing is being done to stop it in this country. In fact, our government's policies are hastening the apocalypse.

So what is there to look forward to? I think of the world my children will inherit and am filled with the deepest sense of helplessness and sadness. The last handful of Christmases I knew things were bad but I could still take heart in the promise of the holiday. Maybe I will eventually get there this year, but it will take some doing.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Pete Buttigieg And The Dead Weight Of The Status Quo

There's a been a lot of discussion about Pete Buttigieg, a surprise candidate whose qualifications for the highest office in the land are barely greater than mine. His highest office has been as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a town a quarter the size of Lincoln, Nebraska. Not only that, he has not exactly distinguished himself as a mayor, either.

What he does have is a way of appealing to older white Democrats. This demographic votes more frequently than their younger counterparts and has more money to contribute to campaigns. Buttigieg appeals to them by supporting elements of the status quo that benefit this demographic. His recent ad has thrown cold water on the idea of tuition-less public education with the entirely cynical pitch that "your tax dollars will pay for the children of millionaires to go to college." (In brief: 1. those kids go to private school 2. they use public schools, roads, and libraries already 3. their parents would be paying for others to go to college through their taxes! But I digress)

There is nothing more difficult in the whole wide world than convincing a middle class Boomer that younger than generations have had it harder than them. These Boomers got free child care in their youth via their stay at home moms, cheap mortgages via the FHA and suburbanization, practically free college, and are now enjoying Social Security and Medicare paid for by younger workers. They seem to assume that future generations also got this sweet deal instead of higher home prices (which benefitted the Boomers whose homes have appreciated in value), student loan debt, precarious employment, and ridiculously expensive child care.

Mayor Pete understands that these voters want to think that the youth love and look up to them, and so he has played the part of the dutiful son. This strategy has gone over gangbusters.

He also seems to understand that most older middle class white people would like to maintain the status quo. (This is why they generally vote Republican.) This is basically the same as it's ever been, and only the most forceful of disruptions can change that mentality. As horrible as Trump has been, he has not been bad for the bottom line of this demographic. For them anti-Trumpism is a moral stance, not essential to their survival.

Candidates like Sanders and Warren are promising to deliver presidencies that are more than the status quo ante. The problem is that the demographic who votes more in primaries, where turnout is really low, are older middle class whites. Right now I am predicting that the Democrats will not nominate Warren or Sanders, and will put Buttigieg or someone like him in the starring role. That candidate, like HRC, will fail to have an enticing vision of the future. Trump will win again in a minority victory relying on the electoral college.

The current status quo is unacceptable, but most palatable to the people who control the primary. This is a tragic situation.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Badfinger, "Got to Get Out of Here"

Badfinger should have been huge. They were one of the first bands on Apple Records, endorsed by the Fab Four themselves. Their first hit, "Come And Get It" was written by Paul McCartney. "Day After Day," one of the most sublime pop hits of the early 70s, has a soaring slide guitar hook courtesy of George Harrison. They wrote a whole passel of catchy pop songs with some cracking music backing them up. This combo would later be called "power pop," but like Big Star, they were a few years too early. Both bands became major points of influence for 80s and 90s indie rock.

Both Badfinger and Big Star had their inability to get the audience they deserved compounded by tragedy and misfortune. Apple ended up being a famously dysfunctional company before it died an ignominious death. Once the band was ready to put out a new record on a new label, Apple dropped a substandard record on the public, undercutting their comeback. Their management also ripped them off at every turn. In 1975 Wish You Were Here, one of their strongest outings, got pulled from shelves a few weeks after its release due to managerial disputes. Pete Ham, the band's principal songwriter, killed himself the same year. Tom Evans, the other main creative force in the band, took his own life a few years later.

I love this band so much, but listening to their songs, no matter how joyous some of them are, is always leavened with feelings of sadness. All they wanted to do was give the world some great music, and lots of shitty people wouldn't let them because they'd rather squeeze them for money instead. It also reminds me of how so many people have their ideals betrayed and abilities squandered by a society that only cares about filthy lucre. I think especially of academia where there are a lot of Badfingers toiling in contingent jobs. They still produce scholarship that's just as good as anyone else with better positions, but it still gets them nowhere. I'm sure a lot of this will be read in a few years by a new generation of young scholars, wondering what happened to the person who wrote the book or article that blew them away but who has dropped off the radar.

Despite their difficult straights, Badfinger did not write doom and gloom songs. However, one standout track on Wish You Were Here seems to signal to the despair, even if it's written by Joey Molland instead of Pete Ham. "Got to Get Out of Here" is one of the few Badfinger songs not driven by elecrtic guitar, the principle instruments a simply strummed acoustic guitar what appears to be a sad-sounding harmonium. You can hear the fatigue in this song, the feeling of being trapped in an impossible situation. Molland sings "got no choice" over and over again over a very Beatlesque beat.

I feel like we have all been there, stuck somewhere oppressively unhappy and feeling like there's no way to get out. The song starts building a little as it goes on, leaving a slight, small feeling of hope, but hardly an anthem of triumph. It's the soundtrack of just getting through the day, only so you can go to sleep and have to face another one after you wake up, over and over and over again. I listen to it now with sadness over what being trapped can do to people, but also relieved I've escaped my own emotional cul-de-sacs in my life. If you see someone else struggling there, give them a hand. If you've found yourself there, don't be afraid to ask for help. The people who love you want to be there for you.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Now That The Academic Lifeboats Are Capsizing, What Next?

On academic Twitter today I've seen a lot of folks sharing charts showing the steep decline in the number of available jobs in the humanities this year. It's an alarming image, showing what happens when bad goes to worse and then to something beyond. Today I have also been seeing a lot of stuff about the closures of small colleges. Beyond that, there's news out of places like Tulsa that are cutting back their humanities departments. I know someone who just left academia because the history department at their school got cut.

It appears that we might be hitting the crossover point a lot of people saw on the horizon around the time I left academia, back in 2011. I still remember my last American Historical Association conference as a professor that year. I booked the trip to San Diego, but didn't get any interviews (I was trying to get a job closer to my spouse.) My friends and I joked about there being an uprising in the job pit and the established scholars escaping the riot with jetpacks. It seemed like everyone who wasn't at the top was doomed.

Of course, no mass collective action arose to resist all of this. The people in the lifeboats, who had their jobs, stood by while people around them drowned, comforting themselves in the myth of mediocrity. They were the only faculty who had any real power. Those on the contingent track either gave up or kept hoping they'd get that tenure-track job at the end of the line. Back in 2013 I warned the lifeboaters that the reckoning was coming for them, too. Now it looks like that day is upon us.

So, what's going to happen? I don't foresee a mass movement by academics to defend their interests. The old timers will just wait to retire, the midcareer folks will hope for the same and the young scholars on the tenure track will cross their fingers and count their blessings with an understanding that the future is unclear. Contingent faculty will continue to lack the power to act and the churn and precariousness of their position will make organizing difficult, just as it is now.

At this point the salvation can only come from outside. The proposals by Sanders and Warren to make public higher education free might be the death knell for some of those small private colleges, but it would do more to bring money and majors to academia than anything else. At this point I think it is the only way out. I'm not holding my breath, and meanwhile lots of good people are drowning, their immense talent and potential squandered.

Monday, November 18, 2019

New Episode of the Old Dad's Records Podcast

On the latest episode of my podcast I dug into what I like to call the "feel bad" music of the 90s. Instead of spotlighting an album, I decided to talk about a bunch of songs from a playlist I made of these songs. For some reason in the 90s, a time of relative peace and prosperity, we were all in the mood to be sad. I start with "Adia" by Sarah McLachlan, a song I remember bringing me to the verge of tears as I heard it driving around the thoroughly ugly streets of suburban Omaha. I finish the podcast with a rave for Altin Gün, a Dutch-Turkish psych/prog band that I can't stop listening to these days.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The 2010s, The Decade That Wasn't

In popular culture we like to use decades as shorthands, despite their limited usefulness. For example, the 60s equals countercultural times of peace, love and dope, even if it was the decade of high concept TV (Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, etc) and greater suburbanization than the 1950s. Now that the 2010s are coming to an end, there have been some half-hearted attempts to summarize the decade's culture. Those attempts will fail not only because decades are artificial boundaries, but also because 2010 is not a meaningful milestone in any way.

Periodization is one of my favorite historian parlor games. It's kind of frivolous, of course, and if done wrong can limit our understanding. (Plenty of inequality and corruption was going on before and after the Gilded Age, for example.) That said, I feel like there was a there was a pretty definitive period that lasted from 2000 to 2006. George W Bush's contested election in 2000 marked a more tumultuous political era even before 9/11. In 2006 the Republicans were trounced in midterm elections following disasters in Iraq, and in New Orleans. The politics of the Bush years were over at this point.

More importantly, a major technological change was afoot. In 2006-2007 social media first appeared on the scene, as did smartphones. This also coincided with the growth of broadband, wifi, and Netflix. From this point on, so much of America's life was going to be lived online in ways that it wasn't before.

Amid this change Barack Obama was elected president. This election did not represent a "post-racial society," but in fact led to a nationalist backlash. The Bush administration's combination of culture war and war on terror had lost its allure, conservatives now understood the power of white nationalism. This happened well before Trump. If 2010 is a milestone of anything, it's because that year saw the rise of the Tea Party, the precursor and trailblazer for Trump. His victory in 2016 was the culmination of the anti-Obama nationalist reaction.

Along with the rise of smartphones, social media, and nationalism in the late 2000s came an economic collapse that created the kind of privation and scarcity that nationalists love. Hard times make it easier to scapegoat and to draw people to the extremes.

Ten years of living dangerously led to Trump's election in 2016, which is probably the marker of a new era. 2010 and 2019 don't really represent much, but I think a lot books will be written about 2006-2008, which appears to be one of the fulcrums of history. We certainly cannot escape it.