Saturday, October 24, 2020

The One Issue on the Ballot

In 1992 "the issues" were hip. Feels like a million years ago.

I was a weird kid who watched the nightly news every evening, read the newspaper, and read the news magazines in the library. From too young an age I began to understand media on a meta level, and absorbed the critique that election coverage did not do enough to focus on "the issues."

While the claim was repeated to the point that I wished the critics in question would just talk about the damn issues instead of the media, it was essentially right. Part of Ross Perot's appeal in 1992 came from his focus on the minutae of economic policy. The 1984 election had been a referendum on Reagan and the 1988 election was reduced to pure symbolism. It was all Willie Horton's mugshot, Dukakis in a tank, and Bush saying "read my lips." 

The political media loves the personalities and horse race stuff still today, in large part because these reporters do not have the knowledge or intellectual firepower to actually discuss policy in a meaningful way. It also draws in a lot more eyeballs. 

However, this year discussion of "the issues" has slid below even where it was in 1988, and this time it's not just a media framing. Issues discourse is so thin because Trump himself has become the issue. This election is really a referendum: are we going to have a democracy, or not?

Trump and the Republican Party have made it clear that they are willing to maintain minority rule through suppression, gerrymandering, the electoral college, Senate, and the courts. They have not made any attempt to reach the majority of Americans, what has to be a first in my lifetime. Trump himself is the issue. It's why his party did not even bother to write a new platform. Their only platform is Trump.

And what is Trump? He is the avatar of white nationalism. Plenty of people voting for him would admit that he's an incompetent doofus, but that doesn't matter. In fact, it helps his case. Having an ignorant, maladroit white man occupying the position recently vacated by a competent, intelligent Black man sends the message that badges of whiteness will allow white Americans to have an elevated place in American society no matter how undeserving they are. 

Despite being a foul-mouthed adulterer and tax cheat, he is also the avatar of white Christian supremacy. By banning Muslims and treating American Jews like Israelis in disguise he sends the message over and over again that this is a white Christian nation. (There's a good reason that Allan Lichtman's history of conservatism is called A White Protestant Nation.) Putting someone like Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court -a doctrinal Catholic (except on social justice) who practices religion like a Pentecostal Protestant- is the capstone of this message. 

Most who vote for Trump don't really care that much about his tax plan or even his immigration policy. They want the assurance that they are the only people that matter in this nation. (Hence why the "black lives matter" slogan triggers them so much.) They want to go to the bar without their mask on and tell "politically incorrect" jokes because the biggest of wage of whiteness for white people in America is to never, ever be told what to do, especially when their behavior hurts others. "Free, white, and 21" indeed. 

Are we going to have a multi-racial democracy or not? That's been the issue since Reconstruction in America. This year it's the only issue on the ballot. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Is 2020 A Geographical Political Re-Alignment?

 After months of resisting the urge, I have thrown myself into looking at election polling data. I have been most struck by an untold story. Ohio has become a red state, as opposed to a bellweather, but Arizona is turning blue and Democrats look strong in North Carolina and Georgia.

The old assumption was that the industrial Midwest was a "blue wall" for Democratic presidential candidates, something thrown into doubt by Clinton losing Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. That once seemed very worrying, but now Democrats are breaking the Republican hold on the Sun Belt, a region that is growing far faster.

The Republican success in the Sun Belt going back to the 1970s has been essential to that party's success, not least because growing population there meant more seats in Congress. Now the places that blue collar workers have been fleeing to, and which have also seen an increase in immigration, could be a new "blue wall."

The political press is loathe to give up their old narratives, so maybe that's why they do not see the significance of this change. If Democrats have a lead pipe lock on the Northeast and the West Coast and can add the Sun Belt, the Republicans are at a permanent disadvantage. 

This change has been happening for years. Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Virginia have gone from swinging to solid blue. A lot of Republicans have to be secretly hoping that Trump loses so that they can make a pivot. Putting all their chips on white nationalism doesn't work as well in a more diverse nation, especially when it alienates Latinx voters in states where they used to be much rarer. 

After this election Republicans might have to go back to blowing racist dog whistles instead of blasting air horns. They might suddenly rediscover the ways of Reagan and Dubya, who appealed directly to Latinx voters and didn't demonize undocumented immigrants. I say "might" because the ideology of white nationalism works so well in mobilizing their dwindling base that they will be loathe to give it up. Time will tell.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The Spiritual Necessity of Hangovers

I'm hungover today, quite by accident. I rarely have more than two or three drinks in a sitting. I love being buzzed, do not care for being drunk. It's just that I had a terrible, stressful week, and I was watching outdoor movies at a friend's last night and the warmth of the bourbon I brought deceived me into overindulgence. 

Despite my hangover, it's been a busy day. I chaperoned a hiking trip with my daughters' Girl Scout troop, then had a birthday lunch with my mother-in-law. It's all for the best, since sitting on a couch with a hangover just reminds you that you have a hangover. It mostly faded in the outdoor air and joy of eating. When I got home I collapsed.

Sometimes a hangover is a good thing, though. By being knocked on my ass I made the healthy decision not to do any work for my job today. I'm not sure I can remember the last day I could say that, including the days I was in Cape Cod two weeks ago. I also know not to drink that much in one sitting for the foreseeable future. It takes the occasional hangover to remind me of that and keep me on the straight and narrow.

Perhaps it's my moralistic Catholic upbringing, but I tend to take hangovers as a kind of spiritual rebuke. I am reminded that I should take good care of myself, and that an excess of pleasure leads to a level of pain that makes that pleasure not worth the bother. I probably would not have been hungover twenty years ago with the same level of alcohol consumption as I had last night, so it's also a needed reminder that my aging body needs to be handled with better care than I have been giving it. 

Tomorrow I am planning on taking a long hike, and enjoying the fresh air without a painful buzz in my head. I will appreciate that all the more after being hungover today. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Thoughts on Reaganland

 Rick Perlstein's fourth volume of his epic history of the conservative movement filled me with more anticipation than anything I've waited for since Return of the Jedi when I was seven. After a month of savoring it, I finished the book last night. As is usually the case when I complete a very long but very good book, I am feeling a sense of loss. 

Reaganland lived up to my expectations, even if the end felt less grand than it deserved and less impactful than Perlstein is capable of. Still, he showed how sixteen years after Barry Goldwater went down in flames, one of his disciples would be elected president. 

I knew a lot of the story already (I have been working on a project related to the 1970s for almost ten years now), but certain things brought new light to the narrative. Perstein's focus on what he calls the "boardroom Jacobins" illuminates how the popular push for consumer reform spurred by Ralph Nader ended in corporate regulatory capture. To understand Reagan's rise to power, he dug into his columns, radio spots, and speeches on the "mashed potato circuit." This compelling analysis showed how Reagan honed his abilities as a speaker and built a strong base well before running for president.

Although Perlstein is a leftist, he is more than willing to credit Reagan's rhetorical gifts. What kept coming through, more than I had thought already, was Reagan's ignorance and penchant for fabulism, as well as his ability as a speaker. As Perlstein shows, he often improved upon the work of his speechwriters. At the same time, Reagan came across as an exceptionally shallow person uninterested in knowing much of the world. He struck me as having George W Bush's lack of curiosity, but far more adroit at communicating. Reagan likewise had Trump's obsession with nationalism, but a flair that broadened his coalition instead of narrowed it.

Perlstein gets at something that I have been harping about for years: nationalism is an exceptionally strong force in American politics. Most Americans did not and still do not buy into supply side economics, no matter what the conservative movement types say. Reagan was able to tap into nationalist resentments post Vietnam, such as in his opposition to the Panama Canal treaty. The Iran Hostage Crisis also helped him in this regard. He sold national renewal, and many people were buying, including traditional Democrats. Barack Obama rose to power by projecting a positive kind of nationalism, and woe to Democrats and others on the left if that can't construct a narrative of the nation.

It wasn't just nationalist resentment driving Reagan, however. He tapped into racial resentment as well. Often Perlstein quietly comments on how much Reagan and other conservatives praised apartheid South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia. Reagan's "welfare queen" stuff is well known, but Perlstein ties it into a general growing wave of white grievance at the time. The economic downturn of late 70s made it even less likely for the white middle class to support sharing more of the pie, and Reagan's "anti-government" rhetoric implied that "the government" was anything that helped Black people. 

Despite this, Reagan managed to build a broader coalition. He said kind things about undocumented immigrants, and sought to bring people of color into the tent. His promise of national renewal drew in plenty of Democrats. Modern day Republicans could learn a thing or two from this approach. 

There's a lot that modern Democrats can learn as well. Carter suffered because he became obsessed with austerity and inflation, allowing Reagan to play "Santa Claus" with tax cuts. He was right that the country needed to wean itself off of fossil fuels, but clothing that mission in language of limits and privations made it political unpalatable. His moralism and his technocracy were his undoing. Democrats trying to get ahead by making concessions to conservative austerity only destroy their chances.

Last but not least, I loved how Perlstein weaved in references to Joe Biden in his narrative. Even then he occupied the dead center of the Democratic Party. Time will tell if he is capable of moving in a more progressive direction. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Soldiering in the Classroom

Edward Dwyer, singing a song teachers know well right now

This week on Thursday I had my first meltdown since the school year started. My last one came during the pre-school year prep and endless meetings, and the feeling that I was about to confront an impossible task. This one came as I thought about all the things I had to do that day, how difficult it would be to complete those tasks, and that every day for the foreseeable future would be this same dance of stress and anxiety. 

That thought weighed on me until I quietly flipped out on the inside. (My last meltdown was more vocal.) I kept asking myself, "How many days in a row of living to just get to the end of the day will there be until I just snap?" I went to bed that night in a daze.

When I woke up on Friday with the news of the president's diagnosis, the combination of the coming weekend and the frenzy of news distracted me long enough to not fall into another trough. The weekend has been great; my wife's sister is visiting from California and it's been lovely to catch up and for my daughters to have her around.

Now the Sunday night blues are looming. This week I not only have to teach my students in a difficult format and be a teaching assistant for my kids, I have to go into my school for two days of training to prepare for our hybrid launch in November. I am teaching asynchronous classes on these days, so I am basically pulling a double shift while enduring my grueling commute on top of it. Needless to say, I am not happy about it.

Thankfully I have a new mental frame of mind. A Gulf War marine vet who is also an educator posted something on Facebook about the crushing mental load, and discussed the motto in the service of "embrace the suck." This was reminding me of my mentality before the beginning of school year meetings broke my morale. Teachers are soldiering, but not in the way our politicians think by sending us into a deadly situation. 

I am talking more about mentality. I've read enough front-line memoirs that I think I understand the mental attitude needed to survive the test my fellow teachers and I are being put to. Unlike some of those soldiers, I even deeply believe in the cause I am fighting for: my students' education. As is often the case in war I am being sent in to do the job without proper support, but I will have to do it anyway. I may be given contradictory and sometimes downright nonsensical orders from superior officers, but I will have to follow them. It doesn't mean I have to like it or respect the people giving me the orders or refrain from complaining, though. That's always a soldier's prerogative. 

To use another well-worn soldier's phrase, "Shit rolls downhill." The officers in the rear avoid the shit details during peacetime, and now during wartime they are safe from any of the flying shrapnel and aim to keep it that way. That's certainly unfair, but there's also a war on, and though I have resigned to grumble and complain, I've also resigned to embrace the suck and fight. 

Teachers have discovered that we are basically on our own in this. Nevertheless, we have to soldier on. Keep up the fight so we can win, but when it's over it's time to demand a lot more from our schools and from our country. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Bill Fay, "Be Not So Fearful" (Track of the Week)

Times are hard. I don't need to tell you that. When the tough gets going, I lean on some old reliable songs. One of them is "Be Not So Fearful," by 70s Brit singer-songwriter Bill Fay.

It's a secular version of Jesus' admonition "be not afraid." Those words still stir the souls of those of us who grew up in the faith who have become doubting Thomases. In this cruel, broken world we cry out for comfort. God may not be paying attention, but music still does. 

Fay is not a great singer, but that makes the song. His limited voice is a human voice. You believe it. The orchestration gives the song a kind of grandeur befitting the significance of the statement "be not so fearful."

I heard this song once, in all places, of the NICU when my children were born prematurely. I spent the first week of their lives in a constant state of worry, about them and about my wife. I felt helpless, unable to be with them. When it came on the PA in the ward as I was leaving for the day to go back home I burst into tears and had an ugly cry. 

The message touched me, but also the fact that I had used this song to survive the years of temporary academic labor and uncertainty. (A friend introduced it to me as I was leaving grad school.) How on earth had this obscure song found its way onto the hospital muzak playlist? It wasn't a divine intervention, but it felt like it.

We frail creatures stuck on this earth are being put to the test. Every single day is a struggle, and I can feel the strain. To my fellow travelers in this wretched place I am thinking of you tonight, and giving you this song. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Down By The Seaside


Tide pools and sunsets are good for the soul

This weekend my family took our first trip since the pandemic struck. We drove out to Cape Cod, giddy with the chance to finally get a change of scenery after months of being house bound.

It was restorative and enjoyable, and a good opportunity to get some perspective. I had never been there before, and was in awe the whole time over the landscape. Jutting out into the Atlantic, the cape feels like a world apart, a portal to another planet. 

This morning we got one last look at the ocean, walking on the beach in the shadow of the cliff-like dunes, seeing seals poke their heads above the roaring surf. I exulted in the reminder of my smallness as a solitary individual facing the massive, limitless ocean. It's a feeling I got all the time growing up under the impossibly vast Nebraska sky, and one I get these days only at the seashore. It's the kind of feeling that keeps one grounded. 

Last night we went to the calmer bay side for sunset. We watched the sun go down as the tide came in, filling the tide pools around us, almost surrounding us with rising water. It was a little scary, and another good reminder that nature is so much bigger than we are. 

It all makes it easier for me to face what last week seemed insurmountable. Teaching and parenting in this time of pandemic and distance learning is not easy. Weirdly enough, remembering my smallness in the grand scheme of the universe takes some of the pressure off. I hope everyone else out there can have a similar moment of serenity as we confront the difficult road ahead.