Sunday, April 30, 2023

Democrats are Sleep Walking to 2016

I just wrote a Substack thinking about the 2024 election (I know, I know.) My main takeaway is that Democrats are repeating the mistakes of 2016. They are running an old, unpopular candidate who has a low ceiling for expanding his support and won't turn out base voters. All it will take is a few thousand votes shifting in key states and a robust third party candidate. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Tucker Carlson is the Symptom

Liberals, befitting their historical origins, have an intense attachment to the ideology of the Enlightenment. They tend to see the people who vote for their opponents of having been misguided or mislead, and that if they knew the true facts they would have to acknowledge their error.

Of course, it's a ridiculous outlook, but it colors liberal opinion on a lot of things, especially the conservative media apparatus. The liberal Enlightenment take says that if we can somehow shut down Fox News or push it in a less extreme direction, its followers will surely moderate. Once the Fox blinders are lifted the truth shall miraculously set them free. 

Yesterday's news that Fox let go of Tucker Carlson was met with some rejoicing in liberal circles, but the wise heads were not moved. In the first place, this fits a larger pattern. Fox has dumped Beck, O'Reilly, and Dobbs, and their message has not moderated a wit. A new demagogue will surely take Carlson's place. Liberals also fail to understand that the audience has the agency here. 

People like Tucker aren't just radicalizing their audience, they are also responding to their audience's radical demands. He says crazy shit on TV because his audience WANTS him to say crazy shit on TV. Just take the revelations about Carlson's private castigations of Trump. He may loathe the man in his heart, but when Trump comes on his show he bends the knee because that is what his audience expects. 

After January 6, Fox was concerned about losing their core audience to Newsmax and One America News, and had to compete with the crazies. Carlson served them well in that purpose, and I am sure they will find someone else to fulfill the same role.

Of course, if liberals are finally able to understand that their opponents' supporters are reactionaries because they WANT to be, and not because they are tricked, that will be hard pill to swallow. They want to pretend that their conservative neighbors and acquaintances are "good people," and if they have horrible politics, well, they just haven't heard the right message. It's much harder to understand that many people you like and respect quietly support a politics meant to destroy you. It's easy to blame radicalization on Tucker Carlson, it's harder to accept that he is much more the product of his viewership, a viewership that includes people in our own lives. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

2010, the Secret Political Turning Point of the 21st Century

So much of the news that crosses my scanner these days involves state and local governments implementing the most demented right-wing policies. States across America are eliminating restrictions on concealed weapons, banning gender-affirming care, limiting what's taught at universities, and banning abortion without exceptions. 

In the heat of the Twitter moment it's easy to miss the longer historical context. What we are seeing now is the fruit of a longer-term project, one of the most successful political moves in America's history. Back in 2010, Republicans whipped up their resentful base against Obama and fueled the Tea Party movement. They were also able to exploit the Great Recession, which started during the Bush administration but did not reach full impact until the Obama years. While Republicans would lose the 2012 presidential election, they "shellacked" Democrats (in Obama's words) in the 2010 midterm election. By concentrating on the low hanging fruit of state government, they began building a power base that has translated into getting their priorities enacted even as those priorities have been rejected by a majority of the country. 

In many ways 2010 should be seen as this century's true political turning point. In 2008 McCain had been reluctant to attack Obama's identity. His running mate Sarah Palin, however, proved herself to be the John the Baptist of the new right-wing Republican style. She talked about "real Americans" and whipped up resentment against those of us who don't conform to the right-wing vision of the nation. That's what the party ran with 2010. 

As usual, they were abetted by an ineffectual Democratic party and a fatuous media. The Democrats basically just watched all this happen, standing slack-jawed while conservative ideologues like Scott Walker took over formerly liberal states like Wisconsin. The media, perpetually frightened of accurately describing the undemocratic and oppressive slant of conservatism lest they be accused of "bias," frame the nationalist populism of the Tea Party as simply regular citizens concerned by taxes. They missed how "take our country back" was not about the capital gains rate, but walling off immigrants and punishing those they hated. 

One person did understand this: Donald Trump. He used his knowledge of the Republican base's true desires to ride birtherism and nativism to the Republican nomination in 2016. 2010 revealed that this was the true soul of the Republican Party, even if the media and people like Mitt Romney refused to see it. 

What made 2010 doubly impactful was that it came after the census, meaning that these newly conservative statehouses were in charge of redistricting. Using data, they could gerrymander far more effectively than in the past. This led to the current situation where a majority of voters in Wisconsin could turn out for Democrats yet return a legislature with a Republican supermajority. 

Conservatives in several states have effectively established one-party rule, aided and abetted by gerrymandering and voter suppression. Unlike Democrats, they don't worry much about how their decisions will impact the public as a whole. They merely wish to do what helps their own base, and no one else. 

The recent judicial election in Wisconsin gives me hope, but this is going to be a very difficult hole to dig ourselves out of. In large swathes of the country, the will of the majority is simply inoperative. Just look at Florida, which recently set down a harsh abortion ban against the wishes of a supermajority of its citizens. Fighting this will necessitate action by Democrats, who mostly put all their eggs in the basket of the presidency. As we are seeing, even with the presidency states are free to go in a much different direction. 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Can I Learn to Love the Grateful Dead?

The other day on Facebook I reposted a hilarious The Hard Times article, "We Ranked Every Grateful Dead Album and They All Came In Last." Some of my Deadhead friends still thought it was funny, so trying to be friendly I asked for tips on albums that could change my mind about the Dead.

I've never been a fan. Back in the 90s I tried and failed to appreciate the whole wave of jam bands at the time, from Phish to Blues Traveler. The Dave Matthews Band was inflicted on me at every party and on every college debate team road trip. It was music that was supposed to be so wild and free and creative and it just felt, well, lame. There was more life in one Stooges track than in all of Dave Matthews' albums put together. Sure the band were great musicians, but to what end? 

That was also my opinion about this scene's godfathers, The Grateful Dead. I knew the name and iconography before I ever knew the music. The name and the skeletons made me think their music would be hard-hitting and dangerous. My first encounter came with their late 80s radio hit "Touch of Gray." It's a nice little synth-driven ditty and I liked it at the time, but this was not the music I imagined. 

Soon after I started listening to classic rock radio, and I learned that back in the 60s and 70s their music was still lukewarm, like weak coffee that's been sitting out on the counter. Yeah "Truckin'" and "Casey Jones" were catchy, but they did not electrify me like Hendrix and the Stones. At some point I got the early comp Skeletons From the Closet on tape, and my feelings were similar. Not bad, but not very interesting. 

If they had been some forgotten group from the past it wouldn't have bothered me. I could have heard "Uncle John's Band" and thought, "This obscure hippy band had some mellow tunes, I guess." But at that point, the Dead were still one of the biggest concert draws. It just didn't make sense to me. Were people really giving up their lives and traveling the country to hear "Sugar Magnolia"? Really? People were actually marking their bodies with Dead dancing bear tattoos? Really? That seemed absolutely insane to me. I also have a really low tolerance for hanging around people who are stoned, so I was doubly perplexed. 

However, I am also aware that it's good to revisit and question one's deeply held opinions. I use to dislike The New Yorker, now I am a proud subscriber. For years I didn't care for Rush and prog rock in general, then once I started listening to lots of jazz my ears became friendlier to more complex rock music. So I asked my Deadhead friends on Facebook after I posted that Hard Times article to give me some recommendations.

What came back, not surprising, were a bunch of live albums from the 70s. I'd always heard they were more of a live than a studio band, but I never bothered to investigate because their studio stuff left me so cold. Listening to these live albums the last few days I've been enjoying their groove, musicianship, and also the band's deep knowledge and appreciation of American roots music, something I also share. A groovy cover of Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried"? Sign me up. 

So have I been converted? Do I love the Dead now? Well, no, but I have gained greater appreciation. I still get hung up on how this roots-oriented material is accompanied by such weak, tepid vocals. When you sing country and the blues you gotta belt that stuff! But maybe I will overcome that. After all, I learned to ignore Geddy Lee's voice and Neil Peart's lyrics and love Rush. All I can say about my relationship with the Dead is what a long strange trip it's been.  

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Thoughts on America After A Weekend in Canada

The Canadians in Guess Who were right all along about America

Sorry to have been away for so long. The last week has been taken up with a trip to Montreal and the accompanying preparations. Now that I have returned, I am in a reflective mood. 

As we crossed the border north of Plattsburgh to return to the US this morning, I felt a new emotion. In the past, when I have returned to America after going abroad I have felt a certain warmness about being back in my home country again. This morning I felt dread. During a trip spent walking Montreal's streets, enjoying its sights, and riding its refreshingly modern subway system, I kept seeing the news from America. I read about progressive state representatives being expelled, about the gun deaths of children lowering our national life expectancy, and of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. For a couple of days, I felt like I had escaped a madhouse.

To be sure, Canada has its own problems. There were panhandlers and mentally disturbed people on the streets, for example. By and large, however, it felt like such an infinitely more FUNCTIONAL and livable place. There also wasn't an ever-present feeling of dread, one that has been dogging me in this country every day since the summer of 2015. For almost a decade, America has been on a precipe, our own Years of Lead with mass shootings, police murders, and capitol stormings with the spectre of right-wing authoritarianism constantly hovering. To the last point, I was in Montreal when I saw the news about a Trump judge banning abortion medication.

I had not been out of the country since 2009, by far the longest stretch in my adult life. I've still been traveling a lot however, and in that time have been to practically every corner of the United States. My travels to everywhere from New Orleans to Los Angeles to Alabama to Boston have deepened my love of this nation and given me perspective on its stunning regional diversity. I cherish getting to walk the Golden Gage Bridge, joining a second line on Bourbon Street, and chowing down on Maine lobster. 

But as my love has deepened, so has my despair. I don't much believe in this country's future anymore, and my deeper investment in it makes its precariousness all that much harder to endure. It's a dynamic I had not been aware of until I spent some time in Canada this weekend. It felt good to get a break from America, I only wish I could believe this nation could find a way out of its current spiral.