looking back on a blog

Dear reader,

My last post here was three days before the fateful U.S. election of Nov. 8 2016. I leave these posts up as an archive of my musings about politics during the previous year and a half, when I, like so many others across the country, reacted, argued, wondered, enthused, and feared about the political problems of the United States.

Blogs were already obsolete when I started this; most of whatever readership I had was on Facebook, where most of this also appeared. But blogs make much better archives than social media,

Glancing back over what I wrote in the context of unfolding events, much of it holds up: the warnings about overconfidence in Hillary Clinton, the arguments about the pragmatism of Bernie Sanders, the warnings about the dangers of not taking Trump seriously.  But I’m no wizard. I was wrong about Trump initially like everyone else. My insights, such as they were, came from my commitments — to progressive electoral politics, to Stuart Hall’s version of cultural studies, to epistemological caution in matters political. We say that our personal biases warp our understandings of reality, but some biases, some frameworks of understanding, give us a bit of a better handle on things than others.

My current commitments (see http://www.unitedacademics.org) have brought my focus to a much more local level. Even though, and perhaps because, the principle of democracy seems to be on fire worldwide, that does not seem like the worst thing I could be doing with my time.

Tom S.

Crisis, uncertainty, and hope in 2016

I write this less than three days before the Nov. 8 2016 elections. Like most people I know, as the race tightens, I am in agony about the thought of a Trump Presidency. I find myself checking fivethirtyeight.com obsessively, desperately wanting someone to smartly assure me that Trump will not win. I think of my son, and the world he will inherit if Trump wins, and that makes me feel like a failed parent. It’s just so awful. And in the face of all that, I find myself craving some kind of data, some kind of smart analysis, that tells me the nightmare of a Trump presidency is only that, a nightmare, not a real possibility.

But the painful truth is that it is a possibility. Given how close the race is right now — a few percentage points in almost all the polls — the fact is that, even if Trump looses on Tuesday, he could have won. At this point, the facts about Trump and Clinton are widely available to the American public, and the majority of voters have made up their minds. What separates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at this point is random electoral noise: a journalistic feeding frenzy, a wikileaks dump, a video, a few unexpected GOTV successes or failures in Ohio or New Hampshire, or some unexpected behavior from some small hard-to-poll group, like nonvoters. Whatever happens on Tuesday, it’s already clear that we live in a country that could elect a Donald Trump. Two years ago, I never would have believed it, but I was wrong, everyone was wrong.

How do I, how do we, live with that fact? I don’t have a full answer, but here are a few things I’ve picked up during the a year and a half of writing this blog. One thing I’ve noticed is that I, as a professor, as an intellectual, have to get beyond the habit of filling the void of uncertainty with too-clever-by-half theories, analyses, and generalizations. For me, the obvious case here concerns the obsession with polls: my main beef with polls is that they shift people’s gaze away from voters and what citizens need to know towards insider baseball, where everything’s an effort to to second guess the electorate. We should just shut up and wait until folks vote. It’s not that polls are worthless, it’s that they are seductive, that in their crystalline numeric sheen they offer an image of certainty that offers false comfort to folks like me. What I and others like me (journalists, policy wonks, campaign professionals, etc.) should be doing is somehow engaging the hearts and minds of much wider swathes of our fellow citizens, in a way that is open to possibility, not locked into certainties.

It’s not just polls, though. The Democratic Party leadership was wrong to close ranks so early and so tightly around Hillary Clinton: all the early endorsements from sitting officials, the narrowing of the primary debate schedule, etc. This is not because Hillary Clinton is a bad candidate, but because it was all based on a kind of unjustified certainty, a certainty that in aggregate smells like a fear of small “d” democracy. The Democratic Party should always want more primary candidates, not less, more debate not less. In the lead up to the primaries, it traded openness for a false certainty, a false certainty about about how things would go, about how the world works. What would have happened if seven or eight Democrats of various leanings had thrown their hat in the ring early on, if elected Democrats had withheld endorsements in the name of democracy, if the DNC and the establishment had embraced and encouraged a diverse, wide ranging primary? I have no idea, and no one else does either. Except that I suspect we’d be in a stronger position now, whoever ended up candidate.

There are so many things to fix: technology as it’s used, technology as people fantasize about it, journalism and its many crises, money in politics, and more. But what I strive for is way to proceed intellectually and politically openly, without guarantees, as S. Hall put it, to acknowledge both the horror and hope of the moment. I won’t speculate on whether or not Bernie could have done better than Clinton against Trump — we just don’t know, can’t possibly know — but I will again quote Jedediah Purdy: “The unexpected, sometimes astonishing strength of the Sanders campaign is that it represents a call for a politics that takes both crisis and hope more seriously. In this way, the campaign is utterly realistic.” Embrace both the crisis and hope, with no guarantees: that’s the way forward, I think.

What would Stuart Hall do?

Recently, reading David Brooks’ argument that the problem with the Democrats is their “materialistic mind-set,” I found myself wanting to respond by paraphrasing what Raymond Williams said about advertising: the problem with the Democrats is not that they’re too materialist, it’s that they’re not materialist enough. And then I found myself reliving my early encounters with the debates within and about cultural studies. 

Brooks points out that Democrats habitually “break national problems into small, interest-group-size chunks and then deliver pandering policy promises. . . . every demographic or interest group gets its own pander.” His problem with this is that “Voters are worried that the whole society is falling apart. If Democrats think a crisis of national identity can be addressed with targeted tax credits they are living in a different century.” On this particular score, Brooks has a point. But what he is describing is not so much materialism as it is interest group theory, created as a criticism of American politics in the 1960s and then inverted by beltway Democrats in the 1990s into an organizing vision. It’s a mode of thought that can not see the importance of broad social structure. 

So I turned to Bernie Sanders’ admonition to the Democrats also in the New York Times: “Donald Trump could benefit from the same forces that gave the Leave proponents a majority in Britain. [This] should sound an alarm for the Democratic Party in the United States. Millions of American voters, like the Leave supporters, are understandably angry and frustrated by the economic forces that are destroying the middle class.” As he has for his entire political career, Bernie rattles off the disturbing statistics about unequal distribution of wealth and its consequences: poverty, hopelessness, ignorance. Tackle those forces head-on, he argues, or we could all be very, very sorry. Economic structure matters hugely.

OK, I thought to myself, true so far as it goes.  But while many African American intellectuals supported Bernie in the primaries, regular African American voters, less so. And while Bernie did pretty well compared to Hillary with white working class voters in many states, many others in that same category were showing up in force at Trump rallies. Some of that may be a matter of timing; to this day, Bernie’s footprint across today’s ocean of mainstream media is a blip compared to Trump’s wide swath. But I couldn’t help worrying that, as the U.S. progressive movement struggles to turn its current toehold into an enduring, forceful presence, it’s going to need something more.

So I find myself reflecting back on where cultural studies came from: all the complex discussions, studies, debates about the relations between hearts and minds and social structure. About how class relations play out in cultural forms from subcultures to everyday life, about how relations of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and more become intertwined with but not reducible to each other and to class, about the search for a materialism that was not reductionist, about how all of it was infused with a search for a more small “d” democratic future.

I don’t have an answer to the question, “what would Stuart Hall do” about the current moment. I’m just trying to start a discussion. But remembering the mix of concerns he and the other creators of cultural studies brought to intellectual life gives me hope. For one, do the work to understand the experiences and points of view of those different from me and my friends. We need to get beyond simply being appalled. I’m pretty sure that most Trump supporters, if forced to carefully read several days’ worth of my social media feeds full of anti-Trump arguments, would only be more solid in their support for Trump. Second, identities matter, but they are not pre-given things but constructions over time. For example, masculinity in America is deeply troubled, sometimes toxically so, but subject positions can be changed, if slowly. We need to think through ways that can happen.

I don’t have any clear answers yet, but maybe those of us who know the cultural studies tradition might be able to come up with more useful ideas. Please feel free to do so below.


What Warren did, and didn’t, say to Rachel Maddow

The interview with Rachel Maddow in which Elizabeth Warren chose to publicly endorse Hillary Clinton is worth reading carefully, in its entirety. Unlike most of the punditocracy and many Democrats, Warren said the extended primary was good for the party, and she gave Bernie credit for bringing in new voters and moving the discussion in a progressive direction; for example, she essentially gave Bernie credit for Obama’s statement that we should be looking for ways to expand social security (which is a reversal of where the discussion was five years ago).

But even more importantly, Warren did not say she was “getting behind” Hillary. She said “I am ready to get in this fight and work my heart out for Hillary Clinton to become the next president of the United States and to make sure thatDonald Trump never gets any place close to the White House.” Warren did not say Hillary is the most qualified or most experienced. She said Hillary is “a fighter, she’s out there, she’s tough. And I think this is what we need. Look at who she is. For 25 years, she’s been taking the incomings, right? The right wing has thrown everything they possibly can at her. . . . What she’s done is she gets back up and she gets back in the fight. As a Democrat, one of the things that frustrates me the most is there are a lot of times we just don’t get in the fight. We ask pretty please if we can have things or we make the argument for why it is the best thing to do, and then wait patiently for the other side to agree to come along. We negotiate. We start our opening position by negotiating. . . . I get the reason that you should be willing to negotiate sometimes. But you also ought to be willing to throw a punch. And there are a lot of things that people say about Hillary Clinton. But nobody says that she doesn’t know how to throw a punch.” This is praise and encouragement, but also politically pointed; it is the opposite of acquiescing to more of the same.

Sometimes the boldest action is to choose one’s words very carefully, and speak them from the heart.



Some thoughts as the general election approaches . . .

As my colleague Beth Mintz pointed out to me, Bernie’s campaign so far shows that he is an exceptional manager; he has gotten some remarkable things done. If his campaign had quickly flamed out after New Hampshire, maybe we could have said, OK, the ’08 collapse and bailouts, the internet etc. all came together and caused a blip. But the fact that he has sustained a well organized, historically effective campaign against all odds for close to a year now shows that he knows how to assemble a team of excellent folks and get them to work together to accomplish exceptionally difficult and remarkable things. This accords with my experience as one of his constituents for the past 25 years.

But here’s the thing: I firmly believe that a Clinton presidency would be an unpredictable chaotic mess just like a Sanders presidency would. A Sanders Presidency, however, will at least open up new political possibilities (and very significantly will be less likely to pursue murderous foreign policies). The reasoning of this piece in The Atlantic — which is pretty straightforward Clintonism — is not smart, grownup, or rational; it’s rationalizing, too clever by half, takes vague hunches for certainties (e.g., poll trends), and dodges difficult truths (e.g., Iraq). It’s a mode of thought that has for 35 years been associated mostly with weak or bad policy and more electoral defeats than successes (e.g., DOMA, shredding the safety net, Gore, Kerry, the U.S. House). Bernie, with his cheap suits, finger wagging, bad hair, and relentlessly repetitive speech making, is the future.
Jedediah Purdy put it much more eloquently: “The unexpected, sometimes astonishing strength of the Sanders campaign is that it represents a call for a politics that takes both crisis and hope more seriously. In this way, the campaign is utterly realistic, and in quite a different way from the superficial ‘realism’ of anti-Sanders commentators.”

Time to get real, but what’s realistic?

Dear friends who tend to vote Democrat,
     It is indeed time to “get real.” But in April 2016, what’s realistic?
    The overriding goal must be to stop Trump or Cruz or whoever and win back the Senate (and maybe even the House), but the way forward is not obvious. It’s not over, but if Hillary does end up the Democratic candidate in the general, there’s no basis for assuming it will be an easy or certain path to the Whitehouse. Old common wisdoms — e.g., that Hillary’s centrism would be more popular with independent voters in the general, that Bernie’s socialism would make him a laughing stock — are not so much proven wrong as just rendered much less certain. Maybe they’d prove true, maybe they wouldn’t. It’s true that favorability ratings and head-to-head matchups are weak predictors, but Hillary’s consistently weak showings in both should give us all pause. It’s likely that if it were Bernie in the general, the general election would be a sh_-show. (Yes, there’d be the redbaiting, but I’d be more worried about having the full force of Wall Street against him, as they’d back any Republican nutcase against Bernie.) But it will be a sh_-show with Hillary, too, if of a different flavor.
     Hillary is not a liar or a simple slave to Wall Street or someone who wants to nuke Palestinians. She is in many ways the best of the Clintonite wing of the party; she is not nearly as sleazy as Bill or folks like Andrew Cuomo, she is often fantastic on women’s issues, and has a genuine talent for finding and articulating policies that address real needs of ordinary people. (It Takes a Village was a brilliant intervention.) But she is part of a community of economic neoliberals, a community that has spent their entire professional lives pursuing a set of political tactics that may not be working any more (if they ever worked well). She is surrounded by people who, if she wins the primary, will calmly start talking about “pivoting” towards the general election by taking more right wing views as if it is wise and smart, without any sense of how painfully dispiriting and dishonest the “pivot” sounds to most voters, about how it is of a piece with a set of strategic practices that have encouraged the growth of voter cynicism and low voter turnout.
     It is high time to start forging a new coalition inside the Democratic Party, a coalition that takes Bernie’s success and his policies seriously, even while it embraces other views as well. I’ve already written about how Bernie himself is not the best at that kind of coalition-building. The Clintonites as a whole tend to be self-certain and exclusionary (viz., Rahm Emanuel, Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, Andrew Cuomo). The way to start this coalition is NOT to call for Bernie to just step aside and get out of the way. It is going to take Democrats across the board to work with respect for both sides and a lot of political imagination to start defining some clear principles that clearly articulate a difference from the past, both in terms of policies and in terms of political tactics. For the former, perhaps strong positions on global warming, dramatic reductions in the cost of higher education, and Elizabeth-Warren-type regulations of the financial industry. For the latter, it means honestly working towards better small ‘d’ democracy, weaning the party of dependence on Super Pacs and bundled donations from rich folks, and abandoning triangulation as a preferred political strategy.
       But my guess is that this isn’t going to come from the two candidates sitting down together and working it out. They’ll both have to be brought along by others who start the process without them.

A field guide to Bernie Sanders, for the exasperated

Dear Friends, here’s a short field guide to Bernie Sanders:

  1.  When he says the same five things over and over again and you find yourself wishing he’d show some complexity for once, here’s the thing: he’s not talking to you and me. He’s trying to punch through a hostile/indifferent media to reach folks who’ve never heard much of this before, in ways they can understand and get behind. And as you may have noticed, it works.
  2. His talking points are very carefully crafted. Like the thing about Denmark: it has a highly flexible economy because the strong social safety net is used to make it easy to fire employees. That’s why he doesn’t point to, say, France, whose welfare state makes for a much more rigid economy. His is a very 21st century vision of social democracy.
  3. He’s fully aware that a single payer healthcare system isn’t going to pass any time soon. But it might be possible to, say, gradually lower the eligibility age for medicare until it covers everybody, over a decade or so. And given that it’s now looking like both Houses might be in play, that could turn out to be a fairly modest goal. So why doesn’t he explain that on the stump? See #1 above.
  4. The reason he harps so much on economic inequality is in part because he has long believed that if you’re going to make progress on other issues — foreign policy, racial equality, etc. — you’re going to need most folks behind you, and to get them there, you need to deliver things that are immediately relevant to the majority, ergo income inequality, health care, and access to higher ed.

Any questions?

What were the lessons of McGovern ’72, anyway?

Would a Bernie candidacy in the fall end up like McGovern in 1972? Depends on what lesson you take from McGovern’s campaign. The Democrats and the left in the 1970s both took the lesson to be “that’ll never work.” The Democrats then got in the habit of sticking timidly toward the center and lowering their goals, while the left mostly walked away from electoral politics as hopelessly corrupt. Bernie’s long career in Vermont has convinced me that those were both strategic mistakes.

There’s another way to read the McGovern campaign: as something that had remarkable potential that we should all have learned from. That is how the conservative right wing, still smarting at the time from the defeat of Goldwater in 1964, looked at it. Richard Viguerie, the “funding father of modern conservative strategy,” looked at the McGovern campaign and saw several possibilities. Most famously, the fact that McGovern used the Volvo mailing list early in the campaign to great effect was interpreted by Viguerie to mean direct mail fundraising was a way around the mainstream media, a way to both raise money but also speak directly to communities without having to go through the filter of the major papers and the networks. But if you listen to Viguerie closely, I think he also saw untapped potential in grass roots organizing with previously ignored local organizations and constituencies — for him, these would be the NRA and evangelical Churches — around a principled candidate. Those strategies came to fruition in 1980, when Viguerie’s strategies were put to a test in the election campaign of Ronald Reagan: Reagan’s landslide success ushered in a new era of conservative dominance in the U.S., and eventually the world.

Since Bernie’s landslide victory in New Hampshire this week, there’s been an intense and I think very healthy debate amongst liberals about what’s strategically possible, and McGovern’s defeat in ’72 is often offered as a warning. I think both the left and the Democratic Party took the wrong lessons from the McGovern campaign back in the 1970s.

[Thanks to Victor Willis for suggesting this relevant essay: http://www.salon.com/2016/01/25/bernie_sanders_could_be_the_next_ronald_reagan/]