The three-body problem: why presidential elections are a pretty bad place to fight the two-party system


I’m currently reading The Three-Body Problem, and it got me thinking about third parties. Here’s the analogy: the problem with third parties in US politics is that the law of physics under which they operate create impenetrable barriers for a three-party equilibrium.

To be specific: first-past-the-post victory conditions, for single-member districts, layered on top of the Electoral College (state-by-state) presidential system, all doused in a healthy draught of Madisonian federalism. Bring all this together, and you have a set of institutions that are structurally hostile to third parties.

And yet, for some reason, the ‘two party duopoly’ is almost always blamed on things like media refusal to acknowledge third parties, the cynicism and/or stupidity of voters, and efforts by the existing parties to isolate and exclude other alternatives.

Now, to be clear, all those things do matter. But they are mostly the effects, not the causes, of our political system. The media tends not to treat third parties as viable because, given the institutional setup I just described, they aren’t viable, except under truly extraordinary circumstances.

The problem: ‘third parties’ aren’t really parties

We run into trouble on this point, largely because our indeterminate language fails to really capture the nature of the conflict. For the average third-party-curious voter, parties are primarily ideological coalitions, organized around a package of issues. So, if the two main parties fail to reflect your particular package of values, you defect and seek out another option.

The problem is: given the structures of our political system, that’s not what parties are.

Sure, the two main parties have ideological positions, and those do generate the terrain on which most partisan separation takes place. But those values aren’t the core functions of parties. The core function is, quite simply, to win elections. Obviously, winning elections in a country full of people with deep political and moral values means that parties have to become vehicles for the expression of those values. But they must constantly balance those interests with the baser objective of maintaining a coherent organizational structure upon which to mobilize future action.

To put it as bluntly as possible: that’s what it means to be a party, given the underlying physics of the American political structure. But that’s precisely what existing third parties refuse to do, and for obvious reasons. After all, they are organized (to the extent that they are organized at all) around dissatisfaction with the transactional structure of the existing parties.

This simple fact generates a huge amount of conflict among partisans of both models. Much of the ‘throwing away your vote’ rhetoric lobbed in both directions stems from a failure to understand what the other side even wants.

Third parties and the three-body problem

So what does this all mean for third party debates?

Well, put simply: the barriers to meaningful third party participation in politics have almost nothing to do with top-level votes for president, but have everything to do with the nitty-gritty details of the electoral process.

Since there is no plausible equation for a stable three-party system in our existing physics (the three body problem), those third parties that do successfully intrude into an election are certainly capable of producing chaos, but the terminal result is always ejection. Usually of the upstart party, though it’s always theoretically plausible for one of the existing two parties to collapse.

But, and this is crucial, even if the upstart party somehow knocks one of the others off the perch, it won’t really change anything. Because the reasons why parties act like they do (as transactional entities—with all the corruption, side-dealing, and collaborative elitism that this entails) has nothing to do with their ideologies. It’s a function of basic two-party equilibrium. No matter how radical a new entrant might be in its conception, victory inevitably drives out that radicalism. You only need look at the Republican Party of the 1860s, which went from Radical Reconstructionism to an elite-driven Corrupt Bargain in under a decade.

Much like The Santa Clause, if you kill one of the old duopoly, you merely end up taking its place.

These are the two possible effects of third party voting in a presidential race: 1) a bee-sting campaign, which inflicts pain on the target but also kills the bee, and 2) a Santa Clause campaign which fails to resolve the underlying problem of two-party dominance.

The mutable physics of two-party systems

However, none of this is to say that the situation is hopeless.

Because, it turns out, the physics of the political universe aren’t locked into place. While it takes a lot of work, they can be changed. It just requires reorienting your attitude toward the problem. Fighting this out at the level of the presidency is like trying to put out a burning building with a squirt gun. But if you go further upstream, far less pressure is necessary to shift the course of events.

And here is a place where Madisonian federalism becomes an advantage. Because our system as a whole is exceptionally difficult to move. But each individual polity does have the freedom to set its own election laws. Which means there’s room for experimentation at lower levels. And election reform at the state/city/town level is absolutely doable, and has the potential to spill up, if people genuinely prefer it.

There’s plenty of options here: proportional representation systems with multi-member districts, single-transferable vote models, systems that let you indicate all acceptable candidates, etc.

None of these systems are perfect, either. But they are at least real alternatives, in the sense that they create room for third parties to function as ideological agents without being crushed by the weight of our institutional structure.

So who should you vote for in the presidential election?

Vote for whoever you like!

I’m not making a categorical argument against third party voting. A ballot for Johnson or Stein (or someone else) DOES have real effects, and you might well decide that those effects are positive ones. A few examples:

  • You might want to send a message, playing the role of the bee whose sting can punish those who moved away from your issues.
  • You might hope cultivate a viable party, capable of replacing one of the current kings of the roost. This was at least a plausible scenario for Johnson in the winter and early spring. It hasn’t turned out that way, which suggests that we’re not too likely get a new Santa Clause anytime soon. But if ever there was a time for an external revolt, Trump is likely the guy against which to act.
  • You might simply feel that your vote simply reflects your personal convictions, and you have to go with whoever is closest to those convictions.

Now I don’t happen to agree with any of those approaches, but they are reasonable, grounded positions. My only argument here is that ‘striking a blow against two-party-ism’ is simply not one of the plausible outcomes of a Johnson/Stein vote.

So if you can tolerate one of the major party candidates, but are hesitant to vote for them mostly out of disgust for the duopoly, my advice is to find other more useful avenues for expressing that frustration, and cast a vote for one of the major parties in the meantime.

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Why media coverage of the election is so terrible: a grand unified theory


To criticize the media is to tread into disputed territory, even before the content of one’s criticism is unfurled. There is no such thing as ‘the media’ in the sense of a monolithic entity. But to the extent that anything binds together the mainstream media, it would be a shared commitment to neutrality of coverage. The media’s job is not to issue subjective opinions but to lay objective facts on the table.

This is a noble goal, and one that I genuinely do respect. But ‘neutrality’ is a slippery concept. And in recent months, as we draw near to the endpoint of a half-century’s worth of conceptual development, the modern understanding of media ‘neutrality’ is nearing the point of structural collapse. In an age of heightened partisanship, the complexities of neutrality have been stripped away, leaving it a mere husk of its former self. In this age, ‘neutral’ is now virtually synonymous with ‘nonpartisan.’

That has long been an economic necessity, as Josh Marshall points out in an excellent piece on the age of single-paper cities. But increasingly, the economic need to avoid directly antagonizing significant portions of the reading public has been internalized, regarded as the defining feature of journalistic integrity. That trend has only been exacerbated by the proliferation of partisan media outlets, who clearly do put their thumb on the scales in terms of editorial judgment. ‘Mainstream’ sources therefore (quite understandably) have seen this sort of objective treatment of ‘the issues themselves’ as the benchmark of good journalism.

The consequences of this shift have long been problematic. But this year, we have watched the media’s allergy for attacking the opinions of a significant voting population crowd out all other considerations, including the pursuit of truth as such. The laudable premise (that the media should report stories, not become stories themselves, that nonpartisanship is a shield against subjectivity) has now been exposed as an autoimmune deficiency.

In seeking to protect itself, the media is exterminating all of the life-sustaining mechanisms that are supposed to give it strength.

The problem of ‘how will this play?’ journalism

‘How will this play’ is the watchword for this sort of reporting, which has no problem with flights of fancy, so long as those flights operate within the terrain of valid speculation.

To opinionate on the baseline horribleness of Trump is impermissible, because reporters must remain distinct from advocates or pundits. By the same token, to opinionate on the fundamental grossness of Clinton’s attitude toward political power is also beyond the pale. But these topics are by no means inaccessible. They simply have to be unlocked through the mediating structure of popular opinion. When a reporter asks ‘how will this play,’ they filter the question through a legitimating device. It’s no longer the reporter making the argument; they are simply asking a question on the behalf of an imagined public.

However, once we recognized this function, it immediately becomes clear that Clinton and Trump will be differently exposed to its effects. Because, to be blunt, we already know how voters will respond to these stories. New evidence of his lies, his corruption, his abuses of power, his sexism, his racism, his utter cluelessness about matters of public policy, his lies about giving to charity, his stealing 9/11 recovery funds, his authoritarianism…his voters will shrug of the shoulders, or (more likely) with an attack on the media for daring to report these facts at all. Everyone else will see the new event as simply one more example of his manifest unfitness for office. In either case, the needle doesn’t move.

Result: at best, there’s no ‘news’ here, because all these things are ‘already baked into the cake.’ At worst, the reporter will actively shy away from poking the beast, because it would risk undermining the delicate latticework of ‘neutrality’ upon which the whole edifice of contemporary campaign coverage rests.

Meanwhile, the Clinton scandals produce endless coverage, not because they are more important (‘importance’ is verboten as a basis for selection – see this recent, horribly depressing theory of media responsibility from Liz Spayd), but because they can easily be integrated into the journalistic decision tree. While Clinton supporters are willing to tolerate her various problems, they also find them upsetting. This means a new discovery about emails, the Clinton Foundation, a cough, or virtually anything else is a ‘legitimate’ story—because both sides of the partisan divide will regard it as at least potentially newsworthy. And this is completely independent of the intrinsic news value of the issue.

The Tinkerbell effect and perverse faith in journalism

But surely not all Clinton stories work this way. In some cases, her partisans really are united in their utter dismissal of a story, in the same way that’s far more common with Trump supporters. So why doesn’t this quash stories in the same way?

The answer is both depressing and perverse. Put simply, the problem is that Clinton supporters, broadly speaking, seem to share the media’s fascination with how stories will play. As a result, they tend to regard media treatment as important and worthy of discussion on its own terms, even when the specific claims are flawed beyond repair.

That is: because they accept the media’s gatekeeping role, they therefore fear the power it can wield in judging the behavior of candidates. Somewhat bizarrely, then, their collective faith in the importance of objective adjudication actually helps to sustain the drumbeat of negative coverage. Like Tinkerbell, this sort of coverage can survive only so long as people believe in it. So as long as the media can identify partisans across the spectrum who regard a story as worthy of deeper investigation, the stories will continue to be written, and the wound will continue to bleed.

This is because the vast majority of campaign coverage isn’t actual coverage of the campaign itself, but is coverage of anticipated reactions.

Bring this back to Trump, and it becomes even clearer what’s going on. Think about Trump’s lies—about Iraq, about Libya, about his supposed charitable giving, about his tax policy, about literally everything else in the world. ‘The media’ has reported all these stories. They laid the facts on the table, and the issue is undisputed. From their perspective, that means their job is done. That story has reached completion. To hound him further on these topics would be gauche, partisan, unseemly. And it wouldn’t go anywhere.

Trump’s brazen refusal to believe in media norms, and the willingness of his supporters to follow him, renders the media toothless. The scripts they write—committed as they are to this sort of neutrality—provide no entry point for further attack.

The crisis of modern reporting is a crisis of crypto-punditry

So what’s really going on here is a fundamental blurring of media responsibilities, to serious detrimental effect. If you really want to know ‘how a story plays,’ you can simply wait a couple days and read the polls. Or you can wear out your shoe leather actually talking to voters. Both have limitations and problems, but both are capable of producing actual knowledge.

But pre-heated speculation by reporters, about whether something ‘raises questions’ or ‘casts a shadow’ or ‘might not play well’ serves no purpose and adds nothing to the conversation. It’s a form of crypto-punditry, which adds nothing to the conversation, which explains nothing about the candidates or the issues, which merely exists to translate argumentative attacks into objective-seeming language. And, importantly, which primarily works for attacks on Clinton, while mostly failing to support attacks on Trump.

What should the media be doing instead?

The deep irony of all this is that in attempting to sustain the principle of objective reporting, many members of the media are doing more than anyone to undermine and corrupt those values. The problem is emphatically not the premise of media as an external check on political culture. It can and must continue to play that role. The problem is the belief that existing techniques (which presume collective buy-in to the basic premises of civic engagement as truth-seeking) are utterly incapable of successfully characterizing a candidate and partisan base who reject those values.

The media doesn’t need to sacrifice its independence or aspirations toward neutrality to cover this election. They just need to recognize the existence of tools and techniques that go beyond crypto-punditry, which regards voter opinion as the endpoint of all political conversation. The goal is truth, but truth comes in many flavors and with many shades, and the media should be in the business of exploring them all.

Does Trump constitute a violation of historical norms? Of course he does. Does Trump represent a truly unprecedented degree of secrecy and double-dealing? Of course he does. Does Trump offer a breathtaking degree of cluelessness about basic incompetence that ought to give us pause about electing him grand marshal of a parade, much less president of the most powerful country in the world? Of course he does.

Those are truths, too. Those things don’t stop being important stories just because 40% of the country seems impervious to those truths. If anything, such commitment in and of itself is a massive story that reporters should be frothing at the bit to investigate.

There should be daily investigations asking people why Trump’s constant lying doesn’t seem to matter. There should be front-page exposes about the impossible breadth of Trump’s corruption. Every interviewer of Trump (or any surrogate) should pick a topic about which Trump has lied, and simply refuse to give it up. And if they refuse to do those things, in fear that it might make some people mad, they need to seriously ask themselves why that has become a decision rule for campaign coverage.

Why does this matter?

I say all of this not because I worry all that much that this coverage will swing the election. I don’t believe many voters are all that confused about the ultimate stakes, nor do I think that many people are open to persuasion in either direction. My concern is less for the winner and loser of the election and more for what this sort of coverage is doing to the fabric of our public political life.

One party nominating a lunatic is bad, but it isn’t a crisis in democracy. But it becomes a crisis when it infects those institutions of public life that should be working against the corrosion of our normative structures.

By dragging Trump up, the media legitimates his bigotry, grants it a sense of normalcy. This is terrible. But just as terrible is the way that the media drags Clinton down, grades her on the same terms as Trump, and encourages people to understand her flaws (real, but fundamentally normal) as on the same sort of plane as Trump’s. When they do so, they contract the scope of political possibility. They wipe away the transformative, the uplifting, the generous. They tell us that politics is nothing but disgusting people saying disgusting things for disgusting reasons.

That is a real problem.

And, in the final irony, by encouraging the population to think in those terms, they cultivate ever more anger and frustration about shared institutions of public culture, of which ‘the media’ itself is an important part.

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The domestication of racial protest

kaepernick anthem“He’s not anti-American; he’s just against the bad parts of America.”
“They’re not attacking white people, just attacking the systems of racial exclusion.”
“Patriotism means criticizing the bad just as much as it means celebrating the good.”
“Of course all lives matter; but our system  doesn’t reflect that premise, so saying ‘black lives matter’ is an effort to make the promise a reality.”
“It’s not an attack on cops; it’s an attack on bad, racist cops.”

These are common phrases, which come with all the best intentions. And they often do reflect reality.

But there’s a real danger here as well. Are you sure Colin Kaepernick isn’t anti-American? Are you sure that the black lives matter protester truly believes the American dream can be redeemed? Are you sure she sees herself as a patriot? Are you sure they value blue lives in general and are merely trying to criticize the bad practices of a few?

Or are you displacing onto them what you want their protest to mean?

This is an important question, and one that reveals the diverse ways in which the American cultural landscape is deracinated. The most obvious form of racial depoliticization is to attack protest as illegitimate. We see this when Colin Kaepernick is denied the right to speak—because he’s not ‘really’ black, because he’s rich, because he’s pampered, because he’s not protesting ‘in the right way’ and so forth. Here, the right of the speaker to bring the experience of black life into contact with white comfort is directly denied.

But this is not the only way in which race is rendered invisible. The same basic process takes place when well-meaning liberals take acts of protest and refigure them, shape them to fit their own narrative structures. To see protest purely as a form of ‘conscientious objection,’ as a call to honor the underlying promise of equality, is also a form of depoliticization. Against radical protest, we dissemble and domesticate. We impose a belief in the larger promise of racial harmony where such belief does not exist.

This act of translation is understandable. Conversation across the boundaries of experience is difficult under the best of circumstances. And the topic of race is hardly the best of circumstances. But this is precisely why we need to be careful.

Not every scream into the chasm of injustice is an invitation to build a bridge.

For those of us who believe in the possibility of rehabilitation, this is a difficult truth to face. It’s deeply uncomfortable to encounter a claim for which we can offer no reparation. Against such cries, we desperately look for points of entry. And this is what leads us to speak the truths (as we see them) that must be buried in their claims.

But in doing so, we replace their politics with ours. And in its own way, that’s equally an act of dismissal, a form of racial violence.

No good answers

So what is to be done? Should we simply stand aside? In some cases, maybe. But there are no pure choices here, no perfect answers. Detaching ourselves entirely from these conversations is clearly no solution. That simply replicates the initial problem: leaving protest to fend for itself within a market of ideas heavily stacked against it.

And after all, my point is certainly not that the goal of racial redemption is purely an invention. That promise is, quite emphatically, not the sole property of White America. And we will do well to honor and reflect the gestures toward this kind of politics which are being engaged. But we can only genuinely honor those efforts if we are capable of recognizing them as choices, rather than as the inevitable and necessary endpoint of racial critique.

So we do have a responsibility to stay engaged. We just have to be careful, willing to live with the discomfort that comes from knowing that nothing we can do is free from harm. We can be allies, friends, amplifications. We can try to lend the legitimacy afforded to us by our social position to those denied such legitimation, while also remaining attentive to the ways that this process always risks overwriting the very concerns we are hoping to assist.

And for any of that to work, it has to come from a place of really listening. Even when that means listening to perspectives we find deeply disquieting.

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Why it’s so hard for Republicans to disavow Trump (but they should do it anyways)


It’s easy for those on one half of the political divide to call on the other side to abandon their terrible candidates. After all, you already disagree with the basic ideological commitments they represent! But for those who share a partisan affiliation, the issue is a lot more complicated.

Because at the end of the day, parties matter a whole lot more than individual candidates. Parties control the agenda, establish what’s possible, set the terms of political engagement. That’s especially true in Congress, where it’s incredibly difficult for individuals to make a significant difference. But it’s also true at the level of the presidency. There are differences between presidents, of course, but most of the day to day business of government is conducted by low level appointees, bureaucrats, and political professionals. Which means the consequences of a presidential election often stem primarily from the party name, and only (very) secondarily from the individual.

All of which is setup for me to say: I sympathize, really and truly, with Republicans who hate Trump but don’t want to vote for Clinton. Because for all of Trump’s flaws, irregularities, and violations of conservative orthodoxy, it’s quite clear that he would govern in more traditionally conservative ways than Clinton. He’d appoint more conservative Justices to the Supreme Court, he’d pursue significant tax cuts, he’d go after Obamacare, and so forth.

What’s more, his broad incompetence might in some ways prove to be a boon. He could stack the executive branch with cronies and sycophants, but would be more likely to just leave the boring day-to-day operations in the hands of professionals. And sure, he’d fight with a GOP Congress at times, but in many areas he simply wouldn’t care enough to bother. Which compares to Clinton, who would fight tooth and nail on small-bore issues, veto bills left and right, and generally make herself a pain in the collective congressional butt.

So, again, I get it. If you believe in the Republican agenda, it really IS reasonable to conclude that Trump would get you a lot more of what you want. And, under normal conditions, that’s a perfectly good reason to hold your nose and vote for the ‘lesser of two evils.’ In a normally-functioning system, party loyalty just matters more than individuals.

But Trump isn’t normal. He’s a walking disaster, in a way that exceeds the limits of traditional liberal/conservative evaluation. A Trump candidacy puts ‘issues’ on the table that used to transcend partisanship. For example, “the president shouldn’t be a sociopath” used to be an unstated position for both parties. A baseline assumption so obvious it didn’t need stating. But now, Trump has put that all into doubt. And Republicans have to ask themselves: am I so committed to the differentiated elements of partisan distinction (taxes and guns and affirmative action and so forth) that I’m willing to abandon those underlying beliefs?

I think the answer is obvious, and I think that’s precisely what President Obama is talking about when he says this election asks us to be patriots, to put our duty to the country ahead of our duty to our own beliefs. There is a real sacrifice here, but one that must be made.

Thinking about this, I’ve been trying to work from a position of empathy. Would I do the same if the situation were reversed? Would I be able to set aside my second-level values and vote against my own party? The answer is hell yes.

It’s hard to envision a ‘Democratic Trump,’ but let me give it a shot: Imagine an Alec Baldwin descended into caricature. He is angry, incoherent, violent. He lights fires and does everything short of inciting riots. Against money in politics, against Republicans, against everyone who disagrees with his populist message. And, let’s imagine, that he’s taken ‘criticism of Israel’ to an extreme point, one verging all-too-closely on outright anti-Semitism. Over the course of the campaign, his language has grown more and more unhinged, dictatorial, terrifying.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have nominated Mitt Romney. Or maybe Paul Ryan.

You’d better believe I’d vote for the Republican. Because some things transcend shared commitment to partisan values. A candidate who threatens to rip apart the core fabrics of our democracy is attacking my beliefs in a way that goes far beyond mere issue disagreement. The president is the most powerful human being on the planet. They absolutely must meet certain minimum qualifications.

Donald Trump cannot be allowed to become president. Not because his ideas are bad (although they are), but because no one so self-evidently incapable of understanding the responsibilities of such power should ever be allowed to wield it.

I started by saying that I understand why partisan affiliation is so strong, and why it’s so hard to break. But to the 20% of the country out there, who is horrified by Trump and who wishes you could win back the soul of your party, I urge you in the strongest terms I can find to take that step.

It’s asking a lot of you, but your country needs that sacrifice.

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The politics of legitimacy in the age of Hillary Clinton


This weekend, Dara Lind at Vox wrote an excellent piece on the persistent left-wing critics of Hillary Clinton. Its hook is a question that is deceptively simple: “is there anything Hillary Clinton can do to redeem herself to you?”

The context for this question is a process of decaying political legitimacy – and the difficulty many people find in believing that ‘establishment’ politics has anything to offer. Such skepticism is nothing new, of course. American politics has long been defined by suspicion of institutions, lack of faith in elite representation, and paeans to the wisdom of the people. We inhabit a politics of dissent and protest, punctuated by periods of quietude. And given the broader context, it’s wholly unsurprising to observe a growing tumult of protest and critique.

Lind’s question, however, asks us to seriously consider the underlying political commitments of such critiques. If institutional legitimacy is weakening, what is the appropriate response? Is the goal to recuperate our institutions, or to hasten their destruction? To double down on de-legitimization, or to work toward their redemption?

The politics of getting to ‘yes’
Hillary Clinton clearly endorses the curative message. She is the candidate of the status quo, insofar as she represents faith that our politics can accommodate dissent by rectifying the injustices that spur this kind of doubt. And this is where Lind’s question becomes crucial. Clinton sees America as a cacophonous conversation of countless beliefs and creeds and races and identities, but a conversation in which everyone remains open to the goal of finding a way to get to ‘yes.’

Not an uncritical or irrevocable ‘yes.’ Not a ‘yes’ which silences dissent. The only requirement is a willingness to clearly articulate acceptable partial steps, and to bargain in good faith toward those results. This is what transforms delegitimization into critical collaboration. Which says ‘although we don’t agree on many things, we regard each other as shared participants in a political world.’ In effect, she is telling her critics that she will genuinely listen to their concerns. And she is asking them to do the same.

Indeed, if there is an essential motivating force behind the Clinton campaign (and more broadly, behind the modern Democratic Party writ large), it’s the belief that politics should be driven by the effort to include those who would like to be included. That motivation has built an inclusionary party, one grounded in tolerance and diversity, one housed in a big tent with a lot of ideological diversity.

This all helps to make sense of Clinton’s ongoing campaign to win over moderates and Republicans. Those efforts have engendered a lot of (understandable) anger from the left, who have no time for paeans to Reagan’s optimism, for patriotic chants, for Republican endorsements. And it has led many to express serious doubts about the sincerity of Clinton’s commitment to progressive politics, and her flexible political weathervane. If she is willing to speak the language of both sides, does she really believe anything herself?

Beyond ideology
These questions are not entirely unfair, but they risk becoming overdetermined, reducing all questions to their ideological coordinates on a straight line from left to right and thus stripping away the multidimensionality of politics. Missing from this account is a recognition that legitimacy creates a second valence of American politics, which does not simply map onto ideology but instead operates on a tangent to the right/left line.

Clinton’s appeals are grounded in the desire to work toward mutual understanding, and to seek viable terms of collaboration. Her appeals do come from a specific ideological coordinate, to be sure, but they are not wholly defined by that location. She values the process of getting people to ‘yes’ – and further values the system through which such collaboration is possible.

Here, I think her long-noted affiliations with the great Saul Alinsky are particularly notable. Alinsky argued forcefully for the necessity of radical action. And, more than that, he argued that those committed to the cause of justice must sometimes be blind to alternative logics. They must believe in their cause forcefully, at a level that exceeds the scope of reason. And yet, he insisted, such radical politics is not just compatible with compromise, compromise is its lifeblood:

If you start with nothing, demand 100 per cent, then compromise on 30 per cent, you’re 30 per cent ahead. A free and open society is an on-going conflict, interrupted periodically by compromises—which then become the start for the continuation of conflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum…A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be ‘compromise.’

Clinton, of course, is no radical herself. And yet I believe she still regards the political terrain in the same essential terms. If she is no radical, she nevertheless seeks to sustain the function of political institutions capable of engaging with, and facilitating gains by, those who stand outside.

So, for those on the left who remain deeply skeptical of Clinton, this raises a crucial question: to engage in wholly ideological terms—seeing Clinton and the Democratic Party writ large as essentially untrustworthy—or to engage in the politics of collaboration? If they choose the former, they refuse her invitation to enter ‘the room where it happens,’ and thereby offer few incentives for resolution. Someone who cannot say ‘yes’ to any offer is an unwelcome participant in such conversations—not because their ideas are bad, but because they are working to undermine the very structure of decision-making.

The politics of radicalism and the politics of rejection
This is by no means an easy question. There are deep problems in our political order, inequalities that far exceed the limits of marginal tinkering, distrust that blooms all the brighter with each passing year of incremental change. Under those conditions, there is a real argument to be made against accommodation, and I take that argument tremendously seriously.

Nevertheless, I worry that these arguments risk obliterating the distinction between a politics of radicalism and a politics of rejection. Both seek to break the shackles of our imagination, refusing to regard the status quo as fixed, or the terms of engagement as intrinsically constrained. But they differ, in that the politics of rejection tends to dematerialize the experience of justice, seeing collaboration with violence as merely a step removed from its direct infliction, no less cruel in its underlying affect. Radical politics admits many shades of grey; rejectionist politics sees only heroes and villains (friends and enemies).

It’s important to really think through this difference. Not because one approach is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’ in some objective sense. This is a difficult topic, and one where people of good faith and strong beliefs will find themselves in disagreement. And that is as it should be. A politics without dissent would not really be politics at all. So the goal isn’t to discourage dissent, but rather to find ways for it to be more powerfully and productively expressed. And that is something that requires serious self-reflection from all sides.

Conclusion: what are we talking about when we talk about politics?
My argument here speaks to the very heart of contemporary debates within liberalism. So in one sense, it is critically important. A failure to seriously consider the terms of our engagement risks fomenting further alienation and dispossession. At the same time, the stakes are also relatively low. Accepting the existence of differences here doesn’t require surrender or significant reconfiguration of ideological commitments—just a little bit more understanding and self-reflection.

For the ‘establishment,’ it is crucial to remain open to the legitimate concerns of protestors. Even if their commitments appear naïve or unrealistic, they are nevertheless genuinely felt and deserve engagement rather than derision. To regard protestors as illegitimate, and therefore worthy of dismissal, is to counteract the very logic under which institutional legitimacy itself is supposed to operate. The core premise of this mode of politics, after all, is its capacity to listen and take seriously the concerns of all, not just those who already agree.

Put simply, there is a powerful argument for the politics of collaboration, but such arguments are perpetually in danger of becoming hoist on their own petard. That some refuse to engage cannot become a justification for dismissiveness. The door must remain open, in the hope that these powerful ministers for justice might one day walk through. Or, as sometimes happens, to leave an escape route for those times when the drumbeat of justice beats so heavily that it shatters the foundations of normal politics (as, for example, happened in the case of slavery).

By the same token, it’s far too easy for those on the ‘protest’ side to stumble into a Janus-faced mode of critique: pitching critiques as collaborative, but persistently moving the goalposts about what meaningful accommodation really entails. This is dangerous because it tends to provoke further alienation on both sides—especially since this sort of double-dealing is very rarely intentional. That is: those who engage it almost never regard themselves as negotiating in bad faith. But in practice it ends this way, because the process was engaged from a premise of distrust where ideologically distant parties are seen as antagonists who must be tricked or bullied into accession. When such efforts fail (as they inevitably must), future engagement is unlikely. If concessions win no points and earn no good will, they are unlikely to be repeated.

This means that engagement, if it is to be of any use at all, requires serious consideration of underlying expectations and demands. It does not require backing down on ideological commitments, but does depend on the willingness to regard ideological contestation as taking place within a shared universe of (potential) understanding and engagement. It means, like Alinsky, seeing a 30% victory as a real victory, the only sort of victory usually available, and thus worth getting your hands dirty to achieve. And it means having faith that those with whom you disagree may nevertheless become agents for, rather than against, justice.

All resolutions will inevitably be unsatisfactory, diluted. It cannot satiate the demands of justice and will not quell dissent. But it does offer the potential for common cause. Not agreement, but productive conflict. And grounded in a shared world, if not always in shared values.

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Tactics are principles: on ‘voting your conscience’

Every four years, the same conversation repeats itself: whether to vote tactically, for the ‘lesser evil,’ for the person who doesn’t represent your values but can at least be a bulwark against someone even worse. You saw this at the RNC, with Ted Cruz pointedly saying ‘vote your conscience,’ rather than endorsing Trump. You see it on the left, with a lot of speculation about Jill Stein and the Green Party.

But a missing element from many of these conversations is a precise specification of what it actually means to ‘vote your conscience’ and why it is accepted that tactics and conscience are in contradiction. This is a serious lacuna, and one with real consequences for the way in which we think about politics.

To illustrate the point, let me start by saying that I’ll be voting for Hillary Clinton. Sure, I disagree with her on a fair number of policy questions, and am far closer to the Green Party’s platform. But platforms aren’t the only representation of ‘values.’

Underneath the policy choices are a broader set of principles that are at least equally important. For me, those include values like: respect, empathy, nuance, commitment, self-sacrifice, love, compassion, intelligence, judgment.

Does Hillary Clinton perfectly align with my values on all these fronts? Of course not. But Jill Stein sure doesn’t either.

Stein’s tendency to regard monumental differences as rounding errors might make her a decent theoretical physicist, but suggests a kind of willful ignorance to facts that would be catastrophic in a president. Her inability to grasp the *reasons* for third party marginalization suggests a total lack of familiarity with the text and history of the US Constitution. And her insistence that the consequences of all actions (a quixotic third party campaign, the anti-vax movement, etc.) must be sublimated beneath an all-encompassing critique of capital suggests a mind uninterested in nuance, and untethered from a complicated world where few choices are purely good or purely evil.

In fact (on these points at least), I might go so far as to say that there’s barely a ‘dime’s worth of difference’ between her and Trump.

Others may disagree with this characterization, and that’s fine. You may regard Stein’s tactical assessment as reasonable, or regard Clinton’s political commitments as so extreme as to push her beyond the pale. But these are not ‘principles’ in some abstract, hermetically-sealed sense. They are differing judgments about the balance between motive and consequence, differing assessments about how to negotiate with evil.

In a universe defined by entropy, every choice exposes us to loss. We build pockets of stability, systems to sustain us. We engage our creative spirits to construct liveable worlds to share with one another. But it’s always against a backdrop of chaos. There are no decisions without risk, no acts so pure that they inflict no pain, no conscience that is fully clean. There is only the question of how we learn to live with the evil that we produce, how we try to minimize it, what meaning we can give to the sacrifices we are forced to undertake.

This is not a flaw of our electoral system; it’s a feature of the human condition.

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50 songs for 50 states: Michigan

There are, of course, a ton of great songs about Michigan. And in another world, I might have been writing about Motown or 8 Mile or something along those lines. But we don’t live in that world; we live in Sufjan’s world. So the only real question I had was: which Sufjan song will top the list?

And the answer has to be this one. It’s quite simply one of the most beautiful and haunting songs ever created. Unlike some of the other highlights on the record, this one wears its Michiganness pretty lightly—only a quick name check of Paradise—but the heart shines through. The feelings are universal, quite literally so given the biblical implications, but they are also utterly specific. This isn’t a song about the abstraction of love or devotion. It’s about the intensely specific way that those feelings express themselves. The nation loses a soldier, but to the little girl in Ypsilanti that just means that her father will never be coming home again. The world loses its savior, and then finds him again, but to the grieving widow in Paradise, redemption isn’t just an idea; it’s a life boat in a stormy sea.

sufjan michigan

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On Frederick Douglass and the meaning of July Fourth


It’s never a bad idea to spend some time with Frederick Douglass, and I’m taking the opportunity today to remind myself of his brilliance by re-reading his speech on The Meaning of July Fourth to the Negro.

It’s a blistering speech, full of righteous anger and scorn for those who would seek to dodge or dissemble.  But it’s also a speech full of wonder and hope. It affirms the text of the constitution against those who seek to justify the injustices they render. It affirms the message and not the men. It’s important not to lose sight of both of these elements. And to recognize the bracing form in which they are blended together.

Douglass begins with a traditional hailing of the Founding Fathers, of the great dream of the nation, of the wonder that such a thing could have been achieved. But then, he turns back onto the audience, breaks the fourth wall, and asks them directly:

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.-The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?

One can imagine the reactions of his Rochester audience on that day. To fancy yourself enlightened and fair–asking this great man to come and speak–only to have these words hurled back in your face. To find yourself an object of scorn and disgust, grouped together with the slave owners and overseers of the south.

And Douglass certainly anticipates that response. He continues:

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, “It is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less; would you persuade more, and rebuke less; your cause would be much more likely to succeed.”

For Douglass, there is nothing more infuriating than such equivocations.  Particularly on a day dedicated to the celebration of the very phrase: “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”

The hypocrisy is stunning, the rage it induces overwhelming, the pain indescribable. All of the kind words he first issued now taste like ash. A reminder of our sins, of our unwillingness to act upon those simple moral truths.

And yet, after enumerating these sins in excruciating detail, Douglass winds his way backward again. At the conclusion to the speech, he finds himself once again enunciating the promise of America. And once again glorifying those very documents he has now spent so long excoriating.

Look to the Constitution, he says, and you’ll find no defense of slavery. Look to the Declaration, and you’ll find no denial of humanity. In these emblems of our nation, the slave is citizen as much as any other.

And here, amidst all the rubble, he identifies an ember of hope: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.”

With this, he holds out a branch to his audience. As if a drowning man were to hold out a branch to those safe and secure on dry land. But he is not asking them to bring him up to land, as they might have imagined when he began the speech. Instead, he is calling on them to grab hold of the branch and be pulled down together. Enter the darkest and stormiest waters, acknowledge the incalculable suffering all around us, bear that pain on your own backs, and feel the urgency of its end.

And with that, he concludes, in terms that felt eerily resonant for us and our political moment today:

“No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable…The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”

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A win on abortion rights – but what comes next?

For the first time in almost 25 years, the Supreme Court has encountered an abortion restriction that goes too far.

In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Court found that Texas’s regulations constituted an ‘undue burden’ and therefore violated the constitutionally-protected right for women to obtain an abortion. This is a big deal, but also a telling indication of just how close we had come to the edge.

If the Texas laws had been upheld, we would have effectively entered the twilight stages of Roe v. Wade – with abortion technically remaining a protected right, but subject to such a dense thicket of state regulations as to be effectively unusable in significant sections of the country.

That didn’t happen, and that’s important. But this isn’t anything like the last summer, when the Court ended their term by establishing the right to marriage equality—an unvarnished win, at least on the narrow question of marriage. This year, the narrowness of the victory serves as an indication of just how restricted abortion access has become in this country.

While those with money, and those living in the big coastal cities of blue states, are generally able to exercise their reproductive rights with (comparatively) little difficulty, many others are not so lucky. The Court has now ruled against the most egregious laws—designed to effectively shut down all abortion clinics—but said nothing about a wide range of other restrictive statutes, which have closed plenty of clinics themselves, impose a variety of humiliations on those seeking abortions, and make it all-but-impossible for those with limited resources to exercise their rights.

These include: mandatory waiting periods, ‘informed consent’ requirements (such as the transvaginal ultrasound laws), requirements of parental involvement, weak judicial bypass options, building code regulations, etc. Each of these is designed to discourage or limit the ability of women to access abortions.

And beyond such laws, there is another important restriction: the simple reality of cost. While abortion isn’t a particularly expensive procedure, it also isn’t free. And many states prohibit Medicaid funding going toward the procedure, putting it beyond the reach of precisely those who may need it the most.

So yes, the decision today was an important victory. But it’s only a small one. And at the end of the day, it’s unreasonable to expect a whole lot more from the Supreme Court. Absent significant changes in the composition of the Court, the best we can hope for from it is to serve as a backstop, preventing the sort of wholesale restrictions at stake in Whole Woman’s Health.

Real progress on reproductive rights, therefore, depends on positive action in the political realm. There are three key steps here.

  1. Repeal the Hyde Amendment, the law which has prohibited federal funds from paying for abortions.
  2. Appoint more liberal judges to the Court. The result today was a 5-3, but this is the first time in decades that Anthony Kennedy found an abortion restriction that went too far, so it would be foolish to count on his vote in any future cases.
  3. Win back state legislatures. This is where all the action is in abortion restrictions. Republican control of state government allows them to pass a wide raft of restrictions, effectively testing the resolve and attentiveness of the federal judiciary.

There’s also a fourth, and far more abstract step: persuade the American people to move left on abortion. Here, though, it’s worth recognizing just how stable public opinion on this question has been. For all the battles, for all the arguments, for all the vituperative conflicts, the American voters effectively haven’t budged for decades.

That said, you don’t need a sea change in public opinion to shift the margins on abortion access. You just need to win more of the smaller, day-to-day battles at the margins. The public is broadly in favor of legal-but-restricted abortion, but they don’t pay that much attention to the details. Which means this is the sort of area where grandiloquent speeches will accomplish little, but the slow grind of political maneuvering can make a big difference.

In the long run, changing minds is crucial. But that has to be supplemented by a near term strategy of winning small fights that run below the radar of national politics.

And, not to belabor the point too much, but…winning these battles depends heavily on voting for Hillary Clinton (who is campaigning on a repeal of the Hyde Amendment), and for other Democrats.

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50 songs for 50 states: Massachusetts

It’s hard to turn down “Roadrunner.” And I do love “They Came to Boston” by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, particularly for the way it captures the strange mix of cultures that make up Boston. And speaking of that weird mash of cultures, I also gave some thought to Vampire Weekend, who give a slightly less blue collar perspective. All great choices, but never in serious contention.

There were two other songs that I really wanted to go with but couldn’t quite justify. The first is James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James.” It’s my favorite song of his, largely for that second verse, which hits me right in the feels in a way very few songs have ever managed. But for all that it’s grounded in the transit of the Berkshires, it isn’t quite a song about the state, if you know what I mean.

The second is “M.T.A.” by The Kingston Trio. This one plucks a special heartstring for me, since my family used to spend many a car ride listening to the Kingston Trio when I was a kid, and we particularly loved singing along to this one, lamenting poor Charlie stuck on the MTA. And it’s also a great song because it represents a previous era in political campaigns. Songs like these were the social media technology of the era, and there’s something wonderfully quaint about the whole thing.

Still, at the end of the day, I had to go with the Standells. There’s just something perfectly Boston about the love the city has for a song that extolls all of its worst features. And, of course, “Dirty Water” has become a key symbol of the Boston sports landscape. And, for me at least, the heart and soul of Massachusetts is the Red Sox. Their decades of futility. The heartbreak and the pain. Buckner. The ever-growing chip on the shoulder directed southward toward the hated Yankees. Fenway. And, very much tied into all of that: this song.

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