Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Wichita Skyline"

What it arguably implies about my city perhaps isn't terribly complimentary, but it's true, and saying (or, in this case, singing) something that is true is a compliment all its own.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Pure"

I owe this delightful, accidental discovery entirely to Chris Bertram's sad recollections of the optimism he felt about politics, ideas, and football twenty years ago. Thanks, Chris!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

This is One Way (Necessarily Incomplete, By No Means Entirely Coherent, But Nonetheless Meaningful) Political Revolutions Can, Just Maybe, Start to Unfold in America

So, Bernie Sanders gave a big speech to his supporters tonight. It wasn't a concession speech--but then again, from his point of view, his candidacy was about building a movement, changing a party, and pushing an idea (lots of them, actually), at least as much as it was about him getting the Democratic nomination and then being elected President of the United States, and so what exactly would he need to concede? As he put it in the very first lines of his speech, "Election days come and go. But political and social revolutions that attempt to transform our society never end." Since there is no ending, there's no conceding.

So yeah, of course, he's not going to be the nominee, and he's not going to be president. To many, that idea was always just so prima facie ridiculous that his whole campaign was assumed to be nothing more than one long exercise in narcissism. But even those who took him seriously we're dubious of his approach. A man who had always kept his distance from the party structure attempting to win the support of that party, and affect change from the top? That's unworkable, and undemocratic too, making the man a confused hypocrite, at best.

There's a lot which can be said about that, and those things should be said, so that those of us who think his candidacy spoke for principles and policies worth pursuing can see the things that Sanders did wrong, and try to correct them, and the things he did right, and try to build upon them. But if we can set aside all the analysis for the moment, and just accept that, for better or worse, Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, really did believe (and act upon the belief!) that, in our present electoral and media environment, someone with the right message could break into the insanely expensive, insular, and by no means transparent or fair presidential nomination contest, and by so doing turn strongly populist ideas into a politically effective and electorally plausible movement...well, as surprising as it may be to those of us who cynically study this stuff, the fact is, he may have a point.  As he put it tonight:

When we began this campaign a little over a year ago, we had no political organization, no money and very little name recognition. The media determined that we were a fringe campaign. Nobody thought we were going anywhere. Well, a lot has changed over a year. During this campaign, we won more than 12 million votes. We won 22 state primaries and caucuses. [Those in green.] We came very close--within 2 points or less--in five more states. In other words, our vision for the future of this country is not some kind of fringe idea. It is not a radical idea. It is mainstream. It is what millions of Americans believe in and want to see happen.

For the most party, Sanders's speech was a repetition of his standard call for greater egalitarianism and a demand for social, environmental, racial, and economic justice--rhetorically speaking, it wasn't anything new. But it did make clear a few basic points, points which I think flow pretty naturally from his own democratic and revolutionary convictions. First, it was a promise that he and his supporters would keep up the pressure on Clinton--even as he said he would work with her to defeat Donald Trump--all the way through the Democratic convention and beyond.

The major political task that we face in the next five months is to make certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly....But defeating Donald Trump cannot be our only goal. We must continue our grassroots efforts to create the America that we know we can become. And we must take that energy into the Democratic National Convention on July 25 in Philadelphia where we will have more than 1,900 delegates.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Secretary Clinton and discuss some of the very important issues facing our country and the Democratic Party. It is no secret that Secretary Clinton and I have strong disagreements on some very important issues. It is also true that our views are quite close on others. I look forward, in the coming weeks, to continued discussions between the two campaigns to make certain that your voices are heard and that the Democratic Party passes the most progressive platform in its history and that Democrats actually fight for that agenda. I also look forward to working with Secretary Clinton to transform the Democratic Party so that it becomes a party of working people and young people, and not just wealthy campaign contributors.

Sanders listed several things that he thought important enough to call out, which made clear where he understands the real popular pressure of his push for changing the Democratic party's platform needs to be: raising the minimum wage, passing a modern version of Glass-Steagall, ensuring a President Clinton doesn't change her mind again about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and signal that she'd be okay with it coming to a vote in Congress during the lame duck session, making sure public colleges and universities move in the direction of free tuition, ending "perpetual warfare in the Middle East," guarantee health care as a right, and--probably most important to him--"break up the biggest financial institutions in this country." Will a Democratic party establishment which supported Clinton strongly all through the primaries be amenable to such priorities? Some of them, surely; but likely not all. Hence, the need to continue to put the pressure on the Democratic party as a vehicle of the movement Sanders has helped spark.

Beyond all that, though, Sanders' speech this evening was also a classic bit of civic republican/participatory democratic encouragement:

We need to start engaging at the local and state level in an unprecedented way. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers helped us make political history during the last year. These are people deeply concerned about the future of our country and their own communities. Now we need many of them to start running for school boards, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures and governorships....

And when we talk about transforming America, it is not just about elections. Many of my Republican colleagues believe that government is the enemy, that we need to eviscerate and privatize virtually all aspects of government--whether it is Social Security, Medicare, the VA, EPA, the Postal Service or public education. I strongly disagree. In a democratic civilized society, government must play an enormously important role in protecting all of us and our planet. But in order for government to work efficiently and effectively, we need to attract great and dedicated people from all walks of life. We need people who are dedicated to public service and can provide the services we need in a high quality and efficient way.

When we talk about a Medicare-for-all health care program and the need to make sure all of our people have quality health care, it means that we need tens of thousands of new doctors, nurses, dentists, psychologists and other medical personnel who are prepared to practice in areas where people today lack access to that care.

It means that we need hundreds of thousands of people to become childcare workers and teachers so that our young people will get the best education available in the world.

It means that as we combat climate change and transform our energy system away from fossil fuels, we need scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs who will help us make energy efficiency, solar energy, wind energy, geothermal and other developing technologies as efficient and cost effective as possible.

It means that as we rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, we need millions of skilled construction workers of all kinds.

It means that when we talk about growing our economy and creating jobs, we need great business people who can produce and distribute the products and services we need in a way that respects their employees and the environment.

In other words, we need a new generation of people actively involved in public service who are prepared to provide the quality of life the American people deserve.

It wasn't quite Kennedyesque--but it gestured in the direction of that kind of idealism, and we who donated money and knocked on doors and carried signs and signed petitions and wrote blog posts and voted for the man are better for it. If we keep at it, maybe, in some tiny little ways, the country may be better for it too.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Scenes from a Friendship

Note: the following dates and events are approximate, subjective, and possibly in part imaginary. The feelings behind them, though, are not.

Summer, 1991, Provo, UT: There's someone new showing up at the meetings of the staff of Student Review, the unofficial (and eventually to be banned, though briefly resurrected online) student magazine at Brigham Young University, of whom I am one. Or maybe we're all just showing up at the same places where he happens to be. His name is Michael Austin. He's a couple of years older than me, and seems to know most of the people I know, and moreover know them better than me. So I should see him as a rival, but I don't, because he doesn't seem to have any of my nervous ambition, none of my self-critical, conflicted doubt. On the contrary, he doesn't seem worried or engaged or distracted at all--he's the calmest man I've ever met. He's a great writer; his little piece comparing American citizenship to Ben & Jerry's ice cream is a big hit among us insiders. But he's not interested in writing much; he's mostly an absorber, an observer. He isn't married, and there are some women at these gatherings obviously interested in him--but for some reason, whenever we end up in the same place at the same time, he seems to like talking to me. Maybe he likes being around someone more anxiously uptight, more politically radical, more easily enraged than he, or maybe all of his English Literature and Composition peeps already know all his opinions about John Irving (about whom we argue) and Jane Austen (about whom I know nothing), and he enjoys having an attentive disciple-debate-partner-interlocutor. So we start to hang out, sometimes.

Summer 1992: My numerous faults have caught up with me, as they will many times in the years to come, and I'm an emotional wreck. My fiance has broken up with me--a good move on her part, as I was a miserable and manipulative jerk--and I'm wallowing in self-pity, guilt, and despair. I have friends who are unaccountably decent to me, even understanding, but ultimately, it would probably be better for me not to attempt to process and repair everything happening in my life, and instead just enjoy some friendly distraction. That Michael provides. I crash at his rabidly dis-assembling apartment (he'll be moving to Santa Barbara to begin a Ph.D. in English soon) regularly, and we waste time. We watch a lot of bad movies: "Freejack," with Mick Jagger, and "Raising Caine," with John Lithgow. We argue about actors, scripts, and when movie trailers are better than the actual film ("Alien 3"). It helps. He leaves before the summer ends, and I miss him.

Summer 1997-Summer 2001, Washington DC: Michael and I are on a shared e-mail list of Student Review veterans (of which Michael technically never was, but everyone on the list knows him and likes him, and so he's in), and he shares the news: he and his wife Karen will be moving to Shepherdstown, WV, where he's gotten a job right out of graduate school, teaching at Shepherd College. Hey man, I say, that's only a little over an hour from where we live in Arlington, VA; we ought to get together. He says yes, we should. So we do, here and there. We visit Shepherdstown, where Michael's constant calm, his institutional pragmatism, and his clear thinking turn him from the English Department's newest hire to their chairperson in a single year. My wife Melissa and Michael's wife Karen connect--she's whip-smart, unfailingly generous, and über-competent, with levels of engagement and energy that put Michael, me, and any 20 other random people we know to shame. We're not the closest of friends, but we stay in touch. They visit us and stay over for Thanksgiving. Michael comes down to DC for presentations, and I round some friends to come and listen to what he has to say. We visit them as their children are born and one of them struggles long and worryingly with health issues. We swap Harry Potter theories. We're young Mormon families, just starting out (we have a head start on them when it comes to kids, but they have a head start on us when it comes to real-world jobs), and we start becoming a part, however slightly, of the framework of each others' lives.

Late fall 2007, Wichita, KS: I get a phone call at my office at Friends University, not long after the beginning of my second year teaching there. It's Michael. It's been years since we'd last really talked--we'd stayed in occasional touch via e-mail, talked Mormonism and academic gossip and the like, mailed Christmas cards to each other, but that's about it. I knew he'd become a dean at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), and that had made me bitter as I'd flailed through five years of trying to find a lasting academic job. But now, at least, things appeared stable, and Michael has some news for me: he's applied for a job as Provost of Newman University, in Wichita, KS, less than a mile from my office, and what did I know about it? So we talk, and then later talk some more. Soon he's a finalist, and he's flying out to Wichita from West Virginia. And then, the job is his: the Austins are coming to Wichita. Soon they've bought a house--on the same side of the city as us, actually only a mile and a half from our house. By the summer of the following year, we're attending the same congregation, our kids are playing together, Melissa and Karen are part of book group, Michael is giving me rides into work in bad weather, and life is good.

Indeterminate months in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011: Things happen, both good and bad. People get older, priorities change, mistakes get made and repented of, people surprise each other, and life goes on. Melissa and I have a crisis, a doozy, a possible deal-breaker, and I'm at a loss; I have nowhere to do; I've got nothing. Nonsense, says Michael, who picks me up from work and takes me out to eat and keeps me from cracking up, while Karen gives Melissa a place to vent and think and give me another chance. Extended family dynamics on both our parts force changes in the way we think and the way we relate to one another, and to the church and the culture we share, and those changes cause tension between our families, tension that takes months to smooth out. Michael and I travel together to an academic Mormon gathering in Independence, MO, and he wows everyone there, and I wonder, "Is he always going to be the smartest person in every room we visit?" I'm defensive, but also proud to be his friend.

Summer 2012: The Mormon stake leadership in our area changes the geographic borders of all the local congregations, and after four years of regular drop-ins and shared spaces and casual encounters and planned events, the focus of our Mormon lives separate. We still share rides and watch either others kids (though they're all older now) and chat constantly, but now we don't have those same Sunday hours and interpersonal experiences in common any longer. I'm asked to step into a leadership position in our congregation, and now I'm doing something radically unlike anything Michael has ever done. Melissa and the girls find their whole place in our little Mormon world changed, and her closest friend is dealing with the same things from the other side of a congregational divide. It makes for some hard times, and some things begin to fall apart, never (yet, anyway) to be put back together quite the way they were before.

Early spring 2014: After constant cajoling from wards like our own, the stake leadership realizes that the boundaries of our congregation just aren't demographically sustainable, and make some amendments to their restructuring--and as result, the Austins and the Foxes are back together again. It's great, but it's also different. Karen and Melissa round up an old friend and decide to just create their own private book club, doing their own thing. Karen becomes a bit of a savior to our congregation, with her organizational skills and compassion providing immensely needed support to the mostly old, mostly poor, members of our ward. And our bishop finds in Michael the same source of humor, wisdom, and equanimity which everyone has long been drawn to him for. We make him a teacher, and he re-engages in discussing and sharing religious ideas from the scriptures to a greater extent than I've seen from him in a long, long time. In a way that wasn't the case only a few years earlier, I feel as though we're all the shared property of so many others now, and extra work has to be done (or, when we're tired with other things, just isn't done at all) to carve out space for that which once pretty much just our own. Part of me is sad about that; part of me isn't. We couldn't stay the same young Mormon families forever, could we?

Early summer 2015: Michael is brought into the ward leadership along with our bishop and me, and now I'm actually working alongside him in a completely new way. I learn about his anxieties and fears, his priorities and beliefs, his frustrations and faults, his weaknesses and strengths in great detail and in ways that were perhaps more easily hidden before. As the months go by, American Mormonism, both locally and institutionally, seems to be constantly buffeted by controversy or questions or confusion, and Michael earns my admiration weekly for the way he just seems to know how to say--or not say--certain things, whether in private meetings or Sunday school classes or boring leadership training gatherings. He publishes a book which pretty explicitly refutes multiple well-worn and scripturally insupportable folk teachings in our church, and because it's him, even the most conservative members of the congregation are open to it. Melissa and I find ourselves in a position of taking care of a daughter's friend, someone who needs a home and a family, and we need to negotiate both bureaucracies and a language barrier to accomplish that--and Michael's fluent Spanish is essential to the latter. Michael and I drive all the way to Nauvoo, IL, and back in order to attend another Mormon academic gathering, and the whole long drip is a delight. We're all different, I guess, and just becoming more so, but for all our ever-increasing differences, we find we're all also very much in each others' debt.

June 15, 2016: Well, it had to happen; no one can put up with frustration and argument in the workplace on a regular basis forever, not when one has the sort of skills that others are willing to pay good money to make use of. So Michael is leaving Newman University today, and leaving Wichita tomorrow, heading for Evansville, IL, where Karen has already, as is typical of her, taken control of every detail, buying and setting up their new house and making all arrangements necessary, in preparation of Michael beginning a new job at the University of Evansville. It's sad, but we've been separated before, and our friendship survived. It'll change though: as it's already changed, it'll just change more. But hopefully the part that really matters--the part which has endured for more than a quarter-century in one fashion or another--never will.

Joseph Smith, the founder of our shared religious heritage, once called friendship one of the "grand fundamental principles" of our religion, something which can "revolutionize and civilize the world." Michael's and my friendship has been, for better or worse, far more civilized than revolutionary; being comrades in a shared desperate struggle, being BFFs that share every intimate detail and plot out every secret goal, has never really been our thing. (We have other loved ones for that, obviously.) But while militancy and earnest meaningfulness have their place, let me raise my glass here to constancy, compassion, and conviviality. Michael has been that kind of friend to me, and I've been blessed by it, as have many others. Thanks, Michael. Don't be a stranger, you hear?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Drive"

Just a plain wonderful song, and wonderfully sung, though Benjamin Orr remains missed. (Give the person with the camera a few seconds; it straightens out quickly.)

Monday, June 06, 2016

Ten Theses on Our Populist Moment

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Tomorrow, with the California Democratic primary, the populist developments that so many have observed in this electoral cycle will definitively change. Either Sanders will prevail strongly over Secretary Clinton (unlikely, but not impossible), and Clinton will be forced to directly attack Sanders populist and/or socialist and/or radical democratic claims in order to shore up her legitimacy as mainstream progressive liberal Democratic nominee--and hold onto the delegates who got her there--or, more likely (unfortunately), Sanders will lose, or only barely win, Clinton will capture enough delegates to automatically clinch the nomination as well as securing the media narrative of inevitability, and will thus continue to pivot towards attacking Trump's particular quasi-populist appeal. Yes, I know, tomorrow there will also be primaries in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana (all of which Sanders will win), New Jersey, and New Mexico (which Clinton will win), but California will tell. So this is a good moment to sum up some of what all has been going on.

1) Populism, like all ideologies--all "isms"--is a package of ideas, a combination of philosophical presumptions, theoretical claims, and normative or political imperatives. That means the specifics of any iteration of populism will differ, as the package is generated in particular historical and cultural contexts.

2) The one thing any package which can be legitimately called "populist" must include, though, is a focus upon the interests, demands, and identity of a "people"--not people in the aggregate sense, but a defined class or group or type of people who share enough to be able to talk about themselves collectively. So one thing populism can never be is individualistic or libertarian. There are ways in which a concern for the needs of groups can be combined with a prioritization of individual freedom within an ideological construct--libertarian socialism is a real thing, for example--but populism is not one of them.

3) Originally, the people who came together and articulated the sort of group demands which were packaged as "populism" throughout American history have did so along economic lines. Racial and religious and regional lines were often part of the mix as well, for better and/or for worse, but at bottom it was an egalitarian movement: an effort to insist on some economic fairness for that part of the American population being excluded from the sources of wealth. And if the demand for economic fairness and equal access to opportunities for wealth meant restricting or reconceiving the elite generation of it (particularly through financial speculation)...well, it's a price worth paying.

4) For most of the 19th-century history of populism, with the Industrial Revolution transforming and shifting the balance of economic power from landed (often, though obviously not always, yeoman) interests to America's cities and the factories which industrialists--and their supporting corporations and lending institutions--built there, that economic argument was tied up with a kind of agrarianism, or even elements of rapidly disappearing classical republican ideas. So by the beginning of the 20th-century, Thomas Jefferson's suspicion of cities, Andrew Jackson's hatred of banks, and William Jennings Bryan's defense of farmers all seemed of a piece.

5) For the liberal consensus which emerged through the middle of the 20th-century--of which Richard Hofstadter's brilliant but basically tendentious Age of Reform served as a kind of ur-text--the ideas which were threaded through this package weren't nearly as important, though, as the style that was assumed (with admittedly some, but not total, accuracy) to be essential to it. Populism was anti-urban, anti-trade, anti-progress; populists hated intellectuals, hated cosmopolitans, hated foreigners; to be a populist meant to be a redneck, a radical, and a blinkered refusenik.

6) This isn't entirely false--there was plenty of agrarian dreaming and white Protestant defensiveness in the original People's Party. But as a description of ideas, it fails. More specifically, it assumes what it seeks to prove: to declare from the outset that some a particular kind of angry, denouncing, lowest-common-denominator-flattering rhetoric is, by definition, "populist," it to already believe that democratic movements which attempt to connection with a collective popular audience (think Martin Luther King, Jr., and others rousing the African-American population of the South to acts of great sacrifice; think Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others connecting together women's groups into the first wave of feminism in America) are always going to be, at their heart, ultimately kind of mean-spirited and divisive, because that's just how the democratic animal works.

7) All this, of course, supposedly leads us to the apotheosis of Trump, the supposed "populist" of the moment. As Damon Linker, working very much in this tradition, put it:

Trump may be the purest populist to receive a major-party presidential nomination in the nation's history--and certainly since the turn of the 20th century. Populism doesn't have a fixed agenda or aim toward any particular policy goal, like liberalism, progressivism, conservatism, libertarianism, or socialism. It's a style--one that favors paranoia and conspiracy-theorizing, exaggeration of problems, demonization of political opponents (politicians but also private citizens), and most of all extravagant flattery of "the people" (which the populist equates with his own supporters, excluding everyone else).


And this, in accordance with Damon's reading, is the fruit of the Republican party turning to a kind of cheap populism during the Reagan years: "From Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America through the spread of talk radio and Fox News to the rise of Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and Donald Trump, the story of the Republican Party since the early 1990s is an abject lesson in the dangers of stoking populist anger and resentment--and the difficulty in controlling it once it is unleashed."

8) Terms evolve, just as intellectual packages do. So maybe it's too much to hope, in an era where democratic discourse has become debased for a dozen different reasons (the proliferation and privatization of communication technology, the relentless attack on campaign finance laws, the dismantling of the traditional role of political parties as gatekeepers, the unforeseen consequences of over-democratizing mass public education, the abandonment of mediating civic groups and organizations, and more have all played a role), for an articulation of egalitarianism in explicitly populist terms, as was once the case. Maybe populism now, unfortunately, can't be rescued from assumptions about a bottom-dwelling faux-democratic  (but actually authoritarian) style. Senator Bernie Sanders, the strongest voice for economic egalitarian in the 2016, has never particularly identified himself as a "populist," preferring to stick with democratic socialism or radicalism as a way to express what he was all about.

9) And we should not forget--though, perhaps unsurprisingly, we often do--also those terms have their own history, and their history was not untouched by the egalitarianism and communitarianism of the original populists. Hofstadter was, ultimately, quite wrong in his assessment of those early egalitarians: while it is true that some curdled into an angry defense of white male privilege and stoked a bitter nostalgia about how turning back the clock would "make American great again" (sound familiar?), most didn't. Most of those late 19th-century and early 20th-century went on join Progressive movements in the Republican party, lent their support to labor unions within the Democratic party coalition, founded Christian socialist interest groups and denominations, and more. Speaking collectively for a people, for their ability to practice real economic democracy, for their right to claim ownership of their local communities and take it away from the abstract forces of distant capital, can result in divisiveness, jealously, and paranoia. But in needn't. The (perhaps unaware) children and grandchildren of populism are proof of that.

10) Populism--or whatever one wants to label whatever articulation of economic justice, community protection, and local democracy one comes up with--remains discomforting. It is, remember, not essentially about individuals, but rather about people, about groups, which means that there are ways in which those who share its influence (as Sanders does) will be fundamentally at odds with the liberal capitalist mainstream, whether liberal or conservative. It is, in my view, a discomfort we need. But if Trump really has ridden away with the populist label, then I want no part of it, even if the man--perhaps because the rhetoric he has chosen makes it impossible to avoid--sometimes apes some of its community-defending attitudes. Populism, at it's best, gave us an intellectual package which respected both locality and equality; even if, as seems likely, the best populist voice in the 2016 cycle begins his slow eclipse tomorrow (though I'm still hoping for a convention fight in Philadelphia!), let's not, whatever happens, give any intellectual credence or political support to someone whose bombasity may imitate a worthy style, but whose arguments and background provides respect for neither. Even with all the good arguments against it, we can at least still respect the aspirations of democratic government more than that.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Dear Mormon Voters of the American West: Maybe You're the White Horse We've Been Waiting For

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Just forget about the White Horse Prophecy. It's a fun bit of Mormon folklore, but like most folklore it's fictitious nonsense. More important is the fact that--again, like most folklore--this fictitious nonsense is revealing of, and gives us American Mormons reason to remember, what was at one time a widely shared assumption among Mormon leaders: specifically that, as Brigham Young (and John Taylor, and Harold B. Lee, and multiple others) reportedly said, "if the Constitution of the United States is to be saved at all it must be done by this people" (see, for example, Journal of Discourses 12:204, April 8, 1868).

That's not a reference to an LDS President of the United States--not a Romney, not a Huntsman, not a Hatch, despite the weird interpretations inspired by the aforementioned ersatz prophecy. It's not a reference to any particular person at all. Rather, that's a reference of the Mormon people. Many of whom will be eligible to vote this November. And maybe that is where this old teaching will unexpectedly come into its own as truth.

Let's talk frankly about the presidential election five months from now. Unless something comparable to a meteor from outer space strikes the Republican party apparatus sometime between now and their convention in Cleveland this July, the GOP nominee for president will be Donald Trump. If you've somehow managed not to hear much about the man up until now, believe me, you'll hear plenty before November. What you'll hear about Trump will depend mostly (though not entirely) upon the source, and so feel free to disregard the opinions of a leftist like myself. Listen instead to Mitt Romney, the man whom nearly 80% of you voted for in 2012: Trump is a liar, a philanderer, a man who has regularly engaged in business fraud, a man who is willing to incite others to violence, a man who is an apparent believer in (though who can really tell?) and propagator of ludicrous rumors, scandals, and falsehoods. He is paranoid, narcissistic, at least borderline sexist and racist, untrustworthy, vindictive, and ignorant. He lacks any kind of moral center or temperamental balance; he is cruel and dismissive to any whom he perceives as weaker than him, and craven in seeking the applause of those he perceives (but will never admit to being) more "manly"; he is a bully. In short, he really should not be elected President of the United States.

Having said that, let's be practical here. In a country with a single-member-plurality electoral system and a separation-of-powers constitutional arrangement, both mathematical logic and self-protecting political inertia tends to foreclose any sustained alternatives to the dominance of exactly two political parties--and while 2016 is likely to see a large number of independent candidates on the local, state, and perhaps even national level, the presidential contest is almost certainly going to come down to Trump vs. his Democratic opponent, which will also certainly be Hillary Clinton. And don't start what you're about to say: believe me, I am more than happy to grant that Clinton can be accurately described by any number of the above labels (though definitely not as many!) that have been (also accurately!) pasted on Trump. I sympathize with Alan Jacobs's comment entirely: "If you put a gun to my head and told me that I had to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I would but whisper, 'Goodbye cruel world.'"

Note, though, how Jacobs follows that comment up: "But if my family somehow managed to convince me to stick around, in preference to Trump I would vote for Hillary. Or John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi. In preference to Trump I would vote for the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson, or for that matter that of Julius Caesar, who perhaps has learned a thing or two in his two thousand years of afterlife. The only living person that I would readily choose Trump in preference to is Charles Manson." Now, that's an exaggeration. For whatever it's worth, I'm quite confident that Trump wouldn't be even remotely as bad a president as Manson would be. That is, I don't think he's an Adolf Hitler in the making. More likely a Richard Nixon--that is, a petty and petulant tyrant, a resentful and routine violator of the Constitution, a crook. Though perhaps not; perhaps he'd be more like a Silvio Berlusconi or a Vladimir Putin: a slightly-more-than petty tyrant, a corrupter, someone who could easily leave America's constitutional order "battered and bloody, and ripe for something even worse." But however we imagine a hypothetical Trump presidency, the simple facts remain that, unless 1) you're willing to trust entirely in the unknown, or 2) you're a single issue voter who thinks that so long as Trump will, say, appoint people who hate the Affordable Care Act to the Supreme Court, or follow through on his promise to build a 30 ft.-high concrete wall between the U.S. and Mexico, literally nothing else matters, then it's hard to avoid acknowledging the likelihood that Clinton, however much you dislike her, will not actually be as procedurally criminal or corrupt a president as Trump may well turn out to be. Which is where you all, the Mormon voters of the American West, come in.

The aforementioned political norms and practices in the U.S. have resulted in a political culture than is, at least formally (if not substantively), hyper-partisan; witness the fact that the great majority of the Republican establishment, despite having viciously fought against a Trump victory for months, is lining up behind him. They clearly don't like Trump--but they hate Clinton worse. And that's going to be a problem, because even though the demographics favor a Democratic presidential victory in 2016, and even though Trump's approval rating is abysmal, Clinton's number aren't much better. Given the electorate which Trump's rallies are bringing out, and given all the other ways this election is cycle is proving predictions wrong left and right, is it really likely that Clinton will be able to hold on to Democratic Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Michigan, or prevent Virginia from flipping back to the Republicans? It is, in fact, no sure thing. Donald Trump really could be elected President of the United States. Unless, of course, he can't secure his electoral base.

I live in part of that base--Kansas, which I have every reason to assume will vote Trump in November. As will Oklahoma, Texas, and probably all of the Deep South, and probably all of the northern Plains; partisanship being what it is, Republicans will turn out to vote for Trump, even if they dislike the man intensely, because everyone knows Clinton is just as bad or worse, right? (She's not, by the way.) But partisanship is shaped by socio-economic and cultural variables...and in the Mormon Corridor, those variables are obviously different in many ways. On the crude level of national politics, those variables are not often visible: witness the way that Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, faithful Republican that he is, has lined up for Trump. (Former Utah Senator Bob Bennett, a less hackish man all around, to his credit made his contempt for the man known up to his dying day.) But if there was ever a time in my lifetime when the Mormon voters of Utah (who in theory could determine the result of 6 Electoral College votes), Idaho (4 votes), Wyoming (3 votes), and Arizona (11 votes), responding to the kind of civic imperatives and ethical principles which we members, whatever our degree of orthodoxy or heterodoxy, assume to be right and good, could make those variables actually result in a substantive political difference...well, now would be the time I'd like to see it happen.

Could American Mormons really determine the fate of the election? Perhaps not--aside from Utah, there's not any states where Mormon voters alone could prevent a Republican majority from handing Trump their Electoral College votes. But imagine if, by reaching out to moderate non-Mormon Republicans and using their language skills to help register Hispanic voters, they did? Imagine if American Mormons swallowed their partisan leanings, uneasily remembered the story of Amlici from Alma 2 (think 2:4 in particular: "if it were possible that Amlici should gain the voice of the people, he, being a wicked man, would deprive them of their rights and privileges"), and used their informal networks and social connections to make it clear that, however much you agree with some of his claims, a man as crude and mean-spirited as Trump should not be elected...and as a result, Trump was robbed for 10, or perhaps as many as 24 Electoral College votes? Even if Trump is able to maximize Clinton's negatives and recapture parts of the Rust Belt and the Upper South, it would be just about impossible for him to make up for losing the Intermountain West. Between the Mormons and the newly enfranchised Hispanic population (which American Mormons are already more willing to work with than the rest of the Republican mainstream), America, if all else this election goes badly, would still be spared President Trump.

And what would we get in return? Presumably President Hillary Clinton, a person that the great majority of American Mormons won't like for reasons from the political right (in the same way I won't like that result from the political left). But politicians--and laws, and regulations, and even Supreme Court rulings--one doesn't like is part of life in a pluralistic mass democracy which at least aspires to operate like a constitutional republic. In the end, as citizens, we have to make the best decisions we can, standing on principle when we are able, and compromising for the greater good when push comes to shove.

Over the next five months, Trump is going to be shoving on all Republicans--which most American Mormons are--quite hard. Mormons like me here in Kansas almost certainly can't do anything more than symbolically resist the Trump wave. But in the American West...there, you can do more. You just may be able to turn that shoving back on this potentially dangerous blowhard. And by so doing, you all just may be able to be the people that 19th-century prophets were convinced would act to save the Constitution. I'm a political scientist; I know that every election it's always in the interest of those involved to make like the upcoming election is the most important election ever. Well, amazingly enough, this year, that just might be true. And that means maybe, just maybe, if the Mormon voters of the western U.S. do what's right, some element of the ridiculous White Horse Prophesy might turn out to be true as well.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Mid-Sized Meditations #12: Regional Cities and the Curse of "Glocality"

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

One of the essential themes in my continuing study of and reflection upon the character and dilemmas of mid-sized cities is their "regional" character, and the temptation which exists for such cities to pretend that they--or to aspire to convince themselves and others that they are about to become--players in the global economy. I don't mean to say that towns and cities which don't make the list of "global cities" have been completely untouched by globalization; on the contrary, especially (but not solely) because of the internet, a dependence upon global supply chains and a cosmopolitan awareness of global economic, political, and humanitarian concerns has shaped the lives of people all across the country, no matter whether their lived environments are rural or urban. But it is, I think, undeniable that the capital and information flows which characterized our globalized environment have created real hierarchies among the metropolitan centers of the world, and the lure of that hierarchy is strong.

No one can pretend to be completely immune to that lure. At a recent commencement address at Ell-Saline High School in the tiny Kansas town of Brookville, Josh Svaty, a farmer and former state representative, made it the centerpiece of his comments. Success, he said, so often is equated with studying business or finance at a prestigious Ivy League university, and then getting corporate job in a major city: New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, or Kansas City. A city the size of Wichita "might do," he added--but only maybe, one must assume. Real success, Svaty commented, is assumed to be found somewhere else, somewhere bigger and faster and richer, someplace that promises us that particular freedom which allows us "to get boxed into little groups that don’t really want to interact"--or aren't even assumed to want to interact--with one another.

And why wouldn't one assume that? Besides all the problems of perception and politics which small and mid-sized cities have to struggle with in our interconnected capitalist and cosmopolitan world, there is the fact that the possibilities of a more steady-state approach to urban life, one which attempts to articulate the means that cities that are not fully absorbed into either 1) the great metropolitan agglomerations of the world or 2) the supply chains with sustain them receive comparatively little attention. I recently read a little book that presented itself as an thorough exploration of "small cities"--Jon Norman's Small Cities USA. It wasn't a bad book, but aside from some of the admittedly interesting data is crunched about relative levels of socio-economic inequality and racial mixing in small and mid-sized cities (particularly those which lack a strong "creative" component--p. 90), it ultimately had no real argument to make about what is particular, in either a positive or negative sense, of the effort to strengthen and find value in regional communities of something other than a truly metropolitan scale. On the contrary, Norman repeatedly made use of exactly such a scale, measuring regional cities as successful or not primarily in terms of their "glocality"--that is, the degree to which "they look like global cities in terms of economic diversity and activities but operate on a much more local level, be it regional or national" (p. 9).

In other words, the same metrics of success which Svaty called out in his commencement address were left essentially unexamined by Norman: rather, he simply stipulates that successful cities are growing cities, growing cities are those which imitate that which characterizes or that which is provided by the global cities at the top of the urban hierarchy, so therefore a study of urban areas which is limited in size needs to center itself upon those cities which have been able to globalize themselves on a local level. Should we contemplate the possibility that the experiences of such regional urban communities might give us a different way of talking about localism and globalism? Nah. Let's just look at everything Colorado Springs, CO, and Salem, OR have done right, and everything Wichita Falls, TX, and Duluth, MN, have done wrong.

This is no surprise to any of us who live in any of the latter category of cities, because it's hard to go a month without hearing of some new city commission or local service organization which is sending a group of people to study how Salt Lake City, UT, or Ann Arbor, MI, have done so well. We are constantly already doing the kind of comparisons which Norman built his book around (which makes it odd that in the end he concludes that "it is likely better to spend energy on dealing with local issues than on attempts to make a small place into something similar to a larger place that is viewed as more successful"--p. 139; perhaps Norman's next book could make that its thesis, because it certainly wasn't the implied message of this book). It's a consequence of living in a place larger than rural or micropolitan areas like Brookville, and reflects tendencies known to statisticians and social scientists the world over: once one enters into or achieves an environment which is suggestive of certain extensive possibilities, such possibilities become expected--and their absence becomes a source of embarrassment or derision. ("How can Wichita possibly be considered a serious city? We don't even have a Spaghetti Factory.") What I call mittelpolitan places are, as Norman corrected notes, not-insignificant population draws within their particular regions; the greater the mass of a place, the greater the likelihood it will become a regional subsidiary anchor for the service-oriented economy of the United States--education, banking, medical care, insurance, real estate, etc.--thus going through in miniature the same declines in manufacturing and relative increases in the "cosmopolitan" trappings of the global cities of the world (pp. 103, 112, 131). But such observations only entrench exactly the patterns of agglomeration which leave small and mid-sized cities ever more unable to compete, whether in terms economic development or retaining population: the kids who grow up in such places will only receive, again and again, the same implied message: the real action, the real opportunities, the real tests of success are to found in bigger places (and if they aren't to be found there, they'll be found in places bigger yet). No, if you're open to the possibility that the towns and cities of America which obviously benefit from--as well as struggle with, as we all do--the consequences of globalization might nonetheless have something to contribute as themselves, and not as places which, because of the historical accident which placed them in Montana or Kansas or Arkansas or Maine, can only ever aspire to imitate the global cities of the world, you need to think in different terms.

James Fallows, one of country's great (if not especially imaginative) journalists and essayists, sometimes seems to want to reach for such terms, but he can't quite find them either, perhaps because the presumptions of bigness are just too deep in his work history and outlook. For the past three years Fallows and his wife Deborah have been flying across the United States, visiting cities, looking into the hundreds of different ways, in his view, "a process of revival and reinvention" in underway. What they've written about is often inspiring; their observations about regional concentrations of talent, blue-collar resistance, city libraries, racial and civic assimilation, local arts movements, and more all give hope to those wanting to extricate our thinking about city life away from the global bias. Yet Fallows can't help (like David Brooks, with whom he shares more than a few similarities) but mourn hasn't yet responded to the transformations of globalization in a holistic, top-down way; he wishes President Bush had used the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the way Eisenhower used the "ten-terrifying 'Sputnik shock' of the late 1950s" to give us a moral equivalent of war moment, and push for "real national improvement." Fallows's "Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed" are entertaining, worth pondering, and probably often correct, but the fact that "big plans" and "research universities" are part of his perspective just goes to show that he, too, assumes that the best regional cities are those which can right-size the bigness associated with success, rather, perhaps, than those which can rethink success entirely.

For Wendell Berry, thinking about locality must escape from bigness, from the lure of globalization, however much it may actually be that even the smallest towns and rural environments are themselves, on some level, globalized. The reason that such an escape is imperative is that thinking big cannot ever not be an exercise in abstract thinking--abstraction in the sense of "simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought." As he put it years ago at greater length:

Global thinking can only be statistical. Its shallowness is exposed by the least intention to do something. Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place. Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground....Abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found. The abstractions of sustainability can ruin the world just as surely as the abstractions of industrial economics. Local life may be as much endangered by "saving the planet" as by "conquering the world." Such a project calls for abstract purposes and central powers that cannot know, and so will destroy, the integrity of local nature and local community.

A powerful sentiment--the sort of thing which led Alan Jacobs to observe that "the old slogan 'Think globally, act locally' gets it precisely backwards, I believe: it is only by thinking and acting locally that we can make the right kind of difference globally." But what does that tell us about cities, practically speaking? In our globalized and outsourced economies, most urban areas been transformed by the outsourcing logic of late capitalism, making the service-based work available within them increasing abstract by definition (writing code for programmers to execute in factories elsewhere, designing ads to attract consumers to buy products manufactured elsewhere, etc.) and thus in term leading the cities themselves to think in terms of expanding and maximizing their inherent ability to generate spaces of anonymity and abstraction: to see themselves as places of privatization and cosmopolitan experimentation. There is a huge part of human culture which longs for that particular kind of freedom and opportunity, so perhaps cities that reach a middling size and tip the perceptional scale in the direction of agglomeration ought to simply throw in the towel, and rush after whatever "glocalism" they can find?

It is easy for people to treat agrarian thinkers like Berry as resolutely anti-urban--and that accusation is true, if one assumes that all urbanism must partake of globalism. But Berry has another vision of cities in mind, a more sustainable one: a "city in balance with its countryside: a city, that is, that would live off the net ecological income of its supporting region, paying as it goes all its ecological and human debts." Such a city would have to have a robust local culture, one robust enough to generate sufficient local affection to support a movement away from globally mediated and thus abstracted sources of the requirements of life (food, most obviously, but also other essential resources), a move which could not be made without accepting genuine costs. For people who want to articulate an actual positive value for cities that are stuck between rural life and the global agglomerations of the world, though, those costs--which, of course, couldn't ever emerge comprehensively, all at once, but might instead be embraced democratically, bit by bit--might be worth paying. At the very least, teaching ourselves to think about such costs and benefits--costs and benefits which are, I think, particularly well realized by trying to think about what the situation of mid-sized, regional, not-yet-entirely-globalized cities presents us with today--would spare us from mucking about in some ersatz "glocal" category...which, really, shouldn't even be a word in the first place, should it?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Happy 75th, Bob



2016, you've done enough damage; keep your hands off Bob Dylan, the unofficial poet laureate of postwar America, for a little while longer, okay?

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Rainbow's Cadillac"

Melissa saw these guys just this past Tuesday. They didn't perform this song (probably my favorite Bruce Hornsby composition), but that didn't matter to me: they gave us two hours of joyous, raucous music, on guitars and piano and accordion and mandolin and violin and dulcimer and vest frottoir (I had to look up what that was called), and all of it was fun. As Bobby McFerrin commented long ago, the first responsibility of a musician is to "play"--and these guys certainly knew how to make serious music without an ounce of distracting seriousness. A tremendous show.