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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Songs of '78: "Shattered"

The fifth and final song from Some Girls that my pop radio memories of 1978 present me with--following "Miss You," "Far Away Eyes," "Running Away with Me," and "Beast of Burden"--is the wonderfully punky "Shattered," released 40 years ago today. It's actually the final single released from Some Girls, the Rolling Stones album I love the most and think most highly of (and which I think I can critically defend as their best, or at least one of their very best, my own biases not withstanding--it's sleazy and misogynistic, but also filled with stripped-down power and creativity, as well as a defiant exuberance, something which, I think, they just couldn't generate any more as the 1980s progressed, thus heralding their gradual transformation, with the occasional exception, into the Oldest Established Permanent Floating Rolling Stones Tribute Band in the world). The only released single of theirs from Some Girls that didn't make my list of memories is "Respectable," which is a nice rocking tune but probably my least favorite cut on the whole album. As for "Shattered"--why? Well, why not?

Maybe my love for it goes back to the fact I grew up reading Marvel comics. While the maturity level of the tales of Spider-Man and other in the late 70s and through the 80s was nothing like what became standard in later years, the close reader--and I'd like to think that included me--couldn't help but pick up all sorts of rather adult clues about how tawdry and broken-down New York City was in the era of Ed Koch. Trying to decipher Jagger's slurred lyrics made me feel like I was unlocking a key to a cool, crazy, dirty, dangerous world that was a universe away from me. Plus, you can't but love that crunching bass line (played by Ron Wood, stepping into his new role with the Stones with great confidence), over which Richards is playing all sorts of cool, phased-out chords. It wasn't punk music, really, but it was close.

Of course, it can also be a sweet Julie Andrews song. Really.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Songs of '78: "Y.M.C.A."

40 years ago today, on November 13 (a Monday), the Village People released "Y.M.C.A.," and proceeded to conquer the world. Disco, and perhaps America too, immediately began its long, irreversible decline.

Yeah, I don't have anything more to say than that. Yes, I can do the dance. So can you. No, I didn't know it was using double entendres to play around with gay and drag urban tropes. Neither did you.

Anyway, enjoy.

Monday, November 12, 2018

What Kind of Democracy Do Localists Want?

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Last week the United States went through another one of our regular, mostly ritualized exercises in mass democracy. What did (or should) localists think of it all? I don't simply mean those who, wonderfully, maintain a robust connection to their local community and at least some degree of involvement in local affairs; I mean those who do all that and who intellectually situate their local action within a broader political or social scheme. So, in other words--what did philosophical localists think of the 2018 midterm elections, or any elections in our kludgey mass democracy, for that matter? Is there a localist opinion about democracy at all? And if so, what is it?

I find myself thinking about this particularly because of the Front Porch Republic conference I attended a month and a half ago. The focus of the conference was the legacy of 1968, that monumental year a half-century ago. There were multiple excellent presentations--both funny and thoughtful--given there about the nature and consequences of the changes and crises which that year visited upon the United States. And yet, through it all, through discussions of race and gender and politics and war, I felt there was something missing. The formidable Bill Kauffman articulated it for me, though only indirectly, by way of a brief snark about Tom Hayden during his presentation. An entire day of talking about 1968, with almost no mention of all the democratic activism, party controversies, and electoral anger which shaped the civic atmosphere within which the dramatic events of that year played out, and with only one joking reference to the famed author of the Port Huron Statement (or, if you prefer, the "compromised second draft"), one of the essential texts of 1960s student radicalism and participatory democracy, to boot? That seemed...odd. Race riots, the evolution of the welfare state, clashes between police and demonstrators, assassinations, changes in sexual habits, reflections on the Vietnam War--localists can say something about, and learn something about, all of those, as the conference amply demonstrated. But can they--can we, since I was right there, with my own localist sympathies on display--say something, and learn something, about democracy itself?

The key problem, obviously, is what is meant by "democracy." Search for that word on the Front Porch Republic website, and you'll get links to dozens of articles, going back many years, consisting of dozens of different takes on dozens of different aspects of the idea. So looking for some clarity is imperative.

Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto is a wonderful collection, though (appropriately enough!) it has some real limits as far as the "manifesto" part of its title goes. Pick up this terrific collection of essays, and you'll find multiple beautiful, insightful, challenging snapshots, taken from a localist perspective, of our present condition. But only a few of those snapshots include any comment at all about "democracy" as either a governing system or a political ideal, and only one--Jeff Polet's excellent "Federalism, Anti-Federalism, and the View from the Front Porch"--provides any real analysis. Polet's basic perspective, and it's one that appears shared by most of the other scattered comments in the book, is resolutely Tocquevillian: that is, it expresses the fear that democracy--government by the people--cannot, in itself, provide much by way of resistance to homogenizing economies and centralizing governments which would undermine the practices upon which democratic self-government depends. Democracy alone, the argument goes, provides no resistance to people thinking about their condition individualistically and materialistically, such thinking invariably invites market economies--and market regulations--which undermine real democratic premises.

In the U.S., Polet sees as having developed under the reign of what he calls "egalitarian democracy," which in his view presumes a system of government that takes boundless individual equality as its starting point. From that beginning, as Tocqueville argued, individual comparisons to and resentments towards others are enabled, leading to the drive felt by most individuals to forever improve themselves, which in turn leads to endless demands for economic growth and (eventually) regulatory expansion, both of which undermine "the preservation of individuals in their self-sufficient liberty" (pp. 54-55). The democratic impulse, then, at least when not constrained and contextualized by being "enmeshed in distinctive local communities," will only encourage retreat from the social sphere, eroding "our capacity to love what is nearest and most particular," and creating "disconnected citizens who relate primarily by means of tolerance or cash relations" (pp. 55-56). Sadly, the massive, intricate, yet also crudely partisan and more often than not thoroughly nationalized political debates of the just-completed midterm elections don't immediately suggest any reason for localists to dissent from Polet's diagnosis.

Polet's Tocquevillian analysis is reflected, and refined, within the new book by Patrick Deneen (one of the founding fathers of Front Porch Republic), Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen's sometimes superb (because of its smart, carefully written synthesis of so many anti-liberal arguments) and sometimes frustrating (because that synthesis is too often simplistic and incomplete) book makes the claim that the localist concern with democracy expressed by Polet and others is, in his view at least, best expressed as a concern with liberal democracy. As he put it:

Liberalism...adjectively coexists with the noun "democracy," apparently giving pride of place to the more ancient regime form in which the people rule. However, the oft-used phrase achieves something rather different from its apparent meaning: the adjective not only modifies 'democracy' but proposes a redefinition of the ancient regime into its effective opposite, to one in which the people do not rule but are instead satisfied with the material and martial benefits of living in a liberal res idiotica....[T]he true genius of liberalism was to subtly but persistently shape and educate the citizenry to equate "democracy" with the ideal of self-made and self-making individuals...while accepting the patina of political democracy shrouding a powerful and distant government whose deeper legitimacy arises from enlarging the opportunities and experience of expressive individualism. As long as liberal democracy expands the "empire of liberty," mainly in the form of expansive rights, power, and wealth, the actual absence of active democratic self-rule is not only acceptable but a desired end" (pp. 154-155).

There are several interesting implications here, perhaps the most important of which is that localists presumably ought to have an affection for that "ancient," more communitarian or republican forms of democracy which are "illiberal," as Deneen puts it elsewhere in his book. Relying on Tocqueville yet again, Deneen locates "democracy properly understood" with the Puritans, and their legacy of small, mostly homogeneous, religiously oriented towns practicing direct, collective self-rule. "Democracy required the abridgment of the desires and preferences of the individual, particularly in light of an awareness of a common good that could become discernible only through ongoing interactions with fellow citizens...Democracy, in [Tocqueville's] view, was defined not by rights to voting either exercised or eschewed but by the ongoing discussion and disputation and practices of self-rule in particular places over a long period of time" (pp. 175-176). People who have been shaped by and/or long for the virtues of localism ought to want to be part of the maintenance and governance of such; hence, local democracy ought to be a goal, and localists ought not be deluded into thinking that the expansive (and therefore often alienating) operations of contemporary mass, electoral, liberal democracy can do the trick.

But is that an argument to refuse to participate in the democratic system America currently has? Or a call for localists to engage in it, and by so doing strive to reform and re-vivify it? Deneen, unfortunately, basically passes over the whole range of historical and philosophical arguments dealing with populist or participatory democracy. He does acknowledge that "progressive liberals" have, over the past 100 years, taken many steps which have enabled "more direct forms of democratic governance," but since those same reforms have been attended by a professionalization of the policy-making process, he thinks the result has actually been a limiting of democracy to "the expression of preferences," which, unlike actual, practical governing work, can be easily abstracted, commodified, and marketed to (pp. 159-160). The fear that democratic reforms aiming at increasing participation only end up increasing the influence of elite experts is, admittedly, one reason to be suspicious of any talk about civic empowerment which doesn't involve a wholesale rejection of liberalism. And yet, it's hardly the case that "elites" are absent from "ancient" or "illiberal" forms of democracy either. On the contrary, they are recognized explicitly as playing a needed role. Polet writes that the corruption of American democracy could only have happened once "authority was dislocated" in "religion, economics, family life [and] local life" (p, 58) and Deneen worries that always working to forestall "local autocracies or theocracies" in the name of freedom and equality only extends an anti-democratic "liberal hegemony" (pp. 196-197). So what, exactly, are the sorts of elites which philosophical localists who 1) hope to preserve democracy without 2) dismissing everything liberalism and egalitarianism have accomplished (accomplishments that Deneed, Polet, and every other serious localist can't pretend to ignore) need be most afraid of?

Perhaps the elites in question are those connected with cities and the powerful financial and cultural forces which such urban spaces both cultivate and presume? That may seen like a rather peculiar leap, but it is a connection which, once again, Tocqueville explicitly puts on the table: as Polet argues (p. 56), and Deneen and other localists concur, for Tocqueville the great sign of the degeneration of democracy is the rise of "capital cities," metropolises of significant size, all of which are able to command economic and social resources that exacerbate the always-lurking aspirations and resentments of self-interested individuals. To quote the man himself: "In cities men cannot be prevented from concerting together, and from awakening a mutual excitement which prompts sudden and passionate resolutions....To subject the provinces to the metropolis is therefore not only to place the destiny of the empire in the hands of a portion of the community...but to place it in the hands of a populace acting under its own impulses, which must be avoided as dangerous" (Democracy in America, Part 1, Chp. 17).

The key passage there, I think, at least in reference to what seems common among all these localist defenses of "ancient" or "illiberal" democracy, is that the population of cities is "acting under its own impulses"--in contrast, in presumably, to those in smaller communities, whose passions are still subject to community expectations, local traditions, and family roles. Of course, to enjoy the ability to act under one's own impulses has been the attraction of cities for hundreds of millions for thousands of years--the legendary 13th-century German peasant who claimed "Die Stadtluft macht frei!" wasn't a creature shaped by the acquisitiveness and envies of modern market economies, that's for certain. But the fact that cities have always played a central role--whether enriching, parasitic, or both--in our socio-economic and socio-political contexts is hardly an argument against thinking about their democratic costs and consequences. The Republican voters here in very Republican Kansas who, in the wake of an election which put Democrat Laura Kelly in the governor's mansion, look at the election map, note the nine urban (or more urban than their neighbors) counties that gave her a winning plurality, and start muttering about the need for an electoral college for the our state, can perhaps be forgiven, even if they're wrong.

Why am I confident they're wrong? Because there is a reason the peasants (and the people of Trego, Labette, Nemaha, Hamilton, and 92 other rural counties here in Kansas) fled to the local walled city (and to the cities of Sedgwick, Johnson, Douglas, and about six other more urbanized counties in our state), and that reason was, for the most part, entirely unobjectionable, politically speaking. It was, of course, about going to where the economic opportunities are. Unless you simply reject out of hand the very notion of respecting the reasons human beings actually give for their own actions, then the fear of urban temptations systematically poisoning local norms and perspectives has to be accepted as a fiction. That's not to say that there aren't a host of other variables are at work in the matter of urbanization, many of which deserve serious structural critique. But it is, I think, simply wrong to ignore that--to quote John Médaille from his mostly sympathetic FPR review of Deneen's book--while politics may be downstream from culture, culture, itself, is "downstream from breakfast." People need satisfying work, and such work is, tragically, often hard to find outside of cities. If the localist argument for democracy necessitates a push against the dominance of cities, the target should not be the disempowering of urban voters, but rather the disempowering of the global capitalism which rewards financial centers, rather than once-productive farming towns, with the wealth from which economic opportunities are made. (As Médaille also smartly observed, "subsidiarity works two ways"--localists need to attend to the "higher level formations" that allow "the household economy" to flourish in the first place.)

As I noted, none of this is a reason for localists, particularly those wanting to hold onto the pursuit of the virtues of self-government, to become unconcerned boosters of urbanism. One of Deneen's teachers, the famed political theorist Benjamin Barber, became such a booster towards the end of his life, and while his final books (If Mayors Ruled the World and Cool Cities) make some important and challenging arguments about urban sovereignty, environmental politics, and the enduring questions of democratic legitimacy, the romance of "global capital flows," "nodes of cultural transmission," and much more cosmopolitan cant got in the way of a genuinely serious consideration of the social (and, perhaps, democratic) costs of urbanism to Barber's republicanism. Deneen wrote a wonderful survey of Barber's career ("How Swiss Is Ben Barber?" in Strong Democracy in Crisis [2016]) which carefully, and somewhat regretfully, charted Barber's move from his original description and defense of the "local, direct forms of democracy" found in the "pastoral, non-commercial, 'parochial'" cantons of Switzerland in the 1960s, to his articular of "strong democracy" in light of "the unavoidable reality of modernization, capitalism, liberalism, and the nation-state," and finally to his claimed "return to the local," with his emphasis upon urban democracy...though, tellingly, mostly just the democratic potential of elite networks tying together the great, global cities of the world (since they have are characterized by both a sufficiently cosmopolitan population and a sufficiently command over financial resources to supposedly be able to put forward democratically sustainable and actually effective climate change-fighting policies). Deneen succinctly puts forward the fundamental problem here:

Even as [Barber] commends cities as "natural venues for citizen participation," he does not dwell on the relative civic disconnection that not only is a signal feature of many...of the world's cities...but may in fact constitute one of the main attractions for urban dwellers: that is, relative anonymity, "loose connections," and an engrossing concern for private and commercial opportunities....Barber's latest book represents...a "return" to his earliest concerns that link democracy with a strong local connection...but having "translated" that concern in the context of the modern, commercial, cosmopolitan city, it is not clear that he has similarly "translated" the likelihood of democratic flourishing in such a double-edged locus (pp. 109-110).

The doubled-locus in question is one that any localist who values democracy but also values liberal capitalism (or at least does not want to see it abruptly and arbitrarily overthrown) has to struggle with. Urbanites (which is, of course, close to 80% of us in the United States, and over half the planet's population overall) need to be able to, and should be able to seek to, exercise the same opportunities for self-government that all localists hold dear, but that runs against the general anonymity, the disconnected elites, and the abstract, non-embedded cultural priorities which large and diverse cities appear to promote and, to a degree, depend upon. Cities are not, I think, best understood as partaking in some kind of structurally anti-Tocquevillian conspiracy against the possibility of more communitarian forms of democracy, but nonetheless cities are profoundly, even constitutively, liberal in their functioning. And even if that philosophical liberalism doesn't always translate into voting for self-described "liberal" or "progressive" candidates and causes, it does often enough that the divide between the majority of urban voters and the majority of rural voters was one of the clearest and starkest results of the 2018 midterm elections, and not just here in Kansas.

The best research confirms the basic localist suspicion that "people in larger cities are much less likely to contact officials, attend community or organizational meetings...vote in local elections...or be recruited for political activity by neighbors, and are less interested in local affairs." They are not, in short, as consistent incubators of democratic habits as smaller towns may be--very possibly because of all the aforementioned Tocquevillian reasons, especially the depressing dominance of urban politics by deracinated, disconnected elites. But to call for federal and exclusionary structures that would block urban populations from exercising their democratic demands for fair representation is shows, I think, perversely too much attachment to electoral politics in a liberal society. Specifically, instead of thinking about how to change, re-arrange, and therefore renew democratic possibilities within our polities, it reveals a desire to thrust any and all perceived threats to their already-problematic status quo outside of them. (Thankfully, urban voters here in Kansas were essential to defeating a gubernatorial candidate who had built much of his career around attempting just that.) It may well be that the participatory ideas of democratic activists like Hayden never really truly engaged with the way cities can change, and thus quite possibly warp and undermine (or perhaps occasionally even enrich?), democracy; he was once quoted in The New York Times as saying that ending "the alienation from government that is so prevalent in society today...the answer is not busting up a big city into a lot of small cities," and one would hope that, were he alive today, he'd be willing to at least entertain that possibility. But whatever the limitations of democratic activism, their ideas need to be wrestled with by philosophical republicans and localists like Polet and Deneen, confronted as they are by the reality of liberal democracy, with all its flaws, in America today.

In parting, one example of such intellectual engagement: Susannah Black's essay "Port City Confidential," one of the most lyrical and thoughtful contributions in Localism in the Mass Age. Black confronts the problem which cities pose for conservatism--and, by a not-too-strained extension (or so I would argue), the problem they pose for any communitarian, republican, or illiberal articulations of democracy as well. To not figure out how to democratically accept the city--and the kinds of practical education in limits and community connection and place with they provide, to at least some urbanites, in some contexts, some of the time--is to allow one's "hunger for stability" to associate stability solely with "the quasi-mythical stable communities of the past," rather than recognizing that urban life incorporates, instead of an illusionary stability, the higher "New Jerusalem" ideal of "a multiethnic exuberant rejection of all apartheid, a city full of people from all the nations" (p. 217). That sounds very cosmopolitan--but the hope for localists, especially in our 21st-century liberal capitalist world, must be that there remains (via one kind of philosophical or political formulation or another) an actual polis within our globalized, urbanized cosmopolis. Perhaps Barber was not entirely wrong to gesture in that direction--at the very least, the liberal voters and (hopefully) aspiring democratic activists of today's cities might be able to make a better accounting of themselves as part of interdependent, aspirational networks, local and regional and otherwise, rather than as mere contestants for control over the modern liberal state.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Songs of '78: "Da' Ya' Think I'm Sexy?"

Nope, not done with the disco of 1978 yet. But "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?," despite--or maybe because of its cheesy title--is so much more than a fine, groovy disco tune; it is, in fact, a sly parody of the stereotypical suave disco-era lover ("He says I sorry / I'm out of milk and coffee / Never mind my sugar / we can watch the early movie")--a perhaps even honest expression by a man in his mid-30s who'd been playing rock and roll for over 15 years who is confronting the club and dance scene. Did I know any of this when I first heard the song? Not at all. But it did scandalize the youthful Mormon me? Not really--even as a kid, I think I realized that the song was, in a sense, one huge put on, revealing a Lothario who was, well, just trying a little too hard.

Anyway, I've never listened to Blondes Have More Fun, the album this single was released off of, 40 years ago today, all the way through (though its title song is also good). I'm fine with that. Rod Stewart was, and I suppose still is, more than anything else a working musician, and he worked with the tools that the moment called for. The result is a wonderfully sleazy tune (made up of not just one, but two plagiarized riffs!), a single that has stuck in my head for decades. I doubt it'll ever leave.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Ten Moderately Short, and Only Moderately Philosophical, Theses on Voting

1) I don't think there is a duty to vote, and I wouldn't support compulsory voting, even if that was a political possibility in this country. I probably was tempted by that idea back when my fundamentally communitarian intellectual orientation and sympathies were more civic republican than localist/anarchist/radical democratic, but I'm not inclined to think that way now.

2) I do think voting is responsibility though. The difference, I suppose, is that duty, to my mind, implies being part of community or organization which, because it is constitutive of who one is, compels one, by virtue of one's own identity with it, to support any or all of the operations of the community or organization, whereas a responsibility implies something more relational: that I am obligated, by affection and attachment, to take those actions which most fully reflect and incorporate my connection to all the other members (and all the other interests of all the other members) of said community or organization.

3) That doesn't mean I reject the idea that one's formal citizenship or civic identity is constitutive of who one is; I just don't believe it is comprehensively constitutive of who one is. Which is another way of saying I'm a liberal communitarian: connections to, and dependencies upon, the whole come first, both psychologically and anthropologically, but connections to the whole are always--or at least invariably, so long as we live under conditions of modernity--to be realized through the subjectivity of the individual. (For anyone who has bothered to read my ruminations over the years, this philosophical determination to see the deep communal grounding of our moral existence realized through individual expression is hardly new; I just keep evolving, I suppose, in terms of how I articulate it politically.)

4) In terms of the present articulation, it means, I think, that voting is a way of showing responsibility towards and connection to one's fellow human being--but so can not voting, under certain circumstances.

5) Those circumstances exist but are, I believe, very rarely defensible at the present moment in the United States of America.

6) Yes, I happily concur that our current winner-take-all, single-member-plurality voting structure, operating in its gerrymandered districts which both reflect and entrench sociological polarization, dominated by often internally rigged political parties, and funded in ways that almost always effectively marginalize anything except elite political preferences, presents few ways of expressing our responsibility to one another. We would be far, far, far better off--despite all of the foregoing's own particular flaws--with a) parliamentary government with general legislative supremacy (and thus providing for greater vote accountability), b) a tightly regulated and limited election season (and thus preventing the sort of electoral exhaustion which empowers those with the financial resources to outlast the attention of ordinary working people), c) a broad awareness that moneyed interests can influence the electoral process in ways which effectively deny equal representative opportunities to all (and thus obliging that we overturn the horrible Buckley v. Valeo and all the Supreme Court decisions which built upon its flawed individualistic premises), d) proportional voting (and thus allowing for a greater range of the populace to have actually electorally effective reasons to organize on behalf of their ideas), and e) significant decentralization, regionalization, and municipal empowerment (though admittedly the point of this last one has already long been greatly compromised by the leveling and centralizing consequences of global capitalism, but that would involve a whole different set of theses). Since we don't have any of the above, I can sympathize with people who think there's no point in voting.

7) But all that said, the fact remains that the two dominant parties in our kludgy, oft-dysfunctional, but still-standing-and-operating governing system nonetheless do represent actual substantive differences in political priorities and, therefore, often actual substantive differences in policy outcomes. And so if you believe either one of those sets of outcomes could even just theoretically involve even something as little as doing marginally less harm to those to whom you have a responsibility, then you really ought to express that choice through voting for the candidates of the party in question. (And moreover, if you happen to believe there actually is no substantive difference between the stated political priorities and the hoped-for policy outcomes of the different parties, then I would respectfully suggest that you are either terribly misinformed or marvelously uninformed about the parties and candidates in question.)

8) Obviously, given the realities of local, state, and national political structures and calculations, the foregoing is subject to whatever contextual considerations might come into play in any given electoral contest. Lack of local knowledge is a problem, as is lack of real choice. The first can be blamed on our unfortunately nationalized (and usually starved to the bone) local media ecosystems, but is still, I insist, something that can be rectified by being individually willing enough to follow through on our responsibility to our fellow community members by learning more about whom are presenting themselves as their representatives, and why. The second could be a function of understanding one's responsibility, quite legitimately, as overwhelmingly tied to a single policy issue or deep structural concern, and not seeing any way as a voter to express that responsibility through the available candidates. To which I can only say: perhaps consider rethinking your conception of how to express your responsibility to your fellow members--and if that doesn't change anything, then do the best you can with the choices available, using whatever creative options are available to legally expand those choices where you can, all while balancing those considerations in light of the aforementioned consequences. (As a two-time Ralph Nader voting, one-time Jill Stein-voting, one-time Bernie Sanders write-in-voting citizen, I would be a hypocrite if I claimed otherwise.) But either way, take up your responsibility, and stand, either strategically or expressively or some calculated combination of both, for whatever your responsibility to others morally obliges you to use our tottering system to, at the very least, publicly affirm, and vote.

9) The only exception I can see to the foregoing is if you understand your responsibility to others as demanding the promotion of radical, even revolutionary, alternatives, and that which any participation in the present, deeply problematic but still meaningful-in-terms-of-causing-or-mitigating-costs-and-harms system actually interferes with that promotion. I know and like people who affirm that they find themselves in such circumstances, and I don't dismiss their sincerity. However, I confess that I've personally never yet heard from any of them what I consider to be a persuasive argument that participating in a flawed process necessarily excludes or limits participation in the business of building radical, even revolutionary, alternatives to said process. If you have one, please, lay it on me. Maybe there's some new form of Marxist accelerationism or Christian end-times promotion that I haven't heard about yet.

10) In the meantime, watch this. And also, you have less than seven hours left to vote here in Kansas, so get busy, dammit.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Why the Estes-Thompson Race Matters to Me (Besides, You Know, Because it Will Decide Who My Congressman Will Be)

Let's just get this out of the way: my track record when it comes to political predictions is utterly abysmal. So I'm not going to try this time around. This time, I'm acting as much as possible as a historical-trend-watching political scientist--which I am not, to be clear, but which I can pretend to be on occasion. Like right now.

There are numerous races I'll be watching around Wichita and Kansas and the country next Tuesday--county commission races, state legislative races, the Secretary of State race, the governor's race, key U.S. Senate races, etc., etc. But the 4th congressional district race, right here in south-central Kansas, is of particular interest to me, and not just because I have my political preferences and because I consider one of the candidates to be a friend. No, that congressional race is important to me as a citizen and a student of politics, because of what its results may, perhaps, tell me about 1) the city of Wichita, and 2) the Kansas state Democratic party. Let me explain why.

So, the race for the KS-4 seat is between incumbent Republican Ron Estes and, for the second time, Democratic challenger James Thompson. The enthusiasm is all on Thompson's side, as benefits a man who has essentially been running non-stop for this seat for more than 20 months. (That includes the special election in April 2017 which put Estes in the place of the elevated-to-the-CIA-by-Trump Mike Pompeo, in which Thompson lost by 46% to 52%, and after which he promptly started his campaign again, focused on 2018.) As even his most fervent supporters will admit, Estes isn't much of a political animal, while Thompson absolutely is. Still, when you're talking about a district where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by 2 to 1, being a political animal may not matter much. Nate Silver's 538 certainly doesn't think so; they predict that Estes has better than a 99% chance of beating Thompson by nearly 20 points--which, if you look at the history of the district, is a pretty standard spread for this congressional seat. You have to go all the way back to 2000 to find a regular match-up where the Democrat lost by a less-than 15 point difference, and all the way back to 1996 to find a Democrat losing KS-4 by only single digits. Of course, that's what happened in the special election. But special elections are just that: special, with different expectations and dynamics at work in regards to candidate selection, campaign length, voter turn-out, and all the rest. Presumably, say the serious poll-watchers, that tiny Estes victory will almost certainly be replaced with a normal-sized one.

I'm not going to make a prediction--but I thinking that there will be meaning in the results, whatever they may be. As I wrote last year, the fact that Thompson even won the Democratic nomination in the first place is impressive, given the multiple ways in which he departs from the model of Democrats-That-Can-Potentially-Win-in-Republican-Kansas which the KDP rigorously maintained from the 1960s up to the 2000s, when Kathleen Sebelius began to suggest some different electoral possibilities. Thompson may be a veteran, and he may be gun owner and firm "2nd Amendment man," but he isn't rural, he's urban; he doesn't hearken back to FDR and the New Deal, but rather looks forward to Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All; he isn't socially conservative, moderate, or even just quiet on such issues, but instead is openly liberal on matters of abortion, LGBT rights, and a host of social justice and civil rights issues. He is, in other words, a product of, and seeking to build a winning electoral coalition out of, a set of Democratic voters that are quite common in America's "blue" cities (in contrast to more "red" and rural states), but were notably absent from the Kansas political scene while the consequences of the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and numerous other social transformations changed the party elsewhere.

It seems likely that Sharice Davids--a progressive Democratic candidate if there ever was one--will beat Republican Kevin Yoder to take the seat in Kansas's 3rd congressional district, which is by far its most urban, sitting as it does right in the midst of Kansas City, KS, and its Johnson and Wyandotte county suburbs. (There's also a decent possibility that Democratic candidate Paul Davis will squeak out a win in Kansas's 2nd congressional district over Republican Steve Watkins--but that race isn't especially indicative of the urbanization of the Kansas Democratic electorate one way or another, as Davis is much more your traditional creature of the northeastern Kansas Democratic establishment, relying upon voters in Lawrence and at the University of Kansas to put him over the top.) Kansas's second-most urban district, though, is the 4th, centered right here in Wichita, the largest single city in the state; hence my curiosity about these developments. Less than 5% of my district's voting population lives outside of my city's statistical metropolitan area. Yet Wichita is, as I have written at length, a slow-growth (or no-growth) mid-sized cities, with all the confusions that entails as its metropolitan area entwines with nearby exurbs, commuter towns, and unincoporated rural areas. (Check out my friend Chase Billingham's comments on part of this confusion here.) All across the United States you have seen Democrats double-down in cities as part of he "resistance" to President Trump--but this is a development which preceded his rise. As far back as President Obama's first election, there had been a suspicion that the Democratic party could--often enough anyway--orient itself entirely around the more multicultural, often secular, often unmarried, usually more educated, definitely more progressive urban dwellers of America's cities. This has taken place with some success around the country. Could it take place here? Some see it as unlikely, given Wichita's decided un-cosmopolitan local culture. And yet, one might argue that no city, not even a non-agglomerated mid-sized one in a conservative rural state, can avoid the political consequences of contemporary urbanity entirely.

One election, of course, can't and shouldn't be taken as measure of something as complicated as socio-cultural and demographic change. And yet, parties, for all their limitations, are feedback mechanisms within the political marketplace--the success or failure of candidates does tell us things: about voters, about their preferences, and about how those voter preferences can be measured against other concerns. So as someone who loves Wichita, and wants to better understand its current predicament and future possibilities, the contest between Estes and Thompson is one I'm looking at so as to learn something about the people who live here--and in particular, about the number and kind of Kansas Democrats and moderate Republicans who live here, in this urban space.

Here's what I am willing to say. If 538 is correct, and Thompson ends up losing to Estes by about the number they predict--basically a 60%-40% split in the vote--then I think there would be good evidence that Wichita isn't turning blue--certainly not to degree that other cities are and have, and maybe not at all. Rather, it would remain a city with a large, but electorally limited, progressive urban minority, one that would have to focus its energies inward (on county commission or city council races, perhaps) rather than outward. That, in turn, would communicate important information to the Kansas Democratic party--namely, that, the immediate Kansas City-area aside, there just aren't sufficient metropolitan voters in Kansas (a state where, despite its much deserved rural reputation, nearly two-thirds of its people live in cities) to support urban progressivism, and the Democrats need to re-invest in more traditionally rural socially conservative candidates. And, finally, it would broadly suggest that Wichita (and maybe other non-agglomerated urban centers like it) need to recognize that the changes of American cities really can pass them by, necessitating us to think different about the political and cultural future of cities like my home.

But if Thompson wins, or even just loses by the same amount (or less!) than he lost to Estes in the special election, despite all the particular variables of that contest in comparison to this year's much more traditional campaign...well, I think that will say something about Wichita, something relevant to the political future (and in particular the Democratic party's future) in this city and this state. Not that Wichita will have become, or would be close to becoming, a "blue" city--that would take the work of generations of voters to pull off. But it would say, I think, despite all the excuses the Kansas Republican party could legitimately put forward as an explanation (it was the fault of the depressing legacy of Brownback, it was the fault of Estes's own lack of charisma, it was the fault of Trump's and Kobach's polarizing rhetoric, etc.), that Wichita's urban population--and in particular its immigrants, its Latinos, its gays, its single progression women, its African-Americans, its artists, and its non- (or non-conservative) Christians--had grown large enough in number and influence to genuinely move the political needle of south-central Kansas in a more progressive political direction. That's hardly a recipe for major transformation; Kansas, I am certain, will remain a mostly conservative state throughout my and my children's lifetimes. Yet it would be a victory (or a revealing loss) that would tell us something--or tell me something, at least--about Wichita's relationship to the progressive forces shaping the Democratic party all across this country.

Many people, for a variety of reasons, see Wichita as a city whose motor has stalled--a city that is not moving, no matter what direction you want it to move. Results like I'm talking about here in the Estes-Thompson race would be evidence of movement, of a city that really is, however slowly, changing. And that, I don't mind saying, is something I would be fascinated to see.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Songs of '78: "Jet Airliner"

From the beginning of this series, I've been up front: these blog posts are about the pop, rock, funk, punk, and other songs of 1978 which wormed their way into my memory and have stuck with me--and that includes songs that weren't released in 1978, or that I have no specific 1978 radio-listening memories of, but which I just associate with 1978. I've already confessed that some creative cognitive reconstruction was going on with the way Cheap Trick or Sniff 'n' the Tears or Bruce Springsteen appear on this list, but "Jet Airliner," my absolute favorite Steve Miller song, probably takes the cake.

Why? Wasn't that song, and many others by the Steve Miller band, staples of the pop and rock and roll AM and (later) FM radio stations that I gained my earliest musical education from? Absolutely. But it was mostly just beloved background stuff for me until 1990 when, in a break from my tape-buying tradition, I actually started buying CDs (which didn't mean I stopped buying tapes, though). The Steve Miller Band's Greatest Hits 1974-1978 was one of the very first CDs I purchased, because the possibility of having all that great music from my youth available in one place ("Jungle Love"! "Take the Money and Run"!) was far too much to resist. Most of all though: "Jet Airliner," a soaring, rocking, yet also dreamy composition of moving along, moving away, and then moving back home. The song itself was released in 1977 on Book of Dreams, an album which I have never listened to all the way through, but no matter: the greatest hits collection was released as an album in 1978, so that's good enough for me. This was a song that I had playing in my head as I ran around, all alone, way back at the rear of the playground of Sunrise Elementary School, so it's a song of my 10-year-old, 4th-grade year, so far as I'm concerned. 1978 it is.