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Welcome to Slow Boring
In spite of all!
Today is my last day as a senior correspondent at Vox.com (still hosting The Weeds though!). I love Vox, but there was an inherent tension between my status as a co-founder of the site and my desire to be a fiercely independent and at times contentious voice.
My first media love is blogging, and while Vox has evolved over the years into many things, it is really not a blog.
Substack offers the opportunity to create genuinely social media not stuff driven by algorithms, virality, tech platforms, or fads — and I’m incredibly excited to throw my hat in the ring with a new publication I’m calling
But it’s not going to be boring! It’s inspired by Max Weber’s essay “Politics as a Vocation” that he wrote at the dawn of the Weimar Republic:
Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.
I’m not much of a leader (and certainly not a hero) but my goal is to live up to the dual mission of passion and perspective, bringing a rigorous approach to political and policy issues.
Much too much of current political debate consists of people clicking “like” on content that flatter their prejudices and biases — content that is usually crafted by other people in order to harvest those clicks.
The reality is that most people, most of the time, mostly don’t care whether the stuff they read about politics is true or if the ideas they advocate for actually work. And while one can butt one’s head up against the wall in frustration about that, it’s built into the business model. My goal here is to work on a scale that’s small enough that it can afford to cater to people who actually do want to ask these questions.
I want to do meaningful personal work driven by a sincere effort to get things right, and to have a meaningful relationship with my audience.
Slow Boring will offer:
A Free subscription tier where you’ll get one free article per week.
A Premium paid tier where in addition to the one free article per week you’ll also get one article every other weekday, plus access to a robust comment section and open discussion threads.
A four-week trial period during which all articles are free for everyone, and Premium subscriptions are available at a discounted price.
After the trial period, Premium subscription prices will rise so act now!
The articles will cover a range of political and policy topics with perhaps more focus than you see in most publications on what can be done in state politics to address urgent problems (housing, transportation) rather than spending all our time yelling about federal politics.
So let’s get to it!
A moment of peril
It’s easy for me to imagine Joe Biden being a popular, successful president.
With much less strength in Congress than a typical president, he’ll be forced to avoid the normal cycle of overreach and backlash that afflicts most first-term presidents. With the pandemic likely to fade away next year and household balance sheets strong, there should be tailwinds to boost economic growth. A Biden administration could lower the temperature on national politics, strike a few deals to hasten the return to full employment, provide competent management of the pandemic and the federal government writ large, make a few meaningful improvements in people’s lives through administrative action, and after eight more years of demographic and cultural change we’ll be in a new kind of political era.
But it’s also easy to imagine his presidency being a huge failure.
Many of the fundamentals of the economic situation are favorable, but it’s risky. Republicans in Congress could force or tempt him into a course of austerity that leaves us well below full employment for years. Frustration with the unpromising pathway to progressive legislation through Congress could lead to an addiction to executive actions that are both contentious and ineffectual. The president cannot single-handedly dictate a lower political temperature, and the low-key Biden could end up marginalized by the social and political forces swirling around him.
Progressives will continue to be frustrated by the fact that they punch above their weight in cultural institutions but far below their weight in the electoral geography of the United States — a situation that’s only going to get worse after redistricting.
And we’re going to have to confront the reality that on some level Democrats are going to miss Donald Trump.
The pied piper is gone
Democrats originally wanted to boost the profile of Donald Trump who they saw as a “Pied Piper” candidate who would lead Republicans to defeat.
It didn’t work out, but Trump did underperform the fundamentals in 2016 and then he did it again in 2020, both times running behind GOP congressional candidates.
Once Trump took office, liberals began to conceptualize the country as facing a dual threat to democracy.
On the one hand, there was Trump with his authoritarian personality, his relentless corruption, and his evident taste for abuses of power.
One the other hand, there was the map. An electoral college map biased three points toward Republicans, paired with equally biased House maps and gerrymandered state legislatures, plus an even more skewed Senate map.
These two threats were conceptually and practically separate. If Jeb Bush had been in office, everything from point two would still have applied. Conversely, Trump had no personal involvement in the gerrymanders that have given Republicans iron control over the Wisconsin state legislature or in the lame-duck power grab there to disempower the state’s democratic governor.
The hope in 2020 was to leverage Trump’s unpopularity and his Covid bungling to secure a landslide win without making major ideological compromises. Then Democrats could use the landslide to enact a major democracy reform package: tough redistricting reform, admit more states, and eliminate the geographic bias against progressives.
Democrats lost their cheat code
It seemed like a good plan at the time! But it didn’t work. It now seems that the polls were undercounting Republicans all along. Biden’s 8-10 point lead was really more like a 4-5 point lead. And because a slice of the electorate really did view Trump as the problem, Democratic House and state legislative candidates generally ran a bit weaker than Biden. The longshot senate seats were actually out of reach. Democrats narrowly lost North Carolina rather than narrowly winning. And Susan Collins recovered her reputation for moderation and independent thinking by casting a meaningless vote against Amy Coney Barrett.
From the standpoint of problem one, this was a genuinely fantastic election result. Trump lost badly. The fact that he ran behind generic Republicans emphasizes that the GOP should really not go in that direction again. People were literally dancing in the streets throughout American cities. But from the standpoint of problem two, the jubilation itself underscores the problem.
Trump’s presence in office was a kind of “cheat code” for the Democratic Party.
Millions of people, especially professional women, were geared-up to an extraordinary level of political engagement by their repugnance at Trump. They provided a ready supply of small donor money and volunteers were available for all kinds of downballot races. And Trump himself was very politically clumsy, incapable of performing basic empathy or dignity and repeatedly bungling opportunities to make himself more popular.
This all appeared to give the Democrats a unique opportunity to win Senate races in right-of-center jurisdictions without substantially modifying their ideology and then use those victories to change the rules to make the system less unfair. But it didn’t work. And now people who want to make change need to confront some harsh realities.
Politics for the real world
The US Senate is a completely absurd institutions. The fact that some people spend their time and intellectual energy backfilling rationalizations for it because it happens to advantage policies they like is embarrassing. They should be ashamed of themselves.
That being said unless progressives are going to overthrow the government in a revolution (and they’re not), they need to deal with reality.
If you look across the 2016, 2018, and 2020 Senate cycles one thing that you see pretty clearly is that losing candidates like Evan Bayh, Claire McCaskill, Steve Bullock, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, and Doug Jones really do run a few points ahead of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and House Democrats. You also see that left-wing House members run behind Biden, and that’s true whether it’s Ilhan Omar running in a safe seat, Kara Eastman running in a swing district, or Katie Porter in a formerly Republican seat that now leans blue.
The problem with the moderate losers is that they are running in states that are very conservative. By contrast:
If Russ Feingold (lost by 3.4 points) and Katie McGinty (lost by 1.5 points) had matched Evan Bayh’s electoral performance in 2016 (44.4 percent of the two-party vote in Indiana vs 40 percent for Clinton), they’d have won Senate seats in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
In 2018, House Democrats generally ran 5 points ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance. Joe Donnelly did 7 points better. Claire McCaskill did 9 points better. If Bill Nelson did as well as them he’d have won Florida and Beto O’Rourke could’ve maybe won Texas.
In 2020, Steve Bullock ran 4.4 points ahead of Joe Biden; Mike Espy, 3.3 points; Doug Jones, 3.2 points. Those kind of results would have won senate seats in North Carolina and Georgia (still might in Georgia).
In 2022, those Pennsylvania and Wisconsin seats are going to come up again. If Democrats nominate candidates who do slightly worse than Biden due to a less favorable national political environment, they will lose those seats again. But if you can’t win those seats there is absolutely no path to a majority. I really do not like this conclusion! Back when he was a senator, I spent tons of time complaining about Evan Bayh who I think made tons of mistakes and is not at all my idea of a hero. I find Claire McCaskill to be an often-annoying television personality. And I do think there are ways to do the “moderate Democrat” brand that are more appealing than the Bayh/McCaskill approach to politics (Bullock is a good example).
But the broad reality remains that in order to obtain and wield political power, Democrats need to embrace candidates who are less reflective of the progressive worldview of young college graduates, and they need to run them in states that are less right-wing than Alabama or Montana.
Outside the BA bubble
Trump’s victory in 2016 involved a significant number of people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 flipping to Trump.
Those voters were predominantly white people with no college degree who lived in the north and were not religious (southern and religiously observant non-college whites having gone GOP in earlier cycles). Discussion of their voting behavior swiftly degenerated into a stupid argument in which one side said they voted for Trump because they were racists and another side said they voted for Trump because of “economic anxiety” or as a “rejection of neoliberalism” or some such. The evidence, however, was and always has been simply overwhelming that cultural attitudes were what drove the change.
Now words are just words and people can use them however they want. And certainly you can describe the cultural attitude of Obama/Trump vote-switchers as “racism” if you want to (certainly Trump himself said plenty of racist stuff and there are plenty of examples of Trump fans saying racist stuff and of racists praising Trump). The practical rhetorical function of that choice, however, was the anathematize the idea of trying to cater to their cultural attitudes at all even though whatever you want to say about those attitudes they were compatible with voting twice for a Black president.
In 2020, Democrats saw the slippage extend to non-white voters with no college degree. Once the extent of the slippage with, for example, Hispanic voters became clear we began to get headlines like “How Democrats Missed Trump’s Appeal to Latino Voters” from Jennifer Medina at the New York Times. The truth, however, is that nobody “missed” this. Medina herself wrote many good articles about it down the stretch of the campaign (NYT reporters don’t write their own headlines) and Democrats read the New York Times. It was also clearly visible in the polling starting from at least late June. The problem wasn’t that nobody saw it, it’s that there was intense desire not to discuss it. That issue started with Hispanic Democrats and Democratic Latin politics pros themselves, who would raise the issue but almost exclusively in terms of calling for more “investment” because they wanted to be good intersectional citizens and not acknowledge that there might be flaws in Democrats’ actual message.
When Trump did clear outreach to Black and Latino voters at the Republican National Convention, many people in newsrooms across America insisted that it was just a bankshot effort to reassure white suburbanites because they were so invested in a particular image of Trumpism as a form of white supremacist politics. Even after the election some of my former colleagues at Vox are arguing that we shouldn’t talk about his gains with voters of color. That Trump does racist stuff is not necessarily dispositive for everyone. As one Black guy I know from the neighborhood told me years ago “White people act like he’s the first racist in politics.” The truth is Democrats have started burrowing-in on a very particular style of politics that simply has a limited range of appeal.
I don’t want to say that use of the term “Latinx” is the reason anyone voted for Trump, but I thought this exchange between Joy Reid and Rep. Ruben Gallego was telling.
It’s striking here that Reid sincerely does not realize that this is a term made up in academic and activist circles to assuage feminist and gender non-conforming concerns, not a term that is used by Hispanic people.
As she says, she is aware that in her own community it would be considered very off-putting to not use the community’s own preferred term. And yet Reid hosts a prime time MSNBC show — she’s a source of political information for a lot of highly engaged liberals. What you have is basically a closed circle between activists, Reid, and Reid’s audience in which everyone is projecting a concern (the Spanish language’s use of grammatical gender is problematic) that is very remote from the concerns of people in the Rio Grande Valley.
It would be silly to say that this word is the reason about 10 percent of the Hispanic vote flipped to Trump. But it’s emblematic of a dynamic through which Democrats have increasingly gotten themselves sucked into a vortex of highbrow cultural politics that first alienated non-college white voters but then in 2020 started alienating some Hispanic and Black ones too. Worst of all for Democrats, the critique that Trump is a crude racist is perfectly correct — the GOP can do a lot better!
In spite of all!
These are, in my view, very serious problems.
It was one thing to ask gay and lesbian couples to accept that Barack Obama wouldn’t campaign on marriage equality in 2008 when the idea was clearly unpopular. It’s another thing entirely to tell mainstream Democrats that they need to trim their sails and appeal to voters who are a click or two to the right of the median voter because of unfair maps. It’s much more gratifying to complain that the maps are unfair! They are, after all, very unfair.
This is an even more bitter pill for the people who staff campaigns and run progressive non-profits. The college grad bubble effect makes it hard for this population (people like me!) to even see where the median voter is. People working in progressive politics at all levels could probably improve their decision-making by just sticking a post-it on their monitors that says:
Most voters are over 50
Most voters didn’t graduate college
The electoral map is even more biased toward older non-college voters
But there are also incredible opportunities for a Biden administration. Unlike Obama or even Bill Clinton, Biden will take office with the wind in many ways at his back — vaccines coming down the pike, household balance sheets healthy — and tremendous opportunity to make people’s lives better.
On top of that, many of the wealthiest places in the country — including giant states like California and New York — are under Democratic control. These are places that actually have the means at their disposal to do great things and show the world that progressive governance can deliver great results. If that’s not really happening so far, that merely goes to show how big the opportunity is.
With that, I hope you’ll consider subscribing and I look forward to chatting with some of you here in the comments and again next week.