The Super Tuesday Hangover

I’m going to be avoiding political news for the rest of the week. I’m doing this for my own sanity. I have an audio drama to finish editing and freelancing jobs to carry on with and lovely actors to record some insert scenes with. And frankly, like many of you who were disappointed in last night’s results, I need to devote my time and energy to summon hope and positivism and joy after the sorrow and sleeplessness caused by Super Tuesday. (I finally did get some sleep. But it wasn’t easy. And I know I wasn’t alone. I was texting with three friends at 4 AM, all of us up, all of us worried, all of us advocating for different candidates, all of us seeing the shocking reality ahead of us. What serious political wonk looking at the long game implications wasn’t up at an ungodly hour contemplating the horrific consequences of four more years of Cheeto?)

The Democratic Establishment, a cowardly entity that prioritized a formula that didn’t work in 2016 and that went all in on a doddering Wonder Bread spokesman who cannot get names, dates, or places right and who is less inspiring than Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and George McGovern combined, decided that Joe Biden would be the man to defeat Trump and coordinated accordingly in Dallas on Monday night. Even the best polls inform us that Biden can barely muster little more than 50% against the worst President that this nation has ever had the misfortune to endure.

I will vote for Biden if he is the frontrunner. But he won’t get a dime from me. I won’t campaign for him. I have no enthusiasm for this man whatsoever. I may as well be voting for a potted plant that can occasionally form coherent sentences while it is being watered. Honestly, someone needs to find Corn Pop and get his side of the story. I’m guessing Biden wasn’t nearly as tough as he thought he was.

Sure, we have to vote for him in November if it comes to that. We have little choice. But Joe Biden is not a man for the people. He is not a unity candidate. He is meaner than Bernie and more of a bully. Biden’s needless attacks and insults on voters — such as berating the two vets who bravely confronted his pro-war record in Oakland, calling an Iowa voter “a damn liar,” and telling another voter questioning his policy that he was fat — are not the stuff of a President who must consider the viewpoints of others and remain coolheaded and respectful when facing justified criticism. Frankly, Biden’s conduct here is far more Trumpian than any comparisons that have been applied to Bernie.

And poor Elizabeth Warren. She couldn’t even carry her own state. She refused to see the writing on the wall and stayed in the race too long. And now Warren and Sanders supporters are at each other’s throats on social media. Fractiousness and divisiveness. The stuff we don’t need right now. The best thing that Warren can do — if she truly believes in progressive policy — is to drop out of the race and persuade her followers to vote for Bernie. That’s the only way we’ll get a progressive President at this point. But it’s not likely. It looks like we’re all going to be holding the bag for a gaffe machine.

November will be the equivalent of attending a mandatory corporate meeting and falling asleep and getting reprimanded for not paying attention to the floundering and boring old man, devoid of innovation and originality and true awareness, spearheading the PowerPoint shitshow that expresses little more than vanilla platitudes and the status quo and a remarkably uninspiring litany of mainstream awfulness. I will vote — like many, without a shred of passion or conviction, holding my nose the entire way, much like someone disposing of a rat caught in a glue trap, feeling the sense that I am not changing a damn thing and knowing that Biden is as inspiring as accidentally walking into a giant heap of moldy white bread during a morning stroll — and I will probably go home right after my vote and drink many shots of whiskey, contemplating how the DNC cowered and caved when they could have created hope and dreams and inspiration and built upon Bernie’s coalition and given more than a few fucks about universal healthcare and a world in which people didn’t have to go bankrupt to stay healthy. Amy, Beto, Pete — all easily purchased pawns. When Trump wins again in November, they will have to live with this. I’m sure they’ll sleep quite well. After all, they had to be promised something. The worst thing about all this is that all of America will fall victims to authoritarianism and abject cruelty and a nation in which income inequality and exploiting the poor and the middle class is ever more the status quo. Good hard-working American people who clearly don’t deserve to be sacrificed to the corporate gods worshipped by neoliberal centrist cowards — this will be the new normal. And it will take at least a decade to recover from this madness. That’s the best case scenario.

Yes, it’s vital to accept realism. But we cannot lose hope despite these nightmarish truths. It fills me with sadness to see a remarkable progressive movement manipulated and short-changed so expertly by an Establishment instilling fear in swing voters who were, only days before yesterday, completely in the tank for Bernie. Perhaps we were fools in believing that progressive momentum would continue unabated. Still, it was the best kind of foolishness: the one that involved taking care of others, standing for something bigger than ourselves, believing that people were worthy of human rights and dignity, feeling empathy and passion and conviction, and placing pure energy in a beautiful dream that the Democrats could once again return to their roots and alter the national landscape and improve wellbeing much as they had with the New Deal and the Great Society. Still, it’s equally important to not have your hopes and spirits and idealism and ambitions paralyzed by the truth. And who wants to listen to hopelessness? I certainly don’t want to be guided by it.

We will rise again. We will fight again. Bernie is still a long shot. But do we want to tell our grandchildren that we didn’t go the distance? It may take years, but we have no other choice. For now, let us regroup and be gentle and be true and be bold and crack jokes so that we can find the faith again. That is what gets people eventually on the right side. That is the true path to unity.

Why Bernie Needs Stacey Abrams as Vice President

Joe Biden won the South Carolina Democratic primary tonight. As I write this, with 67% of the precincts reporting, Biden leads by 48.68%, with Bernie Sanders in second place at 19.3%, Tom Steyer in third place at 11.4%, Pete Buttigieg in fourth place at 7.9%, and Elizabeth Warren in fifth place at 7%.

First off, Biden’s win doesn’t negate Bernie’s present momentum as Democratic primary frontrunner. And it doesn’t discount Bernie’s ability to build broad and inclusive coalitions. Even in South Carolina, Bernie did very well among younger black voters in the exit polls. What he needs to do now is to appeal to older voters and, of course, more African-American voters. He has a strong partnership with Nina Turner and, nationally speaking, his numbers are up among blacks — with 20% describing themselves as “enthusiastic” about Bernie.

Warren’s campaign is nearly finished. Barely 10% in both Nevada and New Hampshire. Just 7% tonight in South Carolina. We’ll know more on Super Tuesday, but, despite an increasingly stronger profile at the debates, she’s just not getting through to voters. My prediction is that she will drop out of the race before Buttigieg and that this support will likely go to Bernie. Buttigieg has proven to be incredibly tenacious, but his track record prevents him from winning the broad support of black voters. On that front, Biden definitely has more of a shot nationally than Buttigieg ever will.

The likely reality is that the three top Democratic candidates will be Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg. Of this trio, Bernie stands out as the most progressive candidate. And he has the support of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Pramila Jayapal, and Rashida Tlaib. But to clinch the national race, Bernie needs someone who is (a) African-American, (b) a woman, (c) from the South, and (d) who can unite moderate liberals and progressives.

That person is Stacey Abrams.

If Bernie is the frontrunner, Abrams is the only logical choice for vice president. She’s been the deputy city attorney of Atlanta and an incredible figure in the Georgia General Assembly, single-handedly stopping Georgia Republicans from implementing a cable tax that would shift the burden to working people. She’s shown that she can reduce prison expenses without the crime rates going up. So she’s good with the numbers. Abrams’s powerful response to this year’s State of the Union address demonstrated that she was authentic, personable, and pragmatic, and showed that she genuinely cared about working people. In talking about her father hitchhiking home without a coat (he had given the coat to a homeless man), Abrams proved that she was better than Warren in talking about her working-class roots and tying this personal experience into the need for kindness and sacrifice.

What’s greatly appealing about Abrams is that she’s formidable — especially in her 2018 gubernatorial battle against Brian Kemp — but has always come across as a voice of empathy and reason. She is a natural born leader and she has said repeatedly that she wants to be President one day. So she’d definitely bring her A game as veep. Among moderates, she could be perceived as the gentler voice to Bernie’s bellowing. Plus, she’d clean Mike Pence’s clock in the vice presidential debate.

But aside from these terrific credentials, we’d also have the historic precedent of the first African-American woman running for vice president. Not only would this carry on Obama’s legacy (she earned his endorsement while running for Georgia governor), but this would also add a vital new context to Bernie’s proposed plans for Medicare for All, tuition free education, and guaranteed housing. Progress shouldn’t just be about adopting vital and significant policy changes. It also needs to ensure that the people in power reflect the people of America. This would also lay down the flagstones for Abrams becoming President — whether in a subsequent election or in the terrible event that Bernie, who is 78 years old, dies while serving as President.

It’s not enough to want Trump out of office. If the Democrats want to win, they need people who will be inspired enough to show up to vote. And in order to do that, the 2020 Democratic ticket needs the same hope that fueled Obama’s campaign in 2008. Bernie is close to this, but it’s clear that he cannot build a coalition on his own. He needs Stacey Abrams to be there with him.

The Contours of American History (Modern Library Nonfiction #94)

(This is the seventh entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Promise of American Life.)

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History is never the thrilling Zapcat powerboat ride it can and should be when we remain committed to oaring through the same exhausted legends about American exceptionalism and bogus democratic promise. Much as we may find new insights into human existence by tilting our canoes to the ripples contained within a storyteller’s cadences, so too may we discover more complete ways of contending with our historical contradictions through the viewpoint of a responsible revisionist armed with the facts and rejecting the hard establishment line.

The revisionist historian, that charming and sometimes infuriating rabble-rouser never to be confused with some creepy Holocaust denier flailing in a sea of empty Cheetos bags and crackpot pamphlets, often gets needlessly maligned in America. Before Annette Gordon-Reed offered conclusive evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings (upheld by a 1998 DNA test), Fawn Brodie was attacked by vanilla-minded legacy holders two decades before for pushing beyond James Callender’s tawdry trolling, daring to suggest that there was good reason to believe that our much heralded champion of the rights of man had skeletons in his closet that were vital to understanding his philosophy. Brodie’s book, despite its psychobiographical failings, led to a reckoning with our myths and assumptions about the Sage of Monticello, one that continues to this very day with college students demanding the removal of Jefferson statues on campuses.

Provided that their efforts do not involve going out of their way to Bowlderize troubling if incontrovertible parts of the story and the results are as expansive and as rigorous as their more timorous mainstream counterparts, revisionists are often vital reconcilers of the public record. It is the facile propagandist who ignores Rosa Parks’s radicalism to paint a roseate image of a meek and tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus (“small,” “delicate,” and “little,” as belittled by Bill Clinton in 2005) or who upholds the lie that Abner Doubleday created baseball.

In recent decades, many young students have ardently clutched their copies of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States with the taut adamantine grip of a Fallout 4 junkie reluctant to capitulate her controller. Zinn’s thoughtful volume has been vehemently denounced by some establishment historians who have questioned the perceived polemical emphasis of class conflict at the expense of other issues. But before Zinn, there was William Appleman Williams, a brash energetic troublemaker who was arguably a more rigorous scholar than Zinn and who was among the best and the boldest of the firebrand 20th century historians who emerged from a Charles Beard afterglow with ass to kick once the bubble gum supply ran out.

William Appleman Williams unpacked the economic motivations of American expansion and foreign policy in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and broadened this scholarship further with The Contours of American History, a punchy volume examining how imperialism and liberalism became a sordid double stitch intertwined in the American quilt well before the Sons of Liberty spilled massive chests of desperately offloaded tea into Boston Habor. Yet Williams’s often nimble analysis, riddled as it sometimes is with conceptual overreach, robustly articulates the ever-changing and contradictory American Weltanschauung that has motivated nearly every governmental decision since. He documents a worldview that started off with the relatively benign goal of creating and sustaining an economic nation that provided for everyone, but devolved under the autocratic yoke of Jacksonian democracy and Gilded Age greed to the corporate capitalist nightmare we are all trying to awake from today. And because Williams’s challenge to the so-called “American experiment” was so unprecedented in the mid-20th century, this historian was tarnished, besmirched, and condemned by other putative progressives who might have enlarged their rigid notions of national identity if they had been more willing to dive into the subtle words and actions directing the unshakable financial impetus.

Williams was harassed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, that despicably despotic body that ruined the lives of so many, with a demand to produce the unfinished Contours manuscript. The HUAC would order Williams to testify in Washington and then cancel the appearance by telegram once he’d hopped on a train to the Beltway. Even after he testified for ten minutes and the HUAC abandoned its witch hunt, the IRS harassed him in various forms for nearly twenty years. Williams was hounded by the neoliberalism critic Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., who dutifully condemned Williams as “pro-communist” to the American Historical Association’s president. Even as late as 2009, an academic called Williams an “idiot” before a Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations panel, decrying Williams’s approach to history as a crude retooling of Charles Beard’s infamous assault upon our Founding Fathers’s pecuniary predispositions.1

But Williams was far from a typical progressive. He was a registered Republican when he first came to Wisconsin. He voted for Nixon as the lesser evil in 1960. And even in Contours, he defended Herbert Hoover’s hands-off Depression era policies, seeing this as a necessary tactic to forestall property holders from creating a business-friendly fascism that could have had a more diabolical effect on our clime than the many Hoovervilles that had mushroomed across the nation. Williams argued that Hoover’s perceived failure to do anything represented a more active resistance against special interests than the Progressive Movement was willing to acknowledge or act upon at the time. And that’s the way this jazz-loving Midwestern historian rolled. As Williams was to write in a 1973 essay, the revisionist’s duty was to “see basic facts in a different way and as interconnected in new relationships. He is a sister and a brother to those who use old steel to make a zipper, as contrasted with those who add new elements to make a better steel.”

In my previous Modern Library essay, I castigated Herbert Croly for the historical developments that he could not see ahead of him, for erring too much in his perfervid belief in a central government and for diminishing the justifiable grievances of protesters. William Appleman Williams may very well represent the opposite problem: a historian who could see the implications of any action all too well, one who was willing to articulate any interpretation of the facts even if it meant being alienated by the jingoistic minds who needed to reconsider the other fateful historical trajectories upholding the status quo.

Williams’s highly specific examples very much allow him to sell us on his interpretation. In Tragedy, for example, Williams’s deductive prowess is in high gear when he examines how Woodrow Wilson’s March 1913 decision to refuse a government loan to China, one long coveted by American industrialists at the time (and later attempted privately), actually fell within the framework of the Open Door Policy. Many historians have interpreted Wilson’s pushback as a betrayal of American expansionism at the time, but Williams points to the lack of private capital available to fulfill the job as well as the possibility that any governmental loan, even one secured with the help of other financiers, may have been perceived as a very clear threat to neighboring Japan. The Open Door Policy, for all of its flaws and its needless sullying of China, was intended to provide a peacefully imperialist framework for a burgeoning American empire: a GATT or IMF before its time, though regrettably without much in the way of homegrown protest. (Rebellion would come later in Beijing with the May Fourth movement.) The ostensible goal was to strengthen China with fresh influxes of low-risk private capital so that it could withstand troublesome neighbors looking for a fight, even as the new obligations to American entrepreneurs forged hot rivulets of cash rolling back to the imperialist homeland. Wilson’s decision was, as discerned by Williams, a canny chesslike stratagem to avoid war and conflict, one that would keep China a servant to America’s riches. From the vantage point of the 21st century, this useful historical interpretation reveals Wilson to be a pioneer in the kind of venal and now all too commonplace globalization that morally bankrupt neoliberals like Thomas Friedman have no problem opening their old steel zippers for. Their free trade fantasies possess all the out-of-sight, out-of-mind justification of a revenge porn junkie ignoring another person’s real world humiliation for fleeting sociopathic pleasure.

It was with Contours that Williams blew the lid off the great American lie, exposing the American liberal’s failure to confront his own implication in much of the lasseiz nous faire madness. Williams traced the origins of our mercantilist approach to Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury. In the 17th century, Shaftesbury was a political figure who opposed harsh penalties and absolutist government. He stood up for the nonconformists and called for regular parliaments, and would go on to found and lead the early Whig party in the wake of the British Exclusion Crisis. While traveling to Oxford to remove an abscess from his liver, he hit it off with a young doctor by the name of John Locke. (There weren’t as many cafes back then as there are today. In the 1600s, you had to take whatever mingling opportunities you could get.) Locke, of course, would later have many ideas about the social contract, a scheme about inalienable natural rights that would eventually find its way into a number one ditty penned by Jefferson that would become known as the Declaration of Independence.

But there was a twist to this tale. As Williams points out, Locke’s ideas were a corruption of Shaftesbury’s more inclusive and democratic efforts. Where Shaftesbury was willing to rebel against the King to ensure that courts and alternative political parties were in place to prevent the government from becoming an absolute tyranny, even going to the trouble of building a coalition that extended across all classes to fight for these safeguards when not putting together the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, it was Locke who limited Shaftesbury’s remarkably liberal contributions by undercutting individual rights. Locke believed that those who owned property were perfectly justified in protesting their government, for they were the ones who had entered into a social contract. But the rabble who didn’t own property could more or less buzz off.2 As Williams put it, “[I]ndividualism was a right and a liberty reserved to those who accepted a status quo defined by a certain set of natural truths agreed upon a majority. Within such a framework, and it is a far narrower set of limits than it appears at first glance, the natural laws of property and labor were deemed sufficient to guide men’s pursuit of happiness.”

Yet those who subscribed to these early mercantilist standards believed that this classically liberal idea of “corporate structure” involved a basic responsibility to provide for everyone. And the way of sustaining such a benevolent national juggernaut was through the establishment of an empire: a Pax Americana predicated upon the promise of a democracy promulgated by patriarchs who not so quietly believed that the people were incapable of it.3 Williams observes how the Quakers in Philadelphia, who opposed expansion and much of the onslaughts against Native Americans, were very much committed to noblesse oblige, setting up hospitals, education, and philanthropic endeavors to take care of everyone. But this generous spirit was no match for the free trade nabobs or the hard-hearted Calvinists who increasingly shifted such solicitude to the propertied class (one can easily imagine Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glenn Ross “Always be closing” speech spouted by a Calvinist), leading the great theologian Jonathan Edwards to offer righteous pushback against “fraud and trickishness in trade.”

Against this backdrop, post-Revolutionary expansion and the Monroe Doctrine allowed mercantilism to transmute into an idea that was more about the grab than the munificent results, with visions of empire dancing in many heads. By the time Frederick Jackson Turner tendered his Frontier Thesis in 1893, mercantilism was no longer about providing for the commonweal, but about any “self-made man” looking out after his interests. Williams points to Chief Justice John Marshall’s efforts to enforce safeguards, such as his Gibbons vs. Ogden decision regulating interstate commerce, against the monopolies that would come to dominate America near the turn of the century. Marshall’s immediate successor, Chief Justice Taney, expanded the flexibility of the Constitution’s Contract Clause with his 1837 Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge decision, permitting states to alter any contract as it saw fit. While Taney’s decision seemed to strike the death knell against monopolies, it was no match against the consolidated trusts that were to come with the railroads and the robber barons. Rather curiously, for all of his sharp observations about free trade and expansionist dangers during this time, Williams devotes little more than a paragraph to the 1836 closing of the Second Bank of the United States:

[Nicholas Biddle] did a better job than the directors of the Bank of England. Under his leadership the bank not only established a national system of credit balancing which assisted the west as much as the east, and probably more, but sought with considerable success to save smaller banks from their own inexperience and greed. It was ultimately his undoing, for what the militant advocates of lasseiz nous faire came to demand was help without responsibilities. In their minds, at any rate, that was the working definition of democratic freedom.

Talk about sweeping one of the greatest financial calamities in American history under the rug! I don’t want to get too much into Andrew Jackson, who I believe to be nothing less than an abhorrent, reckless, and self-destructive maniac who claimed “liberalism” using the iron fist of tyranny, in this installment. I shall preserve my apparently unquenchable ire for Old Hickory when I tackle Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Jackson in a few years (Modern Library Nonfiction #36). But Jackson’s imperious and irresponsible battle with Biddle, complete with his Specie Circular, undoubtedly led to the Panic of 1837, in which interest rates spiked, the rich got richer, a fixable financial mess spiraled out of control and became needlessly dangerous, and buyers could not come up with the hard cash to invest in land. Considering Williams’s defense of Hoover in both Contours and Tragedy, it is extremely curious that he would shy away from analyzing why some form of central bank might be necessary to mitigate against volatility, even though he adopted some fascinating counterpoints to the “too big to fail” theory decades before Bernanke and Krugman.

This oversight points to the biggest issue I have with Williams. His solution to the great imperialist predicament was democratic socialism, which he called “the only real frontier available to Americans in the second half of the 20th century.” While this is a clever way of inverting Turner’s thesis, to uphold this, Williams cites a few examples such as the courage of Wendell Phillips, a few throwaway references to social property, and a late 19th century return with Edward Bellamy and Henry Demarest Lloyd to the Quaker-like notion of “a commonwealth in which men were brothers first and economic men second.” But while Williams is often a master of synthesis, he falls somewhat short in delineating how his many historical examples can aid us to correct our ongoing ills. If the American Weltanschauung is so steeped in our culture, how then can democratic socialism uproot it? This vital question remains at the root of any progressive-minded conversation. But now that we have a presidential race in which socialism is no longer a dirty word and the two leading Democratic candidates bicker over who is the greater progressive, perhaps the answer might arrive as naturally as Williams anticipated.

Next Up: Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition!