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"It's Just Sort Of Taken As A Given That This Is The Way Things Are"
New year, same politics
Hey everyone, and welcome to the first Discontents of the New Year. We hope you had a restful and enjoyable break.
Today I’d like to share a portion of a long-ranging conversation I had last week with the writer Osita Nwanevu about American politics, the future of electoralism, and the ongoing ramifications of January 6.
Full episode link here.
Eoin Higgins: One of the more interesting things about the American political machine is the way that it frames its own existence. I'm reminded of this 2013 University of Berkeley paper—I realize that's eight years ago— it showed that lawmakers from both parties thought that their constituents were several percentage points more conservative than they actually were.
I wonder how much that has to do with is this kind of a self perpetuating cycle where it is partly this idea that if America wasn't a conservative country you wouldn't have conservative governance. As long as you don't really look at that in any more detail, that makes sense. Do you think that it's something more than that? At what point is it systemic and at what point is it an intentional move by people on the right to frame things this way?
Osita Nwanevu: I think it's a little bit of both. There's certainly, amongst conservative leaders, a level of self awareness about this and the design of our institutions that might not be there for the “average Joe” voter.
I really do think that there are a lot of conservatives who just think that most of America is conservative and think the only people who are into moderate liberal or left wing politics are people who are cloistered on the coast—that there's this vast country in between them that represents the real country and that's where the bulk of everybody who matters actually lives. I think there are people who are going to the voting booth with that mentality.
That's not just fostered by conservative elites doing political propaganda, or active propaganda, for their side—it's something that you also find reflected in coverage of politics by the mainstream media.
What do we do before and after every election? We go out to the middle of the country, we find this diner and a moderate or conservative seemingly white person. We ask them what they think about American politics and this or that candidate and this or that policy proposal, and that's the voice of the country. That's what every candidate has to appeal to and tailor their message to.
Obviously it's a political reality given the design of the system that voters in these kinds of places matter more than other kinds of voters. But I think the point I'm making is that nobody ever questions whether or not that's just or fair.
It's just sort of taken as a given that this is the way things are and have to be that there are people who really matter in American politics. And it makes all the sense in the world that nobody would go to an apartment complex in New York City or Los Angeles or where I live in Baltimore to ask them what they think about American politics or federal elections and what policies they need.
Nobody in the political media ever asks that question, ever. It's partially the product of our institutions, but I think we can do better as an industry if we really care about political journalism as not just as a sort of reflection of the horse race and competitive aspects of politics, but as something that can illuminate and interrogate basic political structures and tell people more about how the system doesn't work. I think we have a responsibility to question and to test the premises that underpin the system that we take for granted.
Okay that’s enough from me, what’s everyone else been up to?
Welcome to Hell World
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this fairly fucking devastating interview I did last year. It’s a talk with a palliative care nurse practitioner about Covid and what it feels like to be the person who has to explain to so many patients that they are going to die.
What do people tend to say at the end of life? When they know they’re about to die? Are there any common themes?
It’s really unpredictable how somebody is going to react to the news. Largely people immediately have regrets. I hate to say that. It’s human nature to not expect yourself to die. As the protagonist of reality you don’t expect that you’re ever going to die or not be around. I think a lot of people, it’s trite, but they go through those stages of grief. There's gotta be something else you can do, or what did I do wrong or what can I change. There has to be something. I think grief and regret comes early on in the process of digesting the news.
Last week Miles Howard joined Hell World to write about Biden’s “Good luck, Jack” approach to Covid policy.
So how does one make sense of this plan to let Covid have its way with American workers and hope for the best? By recognizing the plan for what it actually is—an ideological last stand. At a moment when millions of Americans are begging the federal government for help during a public health crisis, our president and his senior officials are telling us, “No. This is America. We don’t do handouts. Hell, we gave you a free vaccine. Be grateful for it. You’re on your own from here.”
Prior to that I published an interview with a psychiatric nurse about how their job has been going throughout Covid. Not great!
The other thing is, there are things we can’t magically fix. If people say, oh, I need to find housing, I can’t medicate them out of needing to find housing, because that’s a legit concern. If they say I never have enough money, I say, well, you’re right. It’s disgusting what they expect you to live on. People with normal anxiety and fears about the pandemic, there’s no way I can polish that turd. Not for nothing but there are days when I am scared to talk to some of my folks because I know they experience suicidal ideation, and I can’t think of anything therapeutic to say to them. We’re all living through this shit and yes it is bad! I don’t know what to tell you.
I also asked people recently if they had ever been helped by cops when they’ve been robbed. The consensus was lol no. They’ll probably just show up and shoot your dog many people joked which is funny because it’s true but also not funny because it’s true. Read everyone’s stories about how useless the fucking cops are here.
Tomorrow the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay turns 20 years old. Today's FOREVER WARS, which may or may not be out by the time you read this, reflects on the anniversary and features reflections from several Guantanamo survivors who spoke on Saturday at a forum presented by CAGE. Here's a sample:
Beneath the humor was a message. The men inside Guantanamo resisted. They did not passively accept their fate. Hunger striking was an attempt to take back a stolen life. Every journalist who has come through Guantanamo has heard Joint Task Force personnel talk about the cocktails of bodily fluids the detainees fling at them. Far more obscure are the ways that people like Errachidi and Aamer strengthened the spirits of those locked up with them. One of the task force's detention chiefs over the past 20 years, Mike Bumgarner, once said that walking through the cell blocks with Aamer "was like I was with Bon Jovi or something." Aamer said the Americans couldn't seem to understand why men in cages would rush to kiss the hand of someone who went weeks without eating. "Everybody who resisted, who fought back, had to pay a very heavy price," he reflected.
Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau
We’re back with the first Insurgents episode of 2022, now that high-flying elite 1-percenter Jordan has returned to the States in shame after getting cancelled by the KHive. The anniversary of the Capitol Riots of Jan 6th just came and went, and we spent a solemn day respectfully observing Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton performance and of course, celebrating the Cheney family. How are we supposed to talk about Jan 6th? Was it nothing more than a right wing hogfest, a slapstick comedy of errors? Was it a dangerous assault on the hallowed, sacred institutions of the United States government (a country that very famously always supports the peaceful transfer of power and respects democracy around the globe)? One thing we can all probably agree on is that the media has done an absolutely terrible job in talking about this, simultaneously framing it as a dangerous coup while also whitewashing the responsibility of the political figures that openly encouraged it. To break all this down we brought on none other than the host of HARDBALL himself, Matt Negrin.
Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz
Almost two years ago, at the onset of the pandemic, the immigration system was in total disarray. Coronavirus cases surged in ICE detention; migrants at the border were shut out of asylum access altogether. When Biden took office, he promised to both get the pandemic under control and to undo Trump’s most harmful and high-profile immigration policies—the Muslim ban and Remain in Mexico, family separation, among others—and build a new, humane immigration infrastructure.
There was some progress: Biden ended Remain in Mexico, implemented new enforcement priorities for ICE, drafted an immigration bill and sent it to congress, and put together a task force to reunify families that had been separated under Trump’s 2018 zero-tolerance policy.
But as we head into the new year, Biden’s immigration policies have begun to look a lot like Trump’s. Coronavirus cases in ICE detention are once again on the rise; Biden’s Department of Justice is trying to get a family separation lawsuit that it inherited from Trump dismissed; the Remain in Mexico policy is not only back, but expanded; and since Biden’s immigration bill never took off, Democrats have instead tried to accomplish immigration reform through budget reconciliation.
Last week’s edition of BORDER/LINES dug into all of these issues, explaining where we’re at right now and what’s likely to happen next. Everyone jokes about how the pandemic has made us feel like we’re in a time warp: the days pass, years change, but it doesn’t really feel like it. The current state of affairs in the immigration world is maybe a perfect example of this. So far, 2022 looks a lot like 2020.
FX columnist Daniel Bessner’s latest piece looks at the failure of mass politics and what that has meant for US foreign policy:
How did this come to be? As I discussed in an earlier column, there has been a century-long, and largely successful, elite project to remove ordinary people from the decision-making process. Beginning with the intellectual revolution of “democratic realists” like Walter Lippmann—who insisted that social scientists and decision-makers should be the ones making actual political choices—and continuing with the midcentury (1930s-1960s) creation of the national security and administrative states—which concentrate power in the hands of small groups of people—US elites effectively have removed the demos from politics.
This is especially true when it comes to foreign relations. Just last week, President Joe Biden approved a massive military budget of $778,000,000,000. This budget is premised to a large extent on the fantasy that the United States is going to fight a great power war with Russia, China, or both. (In my opinion, the budget will do little but continue to enrichcontractors and other merchants of death.) But if the COVID-19 pandemic, ever-rising inequality, and recent climate disasters have indicated anything, it is that Americans face far more serious issues than fantasy wars. In a world where democratic politics functioned as it should, US elites would at least have to defend their claims that Russia and/or China pose a serious threat to the United States. Instead, the budget has become a largely “apolitical” sideshow, indicated by the fact that under Biden the already-massive budgets approved by former President Donald Trump have increased, to little protest.
Furthermore, as the recent history described in the negative doxology above indicates, the elites have not always made the wisest decisions. Despite the dream of Progressive Era reformers, having an Ivy League education does not actually mean that one is able to make good political choices. This is doubly true for those whose influence derives from their wealth. It’s hard to imagine that over the last century ordinary Americans wouldn’t have at least made choices that were at least as “smart” as those of their supposed betters.
And we’re back. Last week we sank back into the seedy cesspool of American politics, where the little happy piggies over at Discourse Blog play in the muck. Weird analogy but hey there you have it. I’m gonna leave it in. Moving on. Paul Blest wrote about the Democrats basing their midterms electoral strategy on the January 6 attacks, and Katherine Krueger followed that with a searing piece on the stupid and pompous Lin Manuel Miranda fest that the Democrats threw to commemorate the actual anniversary. On the other side of the aisle, Rafi Schwartz wrote about Dan Crenshaw’s whole deal – i.e. a tightrope walk on the GOP’s border with outright fascism, carefully constructed to get the “maverick” billing while he votes with his caucus as much as possible. And finally, I wrote about the end of the pandemic, which happened last week when the CDC declared complete defeat.
Hey friends, it’s been a minute since I had something to share here - between book edits, my ongoing coverage of the Warrior Met Strike down in Alabama, and an honest-to-gosh holiday break, my Patreon has been more than a little barren, and I feel very guilty about it! Now that January has dawned, though, I’m back to the grind—and am super excited to share a new guest column I’ll be doing over at The Nation for the next few weeks.
The first two entries went out last week, and are a good example of what I’m hoping to do with this opportunity—I explain it a little more in this post, but basically, I want to draw a bridge between past and current labor struggles by introducing you to some of the people who the history books left out. (That’s what I tried to do in my book, too, which comes out in a few months!). While I was writing these pieces as well as the one that’s going up tomorrow morning, I kept marveling to myself that these people aren’t household names, or at least, better known within the labor and radical communities. Like, how are you gonna see the phrase “a queer 20th century anarchist labor activist and abortion provider” or “year-long coal miners’ strike in rural Alabama” without getting at least a little curious? That’s what I’m banking on, anyway, and am having such a nice time that I might continue this series on Patreon after my gig with the Nation ends. We’ll see! For now, take a peep, and let me know what you think (and who you’d like to see in there next!).