Newsletter: Joe Biden is exploding the theory that he’s the most electable Democrat

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Photo credit: Mark Nozell

This is an essay from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

Countless Democrats champion Joe Biden as the most “electable” candidate against Donald Trump. But the events of the last week alone illustrate just how rickety that theory is.

Last week the former vice president begged ultra-wealthy donors on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to support him and promised them that “nothing will fundamentally change” about their status in society. He also waxed nostalgic for a time where “civility” reigned in politics even as he worked with segregationists, and awkwardly reminisced about how the viciously racist Sen. James Eastland used to call him “son” instead of “boy.” And at a forum hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign he promised that he could break congressional gridlock by making efforts to “shame people” like Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mconnell into cooperation before a plainly skeptical audience.

These statements raise serious questions about Biden’s alleged lock on “electability.” I should note that the concept of electability, which tracks quite a bit with the hateful idea of “likability,” tends to buttress status quo thinking, gives an edge to white males, and leads people astray analytically — who thought Obama or Trump were highly electable during their primaries or general elections? But for the sake of engaging directly with proponents of this idea, let’s grant that electability is knowable and desirable. Recent events are a reminder that nobody should be confident that Biden has any special claim to it.

That’s because being eminently electable isn’t just about winning over moderates, it’s also about inspiring your base to vote for you in the first place. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss is a clear cautionary tale: Four million Obama voters, disproportionately young and non-white and fairly liberal, stayed home instead of voting for her. Given that Clinton lost by some 80,000 votes in three swing states, polling experts estimate that her inability to motivate registered Democrats to show up for her is a reason she lost the election. Biden’s sycophancy toward the 1%, his tone deaf ear on racial politics, and his naivete about the nature of power are liabilities for a candidate who must mobilize an increasingly liberal and diverse base in huge numbers in 2020. Remember: Trump caused Republican turnout to surge in the 2018 midterms — he’s not to be underestimated. In that context, electability isn’t just about being able to schmooze with blue collar voters in the Rust Belt, it’s about having your finger on the pulse of your own party. Continue reading “Newsletter: Joe Biden is exploding the theory that he’s the most electable Democrat”

Newsletter: Everybody’s a cop

This is an essay from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

Last week I read this remarkable story about how a new author tweeted something petty and nasty about a Metro worker in D.C., elicited a public backlash characterizing her as racist, and then had a distributor of her debut novel cut off ties with her, all in a matter of hours. And all I can say is: a pox on all your houses. Continue reading “Newsletter: Everybody’s a cop”

Bernie’s big speech was about taking back the idea of “freedom”

I wrote an analysis of Bernie’s hotly anticipated speech on democratic socialism for Pacific StandardHere’s an excerpt:

When critics of socialism warn against its dangers, they often invoke communist tyrants of the 20th century. So when Senator Bernie Sanders delivered a major speech on Wednesday about what democratic socialism means to him, those critics may have been surprised to hear that “freedom” was his watchword.

“What I believe is that the American people deserve freedom—true freedom,” Sanders said to an audience of supporters at George Washington University. “Freedom is an often-used word, but it’s time we took a hard look at what that word actually means. Ask yourself: What does it actually mean to be free?”

Sanders went on to list nearly a dozen examples illustrating how economic insecurity—in the form of low wages, unaffordable health care, meager pensions, and the like—is incompatible with anything that could be considered a free life. Moreover, Sanders said, this is by design: “Many in the establishment would like the American people to submit to the tyranny of oligarchs, multinational corporations, Wall Street banks, and billionaires.”

Sanders’ argument that democratic socialism is the path to true freedom is shrewd messaging: It’s an attempt to flip conservative talking points about socialism on their head, and to re-appropriate freedom as a principle of the left. It also allows him to sidestep interminable debates about what really counts as socialism by anchoring his ideology in a quintessentially American tradition of liberty.

Check out the rest of it here.

Newsletter: What happened to Ta-Nehisi Coates?

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Credit: Eduardo Montes-Bradley.

This is an essay from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

As far as I can tell, Ta-Nehisi Coates has disappeared from the world of journalism. He deleted his Twitter account in 2017 and resigned from The Atlantic in the summer of 2018. He is still writing — he’s reportedly working on film, television, and comic book projects and he has a forthcoming novel — but for the moment he has no public perch from which he routinely offers essays and reportage on America politics and identity as he used to.

Some people see this as the loss as one of the country’s greatest commentators. But I think it might be a good thing that he’s stepped away.

This isn’t to say that I don’t miss Coates’ writing. I certainly wish I could still watch him think out loud. I feel the absence of his epic lyricism and sanguinary preoccupations, influenced by his consumption of Civil War history, hip hop, Shakespeare, and comic books. I was very fond of his blog at The Atlantic, which was uniquely dialogic in nature. Coates engaged in careful conversation with books he was reading, songs he was listening to, the thinkers he disagreed with or found interesting, and the huge set of commenters on his blog. Technically all public intellectuals are meant to be doing this, but in reality very few do it in a manner that’s so fruitful for the reader. Unlike most journalists and essayists, Coates felt no shame admitting agnosticism or non-expertise or even total ignorance on a variety of subjects. Whereas most of his counterparts either cover up or distract from being out of their intellectual comfort zones, he saw those situations as learning opportunities, and reveled in embracing the mindset of the student, in channeling “the magic of childhood.” How many people whose job requires a reputation of intelligence film themselves stumbling confusedly through a foreign language they had just begun learning? (I can assure you nobody will see any such thing from me as I study and butcher the language of Spanish these days.) And in the instances when he had total clarity regarding an idea or an event, he was masterful at interweaving lived experience with the abstract.

I diverged from Coates on many issues. I found his work to often elide human agency and to imbue the horrors of American racism with a kind of mystical and transcendent quality. Despite grounding his analyses in historical context and grappling with the corporeal aspect of white supremacy, I found his writing to engage inadequately with the workings of political economy. I will have to revisit Between the World and Me, but in my initial reading — which I found far less compelling than his blog posts and shorter essays — I found no persuasive theory of change. Yet because Coates is such a pleasure to read and so deliberate with his chisel, even the writing I disagreed with was enjoyable, and a surefire way to sharpen my own thinking.

I miss his blogging, but it might be a good thing that he’s taken a break from the conventional journalistic world. Ta-Nehisi Coates had become larger than life. His fans had formed a religion around him and his work. Many of his critics reserved special stores of venom for him that were overly personal. I came to believe that both those who revered him and loathed him were suffering from the same affliction: they were trying to extract too much from one man.

Continue reading “Newsletter: What happened to Ta-Nehisi Coates?”

Newsletter: Venezuela Q&A with Alejandro Velasco

On January 23rd, Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled legislative branch, declared himself president of Venezuela. Within minutes, the US and several Latin American countries recognized him as Venezuela’s interim president and simultaneously rejected the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s sitting president who had been sworn into office for his second term earlier in the month. Since then, tensions have escalated as the US has imposed harsh new sanctions on Caracas and has boasted that military intervention is on the table.

As with all news related to Venezuela in the West, there’s a ton of glib analysis out there tainted by a reflex to treat the country as a battleground for narratives on socialism or foreign intervention, and there’s a scarcity of specific engagement with the Venezuelan experience. To cut through the noise last week I called up Alejandro Velasco, a Venezuelan historian of Latin America at NYU, to get his perspective on what’s driving this extraordinary turn of events, how the US left should be positioning itself on the issue, and why he feels overwhelmed by pessimism about his home country.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

ZA: How does someone who hasn’t been a presidential candidate simply declare himself president?

Alejandro Velasco: That has to do with a particular reading of the Venezuelan constitution that says when there’s a vacuum in the executive power, then it falls upon the president of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative branch, to assume those duties.

The legitimacy at the international level is being claimed upon by appealing to Article 233 of the constitution. They claim, not without reason, that the elections that brought Maduro last year into office were highly irregular, were fraudulent, and so therefore he is not a legitimate president as of January 10th, when he swore himself into a new term of office.

It’s a legal argument that Guaidó’s banking on to assert legitimacy. The problem is that same Article 233 of the constitution also says new elections need to be held within 30 days. Even though Guaidó has said the plan is to hold elections, it’s been very vague. In fact it’s the third of 3 plans that he’s announced. (The first one is seizing the usurpation, the second one is establishing an interim governments.) The argument makes sense insofar as you won’t be able to call new elections with the existing institutional apparatus, which is controlled by chavistas. But the second you say that then you get into all sorts of legal confusion as to why are you calling upon this article in order to assert the legitimacy of rule.

Which is why it’s important to understand that what’s happening in Venezuela isn’t actually a matter of legality, it’s a matter of who can claim legitimacy of rule.

Continue reading “Newsletter: Venezuela Q&A with Alejandro Velasco”

Jim Acosta revisited

In last week’s newsletter I found myself in the unusual position of arguing that a reporter should be less adversarial toward Trump.

The crux of my argument was not that Jim Acosta’s violations of White House decorum were unseemly, but that that they were ineffective. I argued that his stunts would hand a victory to Trump’s agenda to paint the media as treating him unfairly without obtaining anything meaningful in return.

Upon reflection, fueled in part by some pushback online, I suppose I don’t care that much about how Acosta chooses to comport himself.

It could be argued that even if Acosta abided by the rules, Trumpland would still be convinced that CNN is fake news, and so the costs of his activism is marginal. And then there’s also a case to be made that while Acosta is not going to win a concession from the administration, he could, theoretically, inspire other White House reporters to be fiercer. That’s a good cause — the White House Correspondents’ Association is such a spineless institution that it has decided this year to break from its tradition of inviting a comedian to its annual dinner. Let that sink in: In the Trump era, the organization has chosen to try to avoid controversy and make the president feel less worried about being roasted.

So let me get to the big unspoken impulse that drove my initial post: I’m angry about inconsistency.

I’m angry that Acosta’s behavior in all likelihood would never have happened had Ted Cruz won the presidency and pursued an extremely similar policy agenda and quested to sate the toxic impulses of the same reactionary constituents because he knows how to do it with a veneer of civility. And I’m angry because White House reporters like Acosta have declined to act this way in the past as presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have run circles around credulous, flat-footed reporters.

A lot of liberals like to cry out that this Trump’s lying is “not business as usual” or that “this is not normal.” This kind of rhetoric often obscures continuity. Yes, Trump has led us to new frontiers in untruth, but let’s be clear: lying is business as usual for politicians. Yes, Trump’s white nationalism has broken some new ground, but the Southern Strategy has prevailed for decades.

In recent years before Trump took office journalists have failed to aggressively push back against falsehoods used to justify atrocities like the Iraq War, gutting protections for the poor, protecting bankers from prosecution, preventing universal healthcare and inaction on climate change. Where were the Acostas then? The flagrancy of a Trump lie deserves an adversarial press; the sophistication of a Bush or Obama or Paul Ryan lie deserves one just as much.

So my more considered response to Acosta’s behavior is: either get in the face of every lying politician you see — even the ones who veil their deception and their misdeeds with great skill — or do what you usually do.

A lot of journalists seem to be taking the wrong lesson from the Trump era. As I argued in an essay about Ben Smith’s widely lauded piece on the supposed decline of insider journalism, the Trump era shouldn’t be making journalists nostalgic for coziness between the press and the political class in older times — it should be making them realize that the old model was bad.

Newsletter: What’s Jim Acosta doing?

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Credit: Gage Skidmore

This is the opening comment from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

Jim Acosta is on a crusade, but it’s unclear what it’s about.

The vaguely George Clooney-esque White House reporter for CNN has been causing a huge ruckus in Washington with his clashes with the Trump administration. After refusing to give up his microphone during a Trump press conference in which he badgered the president, Acosta’s permanent press credentials were revoked — and now he and CNN are suing the White House.

The White House’s argument for revoking his credentials was nonsense. It claimed that Acosta lost his pass for “placing his hands” on the intern who tried to grab his mic, and to make the case it released a video doctored by an unhinged British conspiracy theorist. Acosta did lightly touch the intern, but it wasn’t any kind of assault, as the White House has implied. Fortunately CNN, which is suing both on First and Fifth amendment (due process) grounds, has a strong legal case for getting Acosta’s credentials back.

It should go without saying that if Trump can’t stand Acosta, he’d be better off calling on him less frequently instead of trying to kick him out of the White House press corps based on a lie. But, assuming Acosta gets his credentials back, he should really take this moment to reflect on what he’s been doing lately and if he wants to keep doing it. Because I don’t get it.

For years, Acosta has has locked horns with Trump and his press secretaries over their mendacity and their attacks on the press. But Acosta doesn’t just ask his questions. He explicitly frames them as a “challenge.” He speaks theatrically about the spirit of American democracy. He talks over and cuts off his interlocutors. He refuses to ask one question, taking away time from other reporters with follow-ups that yield no meaningful answers. He demands that the administration take back its criticism of the press. Once, in a move that made him resemble a member of Code Pink more than a reporter, he shouted at the president from the back of the crowdat a tax anniversary event, causing audience members to shush him! In short, Acosta has sought to be a nuisance.

I struggle to understand his endgame here. Is he hoping that his stunts will get the administration to finally acknowledge that it lies? To apologize for lying? To even stop lying? Because nobody with a shred common sense would think that’s possible. Deception is a key political strategy of the Trump administration, and it’s carried out with pride, not regret.

Of course Acosta and all reporters should use questions and follow-up questions to point out falsehoods and place pressure on the Trump administration in a bid for accountability. But Acosta is trying to go one step further than that, seemingly believing that if he vexes the administration enough they might break down and make a concession.

That tactic is not only failing — it is clearly backfiring. It neatly plays into Trump’s narrative that the media harbors a grudge against him and is uninterested in treating him fairly. Trump has license to say that CNN reporters never spoke to Obama the way they speak to him. And the optics are terrible. If I think Acosta looks kind of annoying during press briefings, then there’s no doubt that Trump’s supporters, who are already primed to believe anything the president says, will see his antics as evidence of unforgivable anti-Trump bias in the press. There’s a reason that Trump press staffers give each other high fives after they walk away from the podium after sparring with Acosta.

I share Acosta’s rage. But if he’s decided that Trump’s propaganda operation deserves more than questioning he’s better off pursuing that goal outside of the White House press corps. He’s chosen to work in a sector of media that relies on politesse and deference to acquire information, and he’s running into the limits of that. I wouldn’t want to deal with that either, which is why I wouldn’t want to work as a White House correspondent. Acosta should take on a position that involves more overt analysis and opinion, or investigative work, or leave the media and become an activist. Right now he he’s hurting his own cause, and the story has moved away from Trump’s falsehoods and toward the melodrama of Trump vs CNN.

And maybe that’s the point. A Politico Magazine article reports that the higher-ups at CNN seem to love the skirmishes, which is why Acosta has gotten the green light to keep doing it. “There is also a view inside the network’s newsroom that Acosta has been given the latitude, perhaps even the implicit assignment, to turn the briefing room into a personal editorial page because it is good television and reaffirms CNN’s integral role in the ongoing drama,” the article says. That’s shocking, but not surprising, for an outlet that confessed to giving Trump massively disproportionate airtime in the run-up to the 2016 election because it was so watchable.

In this reading, CNN is in some ways of the same ilk as Trump: prioritizing ratings over pursuit of truth.

The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.