Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cool Daddy O

Apologies to my regulars for being asleep at the desk here. I can plead busyness elsewhere, but the fact remains there's been little worth commenting over. This, of course, has not stopped blogizens from helping the traditional media micro-manage the Obama transition, along with the composition of the majority's new leadership, the generational decay of the GOP, or the self-immolation of our previous financial system.

Now every single bobbin of the above is worthy of rapt attention, like sunset above an enthusiastic south seas volcano. But, really, what words can you add, for no money, to such a fine display? You'd be a dope for trying.

Our multi-faceted disorders have got me thinking about the power of narrative, however. That is: our habit of allowing the stories we tell ourselves to stand besides, or in the way of, situations usually so abstract or enormous we can hardly grasp them at all.

Our latest Wall St. plunge should come as no surprise to anyone who sees that the dream there is dead. But legions persist in thinking the situation, whatever it is, is almost in hand, that the bottom is near and recovery right around the corner. People who jumped into Citigroup last week, for example, who've now lost 40% of their nerve.

What sustains it all is narrative, the stories people tell themselves, usually about how smart they and the people around them are. When you're finished here, go read Michael Lewis's enthralling autopsy (via Ez Klein) of the last years of Wall St. It is all about the willing suspension of disbelief.

From deep in yesterday morning's financial eye-opener at the NYT, comes a glimmering of the true situation:

Much of the fear centers on the unknowable. It is unclear just how bad banks’ losses on consumer loans, credit cards and mortgages will be as the economy weakens. Commercial real estate loans are deteriorating, and it is unclear whether banks have sold the worst of their holdings. Then there are all the investments that lurk off of banks’ balance sheets, in the so-called shadow banking system. And a new uncertainty has leapt to the forefront as the automotive industry teeters, sending investors scrambling to calculate how much banks are exposed to these loans.

Wisdom is knowing that you do not know, right? Wisdom then is found nowhere on financial TV yak shows. Indeed the whole apparatus of TV is deeply wedded to narrative and so is designed to keep wisdom at bay.

This compulsive, long-term predation of our collective intelligence has already claimed the stupidest, least-adaptable members of the herd, namely conservative Republicans. Nate Silver puts his finger on their demise here. Briefly, they are slaves to the narrative fed them by talk radio, a narrative which has no interest whatsoever in telling our national unknowables. The message of the GOP's main medium is "Things will be great if people do what we say."

Not to go all McLuhan on you, but our political sea change has broken exactly along media fault lines that have almost nothing to do with policy per se and everything to do with emotions, temperament and expectations. The latter though do go a long way in focusing policy concerns. Obama is a cool guy who used cool media to cool down hot (talk radio) districts. That the Democratic states on our TV maps are colored cool blue and the GOP's hot red might be too canny for coincidence.

This is why all predictions for a GOP bounceback in two years are laughable. I would say that coolness and competence are now wedded in the public mind to such a degree that the Obama administration can pretty much write its own ticket for the forseeable, so long as their calm, open and inclusive ways of going about business remain in effect. The last people who'll comprehend this all work for TV. The only way the GOP can win anything in the next eight years (presuming it will be around for that long) is if new-media Democrats start acting like old-media Republicans, or vice-versa.

The chances of that? About O.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Me? I'm just an illiberal blogger, and while part of me would like to see Joe Lieberman take his sad putty face to melt in tears over at the GOP wax museum, another part of me, the large Sicilian part, thinks what happened yesterday is a-ok.

As I see it, he has demonstrated himself to be little more than a useful boob, a true follower, whose shelf life is exactly four years long. It was widely shouted yesterday that he owes his status now to the man he vilified so smugly all summer. In prisons, guys like that are called, I think, punks. Something behind his eyes looked dead during his admission of wrongdoing and contrition for the cameras, which tells me that after having his nose slapped he was fitted with both a choke chain and shock collar.

And you know what, mine indignant colleagues? Most people who voted for our next president have no idea who Low-Joe is and even more don't care where the fuck he sits. Yes, yes, I dig all that inside Washington stuff too. But all those Dems made to walk the plank years ago had been disloyal to a sitting Democratic president. Joe gambled and lost during a revolution and his reward from here on out will be to crawl for the winners until he gets sick of it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Truth And Consequences

Man, you just can't venture far outside without running left and right into tired and emotional pundits offering advice or warnings to the next president. Mainly though such creatures are looking for others to care, about them, and the sensible among us really don't.

Here's my advice to the new president, amazingly given to me via Ouija board to pass on from a spirit identified only by the initials FDR: reward your friends, scald your enemies, hire smart people and do your best.

Wow, deep.

As I get tired of repeating now, a great deal of the right-wing commentariot are going bye-bye. Hilzoy, puts his or her finger on exactly why here. Mainly, no one of any consequence is paying attention to them anymore. Rush tells his elderly and dim listeners that the game has just begun, when in fact he has lost most of his hotels, all his railroads and for the next four years most of the streets his tiny battleship lands on, that is if he does not go directly to jail, have really steep rents.

Put it another way, talk is cheaper than ever. N. Silver, true to his promise the other night, offers us a glimpse of what he has planned between now and the next election. From here on out results count, threats don't. The Corner is Out. 538 is In.

Since no one in the MSM has bothered to mention it, though 60 Minutes came close last night, I'll say it again: The Obama campaign has forever changed how elections are won. Everywhere. (I encountered several young Brits down at the Illinois headquarters last month, and my guess is they are heading home with a few ideas they're keen to try out on Albion.)

The consequences of this are that the assumptions of governing have also changed, a lot, which all the tired writers mentioned above don't quite grasp. Few presidents really get to make the rules. Those who do, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR come to mind, get the chance because their elections signaled complete breaks with the prevailing order, or, looked at another way, the prevailing order collapsed from its own inertia.

There is though one precinct where talk is not cheap at all. In a stunning reversal it will be the Oval Office. A big part of that change, I expect, is that the new president will tell us what he has done as much as what he plans to do. That is, his words will dwell in the wake of action, allowing citizens to judge the consequences thereby.

As for first cases, I find it inconceivable that a former constitutional law professor will allow torture, the suspension of Habeas and extra-legal detention to last the first 24 hours (ha!) of his term. Watch and see, then pay attention to how he explains to the people why it was so very wrong and how he intends to clean its stain from our flag.

UPDATE: Golly, that didn't take long.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Ways And Means 2

At the risk of blowing my cover, I'll report that I was able to rub elbows t'other night with Al Giordano and Nate Silver at Al's post-election Chicago event. Introducing Nate to the audience of about 100 people was Tara Brownlee, my field organizer for Indiana. The crowd then spent the next couple hours in discussion in the glow of a job well done, and an unfamiliar sense of optimism for the coming few months at least.

It was the first time I'd met either man. Al's a trip, with no shortage of ideas, needing sleep, reeking of nicotine and enthusiasm. Nate strikes me as a buttoned-downed cove who prefers the order of numbers to the hash of the commons, but has figured out that it's probably better for him to spend more time with people. Both are very nice guys in the process of preparing new roles for their sites. They hit their strides, indeed became renowned, covering the election, and the theme of the evening for them, for everyone there, was Now What?

Good question, right? Certainly, Giordano is looking to use the broad connectivity of the net to conjure tactile gains in the real world of local activism. His point is that the most effective action is at once limited locally while extending the breadth of the republic, a Whitmanesque sense of the body politic, a Leaves of Grassroots, if you will.

Nate, on the other hand, in remarks he made to the audience and in conversation afterward, intends 538 to focus on the interior possibilities inherent in data bases, to find vulnerable incumbents among the GOP and deadwood Dems, track progress in legislation, dust for the fingerprints of lobbyists, analyze donor lists. Though endemically opposite to Al's vision, I'd say Nate's is no less an example of an abiding sense of American optimism, put simply--there's statistical gold in them thar data hills.

I believe Nate's mission, because he deals in the realm of ideas, is more clearly defined. Al has to handle the messy messages of many people in which contradictions abound. To wit, while local action is great, unless it can promote a broad sense of participation, of national connections among local actors, its half-life will be short. Put another way, self-starting is not nearly as hard as self-sustaining. Al's vision, though I did not say this to him, depends a great deal upon people meeting to do other things besides act politically, folks also need to participate in dependable local centers of work and recreation that have pretty much vanished from a large portion of our atomized land.

Now these centers are not unknown. Chicago, for example, has terrific farmers' markets, hand-made and DYI product meets, independent book stores, kick ball leagues, a wonderful public library system, and a lot of great neighborhood bars where people can congregate. But Chicago is also pretty damn special, being home to the likes of Studs Terkel (may his spirit stalk these streets forever), the Hideout, Oprah, and, y'know, our new president and all.

More than further action, what progressives really need is more Chicagos.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Now Hoosier Daddy?

For the last two weeks of phone calling, and the past four days canvassing, I was a GOTV grunt for Indiana. And this morning I can't look at a map of the results there without weeping in happiness.

In one of my calls to downstate Illinois to find volunteers for Indianapolis, I spoke to an older man whose accent indicated he was African-American. "You know," he said, "Indiana was headquarters of the Klan."

I said yes sir, I sure do, which is why I was calling.

Eighty years ago the Klan openly ran that state, membership from the governor on down. At a time when, in the deep south, the Klan was considered by the ruling classes to be a repugnant practicality, a terrorist project run at night by social dregs, in Indiana the rats felt confident enough to show their smirking faces in the daytime.

I spent Saturday and Sunday walking in Hammond, Monday and Tuesday in South Bend, and here's the deal: while my partners and I mainly worked poor neighborhoods, we did not find any segregated ones. Though black citizens predominated, white and hispanic people came to a lot of doors too, and most all of them said they'd vote Obama.

This is not to say segregation does not exist any more, just that the country has changed tremendously from when I was a boy in ways you will never see if you just watch TV. I found a happiness among people which I can't describe because I cannot really comprehend the depths from which it rises. My lasting joy was to witness.

Can I get an Amen?

Saturday, November 01, 2008