Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Nation of Faith & Flesh (briefly)

Nothing makes a book-in-progress feel more real than getting the catalogue copy from your editor. The book should be on the shelves in October. 

In A Nation of Faith and Flesh, Gerard Jones chronicles the first “culture war” in American history, when private morality and religion were politicized as never before—and as they are still being politicized today.
       What began with a protest against a ballerina baring her thighs on a New York stage in 1827 snowballed into a national campaign against alcohol, Catholicism, prostitution, and, finally, slavery. Arthur Tappan, a pious merchant who entered the public sphere only to save his city from naughty dancing, found himself almost accidentally leading a sweeping agenda of Christian moral reform. Another group led by the iconoclastic feminist Fanny Wright worked to further their own Utopian vision, one based in science, workers’ rights, and sexual freedom. As Jones brilliantly shows, these two groups became unlikely allies in support of causes as varied as abolitionism, health food, and anti-masturbation, all the while drawing the ire of the ingrained economic and political elite—not to mention cynical newspapermen, prostitutes, and their clients. Believing they had begun a struggle that would end with the Millennium, these reformers instead saw many of their projects end in failure. But in the process they birthed a singular movement that would redefine the nation.
       Told with the energy and empathy of the best novels, A Nation of Faith and Flesh plunges readers into the moral crucible that forged many of the alliances, divisions, and social movements that have defined American society to this day. 

(Note the use of the Oxford comma even in promotional materials. That’s why I love FSG!)



Tuesday, November 15, 2016

That's Why They Call It the Future

One helpful slap in the face I got from this election: the pointlessness of my obsession with poll forecasts and horserace-style news. I’m great at paying lip service to not “future tripping,” not being attached to outcomes, not thinking that I can ever settle my anxiety in the present by imagining that I know what’s coming. But in practice, at election time, I become consumed by polls and analyses and odds and trends and turning points and gaffes and scandals and everything else that I want to believe will either determine or predict a result.
       This year, everything I read and clung to was wrong. As of Tuesday night all the time and energy I gave to 538 and RCP and TPM and HuffPo felt like a total waste. The truth is, though, that even if the predictions had been right, it still would have been a waste. It would have felt better, but it wouldn’t have amounted to anything. Political information is useful when it helps me make up my mind or persuade someone else or take some other effective action. When I’m trying to use it to see the future, it’s worse than useless. It’s a distraction from whatever would actually be worth doing. I need to do whatever I believe is the next right thing and let the universe take care of the results.
       As a writer and a political being, there’s value for me in understanding what happened based on what we actually know. But if I’m trying to convince myself that the future isn’t in fact utterly unknowable and beyond my control, forget it. From here on I’ll let Nate Silver go it without me.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Road testing the new book

Ive gone deep into the final rewrites of my forthcoming book, and to prevent myself from squandering any precious time on blogging, Ive decided to run an excerpt.  The working title is Nation of Faith & Flesh: The Moral War That Shaped America, its nonfiction, it's coming from FSG in October, and the beginning goes something like this...


Chapter One
The Miserable Toys of Despotism


It may not have been the first battle fought over a Frenchwoman’s thighs, nor was it likely to be the last. But it was the first to launch a newspaper.
    She had been brought across the sea to dance the ballet at the grand new theater on the Bowery Road. The most cultured of New Yorkers had been anticipating her coming for weeks—Mayor Hone had been urging the city’s social leaders to turn out for her debut almost as though it were a civic duty. At last, in early February, the newspapers had been able to make the announcement: “Madame Francisque Hutin, of the Opera House, Paris, has arrived.”
    No one in the city had actually heard of Francisque Hutin, not even those who followed events in Paris, but everyone had heard of this latest French vogue, this new school of dance in which ethereal maidens leapt and spun to sentimental music, swept their liquid arms and floated on their toes. Fashionable Parisians could not get enough of it; after decades of revolution, war, and depression, it was a celebration of color, sentiment, gossamer delicacy, sweet harmony, illusive innocence, and sex. Their counterparts in Gotham, in those dark early weeks of 1827, were eager to make it their own—although in their minds it stood for something quite different.
    The house was crowded for a Wednesday night. Philip Hone, erstwhile mayor of the city, alertly poised and irreproachably dressed, surveyed the house from his private box and felt gratified to see all the neighboring boxes in the upper tier overflowing with the wealthy and cultured. But the boxes of the lower tier were full too, with the respectable husbands and wives of the middle class, and so were the cheaper seats in the pit, packed with young clerks and craftsmen. So, for that matter, were the cheapest seats of all, in the third tier above the boxes, where even laborers, black people, and unaccompanied women (along with those less respectable men who went looking for unaccompanied women) had come to see Madame Hutin dance.




    Of course, she would not appear early in the evening. First there had to pass the usual parade of musical acts, farcical sketches, and abbreviated plays that struggled to hold the attentions of a motley city crowd. But at long last, after a chopped-up version of Much Ado about Nothing, the orchestra sent up a sentimental folk melody to fill the vast space of the theater, and onto the stage bounded Francisque Hutin.
    Her dance was called “The Coquettish Shepherdess,” and after a coquettish bat of her eyelashes she bounded again with an athleticism astonishing for a female dancer. Then she hurled herself into a muscular pirouette. As she spun, her light skirt rose. And rose. And rose.
    No worldly member of the audience could have been surprised by the light gown she wore that bared her arms and lifted with her movements to grant a flash of stockinged leg. French dancers had been stirring minor scandals for thirty years with their filmy Grecian gowns, and popular actresses liked to play young Shakespearean males and Greek gods precisely so that they could wear breeches that displayed their calves. But few if any of them were prepared for what had lately become acceptable on the Parisian stage. Before seven thousand widening American eyes, Francisque Hutin kept spinning as centrifugal force, like the hand of an invisible lecher, revealed her calves, her knees, the fullness of her thighs, and, at least for an instant, even more.
    The audience did not remain in spellbound silence for long. A great chorus of male cheers swelled up from the pit. Claps and foot stamps met them from above. And in the middle, in the lower row of boxes, respectable middle-class wives rose indignantly from their seats and, proud and legless in the vast satin cones of their gowns, swept toward the lobby like bellflowers on a stream.
    One area of the house, however, was not so quick to announce its verdict: the upper boxes that held the people who shaped opinions and started vogues, the people whose opinion mattered most to Philip Hone. He knew art and valued civilization, and he understood what this performance meant to his city, how the whirling thighs of Madame Hutin embodied everything he yearned for New York to be.

      Hone’s newly completed tenure as mayor had lasted just a year, but it had been a monumental year. New York was rising on a flood tide. Not of water—although water was the source of it—but of money and humanity. The city had already been growing rapidly for two generations, faster than any other big city in the young republic, muscling ahead of Boston and Philadelphia as a center of commerce, finance, and industry. Then, in the fall of 1825, only fourteen months before, Governor Clinton had officially opened the Great Western Canal, that highway of water slashing nearly four hundred miles through stone and forest from distant Lake Erie to the Hudson River, ferrying the whole, incalculable wealth of the vast American interior past the docks at the tip of Manhattan. In its first year of operation, the canal had been even more profitable than its backers had predicted, nearly paying back its titanic cost. Now the winter had shut it down, but everyone knew that in a month or two, when the ice began to break, the surge of barges and wealth would be greater than any city had ever dreamed of.
  Already the city was outgrowing itself. There had been fewer than a hundred thousand people there ten years before, but at least seventy thousand more had crowded in since. How many more would come now? Every day they poured in by ship and ferry, from every state in the Union and half the nations of Europe, fighting for a piece of New York’s new wealth. The rasping and pounding of construction had become the music of the city, and this new theater was at the center of it. Laborers and immigrants crowded into the tenant houses that proliferated across the boggy neighborhood that stretched out behind the theater’s back, while another immigrant, a friend of Hone’s named John Jacob Astor, was rapidly transforming a respectable fortune into a colossal one by turning the farmland to the north into new neighborhoods.
  Right where Philip Hone sat, where theater patrons now packed themselves into boxes and rows, another sort of crowd had gathered just a few years before—crowds of great, stinking, pissing, moaning brutes, unwittingly brought together to die. This had been the slaughterhouse district until a group of wealthy landowners, Astors among them, had determined to plow it under with the city’s most elegant new neighborhood. The Bowery Road, so recently churned muddy by cattle drives from the pastures of Manhattan, now rolled like an imperial boulevard into the north and the future, to half-built neighborhoods where wandering lanes were giving way to a scientific grid of streets with numbers instead of names.
To anchor that boulevard’s southern end, where Chatham Street curved into it from the old city, the Astors and their allies had decided to build the New York Theatre. They had planned its opening for October, 1826—almost exactly a year after Governor Clinton had officially opened the Canal—as a monument to wealth and modernity. One thing alone made it a bright, hissing testimony to a new age: it was the first American theater built for gas lighting, that invisible power just then beginning to transform the urban night. But it was also the biggest theater in the New World, seating thirty-five hundred people within the body of a Greek temple, a white-pillared assertion of the power of reason and republicanism, with “scenery and machinery equal to anything in London.” It would present, they had promised, only the finest performances. It would never, unlike the other new theaters popping up, pander to baser tastes.


     Mayor Hone had delivered an address upon the laying of its cornerstone. “No act of my public life,” he remembered, “lost me so many friends.” A growing body of influential citizens had been stirred to do battle against the city’s rising tide of vice and crime (especially those Presbyterian merchants who’d been pouring in from New England), and most had come to view theaters as nearly as pernicious as taverns and brothels—as much for the crowds they attracted as for what happened on stage. For the mayor, however, the theater was worth the political risk. 
  Hone was a cosmopolite, one who had made his fortune auctioning European goods, one who followed the artistic fashions of Paris and London, a dashing master of taste and ton who knew paintings and music and threw scintillating dinner parties. He had grown weary of Europeans mocking the United States as a land of farmers and religious cranks, and just as weary of Americans mocking New Yorkers for caring about nothing but money, food, and amusements. An annoying woman named Anne Royall had recently published a book of “sketches” of life in the various regions of the young United States (one of those books that no one would admit to owning but that everyone could complain about in great detail), in which she’d asserted that Boston was “unmistakably a century ahead of New York in intellectual refinement.” Hone wanted his city to use its wealth to make itself the glittering cultural jewel of the new world. 
  There was something, however, even more important than appearances. In culture, Hone knew that he moved at the vanguard of his times, but he knew just as well that in politics he was a vestige of lost era—the era when only men of property were allowed to vote. He had come of age in a city still dominated by the old, landed families that had run it since the days of the Dutch, those intermarried clans of Beekmans and Stuyvesants and Livingstons. When the merchant princes (among whom Hone liked to count himself) had risen to rival them, they had swiftly united their interests with the old gentry through bonds of marriage and real estate. But over just the past few years, bending before the democratic winds that swept the country, the legislature in Albany had been gradually expanding suffrage until soon nearly every white male would have the vote; and now a brushfire of angry egalitarianism was sweeping from the West with the inexorable Andrew Jackson. Hone himself had been installed as mayor only because an ugly feud had briefly split the corrupt and cupiditous democrats who were clearly taking control of the city. 
  He worried about the costs of sudden democracy. He had seen the growing restiveness of laboring men: the recent march of a thousand men along the docks in support of a stevedors’ strike, but also the vandalism of Mr. Stuyvesant’s garden, the riot that had erupted when the city had tried to round up the herds of pigs that ran free in the streets, the ugly demonstration of partisan anger in front of his own mansion on New Year’s night. He knew that if his class of people were to do anything to steer the city away from mob rule, they would have to do it not through their diminishing political power but through whatever cultural power they could wield. They would have to bring civility to the masses, educate and uplift them from mobhood to citizenship. 

In the Two-Party Trenches

I’m thinking about the election as a lesson not in whatever’s unique this year but as what’s become utterly predictable: our precise and inflexible partisan divide.
       The narrative being written about this election is almost entirely about those people who were extremely excited about Trump and showed up in much bigger numbers than usual. But I’m trying to understand another, quieter narrative that I think is just as important. Those Trump loyalists did tip the scales in the end—but only because they were added to the votes of at least thirty million people who actively didn’t like him, people who weren’t particularly driven by blue-collar anger or fear of globalism or xenophobia or the other bullet-points of most election postmortems. 
       We’re no longer the America of 1964 or 1972 where millions of members of one party would cross the line because of a candidate. We’re now so deeply wedded to our party affiliations, have made them so much a part of our social identities, that instead of adjusting our choice of party according to the candidates we adjust our perceptions of the candidates to support our party biases. “Undecided” voters are mostly undecided between voting for their party’s nominee or staying home. Even most “independent” voters have sympathies with one party or the other that rarely shift.
       This isn't about conscious loyalty. Hardly anyone actively likes their party anymore—or at least the party’s leadership. More and more of us register as independents and feel like we’re constantly stuck choosing the lesser of two evils. But if you look at the county-by-county results of the past five elections (especially if you leave out the panic-year of 2008) they’re astonishingly similar. If you look at exit polls, the demographic breakdowns of who voted for which party in those counties is also astonishingly similar. And what difference there is can be mostly explained by relative turnout among different groups—not changes in people’s preferences.
       There’s a disconnect between the feeling and the doing. I can say, in full sincerity, “I hate Starbucks.” But if you keep catching me in line at Starbucks and every time I say, “I do hate Starbucks, I just didn’t really have a choice this time because I was in a hurry and blah blah blah,” it’s still true that I feel hate for Starbucks—but it’s also true that I’m a regular Starbucks customer and they can probably count on me to keep giving them my money even while I bitch about them.
       Obviously a lot of this reflects the fact that Democratic and Republican candidates are much more consistent than they used to be on their main issues. If Roe v. Wade is high on your agenda, you know which party is for and against it, election after election. But even when you get a candidate who rejects big pieces of the usual party agenda, I don’t see it making any real difference. How many Republicans or Democrats for whom global trade is a major concern actually voted the other way, even with Trump talking protectionism and Clinton’s background on globalism? Looking at the results, it almost seems like the only Republicans who defected were the big-name Neocons in the news. 
       A lot of political scientists have been saying lately, “Candidates don’t matter much.” If any election were ever going to disprove that, it was this one. Instead it bore it out. After all the talk about “realignment,” the only real surprise was the number of Rust Belt states Trump won—but there’s a reason they’re called “swing states.” Their swing wasn’t any big shift of allegiances, it was turnout. Kind of a mirror image of the increased black turnout and lower working-class white turnout in those same states last time. The only real significance of individual candidates now is how well they inspire some subset of the party’s loyalists to vote. It’s enough to tip the balance in a race, but not enough to break the duolith.
       I see a deep cultural split manifested around political parties, a group-identity split that shapes not only our final choices but the lenses through which we see everything. We’ll say, “I hate my party for sticking me with this lousy candidate…but we have to stop That Monster.” And we prepare the monster role for the other party’s candidate before we know who it is.
       This year has been so heated and bizarre that it’s hard even to talk about this, but when I look back four years I remember a lot of fairly reasonable people calling one centrist, pro-Wall Street technocrat a radical leftist or the other centrist, pro-Wall Street technocrat a radical rightist. And I can see the lenses in action this year. I know sensible Republicans who were appalled by Trump in the primaries but were actively supporting him in the end because they saw Hillary as a threat to everything that makes America what it is. From my side, I can’t conceive how anyone could possibly see a cautious, centrist wonk like Clinton as a threat to everything that makes America what it is (or at least any more of a threat than any Republican or Democratic candidate of the past forty years). But they had no doubt. On the other hand, they don’t understand how I can see Trump as a racist, fascist threat to everything that makes America what it is, where they see just an impulsive jerk who attracted some wing-nut supporters but is basically a pragmatist who will at least preserve most of those things that make America etc. Leaving aside any argument about who’s closer to the truth, there's a split in perceptions here that’s clearly in place long before we know what candidates we’ll be dealing with.
       A lot of that is typical election-year rhetoric. In my research on this new book of mine I’ve found plenty of people who were equally apocalyptic about Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. I remember my parents getting in fights with relatives about whether Goldwater or Johnson was going to destroy the country. What’s different is the relatively tiny number of people who are inclined to look at the other party’s candidate outside the preset partisan lens. (And I include myself in the vast majority who aren’t. I can tell you right now that in 2020 I’m going to hate the Republican candidate and have lots of arguments as to why the Democrat isn’t nearly as bad as those right-wing liars claim.)
       It’s temping to take this as proof that we’re ready for a third party, but the truth is the opposite. This is precisely the situation, when warring camps have divided the field in half, that breaking ranks is hardest. It would be like trying to start a peace movement in the trenches of World War I: the knowledge that stepping back from the battle even for a moment will allow the enemy to advance is too terrible. Even with two candidates deeply unpopular with huge swaths of their own parties and endless talk about how broken the party system is, Johnson and Stein barely broke 4% between them—and less in the swing states.
      Until we can change this, we’ll be stuck in this quadrennial rehash of anger, lies, and prophecies of armageddon, ending with some thin slice of the electorate making the choice for the rest of us. And we’ll be wrestling with the same frustrating challenge we have now: how to make our parties relevant to our beliefs and needs while also targeting them at subgroups of voters in a few counties in Florida and Ohio. But how do we change it? Massive demographic shifts may do it someday, or new generations with very different ideas. I don’t think I can believe that a candidate or strategy or set of policies can do it anymore.
      In the meantime, maybe we can at least look at our nominating systems and see if we can bring more sanity to our choice of the “two for the see-saw.”

Sunday, November 13, 2016

What Does Trump Mean?

A cascade of opinion pieces tell me how Trump’s election reveals the ugliness of the American soul or our epochal swing into populism or the deep current of rage that now drives our country. They’re terrifying and saddening and painfully searching.
       They’re also nonsense. And if we want to deal sensibly with what’s in front of us, they may be harmful nonsense.
       Donald Trump won the election because he captured the Republican nomination in a year when the Republicans were probably going to win. The final difference in the vote was the huge turnout among the subset of voters he excited more than any candidate ever had, but that would have meant nothing if he hadn't gotten the votes of 90% of Republicans overall. A solid majority of people who voted for him said they werent voting for Trump but against Clinton—or the Democrats in general. Most  “undecided” voters turned out to be Republican-leaning people who didn’t want to commit to Trump but finally settled on him in the end.   What his election reveals more than anything is the rigidity of our partisan divide.
       Americans today don’t look at the candidates neutrally and say, “I like this one better.” We look in fear at the prospect of the Other Side winning and then find ways to justify sticking with a nominee we don’t like. Trump looked like the one candidate who might inspire Republicans to defect—but it didn’t happen. I’m sure that’s partly because Hillary Clinton was also the one candidate most likely to inspire Republicans to dig in their heels no matter what. But I question whether any candidate on either side would be capable of breaking the partisan wall anymore.
       The beliefs of Trump’s most virulent and visible supporters are horrific—but they aren’t the beliefs that drove most of the people who voted for him. The election results aren’t very different from most of the “generic candidate” forecasts made before anyone saw him as the nominee. It was always going to be a close race, probably with a slight Republican edge, to be decided in Florida and the Rust Belt. The big story isn’t what’s unique about Trump but what was generic about our voting decisions.
       Yes, Trump did win enthusiastic support from one group, those non-urban, no-college working-class white men we keep hearing about. That’s where the populism and rage are. They’re the ones who gave him the party nomination, and they provided the winning margin in closely divided states where Democratic turnout was mediocre. Obviously that’s worth talking about. But they don’t represent the soul of modern America any more than anyone else does. In fact, it’s the opposite. Their values and beliefs differ from most Americans’. They’re just the group who showed up in the spoiler role in this latest iteration of our partisan see-saw.
       That’s what can happen with a two-party system and a badly designed primary process—but only if we also bring our own rigid partisanship to it, and only if we’re evenly divided. That’s when one highly motivated but atypical group can be the extra weight that tips the scales. This is hardly the first recent election to be tipped that way. It’s just a different group with an especially loud and ugly rhetoric.
       We have to deal with the reality of a Trump presidency. That’s a big enough challenge. It doesn’t help to reduce the messy, complicated, frustrating, stubbornly persistent reality of our politics to melodrama. We, as a people, are no different from who we were last week or last year, hardly much different from who we were last decade. Whether we go back to fighting the same fight or try to change the terms of the fight, we’re still the same damned us. I think it’ll be useful to remember that when we get back to work.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Bookends of History

All year I've been forcing myself not to blog about the election. It's not easy: I've been a passionate election-watcher since 1976, and I've never seen one as weird and gruesomely fascinating as this one. But I have a book to revise, a big book, and my publisher has now set a publication date, in October of next year. Which means I can't take my brain off it unless I want to cause some real trouble.
       I have, though, persuaded myself that I'm allowed to write a little bit about the election when I can put in the framework of my book. In my last post I compared the current lunacy to the election of 1828. This time I thought I should tie that up. Because the election of 1828 was the beginning of a vast narrative arc in American history, and I think now we're arriving at the end of that same arc: the age of the white working class. 
       For the first few decades of our republic, voting rights were restricted nearly everywhere to men with property and money. Then, starting mostly in the 1820s, a wave of democratic sentiment pushed state governments to extend the suffrage to nearly all adult white men. Barely over 100,000 Americans voted for presidential candidates or electors in 1820. About 360,000 voted four years later. Over 1.1 million voted in 1828.  
       That changed everything. An elite electorate had chosen a series of Founding Fathers for president, then the aristocratic son of a Founding Father. The voters of 1828 threw out John Quincy Adams and overwhelmingly chose Andrew Jackson, a war hero, a Westerner, and a populist. Ever since, the most powerful group in every American election has been working-class whites. If either political party could win the hearts of most of those voters, it could dominate the nation.



       "Working class" is a messy and poorly defined term, of course, and making too much of it can distort things. Most political scientists these days base the definition on formal education. Income is an unreliable measure, mostly because of the way issues of age throw it off (an Ivy League law student can earn a lot less than a union industrial worker of his own age), so "high school only" vs. "college educated" becomes the easiest way to attempt to isolate most of the things we mean by "class." Those voters aren't necessary industrial workers; in fact, through most of our history, they were overwhelmingly farmers, and now more of them are in service jobs than industry. A better name might be that phrase common in Jackson's era: the "common man."
       Whatever we call them, before World War II they accounted for about 85% of the American electorate. Over the next few decades, two things changed: first, more white people started attending college, leading to changes in occupations, social allegiances, and political agendas; next, the non-white population soared. The proportion of those "working-class" whites had sunk to 65% of voters by 1980. It plummeted to 48%, no longer a majority, only twelve years later. In 2012, it had slid to 37%.
          The Democratic dominance of American politics from 1932 to 1968 was based on those voters. When the Democrats began to lose that demographic in the wake of the Civil Rights years, the Republicans rose, triumphing with the emergence of the blue-collar "Reagan Democrats." It was Bill Clinton's ability to pull most of them back away from the Republicans that enabled him to win in 1992. When George Bush won them back again, the Republicans took back the White House.
       Then, in 2008, Barack Obama won only 40% of no-college white voters but still easily won the election. Four years later he was reelected with only 36%. He still had to fight for those voters: he would have lost some key states, including Ohio, if he hadn't run much closer to Romney there than he had nationally. Still, for the first time, a candidate could lose that constituency and not lose the election.
       This year, what had formerly been one of a whole constellation of demographic, numerical phenomena has become the center of the narrative. Donald Trump has targeted those voters ("I love the poorly educated!") like no candidate since the Great Depression. He's virtually turned the election into a battle between them and everyone else. And he's succeeding with them, usually polling close to 70%. 
       The kind of dominance Trump has among working-class whites would have brought on a landslide victory in the mid-20th century, and even just a few elections ago would have guaranteed a victory. But now he's decidedly trailing in the polls. It looks as though Hillary Clinton is going to be rejected overwhelmingly by the white "common man," and more narrowly by the white "common woman," and yet still become president. 
       I've seen Trump compared to Andrew Jackson many times this past year. I even did it myself, in my last blog post. I think, though, that they aren't so much parallel as complementary. They're bookends. One stands at the beginning of a story, the other at the end.
        Of course, it's still conceivable that Trump could win. This could turn out to be a late rally by the white working class before the rising generation of non-white Americans swamps them, a demographic Battle of the Bulge. But it's far more likely that we're watching a grand pageant, a sort of vast, improvisational theater production, about the end of an era.
       So right now I'm simultaneously revising a book about the beginning of the long dominance of Jackson's "common people" and watching the end of that arc played out dramatically. The election is still distracting as hell when I'm supposed to be working on the book. But it's interesting and moving to see it as a summation of so much of what I'm writing about. (And, anyway, that makes for a great pretext to write political blogs.)


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Has there ever been an election like this before?

My work on the book this week compels me to write about the presidential election. A national turning point, pitting a steady but boring representative of the dominant elite who liked to talk about economic plans and infrastructures against an unpredictable populist running on his questionable achievements outside politics, dodging clear policy statements and harping on the corruption of the system. The ugliest campaign ever, all about mutual character assassinationone candidate called a secretive quasi-aristocrat with ties to the banks who rose to power through family connections and corrupt bargains, the other a hateful, adulterous sleazeball in it for nothing but personal gloryand almost nothing about the issues. Old sex scandals trotted out by the press. And both sides wailing with apocalyptic predictions of national doom: They're going to keep selling the people out to the international banking establishment until we've lost control of our country! He's going to usher in mob rule, violence, and chaos!
       At least in the election I'm writing about there's no suspense to endurewe've known the ending for a long time. The poor old establishment voters really thought they had a chance to win, convinced that the American people would never be stupid enough to give the country to that hot-headed egomaniac with the big, silly-looking hair. But of course it was the candidate with the huge rallies and insanely enthusiastic followers who won in a landslide, thanks mostly to working-class men who'd never voted before. When the returns came in from Ohio and Pennsylvania, the incumbents knew they were finished.
       Welcome to 1828.





Sunday, September 25, 2016

Historian Humor

I found this bouncing around Facebook. Having spent the past three years writing a book on social history in the "Jacksonian Era" (or "Market Revolution Era," depending on your orientation), I found it pretty funny.


Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?


A: There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative historians have concluded that the light never needed changing in the first place, and have praised political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for bringing back the old bulb. Clearly, much additional research remains to be done.



Saturday, September 10, 2016

The First Three Years Are the Hardest

For the last three years I've been involved in the most intense and complicated relationship of my life. My partner is demanding, fragile, inconsistent, often inscrutable, and utterly contrary. But it's all been worth it, because of the passion and joy I feel whenever we're truly in synch, because of how the relationship forces me to grow and change...and because I'm finally beginning to see how beautifully we're coming together. And in the end I believe we'll have created something truly special.
       We're over the hardest part: the rough draft. Now we're in the revisions phase, with the help of a great couple's counselor (although his job title is "editor"). Next comes copyediting, and then, next fall, my beloved and I will finally come out together...from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I never knew a relationship with a book could be this damned hard, but I know that when I get to hold it and gaze at it and kiss it at last, all the tears and yelling will have been worth it. 
       Today I'm celebrating our third anniversary. Oh, we've known each other much longer than that. But three years ago today was when we finally stopped flirting and got serious. It was on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 10th, 2018, that I had the breakthrough that turned a long-frustrating ramble through a wilderness of conflicting ideas into the pursuit of a coherent notion that quickly became the book I'm now revising, Nation of Faith and Flesh. That's when an idea sprang into my head for a sequence that showed me the tone and point of view I should use and effectively opened the door to the whole process of discovering what I should be writing. 
       Here's Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco, noisy, too hip for its own good, but spacious and stimulating, where I was working that day:



       Here's the view I had from my counter in the front window, with the earnestly pondering young folks of Valencia Street and the afternoon sunlight that inspired me:




Here's the very spot on the counter where that breakthrough happened:



       And here's the beginning of what I wrote:



       Those words don't appear in the book. In fact, that character doesn't even appear in the book. I gradually moved the time frame of the book earlier, so it ends right before this passage would have appeared. But following this thread started me on the road that will result, in just about a year, in the publication of this book. Allow me to raise a $4.00 glass of cold-brew coffee in a toast.