1. AC: After COVID
More than any president since Truman, Joe Biden’s administration is going to have a clear delineation between two distinct periods: COVID and After COVID. The difference in America’s economic, social, and political situation that we will see from today to the A.C. period, which will begin roughly in the fall of 2021, will be comparable to the difference between wartime and peacetime.
Because of this, the political contours of the Biden administration will be different than in most presidencies. Usually a new president has, at most, a year to pass big legislation before the parties begin the long march to the midterm elections.
I suspect that will not be the case for Biden. Instead, his administration is laser focused on beating COVID now. If he is successful, then by the fall he could be in a position of political strength and ready to spend that capital on legislation. Biden will be living in a new political reality and will have something close to a reset on his term.
So what will the big post-COVID battles be?
He could try to stand up a public option for healthcare. He could push for big environmental/energy legislation.
But I would not be surprised if the central legislative battle of the A.C. era is voting rights.
The Republican party is a minority party. It has won a national plurality once since 1989, a period of minority status that compares more or less with that of the Democrats following the Civil War.
The Republican party has no prospect for regaining majority status. At some point in the indefinite future, such growth might happen. But it is far enough over the horizon as to be unseeable right now.
Because the Republican party has no way to win a majority, it only has two paths to power:
Gaming the electoral system and leveraging geography—which means deepening the party’s appeal to a narrow (and demographically declining) cohort.
Suppressing votes in order to prevent the majority from exercising its electoral power.
These truths are so obvious that many Republicans no longer even attempt to deny them. They stipulate that in order to have even a chance of winning power, they must decrease the percentage of citizens who cast votes. And you see the party moving to put this into practice legislatively, at the state level, across the country.
Which means that the most important front in the pro-democracy movement will be pushing back against this tide and expanding the zone of voter protections at all levels.
More than healthcare or climate change or unions or abortion or any of the other fights that capture our attention, voting rights will be the most important battle of the A.C. era.
That’s the hand on which, if he is wise, Biden will push all of his chips into the center of the table.
Reminder: Thursday night at 8:00 p.m. I’ll be live on Thursday Night Bulwark.
It’s going to be a great show this week. Will give you a preview of the topic tomorrow . . .
2. Conservatism Is Now Revanchism
“Conservatism” as the term was popularly used for the last 40 years was about a few different things.
(1) There was temperamental conservatism, which was basically the worldview that unintended consequences were dangerous and significant, paired with a belief that however imperfect the present might be, things could always get worse.
(2) There was foreign affairs conservatism, which believed that human rights were important and that it was the job of free peoples to help those who were not free.
(3) There was fiscal conservatism, which believed that smaller government and less regulation in the marketplace would result in more dynamic economic growth.
(4) There was social conservatism, which believed that the rights of freedom, equality, and liberty were all goods, but goods that were often in tension and that balancing these tensions was society’s most important task.
I don’t think you could have watched CPAC last week and found any of those views operational.
“Conservatism” as it is now viewed by the majority of people who identify as conservatives—and who once believed in all or most of those four precepts—is now about one thing and one thing only: Revanchism.
Donald Trump’s speech was a weird, alternate reality. But at the heart of it was the revanchist impulse. These are the two passages that screamed out like klaxons, one from the introduction and one from the conclusion:
“We’ve been doing a lot of winning as we gather this week, we’re in the middle of a historic struggle for America’s future, America’s culture, and America’s institutions, borders, and most cherished principles. Our security, our prosperity, and our very identity as Americans is at stake, like perhaps at no other time. . . .”
“We will go on to victory. We will summon the spirit of generations of American Patriots before us, like those heroes who crossed the Delaware, conquered the Rockies, stormed the beaches, won the battles, and tamed the unknown frontiers. We will persist, and we will prevail. We’re tougher than they are. We’re stronger than they are.”
“Our identity as Americans.” “We are tougher than they are. We are stronger than they are.”
What “identity”? Who is “they”? Why does “strength” matter if this is a contest of ideas?
There is no other way to read this except as revanchism: A minority’s struggle against the current citizenry in an attempt to return to a time when they held power.
This is what happens when a movement realizes it is a permanent minority and gives up on the idea of expanding its coalition through persuasion.
Ideology is a little bit like currency: It is a store of value only to the extent that a lot of people agree on it. You can say you’re “conservative” and use that word to mean a basket of ideas containing A, B, and C—but if the vast majority of everyone else who says they are “conservative” means X, Y, and Z, then they’re right and you’re wrong.
You can still believe in A, B, and C—it just isn’t “conservatism.”
I’m fascinated by the people who think it’s more important to cling to a definition of what the word “conservative” means to them, personally, rather than acknowledging the reality that the world has changed—and then grappling with what that change means going forward.
3. The East Coast Mansons
Just a crazy amazing piece from 1971 about a Boston cult:
Many of the people interviewed for this tale asked not to be identified. Therefore I have changed their names, and in some cases, their appearances and even sexual persuasions. There’s a little bit of the Big Molder in each of us, isn’t there? Let’s call the next fellow Harry Bikes, an overstuffed man with swollen tits who now lives in Cambridge and writes for a major organ of the Establishment. He belonged to one of Mel Lyman’s earliest communities — the hearty band of experimenting dealers and dopers that hung out near Brandeis College in Waltham, Mass.
“I guess it was in the spring of 1963 that Mel showed up on campus,” Bikes remembered. “He was living with a girl a student named Judy Silver. At that time I assumed he was, like, from North Carolina, which he said he was, that he was a simple kind of person. This is how he was coming on — kind of Appalachian, very casual, you know. All he carried around was a simple army jacket with a lot of pockets for his harps. And he had his banjo.
“Later it turned out he wasn’t from North Carolina at all. He was from Oregon or someplace and he’d been to junior college, and he was a lot more sophisticated than he was letting on.”
Bikes sat back expansively in his basement apartment. As he spoke he had a habit of fondling himself, scratching his T-shirted belly or tugging at a tiny black goatee-within-a-goatee that hung from his lower lip.
“We were all living in this house on Hartwell Street, called Hartwell House, and we were all very tripped out. I mean, really, really wasted, totally stoned. Three teaspoons of morning glory seeds is roughly equivalent to 500 micrograms of LSD, a very strong trip. I remember I painted the living room with a nine-foot-high yin-yang, and the thing would roll out at me like a ball of fire, then turn around and recede until it was a pinpoint and I thought it was going to disappear in the wall. That’s how tripped out we were.
“We got caught up in Leary’s thing and got very spaced out, and something very weird happened to Mel. Like he would say to people, he’d give them acid or morning glory seeds, and he’d say, ‘Get stoned, wait five hours, then come talk to me,’ that kind of thing. There were a lot of subtle little power relationships.”
“He had a kind of insidious way of getting into people. He had a tremendous understanding of character, and he knew how to extract pain. Mel was very big on pain and suffering and loyalty, you know?