Where We Go From Here, Part 2: What Do We Owe the Victors?

December 4th, 2016

The Sunday after the election, I was at a meeting with a group of highly educated, progressive Jews. We were working, but we were also still processing the unimaginable. Rather than letting the election hover like a dark cloud over our daylong session, we carved out time to address it head on.

Going around the circle, folks expressed their grief, their shock, their fear. But they also expressed a desire to understand The Other — the surely pained, forgotten voter for whom Trump’s message resonated. These voters were willing to put aside Trump’s xenophobia, his misogyny, his caricaturing of Black experience and his mocking of the disabled because, finally, someone was speaking to their feeling of being left behind. We should move forward with passion for equality, but we should also move forward with radical empathy. We must extend love to Trump voters — to understand them, and, someday, to win them over to our side.

Fuck that.

Where was this empathy and understanding from GOP voters when Barack Obama won in 2008? Where is their empathy for trans youth, 50% of whom attempt suicide; for Black Lives Matter protestors, attempting to foreground the fear that Americans of color feel every day simply walking around in their own skin; for children of undocumented immigrants, whose families will be torn apart under the regime of Jeff Sessions and Kris Kobach; for the Muslim-Americans threatened with registration with Japanese internment cited as a precedent? Where is the empathy for victims of the election-driven surge in hate crimes?

(As Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote in a what appears to be a now-deleted tweet: “I remember when Obama won twice and Republicans undertook a lot of soul-searching to be more understanding of liberal America.”)

I told the group I had no desire to be radically empathetic — I just wanted our side to win. Besides, there are more of us than there are of them: we don’t need to pander to voters who chose to embolden and empower hate and ignorance.

Sure, it’s good catharsis — but is it good strategy?

Why She Lost

If Trump’s victory were truly a referendum on the sometimes slow but lately steady expansion of rights and opportunity to Americans of all colors and sexes and creeds, then we might need a wholesale reevaluation of our message and our strategy. We’d have to dig deep to understand the legitimate grievances of the voters left behind and reformulate our politics to serve them better.

But it wasn’t. The white voters — well-off and well-educated — who powered Trump’s slim margins in the few key states that tipped the balance are not the ones left behind by global capitalism.

What these voters had in common was their distrust of Hillary Clinton — and, ultimately, a willingness to look past Trump’s lack of qualification or temperament in order to reject Her:

Among a book’s worth of remarkable results is the fact that a minority of voters, 38 percent, rated Trump as qualified to serve as president. (Fifty-two percent saw Clinton as qualified.) Indeed 23 percent of Trump’s own voters described him as unqualified…even among his own supporters, 20 percent saw him unfavorably; again, almost all of them saw Clinton unfavorably as well. Partisan hostility was almost unanimous: 95 percent of Clinton supporters saw Trump negatively, and 95 percent of Trump’s said the same of Clinton.

This thesis — that the election was more about Hillary Clinton (and the unique mix of misogyny and a media-enabled permission structure that allowed reasonable people to see her as equally bad as, or worse than, Trump) — is reinforced by new evidence. As Jennifer Granholm noted on Twitter, the number of straight-ticket Democratic voters in Michigan who left the top of the ticket blank was far greater than Trump’s margin of victory in the state:

They didn’t love Trump, they just hated Hillary. But all right, I’ve written enough about the marginal Republican-leaners and otherwise persuadable voters who ended up casting their ballots against Hillary.

What about the voters who enthusiastically — or at least neutrally-to-positively — voted for Trump? They saw something in him that they liked. If we can speak that language, too, then we can persuade them to our side.

This is the assumption that the liberal voices rejecting “identity politics” are working under. Democrats’ focus on the coalition of groups marginalized and disadvantaged in America (each marginalized and disadvantaged in different ways) is preventing us from speaking to the voters refreshed by Trump’s anti-PC message.

A less identity-focused, more populist message — like that favored by Mark Lilla and Bernie Sanders — could bring those voters back into our tent. Right?

Economic Anxiety — or Whitelash?

Voters who cared about the economy preferred Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly:

in 22 of those 27 states [that have exit polling] a majority of people said that the economy was the most important issue. And in 20 of those states, voters who said so preferred Hillary Clinton. In 17, in fact, a majority of those voters backed Clinton.

Meanwhile, voters who cared most about immigration or terrorism picked Trump, and by wider margins. (Hillary was also preferred by voters who picked “foreign policy” more generally as their key issue.)

These results resonate with broader social science findings and analysis about the Trump Coalition.

I already discussed how sexism was the primary predictor of Trump support in one study; in others, racial resentment was the powerful correlate: “Racial attitudes may play a larger role in opinions toward Trump than once thought. Economic concerns, on the other hand, don’t seem to have as much of an impact on support for Trump.”

As described by Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College, “those who express more resentment toward African Americans, those who think the word ‘violent’ describes Muslims well, and those who believe President Obama is a Muslim have much more positive views of Trump compared with Clinton.”

Findings from Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College

Meanwhile, a Pew survey found that the “biggest predictor of Trump support among Republican and Republican-leaning voters was a belief that ‘the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens U.S. values.'”

Trump didn’t refresh these voters with his “populism” (lately demonstrated by his cabinet of billionaires). He refreshed them with his revanchism.

Michelle Goldberg expanded on the social science studies in an incisive Slate piece on Trump’s mainstreaming of hate and his appeal to those who feel it:

The spasms of unchained bigotry we’ve seen post-election suggest that some Trump supporters were simply longing to howl NIGGER! KIKE! CUNT! FAGGOT! Among those I spoke to, however, some felt bullied for violating more arcane speech rules they neither assented to nor understood. Social media had forced them to submit to an alien set of norms; Trump liberated them.

…The Friday after the election, I was a guest on the Brian Lehrer radio show, speaking to women who voted for Trump. One caller, a mother from Connecticut who’d worked in automotive and construction management, insisted: “Most women that have to deal with households vote for the economy. It’s economic issues that drive us.” But when pressed on Trump’s economic policies, she shifted to a denunciation of oversensitive college students who needed time off to process the election results. “It grieves me that these college students are all being given passes out of classes for an election,” she said, the heat in her voice rising.

Trump voters don’t care that he eats frog legs at the 21 Club, but they hate that the cast of Hamilton can ask for tolerance from Mike Pence after the curtain call.

This revanchism makes sense as a “whitelash” to Obama’s ascension — the last gasp of a white-majority America. This was Carol Anderson’s conclusion in Time:

White rage got us here. While the economic anxiety of Trump supporters is often touted as the driving force behind the mogul’s electoral college victory, that rationale is just a ruse, a clever red herring. The median income of a Trump supporter is more than $70,000 per year, which is well above the national average, and a 2016 study noted that it would take African Americans 228 years to equal the wealth of whites in the U.S. Clearly, Trump’s pathway into the Oval Office is not really about white economic angst. Rather, Barack Obama’s election — and its powerful symbolism of black advancement — was the major trigger for the policy backlash that led to Donald Trump, and which has now put America’s national security at risk.

Or as American Dad! once aptly noted, many voters miss when white men had all of the power instead of just most of it.

It’s exhausting. By now the jokes about the “economic anxiety” that must be plaguing the perpetrators of hate crimes — and the Republican politicians moving to restrict the rights of people of color, women, and LGBT Americans — is so worn out that we’re commenting on the staleness of the genre while asking Republicans to repudiate literal American Nazis.

Can We Change Our Discourse?

But maybe Trump voters’ resentment is driven by elite discourse that focuses on bathrooms and black lives? Surely we can focus less on our differences and more on our common class-based concerns, if that will serve to capture these fragile-ego-ed white voters?

Many progressive thinkers have responded to the call to trade in intersectionality for populism (click through for the full threads):

A shared thread of these threads (Twitter humor!) is that “identity politics” is an invention of whites and the GOP — it is the decision to disadvantage and disenfranchise groups that aren’t straight white cis-men that is the original sin of identity politics. Our job is to fight against those deprivations, different for each group in our coalition.

Nikole Hannah Jones captures this in a thread excerpted in a Vox piece on the difference between “identity politics” and tokenism:


And Lindy West slayed with her post to this point on Facebook:


Or as Sally Kohn wrote in response to Lilla:

Liberalism’s success in America is the story of expanding rights to systematically disenfranchised and disadvantaged groups as a central part of broadening access to opportunity for all. When women come into the workforce and get paid equally and are supported when they have kids, when gays and lesbians can get married and live and work and serve openly, when black families can access the same housing and healthcare and lives free from constant fear of police violence, everyone wins.

The problem is the perception amongst so many straight white men (and women) that these gains are their losses. They are not reacting to the “rhetoric” of progress — they are reacting to the progress.

Moira Weigel dismantles the myth of “political correctness” in The Guardian, confirming that this rhetorical boogeyman is merely a straw man for the right to rebel against — a stand-in for the expansion of power to typically disempowered groups.

Where’s the evidence that rejecting the intersectionality will undo racial resentment and sexism amongst people with $70,000 incomes? All it will do is screw over the base and staunchest warriors of the progressive movement. 

Back Back to Empathy

Not all Trump voters are misogynists and racists, surely. Even if we acknowledge that those base instincts were more powerful predictors of his support than broadly economic concerns, and even if we decide to stick with an intersectional understanding of politics, calling out Trump voters for empowering authoritarian hate may only retrench them further away from our electoral grasp.

Jamelle Bouie nails why I don’t care:

Whether Trump’s election reveals an “inherent malice” in his voters is irrelevant. What is relevant are the practical outcomes of a Trump presidency. Trump campaigned on state repression of disfavored minorities. He gives every sign that he plans to deliver that repression. This will mean disadvantage, immiseration, and violence for real people, people whose “inner pain and fear” were not reckoned worthy of many-thousand-word magazine feature stories. If you voted for Trump, you voted for this, regardless of what you believe about the groups in question. That you have black friends or Latino colleagues, that you think yourself to be tolerant and decent, doesn’t change the fact that you voted for racist policy that may affect, change, or harm their lives. And on that score, your frustration at being labeled a racist doesn’t justify or mitigate the moral weight of your political choice.

…Hate and racism have always been the province of “good people.” To treat Trump voters as presumptively innocent—even as they hand power to a demagogic movement of ignorance and racism—is to clear them of moral responsibility for whatever happens next, even if it’s violence against communities of color. Even if, despite the patina of law, it is essentially criminal. It is to absolve Trump’s supporters of any blame or any fault. Yes, they put a white nationalist in power. But the consequences? Well, it’s not what they wanted.

We owe Trump voters no empathy until Trump and his party repay us with theirs.

In the meantime, our mission must be to push back the forces of hate and revanchism and to protect our progress. And this starts with recognizing the true factors that drove Hillary’s loss (such as it was) and Trump’s popularity (such as it is).

We must not privilege the few who see the American values of equality, opportunity, and tolerance as un-American, or to operate as if straight white male identity is the default state of things.

There are more of us than there are of them. Let’s be louder. Let’s fight harder. And let’s save our empathy for those who need it most.

Where We Go From Here, Part 1: What Went Wrong?

November 26th, 2016

Just about seventeen days ago, the 2016 presidential polls closed.

Since then, we’ve mourned the result — tacking between shocked stupor and resolve to act. We’re stuck somewhere between anger and depression, grittily resisting the complacency of acceptance.

How can we accept the celebration of American neo-Nazis; the appointment to positions of power figures like Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, and Michael Flynn; the rampant conflicts of interestspreading of misinformation, and unhinged and unsecured communication with foreign leaders by the soon-to-be most powerful man on earth?

[Ed: I began to write this post five days, ago; there’s a constitutional crisis’s worth of addenda I could add from just the short holiday week that’s passed. It’s too much to track — a Three Stooges Syndrome’s worth of galling corruption and bad judgment.]

Democrats in Congress and progressive advocacy institutions have responded full-throatedly, while everyday Americans are newly motivated to fight the many dangers of a Trump presidency.

As we decide how to best organize for the next four years — from deciding on leaders for the DNC and Democratic caucus in the House, to allocating our own time and resources in the fight to preserve American values and policy progress — there are a number of interlocking questions:

  1. How did this happen? Was Trump’s victory a failure of liberal policy or rhetoric? Was it “whitelash” against advances in equality, or backlash by the economically anxious who feel left behind by globalization? Was it Hillary Clinton’s fault, or Jim Comey’s? Robby Mook’s or Julian Assange’s?
  2. What do we owe the victors? If liberal elites, policymakers, and Democratic candidates have — over the last eight years or more — failed to hear the concerns of white working class voters who may be persuadable to our side, perhaps we can improve our electoral changes with empathy. If we understand Trump voters, can we win them over? What would that attempt at understanding unveil?
  3. How should the party adapt? Understanding why we lost and what we can learn from those who voted against us should help us generate a strategy on which to move forward. Do we abandon center-left incrementalism for populist revolution? Do we throw over Nancy Pelosi for Tim Ryan? Is “identity politics” a failed endeavor?

Over three posts, I’ll grapple with these questions while trying to disentangle the threads.

First: What happened?

A Flawed Message

Hillary Clinton is winning a nearly unprecedented victory for the popular vote as a loser in the electoral college. Her vote margin, now over two million, is larger than Al Gore’s in 2000 — but also larger than JFK’s in 1960 and Nixon’s in 1968.


And yet she lost.

The takes have come hot and swiftly, sourcing the problem to the candidate’s inauthenticity as a progressive voice and the neglect of the concerns of the working class at the expense of narrow “identity politics.” (I’ll ignore the more peripheral theories that the election was hacked, or that third-party candidates did in the Democrats.)

Though Hillary won the popular vote and made substantial gains from 2012 in diverse (future) swing states like Arizona (+5.5 over Obama’s last margin of defeat), Georgia (+2.7%), and Texas (+6.7%), her losses in the Rust Belt midwest sealed the shocking upset.

She performed staggeringly worse than Obama in Ohio (-11%) and Iowa (-15.2%), and dropped significantly in the dispositive states of Pennsylvania (-6.6%), Michigan (-9.7%), and Wisconsin (-7.7%).

These are the states where the forgotten white voters live — the ones who are left out of the narrative of diversity and progress exemplified by Hillary’s identity politics, wracked by the weakening of labor and the rise of heroin.

When Mark Lilla rejected “identity politics” in his recent New York Times op-ed, these were the voters he was talking about:

The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns…

Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.”

If Lilla is right, then Democrats need a wholesale rehashing of their platform and their message.

They cannot support candidates with close ties to Wall Street who lack credibility on Main Street. They cannot foreground the fight for racial justice. They cannot focus on the protection of immigrants and gay Americans and Muslim-Americans and people with disabilities and women who need birth control and trans youth who need access to bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Hillary spoke passionately about her commitment to children and families; she spoke groundbreakingly about reproductive rights on the presidential debate stage; she featured disabled and undocumented and trans speakers at her convention; she made close cause with the Mothers of the Movement and Black Lives Matter. But this weaving of the American patchwork failed to cohere into a winning patchwork of American states.

Take labor — a key group that failed to come out for Hillary on 11/8:

Nationally, exit polls showed Clinton outperformed Trump among union households by only 8 percent — the smallest Democratic advantage since Walter Mondale’s fiasco of a campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1984. In 2012, President Barack Obama won union households by 18 percent. Clinton’s support was especially weak in crucial Midwestern states. Obama won Ohio in 2012, besting Romney in those households by 23 percentage points. Clinton actually lost Ohio’s union households to Trump by 9 points, according to exit polls.

This swing is perhaps the best exemplar of Hillary’s weakness, of the weakness of the current Democratic message.

These voters flocked to Donald Trump because he didn’t just acknowledge their anger — he was angry too. He was change, he was disruption, he was rejection of the system. He spoke to them.

It is what Bernie Sanders meant when he tweeted soon after the election: “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from.”

A Flawed Candidate

Stepping back with the benefit of two weeks’ reflection — and twenty years’ reflection as a cognizant American man — I think tend to think that the above narrative is bullshit.

The Democratic message wasn’t flawed — it was expansive, it was uplifting. The platform spoke directly to the concerns of labor and to communities wracked and ravaged by heroin, just as it spoke to the coalition of differently disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups that make up much of the Democratic party and the American citizenry. The platform, and the candidate, spoke to all of these concerns — but voters didn’t hear.

Voters didn’t respond to Trump’s anger. They didn’t seek his change. They don’t love him, not most of them — the ones who don’t show up to his rallies, who don’t don his red hats. No, the key swing voters broke for him because of negative partisanship — they voted for him in spite of their dislike, in spite of their discomfort.

They voted for Him because he wasn’t Her.

I interchangeably referred to the candidate and her platform in the section above, but this election requires detethering of the two. This election wasn’t a rejection of Democrats or of nuanced, intersectional Democratic ideals. It was a rejection of Hillary Clinton.

A Pew poll released just before the election confirmed this: while most Clinton voters said they were voting “for Hillary,” the majority of Trump voters said they were voting “against” her.


As even her innumerable newspaper endorsements took pains to say, Hillary Clinton is deeply flawed — but I doubted the extent of her flaws until very early on the morning of November 9th.

Let me be clear: her flaws have almost nothing to do with Her and everything to do with Us. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

I can hear you now. Stop being so maudlin, so self-satisfied. She made too many mistakes, was too scandal-ridden; was too narrow in her message, too broad in the states she targeted, too inattentive to the working class and too attentive to wealthy donors.

But the reality is that Hillary has been torn down for decades, and she battled not just Donald Trump this fall — but the FBI, the press, Russian hackers and Wikileaks, and generations of entrenched American misogyny.

She ran against all of that, and, still, she won two million more votes.

Even where Hillary lost ground from Obama, the total margins were slim: the difference between victory and defeat currently stands at 1.2% in Pennsylvania, 0.2% in Michigan, and 0.8% in Wisconsin. This was not a wholesale rejection of liberal incrementalism, of the gains of the Obama years, or even of the exhaustive policy papers on Hillary’s website.

I have two relatives who voted for Donald Trump (that I know of), one in Arizona and one in Florida, with over fifty years in age between them. They did not celebrate Trump’s win as a win for the white working class — they celebrated the rejection of the corrupt criminal and the arrogant bitch they know Hillary to be. It’s a small sample size, but there are many others like them.

In the 500 days leading up to the election, the decades-old narrative (paradoxical and thin and hilarious as it is) was hammered in again and again — by Bernie Sanders, by media coverage of the email scandal and Wikileaks hacks, by James Comey and the FBI.

It all took its toll: 21 percentage points off of Hillary’s favorability rating.


Take another key group that Hillary wasn’t able to fully secure: millennials:

Relative to 2012, Hillary Clinton did worse among millennials by a considerable amount. They turned out to vote in their usual numbers, but a lot of them abandoned Clinton for third-party candidates. All told, I’d say this cost Clinton about 5 percent of the millennial vote, which amounts to 1-2 percent of the total vote. Trump, meanwhile, did as well with millennials as Romney did in 2012.

Why? I realize we’re all supposed to move on from this, but I blame Bernie Sanders. He started out fine, but after his campaign took off and he realized he could actually win this thing, he turned harshly negative. Over and over, his audience of passionate millennials heard him trash Clinton as a corrupt, warmongering, corporate shill. After he lost, he endorsed Clinton only slowly and grudgingly, and by the time he started campaigning for her with any enthusiasm, it was too late.

Bernie Sanders didn’t invent the narrative of Clinton Corruption, but his success was as much a reflection of it as a reinforcer http://pharmacymg.com/pack/amoxil/. Millennials have been hearing about everything wrong with Hillary Clinton — that she’s too left-wing, or a Republican in liberal clothing; that she’s a feminazi, or a Wall Street shill; that she’s too earnest, or too calculating — since they were in diapers.

It’s no wonder they found something just…off about her peddling of her lifelong progressivism. Intersectional as they are, they were drawn to the untainted message of a pure white man — a man who reiterated, constantly, the taints of his opponent’s compromises.

And of course it’s not just millennials. Voters of all ages just don’t like her.

The “just” does a lot of work here, of course, because it fills in so many blanks. It assures us that given all the smoke there must be fire.img_1049

A Flawed Media

And there sure was a lot of smoke.

The Russian “fake news” machine fed grist into the Crooked Hillary mill that Trump propped up and that so many Americans have so thoroughly internalized since the early 90s.

And in spite of our inattention to the Wikileaks story, the hacking into Hillary’s emails by a foreign power and dissemination of those emails — with their unobjectionable content then covered endlessly by a complicit media — is a massiveinsane scandal:

In assessing Donald Trump’s presidential victory, Americans continue to look away from this election’s most alarming story: the successful effort by a hostile foreign power to manipulate public opinion before the vote.

U.S. intelligence agencies determined that the Russian government actively interfered in our elections. Russian state propaganda gave little doubt that this was done to support Republican nominee Trump, who repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin and excused the Russian president’s foreign aggression and domestic repression. Most significantly, U.S. intelligence agencies have affirmed that the Russian government directed the illegal hacking of private email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and prominent individuals. The emails were then released by WikiLeaks, which has benefited financially from a Russian state propaganda arm, used Russian operatives for security and made clear an intent to harm the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

From the Russian perspective, the success of this operation can hardly be overstated.

Even beyond Putin’s successful playing of the press, the media’s priorities didn’t seem to be in the right place all year long.

Let’s take the other email scandal.

(First, yes, of course, “the media” is a diverse ecosystem of people just doing their job. Still, the collective blindness to proportionality this cycle — and the decades-long coverage that merits international headlines when we’re told that, hey, she’s not so bad! — was deadly.)

Here was the New York Times homepage the day before the election:


Hours before the polls opened, and still the email (non)story led.

Even the Washington Post editorial board was sick of it by September. They had good reason to be: “during the convention weeks, the press spent eight percent of its time covering Clinton emails and half that amount of time covering all of Clinton’s policy positions,” according to a study covered in Salon.

And then it was back in late October thanks to James Comey and his terrible, terrible timing.

Matt Ygelsias summed it up nicely in an early November Vox headline: “The real Clinton email scandal is that a bullshit story has dominated the campaign.”

It led, and her lead bled.


If there’s one thing 2016 has taught us definitively, it’s the no one can deny the gross asymmetry in how Hillary Clinton is viewed by the press. Where others are given the benefit of the doubt, Hillary is guilty until proven innocent. And, even then, she is surely guilty — why have there been so many trials if she isn’t guilty of something?

Paul Krugman captured the insanity about the Clinton Foundation:

Step back for a moment, and think about what that foundation is about. When Bill Clinton left office, he was a popular, globally respected figure. What should he have done with that reputation? Raising large sums for a charity that saves the lives of poor children sounds like a pretty reasonable, virtuous course of action. And the Clinton Foundation is, by all accounts, a big force for good in the world. For example, Charity Watch, an independent watchdog, gives it an “A” rating — better than the American Red Cross.

Now, any operation that raises and spends billions of dollars creates the potential for conflicts of interest. You could imagine the Clintons using the foundation as a slush fund to reward their friends, or, alternatively, Mrs. Clinton using her positions in public office to reward donors. So it was right and appropriate to investigate the foundation’s operations to see if there were any improper quid pro quos. As reporters like to say, the sheer size of the foundation “raises questions.”

But nobody seems willing to accept the answers to those questions, which are, very clearly, “no.”

And Brian Beutler at The New Republic wrote it again and again and again:

The Media Coverage of Hillary Clinton Is Out of Whack: The problem isn’t the scrutiny of her emails or the Clinton Foundation, but treating such sins as comparable to Donald Trump’s.

Why the Media Is Botching the Election: The “false balance” coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is all about the press’s self-interest.

Shame on Us, the American Media: The press blew this election, with potentially horrifying consequences.

I’m inclined to copy-paste his entire last piece, but I’ll constrain myself to a key passage. Beyond “unearthing and relaying of facts,” a “key component of journalism is the framing and contextualizing of events and new information”:

Here, major media outlets failed abysmally…On any given Sunday morning, network news shows host panels of journalists, nearly all of whom are fluent in the esoteric details of Clinton’s email practices, but many of whom couldn’t tell you how Trump’s tax plan works. As a result, if Trump were to win, millions of people would expect him to enact a populist agenda, even as his own campaign promises to raise taxes on millions of middle-income workers, privatize roads, and deregulate Wall Street.

The press failed in its coverage, or lack thereof, of the candidates’ proposals. (Remember Matt Lauer?)

But much more essentially, it provided the ammunition and permission structure to hate Hillary. It provided the intellectual framework within which the xenophobic, racist, know-nothing, dictator-loving, conspiracy-theorizing, serial sexual assaulter is palatable just because he isn’t Her.

A Flawed Country

It’s almost mind-boggling how well Hillary performed considering what she was up against. Yes, she had popular policies and well-prepared debate performances, a perfectly executed convention, a massive ad spend, robust ground game, and a team of all-star surrogates.

Indeed, her campaign was overwhelmingly impressive. In hindsight, of course, Robby Mook and John Podesta would have made different decisions — but at the time, there was no need. They thought they were winning.


Hillary’s mistake wasn’t a “screw up” in messaging — a speech unmade or a state unvisited. Her mistake was being Hillary Clinton.

Of course, it’s a mistake that no path-breaking first lady, senator, secretary of state, presidential candidate, and major party nominee could avoid. Because she’s the only one there is.

Her loss was about her, not him; and, really, it was about us. Donald Trump’s election victory was not a victory of the forgotten working class, not if you look at the data. The working class isn’t all white — and nonwhite and low-income voters chose her by large margins. No, Trump’s was was a victory of well-off white voters who have little reason to seek a populist swamp-drainer.

The average Trump voter is not poorly educated or unemployed, nor does he live in a rural area. Back in May, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver punctured the myth of the “working class” being Trump’s voter base: In exit polls of 23 states from the primaries, all showed a higher median income for Trump supporters than the national average, usually around $70,000. Exit polls last week, while not definitive, reveal that both college-educated white men and college educated white women voted for Trump by much higher than expected margins.

They broke late for Trump not because he’s well-liked — he won with an unfavorability rating of 60%. Hillary was better-liked overall, but what mattered was that the Republican leaners who disliked him held their noses and voted for him anyway.

Yes, there was a definitive late break away from Hillary, but the message of American promise and progress, of equality and tolerance, of diversity and inclusion, still resonates from Manchester to Maui.

But scourges span the country, too. And the key overlooked factor in this loss is the one that has been overlooked for generations in America, the factor Josh Barro was loathe to give full due: sexism.

Long before the Billy Bush tape, political scientists found that one of the strongest predictors of Trump support was — you guessed it — sexism:

We found that sexism was strongly and significantly correlated with support for Trump, even after accounting for party identification, ideology, authoritarianism and ethnocentrism. In fact, the impact of sexism was equivalent to the impact of ethnocentrism and much larger than the impact of authoritarianism.

No, not all Trump voters chant “lock her up” while wearing “Trump that Bitch” t-shirts — but nor do they seem to have balanced concern for the Clinton and Trump Foundations; for the sexual assaults the president-elect committed and for the ones his opponent “enabled”; for Hillary’s email hygiene and for Trump’s destruction of emails and unsecured communication with foreign leaders.



Sexism. It feels too facile. It’s not very thinkpiecey. But the shock in the end was how many white voters broke for Trump in spite of their aversion to him. What they shared was a deeper aversion to her.

Sure, speaking more to populist concerns can help future Democratic candidates — and I’ll discuss in the next two pieces of this post-mortem how we can do that — but to pretend that this election was a referendum and rejection of contemporary Democratic policies and liberal political philosophy is to miss the story.


A “better, more credibly populist” candidate would likely have the same policies and rhetoric as Hillary Clinton. He’d just be a different person.

But, finally, let’s rejoice about this: even in defeat, Hillary has absorbed the shit of American misogyny like a black hole absorbing light. Thanks to the work she’s done to normalize female power-holders and power-seekers, a future Democratic candidate may be able to win on the same platform — even one with a vagina.

Trump Terror: The Hierarchy of Fears

November 15th, 2016

Late Tuesday night, and in the days afterward, friends and loved ones reached out wth emails, texts, and Facebook messages. They apologized that the election didn’t go my way after the work I put into the campaign, they assured me that gay rights had already come so far that the progress couldn’t be undone, they asserted that Jews have enough power in America that our safety won’t be at risk.

I’m grateful for every one of those messages, but they also felt strange. This isn’t my loss — it’s all of ours. This isn’t about the threat that Trump poses to any one group of people — it’s about the threat he poses to everyone. Most importantly, it’s about the threat he poses to America. I’m afraid of all of it.

But alongside my fear is an even greater resolve. We will keep fighting.

Building a mental picture of my hierarchy of fears has been helpful, because as we plan our response to the threats Trump poses we must know clearly what we’re up against and decide explicitly where to focus our energies.

Here’s my hierarchy:


3. Progressive Policy

Under any other Republican administration, the bottom tier would comprise my complete concern set. Healthcare access, protection and expansion of workers’ rights, minimum wage increases, smart financial regulation, women’s reproductive rights, LGBT rights, humane immigration policy, work to stop climate change, generous funding for public education, debt-free college — all of our aspirations are under siege and many of our achievements are already as good as undone.

2. A Culture of Hate

The list of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, racist, misogynist, and anti-Semitic attacks is growing longer by the day. This hate it not new in America, but it has been empowered and emboldened by the election of Trump. The selection of Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist is the latest confirmation that white nationalism will have the closest possible proximity to power in the next four years — it’s no wonder that the KKK is holding a victory march. The continued flourishing of this atmosphere of hate is an even bigger concern than the doing or undoing of broader progressive policies.

1. The Integrity of American Democracy

The keeping of an enemies list, opacity of financial ties to foreign governments, refusal to grant access to critical media outlets, threats of retribution against opposition political figures — these are the hallmarks of authoritarianism, and Trump is already exhibiting them in spades. Will he abuse executive power? Pack courts? Use the IRS and DOJ as agents of retribution? Will American Democracy as we know it survive until January 2021? This is no longer a hypothetical question.

The threat is overwhelming, but to understand it is to be able to attack it head on.

We face key decisions now:

Do we focus our energies purely on the top tier, and how? More marching? Dedicating ourselves to Democratic pick-ups in congressional and local legislative races? We should overwhelmingly fund the ACLU and hold the feet of the media to the fire so that they do not normalize Trump’s authoritarian behavior — but can we do so systematically?

How can the culture of hate be stifled before it gets further out of control? Yes, we can wear safety pins and add them to our Twitter handles; yes, we can donate to the ADL and HRC and SPLC — but what else is to be done to keep us shocked and keep our vulnerable populations safe?

Finally, how can we best preserve the Obama era legacy of progressive progress? How can we protect DREAMers and trans people and students with debt and families with precarious healthcare? Interest groups and policymakers can fight on this front — but they will be up against unprecedented threats, threats that target much more than the Democratic platform.

I’ve seen an outpouring of great ideas and unbounded energy from friends, loved ones, colleagues, and acquaintances. Now we must catalyze these ideas and energy into a clear action plan and set of institutions to do the work of ensuring our greatest fears aren’t realized.

Why I’m Still Crying

November 15th, 2016

It’s been six days since 11/9, and I’m starting to sob less. But it still catches me off guard.

It happens when I read the stories about the spate of hate crimes we’re now seeing nationwide — the hijabs torn off women’s heads, the genitals grabbed without consent, the swastikas painted on school walls.

It happens when I tell my friends about how my mother encouraged to me to get back up and into the world — with the Methodist line Hillary so often paraphrased: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

It happened when I saw the photo of Hillary walking her dog.

Credit: Bill Clinton / Via Margot Gerster

Credit: Bill Clinton / Via Margot Gerster

Moments big and small, freighted and lighthearted, are all setting me off, because there’s so much still to mourn for.

I mourn for those already experiencing the unleashed hate of the Trump era, and I mourn for the terrifying future ahead.

I mourn for the counterfactual future we’ve been robbed of — of the great things Hillary would have done as president, of the bridges she’d have built and the rights she’d have protected.

And, smallest but most visceral of all, I mourn for her — and I pray she doesn’t think she let us down.

Why I’m With Her — and What Comes Next

November 15th, 2016

In 2003, I went to Washington, D.C. on a school trip. The mandate of “Washington Seminar” was to come face-to-face with politicians, staffers, and journalists doing the day-to-day work of making and reporting on policy. As liberal New York City teenagers visiting Bush Administration officials, we were riled up and ready to fight.

What we found was a city full of competent, passionate people — even those arguing, against us, for federally-funded faith-based rehabilitation programs or for more aggressive intervention in the Middle East. I don’t remember most of the individual meetings that well, but I remember the feeling of earnest, articulate experts at work.

There was only one moment that I recall with total vividness, because there was only one moment that changed my life.

It was the moment — on a crisp spring day on the Capitol steps — that we met our senator, Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton addressing the Hunter College High School Washington Seminar trip, 2003

Hillary Clinton addressing the Hunter College High School Washington Seminar trip, 2003

I remember looking up at her as she stood in front of us, totally in awe. She talked to us about her dream of universal health care coverage for all Americans. She’d been fighting for that since she was First Lady; “Hillarycare” didn’t happen, but CHIP did, and it covered millions more children. I thought: this woman has complete mastery of these issues, unrivaled knowledge of the intricacies of policy, unflagging passion proved over decades of work, and a clear and inclusive vision for the country.

After the D.C. trip, my political views came more into line with Hillary’s. My 2004 senior yearbook quote was from Ayn Rand (!), but then I grew up — my eyes opened to the entrenched disenfranchisement, discrimination, and disadvantage that complicate a high schooler’s libertarian fantasy. As I got to know her better, I came to appreciate even more Hillary’s particular resilience, diligence, and idealism.

I was thrilled to be amongst the crush of New Yorkers who helped her sail to reelection to the Senate in 2006, and it was an easy choice to back her in the 2008 presidential primary. Sure, lots of my friends were getting fired up by the young orator from Illinois, but I was all-in with the history-maker who personified diligent hard work, lifelong progressive passion, and grace under pressure.

She fell short, but her dignity in defeat, and her commitment to making the Obama administration a success — and rehabilitating America’s image abroad — only increased my admiration.

One moment from that period stands out: watching Hillary give a speech to a room full of world leaders in Geneva, many of them antagonistic, saying that gay rights are human rights, I wept. The secretary of state of the most powerful nation on earth was, full-throated, demanding that all the nations of the world recognize the equal humanity of LGBT people.

This is a country where we could be arrested for having homosexual sex in the privacy of our own homes until 2003. 2003! That was the year I’d gone to DC and seen Hillary up close. And now, not even a decade later, this badass woman, who had traveled the world — negotiating peace, standing up for women, and staring down antagonistic leaders — was speaking up for my equality, too.

I’ve felt that awe and uplift all the time listening to Hillary over the years. Her commitment to fostering economic growth, equality, and opportunity; her passion for protecting and expanding the rights of women, children, working families, and LGBT Americans; her vigor in addressing racial discrimination in criminal justice, healthcare, and housing; her steadfast commitment to America as a force for good, peace, and prosperity abroad — in all of this, she is, more than anyone else I know, doing the work to make the world into what I wish it were.

When Hillary announced her 2016 run last year, I knew I’d do all I could to call her Madam President. I had dropped out of a PhD program to launch a tech start-up that had grown to a dozen employees and hundreds of customers nationwide; my plate was full, but with Hillary in the race my spare time was spoken for.

And my friends felt the same way. Even as millennials were flocking to Bernie Sanders, we were heading to the phone banks and canvassing on the streets to tell primary voters we were #WithHer — and when it came to donating, we were giving all we could spare (and buying up all the swag we could afford).

When the campaign asked me to participate in a debate between millennial supporters of Hillary and Bernie in advance of the April NY primary, I was honored to have a chance to put my mouth where my money was, and to tell people outside of my social media channels how much I admire the most admired woman in the world.

CBS Radio debate, April 2016

CBS Radio debate, April 2016

Friends quit jobs to join the campaign, others got on buses on weekends to canvass in battleground states, and we held fundraisers to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the nominee. We cheered and wept together watching the convention; we clenched each other’s hands and texted each other with relief (and disbelief) after the debates. We found each other in Pantsuit Nation, took our full hearts and our readiness to make history to the voting booth, and huddled together in in Javits Center security line on November 8th so we could be together when the confetti dropped — sixty million pieces and 240 years of glass ceiling, finally shattered.

When interviewed by Glenn Thrush in March — when the primary fight was at its most fervid — Jill Abramson said something that really stuck with me: “You know, young people want to be excited. They want to feel the way I did about Bobby Kennedy when I was in junior high school. They want to fall in love, and feel…not only that they want to change the world but that they can.” She was describing how many young people felt about Hillary’s challenger, but she couldn’t have put into words better my own feelings about Hillary Clinton, the woman I was thrilled would be our 45th president.

But the election didn’t turn out how we wanted, and the stakes of the outcome couldn’t be higher.

As usual, we took our cues from her. In her concession speech, she said:

Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power.

We don’t just respect that. We cherish it. It also enshrines the rule of law; the principle we are all equal in rights and dignity; freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, too, and we must defend them.

Let me add: Our constitutional democracy demands our participation, not just every four years, but all the time. So let’s do all we can to keep advancing the causes and values we all hold dear. Making our economy work for everyone, not just those at the top, protecting our country and protecting our planet.

…This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.

It is, it is worth it.

…I count my blessings every single day that I am an American, and I still believe, as deeply as I ever have, that if we stand together and work together with respect for our differences, strengthen our convictions, and love for this nation, our best days are still ahead of us.

Because, you know, I believe we are stronger together and we will go forward together. And you should never, ever regret fighting for that. You know, scripture tells us, let us not grow weary of doing good, for in good season we shall reap. My friends, let us have faith in each other, let us not grow weary and lose heart, for there are more seasons to come and there is more work to do.

The work to do is more pressing than ever, and as our shock turns to resolve and our mourning turns to motivation, we must come together to plan — to devise a strategy and then mobilize to make it happen.

That’s what this blog is meant to be.

It is not about Hillary Clinton — though I continue to draw strength from her strength and hopefulness from her hopefulness.

I tell my story of passion for Hillary as merely a starting point, because what Jill Abramson said, Hillary has proven to me: Not only do we want to change the world — we can.

Does a Movement Need an Ask?

December 16th, 2014

This past Saturday, I spent an inspiring few hours marching through New York as part of the Millions March NYC — a protest of police violence against people of color and of our failure to indict the killers of Michael Brown (We chanted: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”) and Eric Garner (We chanted: “I Can’t Breathe”). Joining in peaceful demonstration with other New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds was energizing, offsetting the feeling of powerlessness that comes when the justice system fails.

Particularly interesting to me, though, was the response I got afterward, when two intelligent and progressive people I know responded to my report of the experience with the skeptical question of whether the movement had “an ask.”

Is a clear “ask” always something we’ve expected of marchers carrying poster-board slogans and shouting out rhyming chants? Does a movement need to legitimate itself with a menu of requests? Is catharsis enough? Is awareness-raising?

Indeed, the Millions March did have specific demands — but even its own website was inconsistent in what those were, between its headline bullet points and its later, more detailed requests. “Immediate actions” included the indictment of Eric Garner’s killer, Daniel Pantaleo, and future policy changes like the release within 48 hours of names of cops involved in deadly shootings. Broader demands included such far-left policy goals as full employment and housing as a human right.

Certainly any one of the tens of thousands of marchers could have signed onto some subset of these requests and not others — or could have shown up without a clear picture of any of these particular actionable items. My friend and I, while marching, noticed the variety of progressive causes represented and joked that the motto of the march — of New York more broadly — could be “All agendas welcome.” What we shared was the desire to be heard and seen.

It reminded me of Oprah’s point in her Harvard 2013 commencement address :

I have to say that the single most important lesson I learned in 25 years talking every single day to people, was that there is a common denominator in our human experience. Most of us, I tell you[,] we don’t want to be divided. What we want, the common denominator that I found in every single interview, is we want to be validated. We want to be understood. I have done over 35,000 interviews in my career and as soon as that camera shuts off everyone always turns to me and inevitably in their own way asks this question “Was that okay?” …Did you hear me? Do you see me?

Of course, this desire to be heard and seen centered around the lack of vision, of recognition, that our systems of criminal justice and policing are deeply broken in the US — that people of color are treated differently, that whole communities are criminalized (We chanted: “Black Lives Matter”). My favorite chant of the day summed it up best:

Policy brutality
Shut it down
Mass incarceration
Shut it down
The new Jim Crow
Shut it down
The whole damn system
Shut it down

The death of Eric Garner, and the failure to indict his killer, are synecdochal of the bigger problem. Is it enough to draw attention to this metonymic chain?

And why are we so interested in “asks”? Is it fatigue with “ask creep” after the failure of a movement like Occupy Wall Street to coalesce into coherence? Or is it a symptom of a Silicon Valley–ish, management consulting mindset, in which any process without a deliverable is a failure of instrumental thinking?

The experience raised more questions than answers, but that feels appropriate. What matters most is operating in the world through a framework that sees and validates the questions.

Mass Incarceration Editorials

August 11th, 2013

A couple of important articles today, in case any doubt remained about the scourge of mass incarceration:

First, a column by Nicholas Kristof:

So the federal government, at a time when it is cutting education spending, is preparing to spend $415,000 over the next 15 years to imprison a man for innocently possessing seven shotgun shells while trying to help a widow in the neighborhood. And, under the law, there is no early release: [Edward] Young will spend the full 15 years in prison…

We have invested in mass incarceration in ways that are crushingly expensive, break up families and are often simply cruel. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Second, a Times editorial on California’s failure to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision re: its overcrowding.

Since the mid-1970s, California’s prison population has grown by 750 percent, driven by sentencing laws based largely on fear, ignorance and vengeance. The state’s notorious three-strikes law, passed in 1994, is only the most well-known example. Because of it, 9,000 offenders are serving life in prison, including many whose “third strike” was a nonserious, nonviolent offense — in one case, attempting to steal a pair of work gloves from a Home Depot…

Inmates are often released with no warning to friends or family, with no money, no means of transportation and no clothes other than the jumpsuits on their backs. It is no wonder a 2012 report showed that 47 percent of California prisoners returned to prison within a year of their release, a significantly higher rate than the national average.

Thankfully, it seems the wind is blowing in the right direction — away from mandatory minimums, towards alternative sentencing and judicial discretion. But as long as there are stories like Edward Young’s, abuses of solitary confinement, failures to reintegrate those who have done their time, and new cycles of entrapment in the criminal justice system through breaking up of families and misappropriation of public funds, there is tremendous work to be done.

The Tyranny of Misquotation

August 8th, 2013

Unquestionably, the impending appearance of Jane Austen on the English ten-pound note is a wonderful development. What better woman to represent the sex — alongside the Queen, of course — on the currency?

But while the terrifyingly vitriolic response to the announcement from some dark corners of the internet has been widely covered, less attention has been paid to the truly troublesome aspect of the news: the quotation that is to accompany Austen’s portrait on the note: “”I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”


The problem is well-articulated by John Mullan in The Guardian.

The trouble is that these words are spoken by one of Austen’s most deceitful characters, a woman who has no interest in books at all: Caroline Bingley. She is sidling up to Mr Darcy, whom she would like to hook as a husband, and pretending that she shares his interests. He is reading a book, so she sits next to him and pretends to read one too. She is, Austen writes, “as much engaged in watching Mr Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own” and “perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page”. He will not be distracted, so “exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his”, she gives a great yawn and says the words that will appear on the bank note.

It’s unsettling, bordering on insulting, that Austen’s image will be paired with words that don’t belong to her — that belong, indeed, to a character who deserves so little praise. I’d much prefer we (or, I guess, the Brits) quote Austen in her letters, or one of her narrators, or a character we are meant to respect or love.

But what we see here is a failure of close reading, a failure that shows a diminishing respect for the integrity of words.

This misplacement of words’ ownership — between authors and their characters — happens often. As well said in an article on Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All:

Ms. Garber merrily illustrates how modern culture can miss Shakespeare’s original points. References to “Othello” in general, and to Iago’s mocking mention of preserving one’s good name in particular, tend to be particularly flat-footed.

And there are other brands of tyrannous misquotation besides misplaced ownership.

There is unthinking paraphrase: Remember the (thankfully-now-undone) misquotation of Martin Luther King Jr. on his memorial. His actual quote: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” And then once tyrannized:

…Carved on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue, the inscription reads: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou, 83, said Tuesday. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.

And there is, finally, simple false quotation:

When you start to become aware of these bogus quotations, you can’t stop finding them. Henry James, George Eliot, Picasso — all of them are being kept alive in popular culture through pithy, cheery sayings they never actually said.

Perhaps if we respected and studied novels, plays, speeches — words — more often and more considerately, we would maintain more respect for the integrity of these quotations.

So what would be the right Austen quote for the ten-pound note?

Like Austen, we love and identify with Elizabeth Bennet, who, reading Darcy’s letter after his failed first proposal, learns to see the world more clearly — much as we see the world more clearly through reading Austen’s novels.

I’d choose, then, Elizabeth’s thought in that moment: “Till this moment, I never knew myself.” Of course, I’d show true respect for the words by providing a bit more information. How about this next to Austen’s portrait?:

“Till this moment, I never knew myself.” — Elizabeth Bennet, Pride & Prejudice

Dickens and the Few Cries that Human Ears Can Hear

April 20th, 2013

A couple of stories over the last few weeks — both about perfectly good food that landed in the trash rather than the hands of the needy — threw a feature of our cultural conversation into stark relief: When we talk about innocents’ irrational suffering at the hands of unfeeling bureaucracies, we talk about Charles Dickens.

See, first, an article on a Georgia supermarket foreclosure:

In a scene reminiscent of a Dickens’ [sic] novel, police recently held back poor, hungry Georgians as the bank-owned contents of a supermarket were dumped into the garbage.

SunTrust evicted the owner of Laney’s supermarket from the building it owned, according to WJBF News. On March 23, poor community members helped remove the contents of the building and clean it up. The store owner told them they could help themselves to anything.

But then the sheriff arrived, and the food was needlessly wasted. No one was going to let the neighborhood poor get the dumpster-destined food for under market price.

And, not long before, Dickens appeared in coverage of a Massachusetts public school crassly denying students lunch because of inability to pay:

The cashier checked the balance in Victoria’s meals account: $1.17. “Honey, do you have any more money?” the food worker asked.

“No, I don’t,” she answered, puzzled.

The girl’s food suddenly found itself on the fast track to the trash barrel.

In a scene that seems more akin to Oliver Twist than 21st-century Massachusetts, Victoria and about 25 other students at the Coelho Middle School were denied lunch this week because they could not pay in cash or their pre-paid accounts were overdrawn.

Families are outraged, the food service is apologizing, and school officials have launched an investigation.

Oliver Twist’s meek request for more gruel — refused by the fat, feckless Mr. Bumble — is our most familiar touchstone for the denial of bare sustenance to the neediest. Dickens is our reference point because his fiction offers an imaginative entry into the suffering of those we rarely see.

The brutal denials of the last few weeks feel foreign and hopelessly outdated, so we reach to England and the nineteenth century for our metaphors. We need Dickens’s narratives of Victorian poverty to make sense of these events. But as Adam Gopnik recounts in “The Caging of America,” even Dickens was shocked by unseen suffering — in America:

[Dickens’s] shock when he saw the Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia — a “model” prison, at the time the most expensive public building ever constructed in the country, where every prisoner was kept in silent, separate confinement — still resonates:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

…For Dickens, even the corrupt but communal debtors’ prisons of old London were better than this.

It’s worth bearing in mind: though we reach to images of nineteenth century England to illuminate our government’s callousness, Dickens found the more stunning invisibilities on our side of the Atlantic.

One Last Rationalization Post: ChatRoulette

April 11th, 2010

And while I’m on the topic of rationalization and its discontents, I must mention another darling of the zeitgeist — another phenomenon notable for its sharp break from a rationalized narrative: ChatRoulette.

Like reality TV, online communication has become rationalized over the past decade. We used to sign on, unfettered, to loosely categoritzed AOL chatrooms, for no other purpose but to converse with strangers about whatever came to mind.

Within the world of public online discourse, new structures popped up to help us find more quickly and accurately what — or, I should say, whom — we were looking for. Special interest message board sites for new parents, golf enthusiasts, and arthritis sufferers appeared. Surfers created sites for posing questions in deeply nested categories (Yahoo! Answers), while other sites for listing goods to buy and sell staked claim to their own turf (Craigslist, eBay).

For those of us who just wanted to talk, we got new tools to weed out the weirdos and promote interaction with our friends (or friends of friends): from a/s/l, there were Friendster and Facebook; from chatrooms, there were Google docs and groups and waves.

We gave ourselves better tools to find the right people and talk to them about the right things, but in the process we walled our communities in — and walled in ourselves.

That all changed (for the moment, at least) with ChatRoulette, a website that provides each user a complettely unfiltered video chat connection to another, randomly-selected user. One can stay to chat or click through to the next stranger out in the world of the webcams — an unmediated, unrationalized communication landscape. Like an early, almost empty AOL chatroom — with cameras.

Millions of users’ curiosity has been piqued enough to sign onto the site and see what they might find (even though they often find a close-up and uncensored view of some other user’s genitalia), and it’s easy to see why: ChatRoulette breaks down the barriers we’ve spent a decade erecting, and it unmasks us from the usual anonimity of blog comments and user reviews. It takes us from a bureaucratized present to a wild west past.

But, as is natural with all human processes, we may soon find ChatRoulette fall victim to a self-undermining rationalization that we saw befall reality TV. We will be moved to carve it up into interest-based rooms, we will “like” some users and “friend” others, and soon we will be building a city on what is now an empty landscape.

Sam Anderson described this rationalizing impulse in a piece on ChatRoulette in New York Magazine, at once predicting ChatRoulette’s fragmented future and exalting its unbridled present:

I found myself fantasizing about a curated version of ChatRoulette—powered maybe by Google’s massive server farms—that would allow users to set all kinds of filters: age, interest, language, location. One afternoon I might choose to be thrown randomly into a pool of English-speaking thirtysomething non-masturbators who like to read poetry. Another night I might want to talk to Jets fans. Another night I might want to just strip away all the filters and see what happens. The site could even keep stats, like YouTube, so you could see the most popular chatters in any given demographic. I could get very happily addicted to a site like that.

But that site would also lose a lot of what makes ChatRoulette, for now, so weirdly magnetic. If I’d been able to curate my experience, I might never have had what ended up being my favorite interaction: a half-hour chat with a twentysomething, vaguely Kurt Cobain–ish guy in Pittsburgh. We started with the obligatory ganja jokes, but suddenly he turned serious. “Actually,” he typed, “I’m a mystic.” When he offered me a tarot-card reading, I considered clicking “next” in search of more dancing Koreans. I’ve never had a psychic reading—in fact I’ve actively refused them on many occasions—but something about the strangeness of the context made me accept. Although I only vaguely remember the content of the reading itself (I like nature, have been thinking about taking a big trip, etc.), the experience was surprisingly powerful. It felt generous and deep and oddly very human.

Contemplating the filtered, statistically-tracked, rationalized version of ChatRoulette that Anderson fantasizes about  — while considering the losses that would come with an inhibited version of this paragon of inhibition — we realize that, even when we discuss a website built 90 years after his death, Max Weber was right.