“Antisocialites” by Alvvays – An Album Review

Image result for antisocialites alvvaysSo, my last music review probably made it clear that I listen to a fair amount of country music, but I also listen to plenty of pop as well. And one of the oddities that I’ve noticed over several years of observing the Billboard Hot 100 is that, well, Summer’s not always a season of Summer songs. The cliche is that there will be a ton of up-tempo dance jams starting every June, but sometimes the opposite happens, and the pop charts turn to downbeat mush instead.

This was probably most true back in the Summer of 2014, when Iggy Azalea’s Fancy was the number one song in the country. That tedious four-note bass line was inescapable, despite it being a terrible foundation for any song, let alone something to enjoy the sunshine in. Those were grim days, so I count myself lucky that a blog I follow happened to drop a review of an obscure Canadian retro-surf act. And that review was very positive, so I found myself listening to the debut from the band Alvvays. Yes, those two v’s make a w, by the way.

And yes, that self-titled debut was a damn solid record. Songs like Atop a Cake and Next of Kin were exactly the burst of upbeat energy I was looking for at the time. More impressively, the band had the songwriting chops to back up their gorgeous melodies, telling some downright fascinating stories that showed some real darkness beneath the sunny B-52’s-esque instrumentals. All in all, that debut was easily one of the best pop albums of 2014, bar none, and it left me looking forward to see where they would take their sound in the future.

Well, the future is here, as the Canadian band have finally dropped their sophomore album, Antisocialites. I listened to and liked the three songs that released in advance of the album, so I got the whole thing on Friday and have had it on repeat since then. So, does it hold up to their excellent debut?

Well, that’s a complicated question, to be totally honest. What isn’t complicated is that this is still a great album and definitely worth your time. Antisocialites shows Alvvays tightening their retro sound even further, and delivering better melodic hooks than ever before. At the same time, I’m not quite sure the narrative ambition is there in the same way as their last release. The level of songwriting detail is still impressive, but the subject matter feels more limited and less subversive. All in all, I’m inclined to call this a bit of a lateral move.

Like last time, let’s start with the production. If you have listened to their first album, then you’ll see that their sound hasn’t changed a whole lot on this project, with the same combination of jangling 80’s alt-rock and 60’s surf music undergirding these songs. Of course, that’s a fair description of a lot of modern indie rock acts, from M-83 to Beach House. What sets Alvvays apart from their peers is a fantastic gift for striking melodies that shined on their last album and is even more accentuated here. The hooks on songs like Plimsoll Punks, My Type, Lollipop (Ode for Jim), and Saved by a Waif will stick in your head for days.

That said, I noticed one detail that has changed in the production compared to their old album is the distortion. On their debut, Alvvays had these more washed-out guitar tones and fuzzy, low-fi production, and none of the polish of their most obvious inspiration, the B-52’s. Here on Antisocialites, the sound is a fair bit crisper and less distorted, especially on songs like Plimsoll Punks or Dreams Tonite. That’s not to say that distortion is gone, but it often seems relegated to the beginning or ending of tracks like Hey (where they seem to have specifically appropriated A Flock of Seagulls), Lollipop or the album closer, Forget About Life. The album actually ends with the instruments coming to a warbling halt and radio static kicking in. Regardless of these minor stylistic changes, I’d still call this album exceptionally well-produced, building on and accentuating their strengths and creating a set of fantastic summer songs.

Of course, what really caught me off-guard about Alvvays when I first listened to them was the ambition and subtlety in their writing, so it’s worth addressing that as well. And on some level, they’ve kept up their standards here, too. Lead singer Molly Rankin is great at capturing a wide range of emotions, both in her singing and the songwriting itself. The lyrics on Alvvays songs are always vividly detailed, from the deeply uncomfortable confrontation on In Undertow, where she and her lover try to convey frustrations that they can’t quite put into words, to the reckless and utterly hilarious partying on Your Type, to the throwbacks to classic Punk icons on Lollipop, and so on. These songs are all expertly written and extremely precise in their focus. So, why am I unsatisfied?

Well, the problem I have is more with the broader theme of this album. Alvvays’ self-titled was defiantly unique thanks to its insightful look at millennial social anxieties, and the struggle of a generation trying to reconcile ironic detachment with that yearning for real emotional commitment. The band spared no effort in showing the bad decisions that could result from that dissonance, and the consequences of those decisions. By contrast…Antisocialites is, well, the breakup album. Clever construction can only do so much to conceal this – Not Your Baby has some nice metaphors, but it’s basically Since U Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson minus that song’s cathartic fury. There just doesn’t seem to be a cogent arc on this album like on their debut.

Now, that’s hardly a dealbreaker by itself, but it does mean that instead of a strict narrative, we instead get an exploration of the various moods that surround a failing relationship. And these still make for some powerful stuff by themselves. In Undertow reminds us of the subversiveness of Alvvays’ use of surf music – in this band’s songs, water is something to dread – where the titular undertow represents the inexorable currents of time and incompatibility pulling two people apart. Dreams Tonite tries to recapture some of the old relationship’s magic even as it’s slipping away from memory. And Already Gone may be the biggest gut-punch here, with its story of a missed connection, the draining pool, and the end of Summer. Rankin ends the song despairing of ever recapturing that moment ever again. The magic is lost.

Thankfully, there is still room for optimism and hope amidst the gloom on this album. Lollipop is a more upbeat tune about the heady rush of a new relationship, and Saved by a Waif does one better by providing the hope that even a flagging love can be reinvigorated. Finally, there’s that album closer, Forget About Life, where Rankin finally lets go of the dread of the water and the astrological superstitions of previous songs, and resolves to live in the present. It wraps things up with a vestige of inner peace attained finally.

So, all in all, I still found Antisocialites to be a very good indie rock album. It’s got some of the best melodies I’ve heard in 2017, along with intelligent writing and an emotive frontwoman who can make you laugh, cry, and regain your sense of comfort and hope over the course of the album. I still wish it had the same subversiveness and scope as their last album, but what’s here is still done well, so I’ll give it an 8/10, and a recommendation. If you’re still wanting to hear some good summer songs this fall, then turn on Antisocialites and forget about life a while. You won’t regret it.

Recommended tracks: In Undertow, Dreams Tonite, Plimsoll Punks, Lollipop (Ode to Jim), Already Gone, Forget About Life

Weakest Track: Not My Baby


Death Note (2017) – A Film Review

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Alright, so last week I watched the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series while I was on vacation. And you know, I liked it a fair bit. Idris Elba captured a pretty complex and emotive character, Matthew McConaughey was entertainingly loathsome, even the kid in the leading role was pretty effective. I thought it lost some steam in the third act, but overall I enjoyed myself. A light 7/10, maybe.

Now, I considered writing up a review for that movie, but I didn’t. Part of it was that I was busy, between vacation activities and preparing for a wedding. Part of it was also that film reviews aren’t my forte. Music reviews are something I’m more comfortable with, since I listen to lots of different kinds of music, but I don’t watch many movies. But the most important reason was that I’m not particularly familiar with the Dark Tower novels. I didn’t see that as an obstacle to watching and enjoying the film, but I could still tell that it probably wasn’t the most faithful adaptation, and I don’t want to review an adaptation if I can only tell you how it holds up on its own merits. Ideally, I’d want to do that and judge how well it manages its relationship to its source material.

Well, there’s a quick fix for that – review something I’m already well-acquainted with. And so here we are, the Netflix adaptation of the cult classic anime/manga series Death Note. For the uninitiated, a summary of the series: it’s about a brilliant Japanese high school student named Light Yagami, who comes across a magical book, the titular Death Note. If you write someone’s name in this book while thinking of their face, then that person dies. Light, a person of intensely strong ideals but not much humility, decides it’s his destiny to use the notebook to rid the world of crime, killing the world’s criminals to bring about utopia. The killing spree puts him in conflict with the police, as well as an anonymous detective known as L, and the two match wits against each other, and see whose code of justice will prevail in the world.

Now, like I said, this series is fondly remembered as a classic, with complex characters, highly cerebral mindgames, mostly between Light and L but also with others involved, and weighty themes regarding power and justice. Speaking for myself, what I love is that the story deconstructs the Shonen genre of Japanese manga and anime, best known in the West for series like Yu-Gi-Oh! and One Piece and Naruto. Just like in a lot of those stories, we follow a teenage boy who comes into a miraculous power, acquires a mysterious ally (Ryuk, the demonic figure who granted him the Death Note in the first place), and indomitable ideals, who sets out to save the world. The problem is that the power Light finds is inherently destructive, and his ideals blind him to the contradiction in becoming a murderer to bring peace to the world, and so soon enough it needs saving from him.

I don’t intend a long form essay on how amazing Death Note is, of course, so I’ll end it there, with the point being that the strengths of the original are primarily intellectual and psychological – Light and L are towering moral (although Light’s morals are beyond blinkered) and intellectual forces, the result being an amazingly dense series to digest. That’s why I don’t think previous efforts have been great successes. The 2015 TV series was hindered, well, primarily by the writing, which turns Light into an everyman, which misses the point that your average high school student probably wouldn’t have the iron-clad determination or the ability to try and create a utopian society. The 2006 film duology, for its part, suffers for, well, being two movies attempting to adapt a mid-length and, again, extremely dense series into 264 minutes of film. The schemes and the characters and the overall plot are so intense that you need to give them more time than that to develop.

And that finally brings me to this flick, a Netflix original that’s the first attempt by us Yanks to adapt the series. Now, the main controversy surrounding this movie was the fact that they decided to set the story not in Japan, but in Seattle, Washington, and to make the main characters Americans, with Light as a white teenager, and L (who resembles a scruffy human-Panda hybrid in the original) as a black teenager. We already had a major dustup earlier this year when a movie version of Ghost in the Shell came out, with Scarlet Johansson in the leading role instead of a Japanese actress. If anything, though, this Death Note movie took even more flack for “whitewashing” Japanese culture.

Personally, I wasn’t so concerned about that, for two reasons. The first being that several Japanese Death Note adaptations exist, so this isn’t crowding anything out. The second being that the cultural differences between Japan and America could allow the premise to be seen in a new light. American culture is extremely cynical about our justice system, with “Law and order” still a potent force – just ask our current President. And we can be quite vengeful towards people that we think wronged us, something exhibited in many of the wars we’ve fought. The point I’m getting at here is that if any culture would embrace Light Yagami’s theory of justice, and violently purge the criminal element from society, it’d probably be America.

No, what worried me about this adaptation was director Adam Wingard, whose resume mostly consists of horror movies. I can see where that leads, since the Death Note can kill a victim in any way that’s physically possible, but focusing on the gore and gruesomeness doesn’t seem like the most interesting angle to take. Still, how did this go?

Well, honestly, not well. This simply isn’t a very good movie. It’s not terrible, but it compromises exactly the elements that I was hoping it wouldn’t, especially Light and L’s characterization and ideals, and the result is a compromised vision that didn’t really understand its own strengths, and which gave even less time to develop its characters than previous adaptations.

Now, about the horror elements. This is a gory movie, which exploited its R rating to the hilt in showing the grotesque ways a creative high schooler can imagine people dying. Thankfully, I wouldn’t say that it was really the focus of the movie, since the gorefest ends around the halfway mark, and things get more character-driven. That said, the pretenses towards something bloody like the Saw franchise are kind of a waste of time, since they don’t advance the plot much, and if anything, they complicate the character portrayals.

Now, in the original, Light Yagami generally uses the notebook’s default cause of death, a heart attack, to kill his victims. He reserves more creative deaths for when they service a larger scheme. This makes sense when you think about it, because as my summary implied, he’s a character who’s extremely obsessed with his own virtue. He sees himself as a savior, “The God of the New World”, as he puts it, and part of the reason he takes the path he does is to avoid admitting to himself that he’s done wrong. And it’s easier to ignore the blood on your hands if it’s not splattered across the city streets.

And that brings me to the character changes, since Light Turner (the Americanized name in this version) is a different customer from Light Yagami. Yagami’s belief in his moral purity was so strong that it justified progressively greater acts of depravity, and he never seemed to understand what was slowly happening to him. Light Turner has far more self-awareness about what his crusade demands of him, and he steadfastly refuses to turn his power on the innocent, even law enforcement hunting him.

And therein lies the main problem with this movie, in that it tries quite hard to have Light earn our sympathies. Where in the original, Light initially uses the Death Note out of ennui, and a lack of purpose in his life, this Light has actually been victimized by the crime he seeks to destroy, which cost him his mother in the backstory and which he sees around him at school every day. On top of that, where the original Light was almost entirely self-motivated, here he’s pushed onto the path he takes, both by the Shinigami Ryuk, who threatens to put the Death Note in the hands of someone less scrupulous if Light doesn’t use it, and by his love interest, Mia Sutton. By the end, Light wields the Death Note primarily out of fear that it’ll be used by someone more ruthless than him if he loses it.

Now, I’m not a fan of this re-interpretation, but it does lend itself to two of the film’s main strengths. First, Ryuk. Played excellently by Willem Dafoe, he’s one horror element in this movie that does work well, with fantastic use of practical effects to create an otherworldly demon. What’s great about him is that his character is reinterpreted, but not as much as you’d expect, which plays with a fan’s expectations in just the right ways. The original Ryuk drops a Death Note into the human world for curiosity and amusement, to see what a human would do with that kind of power, and while Light Yagami delivers in spades, Ryuk is happy to sit back and enjoy the show. In that capacity, he becomes almost adorable in places.

Dafoe’s Ryuk is different, in that he’s more overtly malevolent in his intentions, and he does far more to steer Light into directions he’d otherwise balk at traversing. This does create one issue, where Light discovers a warning written in the notebook, telling him that Ryuk isn’t to be trusted, and that he’s not Light’s friend. This would have fit in a lot better with the original Ryuk, who had the same ruthlessness, but hid it behind enough charming mannerisms that you could forget how dangerous he was. Dafoe lacks the pretense, so it’s out of place. In a way, though, that may have been the point, since it leaves the audience unsure of just how far Ryuk is willing to be a passive observer in the unfolding events. So much the good.

The other part I see as a strength is Mia Sutton, played by Margaret Qualley. She’s the American version of Misa Amane, Light’s most devoted follower in the original series. Where with Ryuk they toed a very careful line in how far they were willing to depart from his original character, Mia’s differences are much starker, but in a way that still resembles the source material if considered carefully. Misa from the anime is primarily remembered as a lovesick doormat for Light, cheerfully committing murders with the Death Note at his whim and never questioning his judgment or his overt lack of reciprocated affections. Her cutsieness concealed a seriously cold fish, but it was in no way an act.

Mia, well, on the surface, she doesn’t resemble Misa Amane much at all other than as Light’s girlfriend, and even there, Light Turner is actually interested unlike his counterpart. She doesn’t seek Light out as the vigilante responsible for killing off criminals, she’s a schoolmate who he confesses his secret to just as he’s starting out. And most of all, she’s willing to take their war on crime to lengths that Light won’t, to the point of openly defying his wishes.

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This here is pretty much what Light and Misa’s anime relationship was like.

This seems alien to Misa Amane, and yet, in a way, I’d argue it isn’t. Or rather, that it can be reconciled in light of the changes to her backstory. Misa sought out Light Yagami after learning of his role in purging crime because she wanted to thank him – one of his victims had killed her parents and escaped justice, leaving her with nothing to live for besides repaying that debt. And really, that sense of emptiness explains a lot about Misa’s character, when you realize that she doesn’t place much value on her own miserable life. That’s why she’s so reckless on the show, taking suicidal risks that Light would blanch at doing himself. Her spontaneity breaks the stalemate between Light and L and dictates most of the plot in the middle of the series.

Mia lacks that tragedy in her life, which explains why her devotion to Light rather than his power is so much weaker in this movie. But more than that, she represents what Misa was before she dedicated herself to serving Light Yagami. I said before that Misa was remembered as Light’s doormat, but she didn’t start off that way. In fact, when she first appears, the other characters see her as a more ruthless, less idealistic version of Light. What this movie does is realize that initial impression in full.

On their own, I think these reintepretations of Ryuk and Mia are actually quite fascinating. The problem is that they put the two into the role of Light’s corrupters, nudging him forward when his own resolve fails him. And that’s just not as compelling for our lead, since it’s his misgivings rather than his fanatical devotion to a cause that drive his character through the second half of the movie. By the end, the confrontation isn’t so much between Light and L as it is between Light and his own corrupted vision.

And that brings me to L, the only character that I would really say got butchered. The focal point in the original series was this Holmes and Moriarty rivalry between the great killer and the great detective, and that’s the main thing that its fans loved about it. Here, the focus is mostly on the murder-fueled romance between Light and Mia, and their eventual parting of the ways over the lengths that each is willing to go to for their vision. As a result, L gets short shrift. It’s not the lack of focus that rankles me, though, it’s L’s incompetence. The original writers called L the smartest character in a series full of geniuses, and it showed in his powerful yet well-explained deductions, his calm stoicism in every situation but one (and really, that scene felt jarringly out of place), and the way he countered Light at every turn despite knowing nothing about the Death Note himself.

This L, though? Not only are his numerous missteps a plot point, one of them, a precaution he didn’t take with his allies that he did in the anime, pretty much gets the third act going. This is pretty sad considering that he started off promisingly enough, zeroing in on Light in ways that were condensed, but honestly not terribly different from the original. But once the two rivals meet face to face, L goes downhill. The main problem is the disappearance of his trademark stoicism, which actually drives a wedge between him and Light’s policeman father when he tries to physically accost Light under pressure. Ultimately, though, I find myself having to agree with the professional reviewers I saw who dismissed L’s character as an afterthought in this movie. It’s really quite depressing how the deuteragonist of the series becomes all but superfluous in the climax of this movie.

So, the bottom line here is that despite some creative reimaginings, the main characters from the series are badly compromised in their conception here. Another obstacle in realizing their potential is the dialogue, which is really quite weak. If there’s one sequence that I’d consider to be well-written, it’s that bit from the trailer when Ryuk introduces the Death Note to Light and tempts him into using it. Light still thinks he’s dreaming, and Ryuk decides to run with that, encouraging Light to see things as a fantasy with no real consequences, which is powerful because you realize that it’s not simply a way to ease Light into the first kill, but also Ryuk’s own attitude, and the one he wants Light to adopt. He came to our world for amusement and he has no emotional investment in any of us. He’d like Light to see things the same way, to act like he’s playing a video game. Or, well, watching a movie.

Most of the rest of the dialogue just lacks that same spark, though. One egregious example also from the trailers is from L’s first meeting with Light, where he explains his perceived role as a detective. “You’re the one who flew into the Sun,” he says. “I’m just here to make sure you burn.” Apart from being an obvious and not too creative Icarus allusion, it also gets the Greek myth wrong. Icarus didn’t fly into the Sun, but too close to it, and he didn’t burn to death, but rather had his wax wings melted and subsequently fell to his death. What’s sad about this one is that the actual myth is a pretty good foreshadowing of the ending, but you can tell they butchered it for a trailer line that’d play up the Light-L enmity that would ultimately be an afterthought.

Now, the plot. Apart from adapting the series which I’ve described already, this one differs when Light’s first major effort to uncover L’s true identity, with which he can kill the detective, goes awry, and leads pretty directly into the final confrontation. The problem, as I’ve alluded to repeatedly, is that Light isn’t committed to carrying out his vision in extremis, so he finds himself confronting the consequences of his own plans run amok. Even this might have been salvageable in some fashion, had the conflict led to Light making a concerted effort to reclaim control of his own crusade, to be waged on his terms. Instead, what we get is him cutting his losses at the end, and the greatest irony in the entire movie is that we only really get to see the fiendish levels of cunning that Light Yagami would exhibit in pursuit of his vision, when Light Turner decides to forfeit his. In fact, where the original Death Note was a clash between Light and L and their differing visions of justice, this movie concludes with both of them abandoning those visions for their own convenience.

Perhaps I should feel betrayed by this, but it just leaves me cold. I watched Death Note for the characters more than for the grand chess match between geniuses, but I enjoyed both of those elements, and only received some interesting character arcs in this movie, while others were compromised. Overall, this movie isn’t horrible, but neither is it good. I’d give it a 5/10, and I can’t really recommend this when you can watch the anime instead. It simply lacked the space and the audacity to realize these characters properly. To use its own words, it just wasn’t crazy enough.


“The Nashville Sound” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – An Album Review

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Back when I first started writing here, I mentioned offhand that while my main focus would be political, I’d occasionally find time to write about music or movies or the like. Now, I’m not much of a movie guy, to be totally honest, but I do like listening to different kinds of music, and there have been plenty of albums in 2017 that I’d have loved to talk about. I plan to have mid-year and end of year explorations of some of these albums, but before then, it’d be weird if I didn’t have at least one standalone album review under my belt. So, on that self-critical note, let’s talk about Jason Isbell.

For the uninitiated, it’s important to note that Jason Isbell is an artist that straddles two different genres. He’s mostly known today for country music, but he got his start as a member of The Drive-By Truckers, legends in the Southern rock genre. Since leaving that band in 2007, he’s slowly grown in stature in the independent country scene, but still commands significant rock credibility as well – his last album Something More Than Free topped Billboard Magazine’s album charts for both rock and country albums. And to get my own opinion out here, Isbell deserves all of the success and critical acclaim he’s gotten and then some. Not only is he a powerfully evocative songwriter, but his instrumental prowess probably goes underappreciated on his more recent (and more country-inflected) releases. Some of the compositions on Something More Than Free approached being a blend of Americana and progressive rock, and the result was my third favorite album of 2015, even better than To Pimp a Butterfly, if you’ll believe it. And so here we are with another album from Isbell and his band The 400 Unit. Like his last two, it’s produced by Dave Cobb, a bonafide superstar in the world of country producers. Naturally, I had extremely high expectations for this project, both because of Isbell’s previous work and the song I heard in advance of its release, the harrowing If We Were Vampires. So enough stalling – did Jason Isbell make magic again?

Yes, yes he did. I’m happy to report that The Nashville Sound is another stellar entry in Jason Isbell’s already impressive discography, and easily one of the best albums of 2017 so far. I’ll have to get back to you guys on whether or not it’s better than Something More Than Free, but that’s because it’s a different animal than that last record in quite a few ways. So let’s start with music here, and my first impression here is that it’s a more fiery release than Isbell’s previous one, and more uptempo at times. If you’re more of a rock fan and want to hear some distorted electric guitars, you’ll get those on songs like Cumberland Gap, Hope the High Road, and the intro and outro to Anxiety. Those first two are the fastest-paced cuts on the album, and Isbell makes the most of it with some sticky hooks, but that’s not to say that the slower songs don’t also have some moments of real instrumental excellence as well. The smoky guitars and squealing fiddle on White Man’s World really captures the flavor of the old-school Muscle Shoals sound (something that seems increasingly common in independent country these days), and there’s some excellent mandolin and fiddle work on the closer Something to Love that adds some nice texture. One musical choice that caught me off guard was on If We Were Vampires, where the bridge features what I can only call a reverb solo, and it sends a chill up my spine every time. Dave Cobb’s an exceptionally versatile producer who can tackle a variety of different genres well, but he also knows when it’s time to strip things back and let the words carry a song, like on the opener Last of My Kind, where the guitars and fiddle are there to support Isbell’s vocals, the latter positioned at the front of the mix where they belong.

But as good as the instrumentation and production is, the main attraction of a Jason Isbell project is always going to be the lyrics and the stories that he tells, so let’s get to those. It’s important here to note that his last album was a transitional one, to some degree musically, but mostly conceptually. On Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell made a point of closing the door on his past, ending one chapter of his life and starting a new one, his old insecurities and failings behind him at last. And this album reflects that matured perspective – Isbell is married and raising a child now, and his songs are now less introspective and more concerned with the world around him. Just because he’s faced down the demons of his past doesn’t leave him entirely at ease, though. And what’s always set Jason Isbell apart as a songwriter is his unstinting, unflinching honesty; he tackles uncomfortable, intimidating subjects and cuts straight to the core of what frightens us. He did this when talking about the ugliness of dying on Southeastern, and again on Something More Than Free when he described the painful cost of teen pregnancy. On this album, I thought I’d seen the darkest of it when I heard If We Were Vampires, which has absolutely haunting observations on bereavement – true love may last forever, but lovers don’t, and one will probably have to learn to live without the other. However, the track before it, White Man’s World, proved just as shocking. Again, Isbell’s strength is his honesty and his refusal to hold anything back as he gets to grips with the legacy of white, and especially white male depredation in shaping America, and the kind of country he’s leaving behind for his daughter. And while he’s never tried to participate in that kind of oppression himself, as he acknowledges on the fourth verse, sometimes complicity is as small as looking the other way as you see someone else be cruel.

In fact, White Man’s World was another surprise for me in showing that this album would be more political than Isbell’s prior work. I expected more extroversion, but a big part of this album isn’t just focusing more on other peoples’ struggles, but also Isbell trying to see things through the perspectives of others, whether that’s the displaced rural man who worries that history is leaving him behind on Last of My Kind, or the alcoholic miner’s son desperate for escape on Cumberland Gap, or the recent divorcee looking to start over again on Tupelo. Isbell treats each of these characters with appropriate empathy even while acknowledging their failings, like the protagonist in Cumberland Gap’s inability to find his own calling, which leaves him wallowing in his cups for lack of other ideas, or the man on Tupelo’s bitterness. Isbell does well in making these songs feel lived in and three-dimensional.

That said, the character sketches are one part of this album, but the bulk is devoted to Isbell’s new role as a husband and father. On Anxiety, he observes that as much as he’s been blessed to have what he does, there’s always that lingering shadow of doubt as he wonders if it will last. And as I mentioned already, If We Were Vampires makes that fear more explicit, since he knows this marital bliss can’t possibly last, and either he or his wife will have to face losing the other and coping with that loss. These two running themes of the album, aging and the growing concern for other people, are brought together on the two tracks where Isbell references his year-old daughter. On White Man’s World, Isbell says that it’s not too late to make amends so long as you’re still breathing, but he finishes up by saying that as much as this world’s injustices have shaken his faith, he still feels something when he sees the fire in his little girl’s eyes. His wife Amanda Shires joins him in singing that final line, which just sells that moment where they both share a vision of a brighter future for their child. Lastly, there’s the album closer Something to Love, a song of advice written to his daughter. On this one, Jason Isbell talks about the formative experiences that shaped his childhood and his love of country music, and shares his hope that his daughter will find her own dreams and passions to carry through life. Musically, it’s one of the most country songs in Isbell’s discography, and it concludes this album on one hell of a high note.

So yes, I absolutely loved listening to The Nashville Sound. It’s not perfect – there’s a conspicuous flubbed rhyme on Molotov that I think breaks the momentum of the song, but this album still offers a great deal of musical and lyrical diversity, going from heartwrenching to heated to haunting to hopeful over just ten songs. Overall, I’d give this album a 9/10, and my highest recommendation. If you like either country music or southern rock, you need to hear this. Even if you don’t, I still recommend it for its impeccable storytelling and emotive delivery. If Jason Isbell’s brand of cerebral and highly melodic Americana truly became the sound of Nashville, then we’d all be better off for it.

Recommended tracks: Last of My Kind, Cumberland Gap, White Man’s World, If We Were Vampires, Anxiety, Hope the High Road, Something to Love.

Weakest track (but still quite good): Molotov.

Thoughts on the British Election

Ain’t it typical – my first post over here in months, and I find myself having to put off my essay on modern liberalism yet again. Honestly, writer’s block on that subject has been a major reason I haven’t been active in a while, and with the British election the other day, I want to get some thoughts out there while the iron’s at least lukewarm. I’ve leaned away from my usual focus on American politics once before, of course, when I discussed my thoughts on South Korean politics, but I was interested in large part because of a parallel I noticed with American politics in the past and what that might mean for the future. This will be different, because I don’t so much have a thesis guiding everything this time so much as a bunch of scattered observations, so I’ll basically be presenting things with glorified bullet points today.

I think an interesting way to start is to perform a thought exercise suggested by someone on a discussion board I frequent, and to imagine the results as if they’d happened in the last British election two years ago. Labour would, if anything, be a little disappointed to have been stuck in roughly the same position they were after 2010, with the main consolation being the defeat of Nick Clegg, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, a fair punishment for his Party’s coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives. For their part, the Conservatives would be thrilled to have gotten so close to a majority of Parliament’s 650 seats, not least since they’d have had few expectations of getting a majority anyways. Even the Scottish National Party would be happy to have won a majority in Scotland’s Parliament. The real losers of the night would be the Liberal Democrats, who’d be down to 12 seats from their 2010 high of 62, as well as losing their Party leader.

This is all to say that the results of an election, in Britain or anywhere else, hinges on expectations. The Conservatives didn’t expect to win a majority in 2015, but managed it anyways, which colors their failure to repeat the same feat this year. The Scottish National Party has retained its majority north of the Tweed, but they still took a beating compared to 2015, and having lost over twenty seats, many of them to the Conservatives, weakens leader Nicola Sturgeon’s bid for another independence referendum. Actually, the Scottish results have me wondering if the region is really as pro-EU as we’d thought back when the Brexit vote happened. And as for the undeniable winner of the night (one of them, we’ll get to the other in a bit), Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party may have only just matched its 2010 performance in terms of how many seats they won, but considering the immense disadvantage his Party was facing mere weeks ago, which was what made Prime Minister Theresa May confident enough to call this election in the first place, it was still a shockingly good night for them. And that’s only evaluating their results on average; it’s also worth noting that many of the Conservative victories, especially ones in and around London, were by very narrow margins – Home Secretary Amber Rudd has held on with barely 300 votes – had things tipped just a little farther in Labour’s direction on Thursday, then a real massacre may have ensued. As it is, they managed to win in constituencies that were previously considered inhospitable for the Party, most notably a seat in Canterbury which, in nearly 100 years since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918, has never voted for Labour before.

What does this mean for the future of British politics? Well, I suppose it’s also worth pointing out that Labour now controls the richest and some of the poorest constituencies in the United Kingdom simultaneously. It’ll be a while before I can parse the implications of this out, but my first impression is that Jeremy Corbyn might have had some success in drawing away a portion of the United Kingdom Independence Party’s voters – UKIP, once a significant enough force in British politics to make the Brexit referendum a reality, has basically collapsed afterwards, as their success means the Party now lacks a purpose. Combined with his undeniable success at turning out the youth vote, which went for him by two to one margins. Combine that with what looks like a resurgence for Labour in Northern England, the UK equivalent of the American Rust Belt, and it looks like Corbyn’s hit upon an effective response to voters concerned with the effects of globalization, and left his Party in a good position moving forwards. Not bad for a former backbencher the rest of the Party had been ignoring until two years ago.

With that general overview of the results done, some other thoughts:

  • There’s a crisis of confidence in polling – and it’s mostly needless. During the 2016 Presidential primaries, Nate Silver published a mea culpa about his failure to foresee Trump’s nomination, saying that he ultimately let his qualitative judgment get the best of him and didn’t believe the polls enough, even though they showed a Trump advantage all along. Something more complicated but similar happened in this campaign, whose results could have been foreseen if you looked at polls coming from YouGov or Survation instead of other outlets. What made those two stand out was that they correctly predicted a higher than usual youth turnout, but many observers (myself included) didn’t believe their numbers because of our deep-seated cynicism about young peoples’ willingness to turn out and vote. And so most polling outfits predicted a major win for the Conservatives on the assumption that youth turnout would tank. The sad thing is, even YouGov eventually lost confidence in their results, with their last poll before the election changing its assumptions to fit in more with the consensus. This goes to show that we should trust our data more than our instincts a lot of the time.
  • Theresa May was the big loser in Thursday night’s results, but unlike David Cameron before her, who resigned when the Brexit vote went against him, she doesn’t seem inclined to fall on her sword over this. That said, despite recriminations from within her Party coming in, I no longer expect her to be challenged for leadership of the Conservatives the way I did the night of the election. Her most obvious successor, Boris Johnson, the guy who looks a lot like Donald Trump, still faces some significant enemies of his own within the Conservative Party, which explains his failure to become Prime Minister after Cameron resigned last year. More generally, being Prime Minister just isn’t the most attractive prize right now, for two reasons.
  • Reason one is that with the Conservatives no longer enjoying a majority in Parliament, they’ve been forced into making what’s called a minority government with the help of the Democratic Union Party, a Northern Irish bloc that’s learned from the mistake of the Liberal Democrats in 2010 and isn’t joining a coalition with the Conservatives, instead voting to keep the government running and guaranteeing nothing more. The result is that in order to pass any legislation, the Conservatives need to appease the DUP for the extra votes they need. This ties into the second reason nobody would want to be PM right now, that being Brexit.
  • The negotiation of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has been really sluggish so far, and Theresa May pushed back the start of negotiations with the EU’s authorities in order to have this election. Her stated rationale was that she needed a stronger mandate from the British public to have a better bargaining position during the negotiations, hopefully achieving her personal vision of an exit that involves Britain leaving the EU’s common market (allowing the UK and the EU to put up tariffs against each other) in exchange for keeping EU immigrants out of the UK. This hope for a “hard Brexit” is definitely dead now, though, between May’s election gambit backfiring and destroying her Parliamentary majority, as well as the whims of her now political partners, the Democratic Union Party.
  • In fact, I’d say that the future of British politics runs through Belfast right now, because the DUP are in a very influential position at the moment despite only having ten seats in Parliament. The first thing they want is a softer version of Brexit, that might allow Britain to stay in the EU market in exchange for fewer immigration restrictions than a harder exit would entail. They want this in large part because Northern Ireland is dependent on trade with its southern counterpart, and they’d be hit hard if their EU neighbor got to throw up tariffs against them. So local concerns in Northern Ireland are a big driver of the DUP’s policy. Of course, this sort of parochialism has led to an embarrassing scandal coming to light recently involving the DUP’s leader Arlene Foster, so that’s another issue to contend with.
  • The other issue involving the DUP is this: they’re probably the closest equivalent in Europe to America’s Republicans. This includes opposition to gay marriage, denial of climate change, an absolutist stance against abortion even for rape victims, the whole nine yards. Also disturbingly, the DUP has been historically linked with the Protestant paramilitary side of the Troubles, which seems less like a thing of the past when you consider that Sinn Fein also did quite well in the recent elections (between them and the DUP, the more centrist UUP and SDLP parties have been wiped out in Northern Ireland), and also that Jeremy Corbyn has sympathized with the IRA in the past, an additional source of tension. In this chaotic environment, you can all understand why I’m worried about the Troubles potentially bursting open again and making things even worse. For maximum awkwardness, it’s also worth pointing out that Theresa May has a Catholic background herself.

During the campaign, Theresa May warned us about the possibility of  a “coalition of chaos” if the election went the wrong way. Half the internet has beaten me to this observation, but I can certainly say that she’s delivered on that much.

Off the Deep End – An Addendum

Okay, so I had planned on following my look at the state of conservatism immediately with the same take on modern liberalism. That’s still coming soon, but I find myself needing more time to get my thoughts in order before tackling that. In lieu of a follow-up on that, I’ll be doing a quick reprise of my deep state discussion from a little while back, mostly because I came across an article that mirrors a lot of my concerns about this growing trend.

Writing in The Atlantic, Andrew Exum looks at some recent cases of generals speaking out against Trump Administration policies, namely torture and Trump’s attacks on the press. Although Exum welcomes any pushback Trump gets on some decidedly illiberal policies, he’s also aware of the dangers that come when the military, rather than remaining apolitical, take on the task of safeguarding institutional liberalism. An astute reader will probably make the connection to the Turkish military, which has traditionally justified its periodic coups of civilian government as part of its charge in enforcing the secular Constitution laid down by Ataturk. Instead, though, he makes an unexpected connection to Israeli politics, which probably doesn’t get enough exposure in Western media outside of the interminably stalled peace process. In particular, he singles out a case in which an 18 year-old IDF sergeant was found guilty of manslaughter for summarily executing a disarmed Palestinian terrorist. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot resisted right-wing calls for leniency on the sergeant, which has led to protesters saying that he’ll suffer the same fate as former Prime Minister Rabin if he continues on his “leftist” path.

Now, I think there are two distinct developments worth looking at here: first, we may be seeing a trend of more politicization in military leaders in the United States and Israel (if not other places, too), and also, that we may find ourselves looking to the military for moral or even political guidance. To the extent that the latter is true, it’s easy enough to explain, I think: in an age of disillusionment with our institutions, the military retains a great deal of trust in American society. Back when I talked about social faith, I brought up a Gallup poll showing abysmally low levels of public confidence in many key institutions in the country, but I didn’t mention that one big exception to this trend is the military, which still commanded “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence from 72 percent of Americans. The army has the legitimacy that our political leaders don’t, so why not look to the last people in Washington that we still think have a moral compass for moral guidance?

There are some troubling implications behind this thinking, and not just the obvious ones about a populace that might not be too repulsed by the prospect of military government. First of all, we need to ask ourselves if the military deserves the esteem that the public gives them, especially compared with how little other branches of government get from the same respondents. I suspect there are a couple of reasons why there’s such a large trust gap between military and civilian leadership: first, the familiar transparency problem. I’ve mentioned before that the more transparent a government organization is, the more we see its foibles and failures, and the less we respect them for it, which is why we trust the Supreme Court more than the President more than Congress. The military’s internal decisionmaking is definitely not going on C-Span any time soon, so they’re another logical beneficiary of this rewarding of secrecy. Another is that I think we absolve them of the abuses that are associated with them, pinning most of the blame on civilian leaders instead. Take Abu Ghraib, where critics raised all sorts of criticisms of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and John Yoo for ordering or coming up with legal justifications for the torture that went on there. In all of the high-level recriminations, maybe we didn’t reserve enough blame for the army soldiers and CIA agents who did the actual dirty work, simply because they weren’t considered the ones who came up with the policies. But following orders is no defense, so that was an oversight on our part. Lastly, I think, just like with the Right and its regrets over abandoning Nixon during Watergate, we’re still nursing a wound from the 70’s, specifically, the (apocryphal) idea the anti-war movement back then turned on and spat at our veterans returning home, and we’re resolved as a society never to dishonor our soldiers like that again. By all means, we’re allowed to question the missions that they’re sent on and how wise they are, but the men and women in uniform aren’t to be questioned. These cultural biases and blind spots protect the military now, but the question is whether they’ll continue to do the same should generals become more politicized, just like Eisenkot has been turned into a right-wing bogeyman in Israel.

Andrew Exum sees this risk of politicization (and sees it as a farther advanced phenomenon than I’d realized, with the Parties trotting out retired Generals as partisan cheerleaders with some regularity), and the dangers in it, but ultimately decides that it’s more important that the generals, and everyone else of a similar mind, stand up for what they see as right. I am more skeptical, in part because I’ve talked at length about how standing up for what’s right isn’t good enough when everybody’s doing it and yet we still find ourselves taking different stands. That said, soldiers have their freedom of conscience like the rest of us, and when the question is whether it’s moral for our society to engage in torture or to attack its own press, the dissenters will always have an ally in me.


The Future of the Radical Right – Part 2

Welcome back to my outsider’s ruminations on the nature of modern (American) conservatism. Last time I mostly focused my efforts on the development of the modern conservative attitude and why it’s proven vulnerable to Trumpism after decades of unchallenged Reaganism. Today, I’ll explain where this leaves the Republican Party now, and how it shapes their view of the future. Now, the first thing to understand is that the 2016 election has given Republicans unprecedented power over government. In addition to the Presidency and both Houses of Congress, the GOP also has control over no fewer than 32 state legislatures. Two more and they could get Constitutional amendments ratified, which is supposed to be near impossible in a political scene as polarized as ours. With so much control, Republicans should be able to do anything.

Which is why it’s so confusing to many that the Trump Administration has been so slow in getting anything done so far. Almost two months in, and we’re still waiting on his Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Labor to be confirmed. More than that, the repeal of Obamacare that Republicans have promised since some time before it was signed into law is still causing Congressional Republicans to scurry about like headless chickens trying to decide on a replacement for the program. Now, some of Trump’s problems can be attributed to timing – specifically, the timing problems caused by the fact that Congressional Republicans were as surprised as everyone else by his winning the Presidency, and so they didn’t bother to come up with detailed plans for the incoming Congress. Obamacare repeal doesn’t seem like it falls under this category of issue, though, since it’s taken up so much time and thought on the part of Republican thinkers, from Paul Ryan on down, for years now. So, why, exactly, has it taken so long for Trump to come out with a proposal, one that fellow Republicans seem to oppose? Well, that depends on who you ask. Some will tell you that since Obamacare was already cribbed from the Republican alternative to Clinton’s stab at health care reform in the 90’s, there’s no further right you can go on this and still solve the problems with our health insurance. Now, this claim is actually kind of spurious, especially the idea that the Republican Party had actually coalesced around John Chafee’s plan. So that’s not exactly it, since the more conservative wing of the Republican Party opposed that rather similar proposal even at the time.

Wherefore the holdup, then? Liberal columnists like Brian Beutler and Matthew Yglesias seem to have settled on their own interpretation: namely, that the public reasons that Republicans have opposed Obamacare and the private ones are polar opposites on a philosophical level, and that cognitive dissonance means that, depending on whether you find the public or private objections more reasonable, you’re going to be attracted to wildly different plans as a consequence. “The striking thing about Republican use of the CBO report…is that Republicans weren’t exaggerating,” Yglesias observes. “They weren’t making things up, either. They were taking a genuine conservative policy critique of the law – that it was making things too cushy for people, so they might decide to quit working – and turned it into roughly the opposite argument, that the Obamacare jackboot was going to prevent people who wanted jobs from finding work.” In short, Republicans like Mitch McConnell have been going on the record as saying that the Affordable Care Act doesn’t provide generous enough coverage or subsidies, but their real concern is that it’s proven too generous, lowered copays and deductibles too much. This leaves them with a choice between a plan that would be in line with their ideology and reduce coverage, an unpopular move, or to do what Trump is doing now, and change very little about the law while pretending that it’s been scrapped. The third option in line with their rhetoric of increasing subsidies is right out, I guess. Now, Beutler and Yglesias seem to attribute this rhetorical dissonance to cynicism on the part of the Republican Party, who won’t state their true objections to Obama’s health care reform because their opinions on the matter aren’t popular. There’s some truth to this, but I think there may be more to it than that, a larger source of dissonance where this debate is merely scratching the surface.

To understand this larger problem, I’ll need to refer back to Part One of this piece from Sunday. Now, back then, I made the charge that too many Republicans have embraced the image and the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan without understanding the ethos or the rationale behind his policies. You can see this worship of Reagan’s shadow more than his Administration in the way that nuances and conservative hiccups in his record are ignored by those who would be his heirs. Take Grover Norquist and his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a literal oath to never vote to raise taxes, currently signed by 208 Republican House members and 45 Senators. Compare to Reagan, who, after passing significant tax cuts early on in his first term, found himself forced to backpedal repeatedly. On tax issues, Reagan would be an apostate in the modern Republican Party. Why did he do this, though? And why did his successor George Bush the Elder, much more embarrassingly given his rash pledge not to raise taxes? Two words: fiscal responsibility. This is, of course, a major part of the problem that the Republican Party faces, and it’s another aspect of the conflict between rhetoric and policy preference that Beutler and Yglesias were targeting, because whatever economic chicanery they employ to the contrary, Republicans always have to contend with the basic tension between “getting government out of peoples’ lives” (tax cuts) and “not living beyond our means” (deficit reduction). Now, it’s not like Democrats are immune to internal contradictions like this, but that’s a topic for next week. The issue here is that it’s actually pretty easy to square tax cuts and deficit reduction, or at least neutrality: you simply reduce government spending accordingly, and you’re good. But this gets to the real crux of the problem that Beutler and Yglesias identify, because most of the American budget is devoted to Social Security and Medicare, two programs that despite Republican efforts at repeal are still unassailably popular. Republicans have generally given up on their old goal of privatizing Social Security (although Paul Ryan seems to hold out hope on Medicare, depending on what budget he’s advancing this week), and so Trump’s defense of it really isn’t that surprising.

More interesting, though, is the consideration of that big budget item that isn’t Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid (which I’m always more concerned about, but hasn’t been killed so far): defense spending. Republicans are reluctant to look to that for deficit reduction, because the Party is expected to support a strong military, and “the I-word” (isolationist) is still one of the worst epithets a Republican can suffer. There’s a few reasons I can see for why Republicans are loathe to trim the Pentagon budget: for one, Reagan’s legacy includes an arms buildup (and yet not the arms reduction treaty he negotiated later on in his Presidency), and for another, they tend to cultivate a culture of toughness that’s useful both offensively against Democrats and to appeal to the military itself. There’s a third reason that’s most fascinating of all, though: military spending is useful. Now, I mentioned way back in my introduction that Democrats see government as useful, not as an end in itself, but as a way to spend money on the less fortunate, and that makes them different in an asymmetric way from Republicans, who oppose government for its own sake. The thing is, Republicans are expected to be skeptical of government, but they’ve still come to realize that government is useful, too. They just have different beneficiaries in mind. The defense budget is useful because the government doesn’t manufacture its weapons and logistical support services in house: we use private, for profit companies to supply us with these things, and there’s some big money in that. Of the various branches of government that use contractors, the Department of Defense is the most prolific by far, spending ten times as much as the second-most expensive Department. This spending has created an entire industry, and even put Northern Virginia on the map in the process, so there’s no denying the basic logic behind the spending as a way to enrich certain people.

Now, leaving the rage against big business, death merchants, and the military-industrial complex aside, because those are liberal objections, is there anything wrong with this? It reveals the tensions within a conservatism that’s become devoted to a caricature of what Ronald Reagan was. I talked last time about the coalition that Reagan gathered, of fiscal conservatives, evangelicals, and war hawks, but what I didn’t mention was that there was heterogeneity within this group. The “neoconservatives” got the -neo in their names, not so much because they were young and new, but because they were new to conservatism, having only abandoned the left over Vietnam and the perceived shift of that Party to the left under McGovern. And Paul Weyrich, one of the founding figures of both the Heritage Foundation and the Christian Right, was also a strong proponent of high-speed rail, an odd contrast from many of his peers. What drew these disparate factions together was an alliance of convenience, not complete agreement on all issues. But unanimity is what’s expected of modern conservatives. Business conservatives must show their faith, and evangelicals must speak the word of the Prosperity Gospel, and both have to take a hard line against America’s foreign foes. George W. Bush was the ultimate exemplar of this synthesis in one person, a scion of wealth, but also a born-again Christian surrounded by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and other noted neoconservatives. Conservatism has become a checklist, and every Republican is expected to fulfill the requirements like Bush did. I see this as a problem not because I’m some squishy centrist who’s allergic to the idea of purity testing, but because there are internal contradictions within this coalition. The neoconservatives will never be able to balance the budget the way the business class wants because defense spending is so expensive, and libertarians in the Republican coalition either have to betray that label like Rand Paul has, or else face down the Christian Right over gay marriage and abortion. The Party insists that the one Reagan size fits all, but the synthesis they’ve settled on is a compromise at war with itself.

The biggest tension of all is the rhetorical one about government, though. Opposition to “big government” is a big part of the glue that holds the coalition together, but government is useful to each of the three major factions that make up the Party. I’ve explained the neoconservatives at length, but social conservatives also need government regulations to create the moral society that they want, with abortion outlawed, tax exemptions for their activities, and whatever other legislation they think is necessary in order for society to be harmonious and moral. They’re social engineers at heart. And business, perhaps the most vociferous of all about tearing down government, may also have the most use for it. You’re probably thinking you’re way ahead of me here on what they want: big, juicy subsidies and contracts from the federal government. And those are considerations, but the most important thing that government can do for business is have more of the one thing that they complain about the most (besides taxes): more government regulation. The regulations that business usually whines about are ones that make their normal operations more expensive or less profitable, but there are also regulations that can make it harder for new firms to enter a market, barriers to entry as economists call them. These ones are extremely useful as a check on competition within a market, which would drive down profit margins for the firms in that market. This is one reason introductory economic logic isn’t a great guide to public policy: it usually assumes that there are no such barriers, and it’s easy for new firms to come in and challenge an existing one’s dominance, but it often doesn’t work that way in the real world, in no small part because big government has been appealed to to cut down on the competition. And with that in mind, you see why I thought Matthew Yglesias was only at the tip of the iceberg when it came to contradictions between public and private positions in the GOP.

These demands on government from different wings of the Republican Party are all potential items on Donald Trump’s domestic agenda, of course. He’s been slow in getting them done for a number of reasons including unpreparedness, Obamacare repeal taking up so much energy, Democratic intransigence, et cetera. But time is of the essence for them, because having so much control over government means that Republicans have no more excuses left for any inability to advance the agenda they’ve run on, and no more time in which to delay dealing with the internal contradictions I’ve laid out here. For the Party that deems government the problem and not the solution, their political fortunes for the next four years are predicated on proving themselves wrong.

The Future of the Radical Right

Now, one thing that political commentators are expected to do is to provide some sorts of prognostications of the future – after all, what good is the study of politics and political science if none of it’s prescriptive? And a lot of what I’ve been doing, with these posts that keep referencing ones I’ve written previously, and letting ideas and concepts build on each other, is to try and acclimate you guys to my way of thinking, so that when I do lay everything out on the table and explain where I think American politics is going in the future, it won’t seem radical so much as a logical (albeit distressing, spoilers) progression from where we are now. I’m not ready to do that just yet, and nor do I claim infallibility in my vision, of course – in fact, given how grim the future looks from here, I desperately hope I am wrong in significant ways. But that’s the future piece that I’m building towards, and before I get there, I’m going to address the more immediate issues facing the political left and right in this country. Now, as you guys may remember from my introduction, I think it’s fallacious to see the left and the right as mirror images of each other, so what troubles the left is very different from the issues that plague the right. That said, I don’t think the order in which I address them matters too much, so let’s start with the right.

Now, these readings of the tea leaves are going to be more ambitious than what I’ve been writing so far – in the past, I’ve been condensing things for space, but for this I want to do these concepts and philosophies justice, so I tried to decide whether I should greatly expand the length of the individual posts, or make these two-parters each for left and right. In the end, I’ve decided to split the difference; this will be longer than usual, but I’ll be wrapping up the discussion of the right on Thursday.

Now, you’ll note the title today talks about the future of the “radical” right specifically – the reason for this is that the right has a different story than the left, where it’s accepted routine for the fringes of far-right thinking to be drawn into the mainstream of politics and challenge conservative orthodoxy. This tradition goes back a long way, as well, with Steve Bannon and his ilk merely being the latest incarnation of this dynamic. As weird as it looks for CPAC to welcome Donald Trump and celebrate all that he is, when just a year beforehand they were working overtime to stop his bid for the Republican nomination, it’s not much weirder than a sitting Congressman (a Democrat, oddly enough, but the 70’s still had right-wing Democrats) becoming President of the John Birch Society in 1983, the organization that William F. Buckley called “far removed from common sense”. Or how about 1987, when Alan Greenspan, a devotee of Ayn Rand, traditionally verboten on the right for her atheism, became chairman of the Federal Reserve? For all of the progressive fretting about “normalization” in the wake of Trump’s election, normalizing the far right goes back as far as there’s been a recognizable far right. And speaking of Ayn Rand, the man who’s second in line for the Presidency famously requires his staff to read Atlas Shrugged.

Of course, Paul Ryan holds the Speakership of the House of Representatives precisely because his veneration for Ayn Rand has become, well, normalized; the dark side of this word we’re using is that not only will radical and potentially dangerous ideas come into the mainstream of our political discourse, but that more radical thoughts will replace them at the fringes, leaving someone like Ryan as a compromise choice. And that dynamic explains the place the right is at right now – Ronald Reagan’s mix of Rand and John Birch-influenced economics, politicized evangelicalism, and neoconservative foreign policy has become trite and rote, which explains why his name has become so deified on the right. This collection of different policies has been the conventional dogma of the Republican Party for decades, but because it’s dogma, the Jeb Bushes and Marco Rubios of the world no longer understand why Reagan stood for this particular policy synthesis and how these disparate positions fit together, and so they invoke Reagan’s name and catchphrases like “conservative values”, to try and recapture that synthesis for reasons they don’t understand themselves because they don’t know what else there is. So, not only has Reaganism become self-justifying in the Republican Party, but a mix of policy failures and shifting social dynamics also mean that it doesn’t hold the same relevance to voters that it did back in the 80’s. Rod Dreher touches upon the artificiality of these policy stances when he deconstructs David Brooks’ reaction to Trump’s recent address to Congress:

“Do you realize that there are as many years between the time Reagan left office and Trump was sworn in as there was between Eisenhower’s inauguration and Reagan’s? The Republicans coasted on Reaganism for a long time. Trump instinctively sensed that the House That Reagan Built was riddled with termites, and wouldn’t stand if given a shove…George W. Bush’s calamitous war in Iraq destroyed the eagerness of Americans to serve as the world’s policeman. The fact that average Americans have fallen farther behind, and more economically insecure, while most of the economic gains of the past decades have accrued to the top of the economic pyramid has disillusioned many about the virtues of free-market ideology…as for social conservatism, that’s complicated, but I think it’s mostly a matter of people not believing in it anymore, except in a nominal sense, and of people prioritizing other concerns.”

Now, I actually think there are some differences between Bush’s foreign policy and Reagan’s – Reagan didn’t share Bush’s faith in democracy as a transformative power, since that was a product of the peaceful fall of communism in Eastern Europe that only came after Reagan left office – but otherwise, Dreher touches on one major reason that Republicans are willing to abandon Reaganism at the behest of Trump. They don’t see Reagan’s old catechisms as being the solutions for the problems America faces right now, and because they’ve all but literally become catechisms, their defenders can’t easily fall back on the inherent logic behind these positions to defend them – they’re not used to having to justify them. There’s one other major reason why Trumpism is supplanting Reaganism, and I think it speaks to the unrecognized glue that has held the far-right together for as long as it has; Trumpism is accepted because Trump advocates it, and, more importantly, Democrats quite clearly despise Trump. To explain why this is important, I’m gonna have to talk about Richard Nixon and his role in shaping modern conservatism.

Now, Nixon is a complicated figure to say the least, and his relationship with the far right is equally so since he wasn’t really one of them, and for much of his career was mistrusted by self-proclaimed “principled conservatives”. Nevertheless, Watergate threw this tension, like so many other political arrangements, into chaos. I’ve found two excellent pieces on the conservative movement’s rally in the defense of Nixon during the scandal. Although I think the second, written by Rick Perlstein way back in 2005, offers a good portrait of how conservative honor has been contorted by the defense of Watergate, the first one, appearing in a blog mere days before the 2016 election, paints a more vivid picture of people’s reactions from the time. Nixon’s attempts to defend himself under scrutiny are familiar not only to people older than me who actually lived through Watergate, but to anyone who’s watched a politician face an embarrassing scandal: he attacked the investigation as a partisan witch hunt, claiming that “If I were a liberal, Watergate would be a blip”. These kinds of self-serving rationalizations are familiar, but perhaps more surprising is that for all that Congress, even its Republicans, were ready to go through with impeachment if the standoff continued, Nixon was still able to find allies elsewhere. Indeed, for some on the far right, it was his perceived persecution that constituted the entirety of his appeal to them: as Young Americans for Freedom founder M. Stanton Evans famously quipped, “I never liked Nixon until Watergate”. This is negative partisanship at its most pure – Nixon became virtuous in the eyes of the far right the moment he became a target for liberals, and the more zealously they investigated him, the more virtuous he became.

And that’s why I’m concerned about the threat posed by Trump – if there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s offending the Democratic Party. That’s not to say that there aren’t hundreds of legitimate reasons for it, and as a Democrat myself, I agree with most of the left’s grievances, but we need to recognize that our expressions of distaste give Trump more credibility on the right than a thousand invocations of Reagan’s name and ideals ever could. And this is also why I consider the idea of successfully impeaching Trump to be a fantasy – it would require that Congressional Republicans agree to remove him from office, but even if Republicans are increasingly no longer the Party of Reagan, they are still the Party of Nixon, with Tricky Dick serving not as inspiration or philosopher, but as martyr. To abandon one of their own in the face of left-wing attack is something that they’re sworn to never allow again, and in the face of radical shifts in what the Republican Party stands for, I’m still pretty convinced that this is one Rubicon that they’re not ready to cross. As for Democrats retaking Congress, well, be back Thursday, when I talk about Republican electoral power and what they can do with it. Suffice to say, I don’t think it’s too likely in the foreseeable future.