Questions for January 21st

Three thoughts keep converging on me when I think about what awaits American politics in the near future to be described simply as after January 20, 2021. They don’t provide answers but instead a mental framework that might be helpful.  

Starting as one should with mental frameworks, with the origins of the universe, the first idea is rooted in how things were in the beginning. All that existed was nearly entirely hydrogen and helium at a uniform temperature. This is theory of course. I wasn’t there. We’ve backed our way into it by observing some remnants of billions of years old signal and what we know about chemistry and physics. But the idea is that for a long time uniform elements and temperature kept things somewhat boring. And then a few hundred thousand years after the big bang, atoms started forming and then gravity differentials and then temperature irregularities and then creation. The applicable theme being is that homogeneity limits progress. This applies to group think in science, innovation and politics. And that consistency of substance and temperature is a sort of stagnation.

The second idea is how Bruno Macaes characterizes European liberalism as having answered all political questions with the answer being the same; to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction from the fascism that nearly destroyed the continent in the first half of the 20thcentury. Nazism after all was not a failure of innovation. It was innovation in politics and industrial progress in the wrong direction that represented something close to the low point in human history. And so all questions of European politics have one answer. A sort of liberalism that represents a pristine house that does not account for the ugly business of living in it. And in this consistency lives another sort of stagnation. 

The third idea comes from an interview Tyler Cowen did with American music critic Alex Ross in which he talks about the impacts of just how perfect classical music can be played today. The instruments have less variance in their performance. The recording and acoustics are easy to get perfect. And mistakes are more obvious and less tolerated. The impact is there’s no happy accidents any more. In today’s production of symphonies, the drummer for the Beegees never has to leave for a family emergency to force the engineer to lay down one of the most famous drum beats in history on a recorded loop and change the way music gets made. And so there’s some kind of stagnation in that. 

There’s an extra layer to this third idea that’s a little more relevant to this moment in this time in American politics. Sometimes the errors in the music are just errors. They make the music worse. And so they are corrected and the world moves on without really noticing. And sometimes in politics that’s the case as well. 

Circa 2015, American politics had reached stagnation. For 50 years the debate of social equality vs conservative American identity had dug the trenches deep enough where the two sides could comfortably lob shells over the barbed wire without hope of winning nor losing nor risking their patron’s support. One could argue one side of the reproductive rights debate alone and get the support they needed to hold office. And then the Trump phenomenon manifested with the promise of something different. 

Someone played a different note. And it got our attention. But it turned out it wasn’t the genius of innovation. It wasn’t a happy accident. It was just a flat and hollow note. It wasn’t a new debate. It was the same one devoid of decency, rule of law or competency of governing. And so it appears that we’ve corrected the issue and gone on playing off the same sheet of music. 

Joe Biden is the same sheet of music. And that was the right move by the conductor. But it won’t be the next right move. Because Trump exposed potential energy in the system. And how ready it is to hear something different. Stagnation of homogenous thinking. Stagnation of homogenous political ideology. Stagnation of outcomes. Americans are burning for something different. But it has to be the right different, not just different. Macaes argues this is possible in America and not Europe in the EU. We shouldn’t mistake Trump’s flat note for genius though. The Trump administration had no new ideas. And so he was the wrong kind of different. 

Questions beyond Biden get complicated. Is 2024 Biden v Trump 2? God I hope not. 

Better questions need to be asked. Why is President Yang a bad idea? Is there a new conservative politics that isn’t just angrier and uglier old conservative politics. And why simply insisting on secular progressivism probably won’t work? 

Trump was the wrong note played at the right time. And I hope we respond well. Historically doubling down on violently rhetorical nationalism has gone catastrophically wrong. But it’s a strong and consistent force that pops up in the vacuum of better ideas or political messages. One hopes that the sort of thing that suggestions of martial law are comes with something more transcendent than four more years of a not particularly popular president. We’ve got some work to do over the next four years that won’t be sufficiently completed with a Biden love fest. I’m ready to hear the new music.