The Struggle

Required: Calm bravery and ordinary good conscience

Dear Friends - 

Happy Thanksgiving. It may sound trite, but I am thankful for you -- writing this newsletter has been a great gift for me, and would I write if no one was reading? Well, I know my mother and father will always be reading. Thank you, Mom and Dad. I’m thankful for you, even if I don’t know when I’ll see you again since we live on separate coasts and COVID separates us.

I haven’t written you since the day before the election -- I needed a break, a chance to cleanse my palette -- and on this cold, dark Thanksgiving morning, clarity has descended despite the fog outside.

Many of the messages of this newsletter over the last six months are evident in the election outcome and its aftermath: 

But the post that keeps coming back to me is when I wrote about Joe Biden, “empathizer in chief” in the wake of the Democratic Convention. More on that shortly.

I have no doubt that Biden will be the 46th President of the United States of American come January 21st, 2021. But the interregnum will continue to be brutal and Rule 1 (It will get crazier!) still holds. Rule 1 is going to define the next four years. Is Biden playing the same game as the unholy alliance of Trump and McConnell? I think not, ergo Rule 1.

Regardless of the outcome of the twin Georgia run-offs, the Republicans in the Senate are in a strong position. Everyone across the political spectrum expected a massive Democratic landslide. Even Mitch McConnell historically rushed the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice because he expected his majority to be crushed. And yet not only did GOP candidates in the Senate and the House manage to win in the face of the firehouse of hundreds of millions of dollars directed at their defeat, but Trump somehow managed to outperform his 2016 turnout numbers. 

Trump’s election in 2016 was not a fluke. The country is divided. Trump will remain the driving political force of the Republican Party, and with Mitch McConnell (the most power-clever political leader since LBJ) at the helm of the Senate, there will be no respite for Biden, no mandate for the Democrats. If anything, the GOP believes they have a mandate; if not for the way the COVID epidemic brings unique attention to Trump’s deficiencies, the GOP might have managed to win both the Senate and the White House again. They got remarkably close.  

Our current politics is winner-take-all but always on the margins. 0.0001% of the vote, and you’ve got three Supreme Court Justices. Another decade of political strategy built around the margins -- especially when you’re facing the triple threat of structural disadvantages, a broken media-polling industrial complex, and the thick fog of information pollution -- is a defeat for all of us. Time is running out on global warming, among other things. 

Biden may imagine that his longtime perch in the Senate gives him a position of strength as he approaches governing with a vindicated GOP.  After all, he and McConnell have known each other -- and worked together -- for their entire political career. But the Trump-McConnell Grand Old Party -TMGOP - has nothing to gain from compromise with Biden and the godless, socialist, flag-hating Democrats. McConnell is playing chess on a chessboard having wagered his soul; Biden is playing tag on a playground. They’re not playing the same game, and in McConnell’s game, there is only one winner. Notice that McConnell has yet to call or speak to Biden -- his colleague and co-worker for nearly three decades -- since before the election. 

If Biden tries to play the Acela Corridor Consensus game, he’ll lose -- and so will America. The winner-takes-all-by-peeling-off-the-margins version of American politics offers no hope for the challenges we face as a country. As I’ve said frequently (and even wrote a book on the subject), America is a failed state. And the current political layout offers little hope for any long-term substantive change. 

We need a massive shift. We must get away from politics decided on the margins and towards a politics decided by a more fundamental shift in worldview. How do we change the culture(s) of the country? How do we tell a different American story, one that reshapes the political landscape so we’re not chasing vanishing slivers in an ever-shrinking world?

Biden’s superpower is his empathy. Instead of employing that considerable asset towards bending Republican Senators to his will (an unlikely prospect when Fox News is shouting in the other ear), Biden needs to deploy his empathy to the American people -- all of them (as he invariably reminds us). He should travel the country in some version of a truth and reconciliation committee, listening to (and amplifying) the voices and experiences of Americans in every zip code. We’ve got a lot to get off our chest, from the crushing weight of decades of compound systemic racism to the anger generated by decades of income stagnation while the rich get richer. 

Listening is the first step. Biden as Empathizer in Chief could bleed off some of the anger, reprogram the cult conspiracies, cut through the pollution and start to tell a different American story - a story we might all share, and a story rooted in our own neighborhoods. We don’t just need a President in Washington DC -- we need local leaders in our communities. We need to be with our neighbors. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” -- well, President Biden needs to act as if that’s true. We certainly haven’t been waiting for him. 

There are risks to a genuine commitment to listening to Americans.  An honest acknowledgement of where we are will birth an enormous amount of pressure for genuine change and could create a new political culture -- high risk to those currently in charge. What we must need is a way out of the current cul-de-sac, otherwise the pressure will continue to circle around and around, a toxic brew growing more and more insane with each round.

At this Thanksgiving, try this: forget the national politics. What’s a local issue or local leader in your community you can talk about at the (covid-shrunken) dinner table? If you can’t name one off the top of your head, think hard. You’ll find one. And barring that, try a poem: Wild Gratitude by Edward Hirsch. The poem is inspired by Christopher Smart, an 18th century British poet who was locked up in an asylum and in a mad fit of religious fervor wrote a brilliant poem thanking God for, well, everything -- one line at a time. Among other things, Smart spends 74 lines thanking God for his cat, in exquisite detail: “For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.” But for the sake of brevity, just read Hirsch’s version outloud to your family.

Lots of love, nicco

PS. Georgia: At this point, I am not optimistic for any Democratic victory, but nevertheless shall throw my shoulder into it. Too much money will be spent on Georgia -- by some estimates a billion dollars -- yes, one billion -- but if you want to give to something actually worthwhile, this program at Black Girls Vote is tax-deductible and better than giving to any politician.