Past Mistakes, Present Absurdities

If 2020 was the Year of the Unprecedented, 2021 may well go down as the Year of the Absurd.

Mr. Potato Head is now just “Potato Head.” Lola Bunny now looks like – gasp! – a normal, humanoid bunny, which I can’t believe is a sentence I just typed with a straight face. And in a supreme twist of irony, an actress most famous for appearing on the USA Network may have just torpedoed the British monarchy, a feat even a Nazi sympathizer and an alleged pedophile couldn’t manage.

Into this squall of stupidity stumbles Dr. Seuss, the beloved children’s author. Last week Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that they would cease publication of six titles because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

Conservative polemicists took that as their cue to send in the clowns. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy posted a video of himself reading Green Eggs and Ham…despite the fact that Green Eggs and Ham is not one of the six books in question and will continue to be published and widely distributed. Tucker Carlson wrapped himself in the shroud of hyperbole by proclaiming that “if we lose this battle, America is lost.” Even everyday Americans lost their minds; at the local Barnes and Noble where my roommate Brendan works, one woman bought $330 worth of Dr. Seuss books.

Those of us with sanity left after surviving twelve months of a pandemic tried to preach rationality. No, Dr. Seuss wasn’t being “cancelled;” publishers discontinue books all the time for all manner of reasons, and McElligot’s Pool wasn’t exactly one of Seuss’s best-selling works. A cynic could argue that the decision may have been a pre-emptive cancellation of sorts, removing the titles before a “liberal mob” could find them and call for Seuss’s condemnation, but companies are allowed – encouraged, even – to follow the whims of their consumers. Welcome to the free market, baby.

Then again, others argued, maybe “cancelling” Dr. Seuss was the best decision after all. There are almost no Black characters in his books, and no women of color. Some of his sketches for cartoons and newspapers are steeped in racist, derogatory tropes. Theodore Geisel (the man behind the nom de plume Dr. Seuss) participated in minstrel shows in college, where blackface performances are common. English Professor Philip Nel has argued that The Cat in the Hat is “inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans.”

We’re in the middle of a public health crisis that has killed over 500,000 Americans. Our president is launching airstrikes into a country already blown to smithereens. And we’re here quibbling about whether a fictional cat in a red and white striped top hat may or may not be kinda sorta racist.

Yes, this all feels patently ridiculous. But maybe we’re reveling in the absurdity because it’s easier than confronting the controversy. Like it or not, many influential figures from the past have troubling views on race, gender, and culture. How are we supposed to handle these problematic elements of our history? What do we do when our heroes, our idols, our icons, no longer represent the values of our contemporary society?

I have to confront this question often as a historian, particularly as one who specializes in the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers and the ideas of the Revolutionary Era are nothing if not complicated. They boldly proclaimed that “all men are created equal” while holding some 300,000 Black Americans in bondage. As English writer Samuel Johnson succinctly put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

The Founding Fathers were undeniably racist. The country they created exemplified that racism: the Three-Fifths Compromise, a desensitized mathematic solution to an inhumane problem…the Second Amendment, an insidious measure to protect the liberty of white Americans from the specter of slave revolt…the Importation Clause, a pitiful display of procrastination in a time that demanded action.

It’s easy to write these sins off as errors of context, mere foibles of people who were “products of their time.” To an extent, this is true – George Washington was a Virginian aristocrat; to expect him to scream “Black Lives Matter” and “Trans Rights are Human Rights” is a reductionist attempt to project our own battles onto someone else’s war. But to shrug and dismiss such actions as “products of their time” is to ignore the fact that the men who were “products of their time” laid the foundations for the injustices of our own era.

Indeed, seemingly everywhere we look we see the results of someone’s prejudice. Highways are racist, bulldozing Black and Brown neighborhoods to pave miles of white tarmac. Our education system, that great equalizer, is anything but equal. Everyday items like six-packs of beer and screwcap tops are supposedly sexist in origin.

Liberal activists talk of “cancelling” problematic elements of our society, carving out the tumor of injustice from the body politic. But the tumor is too massive. It’s in our bloodstream. It is impossible at this point to draw a line between the actions of a few bad elements and the symptomatic expressions of a much deeper disease.

We cannot solve injustice in society by cancelling unjust elements. We cannot destroy highways built on discriminatory policies. We cannot give back millions of acres of land to the Native Americans whose ancestors fought in vain against the encroachment of Western conquerors. We cannot unlearn centuries of racism with diversity trainings and angry Twitter threads. We cannot…we cannot…we cannot…

But what can we do?

The past does not exist to be cancelled, or changed, or erased. It exists to be learned from. It allows us to see the repercussions of our mistakes with a clear head and avoid similar pitfalls in the future. We may not be able to destroy racist highways, but we can make sure that new infrastructure projects are designed in a way that promotes equitable living arrangements.

In a similar vein, it would be hard to destroy Dr. Seuss. He is the face of children’s literature; National Read Across America Day is celebrated on his birthday. Already the books that have been pulled from publication are going for hundreds of dollars on rare book websites. The past, no matter how distasteful, is not so easily put back on the shelf.

Instead of viewing this decision as a cancellation of the past, view it instead as the first step towards a more promising future. Dr. Seuss’s work still has plenty of merit, and many of his stories—though certainly not all—deserve to be classics. But by making children’s literature more inclusive, we can hope to create new classics. We can give the next generation of young readers stories that resonate with their experiences and depict them in ways that are more honest and empowering.

The past will always be our foundation. But it does not have to be our future.

Refuel and Reinvigorate: What Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Can Achieve

Originally published at the Concorde International Review in November 2020.

In late September 2019, in a world blissfully unacquainted with COVID-19 and social distancing, representatives of the nations of the world gathered in New York City for the 74th Session of the United Nations. A result of the Allies’ victory over the Axis Powers in the Second World War, the United Nations has stood as a beacon for international cooperation and peaceful diplomacy for three-quarters of a century, making it the most successful experiment in global governance in human history. Titans of world leadership and philanthropy have addressed the distinguished body, and today, it was US President Donald Trump’s turn.

In the stately and solemn enclosure of the UN Assembly Hall, Trump fumed at, well, just about everything. Iran was “repressive” and “menacing;” the Taliban was “savage;” activists for open borders were “cruel and evil;” socialism was a “wrecker of nations and destroyer of societies.” National sovereignty, Trump claimed, was the surest path to democracy. “The future does not belong to globalists,” he said, “the future belongs to patriots.” It was a rhetorical “up-yours” to the UN from the leader of the nation most responsible for its very existence, all delivered with a self-satisfied smirk.

From Day One of his presidency, Trump promised a vision of “America First.” In practice, that has produced a foreign policy predicated on unilateralism and transactionalism. Gone are the grand multi-signatory agreements; Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran nuclear deal (JPCOA), the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the North American Free Trade Agreement—though he did negotiate a “new” trade agreement (the USMCA) to replace NAFTA. He prefers personal diplomacy, cultivating friendly relationships with US adversaries like Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, and Kim Jong Un while deriding allies for their lack of reciprocity and obeisance. To Trump, foreign affairs is a zero-sum game; if the United States is not “winning,” then surely it must be “losing.” A life spent as an incompetent businessman does not a master diplomat make.

Yet if his solution of flipping over the game board in a rage and storming off to cry in his room is ineffective, Donald Trump is correct that the liberal world order has grown increasingly imperfect. The United Nations, NATO, and other US-driven organizations were established to provide a unified counterweight to the Soviet Union; they represented a world of liberty, democracy, and free enterprise in contrast to the restrictive and state-centric Soviet model. When the USSR collapsed, the liberal world order was left without an adversary or a clear rationale to underpin their activities. Soon liberalism writ broad became the mission, but there was no clear understanding of how to fulfill it. The expectation that an open-armed embrace of liberalism would eradicate the scourges of authoritarianism and tyranny have proven naïvely optimistic. Global interconnectivity has not led to equitable economic prosperity for all; instead, some have flourished while others have floundered. The morass of UN bureaucracy has made international action increasingly painstaking while institutions like the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization have become battlegrounds for simmering great power conflicts. The unipolar moment has passed; some believe the liberal world order should die with it.

Joe Biden is not one of those people. In an essay for Foreign Affairs, Biden vowed to “once more have America lead the world.” Far from seeing the liberal world order as a relic of a bygone era, Biden believes it holds the key to foreign policy. In his plans published on his campaign website, Biden argues that “working cooperatively with other nations makes [the US] more secure and more successful.” In a world beset by challenges and prone to look inward, Joe Biden—should he win the election this November—offers an opportunity to reinvigorate the bonds of global cooperation. He won’t be able to address all the flaws of the world order–such a task is far beyond the bounds of any leader, and would likely require an equal measure of destruction as well as creation—but he can prove that rumors of the liberal world order’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Defeating COVID-19

Confronting the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic must be President Biden’s first point of business. The response to the disease both within the United States and the international community has been abysmal. As of this writing, COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than 200,000 Americans and over a million people worldwide. Even more have to live on with the grief of losing a loved one, seeing empty chairs where they once sat, hearing the ghosts of laughs never laughed, and wishing, longing for just one more embrace—an embrace that was too frequently denied to them due to strict social distancing protocols.

Internationally, nations confronted the pandemic by hunkering down in their foxholes, instituting travel restrictions and hoarding medical supplies. China’s refusal to provide transparent information on SARS-CoV-2 hamstrung the international response from the start, and the underfunded and overtaxed World Health Organization was caught flat-footed at the initial outbreak in Wuhan. Laboratories are racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, but just how long that development will take—and how effective a vaccine will be—are as yet unknown. Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, warns that nations may practice “vaccine nationalism,” prioritizing their own interests and thus sabotaging any unified global efforts to eradicate COVID-19.

Joe Biden’s COVID-19 plan focuses first on addressing pandemic in the United States—a pandemic which appears headed for a third wave. There is plenty of room for substantive improvement here. The Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic has been mocked, disgraced, and derided, and for good reason. Rather than attacking scientists and promising—against all evidence—that COVID-19 will go away, Joe Biden will emphasize science and health experts in both communication and decision-making regarding the pandemic. Improved messaging will help; so too will Biden’s plans to increase testing capacities, cut costs of COVID-19 treatments, and provide economic relief to families and business impacted by the crisis. The US must get its own house in order before it intends to lead on public health matters on the world stage.

And make no mistake – Joe Biden intends to lead. He means to create a Global Health Emergency Board made up of G7 leaders, public health experts, and influential private and nonprofit sector groups to help organize the medical and economic responses to COVID-19. Biden will also restore US funding to the World Health Organization and direct a more forceful response from the US Agency for International Development. He should also pledge to join the COVAX initiative to help organize the distribution of a future vaccine.

Biden’s international initiatives won’t be a silver bullet to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, nor will they eliminate the problems of vaccine distribution and medical supply chains. Addressing the fundamental problems of global health governance, particularly within the WTO, will be beyond his capabilities. Biden recognizes, however, that a global public health catastrophe requires global solutions; his efforts to combat COVID-19 are a step in that direction and should go a long way towards mobilizing a more effective international response to the current crisis.

Restoring Democracy

In his essay in Foreign Affairs published before the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Biden outlined his top priority: to “repair and reinvigorate our own democracy.” He promises to convene a “Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” It may sound like empty talk, but in promoting these values Joe Biden is leaning into the very thing that built the liberal world order in the first place: the power of an idea. Yes, US economic and military clout helped grease the gears, but liberalism, democracy, and free enterprise were once attractive ideas for the peoples of the world. In order for the current world order to survive, they must become so again.

The question of how that can be accomplished proves more problematic. A good starting point—one for which Biden has already signaled his support—is limiting the influence of corporate funding and lobbying on US elections. From there, the reforms to democracy only get more challenging. Biden has criticized gerrymandering and supports the creation of a nonpartisan electoral commission to oversee redistricting, but gerrymandering has been a plague on democracy since Elbridge Gerry lent his name to the practice in 1812 and seems likely to remain so. Expanding the Voting Rights Act would be another obvious method of reform, but here too Biden faces problems. The original legislation was rendered toothless by the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, and with conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett now on the bench, any expansion of the Voting Rights Act seems unlikely to pass judicial muster. Biden could then try to expand the court, but such a maneuver might be seen as a form of executive overreach.

Internationally, Biden has even fewer options. Naming and shaming democracies backsliding into authoritarianism like Hungary and Poland is a good tactic, but it is unlikely to lead to any significant changes. European leaders have domestic right-wing nationalist parties of their own to worry about, including the French Rassemblement National and the German Alternative für Deutschland. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has turned undermining democracies and their elections his own personal game of bocce ball while Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party give out foreign aid to developing countries like schools distributing literature at college fairs. Preaching the benefits of liberal values directly to the peoples of the world through programs like Voice for America would be one means to fight against the slog of disinformation, but it is unlikely to be a vaccine against democratic disillusionment.

Instead, Joe Biden should direct the nations of the liberal world order towards issues that matter most to the free peoples of the world. He must demonstrate that the world’s democracies are not dead and dying; that they are not geriatric ideas to be ushered off the stage by populists, autocrats, and oligarchs; that they still can be marshalled to solve the big problems facing our planet. And no problem is greater, or potentially more destructive, than climate change.

Combatting Climate Change

Any politician who denies the threat that climate change poses at this point is oblivious, malicious, or a combination of the two. Death Valley, in the United States, saw temperatures of 54.4 degrees Celsius this August – potentially the highest ever recorded in human history. It wasn’t just Death Valley – August 2020 was the third-hottest August on record, according to NOAA. We’ve long since moved into using Greek names for this year’s storm season—the second-most active on record behind only 2005. 24 million people were displaced by climate-related disasters between 2008 and 2018, and the number of “climate refugees” will only rise in the coming years. It’s an economic problem as well as an existential one. In the United States, taxpayers spend ten times more on federal disaster relief than they did in 1990, after adjusting for inflation. In the last ten years, the world has been forced to spend $2.98 trillion to address natural disasters—the costliest stretch on record. Drastic corrective measures are needed to avert further catastrophe.

As with most of Joe Biden’s policy plans, his initiatives to address climate change begin at home. He has pledged to get the United States to net-zero carbon emissions by no later than 2050. Biden intends to reach this goal by instituting proper enforcement mechanisms to encourage compliance from US corporations. Targeted government spending will also push the United States towards a greener economy by investing heavily in renewable energy sources and eco-friendly infrastructure projects while simultaneously divesting from oil and fossil fuel industries. Whenever possible, Biden should enact these commitments through legislation to ensure that they cannot be simply discarded by future presidents less committed to addressing climate change. In addition to these policies, Biden should also launch public information campaigns using both the apparatuses of government and grassroots social networks to educate the American people on climate change. He won’t be able to puncture the Fox News media ecosystem, but Biden can and should flood the zone with facts to combat the disinformation around the issue.

Like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change is a problem that requires global solutions. Here Biden might be able to make his biggest impact on foreign policy. He has pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords on the first day of his presidency and intends to convene a global climate summit to marshal further commitments from world leaders. Such summitry can help the US and its allies hold each other accountable on their emissions standards and climate pledges. Biden intends to push reforms to the International Monetary Fund and various developmental banks in order to prioritize green energy investment and discourage high-emission projects. Providing “green debt relief” would offer incentives to developing nations, rather than punishments. In particular these initiatives will be directed at countries associated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It is China and its fellow BRICS countries that will prove the biggest obstacle for Biden’s foreign climate policy. A combination of carrots and sticks will be the best way forward; trade deals and access to foreign markets should be made contingent on curbing emissions and other such measurements. One potential model could be a “carbon customs union” like that proposed by former Federal Reserve Chair (and likely Secretary of the Treasury) Janet Yellen, which incorporates carbon taxing into trade agreements. By working with its democratic allies, the United States can propel climate change initiatives by incentivizing reform rather than punishing dissent. And by producing real positive change on climate reform, Joe Biden can demonstrate that the liberal order can still be marshalled to solve the world’s problems.

                        *                      *                      *                      *                      *                     

The world order isn’t a perpetual motion machine, destined to churn on endlessly into the far-off horizon. Think of it more like a car—call it the 2020 UN Accord, if you will. The car already has quite a bit of mileage on it and it’s showing its age. The five gears in charge of the engine rarely work in harmony; the steering column still veers wildly to the right at times; and the gas mileage is atrocious, as the car runs and runs and runs without seeming to make any progress.

Donald Trump thinks the car is broken, unsalvageable, beyond repair. Joe Biden thinks that the car is out of gas. He is no mechanic—he won’t be able to repair each and every misfire on the car, and indeed some of those issues may be beyond repair. But by refueling the car and putting his foot on the gas pedal, Biden can show that this car still has more miles to run. That, more than anything, will be his contribution to international relations.

Impeach Him. Now.

I’m not much of a crier, to be honest.

I hardly ever cry at movies — though on a recent rewatch of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King I definitely teared up at the “you bow to no one” moment. The occasional episode of The West Wing gets me bleary-eyed, but who doesn’t tear up at good governance? (That’s a rhetorical question — please don’t answer that.)

All this to say, it takes a lot to move me to tears. And yesterday, for the first time in my life, I cried watching the news.

Leah Millis/Reuters

I cried because the country that I love — despite all its sins, its transgressions, and its deep, deep flaws — is teetering over the abyss. I cried because the most fundamental part of our democracy — the peaceful transfer of power — had been squandered by politicians who thought this was all a game. I cried because in four short years, Donald Trump has taken a blowtorch to the most resilient democracy the world had ever seen.

The man has done more than enough damage. It’s time for him to go. Not in two weeks — right now. Draw up the impeachment papers, hold the hearings, and send the man back to Mar-a-Lago as a historical failure and an unprecedented disgrace.

The actions of yesterday warrant immediate action. The sitting president of the United States incited his own supporters to march on the Capitol building in a misguided attempt to overturn a legitimately-held democratic election. It is at the very least criminal, and at worst treasonous.

There’s already talk of using the 25th Amendment to oust him. That’s not good enough. If he’s impeached and removed from office, he cannot run for president ever again. If he’s impeached and removed from office, we force every single Representative and Senator to make their position clear: are you with the terrorists, the seditionists, and the mob, or is there a scrap of decency left in your desiccated body to stand up for what remains of our democracy?

Andrew Harnik/AP

You need more convincing? Consider this. During the Civil War, arguably the most dangerous four years in US history, the Confederate flag never made it to Washington, DC. Yesterday, it was paraded through the halls of Congress by a Trump supporter.

When the terrorists got to the flagpole of the building, they took down the American flag. It didn’t represent their interests. Neither, too, did the Confederate flag, though the hateful racism of this mob would make even Jefferson Davis blush. No, they hung the flag that most embodies their misguided, delusional beliefs.

They hung a Trump flag.

There are questions aplenty to be asked about yesterday’s events. Why were there so few police officers guarding the Capitol building, when they knew a large pro-Trump rally would be held that same day? Why were cops seemingly so chummy with insurrectionist, white supremacist looters? Why were enemies of the republic calmly escorted out of the building, when just this summer Black Americans were teargassed, curb-stomped, and run over for peacefully protesting for their right to exist? What in the name of sanity was this guy wearing?

Those are all important questions that deserve careful investigation and inquiry. But there is one question that we should not be asking ourselves: how did this happen?

The answer is all too obvious: Donald Trump is how this happened. He has been sowing distrust in democracy for years, driving a wedge between his supporters and patriotic Americans, all in preparation for this moment.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP

At a rally yesterday morning, Trump told his supporters, “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol.” He reminded them, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.” He marshalled his forces and then commanded them from the rear, hiding in his bunker in the White House and smirking at the damage he had sowed.

Before the tweet was deleted, Trump called yesterday “a day which we will remember forever.” He’s right. We’ll remember it as the day the evil sparks of Trumpism burst into a terrible flame, burning right to the core of our democratic institutions.

For four years, Trump has poured kerosene over the United States. It will take years, perhaps decades, to clean up the mess–if there’s even anything left to salvage. But before we can begin, we have to take the match away from the maniac. We have to impeach Donald Trump.

Five Thoughts: What Is It Going To Take?

This should have been so easy.

This should have been a lay-up, a tap-in, a chip-shot, a meat ball, pick whatever sports metaphor you want. This election was here for the taking for the Democrats, and while they managed to reclaim the White House they will spend the next four years ruing missed chances and could-have-beens.

Donald Trump was a historic failure as president. His approval rating never got above 50%, according to Gallup. At no time did a majority of Americans look at President Trump and think, “Sure, he’s doing a good job up there.”

And how could they? His incompetence has been staggering. It has been comedic, like Trump’s appraisal of Hurricane Florence as “one of the wettest we’ve ever seen from the standoint of water” or his lurid obsession with toilets. It has been insidious, like his characterization of African nations as “shithole countries” or his fulminations about a caravan of migrants before the 2018 midterms. At times it has been truly bizarre — think of the time he launched paper towels at impoverished Puerto Ricans like a cheerleader with a T-shirt cannon, or the time he considered buying Greenland, or the time he excitedly announced his idea for stopping hurricanes: “Why don’t we nuke them?

And then coronavirus hit. He could not bluster and attack and rage-Tweet the virus into submission; it was a problem that required empathy and good governance. He possesses neither. Coronavirus ripped through the country, taking our sense of security and Trump’s big beautiful economy with it. We are living in a psychological nightmare. 242,000 Americans have already lost their lives. Many of them were our loved ones, our friends, our family. The mundane trappings of normal life have been taken from us. The scars of this year will take decades to fade.

All along, the Republican Party enabled him, encouraged him, goaded him on. Tax cuts for Trump’s rich cronies? Sure, why not. Strong-arming Ukrainian officials to dig up dirt on a foreign rival? Okay, maybe that wasn’t great, but we can’t be too hasty or too harsh on dear Donald. Economic relief for an American public crumbling under the stresses and anxieties of a raging pandemic? My god, that would require us to spend money! We can’t do that!

It was a landscape perfect for vengeful repudiation; instead, voters tentatively opted for a partial change. Sure, they voted out Donald Trump — while the margin falls well short of a total landslide, it does represent a clear and safe victory for Joe Biden. But Democrats missed a golden opportunity to retake the Senate (pending two special elections in Georgia), and in an environment conducive to expanding their majority in the House, they instead lost ground.

What the hell is it going to take to win?

One easy answer is democratic reform. Democrats want to expand the Voting Rights Act to make voting easier and more accessible for all Americans, particularly voters of color. Doing away with gerrymandered districts to create a group of legislators more representative of voters’ true wishes will also restore balance to American democracy. Eliminating the filibuster will remove obstacles for legislative reform and allow Congress to enact meaningful change for American voters. The pinnacle of Democratic ambition is to reform or abolish the Electoral College, that ugly stepsister of American democracy which gives rural Americans outsized power in electing the president.

All of these reforms are necessary, but none can be made until Democrats actually gain power. They need to beat the system as its currently constructed before reforming it to create a more perfect union. So how do they do that? There are two things I think Democrats need to improve on. These are by no means the only changes to be made, or magical silver bullets that will guarantee a dominant Democratic coalition. But both ideas will expand Democratic voter blocs amongst moderates and progressives, and neither involves fundamental policy or value changes.

Economic Messaging

Much of the Democrats’ 2020 messaging focused on character and decency, particularly in the presidential election. When they did run on policy, they focused on healthcare and the coronovirus. Those were good choices, but they should have added a third: economic prosperity. The economy was the most important issue among voters, according to exit polls; on that issue, voters tended to prefer Donald Trump. As the progressives’ memo argued, Biden was able to overcome that deficit with strong messaging on combatting Covid-19; Congressional Democrats were less fortunate.

The problem runs deeper than a single election cycle. There is a perception that Republicans are good for the economy, and Democrats are bad for it. Democrats will supposedly raise your taxes, taking money out of your pocket and plugging it into poorly-run and inefficient government programs. Republicans, on the other hand, actually care about reducing the deficit. Their tax cuts for corporations supposedly increase economic prosperity for all Americans.

These perceptions are divorced from reality. In the last year of Obama’s presidency, the budget deficit was $587 billion. This year, the last year of Trump’s presidency, the deficit is $3.13 trillion — an increase of more than $2,500,000,000,000. Sure, the necessity for economic relief due to Covid-19 threw the budget out of alignment, but even in 2019 the budget deficit was $984 billion, $400 billion more than it was under President Obama. Republicans only care about the deficit when they can wield it as a sledgehammer against Democratic reforms.

Additionally, the myth that Republican governance inevitably leads to economic prosperity may have been true under Ronald Reagan, but it has not been true in my lifetime. Every economic recession since 1980 has occurred under Republican leadership, including two of the most damaging economic downturns in US history. Republicans love to attack Obama for somewhat anemic economic recovery under his administration, but it took time to rebuild the house that the Bush Administration charred to a crisp.

Democrats need to recenter their messaging around economic prosperity and reeducate voters held captive by the pernicious simplicity of conservative economic arguments. Don’t focus on the big economic ideas like the deficit; instead, focus on kitchen table issues like wages and unemployment that matter to everyday Americans. Better still, Democrats should tie their economic message to issues of social justice and climate change that resonate with their base.

Right now, it too often feels like voters cast their ballots for Democrats in spite of economics – they like their social policies, and dislike Republican norm-breaking, but they fear that the Democrats will be bad for the economy. Until Democrats can reposition themselves as the party good for Americans’ economic prosperity, they will always be fighting uphill.

Digital and In-Person Voter Contact

Once Democrats have their message, they have to figure out how to reach voters with it. This has been another attack line from progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pointed out on Twitter that many of the moderates attacking progressive ideologies underinvested in TV and digital advertising in their campaigns. They’ve also argued that the lack of in-person campaigning and door-knocking depressed turnout among Democratic voters.

The decision to abandon in-person voter contact is a complicated one. The progressive wing of the party is correct that it did limit turnout — no amount of digital interaction can replicate in-person communication. After months of Zoom happy hours and long-distance friendships, I think we can all agree on that score. Yet in-person contact is also risky during a pandemic that continues unabated throughout the US. One of the Democrats’ main messages was that the Republicans were not taking the pandemic seriously; door-to-door campaigning, no matter how safe, risked undercutting that message. If anything, the 2020 campaign should remind Democrats how important in-person voter contact is for future election cycles.

Yet while Democrats can excel at in-person voter contact in the future, they do need to increase investment in digital outreach — and do so smartly. Pumping money into ads on Facebook and Twitter does not a digital campaign make. Only one in five Americans uses social media as their main form of news; more traditional forms of media are still incredibly effective forms of voter outreach. Additionally, they can double as social media efforts — think of Pete Buttigieg’s appearances on Fox News that quickly went viral on Twitter.

The golden rule here is this: meet voters where they are. Yes, this involves going into communities that might not have high voter turnout and increasing political engagement in order to grow the base. But it also involves engaging in good faith with as many media sources as possible to amplify your message and reach voters that are still persuadable. Democrats need to expand the coalition in both ways in order to overcome a democratic system that increasingly favors white rural American voters.

This won’t be easy. Breaking an unfair system never is. But Democrats have all the tools and policies at their disposal necessary to sweep into power and enact meaningful change for American voters. They missed their chance in 2020. May they learn their lessons and strike hard in 2022.

Five Thoughts: Slide to the Left, Slide to the Right

There’s an old Greek proverb: After the war is over, make alliances.

Ancient proverbs, however, are all Greek to the Democrat Party. Rather than forming new friendships in the wake of a hard-fought 2020 election campaign, the members of the Democratic Caucus have turned their swords upon each other. Even before all the ballots have been counted, the sniping has begun.

The first shots were fired during an all-hands call on November 5. Moderate Democrats pointed the finger at progressives, claiming that their radical agenda had driven away key voters. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn cautioned that “we’re not going to win” if Democrats run on a platform of “Medicare for All, defund the police, [and] socialized medicine.” Freshman Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger was more direct: if we run too far left, she warned, “We will get f***ing torn apart.

Other moderates soon took to public airwaves to spread their gospel. The far left “almost cost [Biden] this election,” charged erstwhile Republican John Kasich, who spoke in support of Biden at the Democratic National Convention. By focusing on “guns,” “abortion,” and “gay marriage,” argued former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, the Democrats “left a lot of people behind.”

Their arguments are disingenuous and downright false. No candidates ran exclusively on a message of “defund the police;” some progressives merged this plea with calls for intersectional economic reform, but no candidate made defunding the police their central message. Republican operatives will paint the Democrats as radical, no matter how moderate their beliefs. Liberals don’t need to cave to the center; they need to provide more resonant arguments defending their position.

The myth of the universally-appealing moderate Democrat is simply not true. As a memo released by progressive leadership groups demonstrates, liberals decisively outperformed moderates in 2020. The nine Democratic Congressional candidates who increased their vote share hold more progressive views; the nine who lost the most votes from 2018 to 2020 are more conservative. All the swing district Democrats who co-sponsored Medicare for All won re-election. Only one swing district Democrat who co-sponsored the Green New Deal lost in 2020. Meanwhile, four of the Democrats who lost re-election rank in the top ten most conservative members of the Democratic caucus.

Progressives argue that instead of caving to the center, Democrats should try to push policies that appeal to their base. In an interview with the New York Times, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pleaded with moderates to understand that progressives “are not the enemy. That their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy.” Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib echoed her fellow Squad member. “If we truly want to unify our country,” she told Politico, “we have to really respect every single voice. We say that so willingly when we talk about Trump supporters, but we don’t say that willingly for my Black and brown neighbors and from LGBTQ neighbors or marginalized people.”

So is an avid embrace of progressive policies the solution for Democratic woes? Not necessarily — though their memo does include numerous insightful recommendations, some of which I will get into tomorrow. Democrats need to increase voter turnout by turning out their base and registering new voters, particularly voters in minority groups. But Republicans can expand their own electorate, too. What develops is an arms race where the vote count gets progressively higher and the margin remains razor-thin. There is still a place for persuasion in politics.

Broadly speaking, the “moderates vs. progressives” dichotomy in Democratic politics is a woeful way to view the situation. It sounds counterintuitive, but politics often isn’t political. It’s personal. Think of the 15% of Bernie Sanders supporters who said they preferred Trump over Biden if Sanders lost the Democratic primary. The two could not be more incongruous politically — but both have a message of populism and anti-elitism that resonates with some American voters.

The Democrats — particularly the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — need to let local politics dictate national priorities, not the other way round. Some districts might be more amenable to a candidate with a progressive vision for the United States. Indeed, progressives could well expand their influence within the Democratic caucus in the coming years. But other districts, like those in the rural Midwest, might prefer candidates with a more moderate streak — or, at the very least, candidates that pitch their progressive policies within a more moderate message.

Ideological purity tests, particularly on a national scale, are pointless exercises designed to rile up partisan passions rather than solve substantive problems. Instead of defining oneself on an arbitrary political spectrum, Democratic politicians should focus on what matters: the voters. How can they reach them? How can they win them over? And how can they persuade them to support a Democratic vision for a brighter America? That will be the focus of tomorrow’s essay.

Five Thoughts: What a Load of Poll-S**t

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

That’s how a lot of Democrats are feeling about pollsters and election forecasters. In 2016, polls suggested that Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump — albeit narrowly. In 2020, polls pointed towards a Democratic victory. This time, they were right — but Trump again outperformed his numbers, and due to the increase in mail-in ballots Democrats had to wait until Saturday to celebrate Joe Biden’s victory. Additionally, polls favored Democrats’ chances in both the Senate and the House, but as election night wore on liberals saw their chances at the Senate slip away, and they’ll end up losing seats in the House (though they’ll maintain a majority).

What gives? Why have the pollsters been wrong? And why is it a problem?

First, we should withhold extreme judgment until all the votes are counted and we have all the data. Right now, Biden leads Trump nationally by around 3 points; given that many of the outstanding votes are in California and New York, we can expect that margin to increase, perhaps to as many as a 4 or 5 points.

That still leaves us with a polling error in Trump’s favor — FiveThirtyEight’s final polling average had Biden ahead 8.4 points. Additionally, as Nate Silver wrote on Twitter, only one swing state had a polling error that favored Biden. All others favored Trump — Wisconsin favored Trump by whopping eight points.

The situation is worse in the Senate. Polls in South Carolina suggested a close race, even if the fundamentals favored incumbent Lindsey Graham. Far from being a tight race, the contest was one of the first to be called on election night as Graham trounced Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison by ten points. In North Carolina, nearly every poll conducted gave Democrat Cal Cunningham an advantage over incumbent Thom Tillis — the usually reliable Marist College poll even had him up ten points. Tillis topped Cunningham by over 90,000 votes; Cunningham finally conceded yesterday.

Perhaps the most egregious error came in Maine. The last poll showing Susan Collins ahead of Sara Gideon came all the way back in July, though polls suggested that the race would be close. The race was not close; Collins blasted Gideon by nine points.

There’s a saying that the only poll that really matters takes place on Election Day. And yes, voters saying they’ll vote for Biden matters far less than voters actually voting for Biden. But polls measure more than the status of the election. Opinion polls are a valuable means by which to measure the sentiment of the American people. Presidents including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton all used opinion polls when weighing policy decisions — no one wants to enact a policy hated by a majority of Americans.

Progressives, for example, are quick to point out that their keystone policies including Medicare for All and a Green New Deal are broadly popular among Americans, according to opinion polls. What if these opinon polls, like the polls in the 2016 and 2020 elections, are undercounting conservatives? Then these policies are perhaps more of a 50/50 bargain rather than a popular policy initiative.

Election polls also dictate spending patterns. National committees, PACs, and small-dollar donors alike want to put their money where it can make the most impact; they look for winnable races where their influx of cash can tip the race. Two polls in August showed Democrat Amy McGrath just 3 points down on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Maybe, Democrats thought, they had a chance to oust the second-most hated man in Washington. McGrath raised $88 million. She lost by 19 points.

South Carolina offers a similar story. Throughout October, polls showed Harrison neck-and-neck with Graham. Democrats nationwide jumped at the opportunity to win back a deep-red Senate seat and stick it to one of Trump’s top toadies. Harrison smashed fundraising records, raising over $100 million. He lost by ten points.

Of the top seven Democratic Senate candidates by fundraising, just one won their election. The six losers collectively burned through $400 million and have nothing to show for it. Perhaps this is a case of overeager Democrats desperate to retake the Senate, but their eagerness was fueled by poll after poll offering an imperfect view on the state of the race.

How did the polls get it this wrong, again? Perhaps some conservative voters came back to Trump at the end, but this doesn’t seem likely given the relatively stagnant nature of the polls throughout the race. The myth of the shy Trump voter doesn’t make sense either — there would have to be shy GOP Senate voters as well to explain the widescale polling error.

One reason pollsters might be missing Trump voters–and right-leaning voters in general–is the distrust those voters tend to have for institutions. GOP voters tend to be more skeptical of big government and big media. A small segment even believe in conspiracies like Pizzagate and QAnon. Voters that are so distrustful of “mainstream media” might be less likely to speak to pollsters, and would thus be underrepresented in the final tallies.

Yet aren’t we all less likely to speak to pollsters? Calling voters has long been the gold standard in data collection, yet more and more voters are eschewing landlines for cellphones, and fewer individuals are willing to pick up a call from an out-of-state number. Pollsters may need to consider revolutionizing their collection methods — though more research needs to be done to understand the mode effects changing media will have on survey results.

While pollsters take a good, hard look at what went wrong with their methodologies in 2020, it would be wise for us to reflect on our own errors as well. Polls cannot give us certainty — no matter how accurate the polls may be, they cannot guarantee the outcome of an election. We treat pollsters as oracles when they should be treated as meteorologists. If the weatherman says there’s a 70% chance of sun, and it rains, do we discard meteorology? No — we accept the uncertainty of an unpredictable world, and move on with our day.

The parlorization of politics has vaunted pollwatching into the realm of sport. We are all gambling addicts, watching the polls like degenerates chasing 20-1 odds on the filly at Saratoga. Polls are not scoreboards. We need to stop treating them as such.

Five Thoughts: Trump (Un)Deterred

Donald Trump was never going to go gently into that good night. “Rage, rage against the dying of my presidential grift and exploitation of American democracy” was always going to be his exit strategy, however begrudging the exit might be.

Oh, sure, he’s launched legal challenges in a handful of states. But those challenges are dead on arrival, more legal theatre than proper jurisprudence. The grand pronouncements of his lawyer Rudy Giuliani given from a lectern located between a crematorium and a dildo store offers a new twist on the classic cliche “between a rock and a hard place.” I’ll let you decide which is which.

The pathetic end of Trump’s presidency suggests he was resoundingly thumped at the ballot box. If only it were so. In 2020, Donald Trump received the second-most votes ever in a US presidential election, beating the marks set by Obama in 2008 and 2012. If the Democrats’ goal in 2020 was to demonstrate that 2016 was an aberration and that the American people would thoroughly repudiate Trumpism, they failed.

To everything, there is a Four Seasons — even presidential defeat.

Back in August, I wrote that if Trump was soundly beaten in November, the Republican Party might try to clean house and move in a new direction. After record GOP turnout, any thought of turning from Trumpism has been abandoned. Damn the torpedoes — full speed ahead.

Indeed, it’s hard to find where Republican ideology ends and Trumpism begins. The two have become perilously intertwined in the past five years. Trump has declared grievance the watchword of the day. Every institution exists to be distrusted. Every tax represents a cruel tyranny on hard-working Americans. Every immigrant or minority group is an “other” that is instinctively opposed to freedom and liberty.

The next four years will offer more of the same from America’s conservative party. If anything, being in opposition will merely increase the shrillness of their complaints. They will obstruct Biden at every turn, saying that his plans are too radical, even un-American. They will call him a socialist for spending even one cent of the taxpayer’s money. They will say he is inciting radical antifa terrorism that destroys the lives of hardworking Americans. They will attack, attack, attack.

But what are their counteroffers? What is there plan to solve the coronavirus crisis? What is their plan to make healthcare more affordable? What is their plan to finally, after years of inaction and half-measures, extend the full blessings of liberty and equality to Black Ameircans?

They don’t need plans — not if the other side is illegitimate. That’s why Republicans have been so willing to condone Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud. They’re undermining Biden’s legitimacy before he even takes office. Fraudulent presidents cannot be reasoned with or compromised with; they can only be opposed at every turn.

Their success in 2020 has taught the Republicans that Trumpism can work, despite Trump’s loss. The formula is simple: 1) claim to be aggrieved; 2) attack Democrats/media/government/”other” for perpetuating that grievance; 3) repeat ad nauseam to widen the partisan divide and incite your own supporters.

But what of the man who perfected that formula? What of Donald J. Trump?

“The best…is yet…to come!”

Trump’s claims of election fraud will undermine trust in Biden and trust in government writ large, but they will not extend his lease over the White House. He will be back in Mar-a-Lago by January 21st. He has hinted that he might run again in 2024, but this beggars belief — multiple reports suggest that Trump didn’t even want the presidency to begin with, and he has repeatedly demonstrated his distaste for fulfilling the actual duties of the job. Trump’s days as a presidential candidate are over.

His days in the spotlight, however, are not. Trump is an addict fueled by the adoration of his fervent supporters. He is already planning rallies to try his case of voter fraud before the only judge and jury that matters to him: the MAGA crowds and the sycophantic faithful. He will continue to spew whatever nonsense comes to his mind on any conservative radio or TV station that will book him — and if they stop booking him, by God, he’ll make his own.

Trump’s continued presence on the political scene will eventually become a problem for a GOP looking for its new leader. They will be trying to win over voters who are still in love with their ex-boyfriend, all while that same ex-boyfriend keeps sending them plaintive “U up” texts. It’s a recipe for bitter jealousy.

Maybe someday the dream of a new Republican Party led by the Never-Trumpers will be realized. But until then, they are the biggest losers from this election. They bet big on a full-scale repudiation of Trump; instead, the party they once called home is doubling-down on the leader they so despise. The Republicans detest them; the Democrats distrust them. They are political ronin, dishonorable operatives with no master and no loyalties.

They wanted to reform the Republican Party. The American people didn’t; by supporting Donald Trump with such fervor, they sent a signal to GOP leadership. Obstructionism works. Democratic norms don’t matter. Party means more than country.

Expect more of the same.

Five Thoughts on the Election: Restoration

The passage of time has been distorted in 2020.

March took a century. April and May collectively lasted nine hours. And last week, Tuesday night dragged on for four extra days, until finally, on what should have been Saturday morning, the calendar was restored to normalcy.

America’s long election night was over. And Joe Biden was elected President of the United States.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking over the last week (alongside doomscrolling, and worrying, and panicking). I didn’t want to publish anything immediately after the election — the political waters in those seas are polluted by knee-jerk overreactions and unwavering loyalty to one’s preconceived notions. But this week, I want to take a look at what happened, and what comes next. It will be analytic; it will be somber. But first, it will be celebratory.

Because Joe Biden is the President-Elect of the United States.

Take a moment to appreciate the magnitude of his perserverance. He was first elected to the US Senate in 1972, but with great triumph came unbearable tragedy; his wife and one-year old daughter were killed in a car accident just weeks before his inauguration. He was a single parent raising two boys while working one of the most demanding jobs in the United States.

He’s faced professional setbacks as well. He ran for president in 1988, and failed. He ran for president in 2008, and failed — though serving as Barack Obama’s vice president was a hell of a consolation prize. As he contemplated another run at the presidency, tragedy struck once again; cancer, that remorseless killer, took the life of his eldest son Beau.

He faced more adversity as he announced his 2020 presidential campaign. President Trump saw Biden as a threat. He called him “sleepy,” suggested that he had lost a step, and–most egregiously–tried to strongarm Ukrainian officials into investigating Biden in the hopes of digging up any sort of dirt on his rival. Trump’s antics led to his impeachment (though not his removal). Deterred from directly attacking Biden, Trump launched broadsides against Biden’s son Hunter, weaving stories of a global cabal with Biden’s only surviving son at the center of the intrigue.

But this election was never about Biden, or Hunter, or nebulous allegations of “corruption.” It was a referendum on Donald Trump. His incessant demand for the spotlight made it so. The Republican Party is his cult of personality, its policies a ketchup-stained napkin with “whatever Donnie wants” scrawled upon it in thick felt Sharpie. Trump’s America is a cesspit of infighting, insults, and proclamation-by-Tweet. On November 3, voters got to decide if they wanted more of the same.

Biden is, to his very core, the anti-Trump. Where Trump scorns advice, Biden cherishes it. Where Trump craves attention, Biden gives it. Where Trump divides, Biden unites.

Trump had no political experience before assuming the presidency. His incompetency has a price: 237,000 American lives have been discarded like poker chips (with the number rising every day), and democratic norms and institutions have been tattered into confetti for Donald Trump to toss in the air and celebrate his own greatness. Biden, meanwhile, has over 40 years of political experience and a deep respect for American democracy and the American people.

In those 40 years, Joe Biden has made mistakes, like voting for the 1994 crime bill and supporting the war in Iraq. In his presidential campaign, he advocated for some policies that made Democrats–particularly those on the left–turn up their nose at the septuagenarian. But no one policy dominated the primary campaign; instead, voters begged for electability.

What even is electability? In 2020, it was Joe Biden. It was a message of restoration, not revolution. After the Charlottesville demonstrations, Biden wrote that America was in “a battle for the soul of this nation.” He’s talked incessantly about bringing people together to heal the wounds inflicted by Donald Trump. He may as well riff off Gene Kelly’s line from Singin’ in the Rain: Unity, Always Unity.

Those hoping Joe Biden will storm the barricades with revolutionary progressive fervor will be disappointed over the next four years — not just because Biden is a lifelong moderate, but because the institutional barriers to real change remain. The Senate will, barring an upset in the runoff elections in Georgia, likely remain in Republican hands. Progressive dreams of ending the filibuster and restoring the Voting Rights Act will die on the desk of Mitch McConnell. Expectations of a big blue wave were doused with cold reality as the Democrats actually lost seats in the House. Voters sent a signal that they’re tired of Trump — but not, however, that they’re fully on board with the menu of ideas proposed by the Democratic Party.

But there’s time enough to worry, and analyze, and understand. Indeed, I’ll be doing that throughout this week. Right now is a time for celebration, for the sweet release of four years of anxiety and tension. The United States has a decent man in the White House again, and despite repeated assaults by a wannabe authoritarian, our Republic–flawed though it may be–remains unbowed and unbroken.

Into the World of High Fantasy

Everyone needs a break from reality now and then — in 2020, perhaps more than ever. Picking up a novel — whether it by science fiction, fantasy, or any other genre — is an excellent way to avoid the news for a bit, and the lessons and ideas put forward in these novels often shape the way we view our own world.

One of my favorite fantasy authors also happens to be a dear friend of mine. Brendan Patrick Walsh recently published his fourth novel, The Century’s Scribe. I sat down with Brendan to talk with him about his newest offering and why this novel means so much to him.

Scott Wagner: This novel is your first foray into high fantasy. How did you go about the process of creating the two worlds that make up The Century’s Scribe?

Brendan Walsh: Well, that’s a good question because I haven’t tried to create my own fantasy world before. Each of my books before took place in the real world. Even Immortale, which was a fantasy novel, had world-building in it.

I had a lot of help. Around the time I started thinking about this story, I was reading a lot more high fantasy. Prior to that I was really exclusively just an urban fantasy reader. I took a lot of notes from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. That was the first one I read that I really latched on to and really loved.

I started out slowly. Because I don’t usually outline. I write what I first think about, then I review what I write, then I think, “Oh, this might be a neat thing to add on to that.” I start with a blank template and just add things to the world. I like that power! As a writer, you don’t always need to justify yourself, I’ve found. You can sort of do what you want. I just kept writing and the world began to make sense for me—both of the worlds, I should say.

SW: Did you ever have instances where you had ideas that didn’t really fit together? Or did it flow pretty easily from one idea to the next?

BW: It flew semi-well. It was quite a while from when I wrote the prologue of this book to when I finished. I started writing it in October of 2017, and by the time I made it to Chapter 8 or 9 it was already April of 2019. I was taking it very slowly, so I had a lot of time to think about it. Which meant that I had subplots that I was introducing that proceeded to go absolutely nowhere because I dumped them. And, in editing I had to get rid of them.

But I think about half the time I was successful. I would bring up a new thing regarding one world, regarding one character, and in the other world I’d bring up something with the knowledge that I was eventually going to bring these two worlds together. I thought, “if I introduce this thing here then that’s less work for me in the future.” At that point, around maybe Chapter 4 or 5, things started to better connect with me.

SW: You brought up these two worlds, represented by the cities of Kroonsaed and Brunswald in the novel. How would you characterize those two worlds?

BW: Well, there’s quite a few differences. The world of Brunswald, which is the capital of Skaltbard, the country where most of the action takes place, is more similar to the real world. I imagine it kind of looks like Victorian England. That’s been my vision for it. As far as what technologically exists in it, it’s maybe 1880s, 1890s London. Kroonsaed is a little bit harder to place, and that’s kind of my intention. It could be Enlightenment era, maybe 1700s. It could be even be the Renaissance based on what we know exists there.

There’s an early scene in the book where characters see guns for the first time, and they don’t know what they are. That gives you a hint of the technological differences between the two of them. In Kroonsaed, which is where our three main protagonists hail from, there are two sort of prominent species that live in the society. There are humans, and there are avehos, which are a humanoid species of avians that seem, in actions and in psychology, pretty similar to humans.

SW: I’d love to dive into that a bit more. The relationship between humans and avehos seems to be a central current throughout this entire novel. How did you go about crafting that interspecies relationship?

BW: To reiterate something that I said earlier, I didn’t really plan out a lot of things. I introduced the first aveho, which is one of the main characters, in Chapter 2, and at that point I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just thought, “Okay, here’s an idea,” and then I just put it in there. And as I went on and realized what I wanted to do with the book, it got a little more complex.

SW: Complex how?

BW: One of the things that a reader might find strange that’s revealed at a certain point in the book is that despite the fact that the humans and avehos of Kroonsaed seem comparatively backwards, they’re aware of the theory of evolution. It’s mentioned a couple times by some of the characters. I created this in line with the evolutionary ideas of vertebrate development over the last millions of years. The evolutionary chain for vertebrates goes fish, amphibians, lizards, birds, mammals. And I thought, “What if there was a species of bird that came before humans? What if civilization predates humans? If there was this other species that beat them to it?” I wondered, “What would happen when these two species met for the first time?” Probably nothing too productive, if I understand people at all.

A lot more information comes out in the second book, but in this one it’s definitely hinted that things aren’t perfect between humans and avehos. I think that’s sort of one of the things that attracts the three main characters to Brunswald, because they have this idea that there isn’t this conflict there, that it’s purer in a way. As we read in the book, that’s far from the truth, but from their perspectives, they’re in positions to be freely ignorant of the realities of their situation.

SW: I love that phrase – “freely ignorant of the realities of their situation.” It captures something I was thinking about with this novel. For the three main characters of the story, it feels almost like a coming of age novel cloaked in the mantle of high fantasy. As a recent university student and now young author yourself, how much of your own experiences went into drawing the characters of Dreden, Chanin, and Gerrika?

BW: Inevitably, a lot of my own experiences came up. I think its impossible not to, because pretty much every character I’ve ever written is influenced by someone I’ve known. And I think that’s what makes me have so much fondness for them. It makes my ability to relate to them that much stronger and it gets me more invested in the story.

I think you raise a good point about it feeling kind of like a coming of age story in a high fantasy setting. Even though this book pretty much only takes over the course of a week, the characters do come of age quite a bit by the end. In writing this I think I’m reflecting some of my own experiences as a university student, some of my own anxieties that I had about what I would do when I graduated. I asked myself, “How am I going to be able to adapt well enough after this setting that I was so fond of for four years?” You definitely see that in Dreden. I think as you learn more about the driving force behind the protagonists’ decisions, and why they each want to escape the way they do, each of them is very relatable.

SW: One of the characters even takes an interest in becoming a writer.

BW: Yes, Gerrika. At the start, he’s never been extremely fond of the written word. Nothing has been able to grab his attention until he reads the plays of Winds Wilk, who I imagine to be a sort of Terry Pratchett-esque figure. He writes satire, and is supposed to be very funny and clever – probably a bit ridiculously silly at times, but that’s part of the fun. But Wilk isn’t regarded extremely highly. Like Terry Pratchett when he first became an author – some people liked him, the critics hated him.

SW: He was seen as a “popular” author, not high literature.

BW: It wasn’t until his eighth novel, Guards! Guards! when people finally admitted, “Oh, this is a very smart book, this guy is very good at what he does.” And someone who is that passionate about the world, who’s heart comes out in his work like Terry Pratchett’s does…what people can go through for their own writing sometimes is humbling.

Now, with Gerrika, he connects with these plays because he wants to be able to be a writer, and to create what he wants. And what he wants to create are things in the similar spirit of these plays by Winds Wilk. However, nobody seems to want that. And that’s definitely a complication for him.

SW: Speaking of complicating things, The Century’s Scribe was originally much longer – you ended up splitting the novel into two parts. How did you decide where to split the narrative, and how did that affect the editing process?

BW: Yeah, it was originally 160,000 words. My publisher felt that was a bit too long. If they published that, a paperback would be maybe $23, instead of $18.95. They recommended that I either cut a certain part of it, or divide it into two books. I didn’t want to cut things, because I liked it how it was. I thought, “Okay, if I cut it into two books, I don’t have to do as much work. And, in the future, I could get more money, because people are going to buy Book Two if they like Book One.” I cut it to about 86,000 words.

The place I cut it was the best place I could, I think, because—well, I won’t say exactly what’s revealed, but the place I cut it deals a blow to the Prime Minister of Skaltbard, who is one of the secondary protagonists.

SW: It does end on a cliffhanger – some of the mysteries of the novel are revealed, but we’re left as a reader thinking, “Hang on, what’s going to happen next?”

BW: Exactly. We end with our main characters beginning to piece things together themselves. They have a fraction of the answers, enough to realize, “Oh, God, we haven’t been taking this seriously, what do we need to do? We need to figure this out.” I think that’s the best way the book could end because it summarizes everything that they know to the reader. And when the story picks up again, my hope is that those final questions that the protagonists are asking themselves will still be fresh in the reader’s mind once the sequel comes around.

SW: Besides the enjoyment of a narrative well-written and a story well-read, what’s one thing that you hope your readers take away after reading the Century’s Scribe?

BW: I think more than my ability to create a good intriguing plot or to be able to have interesting world-building, my preference would be that they think I write good characters. My favorite thing to read in a review is that I write character relationships well, or that I have three-dimensional characters. And I think the reason why is because these characters seem very real to me. A lot of them are based on a conglomerate of people that I’ve known throughout my life in the last ten years. Sometimes you intend a certain thing for a character, and they take on a life of their own, and they become their own person. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are very real. To me these characters feel as real as actual humans in my life.

I’ve said this many times – I don’t necessarily think that I write fiction. If it’s true that there are an infinite number of universes out there, then what I write is fact somewhere out in the vast cosmos. And if that’s true, I’m not a storyteller. I don’t make things up. I’m simply somebody who has the privilege of telling you what’s happening in one of those universes.

I do like what I did with the world-building, I do like the plot, I think there are a lot of things that are relevant in there. One of my favorite things in fantasy is when fantasy worlds hit a post-industrial society, like Skaltbard – I just think that’s really cool. But more than anything, I would like my readers to like my characters. To be able to relate to them, and almost care more about how it’s going to be resolved for them personally than how the story is going to be resolved for the world they live in.

SW: I think that’s really the strength of good science fiction and high fantasy – being able to ground this fantastic world in the humanity of the characters. What can readers expect from the second part of The Century’s Scribe? And does the sequel have an official title yet?

BW: I am probably going to call it The Century’s Last Word. I don’t want the title to deviate from the title of The Century’s Scribe because I want to reinforce the idea that this is one story, that this is a direct continuation. It picks up right where The Century’s Scribe left off.

I’m currently going over it again and I’m doing some edits for my publisher before I send it to them. I’m going to add a couple new scenes before I do. I’m going to add a new Chapter One to catch the reader up on what has previously been revealed and what previously happened.

And what can they expect? They can expect things to start going downhill real quick. This second part is a lot more of a rapid fire, oh-crap kind of book than the previous one, because it’s completely building off and riffing off what has come before. A reader is going to be sucked in very quickly.

At the end of The Century’s Scribe, some characters aren’t in the greatest emotional state. We will see a sort of culmination of that and how each of the three protagonists deal with it afterwards. And we will see as things start to take a turn for the worst that help can come in some unexpected forms for them. That’s what they can expect.

The Century’s Scribe is available for purchase on Amazon now.

It’s Not Politics. It’s Humanity.

Note: This article originally appeared on Standing Room Only. It has been republished here in its entirety.

It was one of those days where I found myself constantly refreshing Twitter, constantly opening my phone to find the newest scrap of information, the most recent unenlightened shred of hot-takery the tempestuous maelstrom of the Internet had to offer.

Last Wednesday (August 26), the Orlando Magic took the court for Game 5 of their NBA playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Magic were warming up on their side of the court; the Bucks didn’t show. The starting lineups were announced; the Bucks were still in the locker room. Frazzled NBA execs rushed in and out of the locker room area like worker ants at a hill, frantically wondering what the hell was going on. The tip-off horn blared through the convention room as virtual fans moved in static synchronicity along the wall monitors. The event had all the pomp, but there was no circumstance. The Milwaukee Bucks were on strike.

They went on strike to draw attention to the plight of Jacob Blake, 29. He’s currently paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in the back 7 times by police officer Rusten Sheskey in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Just another chapter in the life of a Black man in white America.

We’ve seen this story before, far too many times. Most recently, the world watched appalled as George Floyd narrated his own death at the hands of Derek Chauvin.

“Mama…I can’t breathe…Get off me…I can’t breathe…Mama, help me.”

NBA players, like so many Americans, had had enough. They actively voiced their frustration, fear, and distress. They demanded action; they demanded change. The assault on Jacob Blake shows just how much work remains to be done.

The Milwaukee Bucks took it upon themselves to take the first step. After the Bucks went on strike, the players on the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, also scheduled to play that day, announced that they too would refuse to take the court. Soon all NBA games that day and the day after were postponed.

The strike jumped from the hardcourt to the diamond. The Milwaukee Brewers, who play their home games just an hour’s drive north of where Jacob Blake was shot, joined the Bucks and refused to take the field. The Seattle Mariners, who have a league-high ten Black players on their active roster, also sat out in protest. The Dodgers and Giants joined them, with the league’s most high-profile Black player Mookie Betts taking a stand for racial justice. Other individual players, including Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, and Matt Kemp sat out for their teams that night. Many teams that didn’t strike on Wednesday refused to play Thursday to stand in solidarity with their fellow athletes fighting for racial justice.

It was a provocative statement from the players of Major League Baseball. Collective action is rare among the players unless contracts are involved. It’s even more rare from an ownership group and commissioner that vaingloriously shrouds themselves in the mantle of Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues while refusing to put forward anything but the most sanitary statements on racial justice.

Unsurprisingly, criticism for the strike was as swift as it was absurd. Right-wing sports commentor Clay Travis claimed it was another example of the “get woke go broke” NBA — though the connection between marginally lower ratings and political activism is specious at best. Bots took to Twitter in force as numerous accounts used the exact same language to announce their departure from NBA fandom. Never one to ignore a good controversy, President Trump got in on the action, claiming that the infusion of politics into sports would “destroy basketball.

But what the hell is political about any of this?

It would be political if Lebron James showed up to a Zoom press conference wearing a “No Malarkey” campaign hat. It would be political if Trevor Bauer wrote #MAGA2020 on the mound before every start. It would be political if Joe Maddon waxed poetic for thirty minutes about the minutiae of the United States tax code instead of talking about the deplorable state of his franchise.

Politics is about the partisan vitriol that often overrides desires and efforts for real legislative change in this country. And that’s not what the players are doing here. They’re not writhing in the mud with Donald Trump, nor campaigning for Joe Biden. No, what they’re doing is so much more important.

This isn’t politics. This is humanity.

This is a cry to value Black lives and treat them as equal, valuable, and worthy of respect. This is a demand to stop the violence — to stop the senseless, repressive killing of Black men and women, and to stop the violence and looting that has gripped a small minority of the protests. This is a plea to be seen as more than athletes, and rolemodels, for all of us to see past the logo and the uniform and the fantasy points to see the human underneath.

You don’t have to agree with the agenda of the Black Lives Matter organization. You don’t have to agree to Defund the Police — perhaps you support the idea that increased training programs will improve our police forces, or perhaps you’re even more radical and want to launch a campaign to abolish the Second Amendment. These are all political questions, all debates to be had over policy and legislative directives.

But the very fact that Black lives matter, the simple God-given value of their human life — that is not political, nor is it fair game for some partisan vanity competition.

I hear you. You hate politics. You hate the insincerity, the bluster about grandiose values without any consideration of the trials and tribulations of everyday Americans who are hurting, God they are hurting. And sports, sweet blissful sports, are your escape. You lean back in your favorite leather recliner, cold beer cradled in your calloused hands as the poetry of physical motion taking place on your screen eases the existential dread that has made 2020 so oppressive. And when the players go on strike over something like this, you can’t help but feel that your peaceful oasis of sports has been seized by the hateful rhetoric of politics.

But step back for a moment. Remember that sports are a part of our society. Sean Doolittle even called them “the reward for a functioning society.” The problems of our society indelibly affect the sporting world. When 9/11 happened, the sports world became a beacon of hope, an affirming sanctuary of normalcy in a world turned upside down by terror. When natural disasters happen, sports are there to rally us, to unite communities in the face of unbelievable anguish.

Why, when our society faces a long-overdue reckoning on racial justice and systematic discrimination, would sports not be there to help us confront our original sins?

Maybe you’re still opposed to this idea. Maybe you sit back and demand that the athletes play, and score, and dance, all for your entertainment. Maybe you refuse to allow any discussion outside of X’s and O’s into your personal sports bubble — but sure, let’s keep the National Anthem, that great pump-up banger that gets athletes ready to perform at the highest levels of their abilities. That’s an essential component of sports.

Or maybe, just maybe, you can’t see the athletes for what they are. For all their incredible accomplishments, those transcendent moments where they take flight, defy the odds, and display seemingly supernatural gifts of athleticism, they are as human as you and me. They feel the pain in our society, and they feel an obligation to use their platform to enact a positive change in the world.

That, more than any home run, any three-pointer, any goal, turns them into the stars we make them out to be.