In a few days, I and several of my colleagues will be meeting with our Congressman for the first time since the election. I believe this will be our 17th meeting with him over the past four years, though to be honest I’ve lost count. That’s just to say that I’ve met him enough times now to know him and his positions well, and how these meetings go. My Congressman is a centrist through and through, not out of practicality, as he likes to think, but out of ideology. This has led to a lot of frustration on my and my colleagues’ part, and in the aftermath of the election it’s making me extremely worried.
Last month, Senator Joe Manchin said in an interview that “Democrats have to be better at defending what they stand for.” I don’t agree with Senator Manchin on much of anything but I do sort of agree with that, though I’d go a bit further: Democrats don’t need to just defend what they stand for, they need to define what they stand for. Right now it’s not clear that the Democratic Party actually stands for anything, and I think that’s why they have so much trouble with so many constituencies.
That is, Democrats talk a lot about healthcare and working families and diversity and climate and stuff but the policies they as a party actually work toward are mostly small tweaks to the existing system. The fundamental ideology of the centrist Dem is that the system is mostly fine as is. I think this has a lot to do with why Democrats struggle so much in so many parts of the country and why there’s so much in-party fighting. They struggle because the system as-is doesn’t work for a lot of people, and they don’t actually present an alternative. Moreover, they don’t really want to present an alternative.
But people whose lives are in danger from racist cops, mass incarceration, and the by-products of segregation are not going to be helped by new police training standards. People whose communities’ economies have been tanked by dwindling natural resources and corporate greed are not going to be helped much by things like wonky tax credits and minor tweaks. People who are being threatened by climate change are not going to be saved by things like tax credits for electric cars or streamlined permitting procedures for new hydro plants. The system as it is just doesn’t work for a lot of people, especially not the people who are the actual core constituencies of the Democratic Party. It’s hard to turn out a vote from those people when what your party demonstrates is a commitment to the status quo.
Whatever else we can say about the Republican Party, they are actually committed to changing things. They’re committed to changing things for the worse, of course, to making things more racist and sexist, to taking from the poor and giving to the rich. But it’s something.
Centrist Dems all over the country have been screaming that they lost (or almost lost) because Republicans are tying them to stuff they don’t actually support from the progressive wing of the party and from activists. But if it were clear what they actually stood for, you couldn’t do that. That is, if somebody lies about you and a lot of people find that lie plausible, I think it’s worth taking some time to understand what it is about your character and behavior that is leading people to find that lie plausible.
This is fundamentally what electoral politics is about. You need to define what it is that you stand for. You need to make it clear. You need to demonstrate why your way is going to help your constituents, both in your messaging and in your actual governance. If you say one thing and then do another, people aren’t going to trust you. And they shouldn’t. Right now the Democrats only real redeeming virtue is that they aren’t the Republicans. “Same” is, at the end of the day, better than “worse.” But that’s not ultimately sustainable.
Really, what both parties are doing right now is looking backwards. Trump explicitly calls back to a pre-Civil-Rights-era America in his campaign speeches, and we rightly denounce him for it. But it seems to me that a lot of the Democratic Party messaging is calling back to the Clinton ‘90s or the Obama years—Biden did that a lot during his campaign. They’re making an appeal to some imagined past when everything was better and more decent. But were we ever decent? Maybe our political rhetoric was less obscene, but Obama still deported more people than any President before him, climate change was already underway and accelerating, and billionaires were still looting public instutitions—they were just quieter about it and most Americans were comfortable enough to look the other way.
I know that when I sit down for that meeting next week, my Congressman is going to talk about the need to avoid alienating Republican and moderate voters, about the need for bipartisanship, about not being too extreme. But we are past the point where incremental changes can solve the problems we face—if, indeed, there ever was a point where incrementalism was sufficient. My fear is that if big changes aren’t made in the near future, the kinds of change that meaningfully affect people’s actual lives, the backlash in 2024 will be more than we can handle, and certainly more than what centrists like my Congressman are expecting.
Things aren’t hopeless. Even somebody as milquetoast as Chuck Schumer has acknowledged that we need more. I just hope we have time to get there.
This Photograph Is From March
What I’ve Been Up To
- A while back I had the chance to talk with the wonderful Jenn Baker for her podcast Minorities in Publishing, and the episode went up this week. Jenn does a ton of work championing marginalized voices in the publishing industry, from writers to editors to publishers, and it was a real treat getting to talk with her. We talked about how podcasting is a labor of love (emphasis on the labor), why it’s necessary to define success on your own terms, the importance of accessibility, and why I wanted to create a new venue for marginalized writers. You can listen in your favorite podcast app (search “Minorities in Publishing”) or you can read a transcript via the show’s Tumblr.
It’s time for #BuyArtFriday again! Here are some items for your consideration:
- Foto Relevance’s RESTART collection is available for purchase online, featuring new limited edition prints by the gallery’s artists. Prints are available from $300.
- Candela Books + Gallery’s 2020 Holiday Shopping Guide is now available, featuring photographic gifts from under $150 up to $10,000. Candela is also offering a special bundle set of exhibition catalogs for $65, which includes catalogs by Holly Roberts, Shinya Masuda, and Gary Burnley, and a show card.
- Photographer Victoria Mara Heilweil’s online store includes selections from her “#dailybeautyintheageofcoronavirus” series and her “Infinite” series, with signed, limited edition prints available from $100.
- The Center for Fine Art Photography’s 2020 Year-End Fundraiser “The Toast” is going on now, with new items released weekly through the end of the year. Items include limited edition prints, signed books, portfolio reviews, website design consultations, and hand-roasted coffee. You can even name one of their goats! Donating artists are offered a portion of the sale, and all funds go toward supporting 2021 programming at the Center.
- Photographer Alain Laboile is offering a collection of seven different thematic portfolios. Each portfolio consists of a signed, handmade box with six prints, each in an edition of 30. Portfolios are 190€ + shipping (worldwide).
- The Los Angeles Center for Photography’s photobook California Love - A Virtual Mixtape is available via the Center’s BigCartel shop. The book features images by 110 photographers and is on sale for $39.99 (regular price $50), or $100 with fine art print. Proceeds benefit the Center.
- Adam Gerlach’s new photobook Traces of Light is now available from Dark Spring Press. The trade copy is $55, and the collector’s edition (with print) is $200.
- Photographer and painter Andy Burgess’s first photobook, Signs of Nothing, is now available. You can purchase copies directly from the artist: the trade edition is $25, and the collector’s edition (with original selenium-toned print) is $150.
- Photographer Pixy Liao’s new exhibition “New Wife, Old House” can be viewed via Chambers Fine Art’s online viewing room through February 5, 2021.
That’s what I have for this week. If you have art for sale or any upcoming online events, please share your links in the comments, or email them to me at email@example.com. And please support the arts however you can!
It’s Friday, so here are some things that mattered to me recently:
- Helena Fitzgerald wrote about small rooms, about repetition, about time, about how our stories aren’t what we think they are. It’s about the pandemic, of course, but it is mostly about longing, and mostly about unfulfilled longing.
- I was catching up on past episodes of LeVar Burton Reads this week, and listened to Rebecca Roanhorse’s story “Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life.” The story itself was great, a Western that centers on a Black lesbian couple. But also, Burton’s monologue at the end, in which he talked about race and policing and the importance of sitting in our discomfort as a path to growth. It was personal and deeply moving.
- Episode 80 of Ross Sutherland’s experimental fiction podcast Imaginary Advice starts off with a discussion of his recent series The Golden House, which was a form of alternate reality game. He talks about the way ARGs play off a certain form of paranoia, and talks through the responsibility of making something like that. Then in the second part he showcased a collaboration between himself and Emmy the Great, which involved writing two pieces of fiction with the exact same soundtrack. I loved how both segments got me to thinking about my own creative process.
- This week on Anand Giridharadas’s newsletter The.Ink, he posted an interview with grassroots organizer Vincent Emanuele. They talked at length about the ways the Democratic Party is failing to reach the voters they need to, prioritizing fundraising over engagement with the people that make up their base, and why that’s dangerous for the future. But, importantly, they also talked about the alternative and how to build real community and make real change.
- I was so happy to see Rachel Zucker’s podcast Commonplace return this week, and extra happy to see that she was talking with David Naimon of Between the Covers. These are two of my favorite podcasters, and a lot of the insecurities and frustrations and shame that Rachel described were things that felt very familiar to me.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently.
Thank you, and take care.