Bridges to Nowhere

On liberal dreams of a more imperfect union

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Ike Turner, a horrid human being whose abuse of then-wife Tina Turner became the stuff of pop-culture lore after 1993’s Oscar-nominated What’s Love Got to Do With It?, was responsible for at least one undeniable contribution to culture. In 1951, his Kings of Rhythm made the one-and-a-half-hour drive from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to the Memphis Recording Service studio in Tennessee. Along the way, guitarist Willie Kizart’s amplifier was damaged, either by rain or general wear and tear. When the band arrived, they found that the amp’s speaker had been punctured. The session was in jeopardy until Turner jerry-rigged the amp with a wad of newspapers, producing a sound that, while frayed and discordant, could still carry a riff. With Kizart featured prominently, the Kings cut the rollicking, innuendo-laden “Rocket 88,” a hit credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats that’s often pointed to as the first-ever rock ’n roll song. And Turner, whether out of necessity or imagination, had in the process also enshrined distortion.

Turner was hardly the first musician to experiment with distortion or to ascribe meaning to it. At climactic moments, R&B saxophonists regularly overblew their instruments to create overtones, a practice commonly known as “honking and screaming.” Bluesmen had previously cranked their amps to dirty up the sound and ratchet up intensity, as on Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do.” And if you factor in the in between “blue notes” present in nearly all African American music, there was a distinct correlation between imprecise sound and depth of feeling. But in all of these examples, distortion was used for dramatic effect. Here, it was the central concern, a full-fledged alternative that rejected what they told you to do, how they said things had to sound. “Rocket 88” wasn’t the first pop cut to comingle overt sexuality, the freedom of the open road, the swagger of the new, or a refusal to play by the rules. But distortion added another layer: that of raw, unflinching feeling throughout, one that stood in stark contrast to accepted (sonic) norms. At the birth of rock, it was distortion that provided the underlying spirit, and distorted guitar would soon become—and for decades, remain—synonymous with the genre.

“Rocket 88” is in line with a peculiarly American idea: things that have been damaged, and are therefore imperfect, are somehow more authentic. As an aesthetic, it’s not only the lingua franca of rock. You see it in distressed furniture, pre-washed jeans, and the fetishization of vinyl’s crackle, to name a few more-or-less random instances; it also explains the cinematic obsession with antiheroes and vernacular like “I’ve got issues!”—traditions that extend the notion of authentic imperfection to subsume the very idea of character and virtue in America’s ever-expanding theater of psychic confrontation.

At the same time though, what might be called the distortion ethos has disfigured a good deal of our collective social mythology. As a larger premise of hard-won life wisdom, it informs much of the country’s individualist worship of the self-made, frontier-conquering possessive individualist. Within the confines of this primordial American ideal type, damage implies experience, or at least the passage of time. It gives you a story. Something has happened; it’s left a mark, and there’s a tale to tell, a lesson learned. Damage means you’ve been places, seen things, and emerged all the wiser for it. It means things haven’t always been easy for you; you haven’t gotten through unscathed, and you’ve definitely earned whatever social deference you now enjoy. It’s also a sign that you’ve probably confronted your foibles and become comfortable with some level of failure. You know yourself, you know how the world goes, and you’re comfortable wearing your hard-knocks wisdom on your sleeve. You’re an underdog, a survivor, a rough-hewn realist; you’re not beholden to any false gods, only what the world has taught you. You’re for real because you reflect the messy nature of reality. You are flawed, therefore you are human.

Wrong from the Start

The country’s baseline mythology is shot through with this thinking. You’re a scrappy colonist fighting an asymmetric war against the British. You’re the agonizing birth pangs of the Constitution. You’re the country built on slave labor that eventually thought the better of it. You’re a nation of immigrants who had to earn their place in a society that didn’t want you until it did. You’re a country that makes hard choices about complicated wars. Or, to move into the self-congratulatory register of new millennial songsmithing, you have the unassailable testimony of John Legend: “’Cause all of me loves all of you / Loves all the curves and the edges / All your perfect imperfections.”

The day-to-day political implications of this worldview are staggering: a compromised politics is more credible than one that is strictly ideological. If pragmatism is viewed as being honest about the way the world works, then compromise, as both a process and an endpoint, becomes the more honest, trustworthy option. To want big things and advocate for big ideas—to imagine a different world—isn’t simply viewed with suspicion. It’s fundamentally alien to an aesthetic of imperfection that so often confers meaning, even “soul,” upon things because their original shape has been altered. And the process by which this happens is every bit as fetishized as the final result—which itself is never presumed to be stable or consistent.

Many leading figures on the right are, of course, not actual ideologues, but they all at least understand that in order to carry their agenda forward, they have to behave like ideologues.

You see it in distressed furniture, pre-washed jeans, and the fetishization of vinyl’s crackle.

They know that reactionary zealotry makes for easy, hungry converts. Especially since 9/11, the right has successfully leveraged the trope of patriotism as an unassailable conservative brand. But as the Trump era is already showing, their putative zeal for ultra-American stances will readily yield, under the proper plutocratic leverage or crassly opportunistic political opening, to any old unmoored-power-directive-for-unmoored-power-directive’s sake. (See in this regard the epically grifting careers of Paul Manafort, Rudy Giuliani, Scott Pruitt, or virtually any other member of Trump’s inner circle.

Contrast this approach with the dominant self-image of the liberal opposition, circa 2018. American liberals have thoroughly internalized a politics that’s at once deeply cynical and hugely naïve. Even as the de facto governing mantra that “you work with what you’ve got” has, ironically enough, driven liberals out of all effective governing power, they’ve remained invested in an ethos of compromise that over time has curdled into a first-order defense of status quo power relations, regardless of how brutal, illegitimate, or otherwise misguided those relations actually prove to be. And today’s liberals have embraced this arrangement as a foundational—and emotional—article of faith.

This destructive liberal embrace of compromise also yields the faulty assumption that what we experience—how things are—dictates the limits of what is possible. What is already the case has been tempered and worked through. It’s not only attainable—it’s somehow also inherently noble because it is attainable. Anyone offering up something more expansive is full of shit and either vaguely sinister or out of touch. We saw this dynamic play out again and again in the Democratic establishment and elite media treatment of the 2016 Bernie Sanders insurgency. Democratic power brokers bewailed the bald temerity of a Sanders campaign that continued to wage a battle for the Democratic presidential nomination well past the point when he could plausibly win it, while respectable media outlets marveled over and over again at the unrealistic nature of Sanders’s policy agenda with wonky variants on the doleful Sunday talk-show refrain that the numbers just don’t add up. It was too dramatic an ask and would forever be viewed in the self-serious policy circles of Democratic leadership as too good to be possible.

Such complaints are also fundamentally driven by an obsession with the procedural safeguards of compromise and difference-trimming—even as the Republican Party aligned behind the Trumpist uprising on the right ditched any residual attachments to procedural niceties in stunningly short order. But the liberal idolatry of process is more than simply a short-sighted political tactic in a populist age; it’s also an all-purpose rationale (and an excuse) for a state of abiding powerlessness. The process by which things get compromised, not that by which they are realized, is idealized as the real work, and clichés about hashing things out and working them out honorably become euphemisms for really not giving a shit. It’s a bloodless outlook that has made an art form of giving no one what they really want or need.

Institutional Investors

So yes: this glum worldview remains enshrined as the consensus operating system for the mainstream of the Democratic Party—which means in turn it’s the main rationale for how resources are allotted to left-leaning candidates in this country. Lately, the Bernie-ish left wing of the Democratic party has begun to create space for its causes and candidates in preparation for the 2018 midterms. But we’re already witnessing a vigorous backlash from the centers of Democratic power, which are keen to disable such grassroots efforts before they get off the ground.

This makes, once more, for an instructive contrast with the last few decades of steady rightward organizing on the Republican side of the aisle. But more than that, the ferocity of the Democratic beatdown campaign—which has seen the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee take the drastic step of unleashing an opposition campaign against insurgent lefty candidate Laura Moser in a high-stakes Texas House race—demonstrates the extent to which the party of dogmatic capitulation is now committed to quelling youthful reformist enthusiasm in its ranks.

It turns out, in other words, that liberals aren’t just matter-of-fact or wishy-washy. They are invested in the tail-chasing politics of procedural compromise, vague and terminally uninspiring as it may be. It’s a source of identity for them. The problem isn’t just that no one has offered up anything better; it’s that liberals are really fans of the stuff. For them, the specter of elite compromise is what’s inspiring about politics—and reformist calls for social justice and diminished inequality are dangerous anathema to all that is grown-up, slow-moving, and wonky. They’re proud of their appeals to civility and an imagined time when politicians put aside their differences to really get things (like wars) done.

In this view, liberalism isn’t flawed; it’s honest about what’s possible and therefore at once more human, more trustworthy, and more intrinsically American. At a minimum, this amounts to a fatalistic devotion to policing the outer limits of acceptable principle. Liberal leaders at the national level resemble nothing so much as private school headmasters: a fitting simile, given the party’s hostility to public education and teachers’ strikes—smiting down unruly outbursts in their young charges as a symbolic reaffirmation of their justly won authority.

It seems almost inconceivable that something this wan could hold sway over millions of people. But the liberal romance with ineffectual compromise-for-compromise’s sake is the hallmark of cloistered cultish dogmatism. Or more accurately, this sclerotic mindset is the legacy of the Democratic center’s own cult of personality, derived from two figures for whom the conflation of authenticity and damage was almost absolute. And their enactment of this conflation in office is what helped cement the otherwise credulity-defying cult of perennially imperfect compromise as a mass political movement.

Medium Cool

Objectively speaking, Bill Clinton was not a very good saxophone player. His 1992 rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” on The Arsenio Hall Show was on par with what you’d expect from a high school player who cared just enough to control his embouchure. But not only was this beside the point—it was the point. Unable to hide behind technique, Clinton could only emote. There was the pretense of soul with zero substance behind it, and voters ate up the manifest aural and spiritual deficiency. Mastering the ins and outs of his instrument wasn’t even on Clinton’s radar: he just wanted to have a good time and let it all hang out. This wasn’t politics recast as entertainment. Instead, Clinton channeled pop culture motifs of self-expression to shift the conversation; in place of accountability, we got not only celebrity, but an appeal to one of the underlying tenets of rock ’n roll: that being a cool cat (hence the shades) was of value in and of itself, insofar as it opened out onto a particular kind of integrity that was existential rather than moral.

If this sounds like the most Boomer thing ever, that’s because it was. In the nineties, many Boomers were trying to come to terms with their remarkably facile transition from sixties idealism to rapacious eighties capitalism. Viewed as any sort of coherent ideological or political program, this shift was impossible to justify—but the Boomers, whose go-to move is self-discovery masquerading as social change, needed a rationalization. Bill Clinton, exotic as he may have been with his Southern twang and working-class background, was an effective stand-in for a generation hungry for a way to interpret their political evolution as still relevant and as internally consistent.

What he did, or wanted to do, or eventually would do, mattered less than the perception of him. This was exactly what Boomers needed for themselves: a deflection away from action that introduced a self-help-like mantra in its place. They may have pulled a sharp reversal and turned their backs collectively on their own radical past but damn it, they were still brimming with the life force. Their lives bore little resemblance to what they once imagined but deep down inside, they were dead certain that they were still the hippest thing going. For Boomers, Bill Clinton’s saxophone solo wasn’t an exercise in nostalgia; it was a call to arms.

Honking and Shouting

Clinton’s appeal didn’t stop there. Nor did it resonate solely with Boomers. The Man from Hope didn’t just charm voters with his silver tongue and folksy wisdom; he was also a master at seeming human—i.e., diminished and tragically flawed while still in full possession of his own redemption narrative. This is why, beginning with his clumsy Arsenio star turn, we spent the better part of a decade settling into the familiar ritual of seeing the first Boomer president coming forward to bare his soul to the American public amid a sea of troubles and a battery of hard-right tormentors. He’d bite his lip, cock his head back, stare into the middle distance, and assure us that he’d ferry us all across the bridge to the twenty-first century—all the while flogging the morally empty ruling strategy of policy “triangulation” (a.k.a. appropriating your opponent’s aims before you risked any thoroughgoing reforms of your own) and the discredited Cold War mantra of “the vital center.”

In the nineties, Clinton and so many other Boomers were trying to come to terms with their remarkably facile transition from sixties idealism to rapacious eighties capitalism.

As Clinton’s post-impeachment polls showed in no uncertain terms, the American public ate this formulaic act up. This became Clinton’s greatest selling point: that he was trustworthy because he was honest, and he was honest because he was unafraid to admit he was human and therefore flawed (the crucial part being the admission, which distinguishes him from Trump’s invulnerable bravura in the face of all evidence to the contrary). Early on, Clinton set the stage for his presidency in a way that seems almost prescient—half confessing to his marital infidelities to a 60 Minutes crew, while also theatrically approving the execution of a brain-damaged Arkansas inmate during the 1992 primary cycle to position himself as a different sort of law-and-order Democrat, etc.

Once in office, he was perceived as well-meaning and gutsy even as his policies hewed to the center and have hamstrung the Democratic Party to this day. So instead of, for example, earning populist derision for caving to the Democratic Party’s new armada of corporate donors in ratifying NAFTA and GATT agreements, Clinton was able to position himself as a blunt truth teller, unafraid to buck the party’s plainly obsolescing working-class and union base. At its outer limit, this self-mythologizing turn of presidential leadership seemed like nothing short of a mind-fuck—as when, for instance, Clinton sought to bolster his second-term legacy by staging a “national conversation on race” after cavalierly gutting the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program for the sake of ensuring his own second term in office.

Taking issue with specifics was impossible when there was a widespread delusion that Clinton always meant well and was, in his heart of hearts, leaning more stalwartly to the left than he let on (a peculiarly liberal wish-fulfillment fantasy that would play out in similarly agonizing fashion over the Obama years). After all, all good grown-up adults knew that sometimes dreams don’t come true.

Bill Clinton’s cult of personality was so extreme that, for millions of Americans, he was the real deal even as he repeatedly lied to their faces about . . . well, everything. In fact, by a curious inverse law of the American authenticity gospel, Clinton became more authentic, if not necessarily likable, for being a fallen idol who just couldn’t help himself. Indeed, he never really could fall from grace if, from the beginning, he’d made it clear that he considered the state of grace beyond the grasp of mere mortals.

By this metric, Clinton’s presidency wasn’t flawed—it was an astounding success, a long con that laundered iffy politics and personal misconduct by reinforcing the idea that his trials and tribulations in some way belonged to us all. Before George W. Bush was elected as “the candidate voters want to have a beer with,” Clinton pulled off a more complicated ruse: convincing the American people that he was relatable because he made mistakes and (supposedly) could own up to them in the harsh light of day. That he made them while wielding unbelievable power and with considerable consequences never entered the discussions. He didn’t have to make excuses—he was already excused.

The greatest evidence of Clinton’s genius came in 2000, when the Democrats ran Al Gore—a wooden, robotic wonk who could boast only a continuation of the administration’s policies—against Bush, an inexperienced half-wit who drew moral authority from having once been an alcoholic but who seemed like he could still enjoy a good time. It was as if the two sides of Bill Clinton were facing off against each other. On the one hand, you had the charisma-free Gore pushing the substance of the Clinton’s presidency; on the other, Bush was Bubba 2.0, going so far as to actively distance himself from the concept of governing a country or providing leadership. Granted, the Supreme Court stole the election away from Gore. But that it was so excruciatingly close in the first place speaks to how thoroughly Bill Clinton disfigured American politics.

Prophets and Loss

Ostensibly, after the many horrors and calamities of the Bush years, Barack Obama was a breath of fresh air. He was also, in many ways, a sharp departure from Clinton. America had a personal relationship with Clinton. Obama was a larger-than-life, electric figure who was attacked by the right and his chief primary opponent Hillary Clinton for, well, being too popular. Bill Clinton feigned an interest in sweeping change; Obama seemed to promise it outright. And where Clinton was beguiling and intuitive, Obama was virtuosic, wowing voters with his ability to speak to both their heads and their hearts. Clinton never claimed to be perfect and Obama was, through no fault of his own, hailed as a man who walked on water, who could do no wrong and was capable of shouldering sky-high expectations. His campaign had an air of prophecy around it: Obama seemed unshakably committed to delivering on the failed promises of the Clinton years, while taking on the many sober adult responsibilities that all the unfinished business of the Clinton era called out for.

Bill Clinton, it's okay.
© Lindsay Ballant

But from the beginning, Obama’s vision of America was curiously risk-averse. For all of his grand, sweeping pronouncements, he believed first and foremost in the grand liberal shibboleth of consensus—itself a messy, process-oriented form of compromise. The “one America” speech that launched his national career at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston didn’t present any bold vision for the future. Instead, it simply urged citizens to look at the world clearly and see the seemingly disparate Other as not unlike themselves. The conversation around politics was to be neither about attaining power nor proffering universal measures of economic justice, but on brokering disparate backgrounds and interests to arrive at something everyone could agree on. Disunity was the a priori condition of American life, and the country could only be pieced back together by reconciling the whole. To start with ideas and go from there was not only improper. It was not only ill-advised and maybe a little dangerous—it was also, and more fundamentally, at odds with the sweeping, emotive tone of Obama’s appeal. The American project was enshrined, if not romanticized, as an imperfect undertaking—and, ironically, all of Obama’s high-flown rhetoric was grounded in this somewhat dismal outlook.

Presumably moved by this more-or-less spontaneous, counter-ideological sea change in public opinion, government would at long last wise up and do its job. In Obama’s mind, this mandate chiefly involved ensuring everyone got a fair shake. His rhetoric, which feels almost bittersweet now when laid along the alt-right tantrum-throwing of Trump, assumed that cooler heads could always prevail, that reasonable people could sit down at the table, realize they all wanted some of the same things, and go from there. While getting to the hallowed point of compromise might take work and energy, people shared enough of a baseline understanding of fair play in common that, despite their differences, they could work together.

Raider of the Lost Arc

On more than one occasion, Obama approvingly quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s genuinely prophetic maxim, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This quote, which for King marked a reason to keep fighting, expressed the peculiar ontology of Obama’s politics. There were, to be sure, clear delineations of history’s moral course: right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust. Obama’s speeches spelled out a world in shining absolutes; that was his teleological endpoint. But while the president evoked sonorous and inspiring outcomes, he also, in the Clintonian register of adult pragmatic know-how, cautioned that achieving them was not going to be easy. And this was not for the reason that King himself had cited—that the struggle would be ongoing and daunting until the good guys finally broke through. No, it would be a long and torturous process by which, despite innumerable contradictions, setbacks, and bumps in the road, Reason would prevail, all the kinks would get ironed out, and America would finally have realized its most perfect unity. The process, together with the damage the process always and everywhere inflicted, was celebrated as much as that far-off, and tantalizingly undefined, future.

This pitch-perfect Enlightenment thinking would prove horribly out of step with a country in which reactionaries had found their footing as the self-designated guardians of a white Christian America in desperate need of restoration, and saw little value in coming together as a nation. Obama pleaded with America to reject polarization at a moment when the other side saw hardcore partisan division as the very essence of the political game. Failing to apprehend the collapse of anything resembling an honest broker among the opposition party, Obama saw fit to make concessions whenever possible—craving grand bargains, blue-ribbon commissions, and the other baubles signifying good earnest liberal compromise, while refusing to prosecute any financiers responsible for the 2008 economic meltdown (in no small part for the eminently pragmatic reason that many such malefactors of great wealth were also leading Democratic donors). Obama continually held out the inviting (to him) vision of procedural comity as a sop to both his opponents, whose concerns would at any time dictate the limits of the debate, and to the current system, which was always already on the way to its ultimate destiny and therefore could not be radically questioned or upended. Obama didn’t champion any sort of movement coalition that could bring about stark reforms or, god forbid, the revolution some accused him of trying to foment. The terms of political engagement in present-day America were to some degree already determined, and these represented the only possible way forward. The business of harnessing political power to create a new framework of engagement that was amenable to the interests of the many, not the few—the very direction suggested by his rhetoric—was never broached.

Unlike Clinton, Obama didn’t present himself as imperfect. Because of the inevitable racial dynamics at play, he had to come across as in all ways impeccable. But his story became an object lesson in “why we can’t have nice things.” The narrative that sustained much of Obama’s popularity, especially late in his presidency was that of a great man forever under siege: a beautiful, embattled figure who simply never had the chance to remake the world in his image, or at least in the image that had been projected onto him. He had wanted too much and was cruelly denied. The latest round of the culture wars, this time bizarrely sentimentalized by Democrats, took center stage, and identification with Obama’s perceived wounds would become the leitmotif of the party’s politics.

Compound Damage

It’s important to note here that, for all the movement-driven expectations that had been projected onto Obama, it was his damage that became the focus. What sustained Obama after the initial rush of the election was the seeming disjuncture between what he was presumed to want and what he was forced to endure in its place. Never mind that “secret lefty” Obama, a fantasy that served the disparate agendas of Democrats and Republicans alike, was always a will o’ the wisp: something always constructed in the negative, and yet one more tactical reminder of the sober limitations that always beset the formulation of a confident governing plan on the part of liberals, through no fault of their own.

Viewed against this fatalist backdrop, Obama’s presidency supposedly became a grimly instructive parable about what it feels like to come up short of your own lofty goals. There was a learned helplessness there, as well, as Obama—like Clinton—lamented the bad faith conduct of his would-be interlocutors in the Republican Congress as an alibi of first resort, permitting him to sidestep questions about the dissonance between supposedly idealistic thinking and actions that failed to sync up.

Obama’s story became an object lesson in “why we can’t have nice things.”

This is liberalism’s self-serving playbook, not to mention the de facto guiding principle of today’s Democratic Party, and it’s rooted in an attachment to Obama’s perceived suffering—the idea that compromise is not only every citizen’s burden to bear but somehow at the very root of realizing (and defining the limits of) a better nation. Democrats also duped voters the into believing that helplessness was just part of the process, that hewing to the “long arc” was the real battle—a fantasy that rationalized their own shortcomings while protecting them against any future demands that they alter their positions or their electoral strategies.

All of this conspicuous sighing over the forsaken Washington household gods of civility and compromise allowed Obama to dodge the consequences of the policies he did enact—or, for that matter, to dodge any interrogation about what he expected to achieve in his political life. In a sense, Barack Obama never really got to be president, insofar as he faced an unprecedented level of cruelty, hostility, and outright dehumanization from the right. But the fact remains that Obama did govern for eight years, and was able to exert a political will of his own from the most powerful office on Earth. And if most of what he enacted was hawkish centrism, maybe it’s because, all along, Obama was never looking to change the world—just to reconcile the world with itself. This was, for him, the greater good.

If you read between the lines, even candidate Obama promised only an optimized version of the status quo. The notion that everything Obama did, he had to do is a convenient fiction that turns questionable politics into an external imposition. And we continue imbibing this fiction because it’s a proof-text of the pragmatic liberal faith. After all, if as mighty and visionary a leader as Barack Obama was brought low by the bedrock, immovable forces of political reality, then it’s an unassailable fact of life that we can only hope for incremental, compromised change at best. And it’s only through the chastened collective embrace of imperfection that we’ll eventually, way down the road, arrive at something we might actually want. Romanticizing what went wrong for Obama keeps us from asking if he also went about things in the wrong way.

The Era of Bad Feeling

Now, of course, Obama and Clinton have vacated the stage—while at the same time, the ethos of compromise has been elevated as an end in itself. However, this approach must be measured in a different sort of pragmatic register: its usefulness going forward. We’re now seeing what happens when centrism can no longer be cast as one great man’s personal journey to hell and back. What remains is a compromised politics that props itself up with Clinton and Obama’s respective cults of personality, as process, incrementalism, caution, realism, reason, logic, order, and a slew of other categories that seem hopelessly outmoded in today’s climate are trumpeted by the center. Whatever vitality this worldview may still retain is fading into a shimmering mirage, nourished by the Kennedy Center-style folklore that’s come to envelop two once-in-a-generation political talents whose defining strength was turning imperfection into a virtue.

Yet centrism endures, now more than ever as a self-ratifying dogma. Because of Obama’s qualified legacy and the groundwork laid by Clinton, this paltry worldview has become, perversely enough, a line in the sand that liberals have drawn for themselves as they gaze upon the receding prospect of their own political relevance. The wounds inflicted by the 2016 electoral cycle, which for millions of Americans persist to this day, have allowed the entire ideological project of liberalism to take a back seat to what it feels like to be a liberal. It’s not just about being attacked by both the left and the right, which is certainly a thing that happens. We see centrism itself propped up as a net positive, the lone hope against the right’s cryptofascism and the last barrier against wild-eyed, largely clueless extremists gathering steam to the left of it. Emboldened and ennobled like never before—and for once not wholly dependent on a single galvanic figure—liberals can take the moral high ground by redoubling their fealty to centrism as the only thing that will ever really work for all of America. In a stoutly divided country, liberals can confidently claim for themselves the privileged status of hovering above the fray, shaking their heads at the desperate state of things and lamenting just how unjust it is that the extremists on the left and right alike fail to appreciate the heroic sacrifices they’re making day after day to incrementally advance the procedural common good.

The irony, of course, is that with a massively unpopular president and Congress, the Democrats could be poised to make major electoral gains over the next four years—if only they can get out of their own way.

There are too many careers, livelihoods, and egos bound up in the maintenance of the ineffectual liberal status quo. Liberals and centrists cling to compromise, damage, and imperfection.

What’s becoming clear is that they have no interest in doing so. There are too many careers, livelihoods, and egos bound up in the maintenance of the ineffectual liberal status quo. They cling to compromise, damage, and imperfection because these things at once give them life and provide them with the cover necessary to rationalize their many failures—up to and including their failure to control a single branch of national government, and a ruinously dwindling share of statehouses and legislatures. In the wake of the 2016 election, a light smattering of liberal strategists and pundits did manage to admit that they’d badly misread the mood of the country. But that tremulous half-confession hasn’t produced any serious reckoning with the moral and intellectual myopia of liberal pragmatism. The mantra in Democratic centers of power remains the same as it ever was: getting politics and government right means going halfway. Liberal sachems all along the think tank world and candidates now materializing at all the many 2018 donor cattle calls will tell you that the country’s history, recent and otherwise, bears this out; that partisanship gets you nowhere; that democracy is hard and painful but therein lies its glory.

Liberals would have you believe that voting your values is reckless and immature, that resignation to the unremarkable is a noble goal in and of itself. These attitudes have come to define mainstream Democrats and at this point, amount to a historical legacy—one bequeathed to us not only by Clinton and Obama, but by the past generation of party orthodoxy. However, anyone asserting the immutable virtues of pragmatism for liberal politics would do well to recall the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, which is referenced fondly, if somewhat absent-mindedly, by liberals as an era of tremendous gains. But The New Deal wasn’t born out of compromise or capitulation. And far from pinning his mass appeal on any ur-American narrative of redeemed authenticity, Roosevelt was a self-styled and cheerful class traitor who made a point of blaming the Depression on the short-sighted leaders of the financial sector, going so far as to “welcome their hatred” in his final speech before the 1936 election. Instead of staking out a strategically overvalued middle ground, the Roosevelt administration purposefully antagonized the very same people that today’s liberals find common cause with, willingly capitulate to, and wish ultimately to be counted among. The New Deal coalition was the backbone of the Democratic Party and its majoritarian politics for decades—until, that is, the party starting bargaining it away for no good reason beginning with Clinton’s first term.

Misreading the Signal

Scientifically speaking, any alteration of a soundwave counts as distortion. In music, though, the term refers to either the harmonic or enharmonic distortion of a “pure” tone. Harmonic distortion is the accentuation of harmonic overtones—the introduction of additional notes that are mathematically derived from the fundamental tone and are present in the original frequency, albeit at lower levels than it. There’s also enharmonic distortion, which is what happens when unrelated, seemingly random, overtones result from the transmission, amplification, or preservation of a soundwave. It could be argued that even in this most (ahem) fundamental level, there’s no such thing as a “pure” tone, and distortion is an unavoidable fact of life. Creating a false binary between purity and distortion therefore invariably ends in fatalism or disappointment, i.e., “everything is distorted, why bother?”

But there’s another interpretation of this phenomenon: that overtones augment, rather than detract, from musical information. Distortion as a necessary fact doesn’t compromise an original tone; rather, it enhances depth, complexity, and resonance and can be leveraged from the beginning as a positive—if you’re capable of generating an idea that can, and was meant to, live out in the world, divorced from the (non-existent) idea of purity.

“Rocket 88” wasn’t damaged because it had to be out of necessity—but because, in prominently featuring its guitar, it was devised to be. In other words: it’s honest not for rolling with the punches but for brashly asserting that damage could be overcome, repurposed, and emerge as a new kind of beauty. Maybe authenticity isn’t about embracing the idea that everything is fucked but about differentiating between a world that is and our capacity to come up with ways to actually address and rectify its shortcomings.

Nathaniel Friedman is the editor of Victory Journal and a columnist at GQ. He published two books about the NBA as a member of the FreeDarko group.  

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