Author: Michael Lovito

Chatroom: Which State Should Go First in the Primary?

After the disastrous Iowa Caucuses in 2020, there has been increased scrutiny of the first-in-the-nation competitions in the party primaries. Iowa (with the first caucus) and New Hampshire (with the first primary) are both disproportionately (90%) white, rural and not very representative of the nation as a whole.

The 2020 Democratic nominee and now president Joe Biden did not win either state, but his more diverse coalition saved his campaign when the primary moved on to Nevada and South Carolina, both states that had more significant Asian, Latinx, or Black populations and a more diverse swath of voters.

This past week, legislation was introduced in the Nevada Assembly to convert its caucus into a primary and assert itself as the first state in the primary calendar. Despite being much more representative of the nation as a whole, Iowa and New Hampshire are fighting back hard, and we wanted to take this time to reflect on the primary calendar and some potential changes that could be made. Which we’re doing in The Postrider‘s first ever Chatroom.

[This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity]


Lars: So, here today is Michael Lovito, our editor-in-chief.

Michael: Hello.

Lars: And myself! Your State & Science editor and passionate primary follower.

So Michael, why don’t you kick us off with hey, should we change it at all? Or should Iowa and then New Hampshire go first forever?

Michael: Well, I’ll start off with something I think we can both agree on, which is that whichever states go first, the parties need to get rid of caucuses. They’re exclusionary and complicated, and a lot of former caucus states (like your old home of Colorado) have already moved on to primaries

Lars: Yes, totally with you there. Caucuses are nightmares, but it seems like they’re on the way out anyway.

Michael: And it’s worth pointing out too that they aren’t constitutionally mandated like the Electoral College. While they’re mandated by state law in Iowa, that’s only been the case since 1972. Our parents are older than the Iowa caucuses! New Hampshire has a similar law about primaries as well

Lars: It’s like if New Jersey passed a law saying “we always have to get vaccines before other states” but then for some reason the government went along with it because “oh well they have this law… can’t step around that”

But I digress…

Michael: Yes, anyway, I’m avoiding the central question. Would it make sense for a more diverse, less rural state than Iowa to have the first presidential nominating contest? Absolutely it would. But part of me wonders if we wouldn’t be having this conversation if the Iowa caucuses weren’t such a disaster in 2020, and if we would have felt differently if Biden had won them. Because between 1996 and 2016 (and keep in mind that a fair bit of uncompetitive caucuses happened in that time frame), the eventual Democratic nominee did, in fact, end up winning in Iowa.

It’s actually the Republican caucuses that have had the worse track record selecting a nominee in recent years, with Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz winning in 2008, 2012, and 2016, respectively, which is especially ironic considering that Iowa looks a lot more like the Republican base than the Democratic one.

So I guess my question is, 1. What is the goal of reshuffling the primary calendar, and 2. Are we sure it’s as broken as we think it is?

Lars: Well that’s a great transition into kind of the other side of this, is should it change for both parties, should the primary calendar be standardized for both parties, and should there be more of a top-down primary system as oppose to the state-up system we have?

Having Iowa go first is clearly detrimental on the Democratic side, it’s just not reflecting of the Democratic electorate at all.

People spout off all the time that it allows Democrats to learn “retail campaigning” in a small state and that Iowans are “experienced” vetters of candidates who are better equipped than other voters to choose which makes me roll my eyes.

Pete Buttigieg won the Iowa primary in 2020 but he was clearly not the best suited candidate to win nationally.

As for the Republicans, as you pointed out, Iowa hasn’t actually chosen their eventual nominee in quite some time, since Bush in 2000 actually (keep in mind their winners since have been… Huckabee in 08, Santorum in ’12, and then “Flyin'” Ted “Cancun” Cruz in ’16).

But I generally believe states should have both parties go on the same day. Though the parties should be free to choose different mechanisms for voting and delegate allocation (more winner-take-all in the GOP’s case, proportional in the Democratic case), it allows some innovation and has been very helpful on the Democratic side especially.

Michael: Yes, as someone who follows and occasionally writes about these things, I think I’d go insane if the parties decided to hold their primaries/caucuses on different dates.

Lars: Yeah, political reporters across the world plead — do not do that.

Michael: So, I think where I stand on Iowa (and I guess New Hampshire), is that 1. for Democrats they are not representative of their base and should probably not go first, but 2. I think that we’re overreacting a little bit to what happened a year ago, unless you think that the reason the Democrats lost in 2004 and 2016 was because John Kerry and Hillary Clinton were worse nominees than John Edwards and Bernie Sanders, but I know at the very least that you don’t hold that opinion.

But let’s entertain some hypotheticals: assuming only one state gets to go first, which should it be? This may be controversial, but I don’t think it should be Nevada or South Carolina, either!

Lars: Oh forgive me for thinking John Kerry would have been a better president than John Edwards… 😆

But I actually think that’s a case against Iowa! Kerry-Edwards was a very close race in Iowa when it was not nationally, and same with Clinton-Sanders. Iowa actually favored Edwards and Sanders relative to the nation at large, whereas Kerry and Clinton were stronger candidates and more representative of the party overall!

But so you asked what should it be, if not Iowa…

So I’m at first drawn to FiveThirtyEight’s article which orders each state by demographic similarity to the Democratic Party at large and notes Illinois is the most similar.

Illinois is… much bigger than Iowa or NH, obviously, which I think poses its own problems, which is why I think it’s not my final choice. But it has a major city, rural areas, 22% Black, 9% Hispanic, and a good mix of those with a college degree and those without one, it’s much more aligned with the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole.

Michael: I’m obliged to point that number two on the list is my home state, the Great State of New Jersey, and even before reading this article I was thinking that it might be a good first state for similar reasons. It’s home to a significant African-American and Latin American community, as well as the kind of middle class suburbs that handed Biden his win against Trump in 2020. If you were looking for a microcosm of the Democratic base, it’s not a bad choice…

Lars: It’s not! They’re both fairly large, which means they’re expensive to campaign in, and it’s less personal than in say… Iowa 😑

So I kind of have a different idea… unless you want to make a very strong case for one particular state?

Michael: I think my case is New Jersey! It’s got a lot of people but it’s compact area wise and is fairly representative as the party as a whole.

Lars: Okay let’s talk about that then because there are some big hurdles there.

So the problem is, and this is great because I get to use one of my favorite maps in the world…

New Jersey falls into two media markets. And they’re two of the most expensive media markets in the country: New York and Philadelphia. It literally does not have its own media market. It would be untenable for anyone without pretty significant (Bloomberg or Sanders level) funding to have any play there.

I agree that demographically NJ has a good case, but it is very different and less accessible than Illinois in this way specifically. In Illinois, Chicago is one of many media markets, there are also several others in the state (Peoria, Springfield, Rockford, St. Louis, Quincy, Harrisburg, etc.) that are not so expensive.

Michael: Fair enough. But is Illinois your pick for number one?

Lars:
I think if it had to be one state, Illinois is a pretty good choice. Certainly for the Democrats… but I think it’s similar enough for the nation as a whole that it’s probably a good idea for Republicans too. It’d do that party some good to have to have candidates campaign in cities as well as suburbs and rural areas (same with Democrats, for that matter, but in the inverse)

But if I’m the kingmaker and decided of all in primary world. And if I can stretch this a little bit, I think you have to start the primary with several states. No one state should go first, but maybe four should?

Basically, at the beginning of the year — and hey, make an event of it! Gamify the primaries a little! — you do a drawing of one state from each region (Northeast, South, Midwest, and West) and one state from each goes all on one day. And then a week or two later, the next state from each goes.

This is a good way to ensure a diversity of states, ensure no one state goes first, and makes it as close to fair as it can be — while allowing different candidates the choice of where to prioritize.

Michael: I think I tend to agree with this approach — the messed up thing about the primary system is that it was never really meant to work this way. The first primaries were really “beauty contests” that potential nominees would run in to show that they were viable electorally, but in most cases the results were non-binding — Hubert Humphrey didn’t even run in any primaries in 1968! So what you have now is a weird sort of combination audition and election, where candidates try to prove that they’re a viable general election nominee by performing well with the party’s base…it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you think about it.

In lieu of a same day, popular vote primary (which I know you’re vehemently opposed to but I’m not all the way out on), I think a “sampling” of states from across the country holding primaries over the course of a few weeks makes the most sense and balances it all out.

Lars: Yeah, exactly.

We’d have to rebalance the “regions”. Like, put Maryland, Delaware, and DC in the “Northeast”, since they’re not really the “South” culturally anymore, and include the territories (who do vote in the party primaries) logically, so Puerto Rico could be the South but Guam would be the West.

And yes, there would technically be a chance that California, New York, Illinois, and Texas are all drawn as the “first four” primaries — which would be a bummer. But more likely you’d get like a New Mexico-Virgin Islands-Michigan-Connecticut primary. Which is a pretty good mix of things!

And candidates could say “hey well I’ll probably do well in Michigan but not so much in Connecticut” so it helps bring back the diversity of candidacies that I think the Iowa caucuses has really done a disservice to.

Michael: Part of me does wonder — would this approach drag out the process and maybe even lead to more contested conventions? Will it be harder for one candidate to pull away?

Lars: That is a good point. I think not so much in the GOP with their winner-take-all system.

But I think it also discourages fringe candidates, since everyone enters the race you know a year before anything even happens and then only at the start of the year do we find out the schedule.

You’d have to have some semblance of national viability to have a shot; and yeah, you could be the beloved governor of Nebraska and then your state is one of the first four, and that’s awesomely lucky for you, but that doesn’t mean you played so well in Florida and Rhode Island that same day, unless you chose to go there and campaign too and they ended up liking you.

It also means all of these months and months of investment in one state are meaningless, right? So it could even be more accessible to candidates who haven’t spent two years deploying an army to Iowa.

Michael: Well, that leads me to another question: Do we think any change is likely to happen? Or are the Iowa and New Hampshire lobbies too strong within either party?

Lars: I’ve been watching the Nevada drama, Nevada definitely has a better case to go first than Iowa just in terms of diversity and handling their elections way better. But I think you’d have to have the party come down on Iowa for it to change it since Iowa’s law requires its caucus take place eight days before any other state’s election.

But if the DNC and all of its prospective candidates in 2028 say leaned on Iowa and said “we aren’t going to go here first”, then maybe? Momentum is pretty hard to find for stuff like that though, and it almost becomes a game theory problem. Any one candidate who then decides to go to Iowa and eschew the party means they all have to rush back there.

The DNC could do something like decide delegates from Iowa will be almost worthless, but you still get a lot of media attention from winning the first contest, which is incentive enough to go.

We seem to agree we’re due for change, but do you think it’s going to happen?

Michael: Not really. My feelings on Iowa and New Hampshire at this point are a lot like my feelings on cigarettes: We all know they’re a bad idea, but there’s too much money and influence involved to ever do away with them for good. Maybe Iowa moves to a primary, but both of those states’ identities are so wrapped up in their “first in the nation” status. They might have to make some sort of compromise with the parties, but I don’t think anything too radical is going to happen. Heck, even if Nevada moves their primary to January 1st, I wouldn’t put it past Iowa and New Hampshire to move their contests to December.

Lars: Yeah I agree. Well, what an uplifting way to wrap up our first chat. “Nothing will change”. 

Any parting thoughts or headlines or are we doomed to live in Iowa’s America forever? 

Michael: I think that about sums it up for me — I look forward to lots of hate mail from Iowans and New Hampshirites in the coming days.

Lars: Haha yeah, well, thank goodness there aren’t many of them to begin with…

I think I’d sum this up with noting that of the last seven presidents, only two of them actually won Iowa in their primaries.

Michael: And yet five of them would end up winning Iowa at least once in their general election. Elections — they make no sense!

If Trump Runs in 2024, Who Will Be His Running Mate?

In 2019, we ran a piece about President Trump’s upcoming reelection and his relationship with Vice President Mike Pence — who we dubbed “the one man in the administration that President Trump cannot fire.” The article centered on whether or not Trump would drop Pence from the ticket, how it might play out, the historical context to keep in mind, and who he might choose in 2020 if Pence got the boot. 

It turned out to be wonkish conjecture. Despite some prognosticatorsbold predictions of Trump switching Pence for former UN Ambassador and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley at the last minute, Trump kept the steady and reliable Mike Pence on the ticket. It was probably a smart decision — the staid Pence performed much better in his debate than his running mate, and as we’ve discussed many times in our Running Mates series, it never projects confidence and stability if you have to drop your own running mate for reelection. It reflects a fault in your own decision making ability, displays disloyalty, and perpetrates a message of chaos in your own administration.1Not to mention all that campaign merch you’ve now got to replace! These traits are somewhat emblematic of the Trump administration, to be sure, so kicking Pence off the ticket would not seem too out of place from the Trump White House tumult we’ve come to expect.

In 2020, Trump assigned Pence to lead the coronavirus task force, distancing the president from the day-to-day fallout of the virus. The pieces were there to shuffle Pence off, blame him for the escalating crisis, and invite some exciting new talent in now that Trump had his pick of the Republican litter in 2020, if he wanted to. Had Trump not inserted himself into daily briefings on the coronavirus, blamed everyone but himself, and downplayed the crisis, it just might have worked. But of course, he did not, and the crisis culminated in the deaths of over 200,000 Americans by Election Day as well as an outbreak in the White House itself, infecting the president and the first family. Trump, with Pence, went on to lose reelection to the Biden-Harris ticket in November, in large part a consequence of the bungled response to the coronavirus and its economic consequences.

Now facing his own political mortality, as he slowly acknowledges he will not be president come January 20, 2021, Trump has ratcheted up hints of a run for the presidency in 2024. “Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years,” he told guests at a White House Christmas Party on December 1. The president has told allies he may run in 2024, potentially even announcing during Biden’s inauguration, and his campaign has emailed supporters asking if they want Trump to run again in 2024. This has some people thinking ahead — if Trump runs again in 2024, does he choose Pence as his running mate again? And if not, who is the alternative? Can Trump even pull off getting the nomination again?

It’s Happened Before… But You Won’t Remember It

Let’s start by looking at the only person to pull off what Trump would be trying to achieve were he to run again in 2024. President Grover Cleveland lost re-election in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, but would go on to avenge himself in 1892 to reclaim the title. For his second run, Cleveland replaced Thomas A. Hendricks, his 1888 running mate and first vice president, with Adlai Stevenson I, who served as Postmaster General during Cleveland’s first term. Of course, Cleveland didn’t have much of a choice: Hendricks died in his sleep only eight months into his vice presidency (Cleveland served without a vice president for the remainder of his first term and tapped former Ohio senator Allen G. Thurman as his running mate in 1888).

Presidents and their running mates weren’t always expected to mate for life.

Presidents and their running mates weren’t always expected to mate for life. Eight presidents have had at least two vice presidents (Franklin D. Rooselvelt holds the record with three), and while some of these VPs met the same unfortunate fate of Thomas Hendricks, some were shuffled aside for purely political reasons. Of course, seven of those eight presidents (namely Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Licoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, and Roosevelt) served in a much different era of party and electoral politics than the one we find ourselves in today. Whereas the perception nowadays is that a presumptive nominee for president picks their running mate and then tells the convention to vote for them, it used to be the other way around. Running mates weren’t decided until the convention itself, when various factions of the party would lobby for a candidate that best reflected their interests — that’s how a free silver advocate like Stevenson wound up running with the goldbug Cleveland, and how a Southern conservative like Garner found himself serving two terms under a Northern liberal like Roosevelt. If building a modern presidential ticket is like speed dating, then the process of yore was more akin to an arranged marriage, with the unions in question dissolved if it suited the party. The influence of the party made itself felt as recently as 1976 when Gerald Ford became the last incumbent president not to run for re-election with his incumbent vice president after deciding he needed to dump the liberal Nelson Rockefeller in favor of the more conservative Bob Dole to win his contested convention against Ronald Reagan.2Ford, for the record, called it “one of the few cowardly things I did in my life.

If we’re trying to find a historical example that would best guide our assessment of a Trump-Pence reunion, we’d have to look at the eighth and most recent president to have multiple understudies — Richard Nixon. His comeback victory in 1968 after losing in 1960 is probably the closest modern equivalent to what Trump might try to achieve in 2024. In 1960 Nixon chose Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. who, like the oft-rumored Pence replacement Nikki Haley, served as Ambassador to the United Nations. The pick made sense: Nixon was only 47 at the time and represented the younger, more conservative wing of the Republican party while Lodge, who had also represented Massachusetts in the Senate, was nearly 60 and represented the Northern, centrist party establishment.3Lodge had a fascinating career: In addition to serving in the Senate and as Eisenhower’s ambassador to the UN, he would also serve as the Kennedy and later the Johnson administration’s ambassador to South Vietnam during the ramp up of the Vietnam War. While still serving in that capacity, he sought the Republican nomination for president, meaning that he would be running against his boss for president under a completely different party banner had he been nominated (and this wasn’t a long shot: he won the New Hampshire primary!). Eventually Johnson appointed him to the West Germany ambassadorship and once Nixon took office he made him the Personal Representative of the President to the Holy See, a post he would hold under both Ford and Carter as well. But when Nixon ran eight years later, a little older and a bit more of a known quantity, he went in a totally different direction by selecting Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, a man five years Nixon’s junior who had been elected to his office only two years prior. In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein describes Nixon and Agnew as kindred spirits: “Both the sons of grocers who were strict disciplinarians, both had worked their way through college, both junior officers in World War II.” Agnew also matched Nixon politically by ostensibly supporting civil rights (he won the governorship by accurately painting his opponent as a virulent racist) while also cracking down on civil rights protests. In 1960, Nixon had to make room on the ticket to represent the interests of the rest of the party. In 1968, he had enough clout to try and remake it in his own image.

In 1960, Nixon had to make room on the ticket to represent the interests of the rest of the party. In 1968, he had enough clout to try and remake it in his own image.

On the surface, it seems like Trump could make a similar switch. While Pence was ultimately chosen by the Trump campaign, it was no doubt done so to placate the party establishment and the Republicans’ socially conseravtive base. But for a while it seemed like Trump would be able to reshape the party in his image too — his approval was regularly polling in the upper 80s and low 90s among Republican voters, and while he lost re-election, he avoided the drubbing many had predicted, and may have even had some coattails on the congressional level. Even if they didn’t like his style, the Republican Party had to like the results.

But then January happened. Trump’s constant crowing about unsubstantiated voter fraud, particularly in Georgia, hamstrung Republican efforts in that state’s Senate runoffs and handed both of their candidates defeat, shifting Senate control towards the Democrats for at least the next two years. The very next day, Trump incited a crowd of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol while Congress was counting the electoral votes, putting the lives of members of his own party in danger. An unprecedented second impeachment followed, which ten House Republicans voted in favor of, including a member of the party’s leadership. A second trial awaits, one in which Trump may in fact be convicted by members of his own party and be prevented from serving as president again. In just two months, he went from a mitigator of Republican decline to the first president to lose the White House and both houses of Congress in one term since Herbert Hoover, and then to an incitor of violence against Congress, and a true pariah inside his own party’s leadership, if not publicly, then privately. 

In just two months, [Trump] went from a mitigator of Republican decline to the first president to lose the White House and both houses of Congress in one term since Herbert Hoover.

The events of the last few weeks may make this article feel futile, but let’s not miss the forest for the trees. Three quarters of Republican voters still approve of the job Trump is doing as president, and the impeachment votes and the votes to certify the Arizona and Pennsylvania electors show that he still has the support of most of the House of Representatives, who are typically closer to the grassroots activists, local parties, and — by extension — primary voters, rather than senators or other national party leaders. In other words, it’s very possible that Trump could win the 2024 Republican primary with a big part of the party’s national and congressional leadership opposing him. In that case, does he try to placate the party by choosing a running mate who represents them, or does he dip into his pool of congressional and state level allies to try and create a party that represents him? Or does he try it all over again?

Feeling Pence-ive?

Let’s start with the obvious. Ever since the November election and the slew of ceremonial counting and certification instances that followed, Pence’s relationship with Trump has soured. And it’s soured — at least publicly — fairly quickly. Trump called on Pence, in his role as vice president presiding over the electoral vote count, to “reject fraudulently chosen electors,” a power which, of course, the vice president does not have. Pence pushed back, reportedly told Trump he has no such power, and that therefore the election would not be overturned.

During the ensuing chaos at the Capitol, in which Pence’s own life was put in danger, Trump supporters chanted “hang Mike Pence!” as they breached security. Pence nonetheless finally announced the electoral count certifying Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had won and relations between Trump and Pence really fell by the wayside. Trump didn’t speak to Pence that day, or the days following (once again, remember that Pence was being targeted by name by Trump’s own supporters), and it seems like Pence is quietly heading for the door, ready for a political life away from Trump.

Pence has very little to gain by publicly supporting Trump and thus meeting the wrath of most of the country and an emerging bulwark of his own party, or publicly condemning Trump and thus meeting the wrath of Trump’s supporters who already view him as a traitor.

It’s the most strained their relationship has been since the Access Hollywood tape emerged during Trump’s 2016 campaign for president. But this time, Pence has very little to gain by publicly supporting Trump and thus meeting the wrath of most of the country and an emerging bulwark of his own party, or publicly condemning Trump and thus meeting the wrath of Trump’s supporters who already view him as a traitor. His best course is to do exactly what he’s been doing: keeping his head down and waiting it out. Even if Trump still liked Pence, which there’s not a lot of evidence for, Pence doesn’t need Trump to carry him to office next year. That ship has already sailed; Trump failed to win reelection, and Pence may have machinations of his own in the years to come that may put him in direct conflict with the big man himself.

For starters, Mike Pence may be planning to run for president himself in 2024. Pence, pretty understandably, considering it’s been a modern norm for vice presidents to seek the promotion themselves, has run a high risk-high reward gambit for the last five years in tying himself to Trump. It paid off incredibly in 2016, catapulting the relatively unimaginative Indiana Governor to the White House by sheer nature of the fact that Pence was one of the few mainstream Republicans (something Trump needed to complement his erratic outsider candidacy; we have an entire podcast episode about it) willing to join what was then viewed as a losing ticket. Mike Pence is now a household name, the presumptive heir to the Republican throne, and he’s set himself up nicely (and continues to do so by unassumingly biding his time until the inauguration) as the “establishment” Republican most related to the president who can carry on the administration’s legacy.

If Trump neuters Pence’s presumptive candidacy by declaring that he’ll be running again in 2024, it could set up quite a showdown for the nomination. Despite Pence starting to emerge as a popular alternative after the January 6 Capitol riot and an unprecedented collapse in Trump’s approval ratings, Trump remains a pretty popular figure within the party, and a frontrunner in 2024, with 40% of Republicans backing him

A president facing his own vice president for the nomination in the modern era has never occurred, and though it’s happened in American history (looking at you, election of 1800), the only real point of comparison we have is the 1940 Democratic Convention. President Franklin Roosevelt, seeking a third consecutive term, was challenged by his own vice president, John Nance Garner.4Garner is perhaps most famous for being the vice president to declare his own office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” To be fair to Garner, Roosevelt had hedged and hesitated on his intentions to run for president for a third term, so Garner went ahead planning on Roosevelt’s stepping down, as did DNC Chairman James Farley (who had also been Roosevelt’s campaign manager), and they both declared their candidacies, only to lose to a “spontaneous” nomination of Roosevelt for a third term during the convention. Garner — and many other Democrats for that matter — did not like the idea of a president seeking an unprecedented third term in office and their relationship had soured in Roosevelt’s second term. This bit of machiavellian chicanery providing the illusion of humility likely didn’t improve that, so Roosevelt selected a new running mate, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace.5This is also the moment that we have to thank for the practice of presidential nominees selecting their own running mates, as opposed to the conventions themselves, so followers of this site owe a debt of gratitude to John Nance Garner, no matter how much he hated the vice presidency…

This analogy is actually more astute than it may seem at first. Trump has done everything to set himself up as a 2024 candidate outside of explicitly saying that he’ll run. The party is nervous about him seeking another term, and Pence and Trump’s relationship has crumbled (if not quite as publicly). Pence was frustrated about being left hung out to dry by the president after his years of fealty, and the entire episode stinks of the breakdown of communication that seemed prevalent in the Garner-Roosevelt saga.

Pence is a proponent of the system and its traditions; he plans to attend Biden’s inauguration, symbolically upholding the election result, and is working within the GOP to coalesce support for congressional candidates and his own future aspirations. If you’re distancing yourself from Trump while trying to ruffle as few feathers as possible, this is exactly how one would go about doing it. It’s much better to stand inside the party, saying nothing, and look out at the president than to join him flailing uncontrollably, destroying the party’s future electoral prospects from the outside. Better to appear a president-in-waiting than a sore loser willing to tear down your remaining credibility on the way out the door. 

“Go Down in History as a Patriot… Or Go Down in History as a Pussy”

Trump will brand Pence as the man who couldn’t find a way to overturn the election for him. The man who was in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and can easily be thrown under the bus as mishandling the crisis if it proves politically expedient.

There’s the flipside to this too, in that Trump probably doesn’t want Pence around either! Before Pence headed to the Capitol for the January 6 electoral vote count, Trump reportedly pushed once more on his number two: “You can either go down in history as a patriot…  or you can go down in history as a pussy.” Pence, in Trump’s mind, chose the latter. Trump will brand Pence as the man who couldn’t find a way to overturn the election for him. The man who was in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and can easily be thrown under the bus as mishandling the crisis if it proves politically expedient. Trump can blame Pence for his administration’s failures (the coronavirus pandemic being the most costly, with almost 400,000 Americans dead as of January 19). To Trump, Pence is yet another RINO insider who failed to defend him and his followers in making America great again. 

The track record for those people has not been encouraging, at least not while Trump has been president. They’ve been cast to the side of the party (Mitt Romney), lost primaries to a more Trump-aligned conservative (Scott Tipton, Jeff Sessions), or declined to run for reelection for fear of both (Jeff Flake, Paul Ryan, Justin Amash, Will Hurd). Pence will probably go the way of other Trump cabinet officials who have been fired or resigned. Much like Jeff Sessions before him, Trump will blame him for his own mistakes, accept no fault of his own, insult his character, and deem him insufficiently loyal, while he tries to maintain his absolute loyalty and support for the president.

Like Nixon’s second run for the presidency in 1968, Trump no longer needs someone to give him credibility, or to convince people he’s a conservative Republican — he will want a more kindred spirit. Someone with the same vitriol and disdain for institutions and traditions. Someone who will be more vocally defensive of the former president than even Mike Pence was, and let Trump — like Nixon — remake the entire party in his own image.

Trump-Pence 2024?

So, yes, a Trump-Pence reunion seems pretty unlikely at this point. But we live in unprecedented times, so let’s entertain the possibility of an unprecedented reconciliation.

Let’s assume that Donald Trump wins renomination in 2024. If he does so, it’ll be as the standard bearer of a divided party — he’d likely be challenged in the primary by a Never Trump Republican (Maryland Governor Larry Hogan seems like a potential contestant) and a faction of Republicans who voted to impeach or convict him in 2021 (headlined by Utah Senator Mitt Romney) could refuse to support him. He’ll still have his die-hards within the party of course, but there’ll also be a group of conservative Republicans who are skeptical of Trump personally, though they recognize that he turns out voters for the party. For that final group, the selection of a Trump yes man to the ticket would leave them without a voice in the White House and without a check of Trump’s worst impulses. They’ll lobby him to include someone who can advocate for their interests in the White House while making sure he doesn’t go completely off the rails by, say, overturning the results of a presidential election. Lucky for them, Michael Richard Pence has already done all of those things, making him an acceptable choice to the party.

But why would he be an acceptable choice for Trump? Well, there’s always the issue of Trump’s ego: he doesn’t want to make it look like he made a mistake in 2016, and the only way to avoid that is to pick Pence again. But there’s also the problem of the general election, and winning enough independents and Democrats to actually become president again. Pence was arguably the most visible figure of the Capitol riots, and that would help him in any election, be it presidential or vice presidential. He refused to be intimidated by people calling for his death and executed his constitutional duty, even though it required him to humbly announce his defeat in the electoral college. There is something virtuous, perhaps even heroic, in the role he played during the vote count that has the potential to appeal to Trump-skeptical voters. It’d probably be hard for most people to reconcile seeing him up on stage again with the very man who whipped up those riots and tried to upend the system Pence wound up defending, but hey, at least someone would be around to prevent Trump from trying to do the same thing over again. And who knows: Trump will be 78 in 2024, and that nice Midwestern man who stood up to him would only be a heartbeat away…

Trump picking Pence as his running mate again is a long shot, for sure, and hinges almost completely on the fact that Pence is likely to be remembered more fondly by the American public than Trump himself. But politics is a business, and it never hurts to have a popular running mate. The Democrats once had to balance their tickets between Northern liberals and Southern segregationists. Stranger things have happened. 

Who Might He Choose?

If Trump secures the Republican nomination again in 2024, maintaining his relevance and ability to truly define and shape the GOP for decades to come, his running mate will be the surest sign of what he plans and believes his success is due to. In 2024, Trump would presumably have his pick of the litter, in stark contrast to 2016 when many in the Republican Party believed Trump would never be elected president and flatly declined to be considered. With hindsight we know Trump has a slim, but functional electoral strategy: turn out an incredibly passionate base who are overrepresented in states on the electoral college margin. It’s not a strategy that can win Trump a majority of American voters, but with a built in electoral bias against urban areas, it’s a strategy that can, and has, succeeded. 

How Trump chooses to compose the 2024 ticket and its subsequent success or failure could define his legacy. If he can prove that his strategy and his narrow vision of America can be all-encompassing and even majoritarian, he could become the Republican’s new Ronald Reagan. But if it spirals into failure, costs Republicans two successive presidential elections and control of the Congress, leaving them with a coalition based on a minority of Americans, it will put the bullet in his political career and his vision of the Republican party. 

This leaves Trump an array of options across his admittedly-large corner of the Republican Party. Who he chooses will be a key indicator in how he sees himself and what he prizes if he runs again. Electability or shared rhetoric, acquiescence or diversity, loyalty or appeasement. 

The Diplomats

Trump’s second (and most loyal) Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is unique in his ability to combine Trump’s ideology and style with a respectable and technocratic position and personality. This is a choice of convenience and adaptation rather than one of deeply held conviction, as the former Army officer turned Republican Congressman from Kansas is not very similar to Trump in terms of mercurial governance or volatile rhetoric. Pompeo is much more a creature of Washington than Trump, which may make them unlikely bedfellows. But in truth, Pompeo is one of the strongest candidates to display what Trump and his supporters may see as the administration’s success. Trump has received praise from unlikely sources for his foreign policy and Pompeo is well positioned to provide credibility and experience, while moulding to Trump’s messaging and policy goals.

The prospects on Trump-Pompeo really depend on how you view Trump and his aims. If Trump wants to get elected to enact his policies and crusade for what he views as right, Pompeo is the ideal choice. But if Trump uses his described policies and rhetoric simply as a means to get elected, an end in itself, then Pompeo is not the choice for him. This is not to say either philosophy is correct. A foundational question in political science rests on whether politicians run for office to support policies (probably, initially at least), or support policies simply to get in office (probably, after they’ve been elected before).

Which brings us to the other memorable and perhaps more electorally-motivated diplomat from the Trump administration: his first ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Haley, an Indian-American, was the first female governor of South Carolina, and is unique among former Trump administration figures in that she left her office as United Nations ambassador seemingly on good terms and even spoke at the Republican National Convention in his favor (as did everyone at the convention, so being allowed to speak at all reflects well on her relationship with Trump). Haley has quietly critiqued Trump on some points, but publicly she stresses her loyalty to the man, remarking in her memoir that early in the administration, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to bring her on their side to “save the country” by resisting Trump, but she refused to do. After the 2020 election, Haley remained hushed (and therefore complicit) in regards to Trump’s claims of a stolen election and his attempts to undermine it. After the January 6 storming of the Capitol, Haley criticized Trump (in closed-door remarks), but she also said that Twitter blocking Trump was akin to “what happens in China.” To put it mildly, Haley is playing every side of the GOP. Mainstream Republicans like her for her solid conservative credentials and reputation, Trump and his posse appreciate a woman of color’s supposed reverence for the president, and the media magnify her electability as a more compassionate candidate for the party suffering from a reputation of being dominated by white men.

The Senators

While most Senate Republicans dropped their objections to the electoral vote count after the riot at the Capitol, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri stood steadfastly by President Trump’s baseless accusations of voter fraud. While this appears to have hurt them reputationally and financially in the short term, it could certainly help them in 2024 if the Republican base decides they want a Trump redux. Although both are likely candidates in a Trumpless field (recall that Cruz came in second place in the 2016 primary), the assumption is that Trump values loyalty above all else, and few have been more loyal in the waning days of his administration than Cruz and Hawley. 

The assumption is that Trump values loyalty above all else, and few have been more loyal in the waning days of his administration than Cruz and Hawley. 

Cruz probably makes the most sense from an electoral strategy standpoint — Trump made gains among Latino voters in 2020, and nominating a Cuban Texan could appeal to precincts in the Rio Grande Valley and South Florida that have been traditionally Democratic constituencies. But while Cruz is a former constitutional conservative who now seems to bend whichever way the wind blows, Hawley has taken reliably Trumpian position on abortion, China, and trade from day one. If Trump truly wants to rebrand the Republican Party in his image, his best bet is probably Hawley who, in addition to concurring with Trump’s request for $2000 coronavirus relief checks, will be only 43 in 2024, and could carry the Trump banner into future presidential bids himself. 

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas checks a lot of the same boxes as Hawley. He seconded Trump’s suggestion that the United States buy Greenland and seemed to delight at “owning the libs” at the “failing” New York Times after the ensuing controversy surrounded by his op-ed in favor of using the military to put down this summer’s unrest. He is also another 2024 aspirant, but his early opposition to overturning the electoral college vote docks him loyalty points. His latest hobby horse is arguing any impeachment trial that would take place after Trump leaves office would be unconstitutional, so he may end up back in the soon-to-be-former president’s good graces sooner rather than later.

Rick Scott is another Republican senator frequently floated as a 2024 candidate, and while his ability to self-fund and his electoral success in Florida (he was a two term governor before being elected to the Senate) make him an appealing choice, he’s had a rough month. The new chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee had to endure the indignity of his party losing both Georgia Senate seats on only his third day on the job, and on his fourth day of the job he voted to reject Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. That’s a big problem, because it means that the big corporate donors who have pledged not to donate to candidates who voted to reject 2020’s electoral votes may opt not to donate to him or the NRSC. Still, these things may not matter as much on a presidential ticket, where Scott can help bring some more traditional conservatives back into the Trump camp. Although the fact that he and Trump will be a combined 150 years old in 2024, and that one of them would have to change their state of residence for electors in Florida to legally vote for both of them,6Electors from one state are forbidden from voting for two candidates from the same state on their ballot. They’d be forfeiting a given number of electoral votes, possibly ending up with a situation where a president or vice president were elected without the other. This almost happened in the year 2000, both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were registered in Texas, but Cheney changed his registration to Wyoming before the election. The electoral vote was close enough where this would have deprived Cheney the vice presidency (at least initially) and required the Senate to choose a vice president. are also points against him.

Lastly there’s Tim Scott, Senator from South Carolina and the 2020 Republican National Convention’s keynote speaker. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, is a natural choice for a party looking to build on the marginal gains they made among Black voters in 2020. But a political marriage between him and Trump would be uneasy. Scott did not vote to reject either Arizona or Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, and he’s been a frequent critic of Trump’s flirtations with white nationalism. There are a myriad of reasons why it makes sense for Scott to be on a Republican presidential ticket; the path to him sharing a ticket with Trump, however, is a bit more fraught. If Trump wants to nominate a non-white Republican who’s been a little more loyal to him, he could always opt for Florida’s Marco Rubio, who after being a sharp critic of Trump in the 2016 primaries, became one of his more high profile apologists. A Rubio nomination could help shift South Florida from light blue to light red in 2024, lock the state up for Trump, and also expand the GOP’s outreach efforts to Latino voters.7Though Rubio would face the same electoral issue as Rick Scott in that he and Trump are from the same state. If Trump is really left without many friends in 2024, he could also turn to Lindsey Graham of South Carolina whose relationship with Trump has followed a similar trajectory to Rubio’s. Though Graham’s age and ties to Bush-era neoconservatives may make him a non-starter electorally.

The Trump True Believers

If there’s one place in Washington where Donald Trump’s legacy will be felt after he leaves office, it’ll probably be in the House of Representatives where an entire generation of early career politicians have made a name for themselves by defending the 45th president and adopting his brand of politics as their own. Perhaps the most high profile among them is Matt Gaetz of Florida, who has a reputation as one of Trump’s most vocal defenders in Congress. Look at any of the many Trump-related controversies over the last four years and you’ll likely find Gaetz on a cable news channel or on Twitter acting as the president’s unofficial PR arm. His most high-profile stunt was probably his storming of the SCIF8Which stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, which is a closed room where members of government access and review classified information. They are limited to those with certain security clearances and electronic devices are restricted. during the testimony from a Pentagon official as part of the Trump impeachment inquiry, which drew the ire of even Trump ally Lindsey Graham. Gaetz’s support of the president has persisted into the lame duck period, during which Gaetz has parroted Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and alleged that some of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were Antifa members. Gaetz’s compatibility with Trump on a political level is undeniable, and his youth (he’ll be 42 in 2024) and penchant for brand building make him a natural bridge to a new generation of Trump Republicans. While he’s still a backbencher, there’s still plenty of time for him to make a move (including an unlikely run for the Senate in 2022) to raise his profile. Like fellow Floridians Rick Scott or Marco Rubio, either Gaetz or Trump would have to leave Florida for them to become a viable presidential ticket, but seeing as Gaetz floated the idea of moving to Alabama for a day to run for the Senate in 2020, I’m sure he’d be happy to acquiesce.

Dan Crenshaw of Texas is another stalwart Trump defender who, on paper, is a much more appealing choice than Gaetz. A photogenic retired Navy SEAL, he first came to wider national attention after appearing on Saturday Night Live to respond to Pete Davidson’s controversial jokes about Crenshaw’s eyepatch (he lost his right eye while serving in the War in Afghanistan), and has crafted an online personality for himself via his Twitter account and action movie-esque campaign ads. A fresh face from a large and rapidly changing state is an appealing choice for a running mate, but Crenshaw has started to break with Trump in recent weeks. While he initially filed an amicus brief in support of Texas’s lawsuit to overturn Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, he voted against overturning those same votes after the riot in the Capitol, and defended House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump. Like Gaetz, he probably needs to build up a more substantive legislative record separate from his antics and advertisements for him to be taken seriously as a vice presidential contender by the party elite.

If you know the name of two freshman representatives of the 117th Congress, it’s probably Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, neither of whom may have had political careers if not for Donald Trump. Both have been tied to the pro-Trump QAnon consipracy theory and both have alleged that Trump actually won the 2020 election. Republicans have fretted about their prospects with suburban white women, and Boebert and Greene’s embodiment of the members of that demographic  who have adopted Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, and the dangers of the political left could help mobilize similar voters.  Of course, they’ll only have two terms under their belt by 2024, which makes it harder to argue that they are ready to serve as president if the event arose. But hey, a lot can happen for two years — unfortunately for Boebert, that includes being investigated for her role in the Capitol riot, and unfortunately for Greene, I don’t think that it will include an impeachment of Joe Biden.

An indispensable part of the Trump brand is a sense of victimhood and aggrievedness.

Lasty, there’s the longest of long shots: Representative Ronny Jackson of Texas. Jackson served as Physician to the President until 2018, when Trump nominated him as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Jackson’s nomination was quickly sunk by allegations that he drank on the job and improperly handed out medications, prompting him to withdraw his nomination and set his eyes on Congress instead. He centered his campaign around his closeness to Trump and even went as far as to claim that Obama illegally spied on the Trump campaign. Again, Jackson is a hell of a longshot, but an indispensable part of the Trump brand is a sense of victimhood and aggrievedness, which Jackson will be able to play into with his failed cabinet appointment. If high profile Republicans defect from another Trump nomination and all of the prime choices are apprehensive to join the ticket, why shouldn’t Trump turn to someone who’s been a friend?

The Metaphorical Trump Heirs

While the Capitol riot has cooled relations between Trump and some of his one-time allies in Congress, he enjoys the adoration of a number of state level officials and even some members of the media. If there are two governors who seem positioned to sell themselves to the Republican base as “kinder, gentler” versions of Donald Trump, it’d probably be Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, DeSantis and Noem have won favor in some conservative circles for largely eschewing the stay-at-home orders embraced by most other governors. DeSantis was a staunch defender of Trump while a member of Congress, where he sought to end funding for the Mueller investigation and joined in efforts to pass the Trump tax cuts and repeal Obamacare. As governor, he made fighting illegal immigration a priority, passing anti-sancutary city laws while directing local law enforcement to cooperate with ICE, and implied that legislatures in states won by Biden should send their own electors to Congress. From an electoral perspective, he’s young and from an important state, but he also has to run for reelection in 2022. Even though Florida seems to trend redder and redder with each election cycle, he only won his first election by half a percentage point, and who knows what effect his controversial handling of the pandemic will have on next year’s contest — even a close win may deplete some of his resources and political capital.

Like a lot of potential running mates, Noem is clearly angling for a presidential run of her own, recently speaking at an RNC forum for potential candidates, where she won over attendees by praising Trump and lambasting Senators-elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia as “communists.” There was also speculation that Trump could replace Pence on the ticket with Noem this past summer, after Noem hosted Trump at a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore and rode with him on Air Force One back to Washington (that celebration included presenting Trump with a replica of Mount Rushmore with his face added to it). Trump and Noem clearly see each other as kindred spirits, and along with their mutual admiration and compatible politics, Noem could also help Trump regain some of his edge with suburban female voters. Not to mention her penchant for hunting and shooting will surely sew up his already solid rural base. The potential Trump campaign may want to monitor her performance in the 2022 reelection bid to see if the handling of the pandemic hurt her in a solidly red state, but she’s virtually assured of victory, and a big win could springboard Noem to higher office.

Carlson’s blend of cultural conservatism, opposition to immigration, and advocacy for protectionist and interventionist fiscal policy would make him appealing to a Trump-controlled Republican Party in search of a more coherent messenger.

Last in this array of outsiders, Tucker Carlson has never held public office, but the Fox News host’s shift from Ron Paul-esque libertarian to Trump-esque populist have made him one of the loudest voices of the pro-Trump right, and has even generated some presidential hype of his own. From an ideological perspective, Carlson’s blend of cultural conservatism, opposition to immigration, and advocacy for protectionist and interventionist fiscal policy would make him appealing to a Trump-controlled Republican Party in search of a more coherent messenger. There’s certainly tremendous potential from an electoral standpoint — his attacks on free market capitalism could attract some disaffected leftists from the Democratic Party (he’s even gone as far to endorse some of Elizabeth Warren’s economic views) and assuming he keeps hosting his show for at least part of the campaign, he’ll have access to what’s effectively free advertising. But his association with the polarizing Fox News brand and controversial statements about minority groups and women may make him anathema to suburbanites who are already turned off by Trump’s rabble-rousing. It’d fire up the base for sure, but may not expand it. 

The Actual Trump Heirs

Let’s say this upfront: Donald Trump is almost certainly not going to run for reelection with a member of his own family on the ticket. The chances of this are overhyped, overrated, and overblown. Yes, Trump made his children and their spouses key figures in his campaign and in his administration, but it’s worth noting that he never 1) nominated them for any Senate-confirmable position; 2) deployed them in any legal capacity (unlike other nepotistic but equally incompetent defenders, like say, Rudy Giuliani); or 3) seriously utilized them in a congressional-relations or domestic capacity. They were outsourced to campaigning, defending the patriarch on the airwaves, or a “Middle East peace plan” that even Trump did not seem to care strongly about.

These three things matter because they indicate a lack of domestic, inter-governmental, and administrative efficacy. Jared Kushner is not destined to run for governor of New York, Ivanka Trump is not equipped to negotiate with congressional leaders, and Eric Trump is not capable of running a government department. The chances of any of them sailing through even a Republican-controlled Senate and landing in a cushy ambassadorship, let alone a technocratic role like Secretary of the Treasury are slim to none. It’s a bad look, and Trump even somewhat conceded this during the brief stint where he was considering Ivanka to lead the World Bank. “If I did, they’d say nepotism, when it would’ve had nothing to do with nepotism,” were Trump’s sentiments, despite his insistence that Ivanka was uniquely qualified because “she’s very good with numbers.”

So, why include the Trump clan at all in our listing here? Because if the goal is truly to remake the Republican Party in Trump’s image, guarantee loyalty and absolute devotion, while consecrating the Trump family as synonymous with a Republican dynasty, choosing his family is one of the surest and most egregious ways to do it. It falls squarely outside of any norms or traditions in the American political system, no matter how controversial John F. Kennedy appointing his brother Robert as attorney general may have been. If Trump can sail through the 2024 Republican primary and seamlessly retain control and command of attention during the Biden administration, that may be the only situation in which a Trump-Trump ticket has a chance to emerge. Senate confirmation isn’t necessary to choose a running mate, so a pluralistic primary with a populist winner-takes-all election that the Republican Party thrives on is the only way we could seriously see a full Trump family takeover. Just remember that a lot of Republican interests, including Republicans in power, would have to resolve themselves to this, or at least be willing to do what they did for much of Trump’s four years in office, and quietly accept yet another break in democratic norms in the name of electoral benefit. This is why the primary itself is the key factor in whether the GOP becomes the all-encompassing party of Trump, or some derivation of him with a more compassionate approach.

What to Watch for

Let’s sum this up with what you can look out for, and what we’ll be watching for in the next few years as the 2024 primary heats up. If Trump runs, be mindful of the competition he faces and the messaging he embraces. 

First, the competition. The 2024 Republican primary is on track to be a populated one, with perhaps the starkest difference in paths for the party we’ve seen for Republicans in a while. Moderates seeking to reclaim the party and “move on”, like Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, will represent one path for the post-Trump era. Trump die-hards already empowered in the Senate like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz will represent a more clean-cut version of Trumpism, while Tom Cotton — almost as depraved in his fealty to the Trumpian idea — distances himself from their corner of the party. And the most obvious candidates, like Nikki Haley and Mike Pence, try to set themselves up as Trump’s successors, without the demagogic anti-democratic behavior (which honestly, may be a liability). Pence’s behavior the last four years and this January has upset everyone in the party who either loved Trump and believes the election was stolen from him, or dislikes Trump and the path the party has taken under him. And that’s… well, almost everyone.

If Trump runs once more in 2024, don’t expect any of his primary opponents to get picked as his running mate. Trump’s not one for letting things go and putting someone who challenged him in a position of power. This is reason alone to be skeptical of the senators we’ve listed, who are more preoccupied with running for president themselves and see supporting Trump as a means to that end. The party will push back a lot more on a dynasty ticket than they will on picking a younger Trump true believer, but picking a devout governor or outsider in the vein of Trump may offer the best of all worlds. However, if Trump enters the race and clears the field, as he had high prospects for before the attack on the Capitol, there will be a broader slate of options, and some of the more loyal senators may be able to bridge Trump’s good graces with the support of those who have been leading the resistance to Biden’s agenda in his absence in government. 

The Republican Party can be coerced and once more assimilated, rather than annihilated in [Trump’s] path.

Finally, take note of how a potential candidate Trump exhibits himself. If he spends the next two years claiming the election was stolen from him, defending pardoning his cronies and supporters, and burning every bridge with a party hesitant to fully break from him, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and the senators are out of the running. He’ll have to sink to the depths of those who remain devoted to his lost cause and tear a hole in the Republican Party once more. Trump’s campaign in 2020 was, to be generous, light on policy and lacked any overarching message other than the radical left destroying the country and making it worse, which is a hard message to deliver when you’re literally the president. But if Trump goes back to his 2016 campaign playbook and runs on a concrete message of election fraud, an immigration crisis, and arguing that he alone can save the country as an outsider, the Republican Party can be coerced and once more assimilated, rather than annihilated in his path. In this case, the premise in reuniting the dream team, running a more electable ticket, or hand-picking a successor to his legacy from the legion of mainstream Republicans who stood by him once and may do so again, will seem ever more apparent. 

The Postrider’s Top 30 Songs of 2020

2020… I mean, what do you say? Between the coronavirus pandemic, nationwide protests, and a long, drawn out presidential election, the country practically lived through an entire verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in only twelve months. And while our lives were impacted in a myriad of devastating ways, the biggest change for me was the complete shutdown of live music venues. That actually made this list a little harder to compile; it’s at live shows that we build more meaningful relationships with the songs we love and experience them in a more direct way from the artists who wrote them, and also where we might hear new songs for the first time. Instead, I mostly found myself listening to the same songs over and over, but apparently it was a diverse enough slate for me to still compile a list of the best 30 of the year.

It was also impossible not to hear a little bit of current events in the songs I listened to this year. Even though very few, if any, of the songs were written explicitly about the virus, they’re still kind of about the pandemic in various ways, shapes, and forms. Listening always involves some form of projection — we apply our own experiences to what we hear and assume that the artists we love must be experiencing the same thing. And while that’s typically a reach, we do know that, to some extent, they were all experiencing the same things as us this year as the world, shut down and humans globally socially distanced. So while we may not be able to have shared these songs together in the same physical space, we were at least all in the same psychic space, and that has to count for something.

Without further ado, The Postrider’s Top 30 Songs of 2020  

  1. “Mark Zuckerberg” – Nap Eyes

On one level, this textbook indie rocker is a welcome finger stuck in the eye of the titular Facebook founder, whose unscrupulousness and incompetence has hastened the spread of dangerous information and further polarized our nation; Nap Eyes lead singer Nigel Chapman (who’s making a serious bid to become his generation’s Jonathan Richman) stone-facedly mocks Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of hand movement and his dirt collecting hobby as his band reliably plugs away behind him. On another level, the image that Chapman leaves us with — a bunch of teenagers having the time of their life smoking weed in the woods — reminds us to get offline and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. In otherwords, fuck Mark Zuckerberg and go outside. 

  1. “yellow is the color of her eyes” – Soccer Mommy

I wasn’t quite as taken with Soccery Mommy’s Color Theory as a lot of other people (I much more of a Clean person myself), but this elegiac centerpiece is pure 90s-inspired melancholy, and about as successful a revival of the Clinton-era alt rock sound that you’ll find. About the terminal illness of Sophie Allison’s mother, there’s real sadness and malaise here, but a sense of hope and gratitude as well. 

  1. “Run for the Country” – The Replacements

“Run for the Country” — which was included in a deluxe reissue of The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me — is the first of two songs on this list that was written and recorded well before 2020, but not released until this year. And yet, it couldn’t feel more timely. Paul Westerberg pleads through this barroom ballad for his lover to join him in the good old countryside away from the ugly, dirty, crowded city to a place of pastoral bliss, an change in scenery many young Americans sought for themselves as the coronavirus pandemic enveloped the nation’s cities. Westerberg promises sun dappled hills, beautiful sheets of Minnesota snow, and the wind combing your hair — but this is a Replacements song, after all, and Westerberg’s would be farmwife’s unclear decision gives the song a sense of quiet yearning and desperation, turning a sure thing into a series of sweet nothings and impossible promises slurred into the ears of a childhood sweetheart and a hometown bar. Sure, you can always go home again, but what’ll be left for you when you do?

  1. “Isabella” – Hamilton Leithauser

Hamitlon Leithauser wasn’t able to recapture the highs of his and Rostam’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine with this year’s The Loves of Your Life, but he reached literal new vocal highs on “Isabella,” where he uses his falsetto to explore the life of a kind of NYC-bound free spirit that feels very 2000s in its romance and lightness. But The country tinged arrangement, with its standout pedal steel guitar, makes the song feel timeless, and Leithauser is a savvy enough songwriter to realize that the key in making a song like this work is the sense of longing, which he brings home with his trademarked yowls in the coda. Few artists of his era are transitioning into elder statesmen status as well as this guy.

 

  1. “Delete Forever” – Grimes 

Grimes has always emphasized the synthetic nature of her music, giving off the sense that her dark synth-pop is made by a digital avatar rather than a living, breathing person. It was a little surprising, then, to hear her go in a more tangible direction on “Delete Forever,” the high point of February’s Miss Anthropocene. Singing from the perspective of an opioid addict, Grimes sets acoustic instruments like guitar, banjo, and violin against an electronic drum kit and her own vocal samples to create an earthy, desolate atmosphere that makes the listener hyper aware of their fragile physical state and and the fleeting, tenuous nature of life itself. It’s a reminder that we’re just a few bad choices away from ending up in the dirt  — and that for some of us, that coming as close to that point of no return as possible holds a sinister appeal.

  1. “The Steps” – HAIM

A friend of mine texted me once to tell me that she was listening to HAIM in the car with her mother who eventually turned to her and asked “what is this supposed to be, Wilson Phillips?” That comparison may feel a little harsh, but it does reveal a core truth about HAIM which is that they are not, by many traditional measures, a “cool” band. In fact, they’re unabashed embrace of what can sometimes feel like warmed over versions of already warmed over 90s classic rock rehashes has always kind of been part of the appeal! And no song better encapsulates that than “The Steps,” a song built around three different guitar riffs — one rubbery, one acoustic, one pseudo-bluesy — that skips around with a deceptively sunny keep-on-keepin’ on attitude that will make all of our future children roll their eyes. But behind all the “if I go left and you go right” and “everyday I wake up and make money for myself” is a frustrated, determined narrator — one who’s done everything they possibly can to make a relationship work despite a lack of effort or straight up disinterest from the other party. Come for the cheesy guitar riffs, stay for pained, aching verses that threaten to float away from the song entirely, and the killer conclusion: “Do you understand?”/”You don’t understand me”

  1. “Kawasaki Backflip” – Dogleg

I have a complicated relationship with shouty, cathartic, hardcore-adjecnt bands that emerged in the latter half of the 2010s in the sense that, well, I tend not to like them, or at least I don’t like them as much as I should. For every Titus Andronicus and Fucked Up, there’s a Cymbal Eats Guitars or a Jeff Rosenstock that I’ve never really been able to get into, and that ambivalence turns into straight up distaste when you factor in bands with a more pronounced emo influence like Oso Oso and glass beach. I thought I was going to end up in at least the ambivalence zone with Dogleg, but then I listened to “Kawasaki Backflip” a few hundred times and wound up genuinely appreciating it. Maybe it’s the opening drum roll, maybe it’s the guitars that remind me of David Comes to Life, maybe it’s “Will you be the fire on the wind?,” maybe it’s because “Kawasaki Backflip” very accurately describes what it sounds like. Either way, this track provided me with a very welcome respite to the sad folk songs I listened to this year, and made me wish I had the opportunity to listen to this song while standing around in a sweaty club and avoid a mosh pit like I do whenever I see one of these bands play live.

  1. “My Own Soul’s Warning” – The Killers

For years, Brandon Flowers has been talking about how he wants to be the next Bruce Springsteen, and while The Killers have made some slouches in that direction over the years, but they’ve always felt too rooted in synth-pop and new wave to really crack the code — until “My Own Soul’s Warning,” that is. Sure, this song is almost definitely a riff on The War On Drugs, who oftentimes feel like one big 80s Springsteen tribute band, but it’s also an impressive reinvention of The Killers as a synth flecked heartland rock group. They’ve turned away their attention from the neon lights of their hometown of Las Vegas and towards the desert that surrounds it in an effort to find freedom and romance, and in fact realized that songs about trying and failing to find freedom and romance make the best Springsteen-esque singalongs after all. 

  1. “All Tomorrow’s Carry” — Special Interest

“Aren’t we going out tonight?” That’s a sentence that should feel like inviting, even exciting, but in a world where gathering in a bar could spell death for a bunch of people you don’t know, it can sound whiny, selfish, and manipulative. What “All Tomorrow’s Carry,” a driving slice of fucked up dance punk from New Orleans’ Special Interest supposes, is that there’s always been a sense of maliciousness behind that phrase, especially as America’s cities become hollowed out pleasure centers for the upper class at the expense of its lower income residents. The great irony of course is that, fucked up as it is, “All Tomorrow’s Carry” is an absolute banger. Making good on the open verse’s promise of a “kick snare and a driving beat,” this track’s churning baseline and mechanized guitar riffs sound like a city crumbling in real time, all while a warehouse party from hell rages on in the background. Thanks to COVID, we all got a sense of what dystopia might look like. Thanks to Special Interest, we know what it sounds like, too.

  1. “Separate Ways” – Neil Young

Another song that was technically written and recorded well before 2020, “Separate Ways” is the lead track from Neil Young’s Homegrown, which was originally recorded in the mid-1970s after his breakup with Carrie Snodgrass. If I were to do this list over again, I might place it a bit lower — the lyrics are essentially a more eloquent of version of “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,” which is actually a fairly original take for a breakup song — but it gets ranked here because of its instrumental. Held together gently by a tight but spacious rhythm section that the guitars, harmonica, and vocals lightly float on top of, “Separate Ways” feels like it predicted the likes of indie folk rock bands Big Thief and their contemporaries, a strikingly modern example of the form 50 years ahead of its time. 

  1. “to Perth, before the border closes” — Julia Jacklin

Speaking of Neil Young, Julia Jacklin kept up her streak of being most effective channeler of the Canadian legend’s style into 2020 with melancholy, basically-about-the-coronavirus-but-not-really-about-the-coronavirus ballad. A song about escaping to the city of your youth, the song’s soft swelling guitars and recitations of “everything changes” felt appropriate for a world where nothing felt certain anymore, and the urban experiences of our younger years felt like a fonder memory. Even the positive spin Jacklin puts on her strategic retreat “I got a feeling I won’t be doing it alone” comes with a qualifier — “It’s just a feeling though.”

  1. “Maybe I” – 2nd Grade

Most of 2nd Grade’s Hit to Hit features earnest but playful power pop nuggets that combine Guided By Voices’s pep and brevity with Wilco’s inherent gentleness and good will. “Maybe I” is probably the most gentle of the gentle tracks, even if it is the lightly stomping percussion that makes it work. Peter Gill’s self-deprecating lyrics and sunsetting guitars are pure Tweedy, while the melody and vocal timbre is pure Beach Boys, making this track feel like a snippet of a lost Pet Sounds track. Ok, maybe that last comparison is a little unfair. After all, Brian Wilson and the boys wish they could write a song this intimate and aching. 

  1. “Without You” – Perfume Genius

This moonlit country song is a study in the contradiction that inhabits all great songwriting, about how even songs that describe satisfaction allude to the onetime absence of such satisfaction, and the very real possibility that such satisfaction will be absent again at some point in the future. “Without You,” about a brief respite from Perfume Genius mastermind Michael Hadreas’s body dysmorphia, attempts to bottle in that satisfaction to but can’t do so without letting a little bit of longing and melancholy slip in, because like all music he recognizes that this feeling is fleeting and ephemeral, as easy to lose as it is to come by. Such is the pain of all pop music.

  1. “IM A FREAK CUZ IM ALWAYS FREAKED OUT” – Black Dresses

2020 was not a fun year — social distancing protocols necessitated by a global pandemic forced most of us to retreat into hour homes nearly 24/7, and a lot of us spent that time at home mainlining social media and news feeds about all of the bad stuff that was happening not only with the pandemic, but also social unrest, a contentious election, and the total upending of life as we know it. “IM A FREAK CUZ IM ALWAYS FREAKED OUT” is the perfect sonic simulation about what it’s like to live in that environment. Blaring guitars pierce through the singers struggle to be nice and “cute and well adjusted,” causing them to become so unhinged that they begin to question how language even works. Adolescent angst evolves with every generation, and while I’m no Zoomer, I imagine that Black Dresses have keyed in on what it means to be wracked with fear, anger, and self-doubt in the extremely online age.

  1. “Boomer” – Bartees Strange

There are a lot of great tracks on Bartees Strange’s debut full length Live Forever and most of them would be worthy of this list, but none of them encapsulates what makes the album so exciting as “Boomer.” Featuring DaBaby style verses over twinkling guitars and an uptempo rock beat before morphing into a Benjamin Booker style chorus, “Boomer” is Live Forever’s proof of concept, the song that demonstrates that country, rap, and rock can join forces for a purpose higher than an “Old Town Road”-style novelty song. Its country-fried outro puts the finishing touches on Strange’s musical mosaic, and hammers home the attitude that makes his bold pop songwriting experiments possible. He’s already seen a lot of shit, he can’t worry about what one song is going to make you think of him.

  1. “Bad Decisions” – The Strokes

Should I be depressed that the one time saviors of rock had to resort to interpolating a decades-old Billy Idol song to write their most memorable song in ten years? Maybe, but I don’t care. The greatness of the Strokes was that they made mindless yet pretentious hedonism sound cool for the first time since grunge, and while this may feel less sexy and dangerous than, say, “12:51” or “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” “Bad Decisions” it’s still a perfect song to bar hop to, back when, you know, you could actually bar hop.

  1. “Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider” — 2nd Grade

“Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider” is perfect bubblegum songwriting without any other guiding logic outside of taking things to their natural conclusion, even when that seems a step too far. The “A,B,C and 1,2,3” rhyming scheme ending with “G, H, I, and 7,8,9” is almost hilarious in its predictability, as is the insistence that they not only name check Easy Rider star Dennis Hopper, but also Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, and add a motorcycle sound effect for good measure. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of deeper meaning to this song, but does there need to be? It’s catchy, memorable, and efficient, just like all great pop songs are, no matter how mindless their lyrics may be.

  1. “Kyoto” — Phoebe Bridgers

Nearly every touring rock musician ends up writing a song about how much being on the road sucks, a box Phoebe Bridgers checked this year with “Kyoto.” This being a Phoebe Bridgers song, though, it also subverts our expectations of the road song, recounting a phone call the singer has with her wayward father in Japan and how his memory creeps in while she’s looking at all of the country’s landmarks. Much in the way the peppy rock instrumentation and horns conceal what’s a truly sad song, Bridgers ruminates on the way that one’s frustration with the road, and really any job, merely act as a mask for life’s true frustrations, pains, and traumas. We occupy ourselves with them so we don’t have to think about them, but they’re lingering and threatening to ruin our day just the same.

  1. “Fake Grass” – Rookie

At its start, “Fake Grass” feels a bit melancholy — a songwriter’s reflection on the difficulty of trying to find a new home, the barroom piano and Skynyrd-esque slide guitar can make it sound like a lonely drunk’s lament. But right after the singer shrugs “Since we all play guitar we might as well be friends” and the band builds up to the coda, the rest of the group joins in with one harmonized “oooooo” before making space for closing guitar solo, providing us with the unity that the song spends most of its runtime searching for. Finding your “people” can be tough, and you may not even realize you’ve found them at first, but it can lead to something beautiful, like this song. That it demands to be sung in a dive bar while you hold a PBR in one arm and your best buddy in the other only adds to the effect.

  1. “anything” – Adrianne Lenker

Just when you think Adrianne Lenker has come up with every possible combination with which to cascade acoustic guitars over her whispery vocals, she comes up with another way to cascade acoustic guitars over her whispery vocals. Hopelessly romantic, “anything” stands out from the rest of Lenker and Big Thief’s death obsessed catalogue by being hopelessly romantic for once, even if there is a dog bite and familial drama for good measure. But outside of a few verses, “anything” is all sun dried clothing, juicy mangos, and the smell of pine and a campfire, reminisces of an idealized, rustic romance before the relationship’s eventual deterioration. Lenker’s desire to block out the world and lay in her lover’s lap is of course relatable — who hasn’t wanted to shut out the rest of the world and ensconce themselves in a cocoon of domestic bliss — but “anything” is also a confession that to do so is to deny everything in a relationship that isn’t working, to pretend that in a vacuum, everything would work. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a vacuum. Fortunately, Adrianne Lenker can make us feel like we do every once in a while.

  1. “She’s There” – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s best songs are studies in focused intensity — potent combinations of effective lyrical choices and invigorating guitar riffs that mix together for pure indie rock bliss. Their arrangements have gotten a little less ambitious and a little poppier over the years, but as “She’s There” proves, they haven’t lost their fastball just yet. This song is full of regret and anxiety — but regret and anxiety that make you feel weirdly cool, probably because you’re also a “full bottle in” to whatever it is you drink as you obsessively read over old letters and lament the obsessive rolling over of time. I feel like bands from Australia have a reputation for being chill and breezy, but RBCF’s best songs are always about frustration, and exercising that frustration through motorik drum beats and snaking guitar parts. I have no idea what “All my accidents, breathe in time” means, but I know it sounds cool as hell to repeat over and over again before the band loads up for another rocket launched coda.

  1. “Can’t Do Much” – Waxahatchee

Waxahatchee describes “Can’t Do Much” as an “extremely unsentimental love song,” and she’s not wrong — when you gaze into your lover’s eyes, you don’t want to see them “roll around like dice on the felt,” and the song’s title is Katie Crutchfield’s response to the realization that she “Loves you that much anyhow.” And yet the instrumental and Crutchfield’s imagery are so sweet and smooth (“When you see me, I’m honey on a spoon”) that it still creates a sense of invitation and warmth. Pop music is filled with songs meant to sound like perfect little love songs when in fact they’re anything but, but “Can’t Do Much” is the opposite — an attempt to convey frustration and exasperation that none the less comes off as loving and homey because, whether Crutchfield recognizes it or not, those feelings supersede whatever little things may be annoying her about her relationship. As a music critic I’m supposed to value variety, but if every song in the world sounded this rootsy and pure, I wouldn’t be able to complain. 

  1. “Look To” – Ratboys

Printer’s Devil had songs that were deeper and more complicated, but I can’t deny the simple and resonant pleasures of “Look To,” the most straightforward rocker any artist of consequence put out this year. The scant lyrics could really be about anything — the physical and cognitive decline of a parent, the loss of a friend, or just growin’ up and being an adult — but let’s face it: in an election year, “But I don’t want to choose”/“I just don’t know who to look to” resonated with anybody who was frustrated with the political status quo and searched in vain for a satisfying solution. It’s also a formal accomplishment, taking the most satisfying elements of emo and pop-punk (the driving rhythm section, charing power chords, catchy chorus) while shaving away the worst parts (whiny vocals) and mixing them with a dynamic structure (the brief acoustic guitar in the second verse, the thrashing coda) to produce a song that’ll perfectly accompany trashing a hotel room, and make you think at the same time.

  1. “Ladies” – Fiona Apple

While much was made about how Fetch the Bolt Cutters focused on Fiona Apple’s relationships with women, not enough people zeroed in on “Ladies,” her most direct and expansive take on the subject. The track begins with a sense of menace — repeating the same word four times has never felt like so much of a threat — but then the bassline ascends and the piano kicks in, and what once felt like a threat becomes an invitation. Apple encourages the future lovers of her ex to treat themselves to the kitchenware, toiletries, and clothes that she’s left behind at his place, hoping to forge some sort of connection, and an irony sets in. It seems like all these women would be great friends, and yet the only reason they’re connected is because of a man that each of them covet. This should be a recipe for romantic rivalry, but Apple sees it as an opportunity for solidarity — lovers come, lovers go, there’s no reason why the opposite ends of a would-be love triangle can’t be friends. This idea is more or less explored in more serious tracks like “Newspaper,” but on “Ladies” Apple keeps it playful, where she has a field day exploring every facet of her voice and never singing a verse or a chorus the same way twice, a perfect encapsulation why every one of her albums is waited for with bated breath.

  1. “Lilacs” — Waxahatchee 

Saint Cloud was recorded after Katie Crutchfield ended a stint in rehab and it shows — the record as a whole feels richer, brighter, and fuller than many of her previous (still excellent) efforts, and none of the tracks on the album reflects that shift as sharply as “Lilacs.” No longer hiding behind lo-fi production or alt-rock revivalism, Crutchfield adds shades of gray to the portrait she’s of herself she presented to us through her songs for the past decade, synthesizing her Southern roots with the her indie rock chops and finally coming to terms with her demons, and what she finds is that time waits for no man, and the mere process of being in human and living takes a toll on us all. But with that toll and that toil comes the promise of renewal, of filling that vase of lilacs back up with water to refresh them and keep them in full, brilliant bloom. Few songs bloom as brilliantly as this one.

  1. “Graceland Too” – Phoebe Bridgers

Though fiercely progressive in their politics and attitudes, there’s always been something about Phoebe Bridgers and songwriters of her ilk that’s been fairly traditionalist, as well. Whether it’s a song like boygenius’ “Ketchum, ID” or the group’s cover of The Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away,” you always knew Bridgers had a great country song in her, and she finally gave it to us with “Graceland Too.” Abandoning the rest of Punisher’s modern production choices and choosing to surround herself with acoustic guitar, banjo, and fiddle, “Graceland Too”’s success lies not only in its invocation of the music of America’s past and the King of Rock and Roll as a savior and a guide, but in the way the typically ghostly, distant sounding Bridgers all of a sudden feels very present and alive as she gives all of her love to someone without the ability to love themselves, a modern encapsulation of the misery, desolation, and, yes, hope that country music has explored for nearly a century. 

  1. “Summertime” — Orville Peck

I first heard “Summertime” during an Instagram live performance Orville Peck streamed right at the beginning of the pandemic, before it was officially released and when social distancing felt like it was going to last a month or two at most instead of nearly a year. In that time, “Summertime” morphed from being merely the lead single to Peck’s Show Pony EP to an anthem for a summertime lost, a tribute to the good times and freedom that feel so far away right now. We’ll all meet again, and have plenty of time to indulge in Peck’s vision of spacious, darkly beautiful Americana, but until then, keep on rockin’ baby, keep on ridin’ on the tide.

  1. “Kerosene!” — Yves Tumor

The 2010s were the year of the “is rock dead?” column, and while anyone who pays attention would recognize that rock music is thriving underground and off the charts, I’m not gonna lie, the genre’s taken a few hits. Which is why it was so gratifying, as a longtime rock fan, to hear the experimental artist Yves Tumor record the most straight up arena rock song in years. “Kerosene!” is not a particularly deep or complicated song — it almost feels like an oversell to describe it as a “duet” with singer-songwriter Diana Gordon — but it is powerful, taking square aim at your gut and your groin and nailing the shot. The lyrics are sweet and hot nothings, the production steamy, and the myriad of guitar solos a welcome release of erotic energy that demand to be played to a stadium of screaming fans. It’s a vindication of rock as an art form and the guitar as an instrument, hopefully ushering in a renaissance and reassessment of the form. I mean, it probably won’t. But a boy can dream.

  1. “Janey Needs a Shooter” — Bruce Springsteen

The problem with becoming a legacy artist like Bruce Springsteen is that, at some point, people just want to hear the hits, and the reason they want to hear the hits is because your newer stuff is typically not as good as the hits. So it should be no surprise that Bruce decided to dust off an old unrecorded tune he was working on in the 70s for Letter to You, his best album in 15 years, and given the quality of his 70s output, it should be no surprise that its one of the best songs of the year, and already one of the best of the decade. The best Springsteen songs have always been impressionistic melodramas of the American dream, and “Janey Needs a Shooter” is no different — alienated by the men in her life who represent institutions that could help her but fail to understand her (her doctor, her priest, a neighborhood cop), Janey has only Bruce to turn to, the shooter who knows her style. There’s an open endedness to this song, however; Janey needs a shooter, but that’s all according to Bruce, and Bruce understands her style, but that’s, again, all according to Bruce. Read one way the song becomes just another fantasy and tale of unrequited love, more about the desire to live unreliant on society than actually doing so, a search for an ideal rather than the realization of one, adding that little dose of melancholy that makes these kinds of songs work so well.

  1. “I Know the End” — Phoebe Bridgers

There’s no need to sugarcoat it — the past 12 months or so have felt apocalyptic. A deadly pandemic continues to kill people worldwide, the economy tanked, and America is at its most politically unstable moment since at least the 1960s. So it’s only fitting that the best song of the year dealt with apocalyptic themes, as well. I already wrote at length about this song in my review of Punisher so I’ll avoid retrodding the same ground, but needless to say “I Know the End” is not only a perfect encapsulation of the times in which it was written, it’s also an awe-inspiring work of art, taking a typical Phoebe Bridgers song and slowly building it into a horns-assisted, quasi-metal track centered around the singer’s primal screams. It’s stirring and overwhelming, at once fatalistic and optimistic, and presents the prospect of facing certain doom as a moment for solidarity. Although the myriad of voices who join Bridgers in chanting “the end is near” and the first scream fade away until it’s just bridgers herself, at first ear shattering, and later quiet and hoarse, there’s still some sense of hope in that final scream — that as long as life exists somewhere in the universe, there’ll be something to rage against the dying of the light.

John Kasich Spoke at the DNC. Will it Matter?

 

The 2020 presidential election has found former Ohio Governor John Kasich at a crossroads. No, literally; on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, the lifelong Republican delivered a speech while standing at a physical fork in the road, urging Republicans and independents to cross the aisle and vote for former Vice President Joe Biden in November. “I know Joe as a good man, a man of faith, a unifier,” Kasich said about the vice president of an administration whose policies he lobbied against in his old role. “[Biden] knows that the path for a rejuvenated America lies in respect, and unity, and a common purpose for everyone… We can do better than what we’ve been seeing for sure,” Kasich went on, not so subtly registering his disapproval with the current administration of President Donald Trump, “And I know that Joe Biden, with his experience and his wisdom and his decency, can bring us together to help us find that better way.”

In the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Kasich emerged as the “moderate” alternative to Tea Party favorites like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and the increasingly nationalistic and populist Trump, but a quick look at his record shows that he was anything but moderate during his time as both a governor and a congressman. During his first gubernatorial campaign in 2009, Kasich spoke of the need to “break the back of organized labor in the schools” in reference to Ohio’s teachers’ union, a threat he made good on once he was elected by signing a bill that severely restricted collective bargaining rights of Ohio state employees.1 This law would eventually be repealed via referendum. He took similarly harsh action against abortion rights, singing a ban on abortions after 20 weeks and calling for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, and while running for president said he would establish a Voice of America-style government agency that would promote “core, Judeo-Christian, Western values” in “the Middle East, China, Iran, and Russia.” 2 I added that last bit in quotes A) because I wanted to make it clear that these were Kasich’s exact words and B) I wanted to be clear that I, unlike him, am aware that Iran is in the Middle East and that at least 74% of Russians are in fact Christian. He framed the creation of this hypothetical agency as a departure for him, bragging, as only a true bureaucracy-hating Reaganite could, that “there’s nobody who’s spent more time shrinking government and cutting budgets than I have.

I bring up Kasich’s record as a way of saying that, yes, even though he’s been a frequent critic of Trump, a dyed in the wool conservative such as himself going out of the way to endorse Joe Biden, one of the forces behind the Affordable Care Act and a proponent of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, is still kind of a big deal. And it’s worth noting, of course, that he wasn’t alone in his endorsement. Kasich was joined on the first night of the DNC by former New York congresswoman Susan Molinari, former New Jersey Governor and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, and Quibi CEO3 I found it quite humorous that the DNC insisted on referring to Meg Whitman as the “former CEO of Hewlett-Packard” in an effort not to highlight the tumultuous Quibi, whose foibles you can read about in this excellent piece by Benjamin Wallace. and former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in endorsing Biden; on the following night, these Republican dissenters were joined by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said that Joe Biden would be a president “we will all be proud to salute.”

This chorus of Republican endorsees marks a sharp contrast to 2016, when most high profile Republicans either fell in line with their party’s nominee or displayed their disapproval by merely abstaining from the Republican National Convention or opting to vote for third party candidates. If Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did receive any support from the right, it was typically from commentators or lower level GOP operatives. Sure, Republican Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were said to have had private misgivings about Trump and may have voted for Clinton, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney made a speech condemning Trump and wrote in his wife Ann, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan gave the green light to Republicans to separate themselves from Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, but none of these people made a public statement explicitly endorsing the Democratic candidate the way Kasich and company (a faction that grew after the convention to include a number of former senators and members of Congress such as former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake) di this year.4It’s worth noting, however, that Powell has voted for the Democratic candidate in every Presidential election since 2008 and that Meg Whitman endorsed Clinton in 2016. In a way, the Republican speeches at the DNC represented a culmination of sorts for the “Never Trump” Republicans, a small and once disparate faction of the GOP that has started to organize in groups like Republican Voters Against Trump and the Lincoln Project, the latter of which was founded by George Conway, husband to White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway.5George and Kellyanne’s daughter, Claudia, has also gotten involved in politics — she’s a leftist TikToker, who’s accused her parents of abuse and is pursuing emancipation. Both Conways are planning to step down from their respective roles, citing family reasons.

Despite the enthusiasm of the Kasichs and the Powells of the world, there is some debate within the Democratic Party over whether or not courting independents and Republicans in such a heavy-handed way is an effective electoral strategy. Those concerns are valid — some analyses suggest that those moderate, suburban Republicans most likely to vote Democrat have already switched parties, while pockets of the progressive movement have argued that giving more airtime to the likes of Kasich and Powell than left-wing champions like New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will alienate voters in the party’s growing progressive wing. The presidential primary seemed to have vindicated the moderate establishment and made this debate moot — when given the choice between democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and mainstream liberal Joe Biden, the voters chose Biden. But a string of recent primary victories from progressive challengers against entrenched Democratic members of Congress has shown that there is an appetite within the party’s base for more radical policies, and the debate about whose votes exactly the Democratic party should be pursuing — ideologically squishy, middle-of-the-road voters or committed progressives — has begun anew. 

The question, in my mind, is one of risk. Do the Democrats, who strive to be a big tent party, think there is more to be gained by giving anti-union, anti-abortion conservatives like Kasich a platform even if it leaves progressives feeling as if they’ve been left in the lurch? In other words, will the gains that Democrats make among registered Republicans and independents (and it’s still an assumption that they will make gains among this dmeographic) offset the number of votes they may lose from disaffected progressives? 

We won’t find out the answer to that question until November 3rd at the earliest, but there is a bit of history we can draw on to see if the Democratic strategy of embracing Never Trump Republicans will pay off. 2020 is far from the first year a politician of one party has spoken at the convention of the other, so I thought I’d look at three relatively recent examples of this phenomenon to see if such speeches have any effect on the election. Specifically, I’ll be looking to see if: 

  1. The national percentage of members of one party voting for the presidential candidate from the opposite party increased from the election before (the most obvious goal of Kasich’s speech)
  2. If the candidate of the party the speaker supported performed better in the speaker’s home state than in the prior election (I’m sure that Kasich being from the swing state of Ohio helped net him a spot at the convention, and that the Democrats would be much less inclined to let him speak if he were from a electorally solid state like, say, Wyoming or Rhode Island).
  3. If the candidate of the party the speaker supported performed better among any demographic groups the speaker is tied too (white women voted for Trump by a margin of 53% to 43% in 2016, but in the 2018 House elections that gap in party support shrunk, with both Republican and Democratic candidates receiving 49% of this group’s vote. The inclusion of Molinari and the two Whitmans on the virtual DNC stage is a clear attempt by the Democrats to keep nudging this group in a blueward direction).

Make sense? All right, let’s take a look at some speeches:

2004 Republican National Convention, New York, New York

 

The Speaker: Georgia Senator Zell Miller

The Speech: Zell Miller became the first person in American history to deliver the keynote address at both a Democratic and Republican National Convention. In 1992, while still a governor, he made the argument that the Democratic Party existed because “we can’t all be born rich and handsome and lucky,” and attacked the incumbent presidential team of George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle as out of touch, while crediting his and his family’s success to every Democratic president between Roosevelt and Carter. In 2004, he disowned that same party in front of a fired up Republican crowd, decrying the Democratic Party as being “motivated more by partisan politics than by national security,” and compared his defection to that of one-time Roosevelt opponent Wendell Willkie. The speech he gave in New York is striking in its hawkishness, accusing the Democrats, and especially presidential nominee John Kerry, as unfit to lead America in the War on Terror. He illustrates his point by invoking Kerry’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his votes against funding for a litany of military weapons and vehicles. “George Bush wants to grab terrorists by the throat and not let them go to get a better grip. From John Kerry, they get a ‘yes-no-maybe’ bowl of mush that can only encourage our enemies and confuse our friends.” 

The Effect:6Data for the 2000 election can be found here. That same data for 2004 can be found here.

Change in Democratic Support for Republican Candidate, 2000-2004: +0% (2000: 11%, 2004: 11%)

Change in Georgia’s Support for Republican Candidate, 2000-2004: +3.3% (2000: 54.67%, 2004: 57.97%)

Change in White Male Support for Republican Candidate, 2000-2004: +3% (2000: 55%, 2004: 58%)

2008 Republican National Convention, St. Paul, Minnesota

The Speaker: Connecticut Senator (and former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate) Joe Lieberman

The Speech: Lieberman, who ran for and eventually won his Senate seat as an independent candidate in 2006 after losing his party’s primary but continued to caucus with the Democrats, struck a relatively conciliatory chord when he endorsed John McCain for president, especially when compared with fellow Democratic defector Miller’s rallying cry from only four years earlier. He praised Bill Clinton as a Democrat who crossed party lines for the good of the country (which was met with, in the words of Mark Halperin,”grumbling and uncertain applause“) and said that then-Senator Barack Obama was a “gifted and eloquent young man who I think can do great things for our country in the years ahead,” but ultimately endorsed McCain because of his record of “independence and bipartisanship.” He tried to boost vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as well, saying of the Republican ticket “the Washington bureaucrats and the power-brokers are not going to be able to build a pen that will hold in these two mavericks. It’s just not possible.” He also, like Miller, emphasized the Republican nominee’s foreign policy strengths, highlighting McCain’s support for the Iraq War troop surge and declaring that McCain would be a president that “our allies will trust and our enemies will fear.”

The Effect:72004 data; 2008 data

Change in Democratic Support for Republican Candidate, 2004-2004 :-1% (2004: 11%, 20008: 10%)

Change in Connecticut’s Support for Republican Candidate, 2004-2008: -6.28 (2004: 54.31%, 2008: 60.59%)

Change in Jewish Support for Republican Candidate, 2004-2008: -3% (2004: 25%, 2008: 21%)

2016 Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Speaker: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

The Speech: Having won three terms as mayor of the largest city on the country, twice as a Republican, once as a Republican-endorsed independent,8Hooray for electoral fusionism! Bloomberg set out to persuade Trump-skeptical Republicans and independents to pull the lever for Hillary Clinton instead of staying home. He emphasized how she “worked with Republicans in Washington to ensure that New York got the help it needed to recover and rebuild” in the wake of 9/11 and conceded that while the two of them didn’t always agree, she “always listened.” He also acknowledged the outsider appeal that made him a viable candidate for the mayoralty, but said that voters shouldn’t be fooled by Trump’s alleged business acumen, arguing that his proposed policies would damage the economy, reduce America’s standing in the world, and “make our communities less safe.” “The bottom line is: Trump is a risky, radical choice,” he summed up. “Hillary Clinton understands that this is not reality television; this is reality. She understands the job of president. It involves finding solutions, not pointing fingers, and offering hope, not stoking fear.”

The Effect:92012 data; 2016 data

Change in Republican Support for Democratic Presidential Candidate, 2012-2016: +1% (2012: 6%, 2016: 7%)

Change in New York Support for Democratic Presidential Candidate, 2012-2016: -4.34% (2012: 63.35%, 2016: 59.01%)

Change in Jewish Support for Democratic Presidential Candidate, 2012-2016: +2% (2012: 69%, 2016: 71%)

So what does this (statistically insignificant) data seem to show us? Well, it seems like these kinds of speeches are really only so effective. Of our three speakers, none of them saw an improvement in their preferred candidate’s performance in our three chosen categories. Miller’s Bush endorsement comes the closest, with both white male and Georgia voters going for Bush in slightly larger numbers than they did four years earlier, but Democratic support stood pat. Bloomberg’s endorsement of Clinton saw her do marginally better than Obama among both Republican and Jewish voters, but she actually did worse in her home state of New York (and worse in New York City as well, winning 79% of the vote to Obama’s 81%) by a larger margin than both of those percentage gains combined (it likely didn’t help that Donald Trump was also from New York). And Lieberman’s endorsement of McCain seems to have done the Republican absolutely no favors — he underperformed Bush among both Democratic and Jewish voters by a bit, but took a relative nosedive in Connecticut where he posted a 6.28% decrease in support, our largest swing in either direction for all the categories and candidates we looked at.

So it looks like, from our quick and dirty “study,” that having a member of the opposite party speak at your convention doesn’t really put you over the edge with a specific set of voters. It should be noted, of course, that Miller, Lieberman, and Bloomberg hardly represented typical members of their party. Miller wrote a book about how disillusioned he felt as a conservative in a rapidly liberalizing party back in 2003, and would end up co-chairing Newt Gingrich’s campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Lieberman lost his Senate primary in 2006 before winning his seat as an independent, and, despite holding liberal positions on abortion, gay rights, and climate change, he was notorious for being a hawk among Democratic doves and for conservative stances on criminal justice, education, and the entertainment industry. And Bloomberg voluntarily left the Republican Party for his 2009 run for a third term, and took liberal positions on issues like gay rights, abortion, climate change, gun control, and, of course, the size of sodas. In fact, Bloomberg wound up as a Democrat again, running for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, an exercise that saw him spend a lot of money all for the honor of being humiliated in his first debate by Elizabeth Warren.

What to make of these kinds of speeches then? Was the air time the Democratic Party gave to its old adversaries, as some progressives alleged, a waste of time, or did they serve a purpose? A generous assessment might say that it’s a good way to grab headlines — a Republican speaking at the Democratic convention is more newsworthy than a Democratic speaking at the Democratic convention, and the party might get some viewers (and, by extension, potential converts) who tune in for the sheer novelty of it all. But a more likely explanation seems to be that these speeches are less about the voters that the party is looking to win over, and more about voters they’ve already won over. Think about Miller’s home state of Georgia: when Roy Barnes won the state’s governorship in 2002, he was the first Republican to do so since 1868. When Saxby Chambliss was elected to the Senate from Georgia in that same year, he was only the third Republican to do so since Reconstruction. But few of those Democratic governors and senators were liberals in the vein of today’s, or even 2004’s, Democratic Party — at times they were staunch segregationists explicitly advocating for the interests of white, conservative Southerners. 

The success of state Democrats in Georgia runs counter to the success of Democratic presidential candidates in that same state, however. The Democratic candidate won Georgia in only three of the eight presidential elections held between 1964 and 1992 — and in two of those elections, the winner was Jimmy Carter, a born and raised Georgian (the other was another Southern moderate — Bill Clinton in 1992). Perhaps it’s more helpful to think of cross-party endorsements like Miller’s as lagging indicators of where the electorate has shifted as opposed to efforts by the party to win over voters. This line of thinking could be applied to the trio of Republican women who endorsed Joe Biden, as well. White suburban women were already starting to break Democratic, and they aren’t doing it because Christine Todd Whitman and Meg Whitman told them too — Christine Todd Whitman and Meg Whitman are endorsing Biden because they’re also white, suburban women. Such speeches are less an act of persuasion than an act of affirmation. “You’re right”, Miller may as well have said, “the Democrats have abandoned the white working man. That’s why I, like you, am voting for George W. Bush.” Alternatively, Susan Molinari may as well have said, “It’s true, the Republican Party has become a den of misogyny more focused on limiting abortion rights than fostering a working economy. That’s why I, like millions of other white women, have embraced the Democratic Party.” Lieberman could say something similar for pro-Israel hawks, and Bloomberg something similar for socially liberal white collar workers. 

What about someone like Kasich, though? As a white male Republican from Ohio, he represents a demographic that, if anything, has been consistently Republican-leaning over the last few decades. One could argue that he stands in for white collar workers or college educated voters, both of whom seem to be shifting into the Democratic tent. But, perhaps more compellingly, he represents a faction that was once synonymous with the Republican Party: movement conservatives. 

A coalition of libertarians, anti-communists, foreign policy hawks, traditionalists, and the religious right, movement conservatism reached its apex with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and have dominated the GOP for most of recent history. In a nutshell, movement conservatism was a reaction to New Deal liberalism that sought to cut taxes, slash government spending, promote traditional Judeo-Christian values and flex American military strength, all in the name of preserving individual liberty and bringing an end to the “big government” of the post-war American consensus. Shortsighted and paradoxical though this philosophy can sometimes be (control of government spending never seemed to extend to the military budget), it has more or less dictated the arc of American politics in the last forty years, and acted as the unofficial platform of the Republican Party in that time span.

At least it did until Donald Trump came along. By promoting immigration restrictions, trade tariffs, isolationism, and white identity politics, Trump broke with the Republican mainstream in more than just his bombastic, oftentimes offensive rhetoric. He fundamentally shifted the agenda of the Republican Party, taking the focus off of tax policy and the deficit and embracing an ideology more similar to the Old Right of the 1930s or Pat Buchanan’s paleoconservatism than the policies of Reagan or George H.W. Bush. And it’s proved contagious — conservative commentators have found new audiences railing against what they call ”zombie Reaganism“ or, in the words of Peter Spiliakos, “The application of 1980s Republican politics to a very different time.” A few of these commentators even drafted a manifesto opposing “zombie Reaganism” and what they argued as its “fetishiz[ation] of [individual] autonomy.” Rather than advocate for “free trade on every front, free movement through every boundary, small government as an end of itself, [and] technology as a cure all,” the authors of the manifesto called on conservatives to instead support policies opposing the spread of pornography, limiting immigration, and adopting policies that favor workers instead of business owners — in other words, “big government” with a right wing twist.

The manifesto also declares that “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016.” In other words, the GOP is Trump’s party now, and the president’s 90% approval rating among his own party shows little hope of that changing anytime soon. So what’s a Reagan Republican like John Kasich, an elite by any measure, a man who sat on corporate boards as a private citizen, fought for welfare reform as a congressman, and signed aggressively anti-labor legislation as a governor, supposed to do? With decidedly Trump like figures such as Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson rising to prominence in the GOP and even pondering runs for the presidency, could it be that the path of least resistance may in fact be to join the Democratic Party? There, he could form an uneasy alliance with a party establishment that’s thus far held back its own populist revolt and has, in recent history, been willing to compromise with “moderate” Republicans such as himself, all in the name of protecting individual autonomy from a more socially and economically interventionist Republican Party. It’s a crazy thought, and not where I thought this article would end up, but hey, if the Never Trump Republicans in the electorate have already become Democrats, the Never Trump Republicans in office may be smart to do the same. America is a democracy after all — it only makes sense that the voters would pull politicians with them across party lines, and not the other way around.

The Reel Life Oscar Challenge Episode 23: 2011 (Part 2)

Michael, Lars, and Kathleen close out 2011 by talking about two very different Brad Pitt movies, a charming film by a decidedly uncharming man, and a the first Best Picture nominee since Babe to have an animal as a main character

The films discussed are:

-Midnight in Paris (1:01)
-Moneyball (16:55)
-The Tree of Life (29:52)
-War Horse (48:48)

 

The Reel Life Oscar Challenge Episode 22: 2011 (Part 1)

Little kids and silent movies dominate this episode of the Reel Life Oscar Challenge, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others. The films discussed are:

-The Artist (1:42)
-The Descendants (11:41)
-Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (21:04)
-The Help (38:06)
-Hugo (48:59)

Raw and Haunting, Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher Lives Up To Its Name

Phoebe Bridgers released her new album, Punisher, earlier than expected on Thursday, June 18th. “I’m not pushing the record until things go back to ‘normal,’ because I don’t think they should,” Bridgers said in a tweet that also included a link where fans would be able to donate to social justice organizations. “Here [the album] is a little early. Abolish the police. Hope you enjoy it,” she closed out her message.

Despite her attempts to downplay what’s been one of the most anticipated albums of the year, Bridgers finds herself — willingly or not — at an inflection point in her career, a peak in notoriety and output that’s established her as one of the vanguards of a stacked crop of young female singer-songwriters that began their careers in the latter half of the 2010s. 

Her 2017 debut album, Stranger in the Alps, was released to critical acclaim, and a number of its tracks would go on to be featured in broadcast TV shows like Castle and Lethal Weapon, providing her with an introduction to mainstream American tastes not typically afforded to her peers. In 2018, she’d team up with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus to form the supergroup boygenius, releasing a self-titled EP and embarking on a tour that same year. And then in 2019, she formed another supergroup, this time with Connor Oberst, releasing an album and touring as Better Oblivion Community Center, making buzzy appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and CBS This Morning: Saturday. Not content to make music with just one 2000s indie legend, Bridgers would also go on to record a song with The National’s Matt Berninger for Between Two Ferns: The Movie (which she also made a cameo in), and then recruited Berninger and Fiona Apple to record the darkest, angriest cover of “Silent Night” ever released. She kept the ball rolling in 2020, not only releasing lead singles “Garden Song” and “Kyoto” to an adoring public, but also appearing on four tracks of another highly anticipated 2020 release, The 1975’s Notes On a Conditional Form, where she managed to wring out a quiet, heartfelt track from an otherwise bloated, vapid album. 

What’s striking about Bridger’s past four years isn’t just the quantity of music she’s put out, but the diversity of spaces she’s found herself in. Songs about funerals and emotional abuse don’t exactly scream “network TV,” nor does the music of Better Oblivion Community Center, which plumbed the same territory and whose appeal relied on the name recognition of two cult adjacent figures. Better Oblivion Community Center also highlights Bridgers’ ability to transcend her age group, which opens up doors into other, older audiences. To put it in perspective, the age gap between Bridgers and Berninger is only one year smaller than the age gap between Kurt Cobain and Lou Reed, and the equivalent of Bridgers reaching out to Fiona Apple to record a politically charged Christmas carol would’ve been Apple reaching out to someone like…I don’t know Kate Bush? Joni Mitchell? We’ve seen artists collaborate across generational lines before, sure, but not in the way Bridgers has done it — running the show and outshining the people she used to look up to, it feels unprecedented. It also appears to have brought her the attention and admiration of a number of high profile fans, like ESPN host Katie Nolan and Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang, the latter of whom affectionately parodied Bridgers’s emotional and current events focused songwriting style in a series of tweets. It’d probably be a bit of a stretch to declare Bridgers a “mainstream” artist, but she’s come about as close as any other member of her cohort to something like crossover success. Who knows, maybe if things were back to “normal” we’d be talking about Bridgers embarking on media dominating press tour and declaring 2020 the year “emo folk” broke. But for now, Bridgers will have to settle for plaudits from music critics, the media class, and teenagers on social media.

Punisher certainly warrants the attention. The word “powerful” gets thrown around so much and used in so many different contexts that it becomes meaningless, but it’s still the best way to describe this album. It’s not powerful in the sense that it’s big and overwhelming the way a great metal or hard rock record might be, and not powerful because the lyrics are over the top touching and emotional, even though they can be at times. It’s powerful in the sense that it etches itself onto your mind and soul, almost scarring the listener emotionally through a combination of sorrow, dread, and — oddly enough — hope. This is the kind of album that should come with a label warning you not to play it past midnight, not only because of the scary emotional places it will take you, but because Bridgers’ voice will float around your head like a ghost for hours, even days, after your listen to any one of these songs. It’d feel manipulative, maudlin, even, if it weren’t so effective and if it weren’t so haunting. 

Part of that is likely because so many of these songs do in fact feel like they’re coming from the other side. As gutting as Stranger in the Alps could be, there was still some comfort in knowing the Bridgers was just a girl with a guitar communicating her feelings through well executed but familiar rock and folk structures and sounds. On Punisher, Bridgers expands her sonic pallet, adding subtle electronic tweaks and fuller arrangements that help give her songs an air of the spectral and the otherworldly. The soft bass beat on “Garden Song” makes it sound like Bridgers’ muted arpeggios are signals coming from a far off place, and as Brigders takes us on a tour through a burned down house and a Kafkaesque dream, Jereon Vrijhoef joins in her in the chorus like a spirit mirroring her every move, the kind of thing you always feel is watching you but can never prove exists. That notion of having a silent, invisible listener is touched on again on “Chinese Satellite,” when Bridgers swears that she can “feel you through the walls”/”But that’s impossible.” That sense of finality — that our departed loved ones live on only in our minds, and not on any supernatural plain — makes Bridgers’ songs about the fragility of her subjects all the heavier.

“Chinese Satellite,” which feels like the evil twin of Owl City’s saccharine ode to bioluminescence “Fireflies,” also ends with Bridgers hoping that a tractor beam will shoot out of the night sky and whisk her away to a home that she never knew existed, expanding on themes of escape she began exploring with boygenius’s “Me and My Dog,” which also finds her abandoning Earth above a spaceship. This theme crops up in elsewhere on Punisher in more earthbound forms, like on the tender country track “Graceland Too,” which sees an institutionalized character impulsively hightail it to Memphis, and more metaphorically on “Halloween,” where Bridgers invites her lover to “be anything” before offering to be “whatever you want,” an escape from pre-determined and familiar identity on the one hand, and an escape from the pressure of defining yourself on the other. But this is still a sophomore album from a touring rock artist, which means it’s required by musician law to feature songs about fame and life on the road, the most notable being “Kyoto,” which, from a lyrical perspective, isn’t much different from the other baleful tracks on Punisher (“I’m gonna kill you” Bridgers tells a neglectful father figure “If you don’t beat me to it”), but kicks up the tempo and guitar distortion to something approximating a peppy rock song. Bridgers herself admitted that “Kyoto” was originally meant as a ballad but turned into an uptempo rock track because she was “sick of recording slow songs,” and that somewhat forced origin only hammers home that the kind of travel Bridgers makes a living doing is more of an apparent escape than an actual one; rather than facilitate an improved state of being, it only papers over our existing trauma and turmoil, and even introduces new opportunities for boredom and annoyance to creep in.

Bridgers doesn’t address her own fame as directly, preferring instead to view it through the lens of her own fandom of Elliott Smith on the album’s title track. Bridgers has explained that the “punisher” she refers to in the song is not Frank Castle’s alter ego, but rather a person who fawns over an artist so intensely that they begin to inadvertently “punish” the object of their affections. “What if I told you”/”I feel like I knew you?”/”But we never met” Bridgers imagines herself saying to the late singer/songwriter, who lived in the same Silver Lake neighborhood Bridgers now calls home. This idea of fan obsession punishing an artist is nothing new — Henry Rollins described it as “the brutality of mass acceptance” in regards to Kurt Cobain’s suicide — but Bridgers has observed that the deeply personal nature of her songwriting seems to provoke particular intense reaction from her fans, revealing in an interview that she once had to deal with someone literally chasing her after a gig while yelling “I would never chase you!” It’d be easy to delight in the irony of that if it also wasn’t also terrifying.

I’d like to think that I’d never chase Phoebe Bridgers down the street after a gig, but I can’t deny that I do feel a degree of personal connection with her. The odd thing about music fandom is that while listeners may build their most intense connections with artists as teenagers, the artists with whom they build those connections are rarely teenagers themselves. Instead, the music of their generation is defined to some extent by artists five, ten, even fifteen years older than they are. While I may have some things in common with Patrick Stickles, Jack White, and Craig Finn and respond to their music on a deep emotional level, they’re still 9, 19, and 23 years older than me, respectively. I love those men to death, but those generation gaps of varying sizes will always keep me from relating to them fully and totally; I may think they know some of what I’ve experienced, but not all of it — they’re heroes and idols maybe, but not peers. But Bridgers, who is only two and a half months younger than me, certainly feels like something of a peer, someone experiencing the world at the same stage of life I am. When Bridgers came forward with a number of other women and accused Ryan Adams of emotionally abusing and sexually harassing her, I reacted to it differently than any of the other litany of accusations made against powerful men over the past four years. I was appalled by all of these incidents of course, but something about this one felt more personal. It felt like I was watching a friend go through it, and like a microcosm of some great intergenerational struggle, of Millennials’ search for praise and validation from previous generations that have forced raw deal after raw deal upon us and blamed us for our own shortcomings. 

It wasn’t just that I felt like I knew Phoebe Bridgers — it felt like that she might know me too, and how many other depressed twenty-somethings and teenagers are going to feel the same thing after listening to Punisher? In some ways, it feels like Bridgers may have underestimated our own narcissism — because the truth of the matter is, fawning over an artist has never been about them, it’s always been about us fans, and what kind of unreciprocated support artists can give us. We’re not trying to thank the artist when we obsess over them to their face, we’re trying to win over their affection so that they’ll reciprocate it back to us. It’s a never-ending search for validation, because we want to be told by a person we look up to not that they’re just like us, but that we’re just like them. And if we’re just like them, then we’re as cool, talented, and attractive as they are. We become obsessed with them because we’re obsessed with ourselves.

Of course, it would be a lot easier for Bridgers to ward off this kind of unhealthy fan behavior if she weren’t so damn good at her job. Punisher isn’t a perfect album — “Halloween,” “Moon Song,” and even the title track feel like a bunch of well-written lyrics grasping in the dark for an engaging melody or hook, and unfortunately, they never find one — but its final four tracks are perfect slices of distinct indie rock that make the genre feel alive again. The dreamy but disillusioned “Savior Complex,” with its moonlit strings and beaming slide guitar, recalls Wilco at their most tender, while the intro to “ICU” feels like it could be a Modern Vampires of the City-era Vampire Weekend sample before unfolding into something that more closely recalls Better Oblivion Community Center. “Graceland Too” reclaims the banjo and fiddle from the Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, and every other boring “alternative folk” group of the 2010s, demonstrating how they can be deployed to heartbreaking and devastating effect and in a manner that suggests country may have been the first kind of emo music ever made. 

The closing track, “I Know the End,” is the coup de grâce. Beginning as a typical Bridgers song with shimmering guitar chords and lyrics about an unhealthy relationship, it’s made off kilter by the slightest touches of organ and droning keys, bringing back the haunted feel from some of the earlier songs. Eventually the tempo picks up and Bridgers takes us on a drive through rural California, calling out images of forlorn Americana (“A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall”/”Slot machines, fear of God”), impending doom (“Big bolts of lightning hanging low”), and paranoia (“Over the coast, everyone’s convinced”/”It’s a government drone or an alien spaceship”). She throws in some more references to becoming a ghost (“I’ll find a new place to be from”/”A haunted house, a picket fence”/”To float around with my ghost friends”), all while strings and horns surge around her, recalling Arcade Fire at their most grandiose. Eventually Bridgers embraces all this doom and decay, declaring “No, I’m not afraid, to disappear”/”The billboard said the end is near”/”I turned around, there was nothing there”/”Yeah, I guess the end is near” and the drums kick in and a gang of vocalists joins in, defiantly shouting the last four words of the song over and over, the most fatalistic yet triumphant coda since Titus Andronicus declared “It’s still us against them, and they’re winning” ten years ago. Eventually all the singers let loose one blood-curdling scream, the horns change to a more menacing key and the tempo begins in swing. Bridgers lets out another scream that seems to last for an impossible amount of time, sounding like she’s leading the now careening instrumental ensemble into battle. Eventually the music cuts out, and we just hear Bridgers continuing to scream, but hoarsely and more quietly than before, until her voice gives out with one final cough. 

“I Know the End” is a powerful statement, one that looks at humanity’s extinction with a nonchalance that informs a warrior-like bravery, before descending into chaos and acknowledging that, yes, actually, death and the end of the world are in fact quite scary. Bridgers’ screams feel like they could be the last recorded sound of the last living thing, an intelligent being reduced to its pure will to survive, gnashing away in the dark as forces beyond its control begin to overtake it. Or, it could be the singer’s reminder to us that, whatever power she holds over her listeners, whatever terrible feelings she’s able to replicate within them and whatever deliverance she provides us with, she is still just a person, not a god or a ghost or an alien, not a symbol for us to project ourselves onto. Just an actual, fragile human being who  happens to be good at putting music and words together. And maybe if we realize that about her, we’ll realize that about ourselves, too, and we’ll all chill out a little. I’m not so sure that it’ll work, but I guess it’s worth a try.

How Fetch the Bolt Cutters Became the Album of Quarantine

“I Want You to Love Me,” the opening track of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple’s fifth studio album, begins with a digital fake out. A chintzy drum machine and minimalist keyboard line take up the first twenty or so seconds of the song’s runtime before making way for some cascading piano notes and Apple’s aching, yearning story of romantic and sexual desire. It’s one of the better Side A, Track 1’s of the last few years, and the way it descends from composed piano pop, to something rawer and angrier before finally unraveling into something that sounds like a combination orgasm/mental breakdown perfectly whets your appetite for the rest of the album. The first release from the reclusive singer/songwriter in almost eight years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters has set the music press ablaze, becoming the first album to receive a perfect 10.0 score from Pitchfork since Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy did the same in 2010. Praise for Fetch the Bolt Cutters has been so universal that it currently stands as the highest rated album of all time on review aggregator Metacritic, ahead of other modern classics like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN., D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and Beyonce’s Lemonade. “Instant classic” has become a cliche, but I don’t know there’s any other way to describe Fetch the Bolt Cutters — based on the critical response alone, this is an album that will be talked about for a long, long time.

Apple’s talent as a singer, songwriter, and composer are self-evident, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that people are digging Fetch the Bolt Cutters. But seeing as how little it shares with the most vaunted music of the last ten years, I was still caught a little off guard by the effusiveness of its reviews. Fetch the Bolt Cutters shares little, if anything with hip-hop, electronica, and modern maximalist pop, genres that have made the biggest critical gains over the past ten years; in fact its reliance on instruments like piano and standup bass make it feel almost pointedly unhip. It wouldn’t feel odd to me if a jaded teen saw Apple sitting behind a piano and immediately slotted her in next to Norah Jones, Sara Bareilles, or any of the other ivory-tickling women who padded adult alternative radio playlists and your mother’s CD collection for the past ten years. They would be wrong for not realizing that Apple takes these elements, puts them in a box, shakes that box up, throws it off a cliff, and then kicks it all the way home to craft a sound that’s always felt unique, but I could  see why they would reach such a conclusion. And it has so little to do with the kind of music that’s been held up as the most “important” in the past few years that I could also see it being written off as irrelevant to the larger cultural landschape. Don’t get me wrong, she’s always been a critical darling, but what is it this time and place that has led Fetch the Bolt Cutters to be so adored?

To find the answer to that question, let’s take a look at a few other trends and high profile releases from the last five years. In his now landmark piece “Tame Impala, Chillwave, and Other Dispatches from the Vibe Generation,” Larry Fitzmaurice highlighted and explained the popularity of alternative music that featured “an increased embrace of sampling and electronics, a de-emphasizing of guitars, a sonic approach that favored tactile sensuality rather than the bookish sensibilities that pervade 2000s alternative music, and an unabashed love of all things retro.” Fitzmaurice argued that this music appealed to a generation of people who “take drugs,” “spend like crazy,” “open [their] hearts and minds as widely as possible to all non-hateful viewpoints and lifestyles,” and “take more drugs.” Fitzmaurice argues that his (and I guess, my) generation do such things because they’re “not so much seeking answers as…looking for ways to feel something else, to escape the near-constant horror that is public and private life in 2015.”1If only they knew what was in store for them a year later…
 The end result is the popularity of chillwave mainstays like Toro Y Moi, Washed Out, and Neon Indian, as well as indie rock artists who embraced electronic music and 80s nostalgia like M83, The War on Drugs and, most importantly for this article, Tame Impala. 

Fitzmaurice reserves special praise for Tame Impala’s 2015 release Currents, which saw the Australian psych rock project trade in its guitars for keyboards and release “gorgeously textured soundscapes that owed as much to modern R&B as they did to the expensive luxuries of soft rock.” Fitzmaurice lauds Currents for its emotionally intimate lyrics, “stuttering beats,” and “motorik fantasias,” going on to describe the album as sounding like “modernity — bright and nearly monolithic, a gigantic nervous system encased in a protective cell phone case big enough that it’d crush an entire city if it toppled over.”

I don’t know that I like Currents quite that much, but in terms of sheer longevity alone, it stands out as the apotheosis of the vibey mindset celebrated by Fitzmaurice. It not only transcended genre lines by having tracks covered by Rihanna and featured on Donald Glover’s hip-hop focused TV dramedy Atlanta, but it also gave the modern music world one of its rarest sights: an ostensible rock artist selling out massive arenas and headlining major festivals like Coachella. After the release of Currents, Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker became a bona fide star, collaborating with Mark Ronson and Camilla Cabello and even producing a track on Travis Scott’s multi-platinum psych-rap album Astroworld. These high profile cameos and Parker’s reclusiveness ratcheted up anticipation for 2020’s The Slow Rush, Tame Impala’s fourth studio album. This excitement culminated in a splashy Billboard cover story in which Parker declared, to the delight of pop fans and lament of rock fans, that he wanted to become a Max Martin style super-producer, seemingly aligning himself with the dreamy, sugary sounds that came to  dominate the 2010s, and setting the stage for what had the potential to be his biggest record yet.

It feels like eons ago at this point, but The Slow Rush was actually released this Valentine’s Day — in other words, about three months ago. And while its trippy, festival ready synths and stretched out runtimes make it feel like another win for the Vibe Generation, it’s hard not to hear a bit of exhaustion from Parker in both his music and his lyrics. His high-pitched vocals feel overwhelmed at points by the swirling instrumentals, and the throbbing, at times gritty low end that defined Currents is softened as well, making some of The Slow Rush’s tracks feel wispy, and trying to find your aural bearings in the thick of all these soupy sounds can feel like grasping at running water.

But perhaps the most striking change made by Parker is the change in perspective of his lyrics, which go from being burrowed deep inside his own head to addressing a significant other in varying states of a relationship’s decay. The romanticization of introspection, escapism, and nostalgia that was ascendant in the 2010s, and that Fitzmaurice’s article even gets wrapped up in, is no longer seen as a viable option by Parker. “Lost in Yesterday” identifies reminiscence as a crutch — “And you’re gonna have it let it go someday/You keep picking it up like Groundhog Day,” Parker sings, before concluding “it has to be lost to yesterday,” revealing the song’s title as not a lament of a past love or life, but as the preferred state of old behaviors. “It Might Be Time” sees him realize his mortality and the inevitable obsolescence of youthful hedonism in the most straightforward terms possible (“It might be time to face it/You ain’t as young as you used to be”), while “Borderline” reads like Parker’s mind racing as the numbing drugs he’s been using to distract himself from his troubles begins to wear off, leading to a line of anxiety inducing questions (“Will I be known and loved?/Is there one that I trust?”) that become impossible to ignore in his sobered up state. These three tracks read almost like a past, present, future sequence for a festival hopping, pill popping Millennial falling back to Earth and realizing that they actually have to confront their own problems and those of the world around them — making it impossible, almost irresponsible, to chase the feeling of “something else” that Fitzmaurice argues that they’re wont to do.

Tame Impala wasn’t the only artist to interrogate the Millennial desire for transcendence and then concede to its limits in 2020. Grimes’ Miss Anthropocene, which was released a week after The Slow Rush, is, according to Claire Boucher (Grimes’s real name), “A concept album about the anthropomorphic Goddess of Climate change,” with each song acting as “a different embodiment of human extinction as depicted through Pop star Demonology.” Trying to interpret that statement may be a fool’s errand, but it feels somewhat consistent with Boucher’s predilection for the synthetic and the transformative, a tendency that runs parallel to the warm escapism of Tame Impala and other vibronauts. She’s a true scion of the digital age — rather than escape her surroundings, she tries to shape them and redefine and reinvent herself through her album artwork as an anime character, a 3D model, or, by singing from the perspective of an angry Earth goddess, into something entirely inhuman. This drive to transcend mere flesh and blood culminated with “We Appreciate Power,” a punishing, Nine Inch Nails indebted rocker that seems to advocate for a kind of forced singularity. “Elevate the human race/Putting makeup on my face,” Boucher sings before ensuring us that “AI will reward us when it reigns” and that “simulation is our future,” in between asking what it will take for us to capitulate. The confidence Boucher seems to have in this techno-fascist future becomes all the more concerning when you remember that she’s dating (and recently gave birth to the child of) Elon Musk, but it’s just another, more Redditized version of the drive to “feel something else” described by Fitzmaurice. For Grimes, uploading your consciousness into a computer isn’t just a survival tactic, it’s also a coping mechanism. What better way to avoid negative human emotions than to become something other than human? 

But in time, Grimes became just as skeptical about her methods of escape as Parker. Blurry headrush “4ÆM” acts as a sonic representation of the inevitable “unraveling” and “falling down” that comes after a late night out (and rather presciently predicts ”You’re gonna get sick/You don’t know when”), and the only English words spoken in the 潘PAN assisted “Darkseid” is “Unrest is in our soul/We don’t move our bodies anymore.” But the real kicker, the high point in the album but the low point for Grimes’ techno fantasies, is “Delete Forever.” Grimes’ rare acoustic-based song, “Delete Forever” sees Boucher singing from the perspective of a junkie on the cusp of experiencing “permanent blue” after doing every drug under the sun (or, as Boucher poetically puts it, having “more lines on the mirror than a sonnet”). It’s not just that the drugs are wearing off like they did in Parker’s songs — they’re actively contributing to this character’s destruction. And the most chilling detail of all is their admission that such a demise might have been part of the plan after all, challenging the listener to “try to tell me now that I don’t want it.”

At first glance, Tame Impala and Grimes’ exploration of these themes should make their music feel timeless, even prescient. Expressing unease and pessimism through a festival or club ready song isn’t exactly a new trick, but it is a good way to help ensure that when we listen to The Slow Rush and Miss Anthropocene 20 years from now, we won’t be hearing the last gasps of two of the 2010s’ biggest artists recycling their old sounds on the cusp of a new decade. And yet, recent events have made each of these albums’ reliance on big, crowd pleasing electronics feel out of step, even obsolete with the current mood of the country. Nobody is going to a festival and going out dancing anytime soon, and try as Parker and Boucher might to ground their otherwise wispy and ethereal music, it just doesn’t sound as good while we try to prevent ourselves from going crazy as we hole ourselves up in our apartments and try to outlast the coronavirus. Tame Impala were writing escapist music aware of its limits, but there’s no level of self-awareness that could make it sound good for our current moment. And with other albums being delayed, it seems like other artists have come to realize that trying to match our current moment is a futile effort. 

And then came Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an album almost tailor-made for our new world of isolation and social distancing. Apple recorded most of the album at her Venice Beach, California home, where she assembled a “percussion orchestra” of household items (which ranged from the mundane, like pots and pans, to the macabre, like her late dog Janet’s bones) to act as her rhythm section. The result is a record that sounds raw, claustrophobic, and more than a little stir-crazy, the aural equivalent of a musician banging their head against a wall. Apple digs deep vocally as well, reaching a degree of grit and at times almost unhinged-ness that her earlier work lacked; her yelps, growls, and bellows are tangible enough to make your own throat feel scratchy by proxy. From a resources perspective, almost any of us could have recorded this album in the two plus months we’ve been sheltering in place; the only thing preventing us from doing so is that we don’t have Apple’s innate talent.

The unvarnished, homemade feel of the record is backed up by strikingly physical lyrical imagery. “I Want You to Love Me” sees Apple asking her would be beau to “bang it, bite it, bruise it” and “Shameika,” the following track, evocatively describes the way Apple would “crush the leaves like they had fallen from dead trees/just for me” and slap her leg with a riding crop on her way to school to make herself look tough.2No, I don’t know where a school aged child would find a riding crop, or how they would even know what one is, for that matter. Elsewhere, she dares her date to kick her under the table on, uh, “Under the Table,” to get her to stop arguing with someone else at a dinner she doesn’t want to go to, and, in her most striking bit of imagery, refers to a rack of guitars on a gentleman friend’s wall as “lined up like eager fillies/Outstretched like legs of Rockettes” on “Rack of His.” She almost sounds jealous of them, hoping the man in question will “wail” on her like he does the instruments, before being disappointed by his more conservative lovemaking (or at least, that’s what I think “but it was just a coochie-coo-coo” means). What makes these lyrics stand out is that they see Apple yearning, begging, almost, for any kind of human contact, for any kind of physical sensation outside of what she can produce herself — the reverse of Tame Impala and Grimes’ escapist and transformative fantasies, and a feeling that probably feels familiar to all of us right now. 

Apple expresses a similar longing for nature as well. In “Heavy Balloon,” she claims to “spread like strawberries” and “climb like peas and beans,” while in “I Want You to Love Me” she “moves with the trees/In the breeze.” The rush of people to California’s beaches and New York’s parks after some restrictions on public gatherings were eased in those states seem to indicate that we as a society are similarly wistful for the natural world, and the growing and spreading imagery used by Apple refer to processes that may feel stunted in the era of shelter-in-place. We feel cramped, unable to stretch and grow and feel the cool grass under us, unable to be one with the natural world. We may have written these feelings off as hippy dippy nonsense in the pre-COVID-19 era and sought refuge in the synthetic instead, but now that all we can do is retreat inside our devices, we’re desperately seeking an alternative. We, in many, ways, want to fetch the bolt cutters and break out of our quarantine cages.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters covers a litany of themes across its 13 tracks — namely the way Apple has felt emotionally mistreated by men, and how such mistreatment has affected her relationships with women. But the common through line of all of those songs is a yearning to lean into connection, acknowledging and absorbing all of its rough edges. This runs counter to the vibey strategy pursued by Tame Impala, Grimes, and their peers, who retreated into warm electronic sounds as if into the womb, and whose emotional analysis was more inward looking. It’s not that Apple doesn’t have a sense of self or isn’t interested in self-examination, it’s just that she’s moved on to better things and other needs. And on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she needs other people — needs to touch them and feel them the same way she feels all the plastic, wooden, and metal things sitting around her house; the same way you can feel her pounded out piano notes, improvised percussion, woody bass, and her unvarnished vocals. If the 2010s were defined by a generation trying to “feel something else,” Apple is scoffing at their pickiness and hoping just to feel anything at all. Typical, modern day to day life provides us with an excess of humanity, but now that we’re siloed off from one another, we can’t help but claw at the walls like Apple in the hope that someone will give us something as small and spiteful as a quick kick in the shins. Really, it’d almost be troubling if this album wasn’t universally praised.

So does the rapturous response to Fetch the Bolt Cutters represent the end of electronic incursions into rock and pop and the rise of a new, analog-based movement? We may not get the answer to that question for a few years, and even if we do, it’s not like the world’s biggest pop stars will take after Apple and start banging on the bones of their dead pets instead of teaming up with technologically inclined super producers. But the general “vibeyness” that has so dominated music for the past ten years feels like it may be on the outs, because there’s no use distracting ourselves from life’s harsh realities anymore. Many of us have never been so aware of our own mortality and the fragile security modern society provided us with — we can’t not pay attention to the physical world around us. If the coronavirus pandemic ends up facilitating a full fledged cultural reset, then Felt the Bolt Cutters could be its first chapter. And if we’re going to rewrite the musical landscape from scratch, we could do a lot worse.

What Would the Senate Look Like If We Repealed the 17th Amendment?

This past April marked the 107th anniversary of the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution. As far as amendments go, it’s not exactly one of the better known — people invoke their First, Second, and Fifth Amendment rights all of the time, but you don’t hear much about the 17th, even if its absence would vastly alter civic life in America. That’s because the 17th Amendment allowed for the popular election of United States Senators directly by the citizens of each state, a right that was previously held by each state’s legislature instead. 

As originally laid out in Article I of the Constitution, it was the state government, and not the state populace, who elected senators. The original purpose of this provision was to draw a clearer contrast between the Senate and the House of Representatives, the latter of which has always been elected by popular vote.1Even this right evolved over time as well. Initially only white, land owning males were granted the right to vote, but this eventually grew to include all white males, and then (ostensibly) all males regardless of race, and then all adults over the age of 21, to almost all adults over the age of 18 today.
By being selected by a state’s legislature, the Framers envisioned that the Senate would become a true upper house composed of, in the words of Constitutional scholar Todd Zywicki, “better men” who would expertly steer legislation when the lowly, directly-elected House became too influenced by special interests to govern properly. Information on how exactly each state selected their senators is scant, but according to the Constitution Center, it began with each chamber of a given state’s legislature nominating a candidate for the Senate. If both chambers nominated the same candidate, then the new senator would be sent to Washington. But if they each nominated a separate candidate, they met in a joint session to compromise on a choice.2Nebraska is the only state that has a unicameral nonpartisan legislature. Presumably whoever won the first vote in the Nebraska Legislature would be elected senator. This system worked fine for the most part, but as time wore on its flaws became more evident. According to UNLV law professor J.S. Bybee, one of Delaware’s Senate seats was left unoccupied from 1899 to 1903 due to a deadlock in the state’s legislature, while in 1897, one-third of the Oregon state legislature refused to take the oath of office due to a dispute surrounding an open Senate seat. These disputes dominated the business of the legislatures; in 1895, the Delaware State Legislature cast 217 ballots, and yet still failed to fill their open Senate seat. Sometimes the seats that were filled were done so illicitly, such as when Montana Senate hopeful William A. Clark bought legislators’ votes, a crime that resulted in his removal from office. Calls for reform started relatively early in the young republic, but came to a head during the Progressive Movement at the turn of the century. After several states found workarounds by holding public non-binding primaries to inform their state legislatures and the House of Representatives began to press for change, in 1911, Congress passed a joint resolution proposing a constitutional amendment for the direct election of senators, and two short years later 36 states ratified the amendment to make it law. 

And yet, there are still some who think that the ratification was a mistake. In 2016, the Utah legislature passed a resolution asking Congress to repeal the 17th Amendment,3 In a nice bit of symmetry, Utah was also the only state to reject the 17th Amendment back in 1913.
and a quick Google search will reveal that there’s a faction of conservative and libertarian thinkers that support giving the power to elect senators back to the state governments. The stated goal of most of these efforts is to restore the balance of power between the federal government and the states, with the added bonus that investing such power in a state’s legislature may even encourage renewed interest in state level elections and, in the words of Utah State Senator Al Jackson, ensure that senators would no longer be “more beholden to special interests than their states.”

Fringe as these opinions may seem, they did get me to thinking about what exactly the Senate would look like if the 17th Amendment were never ratified. Using Ballotpedia’s record of each state legislature’s composition going back to 2014, I created a massive spreadsheet that compared the composition of our current Senate with the composition of each senator’s respective state legislatures at the time, and figured out who would be in and who would be out if the state legislatures still chose the senators. More than just a fun thought experiment, it seemed like the best way to grapple with the arguments of those who would want to see the 17th Amendment repealed. Maybe by modeling what the Senate would look like if that did happen, I would come around to seeing their point of view, or at the very least, have a more substantive reason for disregarding it.

In order to figure out what the Senate would look like in a world where the 17th Amendment never happened, we have to make a few big assumptions, namely: 

  1. We must assume that each state legislature elects senators through the same process. We’ll assume that each chamber holds a vote to fill the position, and if the same person wins a plurality of votes in each chamber, they are elected to the Senate. In the event that the chambers select two different people to serve as senator, a special joint session is convened wherein the bodies vote together. Whichever candidate has the most votes after this joint session is elected to the Senate. 
  2. This also means that we’re assuming that votes are being cast along strict party lines. That means no West Virginia Republicans crossing the aisle to vote for Joe Manchin or any Maine Democrats voting for Susan Collins. I’d love to poll every state legislator in America and find out who they’d actually vote for, but I’d also like to finish writing this piece before I turn 50, so this assumption is a necessity. One trickle down effect of this assumption is that a joint session is only necessary when the two chambers of a given state legislature are controlled by two different parties. 
  3. We’re also assuming that legislators will be voting for the candidates who ran for the Senate seat in question in real life. This is probably the most unrealistic assumption we’re making. In an actual 17th Amendment-less world, outsider politicians with ideologies that lean further to the right or left, such as former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore or Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, would probably be passed over by state legislators in favor of less controversial figures. But since I can’t figure out a way to find out who those less controversial figures would be, those candidates who occupy the furthest reaches of either side of the American Overton window will have to do for now.
  4. We’re also assuming that senators are elected after a new state legislature is sworn in. In other words, if a state legislature holds elections every two years, the group of legislators elected in 2018 would determine who fills the Senate seats up for election in 2018. Otherwise, you would have a scenario in which a group of legislators elected in 2016 would be voting to fill a Senate seat in 2018 while their own seats are up for reelection. If states elect their legislatures in years that don’t run concurrent with Senate elections, we’ll assume that the legislature in office at the time of the Senate election will elect a senator (i.e. the Virginia State Assembly elected in 2017 would vote to fill the Senate seat up for election in 2018).
  5. There are two independent senators in the 116th Congress: Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine. Both independents caucus with the Democrats, but only Sanders was endorsed by his state’s Democratic Party. During the 2018 election, King had to face both Republican Eric Brakey and Democrat Zak Ringelstein, the latter of whom was the only major party senate nominee to be a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. So while it may seem more likely that the Democrats in the Maine State Legislature would choose to back the centrist former governor, for the sake of simplicity we’re going to assume that their votes will be going to Ringelstein instead. Since no Democrat ran for Sanders’ Senate seat in Vermont, we’ll assume that the Democrats in the Vermont State Legislature will have voted for Sanders.

All of that make sense? All right then, let’s fire up the ol’ spreadsheet and take a look at some tables!

Right off the bat, 84 of the 100 elections (or in the case of the governor-appointed Arizona Senator Martha McSally and Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, selections) that make up the current Senate would go the same way no matter if the 17th Amendment did or did not exist. Of those 84 senators elected in both scenarios, only seven faced a split legislature and had to be elected through a joint session:

 

State Year Lower House Vote Upper House Vote Joint Session Vote Winner Loser
AL 2016  22-18-1 14-6 32-28 Lisa Murkowski (R) Joe Miller (L)4Joe Miller, the Libertarian nominee for Alaska’s Senate seat in 2016, came in second. Independent candidate Margaret Stock came in third, while Democrat Ray Metcalfe came in fourth.
IA 2014 57-43 26-24 81-69 Joni Ernst (R) Bruce Braley (D)
KY 2014 54-46 26-12 72-66 Mitch McConnell (R) Alison Lundergan Grimes (D)
MN 2018 75-59 34-33 108-93 Amy Klobuchar (D) Jim Newberger (R)
MN 2018 (Special) 75-59 34-33 108-93 Tina Smith (D) Karin Housley (R)
NM 2014 37-33 25-17 58-54 Tom Udall (D) Allen Weh (R)
NY 2016 106-43-1 39-24 130-82 Chuck Schumer (R) Wendy Long (R)

Even though the end results of these elections are the same as the ones in our universe, the votes still break down in interesting ways. Tom Udall, who defeated Allen Weh in the 2014 New Mexico senate election by 11 points, just squeaks past him by a measly four votes in our model, or just over a 3.5% margin. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who in real life won Kentucky’s seat by a comfortable 16 points against challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, bests her by only six votes here, a little over a 4.4% margin.

What could explain this discrepancy? Well, all of these senators were incumbents at the time of their reelection, so that puts them at a natural advantage. But a more likely explanation seems to be that post-17th Amendment elections are decided by population, while pre-17th Amendment elections would be determined by representation. Think all the way back to your middle school civics class and the Connecticut Compromise. In the popular understanding, during the Constitutional Convention, smaller states like New Jersey wanted states to be represented equally in the national legislature regardless of size or population, whereas larger states like Virginia wanted the number of a state’s representatives to be doled out proportionally, so that those with a larger population had more sway. Eventually, the Connecticut delegation presented a compromise of the two plans that provided us with our current bicameral legislature, consisting of a Senate in which each state gets two senators, and the House of Representatives where each state is allocated a number of representatives based on population.

Even though Americans have been living with the House and the Senate since the Constitution’s ratification, the Connecticut Compromise still remains controversial for its unintended consequences. Former Michigan Congressman John Dingell, the longest serving congressman in American history, argued for the Senate’s abolishment in 2018. His reasoning? By giving Wyoming and North Dakota the same number of senators as California, the Senate provides “sparsely populated, usually conservative states” with an outsized role in shaping legislation in a way that may run counter to the wishes of the majority of the American people. For example, in the 2018 Senate elections, Democratic candidates received almost 20 million more votes than their Republican counterparts. But because senators are elected to represent a population within an arbitrary border drawn decades or even centuries ago instead of districts of roughly equal size, the Democrats still posted a loss of two seats that same year. Whether you agree with Dingell’s proposal or not, it’s hard to argue that smaller states aren’t overrepresented in the Senate, and that this is neither liable to change nor unintended. The House’s method of representation is prone to abuse in the form of gerrymandering, sure, but at least the courts can force districts to be redrawn. No court has the power to redraw a state.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I suspect the phenomenon described by Dingell is likely also manifesting at the state level, and therefore having an effect on our hypothetical Senate elections. The post-17th Amendment election process allows large, liberal population centers such as New York City and the Twin Cities to tip the scales in favor of Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Amy Klobuchar. But when you reduce the size of the electorate from 19 million people to only a couple hundred, the relative power of those smaller, more conservative districts grows, making the election much closer.

Ernst and McConnell ran into a different version of the same problem. While they may have trouble competing in Democratic enclaves like Iowa City or Louisville in their respective home states, these cities aren’t large enough to swing an election towards their Democratic opponents. But these municipalities’ influence is stronger within the state legislature, allowing them to make a pre-17th Amendment Senate race more competitive.  

So we can already learn a little bit about the pre-17th Amendment electoral process’ advantages and disadvantages by looking at elections that would have been a bit tighter but still ended with the same result. But that’s not why you came here, so let’s get to the good part: What seats would be flipped if we lived in a pre-17th Amendment world?

Before I show you this, I have to ask, if you’re a Democrat, if you really want to see the results. I can assure you that it’s interesting and that my analysis is excellent, but I will not be held responsible for any heart attacks or depressive episodes that occur as a result of looking at the following table. 

You’re still sure you want to see it? Alright, here it is: 

 

State Year Lower House Vote Upper House Vote Joint Session Vote Hypothetical Winner Real Life Winner
AL 2017 (Special) 72-33 26-8 98-41 Roy Moore (R) Doug Jones (D)
AZ 2018 31-29 17-13 48-42 Martha McSally (R) Kyrsten Sinema (D)
CO 2014 34-31 18-17 51-49 Mark Udall (D) Cory Gardner (R)
ME 2014 79-68-4 20-15 94-88-4 Shenna Bellows (D) Susan Collins (R)
ME 2018 89-57-5 21-14 110-71-5 Zak Ringelstein (D) Angus King (I)
MI 2014 63-47 27-11 90-58 Terri Lynn Land (R) Gary Peters (D)
MI 2018 58-52 22-16 80-68 John James (R) Debbie Stabenow (D)
MT 2018 58-42 30-20 88-62 Matt Rosendale (R) Jon Tester (D)
NH 2014 239-160-1 14-10 253-170 Scott Brown (R) Jeanne Shaheen (D)
NH 2016 227-173 14-10 241-183 Kelly Ayotte (R) Maggie Hassan (D)
OH 2018 61-38 24-9 85-47 Jim Renacci (R) Sherrod Brown (D)
PA 2018 110-93 29-21 139-114 Lou Barletta (R) Bob Casey Jr. (D)
VA 2014 67-33 20-20* 87-53 Ed Gillespie (R) Mark Warner (D)
VA 2018 51-49 21-19 72-68 Corey Stewart (R) Tim Kaine (D)
WV 2018 59-41 20-14 79-55 Patrick Morrisey (R) Joe Manchin (D)
WI 2018 63-36 19-14 82-50 Leah Vukmir (R) Tammy Baldwin (D)

For those of you keeping score at home, 16 seats have changed parties. And of those 16 seats that were flipped, a whopping 13 were won by Republicans, with only three going to Democrats.5And only two of those seats would represent true gains for the party. As I mentioned in our list of assumptions before, Maine’s Zak Ringelstein takes the place of Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. The result is a net gain of zero for the party. That gives the Republicans an edge in the upper chamber by a count of 64-36 — in other words, a filibuster-proof supermajority that would also represent the largest Republican Senate majority since Reconstruction. It also leaves the GOP only three votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto, so even if Donald Trump were to lose reelection in 2020, they could still make his replacement miserable if they made some gains in this year’s state legislature elections.

As far as why we’ve ended up with such a strong swing towards the Republicans, it’s likely that the same logic we applied to the first table applies to this one as well. The over 1.5 million Philadelphians who may have put Bob Casey Jr. over the top in 2018 outnumber their more rural and conservative neighbors in the event of a simple head count, but when the folks who draw up Pennsylvania’s legislative districts try to balance the two regions, urban centers will have a disadvantage. The same could be said of Democratic losers from Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin who see the strength of their metropolitan bases blunted in their state legislatures.

The losses of red state Democrats like Montana’s Jon Tester or West Virginia’s Joe Manchin likely have simpler, more qualitative explanations. Tester won by casting his opponent as an outsider and a carpetbagger, whereas Manchin had the benefit of being one of the most Trump friendly Democrats in the Senate. Those qualities helped make them appealing to Republicans and right-leaning independents, but in a straight party line vote they become functionally irrelevant. So repealing the 17th Amendment not only levels the playing field in terms of urban/rural divide, it also flattens out the idiosyncrasies of individual campaigns and candidates as well. Again, we’re making a lot of assumptions here — there’s a good chance that the realities of a 17th Amendment-less world would push a conservative Democrat like Manchin to become a Republican instead — but our results so far point to a Senate whose composition is much more predictable, and much more red.

So we (kind of, sort of) know what the Senate would look like if we repealed the 17th Amendment. But there’s still one last question I’d like to try and answer: would repealing the 17th Amendment be a good idea?

Based on our hypothetical scenario alone, the answer would seem to be an easy yes for Republicans and a strong no for Democrats. But let’s take the politics out of it for a moment and think about whether or not the pre-17th Amendment system is a fair way to decide an election. Those who think we should repeal the 17th Amendment argue that it gives the states a certain degree of power over a federal government that holds an inordinate amount of power over them and would also weaken special interest groups. Those who think we shouldn’t would point to past corruption and inefficiency, not to mention a clear violation of the democratic ideals the country was founded on, as reason enough not too. But I think there’s an even more important question to ask: is the way we choose state legislators — and by extension in this hypothetical situation, senators — fair as well?

Virginia offers a fascinating case study in the way we elect these bodies. Following the state’s 2011 state senate elections, the chamber was split evenly among party lines, with 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats taking office. Just as the Vice President is the President of the United States Senate, so is the Lieutenant Governor the President of the Virginia Senate, and since Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling was a Republican, that gave the GOP an effective majority of one. And in a world without the 17th Amendment, that means that only one vote, cast by a man who wasn’t elected to the state legislature, would determine that chamber’s nomination and, since Republicans also controlled the House of Delegates, who would represent Virginia in the Senate (in this case, former counselor to George W. Bush and eventual gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie). To be fair, under our rules even if Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor at the time was a Democrat, a Republican would still win the seat by virtue of gaining more votes in a hypothetical joint session. But if we step outside of our experiment for a bit, and consider a world where state legislators are allowed to cross the aisle and vote for candidates outside of their party, the prospect of a Lieutenant Governor tipping the balance of a Senate election begins to call the legitimacy of the system into question.

The 2018 Senate election offers an even more chastening example of a state legislature’s questionable ability to accurately represent the electorate. The 2017 Virginia House of Delegates election — which, according to our rules, would elect the body that would elect a senator in 2018 — was perhaps one of the most fraught in recent history. A number of election results were challenged amid allegations that provisional ballots were not counted in certain districts and that some voters had been assigned to incorrect districts entirely, leading to a situation where the very integrity of the election was cast into doubt. The closeness of the elections and their alleged irregularities spawned five recounts, one of which took place in the race for the 94th District, which was being contested between Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds and Republican incumbent David Yancey. The recount showed Simonds defeating Yancey, but the relevant courts declined to certify it, meaning that no winner was declared. The Virginia House of Delegates’ solution for breaking such a tie? The drawing of a random lot, which Yancey wound up winning. As if reducing an election to a coin flip wasn’t bad enough, it was for a seat that determined the balance of power in the House of Delegates, giving the Republicans a one vote majority. So according to our model, the Virginia House of Delegates would’ve elected Corey Stewart — a former chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors perhaps best known for his staunch opposition to the removal of Confederate monuments and symbols and courting of far right groups — to the United States Senate.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that someone like Stewart — an insurgent who took as many shots at Republicans as he did Democrats — would never have been a viable candidate in a non-17th Amendment world. But even if state legislators would be a moderating force in Senate elections, there’s still no guarantee that they’d act in the best interest of the people. After Democrats Roy Cooper and Tony Evers were respectively elected governor of North Carolina and Wisconsin, each of their Republican controlled legislatures passed a series of laws that weakened their executive powers. This blatant circumvention of a popularly decided election is bad enough, but imagine how it might play out in the context of electing a senator. Sure, Mitt Romney would probably have had little trouble convincing the heavily Republican Utah State Legislature to elect him to the senate seat Orrin Hatch vacated in 2018. But if Romney were beholden to what is essentially a collection of low level party elites instead of the voters of his state, would he have felt free to act on his conscience and  vote to remove Donald Trump from the presidency as he did earlier this year? Even if he had, isn’t it more than likely that the legislature wouldn’t elect him back to the Senate in 2024? We can only speculate, but given how willing the North Carolina and Wisconsin legislators were to push the limits of their authority when they felt threatened, it seems more likely than not that Romney’s vote in February would have cost him his political career, and as such, may not have even happened in the first place.

And, to be fair, Romney may still lose either renomination or reelection four years from now. But the beauty of our current system is that it’ll be a population of over 3 million Utahns, instead of 104 state politicians, that will decide Romney’s fate. It’s true that the wisdom of crowds can at times be anything but wise — for every Roy Moore defeat, there’s a victory for the publicly admonished New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, or for segregationist senators like John C. Stennis and Jesse Helms who held onto Senate seats long after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were law. But, barring an expulsion-worthy offense, it should be the voters themselves who determine when a senator no longer deserves their office. The voters should be allowed to break out of the narrow and partisan parameters of the pre-17th Amendment system and feel free to elect an independent candidate like Angus King, or, happened in Alaska in 2010, reject the results of the party primary all together.

After losing the Republican primary to Tea Party Activist Joe Miller,6Yes, the same Joe Miller who ran against Murkowski six years later as a Libertarian. Apparently the guy held a grudge.
incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski ended up winning the general election through a write-in campaign, a result that would have been impossible (and I will grant, perhaps unnecessary) had the 17th Amendment never been ratified. In such a world, the writer in me would’ve lamented the loss of a great story, that of an electorate choosing to correct its own decision through one of the most directly democratic actions they could take. But the citizen in me would have lamented the fact that the people of Alaska were denied the opportunity to choose between Miller, Murkowski, and their other opponents in the first place. Limiting who elects a senator limits who can become a senator and, were such a system to be reinstated, our civic life and government would be far poorer for it.

A Thing Like That: A Night to Remember (S2, E8)

 

Michael and Kathleen discuss how the question of what women want appears through out “A Night to Remember.” Spoilers run from 23:16-26:29.

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