Author: Michael Lovito

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a bill that severely restricted collective bargaining rights of Ohio state employees.1 This law would eventually be repealed via referendum.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

Photo Credit: Phoebe Bridgers

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.

A Thing Like That: The Gold Violin (S2, E7)

Michael and Kathleen discuss themes of insiders and outsiders in “The Gold Violin.” Spoilers run from 29:47 – 32:46.

 

Reel Life Oscar Challenge Episode 21: 2010 (Part 2)

 

Michael, Lars, and Kathleen discuss rural American misery, the dark heart of Facebook, and cartoon hi jinks as they talk about the second half of the 2010 slate. The films discussed are:

-The King’s Speech (1:21)

-The Social Network (14:13)

-Toy Story 3 (30:29)

-True Grit (45:48)

-Winter’s Bone (52:45)

 

Durand Jones and The Indications try to bring the world together at The Birchmere

Durand Jones and the Indications lay down some soulful jams at The Birchmere (Photo credit: The Birchmere)I already expressed this opinion in my Top 30 Songs of 2019 countdown (will I ever get done with my Best Albums of 2019 article? Who knows!), but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the R&B and soul-based music released between, say 1960 to 1974 is the most beloved music in America, if not the world. Have you ever heard someone say that they just couldn’t get into Motown? Anyone ever tell you that James Brown or the Jackson 5 just isn’t their thing? Ever heard someone claim that Al Green is overrated? Probably not. But why? What is it about these genres that’s so widely appealing? I have a few theories. 

The first is that the genre’s biggest hits are geysers of positivity and ebullience. The Supremes’ “I Hear a Symphony” is about becoming so exuberant in the presence of your beloved that you have auditory hallucinations of a Berry Gordy arrangement following you around, and “Let’s Stay Together” is so evocative of the feelings of romantic bliss that you forget it’s also a plea to prevent a breakup. Songs within these genres just as frequently deal with heartbreak, too, but they express it in so many shades and complexities that are seemingly unequaled by other genres (I love a good splatter platter as much as the next guy, but imagine hearing “The Tracks of My Tears” for the first time in 1966? You’re not getting that same depth from “Last Kiss.”). Likewise, the production is focused on delivering silky, smooth sounds for listening, making orchestras sound like they’re from street corners and drum kits hit like romantic thunderbolts. But what I really think makes this music so appealing is the completely circular and unhelpful fact that everyone likes it

A snappy drum beat, peppy horns, and heavenly harmonies have the ability to reach across generational, political, and geographic lines, and the reason why it’s able to do so is less important than the fact that it actually does so. It doesn’t matter how old you are or who you voted for, if you’re at a wedding and the band strikes up “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” you’re gonna get up and dance, and so is everyone else because they’d have to be a joyless asshole not too. The idea that music can be a unifying force slid into parody around the time of “Another Day in Paradise,” and while a string of notes may not be able to end world hunger or bring about world peace, it can at least give you and your parents something to agree on for a few minutes, and, for many people, that’s no small feat. 

At least that’s what I got out of Durand Jones and The Indications’ show at The Birchmere in Alexandria last Thursday night. I went to the show with my father and two of my friends a mere two days after the New Hampshire primary and, needless to say, there was an acknowledged political divide in our foursome that mirrored the generational one. 1My dad is a lifelong Republican who hates and will never vote for Donald Trump but is also more likely to be elected president himself than ever cast a vote for a Democrat. My friends and I are Democrats. The political conversation that preceded the show was mostly good-natured, and we even ended up agreeing on some things, but the inevitability of the conversation, itself, was felt discouraging, nonetheless. Maybe it shouldn’t have, and, as someone who studied political science and has lived in Washington for almost 8 years, I should’ve come to expect that politics will be touched on in nearly every conversation I have, but it isn’t exactly comforting to have the fog of a divided America hanging over everything we do. The Indications offered the antidote to this spiritual disease, captivating a crowd of young, old (it became readily apparent to me that I wasn’t the only person who brought a parent to the show), black, white, and everything in between– dissolving the demographic and ideological barriers between us and, for the first time in a while, making me feel like a member of one positive, cohesive force. 

That’s not to say the performance was in any way apolitical. The clear highlight of the night was “Morning in America,” a Poor People’s Campaign-inspired, “What’s Going On?”-style message song that’s not afraid to take aim at Joe Arpaio and the Flint water crisis. The Indications’ most political work can feel a little out of place when taken in with the broader love and romance focus of the rest of their catalogue and, to the skeptical, could come off as just another box to check for an artist aping the trappings and themes of 70s soul, but, heard live, it’s searing and rallying, and you get the sense that Jones really feels what he’s singing as his persona switches from James Brown-style entertainer to a Marvin Gaye or a Sam Cooke pleading for change. Also, it helps that it gives him a  convenient chance to shoutout Richmond and Baltimore and rile up a DMV crowd. 

I’ve written a lot about how crowds atshows can be terrible and ruin the viewing experience, but, in the two times I’ve seen them, Durand Jones and the Indications have brought out the best in their audience. Instead of the attention-seeking jokes or disinterested chatter you here at some indie rock shows, they elicit a good-natured reaction to their music, including gentle swaying, all out dancing, singing along, and the occasional whoops and shouts of encouragement. Instead of cloying and performative, the crowd’s reaction felt spontaneous and participatory, reaching a peak during the halftime hip-hop melody, when Jones left the stage to hydrate and change his shirt, and the band went into an instrumental sampling of “C.R.E.A.M.,” “So Fresh, So Clean, “My Name Is,” “Express Yourself,” “It Was a Good Day,” and “Apache (Jump On It).” The audience did their part, shouting along the required choruses when appropriate, giving the show a looser, house party feel.

The band themselves put in a sweaty, soulful, and dexterous performance throughout the night. Taking the stage without any of the horns that punctuate their studio work and that accompanied them when I saw the band last year, I was worried that some of the songs might feel a little empty and lacking in dynamism. While the live and horn-less transition wasn’t always airtight, it highlighted the work that the core Indications — keyboardist Steve Okonski, guitarist Blake Rhein, new bassist Mike Montgomery, and drummer/singer Aaron Frazer, — put in, giving them new room to shine and leave an impression on the audience. Rather than feeling empty, the group’s sound felt svelte yet feverish, aching and true, full of emotion and musical muscle. 

The reduced line up forced the band to be a bit more economical with their sound, and their reliance on Okonski’s keys to carry the melodic weight afforded them a degree of smoothness and atmosphere. It felt spare compared to their studio work, but that increased space allowed them to build the peaks and valleys that gave their more forceful moments, like the James Brown aping “Groovy Babe” or the impassioned “Walk Away,” extra oomph. 

Great as they are, seeing Durand Jones and the Indications live highlights the fact that they’re actually a very poorly named band. Jones, whose voice and wardrobe look and sound so much like a Nixon-era soulman that he transcends pastiche and reaches a rare level of authenticity, is an exciting and worthy frontman, but the man everyone leaves the venue talking about is Frazer. Of slight build and boyish features, the Baltimore native has an angelic falsetto that compliments and contradicts the inherent physicality of his drumming. This unlikely union comes out in “How Can I Be Sure,” whose pleading coda requires Frazer to push his voice both in terms of range and volume, while also kicking up the tempo through his kit, making for a combination of wailing and flailing that hammers home the songs central desperation and hopelessness. 

He’s such an attraction and such a crowd favorite that I find it hard to keep my mind from wandering towards the possibility that there might be some tension between him and Jones, but their chemistry and very vocal appreciation of each other assuages those fears. They mixed together the best on smooth ode to unconditional love “That’s What I Know About You,” which finds them in silky harmony for most of the verse before tag teaming the chorus. “Sometimes, when the load gets heavy,” Jones tosses up like a wiffle ball, “we lock arms, and we keep it steady” Frazer swings and hits it out of the park. It reminds me of songs like “Bobby Jean,” an apparent love song that’s actually about Bruce Springsteen’s friendship with Steven Van Zandt. I have no reason to believe that “That’s What I Know About You” is about a lifelong bond between Jones and Frazer, but it hammers home their musical bond in structure, if not in content.

The set ended with a two song encore: first with “Is It Any Wonder?,” a sway-inducing slow jam that’s become Frazer’s signature song, and then jaunty, Bill Withers-esque “Long Way Home.” Halfway through the last song Jones delivered a rousing speech imploring us, no matter how far away from “home” we all felt in 2020, to go out and vote in the interest of our marginalized countrymen. “I don’t know about you, but everyone on this stage is voting for Bernie Sanders,” Jones announced to rapturous applause. I haven’t made up my mind about who I want to win the Democratic primary, and I remain a Sanders skeptic for the most part. But the power of the music and the crowd was enough to make you believe in anything, which is probably why politicians are always so eager to book musicians for their rallies. It had been so long since I’ve felt like I was a part of something positive, powerful, and cohesive. Here’s hoping we all get to access that feeling more often in the future.

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