We Can Work With This

Caveat: I’m not registered with any political party. I’d prefer political parties were outlawed, but, failing that, I’ll reluctantly accept multi-party rule. But very reluctantly: political parties exist to win power, not ideological arguments. Republicans are just more shameless about it, and enjoy the advantage of a larger proportion of single-issue voters in their tent. Regardless, the “we” in this post refers to anyone who opposes single-party rule.

So Beto lost and, amid all the good news that the balance of power was somewhat righted last night, let’s acknowledge that bummer for what it is.

Today, the Austin American Statesman published an article fretting that, if Beto can’t do it, will anyone ever? As opposed to what? Taking all the infrastructure and momentum he built, and just chucking it? Trump won Texas by 9%, and Beto only lost it by 3%. And the latter was against the backdrop of a cresting, free money-fueled 10-year jobs and economic boom.

Beto’s campaign eyed the wreckage of his party’s infrastructure in Texas, realized quickly they were better off building their own and ran the most participatory campaign anyone’s seen in a century. Seven hundred Texans opened up their homes and businesses to perfect strangers so they could operate pop-up Beto headquarters out of living rooms, garages, recording studios, breweries, etc. Thousands of people who’d previously done little more than vote walked blocks, knocked on doors, called and texted voters, held fundraisers, organized rallies and more. The result was 500% lift in early voting and overall doubling of turnout in the country’s worst non-voting state. “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Late last week, Politico published a pre-post-portem worrying that Beto had “blown it” by not tacking to “the center.” Allow me to digress about two of the most maddening terms in political discourse, “the center” and “moderate.”

In short, anyone who doesn’t willingly identify as part of an ideological hothouse extreme can call himself a moderate, and usually does. This does not make it so, for several reasons:

  1. Just because there are two political parties, it does not follow that that politics only has two dimensions. A tent that includes theocrats and free-market zealots is a modern-day construction. A person claiming to subscribe to both notions suffers severe cognitive dissonance.
  2. “Moderate” and “centrist” are relative terms. Relative to what? To self-identified zealots. How many actual self-identified zealots do you know personally? I’m 43, have lived in seven states and have met none in my adult life. We’re talking about two terms that derive their meaning via what they’re not: extremes that represent a microscopic segment of society.
  3. Those terms are also relative to people who’ve self-identified politically. But guess what? Most people don’t vote! So, by definition, 65% of the country has chosen to have no political identity. Block walking for Beto, I met plenty of these people and I can assure you their political parameters do not remotely resemble the guardrails of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times editorial sections. Which means anyone who tells you he knows where the political center is in this country is lying to you.

I’m reminded of a moment 16 years ago when I was considering a reporting opportunity with Bloomberg News. Matt Winkler, Bloomberg’s co-founder and then editor-in-chief, was on a conference call discussing a story about Israel.

At some point in the copy, the term “moderate Israelis” emerged. Winkler was apoplectic: “What the hell’s a moderate Israeli?”

That moment obviously stuck with me, and to this day I continue to ask the same question, minus the “Israeli” appendage. Plainly, “moderate” and “centrist” are terms loaded with empty calories and I challenge them vigorously anytime someone uses them around me.

So back to Politico’s pre-post-mortem. At some point, the O’Rourke campaign made a choice that I’m fairly certain was not unwitting. In the country’s lowest voter turnout state, they could’ve groped around for a political center and tried to peel off a few votes from Cruz’s ample left flank. Or they could view Texas’ vast sea of non-voters as the greater opportunity.

My sense is that O’Rourke looked at 25 years of Democrat losses in Texas, and was determined not to lose the same way as Bill White, Wendy Davis, and others. Poaching from the nebulous center of a historically red state is a onesie-twosie game in a state with 28.3 million people, where only one-third of registered voters participated in the 2014 governor’s race, in which Davis got blasted by 20%, and in the 2010 governor’s race, in which White was trounced by 13%. If there’s a good chance you’ll lose, don’t lose the way your predecessors lost.

So Beto didn’t. He launched a brilliant and tireless ground game that nearly subsumed the vast structural advantages that his opponent’s party has enjoyed for a quarter century.

Yes, 7.5 million registered voters didn’t show up, which is over 3 million more than voted for either Cruz or Beto. Looked at in isolation, that sucks. Looked at in context — this year’s 8.3 million turnout nearly doubled the 2014 midterm’s turnout of 4.6 million — it does not suck at all.

The punk rock and tech startup comparisons come easy with O’Rourke, as he’s a veteran of both worlds. No, Beto did not achieve Nirvana 1991 status. Rather, the comparison that comes to mind for me is that of Fugazi, a favorite punk band of mine and one I know was talismanic for Beto.

Fugazi started as the next iteration of the hardcore band Minor Threat, which had built a national following without any support from national media or a major record label. Instead, Minor Threat and Fugazi founder Ian MacKaye founded his own label (Washington DC’s revered Dischord) to record, promote and distribute the bands’ records, and the bands booked their own shows.

To discourage retail markups that would otherwise make their records prohibitively expensive, Dischord printed its pricing on the back of every release: $7 plus postage for EPs, $9 for CDs and $11 for LPs. This was during the era of the $20 CD. Admission to shows was a firm $5. Moshing, which created a hostile setting for females and non-meatheads, was a show-stopper. To detangle its finances from those of the beer industry and to reach more fans, the band booked all-ages shows at a variety of venues in non-major markets around the country: VFW halls, high school gymnasiums, the homes of fans, etc.

Always conscious of its overhead, Fugazi did its own mechanic work on its van (and occasionally for some of its fans’ vehicles, as some friends of mine from high school can attest), carried its own gear to the stage, and slept on fans’ floors before driving to the next show.

Fugazi’s operating model enabled the decidedly non-commercial band to enjoy a decade-plus long run and put out over a dozen releases during Clear Channel’s pre-internet strangling of the airwaves. That model reflects the same mix of integrity and pragmatism that the O’Rourke campaign showed in eschewing donations from corporations and political action committees, and endorsements from establishment Democratic figures like Barack Obama. As tempting as it may have been to accept those resources, O’Rourke realized he was more likely to win, or at least build something sustainable, by going his own way.

His own loss aside, Beto validated that it was possible to go into one of the country’s reddest states and flip seats to blue, including Collin Allred, D-TX 32nd District, who deposed Pete Sessions, the now former chair of the House Rules Committee. As big deals go, that’s maybe second only to Adam Schiff relieving Devin Nunes of his gavel on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

So, no, Statesman, I don’t think that network of thousands who helped build O’Rourke’s underground railroad will pack it in and go back to life as it was. You don’t piss that away; you build on it.

This is why I say we can work with this. Civility in politics is still a long way off, and we’re likely looking at two more years of a national disgrace in the White House. But we’ve established a beachhead.

In 2020, 21 GOP seats in the Senate will be up for grabs. 2022 will see another 22 go on the block. In the meantime, a House under opposition control is armed with subpoena power and the Mueller investigation is safe. We can work with this.