Opinion

A final dispatch of American political decline

Reflecting on 6 years of living and writing in interesting times

After six years, hundreds of articles and hundreds of thousands of words, this is my last column for The Week. Goodbyes are never easy — especially after having had the privilege of covering politics and society during one of the more tumultuous periods of our modern history alongside a team of ideologically diverse writers for a publication that took pride in being more than a partisan cul de sac catering to the like-minded. Still, I can't help but take a moment to reminisce.

My second-ever piece for The Week was posted just as Donald Trump had wrapped up the Republican nomination in 2016, and it predicted a worsening legitimacy crisis in American politics and political institutions. My last is therefore a kind of a bookend, a dispatch from the country's failure to address any of the problems that have made our politics increasingly fraught, hateful, and unproductive.

Like many pundits (and political scientists), I didn't take Trump's chances seriously enough back then, calling his election "highly unlikely" and failing to appreciate the combustible mix of animosity and grievance roiling the Republican base. But since then, I've come understand the enduring nature of Trump's appeal and the way he has dangerously transformed even rank-and-file GOP voters into conspiracy theorists who are comfortable discarding the principles of electoral democracy whenever it suits them.

Trump has remade not just the policy orientation of the GOP, but also its emotional comportment — like him, Republicans cannot be wrong, cannot lose fairly, cannot concede an inch, because to do so would show weakness. The politics of domination and humiliation have become the default mode of the party apparatus. The people floated as the future of the GOP, like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Gov. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), have adopted Trump's permanent siege mentality and all-out rhetorical warfare against Democrats. Some, like Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) even deliberately ape his mannerisms, Kim Jong Un-style.

Especially in the early days of the Trump presidency, there was a heady quality to being part of a team here at The Week covering the blitzkrieg of questionable executive orders, brazen abuses of power, incompetent cabinet appointments, and ceaseless rhetorical juvenalia emanating from the president's Twitter account. There was a feeling of something coming unglued and a sense that all of it was hurtling toward a decisive break, but also a camaraderie among journalists who, despite other disagreements, were similarly disturbed by the ugly circus in Washington. As the years moved inexorably forward, through midterm repudiations, Supreme Court nomination battles, and impeachments, I struggled with the dawning realization that very little of it mattered to Trump's voters, and that he may have been more popular than I'd realized all along.

Then, one day, just as the contours of the 2020 election were taking shape, The Week (and the world) were forced to become chroniclers of a different unforeseen event: the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended not just U.S. politics but our understanding of human society and the boundaries of the thinkable. I wrote my first pandemic dispatch fighting through shock and disbelief, worried about the toll that social distancing, fear, and isolation would take on the human psyche if the crisis lingered as long as some warned. And as it became clear that the president and his advisors either did not grasp the gravity of the situation or were deliberately downplaying it, the coronavirus and our attitudes about it — on masking, distancing, school closures, and eventually even vaccination — became yet another manifestation of our toxic politics.

Perhaps we should've just turned out column inches over to public health experts and regulators, since we were learning about viral transmission and R-naught and attack rates and case fatality rates on the fly. But in a democratic society, we all have an obligation to make sense of what the experts are advising and vice versa — to see edicts and mitigations and sacrifices from the perspective of those upon whom they are being imposed. In that sense, my colleagues and I sought to contribute thoughtfully to important conversations, even if we didn't always stick the landing.

These six years weren't all COVID and Republican radicalism, of course. I got to write about other loves, like baseball, television and film, about higher education and "cancel culture,"nuclear brinkmanship and the long, unresolved crises with Iran, Israel, and Palestine. There were pieces that turned out to be right, and those that, to be charitable, did not hold up well at all. That you'll make at least a handful of terrible appraisals writing 100 columns a year goes without saying, but throughout my time at The Week, I've taken pride in being able to admit when I was wrong. The ability to assess the evidence, take stock of your thinking and change it is what separates honest punditry from propaganda and stenography.

What hasn't changed in these six years is my conviction that America's outdated, counter-majoritarian institutions are contributing mightily both to our overall political dysfunction and to the inability of Democrats to transform consistent popular vote victories into consistent and effective majorities in Washington. Several early columns that struck a nerve became a book, which I like to think helped change the policy conversation inside the Democratic Party about institutional and electoral reform. Still, the great disappointment of the past two years is that even after their party captured narrow but total power in D.C., a handful of Democrats have left our democracy vulnerable to drift into Hungary-style illiberalism and to further clashes between our broken institutions and the wishes of the American people.

It is at this perilous moment that my time here comes to an end. I am thankful for my readers, as well as the heroic efforts of editors past and present to shape my sometimes jumbled thoughts into coherent and concise arguments. Above all I am grateful to have had the opportunity to play some small part in narrating and interpreting what will surely be remembered as world-historic events.

Living in interesting times might indeed be a curse, but writing about them was an honor that I will never forget.

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