Leonard Cohen and the Death of Beauty and Grace

Driving home today, fall leaves swirling across my view, I realized why I felt so much grief at the death of Leonard Cohen. Certainly his death was no surprise – his latest album is full of endings, and it’s uncharacteristically unsubtle about death. But I realized he holds a place in my mind beyond his work as an artist. He represents, to me, a graceful aesthetic beauty, a search for truth, and a way of worshiping words that have gradually faded in our culture. His death, along with the recent election set against a cooperative backdrop of waning fall light, have forced me to come to terms with how much we have lost.

I was brought up reading works that developed in me a reverence for aesthetics, especially of language and writing. Leonard Cohen, like many great poets before him, played with language, twisted it until a short phrase could be a microcosm of the human condition.


If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn

they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.


Cohen made of himself a symbol, he lived a mise en abyme of art and life, and I think it’s fitting that he be eulogized as such. His songs were full of everything beautiful about life – love, bitterness, revolution, redemption, ruin. He made his points with cynicism, idealism and realism all woven together into a humble search for truth.  He embraced his arrogance as his own flaw, and he forgave others their flaws. He studied hypnotism at a young age, and perhaps learned the secrets to cut through the filters of perception and prod at our unclad consciousness.  He used classical and (most often) biblical imagery to induce his own sense of grandeur and reverence in others. In fact, many of his songs inspire in me such emotion that I hardly listen to them any more. They evoke a sense of awe that is uncomfortable because it’s not a regular part of my life.


An old woman gave us shelter
Kept us hidden in the garret
Then the soldiers came

She died without a whisper


When Cohen died, I was forced to deal with my reaction to America’s election because they represent the same death. Today I listened to his work chronologically. The idea that Cohen’s early work presented, that love and beauty and grace were themselves a godly end, never left him completely. But as the years progressed, and his hypnotic oaken voice gave way to an intense rumbling whisper, he talked more of revolution and change. He saw his aesthetic world crumbling and turned his reaction to that decay into its own kind of beauty.  I feel now his need to turn the external world into a palatable internal one. The desire to make glorious change. The classical bohemian aesthetic that Cohen crafted might be departed and gone, but I intend to learn the right lessons. To create beauty in whatever comes next, and to teach that beauty.

You loved me as a loser
But now you’re worried that I just might win
You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline
How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
I don’t like your fashion business, mister
And I don’t like these drugs that keep you thin
I don’t like what happened to my sister
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Suggested reading:


Leonard Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’ & ‘Everybody Knows’ Make for Damn Good Post-Election Listening

3 Key Reasons to Vote, Even in a Non-Swing State

I reside in the “solid blue” Commonwealth of Massachusetts, so I hear a lot of people here despair that there is little reason to vote in the upcoming election. This worries me, because American democracy depends heavily on the informed participation of its citizens. There are many reasons to vote in a non-swing state in 2016, some obvious and some much more subtle. I’ve decided to lay out some of these reasons in the hopes that more people will fit voting into their busy schedule.

1. Down-ballot races

This is the reason most people probably think of first – the electoral news you read from day to day will be almost entirely about the Presidential candidates at the top of the ticket, but when it comes time to vote you’re going to see a lot more names on the ballot.

Even the staunchest party strongholds like Massachusetts elect state officials from the other party, and these brave few help keep the majority party in check. Massachusetts Republicans hold many state legislature seats and local elected positions. They sometimes even win statewide elections such as Scott Brown’s surprise (short-lived) Senatorial victory, or current governor Charlie Baker. If you don’t show up to vote because you don’t like your presidential choices, you give up your voice in the other races – national legislators, state legislators, even town officials. Some of these smaller races are decided by a handful of votes and have the potential to have a great effect on your life.

2. Your state might start swinging

It’s probably obvious by now that the Trump’s unconventional candidacy, and both candidates’ record unpopularity have lead us into a  dark and unpredictable election season. But there is long term unrest lurking behind the momentary craziness. The GOP and Democrat parties are both undergoing rapid change, and the GOP in particular faces a lot of uncertainty about it’s future direction.

Former stronghold states from both parties are becoming less predictable, and unless you live in Massachusetts, California, Alabama, or Oklahoma, your presidential vote could end up closer than you think. This promises to continue even into (potentially) more conventional future elections. The appeal of many heretofore predictable party policy platforms is changing rapidly, along with America’s demographic makeup.

While states like Georgia and Texas are still more likely to go to Trump than Clinton, the conflicting polling figures for these states leaves some room for doubt. Fivethirtyeight.com gives Clinton an 85% chance of winning a state Romney won in 2012, and even with his national polling deficit Trump is given a 64.3% chance of winning a 2012 Obama state. Voting is the safe bet in an election that could see unprecedented reversals and even significant polling error.

3. You are fighting for resources and representation

Elections, despite what you read, aren’t only about the win.

As party platforms change to meet changing demographics, margins of victory will play a part in forming new policy positions. Whoever this country elects as our next president (I’ve made my electoral caveat), they will see a difference between a Massachusetts that goes to Clinton by the predicted 24 points and one where Clinton significantly under-performs polls but still manages a win. Conversely, Texas might be likely to go to Trump, but the margin of this victory could move it to swing state status in future elections.

Being a swing state isn’t just about being interviewed by hordes of shoe-leather reporters every time you go to the grocery store. Even after the election, presidents that want a second term have to pay close attention to the wants and needs of swing states.  And the flood of advertising money and campaign events can have significant effects on a state (both negative and positive). Even helping your state move out of the swing state category can help future candidates in your party – presidential candidates don’t need to spend as much time and money in states they know they have locked up.

From the jumble of potential effects, it might be tough to decide what is best for your state, but it’s hard to argue that the margin of a candidate’s victory doesn’t matter. November’s vote is your chance to affect monumental change, even if you can’t change which presidential candidate wins your state.


Marist poll indicates just how much damage Trump has done to the GOP

I’m going to go through some of the interesting points of Marist’s recent in-depth presidential election poll, released August 5. But the takeaway is – Donald Trump isn’t just losing, he is doing impressive damage to the Republican brand. According to the poll, Trump is losing registered voters by 15%: 33% to 48%. This is just one poll from one snapshot in time, so it’s not worth focusing on the overall figures (see fivethirtyeight.com for excellently aggregated polling data). But the details are revealing, because they give us information about how a likely Trump loss will affect GOP races across the country, and even the future of the Republican party.

Experience and Temperament

Look at Marist’s questions on various issues and candidate qualities – Trump loses every single category.

I have highlighted those categories where Trump’s percentage is lower than the percentage of people voting for him. In these four categories – treatment of Muslim Americans, issues facing LGBT Americans, and having the experience or temperament to be president, Trump’s ratings are so low that he must be losing some portion of his own voters. These are the things that are dragging down his presidency, and the first two issues are going to be lasting headaches for the GOP in down-ballot races and future elections. It will be an uphill battle to prevent the party from being defined as anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim for the foreseeable future. Of additional note, both candidates do very poorly in the category of honesty, which may predict a

Trump Losing to Third Parties?

Another interesting chart is the demographic breakdown with third party candidates included as options. The figure that immediately leaps out is the 18-29 year old demographic – Trump captures the vote of a monumentally low 9% of this demographic, losing to both third party candidates by significant margins.


Of note, Trump also loses to Hillary Clinton in every other age group. But for 18-29 year olds, 2016 is among their first presidential votes. If they are predisposed against the GOP by Trump, Republicans are going to have major issues maintaining a constituency in the future.

Other Notable Results

A few other figures are worth mentioning. Both candidates have high unfavorable ratings, but people seem a lot more excited to prevent Trump from being elected. 45% of registered voters find a Clinton win mostly or totally unacceptable, 59% think the same about Trump. Even among those who say they will vote for Trump, Trump is not very popular. Only 30% plan to vote for Trump because of the candidate himself, with 57% attributing their vote to a distaste for Clinton. Comparatively, 57% of Clinton supporters are voting for her and 40% are motivated to vote against Trump. It is unclear what affect this fear-based voting will have on turnout, but it does give more information about the nature of the unpopularity of both candidates (Clinton is mostly unpopular with Republicans, Trump is not popular with supporters of either candidate). It should again be emphasized that all of these results are drawn from a particularly bad time for Trump, and if his voter numbers rise, the rest of the questions are likely to rise accordingly.

One more thing. Much has been written recently about third parties, but when the third party candidates’ names aren’t explicitly included in the question, only 2% choose the “other” category. This may indicate a lack of dedicated support for third party candidates, and their votes in November may be significantly lower than polls currently indicate. If this is the case, it could help Trump’s numbers because there are a lot more supporters of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson than Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Are we seeing a “laser pointer” approach to voting?

The “Laser Pointer” Approach

When I was in high school, without fail, there would be one at every school-wide assembly. A little red dot would dance around the stage for a while, intermittently blinding the speakers. Someone with a laser pointer would have to be rooted out from amongst the audience. Plenty of us students thought of the behavior as dangerous and rude, but not one of us was confused about the motivation: Spend enough time in a public high school, and you will feel guided in a way that, while not malevolent, is frustratingly beyond your control, mostly unresponsive to your input. Not even the student council president is consulted on hiring decisions, department eliminations, or educational strategies. But that little metal device can let a disenfranchised high schooler prove to themselves that they exist. The seemingly unflappable principal will flinch at the red blast just as any student would. Press a tiny button, and your consistent world changes slightly. This feeling of wanting to change something that seems indifferent to your individual actions isn’t just for high school kids. Sporting events and concert halls have had to ban laser pointers for fear of blinded performers. Everyone wants to prove that they are part of the same human experience as the public figures in front of them.

Now, against many predictions, Trump is the GOP presidential nominee and Brexit has succeeded. While Trump faces the possibility of a historical electoral rebuke in November, his candidacy has taught us a lot about the state of modern American elections. A political elite used to filtering our possible futures down to a few well-vetted choices before putting them to a vote was caught completely unawares. Pundits have wondered if Brexit’s nationalist-populist syndrome would lead Donald Trump to presidential victory in the United States. And they should wonder. The machinations of political power haven’t failed – the economy has improved, unprecedented economic inequality hasn’t led to skyrocketing poverty rates, and we aren’t fighting major wars at the scale we have in the past. In fact, it’s possible the stability itself has become a liability.

Nothing Changes

Political analysts have tried to play catch up as their predictions of Trump’s political demise collapse. Journalists have doubled down on “shoe-leather” reporting, asking every question we can think of to delve into the mind of the Trump voter. The answers are striking — an unexpected number of Primary voters were deciding between Bernie Sanders and Trump. Many point to Trump’s “straight talk,” or “telling it like it is.” Journalists, in turn, have come up with possible underlying causes ranging from neuroscience to nationalism. Many of these are real contributing factors, but they leave a lot of open questions about how these movements gained such traction and why it has happened now.

One of the most interesting things that Trump voters tend to say they like about him is that he will “shake things up.” This may seem like an obvious answer, but combined with the points mentioned above it points to a more nuanced sentiment. As Americans and American viewpoints have become more diverse (and likewise in the UK), our political parties have broadened their policy umbrellas to maintain their appeal with about half of the electorate. Even the UK, with its ostensibly coalition government, has traded prime ministers between only its Labour and Conservative parties since 1922. Broadening policy platforms at the same time your constituents become more diverse has the increasing effect of disenfranchising everyone. While the ideological consistency of their members have actually increased, Trump has proven that this is a result of an increasingly combative party identity rather than real common ground on policy.

By the 2000s, US political parties, which still seemed very different from within the traditional political machine, were nearly indistinguishable to voters. By the end of Bush’s second term, this unrest had spawned the laser pointer effect – activists in both parties were falling all over themselves to prove that they could affect any sort of change. Obama exploited Clinton’s looming inevitability, riding his message of change to the White House. The GOP, a party with extremely disciplined leadership, faced threats from the bottom as the grassroots Tea Party followed a strategy of supporting any candidates that conventional wisdom didn’t think could be elected.

Despite these early experiments in unrest, Obama’s tenure was the last straw. Yes, racists and nationalists felt particularly disenfranchised by this worldly figure. But the true problem was that he was just a pretty good president. Again, from inside the establishment, Obama seemed to live up to his promise to be a change candidate: He passed the political holy grail of health care reform and pulled the economy out of a tailspin. He defied a stubborn Congress with executive actions to protect illegal immigrants and various civil rights. But at the same time he continued much of the status quo, pursuing free trade partnerships, drawing out military quagmires, and compromising with big business. A nation that in the previous century had seen world wars, massive civil rights movements, and twelve constitutional amendments, was nonplussed by the comparatively minor change it had wrought. We all wanted to know that we could still move in a drastically different direction if we wanted.

Make Them Flinch

The feeling that nobody gets their way when a large, extremely diverse population is funneled into only two party platforms isn’t an irrational one. You don’t have to be unemployed, working for minimum wage, or living on the Mexican-American border to be dissatisfied that you have to choose between political parties that you disagree with more often than not. And you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to feel unrepresented in this political climate. Everyone wonders, like the angsty high-schooler at an assembly, whether their chosen leaders actually answer to them. Everyone wonders how they could ever tell if their voting booth was broken, or if the choices on the ballot don’t represent any real shift of power. In our Age of Billionaires, this feeling is only amplified. Citizens’ response is often a sort of “democracy test.” People need to know that they can still effect change, that they’re not riding on invisible rails.

The clearest evidence of this as a root cause of this year’s populist unrest is the incredible lack of policy overlap in the various movements. Sanders and Trump have little in common except the promise of drastic change. In fact, Trump’s only really solid policy position, aside from immigration, is his willingness to change everything. And yet, a March NBC poll suggested that 8% of Trump voters and 7% of Sanders voters would consider voting for the other candidate. This represents a pretty large swath of the population essentially disregarding any single policy position in favor of a general idea of change.

In a way though, 2016 has already proven the power of the people. Trump is the GOP nominee, and Clinton narrowly escaped Sanders’ populist uprising. The UK, against the advice of nearly every member of the ruling class across the political spectrum, has voted to leave the European Union. Many pro-Brexit voters even expressed regret that their side won, indicating that for them the vote really may have been about experimenting with power. This year, the people have proven that there is no unseen barrier between audience and performer — that they can in fact make them flinch.

This is the part of the post where a call for reason and temperance is expected. The good citizen-journalist explains that now that populism has proven its point we can all settle down to a new era of establishment reign under somewhat different party platforms. But the truth is that in both the US and the UK, there is no easy way forward for our political systems. Once the party umbrella has become too broad to maintain its fragile coalition, there is no compromise that will properly appease. What follows will be a fundamental shift in our countries’ political systems. Whether that will come in the form of strong third party options, or more years of 2016’s populist instability remains to be seen. What is certain is that even a Clinton victory and a reversal of the Brexit decision won’t bring us back to the status quo. Now that the people have proven their power, they plan to use it.


It’s Time to Turn a Corner on Trump Coverage

By now nearly every American has heard the infamous Donald Trump line about Mexican immigration: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best …They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Trump has a record of saying things that spark media attention as racist or otherwise hateful, but he has managed to cross that particular line without crossing a further line that would lose him followers. In this way, the media attention serves to bolster his reputation for straight-talk with his followers, while getting his speech to a wider audience. In playing into this strategy, the news media is doing a disservice to their audience.

It’s worth noting that the media is both confused and conflicted about how to approach Trump. The Huffington Post famously began coverage of him by relegating Trump stories to the Entertainment section, before reversing course in December. Scores of think pieces like a March Politico article, “Did the media create Trump?” reflect on the ways the media may have been unwitting pawns of the Trump campaign. In a telling segment for NPR’s On The Media, host Bob Garfield interrogates CNN’s Jake Tapper about interviewing Trump. Though Tapper is widely considered one of major media’s toughest interviewers of Trump, Garfield essentially argued that Tapper and other journalists should be still tougher and even overtly combative. Many interviewers have guessed (probably correctly) that revealing their biases in an aggressive manner will abandon both guest and audience, but it’s also true that journalists are struggling with their usual approach where Trump is concerned.

One thing is clear: Trump is truly a master of messaging. Dilbert cartoonist and political blogger Scott Adams has written extensively about Trump’s use of hypnosis techniques. Though Adams writes about this in a tone both hyperbolic and at times downright gleeful, he’s not far off. Trump often repeats his sentences in rapid succession, and uses simple repetitive phrasing to tie descriptive words irrevocably to himself (tremendous, incredible) and his opponents (lyin’, crooked, goofy, little) They aren’t so much nicknames as focus-group tested descriptors that are hard to dissociate once you’ve heard them enough times. These tactics aren’t a magic bullet to win the presidency, but they do work. Between his skill with getting attention and his skill with using it, Trump is not to be underestimated.

My own concerns about Trump are not focused on the things he says that encourage racial discrimination, though those truly are dangerous statements. I am not worried that his presidential plans are overambitious or too vague. I’m not even worried when Trump seems confused by policy and economics. I don’t want the media to focus on picking apart every little thing he says. I’m here with a message as simple as “Tremendous Trump” or “Goofy Elizabeth Warren.” I am worried by one single statement he made, and all the things he’s subsequently said to support that statement: that Trump admires Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader.

Now don’t misinterpret me, I’m not kept up at night that a Trump administration will make nice with a disreputable world leader. Our country has to work with Putin regardless of who is in power. But Trump, as some have pointed out, has made public statements that indicate he’d like to be a Putin-like leader. He is not underhanded about it – he’s made it clear that his goal is to discredit and punish his political enemies, consolidate power, and make his presidency more about himself than about his country. This warrants more focus than any bit of racism or shoddy policy because it means that Trump plans to enact these goals without the checks and balances that have thus far prevented mediocre presidents from destroying the country. This ambition, combined with the likely large number of Supreme Court appointments during the next term, puts our democracy in more danger than it has experienced since the Civil War.  Our country has a history of electing presidents who embrace the rhetoric of democracy, and it has served us well. But it has also led to a sense that that democracy is immutable, and this is a dangerous type of complacency.

A Republican party recently steered by an insurgent Tea Party that valued freedom and extremely limited government has been co-opted by a heretofore unseen group that conservative publication “National Review” immediately dubbed the “Jacksonian” wing of the party. (For history on the use of this term, see Walter Russell Mead’s prescient 1999 National Interest article “The Jacksonian Tradition.”)  The Jacksonians’ universal distrust of current power structures and fervent nationalism makes them a ripe base for a textbook dictatorial ascent. But conflating the Tea Party with this new cabal is wrong ignores the nuance of the modern GOP story.

For sure, the Tea Party’s distrust of establishment has left the gaping backdoor in GOP party politics through which Trump has sauntered. But unsurprisingly, the Tea Party has turned out to be less than monolithic. Former Tea Partiers have been split on Trump (56% supported him according to a February 2016 CNN Poll), as would be expected when the Tea Party ideals of outsider rule and media-hatred conflict with their wariness of strongmen and embrace of liberty. Apparently years of GOP demonization of Obama for his moves to consolidate executive power (such as his reliance on executive actions and expansion of drone strikes) have, in many, fueled a desire to send in a bigger strongman in an apparent “The King, the Mice and the Cheese” strategy. This will work out about as well as it does in the popular children’s book.

My hope for media coverage going forward is that we cover this aspect of the Trump candidacy, because it is the one that concerns the most people. While there may be a subset of the American voting public that wants leadership through fear and corruption, the majority of Trump supporters see the rhetoric about his dictatorial tendencies as either hyperbole or comparable to similar descriptions of Obama’s regime. While Obama has not used rhetoric or tactics in any way similar to Trump’s unprecedented judge-discrediting and violence-inciting, the tone of criticism of Obama’s dictatorial tendencies has not been dissimilar. Many observers understandably have trouble distinguishing the two.

A closer examination of Trump’s interpretation of democracy is warranted because rhetoric matters. As a national figure, people will reproduce ideas Trump introduces regardless of his later contradictions. And though it’s easy to not take seriously any one thing Trump says (as he often contradicts himself or makes obvious exaggerations), it is just as easy for a newly elected Trump to use his pre-electoral rhetoric as a referendum to start consolidating power. While it is a noble goal (a goal that I myself pursue) for journalists to step back from bias and try to understand the many diverse views that combine to form this country, we should be very worried about America’s future as we watch Trump’s rise.