Two weekends ago, one of us was slogging through the snow in southern New Hampshire, going house to house in a small, working class community and talking to voters about Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Because of the tax laws, we are not allowed to endorse candidates at Public Seminar, but our employees (such as they are) are encouraged to do their civic duty in whatever way they see fit. Which is how a rather highly placed member of our editorial staff was driving from house to house, peering at street numbers painted on mailboxes, and getting out to talk to voters and hang door hangers. Only once did this brave volunteer have to hightail it back to the car as a mastiff mix came barreling out of the house of a surly Trump supporter. It took about three hours to visit the 33 houses where 49 New Hampshire voters will help to decide the second primary in the 2020 election cycle.
The first primary is, of course, in the great state of Iowa, a place our volunteer has visited exactly once, to give a talk at a university, and had a lovely time. This week, Iowa is being bombarded with volunteers, journalists, camera crews, and a great many surrogates for the Senators who are off the campaign trail doing their Constitutional duty. As of last night, Bernie Sanders was surging. Amy Klobuchar took advantage of a break in the impeachment to do a round trip to Iowa with, it is rumored, a hot dish, which is apparently a Midwestern thing. Joe Biden’s people are said by The New York Times to be wooing the Klobuchar folks to help each other out on Caucus night, but without much success. Elizabeth Warren’s 26 field offices, the most of any campaign, are fighting like hell (yes, supporters were texted for an infusion of cash tonight). Pete Buttigieg looks exactly the same – down to each hair, placed precisely on its exact place on his perfect head – as he did a year ago.
And the 50% of Iowa caucus goers who have not yet made up their mind are getting ready to go be persuaded by their neighbors.
But not everyone will be gathered in corners having engaged, civil conversations next Monday night: the vast majority of us will be pinned to social media. As the United States moves closer to Election Day 2020, Public Seminar begins its reflection on our troubled news and information environment. The Democracy Collaborative’s Dan Hind leads us off this week with an analysis of our contemporary media regime, and what the digital behemoths have – and have not done – to safeguard the public sphere. “Only a platform architecture characterized by democratic and participatory governance,” Hind argues, “will be sufficiently robust in the face of well-funded attempts at subversion.” In a response, tech writer and co-founder of Civic Hall Micah L. Sifry questions whether the internet can be governed by its users, and if strengthening our democratic processes themselves is not a better approach to controlling our modern, digital “robber barons.” We close this section with an essay by Janosik Herder that asks us to think even more deeply “about the power platforms wield and what their power means for democratic states.”
Sticking with politics, Ian Zuckerman and Daniel Kato remind us, in the time of impeachment, that the Radical Republicans’ failure to impeach President Andrew Johnson in 1868 was a catastrophe. In our present political moment, it “is also a cautionary tale about the limits of our capacity to repurpose non-democratic institutions for democratic purposes.” Bringing us back to the present day, historian Heather Cox Richardson reviews the impact of John Bolton’s potential blockbuster testimony against Donald Trump, information that, as of last night, has left Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as many as ten votes short in his determination to block all witnesses. Finally, political scientist David Lay Williams urges New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks to return to the Great Books to understand our political moment.
But maybe you want to lighten things up a little bit as we wait for votes to finally be cast. We do too. The Past Present podcast crew – Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Nicole Hemmer, and Neil Young all went to see Little Women this week; and we celebrate Chiara Bottici and Jean-Baptiste Barrière’s opera, “The Art of Change,” performed at The New School earlier this month.
Yes, we are within a week of the next election officially beginning – and you don’t have to do it alone. Public Seminar will be right there with you, when we aren’t knocking on the next 33 doors. Bring it on.
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The new School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical.