Review: Peter Zeihan, “Disunited Nations”

If geopolitics ever found itself in need of a fabulist, it could do worse than to give Peter Zeihan a call. To be fair, geopolitics today does need a fabulist – one of the wittier passages in Zeihan’s recent book, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World, concerns the moment in 1990 or so when all notions of narrative were left by the wayside:

With the Soviet fall, American president George HW Bush sensed history calling. He used his unprecedented popularity in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and victory in the First Iraq War to launch a national conversation on what’s next. What do the American people want out of this new world? He openly discussed a New World Order, his personal goal being a ‘thousand points of light,’ a community of free nations striving to better the human condition in ways heretofore unimaginable. Bush’s background – he had previously served as vice president, budget chief, party chief, ambassador, House representative, and intelligence guru – made him the right person with the right skill set and the right connections and the right disposition in the right place in the right job at the right time.
So of course the Americans voted him out of office, and all serious talk of moving the Order onto newer footing for the new age, more relevant for the challenges and opportunities of the post-Cold War era, ceased.

Peter Zeihan, Disunited Nations, p. 14

Since that magical moment when the Wall fell, Zeihan argues, geopolitical thinking has cast about fruitlessly for a new framework to latch onto, foisting Thucydidean notions of rise and decline onto China and America, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Germany and Turkey. This, he holds, is foolish. “The Americans have changed their mind about their alliance and have turned sharply more insular,” he notes [emphasis original], contrasting the post-Soviet era to the period of hyperpower competition. The impact this disengagement will have is scarcely visible, yet of the utmost importance: “Without the global security the Americans guaranteed, global trade and global energy flows cannot continue.”

From this launching point Zeihan develops a global theory of novel national competition, assessing and assigning winners and losers country-by-country. His analysis is anchored in a startlingly broad reading of history and geography. Among his most admirable guiding notions is the one given above, namely that freedom of the seas eliminated the previously insuperable problems of food and energy security. Relieving these pressures enabled population growth in the Hejaz, economic integration in southeastern Brazil, and industrialization on the Pearl River Delta. Once the American guarantee is withdrawn, however, the fight for basic provisions will drive great powers to the brink.

Among the best determinants of success in a newly competitive world will be demographics, and Zeihan deftly weaves throughout an analysis of age and sex distributions to explain who will rise and who will fall. Another major factor is the degree of industrialization. The most industrialized countries with the healthiest demographic balances (lowest dependency ratio), Zeihan forecasts, will be the best equipped to handle the return of national competition. The final components of the success function are concerned with resource endowment and geography: proven reserves of oil and gas, fertile soil and navigable inland waterways all propel nations up his list. Most dramatically, a full reckoning of these factors leads Zeihan to anticipate a total breakdown of China as we know it.

Even as things stand today, Zeihan begins, China is militarily constrained by the First Island Chain, the set of landmasses including the Sakhalin Peninsula, the Japanese home islands, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the Philippines. In the early modern period, following the pioneering missions of Zheng He, this geography was hostile enough to turn imperial China entirely inward, forestalling the development of a major ocean-going naval tradition.

China's Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower  - Yoshihara - 2012 - Asian Politics & Policy - Wiley Online Library
From Yoshihara, T. (2012), China’s Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower. Asian Politics & Policy, 4: 293-314.

Many of those conditions prevail today, preventing the Chinese from projecting force away from their eastern seaboard. Their contemporary attempts at the development of a large navy are mostly laughable, Zeihan assesses:

China is utterly incapable of shooting its way to resource security or export markets or a diversified domestic economy. Just as important, the country on the receiving end would not be the United States. The Americans are out of reach, and even a mild American counteraction against Chinese interests would utterly wreck everything that makes contemporary China functional.

Zeihan, p. 126

This is an old argument which holds up well – I myself was first taught it by Arthur Waldron at Penn. John Foster Dulles advanced it in the fifties.

Turn the clock forward past the end of the American guarantee, however, and Zeihan figures we’ll bear witness to the emergence of a new Warring States Period. He writes,

If the almost magical confluence of factors that enabled China’s rise shifts out of alignment, China will suffer a cataclysmic flameout every bit as impressive as its rise to power. And since those factors were always and still remain beyond China’s control, the question isn’t if, but when.

Zeihan, p. 103

China, he finds, simply got too old before it became sufficiently rich. “Demographically, China is in a state of not-so-slow-motion collapse,” he says. This, too, is an old and well-studied fear. What’s more, its riches are predicated on freedom of the seas and hyperglobalized capitalism, which will be the first casualties of the removal of the American guarantee. He even finds the potential for breakaway regionalism in Sichuan, in Tibet, in Xinjiang, and in Guangdong, leveraging arguments I found novel about the hushed-up discovery of oil in the Sichuan Basin.

BP, China's Top Producer to Develop Unconventional NatGas in Sichuan Basin  - Natural Gas Intelligence
Oil and gas in mainland China. Some attention is devoted to those deposits south of the Yangtze.

None of this is totally objectionable, even if it is sensationalistic. His bear China case counters some of the more pearl-clutching fussiness which has come out of intelligentsia publications like the London Review of Books of late. Zeihan’s other predictions, however, may beggar belief.

Sclerotic old Japan, he thinks, will prosper as the new East Asian hegemon. The Middle East from Tabriz to Kuwait is merely Turkey’s for the taking. Germany and Russia will enter a new period of intense and potentially hot conflict, leaving France to rule the rest of the continent, the Mediterranean, and West Africa. Brazil has peaked, as has Saudi. The real cheap buy is Argentina, which he bizarrely claims has “had a couple of decades to re-consolidate internally”.

Notably absent from this analysis are the minor states of India, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. The utter blindness with respect to South and Southeast Asia is the book’s most obvious flaw. The reader is left to conjecture that, under Zeihan’s hypothetical assumptions, these countries devolve into mere poverty and irrelevancy, but it would be nice to see a mention thereof.

The next most obvious flaw comes out in Zeihan’s style, which I can only at the best of times describe as colorful. He is callous in reference to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, writing, “There is good reason Japan had to be nuked to be forced into surrender.”

He seems to delight in what will become of the Persian Gulf once the Saudis are left to fend for themselves against the Iranians and others, an arrangement which he holds as “the geopolitics of arson”: “In a straight-up land war, a coalition of the kids from Stranger Things and It would rip [the Saudis] apart…”

Discussing relations across the English Channel in the era to come, he writes, “Yet Britain is an experienced sea power that can apply diplomatic, economic, financial, and military pressure nearly anywhere it wants without fear of reprisal—and it has centuries of experience applying that pressure to Europe. Payback’s a bitch.”

He compares the governance of the Chinese Communist Party to “watching a game of drunken giant jenga,” and offers in this manner an assessment of China as a whole: “China fails on all counts. Allow me to detail the full unfurling fucking disaster.”

There’s no problem with a good dose of levity in world affairs: comparing the spending habits of the Greek economy pre-crisis to those of “a Saudi prince on Instagram” is well put. But prudence dictates restraint when discussing the Fat Boy and Little Man, and after 400 pages, his juvenile style grates even on the ears of your Twitter-obsessed reviewer.

Zeihan’s editors are also guilty of missing errors, both typographical and historical in nature. The most offending comes in one of Zeihan’s assertions regarding Turkish strength, which he explains through a kind of geographical impregnability. Couching this in the history of navigation, he writes,

Well-positioned locations that could also offer some semblance of security and shelter became crossroads. And Istanbul was the ultimate example of a secure crossroads…The city has fallen to hostile forces only twice in the past thousand years – once when the Crusaders sacked it in 1204, practically burning it to the ground, and again when the Turks conquered it somewhat more gently in 1453.

Zeihan, p. 267-9

This is incorrect: from 1918 to 1923, amid the end of the First World War and the raging of the Greco-Turkish War, the Entente held Constantinople. The Greeks, aided by the British, captured substantially all of eastern Anatolia, pushing the Turks to Ankara, which is where their capital remains today.

British forces at Karaköy port in 1919.

Other errors seem borne less of inaccuracy and more of an inadequately deep interpretation. About Germany, Zeihan writes, “For a point of reference, the whole Karl Marx and world wars thing was part and parcel of the German industrialization experience.” This is a minor beef, but Karl Marx did not live in Germany after 1849, when he was only about 30, and much of his writing was done in London.

About continuity, he writes, “The French have arguably the longest tradition of operating as a cohesive culture vis-à-vis their location of any people on Earth,” a statement I imagine would go unappreciated by the people of Tamil Nadu or the Yangtze River basin.

Zeihan commits a more lacunary error in discussing the Turks of the early modern period when he writes,

The sprawling [Turkish] empire became the largest on Earth of its time, and if a European coalition had not stopped the Turks at the gates of Vienna during the Ottoman siege of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one power would have dominated all of Europe and all of the Middle East.

Zeihan, p. 269

I am as big a fan of Eugene of Savoy as the next guy, but especially given Zeihan’s focus on seapower, it’s surprising that the spotlight is given to Vienna and not Lepanto here, where in 1571 the Venetians at the height of their power began the rollback of Turkish Mediterranean gains.

The Battle of Lepanto by Paolo Veronese.jpeg
Veronese’s The Battle of Lepanto. Clearly he thought it was a big deal.

The typographical error I noticed is also minor, but funny to report: the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul is referred to as Mato Grosso do Sol, which I suppose should cheer the sunny dispositions of all two and a half million Sul-mato-grossenses.

A number of books I’ve read recently have engaged with many of the same issues. The human cost of the failure of marginal lands was a thrilling study in Geoff Parker’s Global Crisis. The national world tour made Gaston Dorren’s lively and lovely Babel a great read. The notion of the American guarantee as critical to geopolitical harmony is a core undercurrent of Adam Tooze’s magisterial The Deluge, while cool-headed reckoning with the fortunes and vagaries of demography was among the many strengths of Doug Saunders’ Maximum Canada. And lastly, the place of pride given to an analysis of international shipping was a powerful component of Pettis and Klein’s argument in Trade Wars Are Class Wars. That one book should fold all these elements in together is worthy of praise. More praise ought be given for the stance taken against the literature of the Thucydides Trap, exemplified by Graham Allison’s recent blockbuster Destined for War, to which Disunited Nations is most directly responding. Zeihan’s efforts help put those rather antiquated notions to bed.

And sometimes Zeihan can poignantly hit the nail on the head. He fits the word “thalassocracy” into a discussion of resurgent Japanese militarism. Reading contemporary French race relations against the American system, he writes,

In many ways, the French system takes the two types of racism most prevalent in the United States and applies the worst of both. In the American South, racism takes the form of, ‘We will mingle, but we are not equal.’ In the American North, it is in the vein of, ‘We are equal, but we will not mingle.’ In France, the targets of racism are out of sight and out of mind, consigned to ghettos and at the back of the line as regards government services.

Zeihan, p. 217

But in the end, this book is a mess. Zeihan is a writer who privileges animation at the cost of sober study, whose search after contrarianism yields unsupportable conclusions. I found it revealing that the first person named in his acknowledgements is a hedge fund manager. (I won’t mention just how silly it is to write “…there are very few direct [footnotes] in this book…if I cited every obliquely contributing thought, each page would have a book’s worth of citations.”)

While I’m sure the people of NMS Capital are smart as they come, hedge funders are structurally contrarian – there’d be no reason for their clients to pay them fees otherwise. This kind of thinking is well applied to small-scale medium-term subjects, like looking for mispricings in sovereign debt curves, but less so in the evolution of literally planetwide systems. I’ll applaud Peter Zeihan for attempting to handicap a future radically different from the boring fare on usual offer at Foreign Affairs and The Economist, but bold attempts do not great books automatically make.

Three Movies about Memphis, and the Death of Place in Recent American Cinema

I have been overthinking recently about place in movies, specifically American movies, and more specifically about the death of place in American movies. By what means was cinematic place killed? By my reckoning, it was the overweening dominance achieved of late by just two places, New York and Los Angeles, which have come in the cinema of today to stand in for all of the geographic diversity of vaguely urban American life.

I am as guilty as the filmmakers I malign – NY and LA are the two cities I have (thus far) decided to make my vaguely urban American life in. And while I understand my path to be typical of my generation’s trek back to the city, from which our parents and grandparents fled with such rapidity in the heady high modernist days of urban renewal and interstate highways, that typicality does not excuse the duty of cinema to show life in all its forms. This duty is being prorogued, and what we have instead upon us is a deluge of mediocre visions of boho-artistic or high-achieving life in inner ring Brooklyn or in Silver Lake, visions whose production costs swallow up all the air from the rest of the goings-on around the country.

(As an aside, the slimness of the novelties of this latest round of urbanization are noteworthy: when the teeming southern Europeans came, they built Pittsburgh and Cleveland and St Louis and Milwaukee. When the Sunbelt rose, Phoenix and Dallas and Houston and Los Angeles and San Diego were called into being out of nothing. What have we accomplished, with our aesthetics of gentrification? The Manhattanization of Austin? Of Boulder or Colorado Springs? Seattle? Maybe Boise will be our great legacy.) (As a second footnote, is Kate Wagner our first great millennial architecture critic? I think so.)

So as to be not totally unfair, I want to acknowledge the countless recent movies which take as their subject an unsung city. Lady Bird aches for Sacramento, even as the action of the film eventually takes its heroine away to Manhattan.

Lady Bird': Here's what the reviews are saying about Greta Gerwig's film |  The Sacramento Bee
From Lady Bird, dir: Greta Gerwig, 2017.

Last Black Man in San Francisco is deeply wedded to its eponymous setting, its other shortcomings notwithstanding.

Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails on The Last Black Man in San Francisco | by  Nell Minow | Medium
From The Last Black Man in San Francisco, dir: Joe Talbot, 2019.

Silver Linings Playbook and Creed bring us back to Philadelphia, for which we have to be always grateful.

Historical Philadelphia Comes to Life in Silver Linings Playbook |
From Silver Linings Playbook, dir: David O. Russell, 2012.

But the reader will note the easy parallel among all those movies – they are essentially fugues for the cities they depict, weepily elegiac for their long dead glories. Perhaps the only truly celebratory new take was Baby Driver‘s, which did not shrug away from an clear eyed vision of 2010s metro Atlanta.

10 things about Atlanta that Baby Driver got wrong - Atlanta Magazine
From Baby Driver, dir: Edgar Wright, 2017.

Instead we are besieged by visions of the twin coastal megalopoleis. Marriage Story is a bad offender in this trend but more symptom than cause. Funnily, it may have been another Baumbach feature, Frances Ha, that paved the way instead.

Another blaring symptom is given by Joker, so rooted in New York as to unblinkingly feature a whole scene on the Metro-North regional railroad. The shift in superhero depiction from the Gotham-cum-Chicago setting of The Dark Knight to the ebullient Queens-iness of Joker is a good illustration of the boot on our necks. Ebert touched on the placelessness of Dark Knight in his review, in 2008:

The movie was shot on location in Chicago, but it avoids such familiar landmarks as Marina City, the Wrigley Building or the skyline. Chicagoans will recognize many places, notably La Salle Street and Lower Wacker Drive, but director Nolan is not making a travelogue.

Roger Ebert, “The Dark Knight,” July 2008

(And as to the assignation of blame? The Avengers, naturally, and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with it. I think you can practically pick out Doctor Strange‘s Upper West Side apartment from the street signs.)

Doctor Strange: What His Apartment Says About The Character
From Doctor Strange, dir: Scott Derrickson, 2016.

Are there other movies besides comings-of-age and superhero films? Few, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood fits the bill. Despite centering on a character who rather prominently lived in Pittsburgh, the film is at least half set in the alleyways of Manhattan! Lulu Wang’s lovely, lovely The Farewell cannot shake the trend, nor can Uncut Gems. I will note that a common thread here is the semi-autobiographical nature of these movies, many of which are from young directors. This applies for Greta Gerwig as well as Lulu Wang and the Brothers Safdie. Baumbach, too, is a New Yorker by birth.

But this begs the question of why so many stories from New Yorkers are being privileged in film to the exclusion of stories about anywhere else. The Coens deserve commendation here – hailing from St Louis Park, they set Fargo and A Serious Man in their backyard. Moreover, they take on American regionalism with real zeal: their Western movies (Raising Arizona, less Buster Scruggs and True Grit) care about the West. O Brother Where Art Thou is inextricably Southern. And their NY/LA movies deal handily with their settings as well, whether the monumental studio lots of Hail Caesar or the cramped clubs of Greenwich Village in Llewyn Davis. It’s great stuff! (Is Kelly Reichardt the next one up in the regionalist film tradition? Maybe so, maybe so.)

What is it that we’ve lost? The ancien régime I long for is mostly represented by the filmography of John Hughes, which I spent this month watching in part. Of course, Ferris Bueller may be the greatest movie to sing the city in which it makes its scene, but all the rest of his movies quiver with a peculiar Chicagoland energy which we have lost. These are worlds which stitch between on the one hand, Michigan Ave and the El, and on the other, the leafy courts of Winnetka and Glen Ellyn. Families at work and at school and at home are represented, a far cry from the strange undomesticated childlessness which predominates in today’s films on New York. Pretty in Pink‘s country club and record store and high school are all easily slotted into the viewer’s mental model of the complete community on display.

How to Have a Ferris Bueller Kind of Day in Chicago | Condé Nast Traveler
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, dir: John Hughes, 1986.

When we only tell decline-and-fall stories about the whole of the country wedged between the Hudson and the Aqueduct, we do a disservice to the perpetuation of the national community. I was set off on this rant by seeing an ad for a recent animated TV series, Central Park. It concerns a park conservator and stars Hamilton luminaries like Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr and veterans like Kathryn Hahn and Stanley Tucci. Apple outbid Netflix and Hulu for the rights to develop it. Fred Armisen guest stars in two separate roles. It is also about the fifth-largest park in New York City.

Kristen Bell to No Longer Voice Mixed-Race Character in 'Central Park' -  Variety
Promotional image for Central Park.

Where are the quirky animated shows about Zilker Park, or Rock Creek Park, or Balboa Park? Who would not sing for Seattle’s Gasworks, or the Power and Light in Kansas City?

At any rate, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him, and want instead of bemoaning our modern cinema to highlight the different approaches towards one city – Memphis – taken by a set of films. I was turned onto Jim Jarmusch by Richard Brody’s June 2019 review of The Dead Don’t Die, and recently got the chance to watch his 1989 film, Mystery Train. Mystery Train‘s lovely conceit of foreigners visiting Memphis propels the story across an anthology in three chapters.

Mystery Train Is A Memphis Pilgrimage You Must Make : Trunkworthy
From Mystery Train, dir: Jim Jarmusch, 1989.

The first third, featuring a young Elvis-obsessed Japanese couple, luxuriates in its alienness. The perpetually mean-mugging boy smokes cigarettes and pomades his hair from the train station to Sun Studios to the mysterious hotel at the center of the film. His poor girlfriend helps him lug their suitcase with a makeshift bamboo handle around the city, arguing about which rock n’ roller was best. They have sweet moments holed up in the hotel – the boy likes to take pictures of the hotel rooms they stay in, because those are the parts he won’t remember, the girl lights his cigarettes and paints him with lipstick.

The latter stories are less compelling, but the hotel’s employees who recur are keenly felt. A fidgety bellhop in misfit uniform tries to carry on a conversation with the laconic manager, played by a massive Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in an even louder red suit. All told, Mystery Train exposes us to the daily experience of life in a place whose time has passed, but through fresh eyes, unleavened by the common narratives we as Memphis-adjacent American viewers internalize.

Mystery Train (1989)
From Mystery Train, dir: Jim Jarmusch, 1989.

I do have to wonder if at the time of release the idea was as preposterous as it is today. Jarmusch cannot, of course, show a bustling town up on its toes, full of industry – even his Memphis is hollowed out – but in 1989, Elvis was only a dozen years dead. Imagine someone making a movie like this about Detroit, set as we are today nearly a decade from its legendary municipal Chapter 9 filing. What dissonances would arise in the minds of American viewers?

The other two films are more mainstream. John Grisham’s legal thrillers first hit the screen with 1993’s The Firm, where Sydney Pollack guided a red-hot Tom Cruise from Harvard to Memphis. Four years later, Francis Ford Coppola played a variation on that theme, breaking out Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor for The Rainmaker.

Review – The Rainmaker (1997, dir: Francis Ford Coppola)
Danny Devito and Matt Damon in The Rainmaker, dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1997.

Of the two, Rainmaker is more soulful, with a heartfelt story of an underdog seeking justice against a family wronged by a health insurance giant. Rainmaker‘s story resonates even a quarter-century later, testament to the paralysis of our politics. That Donny Ray, the sick young man whose case Baylor takes on, dies halfway through the movie is a heartrending development, but one deftly parlayed into raising the stakes of the more standard courtroom drama which follows. Claire Danes sparkles throughout, even if the violent scene between Baylor, Danes’ Kelly Riker, and her abusive husband beggars some disbelief. In truth, the many plot threads never come quite so neatly together, because there’s too much going on – we haven’t even addressed the FBI raiding Mickey Rourke’s office – but the whole thing works.

I don’t think Rainmaker overly cares about being set in Memphis, but it pays effective lip service – Baylor graduates from Memphis law in the first scene, and the Rays’ house, where sick young Donny is mostly confined, is appropriately Upper South. By contrast, The Firm goes full bore into being a Memphis movie. It gives all the flashy landmark shots you could want. Cruise’s Mitch McDeere and his wife Abby, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, are early on paraded through a lush patrician party set atop the Peabody Hotel. A critical sequence towards the end takes place on a funny piece of public transit, the Mud Island Monorail. There’s really effective contrast drawn between McDeere’s life in a cramped Boston tenement and the amply-acred Tennessee house he’s set up with once the action gets going.

The Firm at The Peabody Memphis - filming location
Tom Cruise and Hal Holbrook in The Firm, dir: Sydney Pollack, 1993.

The Firm is a giddy hook of a movie, which pulls you along somewhat breathlessly. An incredible performance by Gary Busey at the start of the second act winds the movie into its whodunnit phase, and while each and every one of McDeere’s machinations to stop the bad guys weren’t perfectly clear to me, the climactic scene between him and a fresh-off-Goodfellas Paul Sorvino delivers a scrumptious finale.

How to weigh these movies against each other? Perhaps we can take an archaeological approach and excavate the class relations each of these movies plays with. Mystery Train concerns itself with showing the ordinariness of life in a hallowed city – its characters are hotel managers, convenience store owners, tour guides, diner employees. Rainmaker is sympathetic to the lower class but occupies itself with the halls of power, and Rudy Baylor is successful insofar as he transcends his lower-class status and beats the moneyed interests in their own arena. The Firm could have said “greed is good” – there are offhand remarks about Mitch McDeere’s family poverty, but it’s unimportant, and the rewards to the work Bendini, Lambert, & Locke perform occupy the bulk of the movie. The battle in the movie is over the discovery of those gains being ill-gotten, not about the morality of the affluence in the first place.

What’s more, I don’t think The Firm has a single black character. Mere demographics usually present a hollow argument, but the population of Memphis today is undeniably 65% black. Rainmaker at least features a stellar (and uncredited!) Danny Glover as the sympathetic judge, while Mystery Train is replete with black figures making their way in the city. This is, I believe, a rather disqualifying assessment for Pollack’s movie, and Coppola’s Rainmaker scarcely better. Hopefully the next Memphis flick will do better.

Sharing some John Ashbery, and Poetry in California

Wanted to pass along some beloved excerpts from John Ashbery, who I try my utmost to imitate. Nothing is like his poetry.

An immodest little white wine, some scattered seraphs,
recollections of the Fall—tell me,
has anyone made a spongier representation, chased
fewer demons out of the parking lot
where we all held hands?

Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me.
I was touched by your care,
reduced to fawning excuses.
Everything was spotless in the little house of our desire,
the clock ticked on and on, happy about
being apprenticed to eternity. A gavotte of dust-motes
came to replace my seeing. Everything was as though
it had happened long ago
in ancient peach-colored funny papers
wherein the law of true opposites was ordained
casually. Then the book opened by itself
and read to us: “You pack of liars,
of course tempted by the crossroads, but I like each
and every one of you with a peculiar sapphire intensity.
Look, here is where I failed at first.
The client leaves. History goes on and on,
rolling distractedly on these shores. Each day, dawn
condenses like a very large star, bakes no bread,
shoes the faithless. How convenient if it’s a dream.”

In the next sleeping car was madness.
An urgent languor installed itself
as far as the cabbage-hemmed horizons. And if I put a little
bit of myself in this time, stoppered the liquor that is our selves’
truant exchanges, brandished my intentions
for once? But only I get
something out of this memory.
A kindly gnome
of fear perched on my dashboard once, but we had all been instructed
to ignore the conditions of the chase. Here, it
seems to grow lighter with each passing century. No matter how you twist it,
life stays frozen in the headlights.
Funny, none of us heard the roar.

“Wakefulness,” in John Ashbery, Wakefulness, 1999

I was introduced to his works by this September 2018 LitHub article by Nathan Goldman, on the pleasures of Ashbery’s poetry. Written a year after the master’s death, the piece is part personal engagement on Goldman’s part with Ashbery’s work and part deliciously close reading of his final poem, “Climate Correction”.

“I came to believe that entering Ashbery’s often incomprehensible work requires us to set the goal of comprehension to the side and to linger patiently in the poems’ pleasures,” Goldman writes – beautifully, I think.

Orpheus liked the glad personal quality
Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part   
Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends   
Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks   
Can’t withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon   
To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness.   
Then Apollo quietly told him: “Leave it all on earth.   
Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to   
Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather,
Not vivid performances of the past.” But why not?   
All other things must change too…

…Meaning also that the “tableau”
Is wrong. For although memories, of a season, for example,   
Melt into a single snapshot, one cannot guard, treasure   
That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting;   
It is a picture of flowing, scenery, though living, mortal,   
Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt,   
Harsh strokes. And to ask more than this
Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow,
Powerful stream, the trailing grasses
Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action   
No more than this. Then in the lowering gentian sky   
Electric twitches are faintly apparent first, then burst forth   
Into a shower of fixed, cream-colored flares. The horses   
Have each seen a share of the truth, though each thinks,   
“I’m a maverick. Nothing of this is happening to me,   
Though I can understand the language of birds, and   
The itinerary of the lights caught in the storm is fully apparent to me.
Their jousting ends in music much
As trees move more easily in the wind after a summer storm   
And is happening in lacy shadows of shore-trees, now, day after day.”…

“Syringa,” by John Ashbery in Poetry, Apr 1977

Goldman chronicles Ashbery’s own grappling with his status as a “difficult” poet. When after a seminar he asked his friend Richard Howard how it had gone for his students, Ashbery was told, “They wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them with a new set of locks.”

Goldman adds a flourish on that anecdote: “Here, as in Ashbery’s description of his reputation as ‘a writer of hermetic poetry,’ his work’s difficulty is framed as impenetrability, as inaccessibility: it withholds its meaning from the reader. But the fact that the work is difficult does not mean that is inaccessible—not if we try to see open doors where Howard’s students saw keyholes. Rather than suspect Ashbery of deliberately concealing his poems’ true meaning, we might begin from the premise that Ashbery left doors open everywhere in the particular modes of strangeness he chose.”

So what if there was an attempt to widen
the gap. Reel in the scenery.
It’s unlike us to reel in the difference.

We got the room
in other hands, to exit like a merino ghost.
What was I telling you about?

Walks in the reeds. Be
contumely about it.
You need a chaser.

In other words, persist, but rather
a dense shadow fanned out.
Not exactly evil, but you get the point.

“Climate Correction,” by John Ashbery in Harper’s, Sep 2018

By the by, I have learned that there is no currently appointed poet laureate for the great “state of California,” as Gov. Newsom would say. The post is irregularly filled, and this lacuna is no great chasm; still, this is a different state of affairs than the one prevailing when Charles Garrigus held the post, as he did from 1966 through to the end of the millennium.

The position has been extant since 1915, when the state commanded within its borders just a hair above three millions. Our last poet laureate was Dana Gioia, a graduate of Stanford’s GSB and former executive at General Mills, who went on to become Chairman of the National Foundation of the Arts. As poet laureate, he was the first to undertake a tour of all of California’s 58 counties.

‘We’re going,’ they said, ‘to the end of the world.’   
So they stopped the car where the river curled,   
And we scrambled down beneath the bridge   
On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.

We tramped for miles on a wooded walk
Where dog-hobble grew on its twisted stalk.
Then we stopped to rest on the pine-needle floor   
While two ospreys watched from an oak by the shore.

We came to a bend, where the river grew wide   
And green mountains rose on the opposite side.   
My guides moved back. I stood alone,
As the current streaked over smooth flat stone.

Shelf by stone shelf the river fell.
The white water goosetailed with eddying swell.   
Faster and louder the current dropped
Till it reached a cliff, and the trail stopped.

I stood at the edge where the mist ascended,   
My journey done where the world ended.
I looked downstream. There was nothing but sky,   
The sound of the water, and the water’s reply.

“The End of the World,” by Dana Gioia in Interrogations at Noon, 2001

Los Angeles’s poet laureate-ship also appears to have lapsed – Robin Coste Lewis, whose debut collection, The Voyage of the Sable Venus, blasted onto the world and won a National Book Award in 2015, was appointed to a two year term in April of 2017.

Last summer, two discrete young snakes left their skin
on my small porch, two mornings in a row. Being

postmodern now, I pretended as if I did not see
them, nor understand what I knew to be circling

inside me. Instead, every hour I told my son
to stop with his incessant back-chat. I peeled

a banana. And cursed God—His arrogance,
His gall—to still expect our devotion

after creating love. And mosquitoes. I showed
my son the papery dead skins so he could

know, too, what it feels like when something shows up
at your door—twice—telling you what you already know. 

“Summer,” by Robin Coste Lewis, in Voyage of the Sable Venus, 2015

Legendary LA poet Bill Mohr (also a CSU Long Beach professor of English) posted about the city’s department of culture putting out applications for the next poet laureate, which were due in March of this year. So I guess we’ll have to see.

Waiting for the sink to fill and foam with the soap of permission,
I know it’s only ordinary tasks that tremble with any hope of permission.

How do I know, for certain? The aspiration’s fixed, and how
Could this wet bowl be other than a stage prop of permission?

Young lovers play at being disobedient, like constellations
In a galaxy that flutter in a dance that says we elope with permission.

I held out as long as I could. Poignant thrusts and I grope.
How even after fucking starts, it all rolls to a stop for permission.

A spigot leaks. I tease the parched trees round my house with playful arcs
Of water every other day. Even on webs, spiders grope for permission.

Did anyone ask the cop how horny he felt in his patrol car? Who says
That punishment awaits those who are given enough rope of permission?
Don’t laugh, my friend: ‘The protestors clashed with lightly armed police.’ Lightly?
In swearing to uphold the law, they mock the trope of permission.

“Hasty Deceptions of a Dishwasher,” by Bill Mohr in Ghazals, 2015

…This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers   
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.

These then were some hazards of the course,
Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else   
It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,   
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time…

“Soonest Mended,” by John Ashbery in The Double Dream of Spring, 1966

Addendum: Problems with Policing

I wanted to revisit the topic I and Will Chavez wrote about in our earlier essay, To Secure These Rights, in order to react to recent developments (and nondevelopments) and to share an excellent article out of Vox. That topic, you’ll recall, concerned the set of solutions – remedies was the word we used – to the essential problem facing Americans, and Black Americans in particular, of bad policing.

In discussing the effects of local reforms, we took a look at what research on body cam usage teaches us about policing today. By and large, body cams alone don’t decrease the incidence of brutal violence relative to non-cam-wearing officers. We posited that this fits into a model of policing and brutal violence where what is critical is the reaction function of the officers who face high-tension situations, which are basically inevitable and occur at random.

While the body cam research showed that the presence of the body cam did not change the reaction functions of individual officers, we wrote about the potential for officer surveillance to spur another reform mechanism – namely by incorporating entry and exit into the model, and increasing the probability of the cops with the worst reaction functions leaving the force. That new method, we wrote hopefully, would make cameras a remedy once more.

Today’s excellent article out of Vox, by Zack Beauchamp, helps to fill in an important gap in the story we told, and also helps to quash our optimism. Beauchamp spoke (in over a month’s reportage, according to his Twitter) to a far-flung group of researchers, many of them actually former cops themselves, to pin down the reasons for why brutally violent reactions are common among police in response to high-tension situations.

They make the case that brutally violent reactions to high-tension situations are an endemic component of the culture of policing throughout America, sustained and reified in training courses, in self-selection bias, and in popular civilian and officer symbology like the Thin Blue Line.

Wide Views of Thin Blue Line | The Highlands Current
Master documentarian Errol Morris’ 1988 movie, The Thin Blue Line, helped to popularize the term.

“In one version of the symbol,” Beauchamp wrote, “two black rectangles are separated by a dark blue horizontal line. The rectangles represent the public and criminals, respectively; the blue line separating them is the police.”

Citing the work of Michael Sierra-Arevalo, a sociologist at Rutgers, his article describes the police obsession with the “danger imperative,” the notion that violent death is imminent and prevalent in the course of policing work. Policing, of course, can be lethally dangerous, and some of the cases that crop up commonly among officers are terrifying, tragic encounters.

But if this attitude was perhaps justified by 20th century trends, data show that deaths among officers have been in precipitous decline, a 90% decline in “ambush killings” since 1970. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the annual incidence of occupational deaths among police more in the territory of farmers or truck drivers than in its own air as a phenomenon sui generis (13.1 for police vs 24 for farmers and 26.9 for truck drivers per 100,000).

Regardless, the attitude persists. Beauchamp describes the behavioral adaptations that follow from “danger imperative” thinking: “Because officers are hyper-attuned to the risks of attacks, they tend to believe that they must always be prepared to use force against them — sometimes even disproportionate force. Many officers believe that, if they are humiliated or undermined by a civilian, that civilian might be more willing to physically threaten them. Scholars of policing call this concept “maintaining the edge,” and it’s a vital reason why officers seem so willing to employ force that appears obviously excessive when captured by body cams and cellphones.” [emphasis mine]

This ideological brinksmanship, and particularly its institutionalization, make for a bad case for reformism. An important condition of the model we set out in our essay was the notion that the police force is merely a corporation of its current members – that is, that long-lasting cultural effects don’t exist. That allows the departure of the officers with the worst reaction functions to change the long-run incidence of brutal violence, as the force-wide distribution of reactions will skew less brutally in a linear way. If, however, the interplay is more complex and, for example, an officer’s reaction function depends both on his own reaction and a department-specific reaction, then merely firing bad officers may be insufficient to change the distribution of reactions.

That kind of phenomenon, a concave – or slower – change in force-wide reactions with individual departures, would make the hope for quashing these malevolent practices through slow generational reform a dead letter. The only real avenues left to us then would be disbandment or, more radically, abolition.

Speaking of avenues left to us, I watched the sparring between Congressional leaders over potential police reform with some dismay. After Democrats under Booker and Harris opened the debate with the Justice in Policing Act, about which much in our essay, Senate Republicans under Tim Scott of South Carolina came back with their own proposal. The measure, though far weaker than the Democratic bill, was said to have Trump’s approval, and there looked to be some real momentum for federal reform.

But Senate Democrats balked at the bill’s watered-down proposals, balking so far as to deny opening a floor debate on it. And I think I get it – there’s no reason to engage with the Trump administration at all for the Democrats; he’s going to lose like Mondale. Still, this was a good focusing moment, a real chance for new and needed federal oversight. Not giving the Trump admin a W seems a high cost to pay for the potential of never being able to get a bill like this passed again. We’ll see what happens on 1/21/21.

I worry moreover about some of what’s going on with the “solutions” being pushed by the rich and powerful in response to our current moment. Whether it’s 30 Rock taking its blackface episodes down from streaming, or getting rid of Aunt Jemima, or Goodell backing BLM now, or the statues, or the Confederate flag, it all feels like we’re getting a big sop in the mouth and being told it’s caviar. In case that homespun usage was completely nonsensical, what I mean to say is that these actions being taken by the ornamentally powerful classes are good, of course, in that they’re nominally anti-racist. But presenting these as achievements of the protest cause begun by George Floyd’s murder feels dishonest, orthogonal.

This cause sought as its achievements the arraignment of Chauvin et al, and of Breonna Taylor’s murderers, still not done. It seeks still long-run reforms to prevent this kind of thing from happening again – reforms like national police registries, like breaking police unions, like real efforts to reforge the relationship between officers and the communities they police. Very little of that is in the offing, and to be told that we’re making progress anyway is maddening.

To Secure These Rights: Remedies for Healing the Wound Opened by the Police Murder of George Floyd

By Ryan Anderson. Contributed to and edited by William E. Chavez

If you prefer, you can download a PDF of this essay here.


So many have devoted their words in the course of this, our latest reopening of the national wound of racist injustice, to expounding upon the historical context of Black urban unrest. A common comparison is made towards the convulsions of 1965, 1967, and 1968; accordingly, some look to a report authored by the federal government in the wake of those protests, the one given by the famous Kerner Commission, for answers on what to do next. That report, requested by President Johnson in July 1967, appeared on the last day of February 1968. It earned the praise of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who called it a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” 

Little more than a month later, MLK was assassinated, and unrest far worse than anything seen before shook the nation’s cities. Washington D.C. was hit especially hard: twelve days of riots were only quelled by the arrival of 13,000 troops, the largest occupying force in an American city since Appomattox. Bobby Kennedy, on campaign for the presidency on the night of MLK’s death, helped to save Indianapolis from destruction with his historic, impassioned speech given in the heart of the city’s Black community: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Johnson never picked the Kerner Commission report up off his desk after the MLK riots. 

More than 50 years on from that tumultuous period, thousands of federal troops have again descended upon our nation’s capital to beat back civil unrest, this time precipitated by the police murder of George Floyd. In response, while protests just outside the White House’s windows raged, President Donald Trump pulled out his loudest dog whistle and called for “law and order”.

Today, the unheralded guidance of the Kerner Commission is thought to contain evergreen practicable governmental solutions to help close the racial chasm. What, then, did the report recommend? Its stated aim, taken from Johnson’s mouth, “was to answer three basic questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?” “It” was the spate of urban riots of the summer of 1967, concentrated in Newark and then Detroit, responsible for the deaths of over 85 Americans. The report’s famous “basic conclusion” held that “Our Nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” 

The report made no bones about putting the blame for Black neighborhood tension on the shoulders of police-community relations. “[The] incidents,” it stated, “which increased tensions and ultimately led to violence, were police actions in almost half the cases; police actions were ‘final’ incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.” 

As for answering the question “What can be done?,” the report zeroed in on the “abrasive relationship between the police and minority communities,” exhorting local governments and police units to “eliminate abrasive practices,” “establish fair and effective mechanisms for the redress of grievances against the police,” “provide more adequate police protection to ghetto residents to eliminate their high sense of insecurity,” “recruit more Negroes into the regular police force,” and so on.  

While those answers ring true today, our project here is not to look merely to the recommendations of reports from a half-century ago, but rather to assess a new set of solutions to the same ugly problem, as changes in the social fabric since 1968 admit today a different avenue of reform. When the wound was opened in 2014, in Ferguson, MO, generational and technological change allowed a new reporting to reach the rest of the country, one which electrified and enervated the American public as the open wound had never before. This was the start of the Great Awokening, a historic and rapid shift in the average American’s attitudes towards racism. Before Ferguson, “most Americans believed there was no longer any need for the country to make changes to address [racial] inequality,” in Yglesias’ words. In opening middle America’s eyes again to the problem of race and police violence, the Great Awokening seemed to open the possibility of foregrounding a broad anti-racist approach to liberal politics. This contrasts with coalitional politics as the Democrats once played them; no longer were anti-racist policies meant only for those whose burdens they would directly relieve. Identity politics would become the entree as opposed to the side dish in forging a new Democratic coalition. This, anyway, was Hillary Clinton’s idea in her 2016 bid for the presidency — she may have been four years too early. 

But we suspect that the great and powerful movement on global display today, which leverages the breadth of liberal American energy to multiply the emancipatory, Black force it projects, has been aided by that post-Ferguson empathetic shift. In these mass marches, whether in Portland or Atlanta, the concerns of Black people take pole position. Those who could not in the murder of George Floyd see their own body in the street may recall instead the general injustice visited upon them by that economic system, inextricable from its political, policing extensions, which foisted precarity onto a nation. This new mass line is a hopeful development granting time, space, and pressure to the just cause which languished in the streets of Ferguson, and on a Staten Island sidewalk, and in the back of a Baltimore police van.

Our title is taken from another landmark government report on the nature of race relations, this time prompted by Harry Truman, who followed its chief recommendation and in July 1948 desegregated the armed services by fiat. Our report recommends several approaches towards justice, increasing in the horizon of time needed to effectuate them. Now, we need justice for the dead, as well as for the acutely abused, and we need a change of government. Soon, we need new accountable supervisory mechanisms, a halt to programs which encourage police impunity, and massive reform at the most local levels. In time, we need to wholesale reforge the federal relationship, to infuse local government once more with the popular blood it needs to protect and serve us. To Secure These Rights worked in the 1940s — perhaps it can work again now.


  1. Restitution and relief — what’s needed today
    • Justice for George Floyd
    • Justice for protestors abused by police
    • Voting out Donald Trump, and what comes next: the case for prosecution of the president, his family, and top aides
  2. Revamping the system — pinching police departments from the top down and the bottom up with greater oversight
    • Strengthening federal oversight of police
    • Ending federal programs that exacerbate problems with American policing
    • Assessing local reforms, and beyond
  3. Breaking the wheel — forging a new federal relationship and bringing power back to the community

1. Restitution and relief — what’s needed today

Justice for George Floyd 

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died under officer Derek Chauvin’s knee. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey moved the next day to fire Chauvin and the three other officers present for the incident. Protests began the same day, but Chauvin was only arrested for Floyd’s murder four days later, once the unrest had spread.

Initially, the case was handled by the Hennepin County Prosecutor’s Office and Chauvin was charged with second-degree manslaughter and third degree murder. On May 31st, Minnesota’s governor handed the prosecution off to the state’s Attorney General, Keith Ellison (previously most famous for coming in second in the race for Chair of the DNC — Pete Buttigieg came in third). On June 3rd, the nation burning, AG Ellison moved to arrest the three other officers present and to upgrade Chauvin’s charge to murder in the second degree.

Elsewhere in Minnesota’s legal machinery, action has begun against the Minneapolis Police Department. Filed by the MN Department of Human Rights, it alleges continuing violations of the state’s Human Rights Act dating back to 2010. The city’s civil rights agency has launched an open investigation as to whether MPD’s training, policies, and procedures, including its use of force protocols, amounts to systemic discrimination and civil rights violations against Black people and other people of color. 

The arrests are a promising start, especially weighed in comparison to the murders whose perpetrators could never even get a charge verified by a grand jury against them. Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner to death, went unmolested and returned to protecting and serving for five more years, the time it took NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill to summon the will to fire him. Likewise for Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown; Tim Loehmann, who killed Tamir Rice; the sheriff and jailers who killed Sandra Bland. Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her bedroom in Louisville, KY three months ago, and we’re still waiting on charges against her killer cops today.

And while it’s galling that the arrests of Chauvin et al pre-required eight days of public furor, arrests themselves are only fickle things. The most massive outrages in recent times have come not before arrests are made but after, when convictions are escaped — this was the case in 1992, when Rodney King’s beaters dodged jail. 64 died in Southern California following that decision. Trayvon Martin’s killer walked on his charge and was bold enough (and the spineless promoter morally hollow enough) to schedule a celebrity boxing match against DMX. Jeronimo Yanez, who shot Philando Castile five times while his baby sat in the backseat, was acquitted, as were the policemen who drove the van while Freddie Gray’s spine unwound.

Frankly, we have to hope (and what a perverse hope) that the case follows that of Walter Scott, who in April of 2016 was shot five times in the back while running away from police. The officer who did that, Michael Slager, was sent to jail by a South Carolina grand jury in July 2016, let out on bond in January the next year, and nearly got away on a mistrial. He couldn’t, however, beat the federal charges and in December 2017, Slager was sentenced to 20 years for second degree murder. He’s in the federal prison at Englewood, CO now.

Sometimes, however, not even a conviction and jail time will restore justice. Dylann Roof is today on death row in Terre Haute, IN, but unshakable remains the fact that on his way to jail after the massacre he perpetrated at AME Zion Church, his detaining officers took the time to ask Roof if he was hungry. He was, and so the squad car porting a mass murderer to face justice pulled into a Burger King, where the state’s officers bought Roof a Whopper. Because God has a sense of humor, when he got to jail, his cell-block neighbor was none other than Michael Slager. 

Sadly, smart money would bet that there’ll be no conviction. After all, since 2005, there have only been 35 police officers convicted of a crime involving a fatal on-duty shooting or interaction. Criminal convictions, it needn’t be said, are rare. 

Justice for protestors abused by police

Despite its many flaws otherwise, social media has been instrumental in circulating images and videos showing conditions on the ground in the George Floyd protests. That reportage has helped to lay bare a glaring contrast between the police treatment of predominantly white, occasionally armed protests and the treatment of those predominantly Black protests affirming the cause of Black Lives Matter. 

Historically, white people have been able to count on police protection when exercising their First Amendment right to assemble, even when those assemblies became militant, like the one that stormed the Michigan State Capitol in April. By contrast, Black people and other people of color have rarely received the same protections when they endeavored to exercise their constitutional freedoms. For Black people and other people of color, even police noninterference is often too much to ask.

We don’t have to look too far back for an example of this dichotomy; the backdrop of a global pandemic has exposed this racial injustice as clear as day. Recall how in Huntington Beach, CA, predominantly white demonstrators protested against Governor Newsom’s beach closures, or how in San Diego, white protestors carried signs saying “Let my people golf”; taken at face value, these protests alleged constitutional violations arising from the desperate efforts of state governments to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. One Huntington Beach officer overseeing the demonstration noted to NBC that “there were no arrests”.

Not even a month after these anti-lockdown rallies, the George Floyd protests emerged, composed chiefly of Black people and their non-Black allies. In response, police forces embarked on an elaborate campaign of violence: pepper spraying demonstrators, tear gassing demonstrators, ripping demonstrators from their vehicles, shooting at demonstrators with rubber bullets, and arresting demonstrators by the thousands. A photojournalist and several others were partially blinded. Children were maced. Bystanders were bloodied.

The escalation and use of force against peaceful protests against discriminatory police brutality reached a boiling point on June 1st, when President Trump and Attorney General Barr ordered federal officers to fire tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and flash bombs into a large crowd of peaceful protestors at Lafayette Park, just in front of the White House. Without provocation or notice, the federal government unleashed its violent agents on peacefully protesting citizens, and for only one purpose — to allow the President to seize a photo opportunity in front of St John’s Episcopal Church. The discriminatory use of force against demonstrators protesting systemic racial injustice and police brutality against Black people result is abhorrent, and also, all too American. 

The message is disturbingly clear: if Black people and those who share their cause dare to exercise their constitutional rights they will meet active, violent resistance by the state. Any measure of justice achieved for victims of this police backlash is incomplete until Black people gain the right to autonomously exercise their constitutional freedoms.

Voting out Donald Trump, and what comes next: the case for prosecution of the president, his family, and top aides

We can keep this short: on New Year’s Day 2020, things looked pretty good for Donald Trump. Despite three years of roiling politics from the local level to the galactic with his brash, shameless, narcissistic authoritarianism, the president had made it to his reelection year with little trouble either on the homefront or abroad, and the greatest economy since Lyndon Johnson sat in the Oval Office. Then came the fall, and the worst abdication of presidential leadership since, well, his Republican predecessor

If it had been COVID-19 alone, perhaps there would have been room in the historical record for a later, rose-tinted reassessment of Trump’s failures. But once George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, we had to remember that this was the president who told the Suffolk County, NY police force in 2017 not to “be too nice.” 

“Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put your hand over it. Like, don’t hit their head, and they’ve just killed somebody. I said, you can take the hand away, O.K.?,” Trump offered. 

Despite making initial overtures towards the protestors’ aims in getting Derek Chauvin arrested — goals so nakedly just that even W. could get behind them — Trump took his sharpest turn towards autocracy amid the nationwide protest, urging governors to “dominate” the protests, gassing protestors at Lafayette Park, D.C. for a photo-op, and unconstitutionally threatening to send the military into cities and states with active protests, to pick only the rottenest of the low-hanging fruits. 

Beyond that, he has presided over an administration that abandoned the push, flawed and limited as it may have been, begun under the Obama administration towards greater federal oversight of the nation’s most problematic police forces. Two months into his job, Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first attorney general, ordered a gag order of all the reform programs spurred by the Obama administration. In July of that year, Sessions lamented a judge’s finding that his objections towards the Baltimore PD’s reforms had come too late and that the reforms would go on as planned.  

“I have grave concerns that some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city,” Sessions said at the time. Even when Trump got tired of Sessions and kicked him back down to Alabama late in 2018, as one of his final acts, Sessions formally killed the program of federal investigations into local police departments. 

In October 2019, Trump traveled to Minneapolis for a campaign rally and brought up on stage one of his staunchest local supporters — Lt. Bob Kroll, a member of the Minneapolis police department and notorious head of its police union. Kroll basked in the rally’s cheers and lavished praise on, in particular, Trump’s DOJ. “The Obama administration and the handcuffing and oppression of police was despicable,” he said. 

“The first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around, got rid of the Holder-Loretta Lynch regime and decided to start letting the cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of us.” Eight months after that rally, George Floyd was dead under the knee of one of Kroll’s card-carrying members. 

The election of Joe Biden will not be a panacea — far from it. There’s not that much we can even say about what a Biden administration will entail, Panglossian wonk commentary notwithstanding. But even if it allows only for a return to a robust, active Department of Justice, it will have been worth it for the millions of Americans still living today under unrehabilitated policing regimes. 

But why stop there? A shocking upswing in what has been called “elite deviance” is both cause and consequence of the maladministration we’ve been living under for the past three years. Think of the decline in white-collar prosecutions, at their lowest level in 2019 since data has been available. Or how between 1996 and 2004, researchers estimate that large-scale corporate fraud sucked $3.2 trillion out of the economy. In a blockbuster article for The Huffington Post in February, Michael Hobbes explained, “Country-club nepotism and Gilded Age avarice are nothing new in America, of course. But the rich are enjoying a golden age of impunity unprecedented in modern history…An entrenched, unfettered class of superpredators is wreaking havoc on American society. And in the process, they’ve broken the only systems capable of stopping them.” 

Faced with the most criminal regime since the Gilded Age, the incoming Biden administration will have a novel opportunity to go after Donald Trump, his family, and his closest accomplices. The transition of administration has been the hiding place for impolitic presidential actions since John Adams forced through the judicial appointments that would form the plaintiff’s case in Marbury v. Madison; think otherwise of Gerald Ford’s vexed decision to pardon Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton letting corrupt financier Marc Rich walk on the largest tax evasion in history, or even Barack Obama’s clemency for the embattled whistleblower Chelsea Manning. 

We can’t imagine the national fabric being stitched back together with a sweetheart deal between presidents 45 and 46, and certainly Biden doesn’t owe Trump anything in the way Ford may have felt he did to Nixon. Renato Mariotti, writing amid the early impeachment dustup last year, imagined what post-presidency suits against Trump and co. could look like, picking up where the political process failed to ensnare the former president and at least co-conspirators like Corey Lewandoski and Don McGahn. Maybe prosecutorial attention could be devoted toward the cozier relationship that emerged between the Trump real estate business and agents of states that sought closer relations with the administration, not least of which the Saudi government’s barely-arms-length, too-on-the-nose dealings with Trump’s DC hotel. 

Media attention on Trump’s criminality-in-office has waxed and waned through his presidency, but as long as mere interested observers like us can rattle off easy and obvious cases like the above, it’s hard to imagine a motivated US Attorney suffering from failure of imagination. And beyond the immediate consequences of putting the Trump administration’s higher-ups in prison, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews noted, a probe of Trump and his officials is “required as a deterrent for such behavior in the future. Elite impunity will never end without a commitment to ending it”.

2. Revamping the system — pinching police departments from the top down and the bottom up with greater oversight

Strengthening federal oversight of police

The ability for the Department of Justice to investigate and intervene in the practices of local police departments has moved like a slowly rolling stone, gathering just a sprinkling of moss after each outrageous outburst of brutal violence. After Rodney King, in the halcyon days of legislative energy and capacity, Congress passed the now much debated 1994 crime bill, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. While Joe Biden’s bill’s less savory legacies include the “three strikes” law and large increases in the incarcerated population, it also included revisions to civil rights statutes which gave the DOJ the power to conduct “pattern or practice” investigations — that is, to determine whether local law enforcement agencies engaged in excessive force, biased policing, or other unconstitutional practices.

By 2015, under those statues, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Departments of Justice had opened 69 investigations, at a roughly even pace. In 1999, the feds went after the police of Prince George’s County, MD, a place near and dear to the authors of this piece, for siccing dogs on people never suspected of having committed a crime. Excessive force investigations like that motivated the majority of investigations; discriminatory conduct led to the next greatest share.

And while federal investigations began at the same rate through the administrations, the Obama DOJ was more likely to settle these investigations via the adoption of binding consent decrees. Today, as outlined above, “pattern or practice” investigations have halted. Bill Barr, Trump’s current Attorney General, has shown no signs of deviating from Sessions’ position. 

What might a revitalized federal oversight look like? In recent days, Congressional Democrats debuted their vision by introducing the Justice in Policing Act. Championed by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who released his plan following the onset of protests, the bill is wide-ranging in its designs. It tweaks the statutes empowered in the 1994 bill to open more police actions to federal investigation. It allocates funds to state Attorneys General for their own “pattern or practice” investigations and grants the DOJ subpoena power in their investigations. It bans no-knock warrants, the kind that led to the death of Breonna Taylor and to the hole burnt into the chest of a 12-month-old in its crib in Georgia. It bans chokeholds. It curtails the circumstances in which accused officers can claim qualified immunity. It attempts to limit transfers of “military-grade” equipment to police departments. Following a century of attempts, it federalizes lynching as a hate crime.

The novel and likely most impactful elements of the bill, however, concern transparency and data collection at the federal level. Booker’s original proposal called for a “registry for cases of misconduct, use of force incidents, and people killed at the hands of police”. The bill expands on that vision. It seeks to create a federal registry of “all federal, state, and local law enforcement officers” that tracks the following data: misconduct complaints, discipline records, and hiring and firing records. Another provision seeks to mandate that states “report to the Justice Department any incident where use of force is used against a civilian or law enforcement officer”. 

The motivation for a federal police registry is given by what can happen in the best-case scenario for redressing brutal incidents. Even when justice overcomes all other obstacles and catches the cape of wrongdoing officers, it is plainly easy for those officers to take up their badge again at a different precinct, or with a different county, or in a different state. That was the case with Tamir Rice’s killer, Tim Loehmann. He was deemed “unfit to be a police officer” by the department of Independence, OH and fired after only a few months on their force. Undaunted, he applied to work in Cleveland’s city police, spun a story of wanting “more action” than he could find at the suburban level, and got a job. Though his dismissal from Independence highlighted in particular an emotional breakdown at a gun range, he was given a badge by Cleveland and allowed to respond to a report of a boy playing with what looked like a gun in the park, where Loehmann would arrive, and, in under three seconds, shoot the boy to death. 

The need for the nationwide registry is better understood with analogy to the struggle of school desegregation. When “massive resistance” broke out after Brown v Board, quieter protests took place as well; families voted against the policy with their feet, and white flight removed the prospect for desegregation of the nation’s most impoverished districts, for there were simply no more white schools to attend. A quirk of municipal governance in North Carolina, however, presented an opportunity. In the years leading up to 1964, the city of Charlotte consolidated the schools within its remit into the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, which covered more than 500 square miles. The geography covered by Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools removed the potential for white flight, for the district was merely too large for families to escape and still be able to work in Charlotte. 

In 1964, Reverend Dr. Darius Swann and his wife, Vera, filed against the district when it refused to allow their son to attend the integrated school in their neighborhood. In 1969, Judge James McMillan ruled for the Swanns and ordered a large-scale busing program to integrate the district. The Supreme Court affirmed McMillan’s ruling in 1971’s Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Swann and forced busing, as Nikole Hannah-Jones put it for the New York Times last fall, “was extraordinarily successful in the South”. 

Clint Smith, in a 2016 issue of The New Yorker, wrote, “District after district modelled its integration plans on Charlotte…By 1980, the school district had reached an unprecedented level of integration.” Sadly, that progress was halted in 1999’s Capacchione v Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which ended mandatory busing. Nationwide, desegregation reached its high water mark around 1990, and everywhere schools are more segregated today than they were in the era of forced busing.

If Swann and the example of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools show the power of regional enforcement, of not letting social ills concentrate in racially-driven enclaves, the example of Detroit’s schools teaches just how far doing nothing can go. Milliken v Bradley, decided by a very different Supreme Court just three years after Swann, held that there was nothing to be done about desegregation across district lines. The unit of desegregation would remain the district. In his dissent to Milliken, Justice Thurgood Marshall offered a forecast: “The Detroit-only plan simply has no hope of achieving actual desegregation…Under such a plan, white and Negro students will not go to school together. Instead, Negro children will continue to attend all-Negro schools. The very evil that Brown was aimed at will not be cured but will be perpetuated.” He was proven correct, as unabated white flight swelled the populations of the fifty-three suburban school districts outside Detroit, while redlining and restrictive covenants kept Black families within the city proper. In 2015, 83% of the students of Detroit public schools were Black.

A federal registry is the Swann solution, curtailing the ability for bad actors to slip the bonds of official decisions and exit the penumbra of oversight. Accountability under the Milliken solution, which abides today, offers only false promises in even the best of cases. 

A rueful postscript is provided by the history of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools since Capacchione — segregation by both race and income set in once more, condemning Black students, and especially poor, Black students, to a quality of education one report called “academic genocide.” Lest you think this metaphor has reached its breaking point, note the conclusion of Smith’s New Yorker piece: “One cannot disentangle the state-sanctioned school resegregation that poor black students in Charlotte experience from the police killing of a black man waiting for his son to get off the bus from elementary school.”

Ending federal policies that exacerbate problems with American policing

In a brilliant 7-page paper published in 2017, Casey Delahanty of Gardner-Webb University and his coauthors investigated the effects of police militarization on civilian deaths. By militarization, they meant “the embrace and implementation of an ideology that stresses the use of force as the appropriate and efficacious means to solve problems.” Militarization increases with military material, and in the wake of the so-called 1033 Program established as part of the 1997 defense authorization, many police departments around the country had found themselves with a lot of military material. “Between 2006 and April of 2014 alone, the Department of Defense transferred over $1.5 billion worth of equipment [to police departments] including over 600 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, 79,288 assault rifles, 205 grenade launchers, 11,959 bayonets, 50 airplanes, 422 helicopters, and $3.6 million worth of camouflage and other ‘deception equipment,’” Delahanty et al wrote. 

They assessed what impact these transfers to local police forces had on police violence towards civilians, and found, unsurprisingly, that “the receipt of more military equipment increases…the change in civilian deaths”. But the clever trick lay in their next analysis, for they acknowledged the potential endogenous effect — that precisely the police departments which expected to respond with more violence ordered the most military equipment. Instead, the authors examined transfers of military equipment against police killings of civilian dogs, a figure they reasoned would have no bearing on decisions to order military equipment. “Holding all else constant,” they wrote, ”police that received the highest 1033 transfers kill dogs at an order of magnitude higher rate than those with no transfers”.

The 1033 Program merely has to go. After the outrage in Ferguson, where much of the product of these military transfers was televised to the nation via CNN, Congress offered per-police organization data on who got what. With that, the Marshall Project, a nonprofit group, built a perversely fun little tool you can use to see what police in your hometown got. For example, the police in our hometown of Montgomery County, MD, picked up a mine resistant vehicle worth $733,000, as well as seven rifles. The police force responsible for patrolling the smaller footprint of the University of Maryland, however, went above and beyond, netting themselves 82 rifles, 16 shotguns, and 300 magazines full of ammunition.

And, as in all things, though the Obama administration started to roll 1033 back, and even succeeded in recouping some of the materiel from local agencies, President Trump (with Jeff Sessions’ help) reversed that decision. The tap is fully open once more. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii has moved in recent days, as he did in 2015, to bring a stop to the program. Another proposal from Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, debuted at the start of June, calls 1033 “ of the most absurd programs in the United States government”. 

“Community police officers are not soldiers. Fellow Americans are not the enemy. We must stop providing weapons of war to police,” Rep. Gallego adds.

As discussed above, the problem we’re grappling here with often lives on past the apprehension of a bad police. While we discussed how the Justice in Policing Act attempts to remedy that slipperiness by expanding the cases available for criminal investigation by the DOJ, in civil suits, victims are often made helpless by the doctrine of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity was established by the Supreme Court in 1982, and holds that “government officials cannot be held accountable for violating the Constitution unless they violate a ‘clearly established’ constitutional rule,” as the Institute for Justice’s John Kramer put it. In practice, this reasonable-sounding rule has been so constricted that presently the constitutional violation must occur in the exact same circumstances as a previously punished violation.

Qualified immunity is rumored to be on the minds of the Supreme Court justices as they consider their cases for the next term, and one of those cases exhibits well just how precise qualified immunity claims can be and still protect the accused officers. In Baxter v Bracey, police in Tennessee sent their K9 unit out to find a suspect, Alexander Baxter, who was discovered in an empty house, seated on the floor with his arms up. The police caught up to the dog and Baxter, and then directed the dog to go after Baxter once more, despite the fact he hadn’t moved. Baxter’s attorneys knew of a case from 2012, Campbell v City of Springboro, which held that it was specifically unconstitutional to deploy a dog against a suspect who was not fleeing or resisting. And so they filed civil suit against the officers, looking for damages against the pain suffered by the dog bite. 

The Sixth Circuit, on appeal, rejected Baxter’s claim, and said that in the case of Campbell, the victim had been lying down, not seated with his hands raised, and that that factual distinction was sufficient to invoke qualified immunity — the law had not in fact been “clearly established”.

Time will tell whether a dog bite brings down qualified immunity and allows a litigious check on police victimization of civilians to resume again. In case that fails, the recently introduced Democratic act does include a provision to modify the statute on which the doctrine of qualified immunity rests. 

Assessing local reforms, and beyond

Policy reform is essentially an economic problem — subject to a budget constraint, the amount of political capital available to be spent, maximize the desired effect. Solving this problem requires assessing the different collections of choices available to political actors and deciding which among them maximizes. To find this solution, we must start by assessing individual reforms in turn, both their costs and their benefits. Once done, we will have a sense for which reforms will be the most valuable to undertake. 

We cannot forget that the political capital available to liberal forces today has its source in the murder of George Floyd, only the latest Black body made cold by the American state. That terrible burden makes it more important than in other reform pushes that the policies pursued be maximally valuable.

One avenue of reform involves changing how policing is done on the ground. This was a particular focus of the Kerner Commission’s report, which, among other changes, urged “demotorization”; that is, getting policemen on the beat out of their squad cars and onto the streets. “The patrolman comes to see the city through a windshield and hear about it over a police radio. To him, the area increasingly comes to consist of only law breakers,” the report averred, wringing its hands. 

What demotorization was to the Kerner Commission, the body camera is to modern observers. Even policemen, the logic goes, fear a panopticon. However, since the widespread introduction of body cams some years ago, several studies have found little to no evidence of their affecting police decisions — “that is, the behavior of officers who wore cameras all the time was indistinguishable from the behavior of those who never wore cameras,” as Jennifer Doleac, a Texas A&M economist, summarized. While those findings are surprising, we believe they put to bed only one model of how police behavior can lead to brutal incidents. 

Consider the general setup: a force of several officers goes out on patrol daily. Every so often, each officer will run into a high-tension situation, which can go one of two ways: it can deescalate or it can end in a brutal incident. Say the probability that a high-tension situation in a brutal incident depends only on the personality, or what we’ll call the reaction function, of the officer facing it. The reaction functions of the force as a whole are distributed however you like, but it holds that some officers have higher chances of committing brutal incidents than others. 

The study then eliminates as one causal mechanism the ability for body cams to change the reaction functions of individual members of the force, because we see that cops who wear them commit brutal incidents at the same rate as those who don’t. That is to say, the study seems to disprove the hypothesis that merely wearing a body cam can change the reaction of an individual policeman to a high-tension situation. 

Another mechanism, however, by which body cams can impact the total prevalence of brutal incidents has to consider the composition of the force through time — that is, it has to consider entry and exit. 

Take exit first: in the naive model, policemen leave the force basically randomly, as if they retire. This shouldn’t change the overall distribution of reaction functions (since the expected exiting policeman will just have the average personality), and so it shouldn’t change the prevalence of brutal incidents. As for entry, assume that new policemen have reaction functions sampled at random from the prior existing force; in other words, policemen only hire people who look like them. 

Now introduce body cams, and say that if a policeman is caught committing a brutal incident with body cam evidence, he is fired. At the outset, nothing about the entry-exit process changes, but as brutal incidents occur, those policemen who get caught leave the force. This will tend to change the distribution of reaction functions. If there were no normal entry or exit, this alone would tend to lower the prevalence of brutal incidents, though at the cost of a police force that didn’t employ anyone after a while. 

With entry, new policemen are sampled from the changing distribution of reaction functions, so every new policeman will be less likely to commit a brutal incident than they would be in the naive case. Over time, the average reaction will become far less likely to turn a high-tension situation into a brutal incident. 

This hypothesis will take longer to test, as it requires hiring and firing, which is slow. But we remain cautiously hopeful of its potential to describe the changes increased surveillance of officers will have on policing. In fact, studying entry and exit has shown that even incremental reforms aimed at that kink in the pipeline can improve policing on the ground. 

Taking data from 25 of the nation’s largest cities, NYU’s Anna Harvey and Taylor Mattia found that the implementation of affirmative action programs in police forces “substantially reduced racial disparities in crime victimization”. While the causal mechanism for that shift is less clear, and appears in particular not to sit in an increase of reported crime, the authors did find that the composition of reasons for reporting among Black victims seemed to improve, following implementations of affirmative action programs. “…black respondents appear to become more confident that their local law enforcement agency will believe that their victimization was important,” Harvey and Mattia wrote.

Another avenue of police reform involves edits to the superstructure in which policing work is done — the hierarchy of responsible agents, both police and civilian, who constrain and compete for police resources and power. The natural unit of attention here is the police union. Ironically, despite being a vehicle for literal state violence and conservative forces at large, police are among the most unionized of all professions — about a third of police are union, compared to fifteen percent of workers in the economy as a whole. 

In a doggedly sourced investigation for the New York Times, Noam Scheiber, Farah Stockman and J. David Goodman raked over decades of public-mandated reformism and union obstructionism across the country. In the case of Laquan McDonald’s murder by officer Jason Van Dyke, which roiled the city of Chicago and ended the political career of Rahm Emanuel, prosecutors uncovered years of public complaints against Van Dyke’s conduct. “But a ‘code of silence’ about misconduct was effectively ‘baked into’ the labor agreements between police unions and the city,” the Times journalists wrote, and so nothing ever came of the complaints. Illiberality seems to be the watchword of police unions, as the Times investigation also provides several examples of union officials slow-walking Obama administration consent decrees, or spending their time making fun of elected officials, as when the St Louis police union published an ad with an alderwoman’s head pasted onto Mao Zedong’s body.

A truly damning piece of evidence was recorded by Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard H. McAdams, and John Rappaport, all of the University of Chicago, whose 2018 study tracked the impact of a new set of collective bargaining rights extended to Florida’s sheriffs’ deputies. “…Collective bargaining rights led to a substantial increase in violent incidents of misconduct among sheriffs’ offices, relative to police departments,” the authors wrote. “…the right to bargain collectively led to about a 40% increase in violent incidents at [sheriffs’ offices], which appears to persist over time.”

What, then, the remedy? Alternate governance arrangements seem to make a difference, as Arianna Ornaghi of the University of Warwick found in a 2018 paper: shifting the power to hire and fire police away from elected politicians and towards independent committees lowers crime rates and increases crime clearances. That solution remains, however, orthogonal to the problem posed by illiberal and powerful police unions. One corollary reading might consider the fact that police systems were shown to be amenable to oversight and change on the margin, but only once the locus of change was removed from elected officials. That is, the police are not fundamentally unchangeable, even under strong unions; it’s just that they need to be made to listen to those the people elect to represent them.

It makes for a bad left argument, but any concerted push for reform will need to spend massive sums of political capital on seriously reworking the relationship of elected officials to police forces and their unions. This will not be aided along by most politicians — even Bill de Blasio of New York, a progressive dream at his first election in 2013, shrinks in front of the Patrolmens’ Benevolent Association. Ross Barkan wrote eloquently about the nature of NYC’s post-1970s urban revival, and just quite how precarious that revival might be, to give a narrative to de Blasio’s kowtowing, but at the end of the day the old adage may hold truest — no one ever votes for more crime.

Another push for reform that has gained a real head of steam in the course of the past week prefers not to call itself by that name — the cause of police abolition, the dismantling of police and police institutions in favor of the establishment of other community-based government services, is rapidly attaining a wider reach. The movement, linked to the rallying cry “defund the police,” is a reaction to the recalcitrance of police forces in response to decades of so-called reform. 

Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College interviewed by Mother Jones, put the frustration with reform front and center: “Five years ago, in the wake of the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, we were told, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to fix it. We’re going to give the police implicit bias training. We’re going to hold some community police encounter sessions. We’re gonna buy some body cameras,’” he said.

“A whole set of what we often refer to as ‘procedural reforms’ designed to make the police more professional, less biased, more transparent—and that this is going to magically fix the problem. But things did not get better. People are still being killed, and more importantly, the problem of overpolicing remains.”

Another slogan for police abolition might be “unbundle the police” — Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University, used this phrase in his discussion of a new way to approach road safety. “Why should the arm of the state that investigates murder, rape and robbery also give out traffic tickets?” he asked. Restaurant inspectors reach millions of restaurants a year, he noted, and are hardly ever accused of restaurant brutality. More insidiously, he blamed much of the erosion of the protections of the 4th Amendment on the jurisprudence of traffic stops.

“Don’t use a hammer if you don’t need to pound a nail. Road safety does not require a hammer,” Tabarrok wrote.

Writing last summer in the Cardozo Law Review, V. Noah Gimbel and Craig Muhammad put forth an expansive consideration of police abolition. They trace the idea’s genesis to both the writings of W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Y. Davis’ 2003 book Are Prisons Obsolete? “Historically, armed professionalized police forces are a fairly recent entrant onto the violence-prevention scene, appearing in a form recognizable to our modern conceptions as late as the nineteenth century, yet they have been endowed with an almost timeless sense of necessity,” Gimbel and Muhammad write.

Activist and academic energy is starting to run into the inertia of municipal governance. In Los Angeles, Black Lives Matter leaders have pushed the “People’s Budget,” a redrawing of LA’s fiscal commitments, shrinking police funds by 90%. In response, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced cuts of $150 million from the city’s police, an amount relatively less than 90% of the force’s $3 billion allocation. Embattled Bill de Blasio has pledged an inchoate sum of cuts to the NYPD’s budget. And over the objections of Mayor Frey, a supermajority of the Minneapolis city council vowed just the other day to abolish and dismantle their police force. 

What might such a revolution in policing — establishing a new order, not merely whittling away at the old — look like? It might look like Camden, NJ — or if you like, Apocalypse, NJ according to Matt Taibbi’s 2013 formulation. He documented a city “in a full-blown sovereignty crisis,” and spoke to a policeman who pegged Camden’s murder rate “somewhere between Honduras and Somalia”. 

Squeezed by a true crisis in crime, a nonexistent tax base, a disengaged police force, and Chris Christie, Camden’s civilian leaders moved towards decisive action — in 2013, they disbanded the police force, firing every single officer. They replaced them with a new force, hiring civilians and sending them out on the beat. Writing for in 2014, Jim Epstein noted citizens “buzzing” with the changes, and praised the mastermind of the overhaul, Jose Cordero, for his ruthless tactics against the moribund union force. Since then, basically everything police related has swung for the better — in freethink, Daniel Bier found that “murder is down by two-thirds, non-fatal shootings are down by half, and all other crime is down by 45%…clearance rates have recovered from a decades-long decline, improving from an abysmal 25% for murder and 23% for violent crime during the year of the transition to 69% and 42%, respectively, in 2017.”

Again, dismantlement is no panacea — Camden’s murder rate is still five times the national average. But the core fix is in place, as the police are more accountable to the people and their elected officials. Following on their successes, the Camden PD in 2018 established a nation-leading use-of-force policy, which holds that “de-escalation has to come first. Deadly force—such as a chokehold or firing a gun—can only be used in certain situations, once every other tactic has been exhausted,” according to a Bloomberg report. Moreover, those rules are easy to enforce: “An officer who sees a colleague violating the edict must intervene; the department can fire any officer it finds acted out of line.“ This is the fruit of radical police rehabilitation. When people turned out to march in Camden this past week, they didn’t meet cops with riot gear. They met cops with signs, who marched in solidarity.

3. Breaking the wheel — forging a new federal relationship and bringing power back to the community

Probably the most daunting needed shift as we turn towards reforming the nation’s police is to increase engagement in local government. Interest in politics and government broadly has never been as high as in the Trump era, a phenomenon measurable with any one of several lenses: historic voter turnout in the 2018 midterms, unheralded increases in subscriptions to national news providers, Twitter’s dramatic turnaround in new user growth, or even the fact that you’re reading this essay.

President Trump himself is of course both cause and symptom of this surge in interest, and his drive to fully politicize American life is merely one calling card of his authoritarian tendencies. As Matt Ford astutely put it in The New Republic last year, “[Trump’s] corrosive effect on American politics forces Americans to devote far more hours of their life to thinking about him than they should. All of this amounts to a tax of sorts on the national psyche—one that can never be repaid.”

But where America’s inability to look away from Trump imposes a psychological tax, there ought to be a way of channeling people’s proven capacity for interest in governing down more positive waterways. In particular, the lack of interest in local government has long been the bugbear of progressive-minded commentators. Quoted in Good Times earlier this year amid a book tour, Vox’s Ezra Klein inveighed against precisely this behavior: “A lot of the ways people participate in national politics is functionally following politics as a form of infotainment—even if it’s not very fun—versus being actually involved in a local community, which is about organizing, and it’s about making connections with neighbors”.

Even taking a national, federal-first lens, the 10th Amendment — ceding all powers not enumerated down to the state governments — guarantees a structure in which local governments have a greater impact on everyday life, owing to their greater remit. In the wake of the Trump administration’s abdication of responsibility for handling COVID-19, for example, it was state police powers that allowed the steps taken by governors nationwide to close businesses and enforce quarantines. It seems a lot of people were surprised by the sweeping powers exercised by governors in Albany, Annapolis, and Sacramento, and pleasantly so, perhaps because America’s belief in government doing anything right has fallen so low amid decades of polarized gridlock. 

Indeed, state government has long been a more effective arena for advancing policy goals than the national government — nearly a century has passed since Louis Brandeis deemed the state governments “laboratories of democracy.” Recent praise has been laden upon the Virginia General Assembly for its progressive achievements, although it should be noted that it took major national attention — including the made-for-TV breaking of a tied election by straw-pulling — to get the Democrats the majority. Conversely, conservative powers have for decades made hay of local government’s lower media valence — the latest casualty has been trans rights in South Dakota, as legislators there have made a point of cracking down. More broadly, over the entire Obama presidency, the Democratic presence in state government fell to its lowest ebb since the Eisenhower administration — a loss of nearly 1000 seats in state legislatures nationwide, and a quarter of the nation’s governorships.

It’s clear amid both the public’s proven capacity for engagement with government and the states’ proven capacity for great accomplishments in government that a happy match can be made here for advancing left causes and, in particular, reforming policing. We need a new left federalism, a constitutional program for emphasizing state’s rights and an electoral one for voting in large majorities to expand the size of state government. A corollary of this push will be to shrink the size of national government, to work towards a retrenchment of federal rights and responsibilities (and thus, federal budgets), in the name of greater and more equally distributed justice. In a world of hyperpolarized parties, where the presidency is a more valuable prize than ever before, and where presidential focus is often turned more toward the dismantling of predecessor agendas than positive governance, this will come as no great loss.

Devolution is no new political thought, but it has long been a right-wing view, concomitant with the slashing of safety nets once programs of that ilk and others are placed under local control. In an article presaging the revolting glee with which Paul Ryan would later talk about cutting Medicaid, Richard P Nathan and Thomas L Gals at the Brookings Institution took a look, in 2001, at the question “Is Devolution Working?” Recall that Democrats under Bill Clinton, championing the neoliberal turn, worked with a resurgent Republican House (in the majority for the first time, practically, since the Hoover administration) to gut the New Deal’s welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act of 1996 was a “devolution revolution,” responsible for “fundamentally [transforming] the roles of national, state, and local governments, as well as thousands of nonprofit and for-profit groups in the field of human services.” 

In practice, it ended the program of the Department of Health and Human Services known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and created a new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Where AFDC recipients got their support directly from the federal government, TANF instituted a block grant system whereby TANF recipients got their support from the government of whatever state they lived in. The federal government would then send money to the state in order to fund their TANF operations. In response to the passage of welfare reform, two higher-ups in Health and Human Services resigned, one calling the bill “the worst thing Bill Clinton has done”.

Brookings demurred: “If ending cash support without work requirements is the critical goal, then, YES, the new signaling and sanctions of the 1996 welfare reform act are working,” their report wrote.

If right devolutionism is a means towards hollowing out government, left devolutionism ought to be a program instead for strengthening government, making it more accountable and generous to its people. CityLab‘s Richard Florida, writing shortly after Trump’s inauguration, came to this conclusion: “No top-down, one-size-fits-all strategy can address the very different needs and desires of those who live in the dense, expensive blue-state cities and urban areas and those who live in more sprawling, car-oriented red-state suburbs and exurbs. Every place has its own set of unique needs, and these are very different kinds of places…Empowering cities, suburbs, and communities respects both our differences in values and our very different needs.”  

What will the practical consequences of this new left devolutionism be for voters on the ground? It will mean reorganizing the energy devoted to elections — after all, an individual voter in the presidential election has, at best, a one in ten million chance of deciding the election. By contrast, in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win versus Joe Crowley, an election that generated a new Democratic star and shook New York politics to the foundations, 27,744 people voted.

Federal elections are one thing, but the only way to fill state legislatures with the left voices needed to build a more generous and just state is to vote them in. This will not take place so long as the average municipal election draws just 27% of voters. 

And beyond fights for legislative seats, the scurrilous map of local elections decides the people who shape the criminal justice system more than anyone else. This year, more than 2,300 prosecutors and sheriffs will be elected. These critical contests often go, in fact, uncontested, like in DuPage County, IL, where State’s Attorney Bob Berlin runs the prosecutor’s office in the state’s second most populous county. Berlin will face neither Democratic nor Republican opposition in his reelection bid this year. He will extend by four more years his reign over the prosecutorial fates of the county’s 922,000 residents, meaning, if he retires in 2024, that he’ll have held the job for fourteen years straight. 

The cause of equal justice for Black people and other people of color cannot abide a nation of Bob Berlins, uncontested in their fiefdoms. Entitlement is a hallmark of the abuse of power, but it is only by our failing to act that such entitlement is bred among the officials of our districts, cities, counties and states. We need to pull our attention away from Pennsylvania Avenue catfights and back down onto municipal, quotidian concerns. We need rezoning to build the housing so desperately needed, shade to keep the urban people of a warming earth from boiling alive, investment to buttress the walls of failing schools, and maybe even cash to pay police to provide the sense of safety we decide we want for our streets. We need to once more emulate the Americans of days past, who considered themselves citizens of their states first, and of the United States second, not to sow regional division, but rather to ensure the full payment of due attention to the governmental forces that shape each one of our daily lives.