The Face of Power

Western home in junk-strewn landscape.
Election 2016 delivered a shock to conventional wisdom, to liberals and conservatives, to the political establishment, and to people like me who write or talk about politics professionally.  Even though I correctly predicted a Trump victory, still when it came to pass, I was shocked.  Now, when I wake up in the morning, I sometimes feel a sense of foreboding.  At other times, though, I feel guardedly optimistic—about the body politic, if not about Trump.

Because conventional wisdom, the professional politicians, and the party establishment, all needed to be shocked.  For at least five years, I have been writing about the stale condition of the parties and their ideologies.  I have been writing about how the parties need to reorganize themselves around new ideas, about how the nation needs to get organized around a new constellation of goals appropriate for our times.  Nothing less than the victory of a Donald Trump was required to shake the political parties and all their personnel out of a state of perpetual complacency.  Both GOP and Democratic leaders must wake up: they are under much greater pressure now to use what power they have responsibly and constructively.  If they do not deliver better government for the electorate, their parties are going down.  I firmly expect that the next two to four years will be a time of constructive ideological ferment in the United States–and that politics will attract a new generation of leaders committed to reform and a renewed focus on commonly shared ideals, like a generally enjoyed prosperity and peace.

Like most intellectuals, I enjoy a life of privilege.  I live in a city.  My circumstances set me off from the rest of the population who are not part of ‘the creative economy,’ a term used to describe the formation of elites who make things and make things happen–who enjoy a sense of influence and autonomy.  This election has rudely reminded all of us to broaden our vision and consider what is really happening in our country: how a system that used to work for most Americans, providing sound education, civic consciousness, and secure livelihoods for breadwinners–has been gradually slipping away.  Great swathes of the nation are cut off from the expansive prospects that cosmopolitan Americans find so exciting.  The election has forcefully re-directed our gaze–back to the ordinary places where democratic power dwells.

A Working Holiday

Map of US Territorial Acquisitions (Credit: National Atlas of the United States via Wikimedia Commons)

New Year’s has often been a working holiday for American statesmen.  More than a day of moral resolution, January 1st marks the anniversary of several bold, ambitious actions that have opened new eras and horizons for Americans as a people.


New Year’s Day in 1803 found Thomas Jefferson secretly laying the groundwork for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a scheme that had to be covert because it proposed scouting out vast tracts of land that at the time belonged to other countries.  The French lands now referred to as the Louisiana Purchase would not belong to the United States until the spring, while the Oregon Territory would remain the property of England for many decades.  Yet Jefferson was undeterred in his determination to familiarize himself with, and strengthen American claims to, these unknown neighboring regions.

So he began crafting a confidential message to Congress, describing the possible benefits of reconnoitering these lands and asking for an appropriation of the $2,500 necessary to supply the journey.   Congress looked with favor on his request, thus inaugurating a initiative that pioneered knowledge of the West’s lands, resources, and native peoples.

A map from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Courtesy of Yale University Library via Wikimedia Commons).

The government was rewarded with a treasure-trove of maps and documents that facilitated its later dealings with, and gradual displacement of, native American tribes.  Today, we tend to discount the expansionist ambitions that motivated Jefferson, instead lauding the Expedition as an early model of the many progressive scientific projects and surveys the US government would subsequently fund.


Sixty years later, President Lincoln spent New Year’s Day greeting callers to the White House and putting his signature on the final version of his Emancipation Proclamation, which was sent out over the telegraph wires later that day.  Not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, Lincoln’s statement had had a long fruition, with earlier drafts of the measure being floated and discussed the previous fall.  Lincoln’s determination to associate the waging of the Civil War with the moral cause of ending slavery marked a tipping point in the long struggle to secure for African-Americans personal freedom and civil equality, a struggle begun decades earlier and continuing on for more than a century, even down to today.

Watch meeting in Massachusetts

The executive order, which famously declared the freedom of all slaves held in rebel states, was on display at the National Archives in Washington yesterday, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary.  Though limited in its scope and practical effects, the proclamation spelled liberation for a people who had suffered oppression since colonial times.  Lincoln’s deliberate blow to slavery paved the way for its complete and permanent abolition, accomplished through the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.


Finally, on New Year’s Day in 1892, the first immigrant (of some 16 million) passed through the doors of Ellis Island.  It is commonly said that “American is a nation of immigrants,” but the establishment of Ellis Island and other formal points of entry gave that rite of passage a dignity and regularity that was previously missing.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1905 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Located near the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island bestowed welcome and the necessary paperwork on immigrants who had previously been less distinguishable from American citizens.  At a time when many born Americans went through life without the legal documentation of a birth certificate, Ellis Island conferred a bureaucratic identity on the newly arrived, routinizing a more paper-bound and legalistic conception of Americanness that is with us still.  Today, however, Ellis Island stands as a cherished symbol of the rational means the government employed to bind its disparate population into one people.

May these complex and impressive projects inspire today’s political leaders to lift up their sights and grapple bravely with the issues confronting the nation now.

The West in Winter

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A couple years ago, Bob and I took a train to Seattle in the winter.  It was a couple of really beautiful days.  I’ve already written about how much I enjoy getting out of the city and seeing the countryside, even the unspectacular parts.  Everything always looks so much more interesting and often poignant from the train, perhaps because every sight is so fleeting and because you are cut off from it in so many ways.  There is a remove, there is silence, there is no hope of any further understanding or engagement.

Perhaps this feeling is more intense when traveling across the relatively uninhabited Upper Plains, as we were.  The expanses were so great, and there were very few distinctive topographical features.  So the great beauty and subtlety of the landscape, the wonderful repetition of a few elements and their recombination in endlessly varying tableaux, were all the the more striking.  The irregularities of the land, the distinctiveness of each collection of rusting junk clustered around the homesteads, the geometry of the fields and farms . . . entrancing.  When I looked at my pictures when I got home, I was glad that they captured the pastels and the grainy nubbles of the earth covered with the fading winter light and a skiff of snow.

The Passing Year
Gallery: The Passing Year

Gallery: The Passing Year

A few photographs to go with the essay.

The Passing Year

Aboard the California Zephyr (Observation Car)

Can it be?  Are we there already?  Suddenly it’s Christmas and we’re gliding helplessly toward January.  2011 is nearly past, its events crystallizing into memories.  No longer anything to be experienced, only sensations and impressions to be recalled.  The end of the year, my birthday (which is on Christmas), and the holidays themselves, with their connotations of hope and new beginnings, invite retrospection, a consideration of where we’ve been and where we might be going.  Yet I don’t feel like writing anything political today.  The sort of analysis and judgment that comes so naturally to me seems somewhat out of place on this, my birthday.  How much better to dwell on the more irreducible memories of a recent journey.

I love getting out to see the countryside.  This fall, my husband and I took a couple of overland journeys, traveling out into the West by rail and car.  Mid-October found us boarding the California Zephyr, an amazing train that takes you across the Plains and Rockies, then down toward San Francisco via the Sierra Nevada and the Sacramento River Valley.  The passengers’ excitement was palpable, their reserve broken down in the face of scenery so spectacular and varied.  Strangers addressed one another in tones of excited exclamation, in tones that were hushed and confiding.  People hurried to breakfast early, then rushed to take up posts in the observation car, their eyes trained out the windows, cameras at the ready.  The land was like a drug we couldn’t get enough of: it was vast, it was awesome, it was enthralling, overwhelming.  It was great, for a change, to feel proud and happy.  “The United States are endless; they’re endless!” I heard an Englishwoman saying.

Yet the truth is far more complicated.  To ourselves, the United States are a half-known place, some parts thriving and well-cultivated; others poor, undeveloped, ill-used; still others useless, exhausted, polluted, sterile.  The frequent sight of worn-out factories and public buildings, collapsing farmsteads, wildlife in flight, and rural junkyards full of rusting machinery bespeak the exhaustion of an era and an earlier mode of living.

Back when it was known as the New World, there was no predicting what kind of place this would become.  The arrivistes who came here across the centuries from Asia and Europe had wildly differing hopes, conceptions, and ideas.  They were variously hunters, explorers, traders, colonists, and missionaries.  Many of their odysseys were ephemeral or concluded disastrously.  In the end, the people who enjoyed the most success were those able to enter into a direct relationship with the place, who got past their own fixed ideas and entered into a creative relationship with their surroundings.

Foreigners who came here with pre-conceived goals—whether it was to trap fur, find gold, or convert “natives” to Christianity—had a limited use for the place and tended greatly to undervalue its potentialities.  The benefits of their forays were miniscule compared to those of the Indians who worked out an elaborate rapprochement with the land, or the Virginians who later learned the ins and outs of tobacco cultivation from the Indians.  Lacking access to the most desirable oceanfront land, mid-Atlantic settlers rejoiced to have discovered what they thought of as “the best poor man’s land” in Pennsylvania.   These were the people who tended to stay: the people who saw value where others couldn’t.  In time, their ingenious interaction with the land and its materials gave rise to new foods, new habits, new industries, new livings.

Two hundred years later, much of the US still has a half-settled, half-developed, incipient character.  The proper uses of the land are still being tried.  With each decade, the population continues to redistribute itself, providing a register of Americans’ shifting perceptions of geographic advantage and opportunity.  We are still working out how the nation’s natural endowments can best support our life as a people.  Even in the face of globalism, however, the land beneath our feet remains the basis of security, prosperity, and innovation.  The nation’s resources, varied and vast but not limitless, require careful stewardship and cultivation.  Politically, the proper use of this great inheritance remains a central and complex but under-explored theme.