Saturday, February 4, 2023

Who Votes First?


For as long as I can remember, the "first in the nation" presidential primary has been in New Hampshire, one of the smallest and otherwise least electorally significant states. Back in the day, the NH Primary was always held on the second Tuesday in March (the date when town meetings and non-partisan municipal elections are traditionally held in that state). NH state law still stipulates that the presidential primary held be on that date, but it directs the NH Secretary of State to advance the date, if necessary, to ensure that the NH primary always takes place at least seven days before any "similar election" in any other state. New Hampshire's disproportionate importance in the presidential primary process derives primarily from its "first in the nation" position. Hence the date has been moving earlier and earlier. In 2020, it was February 11. Meanwhile, for the past half-century, the Iowa Caucuses have also acquired unique prominence because of their uniquely early position in the election- year schedule.  In 2020, the Iowa Caucuses took place on February 3 - one week before the NH Primary.

All that is now about to change. Meeting in Philadelphia, the Democratic National Committee has voted approved a plan to rearrange the early Democratic presidential primary calendar. South Carolina - the state which saved Joe Biden's primary campaign in 2020 - was awarded the first primary, on Saturday, February 3, 2024, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on February 6, Georgia on February 13, and Michigan on February 27.

What the calendar will actually look like is still unclear. Republican-run New Hampshire is unlikely to change its law to accommodate the Democrats, who may have to skip NH altogether. A Democratic candidate who ran in and won in New Hampshire on an unapproved date would, according to party rules be penalized, losing half the convention votes he or she had won.

Hurting the feelings of Iowans and New Hampshirites does not seem to have worried the DNC too much. Many Democrats have long objected to the outsized influence of those two, predominantly rural states which are so unrepresentative of either the country as a whole or the Democratic voting base. Like Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina is also a red state, but its Democratic voters are heavily African-American and so do at least represent a key constituency of the Democratic voting base. Nevada is actually a more competitive state and so may be more important in the general election. It also heavily represents Latinos, another potentially key constituency within the Democratic party. So the logic of the change is largely unassailable. (A case could be made that better than South Carolina would be a more Democratic-voting or more competitive state like Michigan. Such arguments will likely come up next time.)

The way we elect American presidents is best characterized as crazy. The present primary system is bizarre and can easily result in nominating someone who is not the real first-choice of a majority of the party. The inflated importance of Iowa and New Hampshire, because of the media attention that comes with their early position, has only highlighted the unrepresentative character of those states. 

On the other hand, Iowa and New Hampshire were "retail politics" states, where candidates had to campaign in person and interact directly with voters in a way which those states' relative smallness and other distinctive characteristics required but which would be much less feasible in larger states. The quadrennial image of candidates at New Hampshire diners or at the Iowa State Fair speaks to something important in American political self-understanding.

As a practical matter, those small early states have also made it more possible for "outsiders" to get attention and succeed against more favored insiders - famously, for example, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. The more "direct democracy" scale of those contests has also made it possible for opposition figures to outperform establishment expectations, as happened in New Hampshire with Eugene McCarthy in 1968 (leading to LBJ's withdrawal from the race soon after) and Pat Buchanan in 1992 (foreshadowing both George H.W. Bush's eventual electoral loss and the eventual "populist" turn in the Republican party).

"Democracy" has multiple dimensions. The democratic deficit inherent in allowing such unrepresentative constituencies as Iowa and New Hampshire have such disproportionate influence in the primary process is laudably being corrected by highlighting more diverse constituencies in more representative states. In the process, however, another value in democratic politics is being further diminished with the reduced role for the in-person "retail politics" which was so characteristic of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Candlemas Day

The familiar carol concludes on the 12th day, but today is actually the 40th - and final - day of Christmas. In Catholic countries, it is a common custom for the nativity scene to remain in its place in churches until today. So eleven years ago at this season, while I was studying at "Saints' School" in Rome, I took advantage of that unique opportunity of almost a full month between my early-January arrival and Candlemas in which to visit the various presepe, which were on display in Rome’s many churches.

In the western, Latin Church, today is currently called the Presentation of the Lord, although for several centuries it was also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the Gospel [Luke 2:22-40], Mary and Joseph took the child Jesus to Jerusalem according to the law of Moses in order to observe two important religious obligations. The first was the ordinary obligation in that society to be purified after childbirth, reflecting ancient beliefs about the sacredness of blood, and the requirement of ritual purification after any direct contact with blood. The second concerned the special status and religious responsibilities of a first-born son (because of God’s having spared Israel’s first-born at the time of the Exodus from Egypt). 

But, whatever the official title, a common popular title for today’s celebration in the West has long been Candlemas Day, because of the Blessing of Candles and the Procession - originally in Rome an early morning, pre-dawn procession, somewhat penitential in character – with which the more solemn celebration of Mass today begins. This replaced an earlier pre-Christian Roman pagan custom. According to the medieval traditions recounted in The Golden Legend: "On the calends of February the Romans honored Februa the mother of Mars the god of war, by lighting the city with candles and torches throughout the night of that day. ... Since it is hard to relinquish such customs and the Christians, converted from paganism, had difficulty giving them up, Pope Sergius transmuted them, decreeing that the faithful should honor the hold mother of the Lord on this day by lighting up the whole world with lamps and candles."

The name Candlemas calls attention, obviously, to the blessed candles, but also to their light – and to Jesus as the One whom that light symbolizes. In the Gospel, the aged Simeon recites the canticle, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace.” In the Roman Rite,  this canticle, known as the Nunc Dimittis,  is an important part of Night Prayer (Compline). Concerning this, the great 20th-century liturgical scholar Pius Parsch wrote: “As we sing it we see Simeon holding the Child Jesus in his arms and then, with grateful heart, retiring from his earthly service to God. We too are in the Lord’s service. At the close of day we hold the Savior in our arms, mystically speaking; we hold Him in faith, in grace, in the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Altar. Fervently we thank God for His blessings; and we are prepared, if it be His will, to take our leave from the world.”

Coming close to midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, a secular version of Candlemas is Groundhog Day. (The fact that both mark this seasonal signpost is obviously not coincidental.) Even those who may never have heard of Candlemas have heard of Groundhog Day and connect it with the change of seasons. While the weather is still wintry, the days are noticeably getting longer. Whereas Christmas comes at the mid-point of the winter’s darkness, with the year’s shortest day and its correspondingly longest night, Candlemas comes at the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the transition (according to one older way of reckoning the seasons) from winter to spring. Soon, day and night, light and dark will be equal. So this last of the winter light festivals invites us to look ahead to what these winter light festivals are meant to symbolize.

Meanwhile, at the same time as we recall with joy the Lord’s entry into his Temple: and suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek (Malachi 3:1-4), we hear wise old Simeon’s words to Mary, the first reference to what lies ahead, the first reference to the cross. Behold, this child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

So, even as we take one last look back at winter and Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to spring and Lent, and reminds us that the point of Christmas is Easter. Meanwhile, Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple points us toward our own encounter with the Risen Christ here and now.

Since 1997, Candlemas has also been observed as the World Day of Consecrated Life. Just as on this day candles are blessed symbolizing Christ who is the light of the world, so too religious priests, brothers, and sisters are called to reflect the light of Jesus Christ in the Church. It is obviously an especially appropriate day to pray that God will continue to bless his Church with abundant vocations to these communities so critical to the life of the Church. 

For me at this stage in my life, there is a joining of images and themes. Spending their lives in the Temple, Simeon and Anna seem to me to signify religious life in an obvious way. But they are also - and very pointedly - presented as old, retiring (as Parsch put it) from their earthly service to God.  Obviously, while their age makes them representative figures for Israel's long wait for the Lord whom you seek, at the same time they easily elide into representatives of so many religious priests, brothers, and sisters in the various Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (among whom I must include myself) who are also old, who have spent so much of our lives in the Temple, and are now approaching the end and preparing to pray our final Nunc Dimittis.

Homily for the Presentation of the Lord, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, February 2, 2023.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

A Praying People

The annual National Prayer Breakfast will take place in Washington, DC, this coming Thursday, February 2. It is not an event that is usually on most people's radar. The only occasion it was on mine, the only time I can ever recall commenting on it, was three years ago, coinciding with the first impeachment and acquittal of President Trump, who spoke at the event (as presidents do). At that time, I wrote:

And what a desert American religion is in right now! That desert was fully on display the very next morning at the so-called National Prayer Breakfast. That event dates back to the middle of the last century, and every US President since Eisenhower has participated in this once honorable event. Speakng just before the President, this year’s keynote speaker, Arthur Brooks, author of Love Your Enemies, addressed the audience of more than 3,000 on that foundationally Christian theme. Then the recently impeached President spoke and expressed his essential disagreement with the keynote!

On such occasions, I am again reminded of my favorite quite from Southern Baptist Russell Moore back in October 2016, regarding ostensibly religious figures who ally themselves with this President:  "The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about."

Mitt Romney's father, George, who also aspired unsuccessfully for the presidency back in the 1960s, was born in Mexico where his devout Mormon grandparents had had to flee to avoid persecution by the US. government. A practicing member of the LDS Church, Mitt Romney, knows something about real religious persecution and real religious freedom - in contrast to the fevered "Flight 93" apocalypticism so often invoked by some ostensibly religious people to justify their alliance with this impeached President. This week Romney reminded anyone who was listening that faith is about God and God's Kingdom and not about political power and idolatrous prayer.

The annual tradition of the National Prayer Breakfast (originally called the Presidential Prayer Breakfast) goes back to 1953, the first year of the Eisenhower Administration. It is held every year on the first Thursday in February and often features speeches by special guests as well as the President. Out of an apparent desire on the part of Congress to return the event somewhat back to its original spirit, a new organization, the "National Prayer Breakfast Foundation," will oversee the event this year, and the number of the attendees is being limited to members of Congress, the  Administration, their families, and their guests. (It  will still be live-streamed online and on C-SPAN.)

In the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries, for example, the presence of an Established Church facilitates religion's decorative role in civil life - part of what Walter Bagehot called the "dignified" dimension of a country's constitution. Even without the benefit of formal religious establishment, displays of religious ritual and, in particular, invocations of religious language and exercises of public prayer have been a ubiquitous part of American civic life from the very beginning. The National Prayer Breakfast is an honorable part of that long tradition. As its misuse in recent years by Republicans' religious allies has made evident, however, the line between dignified prayer and idolatrous prayer can be an easy one to cross.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Beyond the Baby Boom


We of the "Baby Boom" generation have more or less always taken it for granted that we would be at the center of society's attention - and in recent decades at least the holders of most of the power in American society. That is largely still true, but changing. Hence, this latest book on Boomers and their power, The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America (Viking, 2023), by Philip Bump, a national columnist for The Washington Post. As the author observes about us boomers: "They opened their eyes and everyone around them was working to meet their exceptional needs."

In case anyone doesn't already know, the "baby boom" refers to the generation born in the aftermath of World War II, the great period of post-war prosperity from 1946 through 1964, when the annual average of births int he U.S. was around 4 million (compared with the 1930s average of 2.4 million). "In 1945, the year before the boom began, the population of the United States was about 140 million. Over the next 19 years, 76 million babies were born."

Born in the most prosperous era in American history, we boomers have accumulated material wealth and all that goes with that. Obviously, individual boomers are rich, poor, and everywhere in between, but as a group we Have been wealthy and powerful. We are 23% of the population, but are 43% of the country's homeowners, for example. "Since 1989, those aged 55 and older have always controlled at least 54 percent of the wealth in the country. By 2019, that figure was over 70 percent."

We are also whiter than subsequent cohorts, which is due to the very specific circumstance of having been born in the period of U.S. history with little immigration, thanks to the restrictive legislation of 1924. My grandmother was an immigrant, as were several aunts and uncles, but no one I knew of my own generation.

What that means for the future, Bump shows, may be less straightforward than some have assumed. 

Given the complex but hardly insignificant continued role of religion in our politics, it is noteworthy that while somewhat less religious than our predecessors, boomers are still significantly more so than those waiting to replace us. "The boomers were less inclined to embrace religious identifiers than their elders, yes, but they still embraced them. And they did and do so to a more robust degree than their own kids, over whom religious institutions have been wringing hands and for whom those institutions have been crafting appeals." Indeed, it is still the case that "More boomers go to church one or more times a week than never go."

Politically, boomers vote more and are overrepresented in Congress. We are also more likely to identify with one of the two political parties. "Boomers were more likely to be members of one of the parties, with 67 percent identifying as Democrats or Republicans. Among millennials, only 54 percent did so."  And it is significant that the only age group Trump won in 2016 "were those aged 50 and up—that is, the baby boomers and those older."

Bump's account is journalistically engaging. He interviews the person officially identified as the "first baby boomer" (born January 1, 1946), and he entertainingly  rents a golf cart to explore around The Villages, the infamously enormous senior living community in Florida, some of whose residents call themselves "frogs," since they are there until they "croak." 

On the other hand, he seems never to have met a number he didn't appreciate, and the book is filled with an overwhelming number of charts and graphs (128 by one reader's count). That's probably information overload, but one can not look at the charts and just read the text and still get the message. There is, perhaps, too much of that (text) as well, as he seems determined to examine as much as he can about America's changing landscape. At times, it feels that the book will never end, much as it must feel to many that the baby boomers' presence and dominance will never end. But, of course, we will eventually end. And so does the book. In the process, he succeeds in providing the best on-offer analysis of the implications on the coming generational change in American politics.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Tár (The Movie)


I have to admit I have struggled to figure out what to say about Tár, Todd Field's 2022 hit, "Best Film of the year" according to the New York film Critics Circle and others, and of course one of the nominees for the upcoming oscars. It stars Cate Blanchett, who performs brillliantly as star conductor Lydia Tár, whose imperious (and, by some accounts, abusive) behavior dominates the movie and precipitates her eventual dramatic downfall. The film is susceptible of multiple interpretations. It can be seen as a reasoned attack on "cancel culture." It can also be seen as a justified defense thereof. It can be seen as a critique of how contemporary identity politics and "cancel culture" can corrupt the arts, education, and human relationships. It can also be seen as illustrating how widespread abuses of power (to which contemporary identity politics and "cancel culture" are in part a reaction) can corrupt the arts, education, and human relationships. The fact that the film is simultaneously susceptible of such contradictory interpretations highlights both the film's complexity and the real-world complexity of those issues and perhaps provides a vehicle for reflecting upon them further. Meanwhile, while some see Lydia Tár's triumphant career careening to a deserved (or, at least, predictable) collapse, others see a confusing mix of real and imaginary sequences, which leave her final fate uncertain.

Without wading into the "cancel culture" quagmire, I think it fair to say that the film portrays the Berlin Philharmonic's star conductor Lydia Tár (born plain Linda Tarr from Staten Island) as a human disaster - not, perhaps, unlike many others who hold positions of comparable power. She is married to Sharon, who is also the orchestra's First Violin, and she depends upon and tyrannizes her personal assistant, Francesca. It is implied that she has groomed other young aspiring musicians in the past, a pattern apparently being repeated in real time with a new, young cellist, Olga. Unsurprisingly, her behavior seems to be recognized as such by those around her - and apparently tolerated by them all, at least as long as they have to. Meanwhile, one of her previous targets, Krista, has been blacklisted by her after their relationship went wrong, and Krista's suicide seems to become the event that triggers a professional reckoning, accompanied by all sorts of strange sensitivities to sound, nightmares, and bouts of pain. 

A lot is left implied that in reality would need to be cleared up. What exactly happened between Tár and Krista is hardly established beyond doubt. As is often the case, we are in the realm of suspicion and allegation, although there is certainly evidence of Tár's susceptibility to particularly poor judgment in such matters (poor judgment presumably exacerbated by her apparent power to get away with it). On the other hand, Tár's ultimate response to all this seems somewhat out of character (at least as her character has been portrayed thus far in the film). Indeed, her behavior becomes bizarre beyond belief - assuming, of course, that we are still in the realm of real behavior and not fantasy. What exactly are we supposed to think about this remains itself mysterious.