It’s unsurprising that the concept of salvation has been on the mind these days, given the title of my book which is coming out on Wednesday. (Buy it here, if you’re interested.) But just as Salvation In The Storm has a specific meaning in that story, the concept of salvation lingers with me, mostly because of the fights underway, and those yet to come.
The title hit me sometime in the spring – I can’t pretend to remember when, but it would have been April, probably, given when I finished the book and my vague memory of where I was when I remembered it. It’s lingered with me since, because it’s a concept so strong, but so ill-defined. The meaning is entirely dependent on the context, and the context is entirely dependent on the whims of those who decide the meaning. Writing a book is in some ways an insane task, because what it is and what you want out of it is entirely, 1000% out of your control. You can place what you think is a perfectly done callback to a moment twenty chapters earlier, but there’s no guarantee anyone will notice it. What you didn’t intend is read with a specific intentionality. It’s an act of insanity, and yet one I’ve embraced. What it says about me doesn’t need explanation.
I won’t spoil the book, but in its context salvation was complicated, multi-faceted, and frankly a journey. If that description reminds you of something, the last year and change of the Democratic Party’s political fortunes also fits that bill. Hell, so does its last decade.
I ask this as a fan of both the Democratic Party and of the current administration (and less of one of the President who this President served under), but when was the last time the Democratic Party had an unalloyed good night at the polls? January 5th would be the answer, winning Georgia and the Senate, but beyond that, when was the last time? It wasn’t November 3rd, with the House losses, insufficient number of Senate gains, and the near loss of the Presidency. It wasn’t 2018, when we lost four Senate seats, including at least one that was indefensible, it wasn’t 2016 or 2014 for obvious reasons, it wasn’t 2010. Sure, Vitter lost in 2015 in Louisiana and Bevin lost in Kentucky in 2019, but those nights were isolated incidents, and didn’t have effects out of state. The last time you can argue the Party as a whole had a good night might be 2012, but even then, Democrats needed to gain 25 seats to win back the House majority, and they got 8. They made Senate gains, but still accomplished nothing in that Senate, and did not make sufficient gains to withstand the losses in 2014 (although, in fairness, the only seat you could credible claim they “should have” won was probably Nevada).
The problem for the Democratic Party is their victories in recent years have always been limited, at least since the first Obama landslide. Point out the structural biases all you want in a system that apportions the Senate by state lines and not population, but the fact remains that Democrats were a decisive 2012 or a less shit 2010 or 2014, from the GOP having 5, and maybe even 4, Supreme Court seats. If Democrats had won the Senate after 2014, Scalia is replaced by Garland for sure, and there’s a chance Ginsburg is persuaded to resign. Even if she didn’t, if Democrats had won Colorado in 2014 and Nevada in 2012, Trump walks into office with a hung Senate like Biden has, and Kavanaugh never finds his way onto the bench. If Pat Toomey could have been beaten in 2010 – in a race he only won by 2% - Trump maybe never has that Senate majority at all.
The legacy of the last 9 years of Democratic presidents is a complicated mess – it’s a solid legacy, if you’re willing to ignore consequences of actions. Obamacare, not defending DOMA anymore, two big spending bills under Biden, a stimulus under Obama, a slew of executive actions … it’s not a bad legacy at all. But if you want to give Biden and Obama credit for all that, they also must take the blame for a political party that is dying a slow death of its own incompetence and cowardice, and for a nation that cannot be persuaded to vote against fascism or remember an act of terror for more than 5 minutes at a time. The reason I am no fan of Obama or his tenure is I don’t care for good intentions, I care about legacies, and his legacy is handing off a good economy to a fascist who got to pack the bench because Democrats didn’t turn out to the polls, and the President didn’t bother campaigning for anyone else.
Biden and Obama have a policy legacy that is worth defending, and there’s some legitimate value in having had a Black President so that millions of Americans can see themselves in that office. What also follows is a failure to lead his party, and in so doing, he failed his country. Roe is now in danger because Democrats couldn’t win Senate seats in Illinois or Colorado or Nevada or Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, and Obama refused to give Black and Hispanic voters in those places reason to vote when he was off the ballot (or, in the case of Nevada, he didn’t campaign hard enough for a Democratic sweep in 2012). Biden just saw the same turnout pattern in Virginia, with GOP turnout falling off substantially less in rural white counties than in Black Democratic strongholds. Yes, some people changed their minds between 2020 and 2021 in Virginia, but Black turnout absolutely fell more than rural white turnout, and if it hadn’t, McAuliffe would be Governor.
I’m listening to Jeff Buckley as I work through all this, although not, as usual, his cover of Cohen’s masterpiece. Forget Her is playing as I type this, because it is somehow just as haunting in its beauty as Hallelujah, and in listening to it, I can’t help but think of Buckley singing the message to Democrats about Obama. The need to forget him is omnipresent in the party, and in the commentariat. His victories, such as they were, are never coming back, and the ways his failures cripple it now still haunt it. The need to forget him is long overdue, and his Vice-President needs to stop acting like his former boss.
If Salvation In The Storm is about anything at all, it is the story of one man, James Smith, coming to terms with his past and finding his future. He does so with a bevy of characters around him, from his irreverent but loyal best friend to the brothers at the fraternity he is invited to pledge, to the man he falls for, and more, but it is fundamentally about beginnings and endings – a past needing to be closed, a future needing to be given the space to proceed. The Obama era is similar, with the Democratic Party having to move on from its past and find its future. Will it be hard? Of course it will. That said, I did say it would be as complicated as my book, and nobody ever wrote a book where everything just idly works out for everyone, did they?