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Making America Good Again

A few notes of thanks as Purple Wednesday closes a two-year run

A little more than two years ago, I launched a regular column that I named Purple Wednesday, a series that comes to a close today. The title post, “The Mo(u)rning After” riffed off the theme song for The Poseidon Adventure (1972), sung by an otherwise little-known singer named Maureen McGovern, was written a few hours after Donald Trump snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, running the table on Hillary Clinton in key Midwestern states by less than a total of 100,000 votes.

As I wrote that day,

The message of The Poseidon Adventure was that we must not give in to despair, even in our darkest hour. In order to save our own lives, we must come to terms with, and fight back against, the new reality. The challenges faced by those on The Poseidon are considerable: in the midst of dinner, the tsunami hits, and the passengers’ world literally turns upside down. Partygoers in formal wear find themselves sliding down a floor that first becomes a wall, and then a ceiling.  Naturally panic and despair ensue. But a small group (played by actors like Shelley Winters, Gene Hackman, Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine, who were famous for portraying “ordinary” people) coheres. They save their own lives by making their way to the ship’s hull, having intuited that the remaining oxygen will gather there, and they can perhaps survive long enough to be rescued.

Of course, this makes perfect sense as the S.S. Poseidon is upside down and everything in it is dropping into the sea. But not everyone can cope with the new reality. In one particularly grisly moment, our little band of heroes encounters a large group of surviving passengers, led by the ship’s doctor and remaining officer. Unquestioningly, they are walking towards the deck of the ship — which is, of course, becoming immersed at a rapid rate. We never see them again. Although the group does not make it to the hull with its membership intact, our friends do get there; they bang on the steel skin until rescuers cut through it to save them.

As the last Democratic victories are rolling in from the 2018 midterm elections, I would like to say: metaphorically, the blowtorches have cut through the hull, and the survivors of the 2016 Democratic blowout are blinking in the sunlight, ready to start again. What will happen next?

We don’t know, but Democrats have a lot to be proud of: significantly, the Democrats swept all seven Congressional seats in Orange County, CA, the heart of the Reagan revolution. If you want to know more about that historic moment, read Lisa McGirr’s 2001 study of grassroots conservative organizing, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right.

Fingers crossed the Democrats don’t blow it and we can return to two-party rule.

I was shocked and depressed by the election of 2016. But I began this Wednesday column not to bash conservatives, or even Donald Trump (I do that on Twitter), but to learn. I wanted to think and write my way out of a dilemma that had become painfully clear to me: I believed I was open-minded, but in reality I rarely engaged conservative people at all.  America was not only a deeply divided country, but the loudest voices, across the political spectrum, were urging a kind of extremism that offered few solutions, only complete victory over imagined political enemies. And I am ending my Wednesday offerings, not because there is not more work to do, but because that work now belongs in a different place: a book that tells us how we got here — and how we will get out.

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to close out this work, and not just because that manuscript has to be finished, but because it is fitting to end this cycle of articles with a series of thanks to a few conservatives who have helped — and continue to help — me do the work of imagining a more Purple America, one where the populist forces that triggered a crisis of democracy in November 2016 recede and give way to people who are willing to do the real work of making America  good again.

  • To Wendy Davis, rowing coach, Christian, and conservative Californian. Your courage, humility and character are incredible, and your love of God offers leadership to all of us, believers and non-believers alike. I can always count on you to tell me when I am wrong and why a reasonable person might disagree with me; for a joke about an impossible situation; and for the art of compromise. You were the first person whose conservatism I understood, not as backlash, but as a comprehensive way of seeing the world that was both different from, and similar to, mine.  This Purple Wednesday column actually began to germinate over a decade ago when we talked about why each of us understood abortion differently, and I realized that two people could disagree about such a core issue and still agree on so many other things. God bless you, my friend, and thank you for being you.
  • To Ryan Girdusky, journalist, campaign consultant, TV commenter, and prairie populist. Dude, you too became my friend, and we seem to have a knack for disagreeing without being disagreeable. Your passion for working class issues encouraged me to care about the people whose views on immigration, The Wall, and all that #MAGA, which was the first step to understanding why disenfranchised people would turn right and not left for their answers. Your intelligence is inspiring, and you introduced me to complex political figures like Bob Holden of Queens, who confound the left-right divide. But most of all, early on, it became clear to me that part of our problem on “the left” is that the art of conversation is viewed as an instrument for changing the minds of people on “the right.” Conversation doesn’t have to be about agreeing, although we do agree on things, and it is a little like finding a seashell on a beach when we do. Conversation is about learning, and if either participant regards that learning experience as uni-directional, it is bound to fail. (For those of you who don’t know what I am talking about, please visit Angry Uncle Bot at The New York Times.) Thank you for our late-night phone calls, and yes — some day we have to start that podcast.
  • To Joe Castillo, former CEO of Bold Energy: former fellow Yalie, fracker, Texan gun-owner, and conservative. We have been friends since before Reagan. Thank you for talking to me about guns, and about what a gun policy might look like that engages concerned gun owners.  This conversation is still one of my favorite Purple Wednesday columns.
  • To Jeff Sessions, former Senator, Attorney General, and currently unemployed.  My greatest fear is that you will return to public life to further re-shape the state to racist, xenophobic policies and your tough on crime philosophies. There is absolutely nothing that you stand for that I agree with — except for one thing. As Donald Trump rained abuse and humiliation on you, betrayed and scorned you, you maintained your dignity and composure in the face of appalling incivility and cruelty. That was impressive. Sometimes I found myself rooting for you just because there is almost nobody in Trump world who will stand up to him, and because a political world in which one man gets to chase another man out of government for how he looks, speaks, wears his glasses and pays attention to basic legal ethics is not one that any American, liberal or conservative, deserves. So, thank you for your service, and — I hope — goodbye.
  • To Kassy Dillon and Elizabeth Desimone, of Lone Conservative, and every young person I met at Conservative Political Action Conference. You college students spoke with a passion about your conservatism without treating me like a foreigner in your space. Thank you. Most importantly, I learned a lot about how young conservatives can be made uncomfortable in spaces I take for granted, colleges and universities, by questioning ways. of understanding the world that I also take for granted. The work of disagreement isn’t done any better on college campuses than it is in the rest of the world, and some of the best-intentioned professors are failing when they see aspirational people like you as an annoyance to be repressed, rather than an opportunity to encourage intellectual and political diversity. Thank you for being brave, and not just going along to get along.
  • To the blue-collar Eagles fans (a.k.a, The Bleeding Green Nation) who surrounded me, cheered with me, embraced me and celebrated with me at the NFC Championship in Philadelphia last year. It wasn’t about Trump or Hillary: it was about the championship we all deserved. You made me feel like I wanted to live in America again, and that everything didn’t have to be about politics. We won’t gather again this year, but we’ll always have that game, won’t we?
  • To JD Miniear, an Indianapolis loan officer and  Kristina Lamb Miniear, pastor of the Restoring Hope Community Church, for befriending me at CPAC and letting me interview them about what it meant to jumpstart a Congressional campaign at the level of the neighborhood. Thank you for trusting me to tell your story.

There are many more of you out there who I have encountered in the past twenty-four months, and while I haven’t always made my friends and comrades on the left happy by writing about conservative issues, I couldn’t have done it without you.

And finally readers thank you — and watch this space at Public Seminar for a new enterprise to be unveiled here soon.

Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter

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