For several decades one of the obligatory rites of presidential campaigning has been the publication of a candidate’s musings for the perusal of American voters. These tomes usually fall into one of two categories, the memoir or the cookbook. Bernie Sanders’ bestselling “Our Revolution” is an example of the latter, providing a set of recipes for resolving our ample political challenges. John Hickenlooper’s “The Opposite of Woe” is a case of the memoir. The first half of Hick’s volume, aside from the bizarre tale of escorting his mother to view the classic porn film Deep Throat (TMI, John), is primarily focused on his adolescent difficulties securing romantic partners. These lamentations continue until he eventually wanders into a recounting of his “life in beer and politics”. At least one book club has reportedly opted to read all of the 2020 output prior to Election Day in an act of consensual masochism.
Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s contribution hit bookstores this past week. “The Land of Flickering Lights”, subtitled “Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics,” may represent a third and fresh classification — the political-philosophical tirade. In the author’s acknowledgments, Bennet credits his editor, Cullen Murphy, with the admonition after reading the book’s first draft that, “…if you want anyone to read this outside a proctored examination there is more work to do.” The text remains peppered with footnotes and 20 or 30 years hence seems likely to become required reading in American Government courses.
Bennet’s book is both engaging and well written, but he has not emerged after a decade in Washington as a fan of all that he has witnessed. In the first chapter, “The Accidental Senator,” he throws light on what has mystified many Colorado Democrats: How did he get picked to fill Ken Salazar’s vacant seat? Apparently Governor Bill Ritter invited Bennet to submit his name, putting to rest conspiracy theories that he was dispatched to Colorado by national Democratic Party solons who wished to place an ally in the Senate. This hypothesis never made a lot of sense and requires a belief that Mayor Hickenlooper, together with members of the Denver School Board, were unwitting co-conspirators with an Eastern cabal intent on seizing Colorado’s Senate seat. It does imply, however, that the widely advertised interview process, which saw former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, Hickenlooper, U. S. Attorney Henry Solano and others meet with Ritter, was something of a charade. This cake may have been pre-baked, likely without the knowledge of its beneficiary.
Surely no one foresaw the day when Colorado’s senator would write, “Decoupled from any desire to govern, our politics has lost its purpose.” Neither is Bennet shy about whom he holds responsible for this failure. They are almost exclusively Republicans, with special attention given to Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump and the House Freedom Caucus that now shelters many of the remaining TEA Party victors from 2010. He asks, “Given the urgency to act on matters critical to this republic, and given the even graver urgency of the consequences of failing to act, what motivates Washington to accomplish so little?”
Bennet attempts to answer this question with five case studies that explore the recent legislative history of critical issues that should be susceptible to bi-partisan compromise: federal and Supreme Court judicial appointments, our failure to confront climate change because of pressure from ‘money politics’, economic inequality and tax breaks for those who don’t need them, the Iran nuclear deal and immigration. He notes, “I have yet to meet a single American who believes that the problem with our politics is that there is not enough money in it.” Yet the Supreme Court’s decisions equating money with speech have unleashed a torrent of dark dollars that are distorting our political process at every step from campaigns to drafting legislation. Bennet’s arguments are likely to be eye-opening for the casual voter that pays little more than passing attention to Washington shenanigans.
The senator’s solution is a more engaged American citizenry. “This is not, as we have come to believe, simply a fight between Democrats and Republicans. It is a fight between the future and the past,” he observes. As a former educator he expresses optimism that Americans can embrace their civic responsibility and transform themselves into 21st century founders who force the renewal of our politics. He also offers four pages of recommended readings to strengthen our democratic sinews. He points out that the success of local governments in navigating contentious issues shows what is possible.
His title’s flickering lights refer to Washington’s acceptance of repeated government shutdowns. Voters should be encouraged that Bennet is thinking seriously about how to mend the process of governance. Without making difficult changes, policy proposals are merely idle talk. He further notes that, “…none of what we face will be easy…”. No kidding.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.