A tidal wave of hindsight washes over the country after every election, drenching us in a not-quite-drinkable cocktail of hypothesis and certainty. When things go badly—as they did for Democrats, especially conservative ones, in some key races—it is consoling to believe we know precisely how the outcome could have been reversed.
But that particular consolation is fleeting, a form of whistling in the dark. Whether the subject is the causes of the Hundred Years' War or the mistakes affecting one of Tuesday's electoral contests, there's nothing easier than wringing retrospective wisdom from the past. For one thing, unless you own a time machine, you can assert absolutely any analysis of past events in serene confidence that there's no way to test its validity. What's past is past, obviating a campaign do-over. As in science, the only way to certify a political hypothesis is to apply it going forward, then assess the results. So no one listens too hard. We know that in a few minutes, the last urgent analysis will be replaced by the next, then both will evaporate into the thick media mist of postgame politics.
I'm as cranky as the next person this week, make no mistake. But let's be cranky about something that matters. Much of what is floating around seems silly and pointless, inside baseball for people who may well have lost track of why they started following the game in the first place. I don't really want to waste time on the minutiae of whether this or that campaign tactic should have been different and would have changed everything.
How about pulling out of extreme close-up for a wide shot of the problem? The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that total campaign spending for the 2010 midterm will exceed $4 billion. For a little reality-check, consider that the same sum would pay more than 61,000 elementary school teachers' annual salaries, and instead, it paid for a huge dump-truck of mailings no one read and radio and TV commercials everyone tuned out. If you're interested in what to do about democracy's drowning in money, check out The Sunlight Foundation, which is bringing some powerful new tools to the project of making government transparent and accountable.
You don't have to read every postgame analysis that washes up in your computer to be a good citizen. If permission helps, go ahead: delete the inside baseball commentary and instead, give a few minutes of undivided attention to two thinkers I greatly respect.
All day Thursday, people sent links to Marshall Ganz's brilliant, heartfelt analysis in the L.A. Times. Ganz's isn't just speculating: he was central to Obama's winning strategy in 2008. He explains how Obama has lost support, heart, and power by trading the "transformational" leadership of his presidential campaign for "transactional" business-as-usual, a choice it is in his power to reverse.
After you read Ganz's piece, turn to my friend Jeff Chang's interview in ColorLines, which carries a message very dear to both my heart and mind:
In 2007 and 2008, Obama was the microphone, but he was not the song. He was the page, not the text. He called himself “an imperfect vessel for your hopes and dreams.” And it’s clear that he still does not grasp the significance of the new cultural majority that elected him. The fact is that neither do we. The new cultural majority has not disappeared or shifted to the right. They stayed home this election. Obama did not reach them. We did not reach them.
One thing progressives need to do is to understand the importance of expressing our hopes and dreams in narratives. Progressives misunderstand culture. The right is clear about it—Beck, Brietbart, and O’Reilly were long in the creation; they are the products of a four-decade long conservative movement building initiative. We need to build up an infrastructure that includes cultural strategy. We focus on facts and figures, but stories are what move the country. Culture is where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change. It is where the national imagination gets moved. So we need cultural strategy.
A politics of depth is within our reach. Brush away the noise of politics-as-usual, and there it is, clear as day, like the first pair of new leaves emerging from the split of a seed. A lot of us have been planting and cultivating these ideas; more are needed to bring the harvest in.
Still, losses are losses. I love the word consolation, and even more, its verb form, console, and the older word with which it shares a root, solace. All of them imply comfort, the act of assuaging loss by offering pleasure. The pleasure has to be proportional somehow: you risk shocking the person needing comfort with a pleasure that overwhelms the loss, however temporarily. We almost always fall back on a hot drink and something sweet. In Britain, it's tea and a biscuit. But in the U.S., pie and coffee is a most popular consoling drug of choice.
Sit down with me for a slice of pie. How do you take your coffee?
In addition to being delicious, pie is such a good illustration of Ganz's and Chang's points: flour, butter, filling—humble, ubiquitous ingredients—are layered with so much memory and symbolism, it's a wonder the crust can hold. With every bite, we consume a rich historical narrative. "As American as apple pie," "Motherhood, the flag, and apple pie," Nation of Islam bean pies. A cream pie in the face, weapon of choice to let the air out of windbag; a million coffeeshop movie scenes where the deputy sheriff is always forking up a bite of pie as the villain walks in; the role of Missy's sweet potato pie in Ossie Davis's Purlie Victorious….
"Consolation prize" didn't come into use as an expression until the late 19th century. Here in the twenty-first, I'm offering it to you in the form of a slice of Consolation Pie, aka pumpkin or sweet potato, the best recipe I know for the classic Thanksgiving treat. (And if you don't think Thanksgiving's meanings come in layers, you have some reading to do.)
Note: The crust will be flakiest if you make it with the listed ingredients, half Crisco and half butter. But if you can't bear it, look for what is labeled "European" butter; it has less water content, so the result comes close.
(makes two pies)
Pie dough: 2 1/2 cups flour (white or whole wheat pastry flour)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cold Crisco
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vinegar mixed with 1/2 cup ice water
The main pie crust secret is not to let it get warm or work it too much. You want tiny bits of fat sealed by flour and water. As the crust bakes, the fat melts, releasing steam, and that causes layers to form.
In a food processor or by hand, mix the flour and salt well. Cut in the butter until the mixture looks like very coarse crumbs. (If you're forgoing the food processor, don't use your hands; they're too warm; use a fork or two knives.) Add about 1/4 cup of the vinegar and water mixture. If you do it by hand, sprinkle a bit and mix with a fork, then sprinkle more, just till it's possible to form a ball. In the food processor, turn on the motor and add the water in a very thin stream, stopping as soon as it starts to clump. You may have to add one or two more tablespoons of ice water, but don't let it get too wet.
Form the dough into two loose balls. Roll each one out on floured waxed paper or a pastry cloth until it's a couple of inches wider in diameter than your pie plate. Line two pie plates with the pastry, building up a decorative edge on each. Chill while you prepare the filling.
Pumpkin or Sweet Potato Filling:
4 cups cooked pureed pumpkin or cooked pureed sweet potato, put through a sieve to remove all strings and lumps
1 1/3 cups brown sugar
1 1/3 cups white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons molasses
1 1/3 cup heavy cream
1 1/3 cup scalded milk
1/3 teaspoon ground cloves
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 teaspoons ground ginger
2 tablespoons of brandy, bourbon, or rum
Beat eggs lightly. Beat in all ingredients except for milk and cream. When everything is well-combined, beat in milk and cream. Pour the filling into the pie shells, but don't over-fill. If you have extra, you can bake it in custard cups or any overproof dish (but note that it will cook faster than the pies, so watch it).
Place the pies in a preheated 450-degree oven for 10 minutes. Then reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Bake another 30 minutes, then test: a skewer or slim knife blade inserted about an inch from the edge should come out clean. If it doesn't, or if the middle still seems too liquid, bake another ten minutes. If the filling starts to crack, it's overdone (but still delicious).
The filling will puff a little as it bakes, then sink back as it cools. If the crusts browns too quickly or too much, tear off a piece of tinfoil large enough to cover the pie, and cut a large circle out of the center. Use it cover the pie, tucking it lightly around the edges of the crust, so that the filling is exposed, but the crust is covered, and that will slow the browning.
This is a custard pie, so if you aren't going to eat it fairly soon, refrigerate it. Serve at room temperature or chilled with lightly sweetened whipped cream, creme fraiche, or vanilla ice cream.
Here's something to listen to while you sip and chew. There are so many beautiful versions of Buddy Johnson's great song, "Since I Fell for You," but this deeply knowing rendition by Etta Jones seems just the thing for those disappointed in love by Mr. Obama, leaving the door open to the renewal of romance:
When you just give love, and never get love,
you'd better let love depart.
I know it's so, and yet I know,
I can't get you out of my heart.