When I was a teenager in Milwaukee in the 1980s, life was pretty boring, and I found myself riveted by the sheer melodrama of everyday life of the 1960s.
In Ronald Reagan's chaotic childhood, the imagination was armor. There is nothing unusual about that; transcending the doubts, hesitations, and fears swirling around you by casting yourself internally as the hero of your own adventure story is a characteristic psychic defense mechanism of the Boy Who Disappears.
Racial rhetoric has been entwined with government from the start, all the way back to when the enemy was not Obamacare but the Grand Army of the Republic (and further in the past than that: Thomas Jefferson, after all, was derided as 'the Negro President').
One thing Republicans understand: In American elections, you have to choose from among only two people - not between the perfect and the good.
I think that all politicians who aspire to the presidency are a little nuts, but for different reasons. What kind of person aspires to be the most powerful person in the world? The answer is someone with an internal drive that is so dynamic and so determined.
Bill de Blasio was swept to the New York mayoralty on the promise of getting Gracie Mansion out from under the thumb of corporate elites.
Chicago's privatization mania began during Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration, which ran from 1989 to 2011. Under his successor, Rahm Emanuel, the trend has continued apace. For Rahm's investment banker buddies, the trend has been a boon. For citizens? Not so much.
When conservatives talk to one another, pay attention: they say what they want to do, and mean it. And will do just about anything to get there - even, or especially, claiming that they don't want to do the thing they want to do, until the time is ripe, and they can do it.
I feel bound to respect Ronald Reagan, as every American should - not least because he chose a career of public service when he could have made a lot more money doing something else, and not least because he took genuine risks for peace.
Why was Barack Obama attractive to people in 2008? If you think about Barack Obama, there's all this anxiety about society, just kind of wracked by centripetal forces - the idea that the center's not holding, no one can talk to each other, the idea of a political system that's broken.
My politics of optimism and hope still casts its lot with the Democrats - in the optimistic hope that the dying embers of its status as the party of our better angels, one that took risks for social justice, can still be fanned into a flame. But I'm an old man, born in 1969.
It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly.
I look to historians for their power to illuminate not just the invisible lineaments of the present, but also that which is not present. What are the roads that were not taken that most shape our own time?
In Ronald Reagan's case, he always bore with him this extraordinary ability to radiate confidence, optimism, clarity, a blitheness of spirit, in what other people saw as chaos. And after the 1970s, that was catnip.
That's the way cultural change works in America: the rest of us discard a prejudice that the Right still clings to; in the fullness of time, the Right comes around, too, deploying clever rationalizations to forget they ever bore the prejudice in the first place.
Somehow, failures in the public sector are always judged as systematic. The private sector thus exists to ride to the rescue - and their failures are only judged anomalies. A pretty nice arrangement for investors. The only people who suffer are the citizens.
Economic issues are a subset of social justice. Social justice is unimaginable without economic justice. Isn't that obvious?
Lyndon B. Johnson thought he'd have the boys home from Vietnam by Christmas - for four Christmases in a row (he never shifted course, and lost his presidency for it).
The reason inflation was brought down to manageable levels, by the time of Ronald Reagan's re-election, was directly attributable to Jimmy Carter's very courageous act, hiring a Federal Reserve chair, with the charge to induce a recession. That recession was probably the reason he didn't win a second term.
When downed American pilots were first taken prisoner in North Vietnam in 1964, U.S. policy became pretty much to ignore them - part and parcel of President Lyndon B. Johnson's determination to keep the costs of his increasingly futile military escalation in Southeast Asia from the public.
Conservatism is, among many other things, a culture. The most important glue binding it together is a shared sense of cultural grievance - the conviction, uniting conservatives high and low, theocratic and plutocratic, neocon and paleocon, that someone, somewhere is looking down their noses at them with a condescending sneer.
The argument that John F. Kennedy was a closet peacenik, ready to give up on what the Vietnamese call the 'American War' upon re-election, received its most farcical treatment in Oliver Stone's 'JFK.'
What does it mean to truly believe in America? To wave a flag? Or to struggle toward a more searching alternative to the shallowness of the flag-wavers - to criticize, to interrogate, to analyze, to dissent?
Leaders are for calling people to their better angels, for helping guide them to a kind of sterner, more mature sense of what we need to do. To me, Reagan's brand of leadership was what I call 'a liturgy of absolution.' He absolved Americans almost in a priestly role to contend with sin. Who wouldn't want that?
All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks.
Only liberals know how to make you freer on the job, which is where most of us suffer the gravest indignities in our lives.
Whatever you think about his intelligence, what's unquestionable is that Reagan had extraordinary emotional intelligence. He could sense the temperature of a room, and tell them a story and make them feel good. And that's more fun, right? It's more fun to feel good than feel bad. That's part of our human state.
I love trade magazines - any trade's magazine: by entering into what is taken for granted in a world not your own, you better recognize the vastness of the social universe - for there are so, so many worlds that are not your own.
For conservative leaders, making candidates pay them court, publicly and ostentatiously, is a colossal source of their symbolic power before their followers. It's kabuki theater, mostly.
In the rest of the industrialized world, your boss can't fire you unless he or she can give a good reason. In America, with certain exceptions, your boss can fire you for any reason at all or for no reason at all.
Reagan's emotional intelligence, his ability to suss out people's longings and to channel them for political purposes, was better than just about any human being that ever lived.
Anticommunism in its modern form was invented by liberals like Harry Truman, the architect of the national security state. The proportion of the voting population that was not anticommunist in 1961 was miniscule.
When you're a writer, you never know which of your pieces are going to gain a toehold and which will not, and it's best not to care too much.
Social conservatism, business conservatism: the one side constitutes the other, like some infernal Mobius strip.
Everyone on the Left has a favorite story that allows them to kind of excuse Reagan, explain away Reagan, say he was dumb, but unless we reckon with that kind of emotional intelligence and his ability to kind of speak to the aspirations of the American people, the less liberals are going to be able to understand the soul of his appeal.
The fact is that the Democratic Party in modern times has always had a conservative wing, one frequently as strong or stronger than its liberal wing, and as such, when progressives speak of the party as a vehicle that naturally belongs to them, as if by right - until conservatives stole it from them - they weaken progressivism.
Richard M. Nixon honestly believed in his bones that an organized conspiracy of liberal media insiders had literally been plotting against him ever since he broke Alger Hiss in 1948 (he never shifted course, and lost his soul).
While Obama might not push college education exclusively, like most Democrats he does oversell it and does shortchange the alternatives. And millions of young Americans pay the price.
The history of American higher education over the twentieth century is an extraordinary one, the story of the creation of a powerhouse set of institutions that are the envy of the civilized world. Once they were the province, both among the student and faculty bodies, of children of privilege, generally WASPs.
Prediction is structurally inseparable from the business of punditry: It creates the essential image of indefatigable authority that is punditry's very architecture; it flows from that calcified image, and it provides the substance for the story that keeps getting told about the inevitability of American progress.
Conservatives are time-biders. And they understand, as Corey Robin explains in his indispensable book 'The Reactionary Mind,' that the direction of human history is not on their side - that is why they are reactionaries - because, other things equal, civilization does tend towards more inclusion, more emancipation, more liberalism.
Watergate got us to think of leaders as mere mortals. America began to think of itself in a very different way - I would say a salutary way - and Reagan was most important in shifting the grand dynamic thrust of the American historical process by ending that.
Ronald Reagan knew audiences. It was a key element of his political genius. One of the things at which brilliant politicians are better than mediocre ones is smelling new public concerns over the horizon before they are picked up by polls - before the public even knows to call them 'issues' at all.
Let there be a special place in Hell for pundits who make predictions.
Back when I was 16, when I should have been doing normal high school things, I availed myself of my brand new driver's license to spend as much time as possible in Milwaukee's Renaissance Book Shop, a tumbledown five-story warehouse that the city was finally able to close down in 2011 for safety reasons. It was my teenage paradise.
America was founded on the fissure between slave states and free states, so these huge fault lines are just built into the American project. How we repress them, express them, deal with them, talk around them, think through them, don't think through them, is fascinating to me.
I'm reverent toward my sources. History is a team sport, and references are how you support your teammates.