Wednesday, March 28, 2018

And Now I Own (1/9 of 1/2 of) a Bookstore

I could never save enough from my wages to buy Porter Square Books. Thanks to abysmal failure that is Republican economic policy that demolished the American middle class, I'm not sure even the nine employees involved in the recent purchase combined could have put together enough capital to secure a small business loan on just what we could save from our pay. There would have been options of course when it came time for David and Dina to retire. There's crowdsourcing (which I imagine would have been successful). And some of us might have partners and other family members who would be willing to help and maybe there would be some applicable government loans available for small businesses, but, on our salaries and wages alone it would never have been possible.

This is, in part, because bookstores, especially new bookstores, are relatively expensive to buy, even more especially in relation to their profit margin. Books are expensive, you don't really finance the purchase of an entire store the way bookstores finance purchases of books from publishers, and the profit margins of even successful bookstores mean that business loans of any significant size will take a long time to pay off. (I remember the day when the founders of PSB finally had the liens taken off of their personal homes and they would have gotten credit from publishers for their initial inventory.) But, really, as above, the Republican economic model has guaranteed most Americans have much less buying power than they used to, more of that is spent on housing, healthcare and education than it used to, and the economy is subject to recessions in ways it wasn't before we put one of those classic Hollywood conservatives in the White House. Honestly, I don't know if there is any industry in America where the wages are high enough for an employee to save up to buy the business they've spent their lives working for.

From about 1998 (or maybe even 1996) to about 2011 or 2012, independent bookstores were struggling for survival. There were a couple of times, especially around the recessions of 2001 and 2008, when it looked like independent bookstores were going to vanish completely. The wage stagnation above hurt book sales and put downward pressure on the price of books (meaning that books aren't really priced high enough to support all the people working to produce and sell them), a problem only exacerbated by the recessions. The deep discounting at first Borders and Barnes and Noble and later Amazon hurt independent bookstores even more. That Amazon was able finance predatory pricing through stock sales, tax avoidance, atrocious labor practices, straight-up losing money for a decade, and pressure on vendors while improving and developing their sales infrastructure, including Prime and their ebooks monopoly, only put independent bookstores at a greater disadvantage. But, many of us figured that shit out.

So for many stores, the long term problem they face is no longer survival but succession. Given the desire to keep independent bookstores open in general and guarantee that one's own community has an independent bookstore, and the basic economic reality above, how do bookstore owners make sure their stores pass on to committed, talented, and capable new owners? How do they make sure they don't end up just hoping for an angel investor to come in from the tech or finance worlds?

Even though David and Dina aren't retiring any time soon, they wanted a plan for succession. They didn't want to find themselves just hoping the right person could come along to make sure Porter Square Books stayed open and vibrant in Porter Square. They wanted to make sure that the committed, talented, and capable people who were already contributing to the store's success would be able to buy the store when they retired. Their solution is actually pretty simple and replicable. (more on that later.) Essentially, they loaned nine management-level booksellers the money to buy 50% of the store (at the value Dina and David originally purchased it for) and we will pay back that loan on a ten-year schedule from the profits we are now entitled to as partial owners. In some ways it's kind of like a car loan from the dealership. You get to drive the car home, even though you still owe most of its cost to the dealer itself. This deal is structured to have as little impact on our taxes as possible and, if the bookstore does well over those years, should leave us with a little extra cash after the loan payment. The financial needs of a bookstore (or any retail) in an economy in which the majority of sales happen in one quarter and the general fragility and fluctuation of yearly profits, make it essentially impossible to commit the level of cash in salaries and wages necessary for an employee to save up to purchase a store, but by redistributing the profit when it's there at the end, David and Dina can pass that money on without risking the cash-flow and stability of the store itself. And by creating what is essentially a low-interest small business loan with favorable terms they made the purchase affordable, given projected profits.

I should note, this isn't just altruism on David and Dina's part. Sure, they take home a dramatically lower percentage of the yearly profits and forfeit some of the money an outright sale would generate, but, they also save themselves the cost of retraining management-level employees and protect a substantial amount of the bookstore's institutional knowledge. They saw in their years since buying the store, a staff with a...uh...unique set of skills that contributed to the store's profitability and they found a way to protect that set of skills that keeps the store financially secure in both the short and long term. Furthermore, a big part of how independent bookstores succeed is through the relationships booksellers develop with readers over time. Any time a long term bookseller leaves, for whatever reason, and is replaced, it takes some time for the store to make up the sales lost because that particular bookseller isn't there any more to talk to particular readers. By giving us a financial reason to stay, David and Dina have saved themselves the cost of staff turnover and protected institutional knowledge and by connecting those finances to store profitability they have given us an extra reason to work for the success of the store. It's hard to know anything like this for sure, but there is a chance that, even with their generosity, they might make out ahead in the end. I know, it's a shocking, perhaps even revolutionary economic idea that if you invest in the people who generate the profit for your business in a way that also communicates how you value them, they will continue to generate profit for you instead of leaving in three years for the first available promotion at another business. Why, you could almost create and sustain an entire middle class on that principle.

Not every bookstore will be able to ensure succession this way. The current owners would have to be clear enough from debt that they could afford to redistribute a percentage of the profits. There has to be enough appropriate employees to bear whatever new tax burden might be created. The store also needs to be profitable enough so those profits can cover the loan. Of course, there are also lots of different ways to apply the idea of “low-interest loan paid off through a share of the profits.” You could sell a quarter instead of a half of the store. You could change the time frame of the loan. You could create optional escrow accounts for all employees almost like a store based social security. You could do a similar loan-profit-repayment but for the full value of the store when you retire.

But, looking at the bigger world for a moment, imagine if, instead of building a fucking personal space program and continuing to avoid taxes, Jeff Bezos established a similar profit sharing model for Amazon workers at the management level. Sure, he founded Amazon and lead it to it's present behemouthness, but eventually he is going to retire as well. Why not transition it to a partial worker-owned business? (Well, we know the answer to that: it's stock value would tank because, even though more people would make more money, it's quarterly profit margin would end up shrinking, but more on that later.) Imagine if the Waltons did that. Imagine if the Koch brothers did that. Imagine if Bill Gates did that. Imagine if we had a business model that understood and respected all the contributions made by all employees at all levels and not one that saw non-ownership, non-executive staff as just expensive overhead. Imagine if our business decisions were guided, at least in part, by relationships with the community as a whole. Imagine if quarterly profits were, I don't know, just one part of how we assess a business's success. Imagine if the primary question of business (both large and small) was “How do we continue to have a positive impact on our community while making a profit?” instead of “How can we make as much money as possible as quickly as possible and stash it in the Cayman Islands so future generations never ever ever get a chance to enjoy the social progress lead by large scale federal investment in infrastructure, research and development, and a financial safety net that gave us the opportunity to make all of this money today, and wouldn't be cool if I got to Mars before that Musk guy did so I could somehow trademark or patent or claim ownership over the idea of colonization and teraforming before any legal precedents are set, making me even more like the 'mayor' of one of those late 1800s company towns, yeah, Bezosville Mars with Oxygen Prime?” Sorry, got a little lost there.

The point is, the biggest challenges of our economy, from wage stagnation, to the rising cost of living, to climate change, to the damage done to minds and bodies by decades of 40-60 hour work weeks, are only challenges because certain powerful aspects of our economy have prioritized short-term personal profit over everything. (More on this soon.) Once you open up the goals to include say, long-term health of the business, or maintaining your quality of service to your community, or whatever it is, a lot more options for how to run the business, and how to solve problems like retaining talent and succession open up.

Stepping even further from there book world, there is this weird idea that gets repeated a lot. In some ways, it's the basis for our entire economy and now (thank you Republicans) large swaths of our government and society. It's one of those ideas that can be casually expressed in conversation and just as casually accepted. It often goes something like this, “Hey, man, people are just really selfish and there's nothing you can do about that.” Of course, there is some truth to that. I have been selfish in my life, as have you, and pretty much everyone else. But if you take a step back and look at how people interact with each other, it's pretty clear that, for the most part, selfishness isn't what drives the vast majority of us the majority of the time. From independent bookstores, to Little Leagues, to parades, to acts of generosity after every single tragedy, to the fact that almost no one shoplifts, it's clear that people, even though we can all be selfish at times, are driven by community. David and Dina's succession plan is just another example of this fundamental fact of human life. The vast majority of us, the vast majority of time, want to have good relationships with the people around us (even the strangers) and are perfectly willing to take home less personal profit to do so. I bring this up because the idea that “everyone is greedy and selfish” is a very convenient idea if you, in fact, are greedy and selfish and don't want anyone to get in your way. Too often, we let a lot of bad shit happen in our economy and our world because we have been convinced, despite the evidence we experience every single day, that humans are inherently greedy. Listen to who says this and when. Don't accept it.

So, now I own a part of a bookstore. In terms of my day-to-day life and work, this doesn't have a huge impact. I was already selling as many books as I could not just because it made sure the payroll was met, but because I think selling books is important to my community. I'll still push readers towards challenging works, works in translation, works from under-represented identities and communities and I'll still help you find the perfect airplane read (which is The Long Ships, though in a conversation with another bookseller, Signs Preceding the End of the World is actually a pretty solid airplane read, you just have to read it again a week later for the full impact.) or wordless picture book, or YA novel with a lot of feelings (like The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue and Dairy Queen) or, you know, “just a good read,” (uhh, can you tell me any more, no, OK, umm, Shadow of the Wind, I guess). But now I get to do that with, essentially, a pension fund, (one that is probably a lot more stable than anything in the stock market) the opportunity to eventually help shape the bookstore around a new vision (if it needs reshaping), and a model for making sure PSB endures when it's my turn to retire.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Are Independent Bookstores Recession Proof?

In 2017, sales were up at independent bookstores. Again. More stores are opening than closing. More stores are finding new owners or new locations. Stores are thinking less about survival and more about succession. It's damn near impossible to leave Winter Institute, the annual educational, social, and celebratory conference for booksellers without feeling rejuvenated, without feeling that the best days are yet to come, without feeling as though this network of passionate, creative, thoughtful, intelligent, and empathetic people is invincible, without feeling as though books in general and the role booksellers play specifically, is saving the world. This isn't just the afterglow of a great party (though it certainly is some of that). The sales and growth numbers don't lie. And beyond the numbers, bookstores are taking active roles in their communities in new and important ways while working on improving the flaws and weaknesses (whitenesses) in their own industry. There are data; emotional, anecdotal, and numerical that suggest independent bookselling has never been as strong as it is today and is only going to get stronger for the foreseeable future.

But.

Furthermore, bookstores are uniquely positioned to combat the rise of American fascism. Everything about Trump and the Republican party; the disregard of science, the fundamental lack of curiosity, the fundamental lack of empathy, the pathological lying, the fear of the other, the use of rhetorical tricks to avoid actually defending their terrible fucking ideas, the fragmentation of society, and the deferral to authority is combated in some way by books and literature and reading and the people who connect those books to the readers in their community. Even beyond books, bookstores offer the safe community space, the ability to be quiet for a minute, the chance to know that humans have been through worse and survived because you can look at the books from that time, that can rejuvenate one's energy for the struggle. And that's before considering the active work that independent bookstores are doing in the community. With reading series, author events, book clubs, and displays, independent bookstores are both nodes of resistance against Trump in particular and loci for the general strengthening of our social and civic institutions. We now know what happens when we drift away from the type of community independent bookstores support. It's hard to imagine us going backwards any time soon.

But.

Furthermore, it isn't just Trump and this particular incarnation of fascism. Even before Trump the lies of late-capitalism like the promise of convenience at all costs, the seduction of low prices, the safety and primacy of the nuclear family unit, were starting to erode. People who had been raised on screens were turning to books to escape them. The ebook revolution that was supposed to be the end of bookstores didn't happen. The algorithms that were supposed to remove all the guesswork of buying books were shown to be woefully inadequate. Even as it seems like all shopping is moving online, more and more people are re-discovering the value of talking to a human being before spending their money. Or maybe not spending their money. Because that's the other thing about bookstores that is something of an antidote to the emotional grinder of late-capitalism: it's OK if you don't buy a book every time you browse, every time you meet for coffee, even every time you get recommendations or conversations from booksellers. Maybe it's part of why no one makes a lot of money in books, but in a bookstore you are a human being who might buy a book, not always and only a potential purchase that must be “off-ramped” or “funneled” and “captured.” Which is not to say we don't need to sell you books, but that there is always more to your interaction at a bookstore than the purchase. As the crimes of Amazon continue apace, as the country and young people in particular become more progressive politically and more critical of late-capitalism, and as we continue to rediscover the value of community beyond our nuclear family and beyond our circle of friends, independent bookstores are poised to capitalize on those changes in ways maybe no other industry (except for maybe craft brewing) can.

But.

Furthermore, something changed when Borders closed. Before that it was easy, despite all the other closures, to assume that there would always be bookstores. Sure, maybe indie bookstores wouldn't survive, but there would always be Barnes & Noble and Borders if we need a present on the way to the party. But then Borders wasn't. And then it was clear that if something wasn't done, bricks and mortar bookselling would die. Borders owed publishers millions of dollars when it finally went bankrupt and I've always wondered what the landscape of bookselling would look like if publishers had spread that credit around to the hundreds of independent bookstores that were struggling with the predatory pricing of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon, who were trying to change their model to adapt to online sales and who just needed to get to the next holiday season or the one after that to make those changes and be newly sustainable. I don't think I'm alone in asking that question. I think a lot of people with power at publishers asked that question. So the relationship between independent bookstores and publishers changed and publishers in general started to see independent bookstores not just as one, rather small, sales channel, but as partners in the grand project of books and literature. Independent bookstores drive discovery. Independent bookstores incubate writers. Independent bookstores support the small and independent publishers that often incubate writers and publishing professionals. Independent bookstores celebrate risk. Independent bookstores sustain the conversation around books. And independent bookstores create sales that end up at Amazon. When Borders revealed that a world without bookstores was possible, publishers changed their relationship in real and tangible ways, to treat independent bookstores like partners, making the entire industry more sustainable.

But.

Furthermore, we're really fucking good at selling books now. There might have been a time when all a bookstore needed to thrive was a halfway decent buyer and the right neighborhood. But that won't fly anymore. We need to offer our community and our customers more than what they can find online. And we do. All the time. Both in person and online. Sure not every store has had to make the same adaptations to our economic reality and no store is perfect, but I'm pretty confident that you could walk into damn near any independent bookstore in the country and walk out with a book you didn't know you needed. Taken together, just about everything points to an industry that has figured out how to thrive.

But.

But books are not rent. They are not healthcare. They are not student loans that are immune to bankruptcy. They are not car payments or gas money. As vital as they are to many of us, they are still not as vital as food. I've seen others try to inject a note of caution in all this optimism around growing sales, because, maybe those sales are only growing because the economy is. Though, for all the reasons stated above, I don't think it's just general economic growth behind the growth of independent bookstores, when the economy collapses next, who will have enough money after dealing with the necessities to buy books? Who will cut down on their coffee? Their beer? Who will drop Netflix? Who will find ways to trim their phone bill, their gas bill, their electricity bill? Some will. Many will. Enough to continue the growth we've seen over the last few years? Enough to sustain the level we've reached through this growth? Enough to sustain a viable industry through to the recovery? Are independent bookstores recession proof?

I don't have an answer to this question. The recessions of 2001 and 2008 took their toll, but bookstores were able to survive. And we're stronger now than we were then, but every recession is different and, maybe I'm just being cynical, I think the next one is likely to be catastrophic. (I mean what happens when almost an entire generation gets slammed with double-digit unemployment AND cannot disburse a bunch of their debt through bankruptcy? How does an economy recover from that?) Could we survive that?

I like to offer answers in these posts, not as some kind of final say on the topic, but as a starting point for further conversation, with the assumption that by discussing said offered answer we can find our way to a better one. But, perhaps it's best to conclude this with a different question, one that contains the optimism I think we all rightly feel with a rational concern for what we could face. So...

How do we make independent bookstores recession proof?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Reading is Resistance: Translation as Transhumance

Translation as Transhumance. That second word in the title. “Transhumance.” It seduced me from the moment I saw a picture of the cover on Twitter. I tried to deduce what “transhumance” meant from its component parts but I was wrong and only more invested in the book. I eventually reviewed it for the Los Angeles Review of Books, but found Gansell's memoir of her vocation as a translator had a much bigger impact on me than could be communicated in a review. It gave me new language for describing my relationship with works in translation. It gave me a new perspective on American English and an insight into its potential power. And, of course, because we read with our daily lives, it illuminated the political power of translation in the face of our growing fascism.

At some point in my bookselling career, I read one of those articles that talks about how little work in translation Americans read, how many Americans can go through their entire education and almost entire lives without reading a book written in another language. As a bookseller, I saw this as an opportunity to do some good in the world, to use my place in the community to move the needle a bit, and to help, in my own very small way, broaden the spectrum of reading for the American public. So, I committed to reading more translation, reading translation with more intention, and recommending more books in translation both through staff picks and in conversations.

In doing so, I learned of the joy of being baffled. It is a strange joy, one that you rarely encounter in your daily life, but one that is important nonetheless. Perhaps it is a joy unique to art, unique to moments we enter with intention. It happens in moments when I have absolutely no idea what is going on in the book, absolutely no idea how to interpret an idea or image or sentence, when I am thrown off the train of my own thoughts. Most of the time we read to understand, but there is real power in reading when you can't. Because when you encounter something another person made that is unfathomable to you, you also encounter the fact that you, as a person, are capable of creating the unfathomable. You are shifted and in the parallax between your new perspective and your standard perspective an entire world opens up. Gansel approaches this unsettling opening of perspective in a number of different ways over the course of her book, but saying a work “...allows us to see the familiar in the foreign, the foreign in the familiar, and thus to create a sanctuary where you are no longer foreign but someone who is learning.” is the best articulation I've read of reading works in translation. By baffling us, we are reminded that we spend our lives as students of the world.

In some ways, it can be easy to understand that sense of being baffled, that sense of being unsettled, that encounter with the unfathomable as an abstract, intellectual experience, one more relevant to the mechanisms of understanding, than understanding itself. Because it is an experience of intellectual difficulty, we're tempted to put it in the same mental space as the papers we wrote in college and distant from the political and emotional experiences of out daily lives. But that is to miss one point of being baffled and being unsettled. Or, as Gansel puts it: “I remember clearly how, one morning as the snows were melting, as I sat at the ancient table beneath the blackened beams, it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand from the other. That was probably my most essential lesson in translation.” Empathy, that building block of community and society, is rooted in the ability to displace your self, to de-center your self, to know at a fundamental level, that, from a different perspective, you are the other. Reading works in translation, especially those that are unfathomable to you, might be the easiest way to create that displacement and confront your own otherness.

And once you start seeing the otherness in yourself, once you begin to imagine how you might look to those who are not conditioned by their culture to understand you, it becomes easier to see the complexity and humanity that drive your decisions, in the decisions of other people. When you internalize how you can be misunderstood, your relationship to what and who you don't understand changes. By displacing your self, you create a new space or new perspective in which it is easier to see the humanity, see the universality in the actions of other people, even if you don't understand them. Through interaction with, even celebration of, that which makes us different, that which does not cross cultures or languages, we strengthen our understanding of what does.

But, at an almost more practical level, translation is an exchange of ideas across cultures. It opens up the possibilities for how you might solve a problem or describe an experience by showing you how others solve that problem and describe that experience, often in ways and in terms you never would have imagined. It is a constant conversation about all of the options we have for being human beings on this planet; which means, it is also a constant conversation about how some systems of power, some forces in society, and some people want to limit the options you have for being a human being. Even if the different options for living that you're reading about don't feel political, are concerned more with topics that don't seem to have direct applications, it introduces you to the idea of imagining a problem from a totally different perspective. It gives you the option of at least trying to consider a problem without all of your cultural baggage lashed to your answers. Asking how someone from China or Nigeria or Iran or Mexico might solve a problem, inherently creates the idea that the American way isn't the only way and (gasp!) might not even be the best way.

Fascism, in whatever form it takes, including the one Republicans in power are working directly towards, is rooted in homogeneity, in an erasing of difference and a reduction of the scope of human life to a small set of beliefs, actions, and thoughts. Even when it is practiced at a relatively tepid level, it is based in the idea that everyone should think and believe the same things and limit themselves to essentially the same behaviors, even if it is impractical to force them to. Ultimately, contemporary Republicans (or at least those in power) think everyone should be Republican, not even in an ideological sense, but in an identity sense, in a daily lived what they wear what they eat what music they listen to way, and, barring that, they will do everything they can to ensure that only Republicans are in power. To put this a slightly different way: the primary goal of the Republican party is to ensure that only Republican solutions are adopted.

Reading in translation is, essentially, an inoculation against this virus-like homogeneity, against the idea that there is one right way to be human, against the idea that you and those like you have a monopoly on ideal humanity. With our eyes open, looking at the world, watching people do different things, solve problems in different ways, think different thoughts, and take different joys, it is obvious that homogeneity is a fraud, that fascism is a lie, and that all those who fight for it, in whatever incarnation they fight for, do so out of fear that whatever their identity is, isn't as right as they claim. But that fear is still powerful. That illusion of safety and security that homogeneity promises is still compelling. The false equivalency of sameness with community is still alluring.

Finally, as we all know from Orwell, how we think is guided, in large part, by the language we use to think with. This is why so much effort, both in good and bad faith, is put into the terms we surround political ideas with. Often, controlling how we label something, like “pro-life” for example or “fiscal conservative,” or even more recently “chain-migration” goes a long way in advancing or hindering an agenda regardless of that agenda's merit. Language and rhetoric can be used to further or hinder a cause without actually making a point about what that cause is or what that cause would do. Furthermore, history adheres to language, allowing words to carry significance and implication that have nothing to do with the idea under consideration, but can greatly impact how we react to and understand an idea or a person. There is a reason why it was effective to refer to Hilary Clinton as “shrill.” The act of translation is a direct interaction, perhaps even confrontation with that limiting force of language. By pulling meaning from one language with one set of assumptions and one set of limits on thought into another language with a different set of assumptions and a different set of limits on thought, the translator makes us aware of these mechanisms, introduces us to the limits of our own thought, and deepens our own relationship with how language functions and how we use language to converse, argue, dictate, and think. And by developing that awareness, by building the particular skills needed to make sense of words from another culture, you also develop the skills to see through propaganda and to understand the mechanism behind an act of bad faith rhetoric and to counter it.

Ultimately, fascism has a grammar. It has a system of speaking that emphasizes fear and division and curtails curiosity and exploration. It displaces the context of the discussion so somehow, instead of arguing about the merits of an idea, you're arguing about your own patriotism or how much you value your heritage. The hyper-awareness of the mechanisms of language that comes from immersing yourself in a work whose ideas came from a different grammar also gives you the tools to see and dissect the grammar of fascism. To borrow another classic image from literature, fascism is the man behind the curtain. Reading works in translation isn't going to suddenly empower you to tear down the systems of power threatening our society, but it will give you the ability to see the curtain protecting those systems from scrutiny. And seeing the curtain is the first step in tearing it down.

Translation as Transhumance is one of those books that gets bigger the more I think about it. Even for this piece, as the core ideas have expanded as I've worked on them, I've had to discard my thoughts about the potential power of our international American English, the relationship between a language and a nation, the power translation has to dissolve political borders, and Gansel's own direct use of translation as a political act. (That last part I at least discussed in the review linked above.) Every time I took a step, the distance I could travel increased. Every time I got to the top of a mountain, I saw a higher mountain ahead of me. Every opened door revealed another room filled with more doors to open. For me, literature is an act of potential. It is an ongoing testament to humanity's potential to grow, to change, and to improve and to the joy of improvement, change, and growth. Translation as Transhumance is a change to celebrate all of it, both in the type of reading it pushes us towards and the beauty it contains within itself.

Buy Translation as Transhumance from IndieBound or your local independent bookstore.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Three Paths from the 2018 Election

Despite voter suppression in key states, a massive, unprecedented misinformation and propaganda campaign orchestrated by a foreign power in favor of and quite likely in coordination with the Trump Campaign, a mainstream media that perpetuated false equivalences and fed oxygen to what amounted to conspiracy theories, a mainstream media narrative driven, in large part, by misogynist men now accused of sexual harassment and/or assault, a thirty or so year smear campaign by the Republican party, an apathetic citizenry that had long ago mostly given up on the political process, culturally entrenched partisan identities, and, of course, systemic sexism and racism; despite all that almost three million more Americans voted for Hilary Clinton than Donald Trump. That is the story of the presidential election of 2016. Anyone who tries to spin some idea about the white working class (whoever they are) or the flaws of Hilary Clinton (which exist) or anything else is an apologist for a flaw in our constitution that benefited one party over another, trying to justify the actions and very existence of the Trump administration as legitimate, and/or hiding from a simple fact: a lot of Americans were manipulated into making a mistake.

In discussions about the future of this country over the last year, I've had one overriding, organizing principle: we will know the health of American democracy in 2018. For most voters conned into voting for Trump or staying home, it will be their first chance to make amends for their mistake. For most Americans who didn't vote as part of a general practice, it will be their first chance after learning just how fragile our democracy is. For most Democrats and liberals, it will be their first chance to get a tangible result from their new anger and organizing energy.

And there are some good signs. Democrats are flipping seats all over the country in special elections. Doug Jones's win in Alabama proves that, under the right circumstances, Democratic organizing can overcome voter suppression in even the reddest of states. Furthermore, historically, legislative power tends to shift away from the party of the President in the first mid-term election. In short, there are some reasons to believe that, for all the long lasting damage the Republican party and Donald Trump have done, American democracy isn't over yet.

But we won't know for sure until we get the results from the 2018 mid-term elections. There are a number of different ways it might shake out and we need to be prepared for as many of them as possible. Here are the three that I see and what I think we should do if they come to pass.


One or Both of the Chambers of Congress Flips
What we do next will depend in large part on which chamber flips (most likely the House) and by how much, but regardless, the first order of business (if it hasn't happened already) is to impeach and remove Donald Trump (and hopefully Mike Pence) from the presidency. If the swing is big enough, if Trump's toxicity is revealed to be strong enough, I bet some not insignificant number of Republican Senators will vote for removal. And the swing could be plenty big enough to scare whatever Republicans remain right off the Trump train. Paul Ryan doesn't appear particularly up for an actual election battle. Ted Cruz doesn't have many allies in, well, life and there is a lot of energy around getting him out. I think we can wonder about Jeff Flake's seat and John McCain's seat and I don't think Romney taking Hatch's seat is an absolute guarantee. There are also a few hundred-thousand new voters in Florida from Puerto Rico and I can't imagine a lot of those votes going to Republicans. Given how there really isn't much evidence for courage of convictions in Congressional Republicans at the moment, how many of them would actually stick up for Trump once it was definitely proven that doing so threatens their power? Even if there aren't enough votes for removal, Democrats need to make the formal effort, if for no other reason than to have receipts for 2020.

After that it depends on who is president, and what the actual composition of Congress is. There are two bipartisan fixes to some of the mistakes in the ACA that seem like an easy place to start if that hasn't happened already. (Two bills that were theoretically promised in return for Susan Collins' vote on the tax bill.) Same goes for a clean DREAM act and a reauthorization or restart of CHIP if it also hasn't passed. (Of course, this is assuming those bipartisan bills and apparent commitments stay that way, which, there is real reason to doubt that Republicans would maintain their support for these bills if they would be passed by a Democratic Congress.) It looks like Congress will also have to ensure that the upcoming census is both fully funded and fairly run, which might be the most important under-the-radar issue of the moment. And then there's the recent tax bill that Democrats should at least try to do something about. We could also, I don't know, start passing legislation to prevent this from happening again by requiring all presidential candidates to publish their taxes before the election or formalizing the norms around conflicts of interest or creating some kind of election review process. There is only so much Congress can do, especially if Trump or another Republican is President, but I think there are lots of small places where steps can be made to solve some of the problems created by the Trump Presidency.

And then, it's gear up for 2020, not just for the presidential election, but for state and local elections. A big part of why we're in such a catastrophic mess right now is that Republicans in 2010 weaponized redistricting to disenfranchise American voters because Republican policies cannot win on merit in the marketplace of ideas. (This redistricting also aided the takeover of the Republican party by its radical right-wing by protecting fringe candidates who won in low-turnout primaries.) Big state-level wins in 2020 will allow Democrats to reform our redistricting procedure so Red Map strategies can never happen again.

Republicans Control Both Chambers in a Relatively Close Vote
Through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and, well voter decision, despite everything Republicans (you know, the ones who supported a fucking child molester) and Donald Trump (you know, the fucking serial sexual assaulter) have done to this country, they retain power. The cultural and systemic racism is too entrenched, the electoral system is too rigged to favor a rural minority, Russian misinformation muddies the waters, the inertia of voter apathy is strong enough to keep people home, and the mainstream media doesn't take the lessons of 2016 to heart. The rage and energy and organizing we've seen since November 2016 just isn't strong enough to overcome the structural flaws of the Constitution, racism of so many white people, and authoritarianism of the contemporary Republican party. I have been holding out hope for American democracy. Especially with the Democrat wave of special elections, I am hoping that the election of Trump is essentially an extreme stress test and that the actual majority of American citizens will assert themselves. But, it might not happen. The vast majority of Americans might not be able to overcome the fact that the framers of the Constitution did not foresee massive population concentration in urban centers. 

If that happens, I think the blue states need to explore how best to take care of their residents. Even if the majority of Americans vote for a Democrat and even if Democrats pick up a ton of seats, Republicans will act like the election is a mandate in their favor because they always act like everything is a mandate in their favor. They will say it is a ringing endorsement of everything they and Trump have ever done despite what all the other evidence shows and then they will finally finish destroying the New Deal and returning America to the capitalist feudalism they love so fucking much. State attorneys general will need to explore and pursue legal action to ensure that their residents receive the Social Security and Medicare benefits they have been paying into their entire working lives. States will also need to explore how to replace federal spending in a way that doesn't overburden their residents with new taxes. Blue states already pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal spending so there is a chance they can simply transfer some of the tax cuts the Republicans will ram through Congress to their own budgets, especially those blue states (New York, Massachusetts) that have significant financial sectors. There might also be a general willingness in blue states to pay higher state taxes if people know the money will go to programs they believe in.

Furthermore, the blue states should find a way to band together to provide universal healthcare to their residents. Most of the American people live in blue states and most of the American economy is in blue states. California alone is a larger economy that most countries. A joint effort by the blue states should have more than enough population and economic clout to provide universal health care in some form. I mean, they'd be way bigger than Canada and Canada can do it. If they're able to significantly recoup much of the extra funding flowing to the federal government, they can probably offer free higher education too and maybe fund a transition to renewable energy. Maybe even subsidize childcare while they're at it.

Unfortunately, this is likely to create an even wider gulf between blue states and red states and it's hard to know exactly how wide that gulf will get. Will we see another great migration? How tense will the relationship between the states get? How much poorer will the red states get if Republicans at the federal level successfully remove the social safety net? And how will red state Republicans use federal power to punish blue states? Let me be clear about this: I think this would be a tragedy and I think the poor and vulnerable in red states would bear the brunt of this tragedy. But at some point, you have to give people the policies they vote for. Democrats and liberals from blue states and blue cities can't keep protecting everyone else from Republicans if we want American democracy to survive the Trump administration.

Also, if this happens, you can leave. I don't like the idea of leaving because the Americans most negatively impacted by this bullshit don't have the privilege of leaving, and a brain, money, and energy drain is likely to leave the less powerful even more vulnerable. For all it's flaws, I think the American project is still worth fighting for and I think, despite Trump, there is some evidence that we are relatively close to some major humanitarian and cultural breakthroughs. But I am not you. I am not responsible for your family and your well-being. I don't know what resources you have or don't have. I don't know what a fulfilling life means to you. I also don't know if I could lead a fulfilling life in that America. America was founded by people who had the privilege of leaving their home countries for a better life and if I'm not going to condemn those immigrants, I'm not going to condemn you.

Republicans Control both Chambers of Congress Despite Getting 40%ish or Less of the Vote
Because of gerrymandering and because of the likely unprecedented voter turnout in Democrat leaning and heavily populated districts, it is entirely possible that Republicans will narrowly hold on to a majority of seats in both chambers, while getting historically blown out in total vote count. Given the distribution of population, it is entirely possible for 60% or more of the vote to go to Democrats without control of either chamber shifting. If that happens, as above, Republicans will act like it's a mandate in their favor even though it is a clear statement of opposition. Paul Ryan will look us directly in the eyes and say it's clear the American people support his platform. He might even believe that.

If that happens, we march on Washington, D.C. and occupy it until Trump or Pence or whoever ends up being the President (it would still be a Republican) is removed from office and somehow replaced with a Democrat. We turn that momentum, we turn that energy, we turn that organizing power directly on Republicans in Congress. We bring proof of the popular will directly to those who are trying to crush it. If you can't make it to D.C. go to the closest Republican office. Hell, go to the closest Republican Congress person's house.

You might say that looks like a coup, but, well, yeah, it does, but so does a radical authoritarian minority acting like it has a mandate. But here's the thing. It will be clear to Republicans from that result that gerrymandering can only protect them for so much longer. Depending on how the state races hash out, it could signal the end of their state level power and their ability to gerrymander themselves to victory through 2020 and beyond. It reveals the farce of their claims to any legitimacy. And then they will make sure no fair and free election ever happens again. If this happens in 2018 and we don't take to the streets, I don't think there will be a legitimate 2020.

And the tools are already there. If #BlackLivesMatter, the Women's March, Run for Something, Indivisible, Swing Left, MoveOn, ActBlue, and even Our Revolution and organizations directly affiliated with the Democratic Party, picked a date, we could easily fill the streets.

Would this mass protest work? I have no idea. Congressional Republicans are just fine ignoring the will of the people. I think many of them are also just fine with fascism as long as it's their fascism. I don't know if, when you look at the long arc of human history and governance, liberal democracy progressing towards a truly humanist system of power is actually just a fluke of the last 50 or so years and we are now reverting back to our more standard feudalism. But I do know that if democracy is going to die in America I want to make sure we go down fighting.

Want to help that first path happen? Send a little money to Swing Left's district funds. This money will go to whichever Democrat ends up winning the primary, giving them an immediate boost in resources.