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Osita Nwanevu on the Myth of Democracy and Billionaires In Space

'We've basically hit the ceiling of what is possible with federal politics within the existing system.'

Richard space.
Virgin Galactic

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Osita Nwanevu is a contributing editor at The New Republic. His indispensable writing cuts through the ahistorical nonsense that so frequently mucks up the political discourse and still manages to make me feel optimistic about the prospects for organizing the left in this country. Nwanevu is also working on a book and recently launched a paid newsletter to keep up with his writing, which you can support here. We chatted about the cynicism of the billionaire space race, the myth of “saving” American democracy, and what isn’t keeping Joe Biden awake at night.

I loved your recent piece about this rhetoric around the renewed fight to save American democracy. On a very basic level, voting rights actually are under attack, but in a broader sense, we’ve never really been a democracy, and as you argued, you can’t save something that never existed. It also made me kind of think back to 2020 where a lot of people on the left realized that maybe electoralism wasn’t the solution that they thought it was. Do you think there’s a way to thread the needle between meaningfully fighting for voting rights while also kind of maintaining the understanding that our government and our system of electing leaders is fatally flawed?

I do think defending voting rights, even given the design of our federal system, is really important, partially because federal elections aren’t the only elections, right? And so, people are having their voting rights constrained in a way that prevents them from having an impact in their immediate communities in a state that really really, really, really sucks. And we have to do what we can to see if we can prevent that. As you said, the rhetoric of implying that we are now at a point where American democracy—once functional, once flawed, but OK—is now going to tip over into an end to the democratic state I think is wrong. I think that we have a system that we’ve given ourselves to believe is democratic, but it’s never really been a functional democracy. We have a system with a lot of built-in inequities that are only becoming obvious to the average American voter now. I think that it’s important to remain live to the threats that are coming from the right and the ways in which Republicans are going to constrain democratic processes even further and try to oppress marginalized populations and constrain their political rights even further—that’s important.

But the real challenge the American people and the left face is that we’ve been participating in a system under the belief that if we marshaled enough support and if we get enough Americans on our side, and we get people to agree with our policies, then that’s going to lead to positive, political outcomes at the federal level. And I just don’t think that we have a real reason to believe that that’s true. So the question then becomes, what do we do as a political project?

We’ve invested a lot in the last decade in two very important presidential campaigns that I think did have an impact and that did actually influence policy and got people to think in new ways about politics. We’ve elected some great people to Congress, but I honestly think we’re at a point where we’ve basically hit the ceiling of what is possible with federal politics within the existing system. And so to my mind—and I’m not going to present myself as a leader, an activist, and organizer, just someone who thinks about all this stuff—but I think that that fact is something that should encourage us to think creatively about how we might have more of an impact on politics closer to home, in our communities. There are all kinds of elected officials who are doing great work at the state level. I think it’s possible to build sort of independent left institutions at the state level as well. But I just think this is a moment where we should be thinking about other ways to participate in politics, other levels of political participation.

As far as federal politics is concerned, I really do believe that in 10 years, 15 years or so, we’re going to be at a point where the system will have been broken down in that fundamental way. It seems to be where we’re headed. I think it’s going to be a moment where the American people are going to be encouraged to make demands of their federal politicians, and make demands for a truly robustly democratic system. If we can align our rhetoric and our organization to that future, I think the left will be in a good place to rise to that occasion. I think that we’re getting to a point where moderates will try their thing with Biden and Republicans will either successfully blockade policymaking or sweep in in 2024 and have the federal government to themselves for the next several years. After that, though, I think people will be really disturbed by all they’ve seen, and they’re going to be looking for democracy and thinking about democracy at a more fundamental level. Democracy meaning more than just political rights, democracy meaning that we have an economic system that is also responsive to the will of the people, and if we don’t have that, political democracy kind of doesn’t exist anyway.I think there is long-term hope for federal politics, and that we should be thinking about the opportunities that might arise as a consequence of the system breaking down. But beyond federal politics, I think this is a moment where we should be really thinking about how to make more of an impact at the state and local level, where I think that policy outcomes are still kind of accessible to democratic will, for now at least.

Speaking of this current dead end of federal politics, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that Democrats at the national level basically need someone to play the heel like in wrestling, which they’ve found and leveraged with great success in Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. But I think back to this great legacy of LBJ, Master of the Senate, where politics was supposed to be about putting the screws to someone even in your own party to get things done. Now, we have a Democrat in the White House, Democrats, albeit narrowly, control the Senate and control the House. But the Biden administration keeps falling back on this rhetoric like, “Well we can’t get it past Manchin, there’s simply nothing to be done.” I’m wondering how much, if at all, you buy that defense, and more importantly, what do you think the long-term game is for Democrats depicting themselves as politically neutered, unable to control even members of their own party?

I really don’t know the extent to which Manchin or Sinema are genuinely movable. But the key thing for me is that I’m not sure that Biden fundamentally cares, right? I’m not sure how hard he’s actually trying, but I also just don’t think that Biden is losing sleep over whether we pass sweeping climate legislation. Think about the campaign he ran before the pandemic, which you have to believe is sort of the ideal campaign he wanted to run. I think that was an indication of what his priorities actually are and how he actually thinks about policy. He moved to the left in response to pressure and in response to the pandemic, but I don’t think of Joe Biden as somebody who was into politics because he’s looking to enact a sweeping policy agenda. I think he’s president because he wanted to be president and this is kind of a bucket list item for him. And so whatever the Democrats manage to get through Congress, that’ll be great and people will like him for it, and that’s fine with him. I just don’t think that Biden is existentially worried to the extent that even though the moderates in his party are about whether Democrats are going to pass a full agenda.

So I think it may well be true that Manchin, Sinema aren’t going to be pliable to pressure from the administration, but I also think it’s important for people to recognize that the administration is also not really sweating about this. Thinking about “the heel” is important too. That to me is one of the fundamental reasons why the filibuster exists. Democrats will tell you they think if the filibuster goes and the Republicans take the Senate, they’ll be able to pass all this stuff that they aren’t able to pass now. That’s just not really true.

Jonathan Chait actually wrote one of the better pieces breaking this down; if Jonathan Chait can get it, I don’t see why this administration wouldn’t be able to. He points out that the way policymaking works is that Republicans actually want to do things that for the most part can be done through budget reconciliation or executive action or through the courts—that’s where their agenda lies. They want to cut and slash government programs, and you can do that through reconciliation to a large extent. But the process of creating new programs, new regulations, passing legislation, that’s the kind of stuff the filibuster obstructs. Every Democrat in the Senate knows this. So I think the notion that this is to prevent Republicans from gaining power is a front. I think that one of the uses of the filibuster is Democrats that are then able to say, “Well, I really do support the PRO Act, or I really do support climate legislation, it’s just that damn filibuster.” It’s become a kind of vehicle for excuse-making that’s particularly useful for Democrats who are in sort of purplish states and regions where they have to ride this line where they’re not pissing off the base but also not actually signing onto things that might get them kicked out by Republican candidates. I think that’s part of why the filibuster is here to say, at least for the foreseeable future, but it’s not a very promising moment.

I want to pivot to talking about this whole billionaire space race flap. On Twitter, everyone was mocking the hell out of Elon Musk for saying “space represents hope for so many people.” It reminded me of this scene in Questlove’s new documentary Summer of Soul, where there’s this interesting short scene where an interviewer is approaching attendees at the Harlem Cultural Festival [in 1969], and asking how excited they are about the moon landing. And the people they spoke to basically said “It’s got nothing to do with me, why not spend that money in Harlem.” And now we’ve got three billionaires locked in a privatized space race. I guess my question is something like, how do we counter the starry-eyed narrative equating space colonization with starry-eyed scientific optimism without sounding like haters?

At least with the moon missions, in the hearts and the minds of the American people, it felt like a collective project, right? Like, ‘We’re all doing this thing together and this is an achievement that we can all sort of take pride in and be inspired by.’ Now what we actually have is a set of billionaires joyriding, but also defending that joyriding by trying to align it with that prior understanding of what space exploration is supposed to be. Elon Musk is telling us that his or some other billionaire’s voyage to the edge of space or at least the edge of our atmosphere is that it’s good for people to be inspired by him and personally. It’s a weird change in how we think about space, and I think one that should disturb or concern even people who are really into space exploration as a concept.

For me, I’m a child of the late ‘90s. We all grew up thinking that we were going to inherit the whole world and have all these possibilities ahead of us and part of that was, you know, talking a lot about space, buying models of the space shuttle, going to Space Camp… I just respond viscerally to the colonization stuff partially because there’s a falsity to that promise that has to be obvious to a lot of people.

First of all, it was all highly speculative to begin with. We don’t actually know if human beings can reproduce reliably in space. It seems like a first-order thing to figure out before you start talking about populating Mars. It’s a toxic, airless, radioactive rock a gazillion miles away and there are a lot of technical challenges that you don’t really think about and we don’t really have the solutions to. So on that level, it’s always been kind of a fantasy. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I think it’s more challenging than people generally appreciate.

But also, we’re at the point where the basic systems sustaining life on this planet are really at risk. People will justify colonization as something that makes sense as a response to climate change. I don’t think that it makes a whole lot of sense, partially because even if you believe in colonization, one thing we do know about technological processes is that it depends on our economic and social stability, and it really doesn’t feel like we can take those things for granted.

So I just think we have a lot of problems here, problems that I think we can find a lot of inspiring innovations for. We’ve had this dependency on space as a source for inspiration and as a location for aspirations because that was the big technical challenge that we posed for ourselves decades and decades ago. I think that you can have a similar mindset about making the Earth fully livable. That’s going to be a huge technical undertaking, that’s going to involve a lot of STEM kids, that’s something to really invest ourselves in. I don’t think it has to be space. I don’t mean to crush anyone’s childhood dreams of going to the stars beyond, that’s just sort of how I think about it. 

Yeah, it’s interesting, space travel, even by billionaires, is still held up as a morally pure pursuit, while the underpinning now is all premised on this deeply pessimistic shared understanding that Earth is already fucked, so we have to reach for the stars because we certainly can’t turn things around down here.

One of the other elements is how strange the billionaire class is these days. One hundred years ago, the way that being obscenely wealthy in America worked was that you killed a bunch of workers and union organizers but then because you felt so bad about it and didn’t want people to raid your mansion, you built a library or an art museum or a university. Now, it’s just sort of like well I’m going to jet off into the great beyond and you’re all just going to be inspired by that. That’s an indication of how our relationship to wealth has changed. I think most Americans don’t see people like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk as bad people per se. There’s that element of feeling that they’re where they are because they deserve it in some abstract sense, and because they deserve it, they don’t have to do very much to justify their position in our society, or to give us back anything in return. And that’s dispiriting.

I have one last question that dovetails nicely with what you just said. This is something I struggle with a lot: the problems are very bad, the solutions feel far off, so for yourself, writing about politics and the left and organizing, what keeps you from despair?

I do think we’re just going to bottom out. But in moments of crisis, in moments of breakdown, there are also possibilities that could arise. I do think that this concern about democracy that people have now, people thinking about how fundamental and important democracy is in a way they hadn’t before, that’s a mindset that holds real promise for the growth of the left. Because fundamentally what leftists are about is democracy, right? It’s about granting ordinary people agency over the forces that shape lives, not only in our politics but in the economy. So the fact that we’re at this moment now where people are saying democracy is fundamentally important and we can’t take it for granted—that’s a tremendously positive thing. That’s what I’m going to write my book about, and I hope it finds an audience that’s receptive to thinking radically about what democracy can mean. I know that I’ve been encouraged to think more radically and I hope I can bring people along with it.