2024: Welcome to Another Year in Bizarro America.

Max Unfiltered.

A lightbulb bursting to reveal a cloud. Image Description: A lightbulb bursting to reveal a cloud.

Summary: Max shakes off the cobwebs to take stock of where the country is as we head into 2024. In this “Max Unfiltered” take to start the year he examines the tension between the past and present. Has the arc of history bent toward progress? Sure. But it's maddening to know that there is still so much unnecessary suffering in the world when the U.S. has the capacity to solve so much of it both at home and abroad.

Let’s take stock of where we are as we careen into 2024.

The underlying promise of this show from the outset is as the name suggests: to Unf*ck the Republic. Three years in and I can’t say things are going all that well. There’s a tension in my mind right now that I’m trying to work out. Like two people playing tug of war on either side of my brain.

On the one side there’s the inner historian sitting in a library with elbow patches and a glass of scotch. This inner academic is always ready with an anecdote from history to recalibrate my anxiety over the current state of affairs. In most areas of society that those of us on the so-called left care about, the arc of history has indeed bent toward progress.

I think of my nonagenarian father-in-law who grew up in the Great Depression, served in World War Two and had run-ins with corrupt and unsavory actors when building his business. Today he has an iPhone, trades stocks on the daily and sends me Fox News clips because he knows it irks me. Or my grandmother who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Her husband, my mother’s shitbag father, left her with three kids and no money in the early 1950s. So she worked herself to the bone and put my mother and her two brothers into foster care a couple of times when things got too tight. Today she has great great grandchildren who were by her side when she blew out the candles. She also has an iPhone.

Spend time with old people if you can. Sure they can be rigid and stuck in their ways. Maybe they’re racist or overly religious. Cranky. But they have a long view on the world that helps assuage some of the anger you might feel in a particular situation or moment. Because lurking on the other side of my brain tugging at the rope is the progressive minded writer and armchair warrior that knows that in America at least we have the capacity to solve so many afflictions. The person who looks at what just transpired at Harvard, for example.

Only 30% of University presidents are women. Better than it was, but still underrepresented. The Ivy League schools were doing better with six of the eight boasting female leadership in 2023. That was cut to four by the end of the year after the disastrous hearings in Congress over anti-semitism on campuses following the war in Gaza. Both were replaced by white men as interim presidents as a way to calm the donor classes and the conservative activists who had been fighting against these women and chalked up two more victories in their race to turn back the hands of time.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, ousted Harvard President Claudine Gay wrote:

“The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader. This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society. Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda. But such campaigns don’t end there. Trusted institutions of all types — from public health agencies to news organizations — will continue to fall victim to coordinated attempts to undermine their legitimacy and ruin their leaders’ credibility. For the opportunists driving cynicism about our institutions, no single victory or toppled leader exhausts their zeal.”

Two of the most prominent figures behind her exit are hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman and conservative activist Christopher Rufo. Ackman has been vocal about his campaign to eliminate diversity initiatives from the business world and higher education. Rufo stumbled into his 15 minutes of fame as the person who brought the Critical Race Theory framework into the mainstream lexicon. In an exchange with a New Yorker writer Rufo gleefully characterized CRT as:

“The perfect villain…Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’ Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”

Investigative writer Lee Fang recently got his hands on the 6,000 word dossier about Gay’s apparent scholarly misdeeds that was circulated to the Harvard board. As usual, it reveals a well thought out and assiduously planned effort to discredit a woman of color in a powerful position. If you want an erudite take on this affair, subscribe to Marc Lamont Hill’s new YouTube channel. He’s fast becoming my favorite pundit and scholar.

So the conservative activists got their way again. One step forward, one step back. Then again, the puncher in me wants to say, “who gives a shit about what happens at the Harvard Corporation?” Fuck the Ivy League. People are starving. People are dying. Household debt in America is at an all time high. Homelessness increased by 12% in 2023. In 2022, 580,000 people were unhoused. Last year it reached 650,000 people according to the U.S. Department of Urban Planning and Development.

Bottom up, middle out.

How’s that working out, Joe?

As the world burns.

Have no fear. After all, the markets are ripping. In fact, the S&P 500 finished 24% higher and the Dow hit an all-time record by the end of 2023. The prospect of lower interest rates supercharged gains toward the end of the year and were so good that Elon Musk wound up back atop the leaderboard as both the richest man in the world and the biggest asshole. And Wall Street isn’t done yet as the SEC is set to approve the creation of Bitcoin ETFs so more billionaires and investor bros can capitalize on fake money gains and wealth no one worked to create.

With the Dow Jones Industrial Average hitting a peak in 2023, Mother Earth said “hold my beer” and delivered us the hottest year on record. These winning streaks continue unabated. So much to cheer. So much winning. Fitting that Cop28 was presided over by an oil baron and concluded with a clear mandate to do something about climate change, somehow, at some point in the future.

While we’re looking out across the burning planet, consider what’s happening in Palestine. You’ll have to really search for it if you’re a consumer of mainstream media because the carnage in Gaza is so very yesterday and we have more important things to look forward to like the upcoming wedding between Golden Bachelor Gerry Turner and Theresa Nist. There’s a huge and exciting twist in that Susan Noles, who competed against Nist for Turner’s affection, is going to be performing the ceremony. Can you even believe it???

The 18 square miles of Gaza City is smaller than Newark, New Jersey with twice the population. 2 million people total over 140 square miles. 80% displaced with 250,000 housing units damaged and 50,000 destroyed. 22,000 are dead in Gaza as of this writing. 77 journalists have been murdered thus far. A record.

As for the fate of the now homeless and forgotten people of Gaza, not to worry as sources revealed President Benjamin Netanyahu’s clandestine efforts to “voluntarily migrate” hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These involuntary voluntary refugees would be in good company with the more than 5.8 million displaced people in this war torn nation. They would join the ranks of the 5 million displaced persons in Sudan where 42% of the population faces acute food insecurity and 6 million are on the cusp of famine. They’re pretty much on their own as 80% of the hospitals are out of service in Sudan where civil war is ravaging the cities and countryside.

We might start to care about what happens in the DRC, however, because that’s where the world’s largest supply of cobalt comes from, courtesy of child labor and human trafficking. So, stay tuned because we might have to spread some democracy over there at some point.

Are we having fun yet?

Beyond the fate of the Palestinian refugees, the war is beginning to bleed out. Rebel Houthi forces from Yemen are creating chaos on Middle Eastern shipping routes in protest of Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip. Israel recently bombed Lebanon, claiming to have taken out a Hamas leader. The fourth anniversary of the U.S. led murder of Iranian General Soleimani was marked by two explosions that killed 95 Iranians commemorating his death. ISIS claimed responsibility for this attack, adding even more confusion to the mix.

Over in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced a reduction in the conscription age from 27 to 25 in an effort to recruit an additional 500,000 soldiers. So that’s happening, but again, you’ll have to sift through news of the Golden Bachelor and the status of Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift.

What all of this reveals is the state of U.S. foreign policy. Which is to say, we have none. Because we know that Americans suffer from a cocktail of overstimulation, amnesia and dash of who gives a shit if it’s not happening to me. In lieu of policy or diplomacy we’ll send weapons, cash and drones so Zelenskyy can fight to the last Ukrainian, Bibi can cleanse Gaza of all Palestinians and open up beachfront property. In fact, an Israeli real estate company thought it would be funny to create fake ads pre-selling lots in Gaza with waterfront views. Hilarious.

On the homefront.

But back to the United States. One of the highlights for me in 2023 came in the form of a YouTube debate between progressives Briahna Joy Gray on one side and now married couple Krystal Ball and Kyle Kulinski on the other. I’ve talked about it before so I won’t rehash my feelings on it, but it’s one of the best discussions about presidential politics because it reveals the fracture on the left. For many, the next election poses yet another existential threat to democracy in the United States and the planet if you consider four more years of Republican leadership on climate change and the possibility that any gains made under Biden might evaporate.

Again, I’ve been clear that I don’t see a Republican victory as the death knell for the infrastructure and investment programs domestically that don’t involve clean energy. And even many of the clean energy initiatives are likely safe because they will positively impact red states and counties. But we face the prospect of another Supreme Court pick, cuts to entitlements, elimination of anti-poverty programs and probably further tax breaks for the wealthy.

But I take Briahna’s points in the debate to heart more than Kyle and Krystal, which is not a popular take mind you. Essentially she says that for most Americans, especially people of color, nothing changed. Seriously. On the ground, day-to-day. Trump v. Biden. What’s the fucking difference?

Her point is well taken and lines up with the accelerationist wing of the Republican Party personified by Steve Bannon but for opposite reasons. Her stance is that the Republicans will always have the upper hand even when they don’t have the numbers because they will continue to put up increasingly extreme versions of Donald Trump. When things are terrible economically, that person will win because people vote with their wallets. When things are mediocre to okay, they’ll vote for the establishment democrat that inches further and further to the right to placate the moderate wings of both parties.

Accelerationist theory dictates that extreme versions of our darkest visions are necessary to bring the whole thing crashing down so we can replace our democracy with autocratic and dystopian regimes that seek to maintain white male supremacy. So the far left and far right gamble is the same. Put it all on either black or red in the hopes of busting the house then rebuilding it in the vision that suits either side.

What’s astounding is how little we know about who is actually going to be on the ticket come November. Joe Biden is really old and probably exists on steroids and adrenaline shots to make it through the day. Donald Trump faces ballot challenges in 33 states with two already invalidating his candidacy. This sets up a challenge at the Supreme Court where Clarence Thomas is among those who would rule on this matter despite clear conflicts of interest considering his wife supported the January 6 insurrection.

But at least they have a non binding ethics reporting procedure to handle such matters internally.

If Trump were somehow deemed ineligible, presumably surging Nikki Haley would secure the nod in the Republican primary. As a preview of how she performs in a tight spot, she answered the super difficult question as to the cause of the Civil War in the United States saying, “I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.”

Somehow the very straightforward answer of “slavery” eluded Nikki Haley. This is the woman currently besting DeSantis and the odds on favorite to represent the party of Lincoln if Trump can’t run. Good stuff.

But if we take a Trump/Biden rematch at face value it’s interesting to see how the candidates stack up in current polls. Assuming Trump actually does make it onto the ballot in every state, here’s an interesting scenario from FiveThirtyEight:

Suffolk University graph depecting election outcomes. In graph one, Trump polls at 37%, Biden polls at 34%, Kennedy polls at 10%, West polls at 2%, Mapstead polls at 2% and Stein polls at 1%. In graph two, Trump polls at 44% and Biden polls at 43%.

Head to head, Biden is polling at 43% and Trump at 44%. But when you add the independent candidates to the mix, Kennedy pulls 10% and gives Trump a 3% lead at 37% to 34%. That adds fuel to the dumpster fire I was talking about late last year. I don’t think Kennedy pulls from Trump as much as he does from Biden. It’s something to really watch out for. I think Kennedy pulls from the fringes of both sides but also has meaningful sway over Black voters and some leftist that assume he is more of a radical leftist than he is a free market libertarian shill.

Tug of war.

Back to the tension. The scotch drinking academic in a comfortable library chair believes this too shall pass. After all:

  1. Most Americans have jobs.
  2. The LGBTQ community can get married.
  3. There’s a supercomputer in everyone’s pocket.
  4. Planes don’t crash into each other in mid air.
  5. Renewable energy accounts for 20% of energy production in the U.S.
  6. We don’t have troops deployed in combat on foreign soil.
  7. Inflation is cooling.
  8. Rates should come back down.
  9. Global population might peak in this century.

Then again, the angry armchair warrior and writer sees the flip side of the coin:

  1. Most American jobs don’t cover the cost of living and we’re sinking deeper into debt.
  2. The LGBTQ community is under assault in all corners of society as the DEI backlash deepens.
  3. That supercomputer in your pocket is causing mounting mental health crises, overloading us with information and was constructed with child labor.
  4. There are too many planes in the air polluting the world even if they don’t crash into each other.
  5. Renewable energy is only 20% of energy production.
  6. We’ve armed the world to the teeth and are letting others destroy one another in proxy battles with no solution.
  7. Inflation might be cooling but the new normal is more than most people can handle with household debt at an all time high and the homeless population growing.
  8. Declining rates will still be higher than cost of living increases and only serve to fuel the equity markets.
  9. After the peak of 9.7 billion people, some believe the climate catastrophe will have accelerated to such an extent that there will be mass migration then extinction from some parts of the planet.

What does this tension suggest about the progressive movement in the U.S. and what comes next?

Sadly, there’s nothing great to report. There’s no Bernie. It’s over. There is no movement. No progressive core coalescing around a specific vision. In fact, what we do have is under fire as insiders warn AIPAC is committed to spending upwards of $100 million to unseat progressives in primaries across the country. And over in the Senate, John Fetterman already tapped out and declared “I’m not a progressive.”

So what do we want? What do you want? We’re working against dark forces that are extremely clear on what they want. Divide and conquer. Keep us off balance. Maintain or enhance the status quo that builds private wealth among a precious few while burning the planet, your privacy, your civil liberties and personal wealth. They want it all. It’s the end of neoliberalism and the birth of Sheldon Wolin’s inverted totalitarianism where a select few pull preposterously away from the rest of us while telling us it’s for our own good.

We’ve done so much work together identifying what works and what doesn’t. Where we lost the plot and the path along the way. Socialist movements were attacked by the capitalist class but the successful fighting was done by the unions. Stage the conflict, then make us fight it out among ourselves. This particular fight revealed what most people want out of the little time we have in this life. A steady job. A nest egg. Safety. Security. A fair shake and a square deal.

In the neverending pursuit of these things we step over fellow humans living on the street. There are bills to pay. Kids to raise. Deadlines to meet.

In the neverending pursuit of these things we’re willing to sacrifice items higher up on the hierarchy of needs but just as important to the human experience. Love. Art. Freedom of thought, mobility, decisions.

I’ve laid out the most aggressive editorial plan for 2024 that I’ve ever had. Mental health. Artificial intelligence. Modern economic theories. Guns. Cars. The U.S. Postal Service. End of life care. LGBTQ+ issues. Medicare. Medicaid. Social Security. Latin America. Haiti. Libya. Wide eyes, huge appetite. But each topic has to be examined through a deliberate lens and with a specific goal in mind.

Nothing we’ll say or do will mean a goddamn thing if we fight the forces that oppress us on the battlefield of their choosing.

They’ll throw it all at you. Critical race theory. Transphobia. Islamophobia. Anti-semitism. 2nd Amendment. Bodily autonomy. Affirmative action. Every battle they choose is something near and dear to your heart and they know that. And they’ll stop at nothing to erase and demean you so you remain frustrated, broke and distracted. It’s the oligarchy’s sleight of hand. Look over here while I take your house, your savings, your security, your mental and physical health. These things they take strengthen them and weaken you, compounding the gap between us and them.

But here’s the one thing that will always be true: There’s more of us.

We have the numbers. In every conversation, every social media post and every protest and direct action we have to demonize the corporate class and make them out to be the robber barons they are. That’s what Bernie nailed. That’s the playbook that resonated. Where it faltered, in my opinion, was the personal nature of it.

Forget going after the billionaires. It’s tempting to put a face and a name to it, but the cult of personality and hero worship that surrounds figures like Musk, Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg makes it too personal. We have to tighten the proverbial noose around the faceless zombie corporations that produce billionaires, hire the lobbyists, skirt the tax code, pay the politicians, feed the political action committees and buy the ads.

We also have to get lost in the nerdy stuff and support public figures and platforms that take direct aim at the corporate class.

For example, the corporate tax rate during the most prosperous period in the last century was between 40% and 50%. We need that again.

The tech monopolies need to be taken down a peg and busted up. Trust me, it won’t kill innovation because it never does. In fact, it strengthens it.

Take the lessons we’ve learned from John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter. Read the words of Bloody Rosa Luxemburg. Cleave to no system as Mikhail Bakunin refused to do and accept only genuine attempts to dismantle the corporate establishment. Infect the Democratic Party with progressive ideals. For every Fetterman we lose along the way, there’s a Summer Lee who’s willing to fight for us.

If you want to fight someone, forget the CEO or the billionaire founder. Go after the board. Support politicians that promise to legislate Citizens United into oblivion. Hell, support the bipartisan effort to rewrite the lobbying rules.

Heads down. Eyes forward. As much as the elbow patch persona in me knows we’ve made a ton of progress, the angrier part of me refuses to lay down and let the oligarchs write the next chapter of the American story.

Here endeth the beginning.

Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).