THE LAND OF FLICKERING LIGHTS
Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics
By Michael Bennet
Michael Bennet is disappointed, and he’s running for president. In “The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics,” the Democratic senator from Colorado has not written a typical, triumphal campaign memoir. Instead, the book reads like a sweeping diagnosis of the nation’s political ills (which include, in Bennet’s view, a desperate aversion to bipartisan discussion and a crippling reliance on short-term thinking), stitched together with assurances that room for redemption still exists.
“As I look back on a decade in the Senate, I can’t help being haunted by a profound sense of lost opportunity,” Bennet writes. His prescribed path forward is heavier on suggestions for how we should think more cooperatively about the work of politics than on particular policies. This starts with embracing the “high expectations” and values he ascribes to the country’s historical and intellectual founders, and recognizing that real cross-party discourse can strengthen and protect American democracy.
The heart of “The Land of Flickering Lights” is an insider’s retelling of five recent Washington episodes “when uncompromising factionalism in pursuit of ideological goals disabled both political parties and destroyed any bipartisan incentives to govern the American republic.” Bennet casts himself not in the protagonist role, but as a hyperinformed, well-read analyst ducking in and out of the action. He recounts the battles over replacing Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court and discusses the fallout from the Democrats’ move in 2013 to abandon the 60-vote Senate threshold for approving most judicial nominees. Bennet assigns blame for the subsequent dysfunction to both parties, and calls his vote for that maneuver his biggest senatorial regret.
He describes how Supreme Court decisions to loosen regulations on political money in 2010 gave rise to Tea Party groups that empowered Republicans’ opposition to environmental causes. He further traces the rise of short-term thinking about inequality, taxes, government spending and deficits, and outlines recent failures to enact immigration reform. Twice Bennet quotes James Baldwin: “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.”
The centrist Bennet, a 2020 long shot for president, is not well known, but he does not use the book to explicitly plug himself, and his personal history and observations are sprinkled only lightly throughout it. (Bennet’s brother, James, is this newspaper’s editorial page editor.) The book does expose where Bennet differs from Democratic peers. He focuses more on deficits and debts than many, and clearly doesn’t regard an extended discussion of President Trump as particularly useful. He plainly can’t stand the president, but views him largely as a product of the long-term political rot that is the book’s primary concern. If there is a villain here, it’s Ted Cruz or Mitch McConnell.
Bennet is careful not to weigh down his narrative with superfluous inside-the-room details. Yet his argument would, at times, benefit from more incremental description to avoid feeling too much like an abstract celebration of bipartisan dialogue — an idea many now view as overly simplistic or romantic. In the book’s first paragraph, Bennet denounces an “inability of the two parties to collaborate in the country’s best interest.” And where he does outline policy goals — like “making college less expensive for everyone” and “fixing our broken immigration system so that it better serves our economic needs” — he is not specific about what accomplishing these goals should entail.
But Bennet insists he’s talking about profound collaboration and understanding among citizens, not flimsy handshakes between parties, and he did not set out to write a policy manual. His stories effectively lay the groundwork for the Franklin D. Roosevelt-inspired “four freedoms” he ultimately proposes. Bennet writes of a “freedom to rise” (valuing upward mobility); a “freedom to learn” (including a modern education system); a “freedom from violence” (including an equitable criminal justice system); and a “freedom to govern ourselves” (which covers fair voting rights). Bennet has said he decided to run for president because no other candidate was satisfactorily discussing the overarching issues he identifies. It seems appropriate, then, that the primary season will render its own verdict on his perspective.