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‘Radiant Fugitives’ Revels in Obama-Era Politics – The Atlantic



In the early months of the pandemic, when anxiety had slowed my thinking to a crawl, I frequently found myself captivated by trite revelations like Uncertainty is torment and Love means living in fear. I hated my useless, corny aphorisms, but couldn’t repress them. I especially could not quit realizing, every time I refreshed Twitter or the news or the COVID-19 dashboard for my current home state of Ohio, that I was living through history. I’d glare at a bleak map or chart and tell myself: All of this will go in books someday.

Of course, I have never not been living through history. The record doesn’t stop and start. But before March 2020, I was very often too taken up with current events to consider how they would be remembered, or even how I myself would remember them. So I felt intensely grateful for the high level of granular political—now historical—detail in Nawaaz Ahmed’s debut, Radiant Fugitives, a sprawling, compelling novel set in San Francisco during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and first year in office.

Many of Ahmed’s characters are deeply invested in electoral and congressional politics; he devotes page after page to their discussions of Howard Dean’s performance in the Democratic primary or the Affordable Care Act’s odds in the Senate. This may sound sleep-inducing but, thanks to Ahmed’s vivid prose and his capacity to write heated dialogue, his dive into late-2000s politics is anything but dull. Radiant Fugitives becomes a document of the debates that influenced our present moment, filtered through character-driven fiction, not reportage; the novel is a reminder that, even when history is less than flagrantly obvious, each of us is mired in it, and shaped by it, from birth.

Ahmed underscores this point with his choice of narrator: Ishraaq, the newborn son of the novel’s protagonist, Seema. Ahmed frames Radiant Fugitives as Ishraaq’s internal monologue, beginning the moment he emerges from the womb. Functionally, though, Ishraaq is an omniscient narrator. Although he claims to have slept through Seema’s pregnancy, “interrupted only occasionally by lights and sounds from the outside,” he relates events that predate his birth—and, for that matter, his conception—in detail. He enters other characters’ heads, which is helpful, because the novel is full of interpersonal tangles. At its start, Seema, a Bay Area–based queer activist, is unexpectedly pregnant with the child of her ex-husband, Bill. Her devout sister and dying mother come to visit as her due date approaches, each with her own hopes for Seema and her child. Ishraaq comments on their behavior and ideas about religion, politics, family, and responsibility, seemingly weighing each woman’s role not only in his future but in history.

Radiant Fugitives is a systems novel, not a domestic one; Ahmed cares more about reflecting life in a society than life in a contained set of familial relationships. His quick point-of-view switches and brusque manner of delivering backstory swiftly make it clear that he is less invested in any one character than in the larger questions he examines through them. Chief among these questions is the validity of caring about politics. Seema and Bill, early Obama supporters, intertwine their identities so fully with his nascent candidacy that they “agreed they’d get married on the day [he] officially kicked off his presidential campaign.” Only months later, though, Seema finds herself discouraged watching Obama speak, worried that her candidate is “merely a cautious technocrat”; later, seated onstage at a rally, she reminds herself that, though Obama “claims hope, there is always a reality that won’t budge.”

Seema’s moment of doubt—her worry that she can’t believe in change—becomes the novel’s central issue. From the rally scene on, Ahmed takes it more or less as a given that progress is cyclical, not teleological. Given this truth, the book asks, why should anybody care about the little bits of progress they behold? Why invest time or money in politics? Why bother caring about public life?

Contemporary writers sometimes skirt this set of issues by engaging only blurrily with political life. In Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, the smart, disaffected protagonist fixates on doomy but vague images of climate crisis, which seem to fuel her ennui rather than spur her to action. There is, of course, realism in this portrait, but often the novel seems to substitute commentary on political life for investment in it—even the minor investment of providing details. Other novels block out specifics even further; I have been struck, in the past four years, by the number of writers who excise Donald Trump’s name from books that not only refer to his presidency but also wrestle with cultural issues it highlighted or exacerbated. Meg Wolitzer’s otherwise very good novel The Female Persuasion, which takes a critical look at 21st-century feminism, refers to Trump’s ascendance only as “the big terribleness,” either hoping or assuming that future readers will unanimously view it that way.

Novelists who avoid political detail may do so with an eye to the future, perhaps worrying that these developments—or their personal echoes—are too ephemeral to remain legible five or 10 years down the line. In Radiant Fugitives, Ahmed proves this concern groundless. He provides efficient context for each speech or congressional debate he draws on, then teases out the event’s effect on his characters’ lives. Bill, for example, tries to accept Seema’s insistence on raising their child alone, but when Obama delivers a speech decrying “MIA or AWOL” fathers who abandon their responsibilities, Bill finds himself compelled. On reflection, he sees that his response emerges from his personal history: His dad, a Black Panther, was in prison when Bill was born, and died there without meeting his son. Bill knows he wasn’t abandoned; still, the speech is a catalyst for him to acknowledge his desire to “fight to keep his family, the way his incarcerated father was unable to.” It matters little whether the reader remembers Obama’s family-values speeches; Ahmed uses them largely to demonstrate the capacity of less-than-nuanced political rhetoric to spark complex thought.

Often in Radiant Fugitives, public life shapes private selves by catalyzing intellectual or emotional development. Ahmed’s characters use the debates and developments of their moment to figure themselves out. Sometimes this tendency is conscious; sometimes current events provide accidental, alarming insights. In 2004, when same-sex marriage is briefly legalized in San Francisco—for just 29 days, until the state supreme court orders city officials to stop issuing marriage licenses—Seema is newly dating Bill, the first man she’s ever been involved with. She finds herself emotionally distant from the festive marital “hoopla roiling San Francisco,” and gradually recognizes that her sense of alienation comes from her changing understanding of her sexuality. Without San Francisco’s “Winter of Love,” Ahmed implies, that realization might have taken much longer to arrive.

Seema’s inability to celebrate her city’s marriage-equality breakthrough is a noticeable point of friction between her personal story and the novel’s broader historical arc. If Ahmed wished to twin them, he would, perhaps, have had Seema marry a woman at San Francisco City Hall. Instead, he intertwines them. He does the same throughout the book, placing his characters slightly outside major events. Seema, as the story unfurls, prefers to position herself in the role of witness, though she keeps volunteering for Democratic campaigns even while nine months pregnant. Her ongoing, ambivalent involvement underscores the value of civic participation even as it shows that the personal and the political, close as they may sometimes be, are never quite the same.

Radiant Fugitives suggests that public life is like the air we breathe: utterly necessary to survival, but different from—and larger than—any individual self. As we share air, so we share both a society and the great task of understanding it, which no one person can fully do. Ahmed’s characters do their best; even those who are less politically involved than Seema and Bill think deeply about the state of their country. Doing so helps them locate themselves in both society and history; participating in public life offers them not only a feeling of agency but also a means of self-analysis. Political fiction, Ahmed seems to realize, has no need to fear granularity or retreat into interiority. Writing down details, as any diary-keeper will tell you, is personal no matter what.

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Pandemic politics fuel long-shot Republican challenges to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott – NBC News



Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has $55 million banked for his re-election campaign, a 73 percent approval rating among Republicans, and an endorsement from former President Donald Trump.

And, thanks to restrictive abortion and voting bills Abbott has signed in recent months, Texas has become an epicenter of the national conservative causes that rally the GOP base.

None of that, though, has stopped a crop of critics — including Allen West, a former Florida congressman with a right-wing following who briefly served as the Texas GOP chairman — from announcing plans to challenge Abbott in next year’s primary.

Sept. 7, 202102:11

Their complaint isn’t so much that Abbott is not a conservative. It’s that he’s not the hard-line conservative they believe that Texans crave — particularly when compared with some Republican peers and their hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

“He’s not Ron DeSantis, and he’s not Kristi Noem,” one veteran of Texas GOP politics said, referencing the governors of Florida and South Dakota who’ve upped their national profiles by resisting extended lockdowns, mask and vaccine mandates and other restrictions to limit the spread of Covid.

Pandemic politics are likely to play out in GOP gubernatorial primaries elsewhere, most notably in Ohio, where Republican Gov. Mike DeWine already has two challengers on his right who disapprove of the cautious approach he took early in the crisis. In Texas, West is one of at least four Republicans who are already campaigning against Abbott. Also in the race are Don Huffines, a businessman and former state senator from the Dallas area who has endorsements from former Trump aide Katrina Pierson and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Chad Prather, a conservative comedian and commentator for BlazeTV; and Paul Belew, a criminal defense attorney running with a television-inspired “Better Call Paul” slogan.

Abbott’s allies are unfazed by the early moves against him. The governor won primaries in 2014 and 2018 with more than 90 percent of the vote and comfortably won his first two terms. In a huge state with expensive media markets, he has a cash advantage that even the independently wealthy Huffines, who already has loaned his campaign $5 million, is unlikely to match.

“They don’t have any money, they don’t have any fundraising ability,” said John Wittman, Abbott’s former communications director who now runs a public affairs firm in Austin. “They are all fighting over the same 10 to 12 percent of Republican primary voters.”

Dave Carney, Abbott’s political strategist, said he takes nothing for granted but is “not worried at all” about challenges from the right.

“We’re really focused on the general election,” he added. “The primary is a great opportunity for us to do a dress rehearsal.”

Aug. 17, 202104:28

Abbott’s rivals could be a nuisance nevertheless in his bid for a third term. They repeatedly hammer him for business closures and mask mandates during the early months of the pandemic. And they don’t give him credit for being among the first governors to ease off such orders, using strikingly similar rhetoric to dismiss his decisions as an affront to liberty.

Said West: “I mean, you can’t give back something that you really had no right to take.”

Said Huffines: “That would be like thanking a thief for bringing some of your stolen goods back.”

Said Prather: “When you play arsonist and firefighter, the hypocrisy bleeds through pretty fast.”

Abbott was careful not to call public health measures he took in April 2020 a “stay-at-home order,” though he subsequently clarified in a video message that he was requiring “all Texans to stay at home except to provide essential services or do essential things like going to the grocery store.” He began reopening, with limitations, in May 2020 only to pause those efforts the next month because of a surge in coronavirus cases. A mask mandate quickly followed and stayed in place until March this year, when Abbott fully reopened the state.

Even so, using the pandemic as a wedge against Abbott, who last month tested positive for Covid, is not a slam-dunk primary message. More than two-thirds of Republican voters approved of his response to the crisis when surveyed in an August poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Other critics, particularly Democrats, have argued his pandemic response has been too lax, pointing in particular to his July order barring mask and vaccine mandates in the state despite the highly-contagious delta variant surge.

As of Thursday, confirmed coronavirus cases in Texas were up 11 percent over the last two weeks. Deaths were up 38 percent.

The primary challengers have other grievances.

West, Huffines and Prather all accused Abbott of not doing enough to secure the U.S. border with Mexico, even after the governor pledged to deploy more state police and free up state funds to continue building a border wall.

Huffines wishes Abbott would have called for what he termed as a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election — a calling card for right-wing candidates eager to please Trump. (The former president won the state of Texas.)

Prather mockingly calls Abbott a “campaign conservative” who is all talk, no action.

“The media gives him a lot of credit because he uses a lot of conservative rhetoric,” Prather said. “But there’s a difference between saying and doing. And, you know, Ron DeSantis does. Kristi Noem does. And Greg Abbott, a politician who lives off his polls, is good at saying.”

Several experienced Texas GOP operatives downplayed these ideological differences.

“Allen West has a history of pandering to the never-happy crowd,” said Chad Wilbanks, a former executive director of the state party who supports Abbott’s re-election. “Then you have … Don Huffines, who’s also pandering to the never-happy crowd.”

“You know, you’re never going to make everybody happy,” he added, in defense of Abbott. “And a leader who tries to make everybody happy is not very successful.”

The presence of several anti-Abbott candidates could split whatever anti-Abbott vote exists. Huffines and Prather see strength in numbers, predicting that a crowded field could keep Abbott below 50 percent in a primary and trigger a one-on-one runoff in which anti-Abbott voters can consolidate around one candidate. (“I’m not doing the wolf pack thing,” West, who dismissed such a strategy, said.)

The problem with that thinking is in the poll numbers. Abbott’s 73 percent job approval rating within his party, as measured by last month’s Texas Politics Project survey, has fallen 8 points over the last year, but it’s still high enough to leave little room for a successful primary challenger.

“They’re presuming that 5 or 10 percent of the electorate that may wish our governor was more conservative,” is a path to victory, said Matt Mackowiak, who chairs the Travis County GOP in Austin and personally supports Abbott. “But that defies third-grade math.”

There’s also the Trump factor. The former president endorsed Abbott in early June, then joined him at the border to raise alarm about immigration. Huffines believes Trump’s endorsement, like others that have gone wrong, including one earlier this year in a special Texas congressional election, is a mistake.

“The president has supported a lot of losers, and this is just going to be another one in that column,” Huffines said. “And it’s sad — for Trump, it’s going to be sad.”

Prather suggested Trump could change his mind “as this thing really heats up.”

That won’t happen, a senior political adviser to Trump said.

“President Trump has always respected Gov. Abbott and maintained a strong relationship. He was always inclined to support his re-election, but it was Abbott’s leadership on securing the border that sealed the deal,” the adviser said. “Trump loves Texas and loves fighters — Abbott is definitely a fighter for Texas.”

As for Democrats, they so far lack a well-known challenger, with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost a close race against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 before launching an unsuccessful presidential campaign, a top recruiting target.

“If Abbott were weak,” Mackowiak said, “we’d have a Democratic candidate for governor already.”

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Writ Large: Who says Canadian politics are dull? –



Good morning, iPolitics readers.

Monday’s the big day. Our Elxnometer continues to keep us on the edge of our seat, and a whole lot more can shift over the weekend as Canadians waiting for election day to cast their ballots hem and haw and peruse party platforms in a bid to make an informed decision.

iPolitics’ Janet Silver and Kady O’Malley were joined by the Toronto Star’s Tonda MacCharles and Alex Ballingall on the No Talking Points podcast to dissect the final days of the campaign. Give it a listen.

Here’s the latest:


Our barometer keeps track of which party seems likely to win — and whether it’s on track to secure a coveted majority. Check in during the campaign as the winds shift, and follow @elxnometre on Twitter.

Today’s takeaways

  • Thursday was a very active day across the country, producing a few interesting developments.
  • The Conservatives are back up in this very close and perpetually back-and-forth race to the finish — they are definitely closing the gap in the seat counts.
  • We’re seeing a lot of movement in ATLANTIC CANADA. On a bad night for the Liberals, the Conservatives moved ahead in as many as eight seats, making important gains particularly in New Brunswick. A lot of these seats are close and could still shift either way, but clearly the strong Liberal grip on on the region is slipping.
  • In QUEBEC, the Bloc Québécois’ surge has stalled. The momentum swing that threatened a few ministers and several incumbent Liberals will probably not pan out. Still, a lot of damage has already been done, and many of the seats the Bloc stole from the Liberals in 2019 will stay pale blue.
  • In Trois-Rivières, one of the hottest races in la belle province, it looks like the Conservatives may pull out a close one. The same goes for Beauport—Limoilou, which the Tories also appear poised to swipe from the Bloc.
  • In ONTARIO, we are seeing a small surge for the NDP, who are close to taking three Liberal seats: Hamilton, Nickel Belt and Thunder Bay.
  • The Liberal lead in Ontario is down to four per cent and the party stands to lose seven seats from 2019, five of them to the NDP.
  • The Liberals have rebounded somewhat in the PRAIRIES, where they are on track to claim five seats in Winnipeg. They are still leading in Edmonton Centre and Calgary Skyview, though both ridings are too close to call.
  • Jason Kenney’s COVID-19 announcements yesterday have upset a lot of people in ALBERTA. Time will tell what impact it will have.
  • The NDP and Conservatives are tied at 29 per cent in BRITISH COLUMBIA, with the Liberals at 22 per cent. That leaves the NDP and the Conservatives to fight over a bunch of close ridings, while the Liberals hope they can keep the 11 seats they won in 2019.
  • In a race that is growing noticeably tighter every day this week, it looks like the People’s Party’s purple wave may just help the Liberals secure re-election. Nobody is opening up a clear lead this late in the campaign, which is a bit unusual. But that will make these last days extremely interesting. Every seat will count.
  • That much sought-after Liberal majority now seems like a distant memory, leaving many Canadians wondering why we are going through this. Who says that Canadian politics are dull!?

How is the election affecting Canadians’ trust in government? Check out the latest instalment of The Governance Monitor.

Hustle in the hustings

It’s Day 34 of campaigning. Do you know where your party leaders are?

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh starts his day in Quebec with a morning announcement at the University of Sherbrooke before jetting off to Nova Scotia, where he’ll make a 2:30 p.m. stop at the Futures Cafe in Sackville and a 3:30 p.m. meet-up with supporters by the Halifax Common pavilion.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet will drop by the power plant in Saint-Étienne-des-Grès this morning to make an announcement on Muskrat Falls and GST. This afternoon, he’ll chat with the press at the Davie shipyard in Lévis.

You’ll find Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole at London’s Bellamere Winery and Event Centre this afternoon. He’ll attend an event with supporters in St. Catharines at 7:30 p.m.

Also in Ontario is Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He’s in Windsor, Ont. this morning to make an announcement.

Finally, People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier is holding a rally this evening in Strathmore, Alberta.

Details of Green Party Leader Annamie Paul‘s scheduled haven’t been confirmed.

ICYMI from iPolitics

Ridings in the spotlight

Running in Trois-Rivières, Bloc Québécois candidate René Villemure (left) and Conservative candidate Yves Lévesque participate in a debate on Sept. 9, 2021. (Twitter/@PDepatie)


Who’s running?

  • Martin Francoeur (Liberal)
  • Andrew Holman (Green)
  • Jean Landry (PPC)
  • Yves Lévesque (CPC)
  • Adis Simidzija (NDP)
  • René Villemure (BQ)

What’s the buzz?

Several of Quebec’s 78 seats are in play as we count down to election day. One seat we’ll continue watching like a hawk this weekend is Trois-Rivières on the north shore of the Saint Lawrence River.

According to Mainstreet Research’s latest polling from the riding, the Conservatives would win the riding with 34 per cent of the vote from decided and leaning voters if the election were held today. Another 31 per cent would pick the Bloc, and 30 per cent would favour the Liberals.

Louise Charbonneau won the seat for the Bloc with 28.48 per cent of the vote in 2019, but she announced in June she wouldn’t seek re-election, leaving Trois-Rivières up for grabs. The Tories are running Yves Lévesque, who served as mayor of Trois-Rivières from 2001 until his retirement for medical reasons in 2018. He also ran for the CPC in 2019, finishing in third place, 2000 seats behind Charbonneau.

The riding has been held predominantly by the Bloc over the past 30 years, save for an eight-year orange streak from 2011 to 2019.

Janet Silver has more on this red hot riding.


Who’s running?

  • Vincent Aubé (PPC)
  • Ramez Ayoub (Liberal)
  • Marc Bissonnette (CPC)
  • Louise Chabot (BQ) — incumbent
  • Simon Paré-Poupart (Green)
  • Julienne Soumaoro (NDP)

What’s the buzz?

Another of Quebec’s tight races is playing out in Thérèse—De Blainville, where Bloc Québécois incumbent Louise Chabot is hoping to hold her seat. Her top opponent is Liberal candidate Ramez Ayoub, who represented the riding north of Laval from its establishment in 2015 until Chabot’s win in 2019.

Polling conducted in the riding by Mainstreet Research on Sept. 13 suggests that 41 per cent of decided and leaning voters would re-elect Chabot if an election were held that day. 39 per cent would vote for Ayoub and the Conservative candidate would come in a distant third, with 11 per cent of the vote.

The tables are turned when all voters are factored in. In that scenario, the Liberals would win the riding with 37 per cent of the vote, with the Bloc hot on their heels with 36 per cent. The Conservatives would remain in third place with 11 per cent.

Check out our election dashboard for the latest from ridings across the country.


Thursday’s iPredict Results

The majority of Writ Large readers would disagree with Liberal candidate and hype man Dominic LeBlanc about his party’s chances of snagging a majority government. Responding to Thursday’s iPredict poll, 59 per cent of you said “heck no” the Liberal’s don’t have a shot at a majority, while 26 per cent said it could “maybe” happen and 12 per cent share LeBlanc’s confidence in Team Trudeau. We’ll know soon enough whose prediction comes to pass.

App user? Access the iPredict poll in your browser.

Want to get Writ Large right in your inbox during the election? Sign up here.

Thanks for reading. You can reach iPolitics’ briefs team at [email protected].

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Canada's elections: How the climate crisis is reshaping politics – Open Democracy



Singh’s NDP has one of the boldest climate policies of the major parties. The party platform includes reducing carbon emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030, and stresses that it “will put workers front and centre of their climate action plan”, and phase out fossil fuel subsidies.

Avi Lewis, the longtime documentary filmmaker and climate activist running as the NDP candidate for West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country district, told openDemocracy that “there is no party on Earth that is currently addressing the climate movement in the way it needs to be”. For Lewis, the climate emergency isn’t just a climate emergency, “it’s also a housing emergency, transit emergency, inequality emergency”.

However, Lewis decided to run as an NDP nominee because he “sees a sense of urgency in the platform”. “All these emergencies are linked,” he says, “but so are the solutions.”

According to Maggie Chao, campaign director at Leadnow, an independent progressive campaigning organisation, the parties are “moving in the right direction” and recognise that “climate change is a pressing issue”. However, Chao insisted that “we’re nowhere on the scale and pace we need to be”.

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