Political institutions are the problem, but it’s institutions that will save us.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what Adam McKay would say about institutions (the law, courts, norms, democratic rule) but I would nevertheless love for him to read and respond to my Faithless Elector thriller series. Because as gratifying as it’s been for the books to find readers who see the political moment reflected in the pages of my books, the larger narrative sometimes gets lost; that the present moment has been a long time coming. And the moment isn’t over.

Speaking to David Marchese in the NY Times magazine, McKay talks about what “hooked” him in Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (which he produced for the screen). Reading the book in one night, he says that “[Lewis] does two things. Number 1, we all love the taste of making a lot of money. The other thing we all love is knowing things that we’re not supposed to know. Lewis tells me things that most people don’t tell me…” He goes on to say that what he asks of a work is: “Is there a sincere attempt to understand the world, or is the action just one of manipulation and distraction?”

In the three books that make up the series—Faithless Elector, Dark Network and Emergency Powers—I’ve tried to do just that–to tell a story that tries to understand the world, one that doesn’t talk down to the reader, nor one that has an axe to grind. They’re about insider politics, and delve into things you thought you knew about in a new way: strong, character-driven stories set within a context of conflicted, dangerous politics. The conspirators exploit weaknesses in our legal/constitutional institutions to effect their power grab—motivated, as McKay discusses “by pure power and reactionary beliefs.” And if they can get hold of all the levers of power, they may very well succeed.

The “Faithless Elector” conspiracy, and the forces arrayed against America in my stories didn’t rise with Trump (he’s nowhere in their pages). Rather, it’s part of a much longer trajectory and deeper worry. And those forces haven’t gone away now that Trump’s making his noise offstage.

I would urge anyone thinking or writing about politics to give the interview a good read. It’s the kind of insightful, reasoned (yet still passionate and opinionated) discussion many of us lament as lacking these days. He also zeroes in on the dearth—in literature and in politics—of working people’s voices. Which, again, my work strives to bring into the conversation. Meetings between the FBI and “regular” folk aren’t caricatures, but are meant to be rounded people, to add nuance and complexity to the plot—and the stakes—as the story unfolds.

Later in the interview, McKay makes an interesting claim about center-left and center-right politics, putting himself in the CL corner, and Aaron Sorkin’s work on the CR. It’s Sorkin’s faith in institutions (again, the law, courts, norms) that pushes him rightward in McKay’s view. (McKay is careful not to claim that Sorkin is a right-winger). McKay’s observations and phrasing are in keeping with a balanced, long-view perspective. By McKay’s rendering, I guess I’d end up CR, too. Which is an uncomfortable feeling…

But insofar as my work enlightens, as it is a sincere attempt to understand the world, I’ll accept it.

Far from contributing to the politics of distraction and outrage porn, the Faithless Elector series reads, in the words of one reviewer, like an “insider’s view” of power politics. The conspirators manipulate the Electoral College, the congress and the bureaucracy from the inside–and for their own ends–with the future of the nation in the balance. It is characters in and out of government who risk their lives to right the ship of state. What my characters oppose is not bureaucracy, or legal authority, but the perversion of those institutions.

There’s a quote posted above my home computer, from Professor Emilios Christodoulidis at the University of Glasgow School of Law:
“Any separation between legal and political power is purely conceptual…there can be no real legal authority without some political power…[and] there is rarely political power without some legal authority.”
(from Jurisprudence: Themes and Concepts )

As the tagline for Dark Network notes: “Without law, there’s only power.” To which, perhaps I should add, And what about when law protects and abets the powerful?

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!
All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland, w/t Bastard Verdict.
A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. James is a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Writing in the Trump era

When evil is also stupid, what are we left to work with?

There’s been a great deal of concern about what it means to create in Trump’s America, from shock at the impending de-funding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to a recent piece in New Republic, “Is Trump Ruining Book Sales?” which ominously intones, “in a world where reality has become stranger than fiction, actual books are no longer selling.”  Many books, they add, that were “released in the wake of the Trump election were written with a very different understanding of the world than the one we have now.”NewRep.Trump ruins lit

To this discussion, though he beat New Republic to the punch by three months or so, I would add Glenn David Gold’s “Writing (and not writing) during a political maelstrom” (LA-Times), who writes about the difficulties the thriller author Ross Thomas had writing during an earlier era.  Thomas wasn’t sucked into Facebook or Twitter (this was the ‘eighties), but by the radio, which despite his best efforts stole his focus and attention.

RossThomas.author

Ross Thomas

Thomas’s lament, however, will sound familiar to any writer today:  “He said that every morning he sat down at the typewriter and he told himself he wasn’t going to listen to [the Iran-Contra hearings], but the radio beckoned, and he turned it on, and he fell into them so completely he couldn’t work. Every. Single. Day.”  Worse, Thomas went on to say, “if [my] characters had conspired like this, they would have had a sense of wit about them that none of the clowns in Iran-Contra actually had. The actual level of deceit, venality, self-righteousness, collusion, the real-world consequences of doctrinaire actions, and the deep, unaware stupidity of it all were so far beyond anything [I] could make up.”

As I stare at the bleak landscape that stretches before us for (perhaps) another three and a half years, I’ve lamented this very thing.  My two thrillers (a third is on the way) are about a conspiracy to steal the presidency. The conspirators in Faithless Elector and the upcoming Dark Network deal in deceit, machiavellian deals and murder to achieve their goal.  I have also felt “knee-capped” by reality, to use Thomas’s vivid expression–so much so I almost feel like I should apologize to readers for the deadly efficiency and lean plausibility of my conspiracy.

Despite this dreary outlook, I stand in hope.  Tom Clancy famously said that “the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”  And even in the depths of his writerly depression, Thomas seems to know this, and offers us all hope when he touches on the notion of fictional wit and elan.  A writer today, like Thomas before us, looks aghast at the bungling intrigue of the past six months and laments the lack of vision.  When evil is also stupid, what are we left with?

Gold hints at the ability of stories to make meaning, but I disagree with his final thoughts on the subject when he says, “Fiction has to be our consolation prize. Inherently lesser than reality, always behind the times.” I would say fiction and reality are not in competition.  Fiction is not well-crafted journalism; nor is it history.  I would stop short of saying fiction should strive to be prophetic, but it can and should weave meaning about where we are and where we’re going, even if the precise things we write about don’t come to pass.

And we’re left exactly where we’ve always been, striving to make sense and trying “to write–intelligently, creatively, evocatively–about what it’s like living in the world at this time” (Oliver Sachs).  That’s the meaning good stories offer, and those will rise to the top.

 

Here is an LA Review of Books retrospective on Ross Thomas, by Woody Haut (August, 2013) “Are the Fools in Town Still on Our Side“.  Excellent reading.  My nightstand stack just got a lot bigger.

James McCrone is the author of the suspense-thrillers, Faithless ElectorDark Network and the forthcoming Consent of the Governed. Publishers Weekly calls Faithless Elector a “fast-moving topical thriller.” Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.”

Dark Network, is on-sale October 20.JMc-author2.2017

Faithless Elector is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center.  Follow this blog, and like James’s FB page.

 

Faithless Elector penalties upheld…for now

[Originally published 2017.03.16]
The fines leveled against the four Washington State Faithless Electors issued by the Washington State secretary of state, have been upheld on appeal by a state judge, the Seattle Times 
reports.


Washington State first put the Faithless Elector laws into place after Mike Padden, a Republican Elector back in 1976, voted for Ronald Reagan instead of his party’s candidate Gerald Ford.  Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 7.28.15 PM

Many states have such laws.  Most think they would not stand constitutional scrutiny. Indeed, the judge in the case seems to say as much when he notes that he doesn’t have the authority to rule on the plaintiffs’ argument that the Constitution doesn’t give the state the power to punish electors for contrary votes, but that they could argue the constitutionality of the law on appeal.

 

It has long been held by those who study US elections (see Professor Robert Alexander‘s response, right) that electors were free agents.

 

People on either side of the issues concerning the Electoral College concede that as conceived–and written–in Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution, electors are independent actors.  It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will agree.

 

This is the first election where fines have been leveled against electors.  Thus far, no one has had to appeal a fine levied by a state against a faithless elector, so no one had “standing” to bring a case, and the question has never come before the Supreme Court.  It may now.

Structural Flaws in the Electoral College

Faithless Elector, published in March 2016, was never meant as prophecy.  It’s a thriller, relying on plausibility and verisimilitude for its tension.  The events in the book remain a plausible warning because the forces shaping the book’s “world” are the very ones we confront in the real world:  an antiquated, arcane, anti-democratic process fraught with the capacity for intentional mischief or unintentional miscarriage is the process by which we select for the highest office in the land.

Today, on the History News Network site, Professor Richard Striner (Washington College, MD.) published a cogent, persuasive piece about the flaws inherent in the structure of American government, among them, the Electoral College: “America in Crisis: Dangerous Flaws in the Structure of Our Government Could Lead to Our Undoing.”

Striner.PoliticalCrisis

Regarding the Electoral College, Prof. Striner says:

The Founders intended the Electoral College to work as a force for enlightenment. Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist # 68, wrote that the task of selecting a distinguished person to serve as president should be made by “a small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass” who would “be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”

The notion of having Electors was the product of logistical constraints more than a means of curbing the mob’s power, as is sometimes suggested.  Given the size of the United States, and the difficulty of travel in the Eighteenth century, it made a kind of sense to select people likely to have some knowledge and understanding of the candidates.  This sense, however, has been abandoned.  Now, even though “there is nothing in the Constitution requiring electoral votes in each state to be allotted by winner-take-all. . .that is the system most of the states have adopted.”

That adopted system has now now malfunctioned on five (5) occasions, awarding the presidency to a candidate who lost the popular vote:   1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016. Two of the five have (40%) have come in fewer than the last 20 years.

Faithless Elector is about a shadowy group who try to upend a presidential election by exploiting the weaknesses of the EC, with deadly consequences.

Let’s hope we never experience a calamity like that described in Faithless Elector .

 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller. Publishers Weekly calls it a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” The sequel, Dark Network, is coming in October, 2017.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available NOW through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center