The Best Political Writing We Read This Year 

The Best Political Writing We Read This Year 
Illustration:Angelica Alzona

There is no shortage of things to read about our current political moment, but way too much of it is stenography for people in power that is nakedly transactional or stenography for people in power that mistakes itself as deep. There was endless garbage published in 2018, but these things were very good.

“The Mystery of Amy Sherald’s Portrait of Michelle Obama” by Doreen St. Felix

Doreen St. Felix’s essay on Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is not just a complicated dissection of the work itself—which empowers Obama with a somber, steely gaze we haven’t seen from her yet—but also the ways in which first ladies are expected to contort themselves to fit an ideal image of the role. St. Felix stresses that for Obama, the portrait is of course not just a portrait but also a stunning corrective to two terms of racist cartoons, sexist marketing, and a downplaying of her intellect, and we need smart arts criticism about presidential imagery like this more than ever. —Hazel Cills

“When Deportation Is a Death Sentence” by Sarah Stillman

“City of Exiles” by Daniel Duane

“Checkpoint Nation” by Melissa del Bosque

“Safe House” by Lizzie Presser

The cruelties of the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border turned critical attention to our government’s fucked up treatment of undocumented immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. These four deeply reported stories highlighted both the stakes as well as how the machinery of detention and deportation—which has become more clear to many under the Trump administration—was not built overnight. In particular, “Safe House” by Lizzie Presser, which tells the story of an unofficial network of Latinx immigrant women who open up their homes to survivors (many of whom are undocumented) of domestic abuse, will stay with me for a long time. —Esther Wang

“Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump and the Things Men Do for Other Men” by Jia Tolentino

The most affecting political writing I read this year—outside of crucial, thoroughly reported work—were pieces that illuminated injustice within power systems far beyond superficial sloganeering. That felt especially true during the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, when hot takes with first-person arguments were everywhere and often rushed. This particular New Yorker piece is the antithesis of that: Jia Tolentino explores how white fraternities “have served to solidify élite male power and entitlement,” behaviors that extend to the highest court in this country through generations of men dedicated to maintaining the unequal privileges of men. Plus, it’s Jia, and I’m fully aware of my Jezebel alum biases. —Maria Sherman

“Hail to the Chief” by Michael Tomasky

I found this to be extremely useful perspective:

Since the Civil War, Democrats and Republicans have fought sometimes fiercely over their ideological goals, but they always respected the idea of limits on their power.
No one had come along to suggest that power should be unlimited. But now someone has, and we have learned something very interesting, and alarming, about these ‘conservatives,’ both the rank and file and holders of high office: their overwhelming commitment is not to democratic allocation of power, but to their ideological goals—the annihilation of liberalism, the restoration of a white ethno-nationalist hegemony. They know better than to speak of such things openly, but every once in a while they have allowed a piece of the cat’s anatomy to slip out of the bag, a tail hear, a hind leg there…
…It has often been written, and I’ve written it myself, that the Republicans have been weak in the face of Trumpism. But I’ve come to think that’s wrong. They’re not weak at all. Most of them are perfectly happy to have become Trump’s vassals. They were waiting for just such a man.”

Rich Juzwiak

“In the Maze” by Dayna Tortorici

“Whatever’s Your Darkest Question, You Can Ask Me” by Lizzie Presser

“The Teachers’ Strike and the Democratic Revival in Oklahoma” by Rivka Galchen

“Checkpoint Nation” by Melissa del Bosque

These are very different pieces of writing and reporting, but all of them felt like a version of injecting dye into one of the body’s systems to help you see the thing you’re actually looking at. This is a moment of tremendous violence and degradation (at our borders and throughout the interior, in our institutions, at our jobs, in our homes) and the fact of that violence can sometimes feel permanent, inevitable, and boundless. Each of these pieces reminded me in different ways that these very big things are generally composed of smaller things; they have discrete components, they are intelligible to us. There are ways out, maybe. (Which ways?) Sometimes, good writing is the beginning of a map. —Katie McDonough

“Red Scare’s Real Offense Is Nihilism” by Sylvie McNamara

This was a really cogent breakdown of the candor that makes a political podcast like Red Scare appealing yet ultimately devoid of real meaning. McNamara does a great job analyzing the speciousness of their class politics and the merits of their “dissenting speech.” She decides: “I’m in favor of a heterogeneous and dissenting left—even, in some cases, when it offends me. But as much as I want a viable alternative to both the moral panic and craven lack of vision that afflict much leftist discourse, Red Scare does not provide it.” —Clover Hope

“When They Took My Son,” by Reveal’s Aura Bogado, Neena Satija, Anayansi Diaz-Cortez, and Casey Miner

In this investigative report, Bogado narrates the story of a migrant family who was separated at the border and slept in a vacant office building. She examines, with a team of reporters, how the stated policy of the Trump administration actually plays out for families trapped at the border. The Reveal team from the Center for Investigative Reporting, and in particular, Reveal immigration reporter Aura Bogado, have produced some of the best reporting on the immigration crisis at the Southern border and the rampant abuse at ICE facilities through long-form reporting, features, investigative reports, and podcasts. Bogado was among a team of reporters who first investigated the history of abuse at the shelters ICE contracts to detains migrant children. —Prachi Gupta

“Trumpism Is ‘Identity Politics’ for White People” by Adam Serwer

The idea that identity politics is something only marginalized people use to inform their political ideology is ludicrous. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer makes the case that white people use identity politics all the time, and its most powerful iteration at the moment is Trumpism. Afterall, what is the fervor to uphold white supremacy if not a form of identity politics? Identity politics is derided as the Democrats’ fatal flaw in 2016, despite the fact that identity politics is what propelled Trump and the modern Republican Party to power in the first place. And they relied on it again during the 2018 midterms, albeit with mixed results. But why is identity politics still attached, largely, to people of color instead of white people? Serwer has a guess: “Underlying the American discourse on identity politics has always been the unstated assumption that, as a white man’s country, white identity politics—such as that practiced by Trump and the Republican Party—is legitimate, while opposition to such politics is not.” —Ashley Reese

“‘Coco,’ a Story About Borders and Love, Is a Definitive Movie for This Moment” by Jia Tolentino

Ok yes, I know this is a review of a children’s movie and not a straight-up political piece. But for me, it was one of the best characterizations of an underlying feeling driving the political state of our country today: that any semblance of justice has become so rare, justice itself is beginning to feel fantastical. —Clio Chang

The Newest Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander

Beto on the Border” by Michelle García

Payday Loans Are Coming For Everyone” by Luke O’Neil

Michelle Alexander’s look at the big business of electronically monitoring newly released inmates is terrifying and deeply disturbing. The author and civil rights lawyer is able to perfectly place this new dystopian development in the already hellish landscape of mass incarceration. The U.S. has been so diligent at arresting and imprisoning people that, as half-step efforts toward reform move some people out of the system, the next big questions we face have to do with how they become free and under what conditions. As Alexander shows, the same people who enriched themselves off the racist policies of mass incarceration are writing the rules for when and how people leave the system, and they’re not done making a profit off human misery just yet.

Michelle García’s essay on the racist history of Latino voter suppression in Texas correctly frames the U.S.-Mexico border as the site of political theater, one where Republicans and Democrats have long sparred over control of the narrative. Through this lens, García gives us a new way of looking at Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign and why exactly it was so exciting. It is not that he is likeable and progressive (on paper) and pro-immigrant (García notes that O’Rourke was not a perfect candidate for Latinx voters, regardless of what he represented to Texas Democrats, more broadly speaking). The real promise of O’Rourke’s campaigning in rural parts of Texas that most state politicians overlook—and that some have actively intimidated or policed—is this that he mobilized a voting force that has long been ignored. This is a smart, deeply reported, and refreshing take on the history of fear as a voter suppression tactic in an often militarized region of Texas—and how we might be starting to undo that damage.

Finally, and one of my favorite things I read all year: Writer Luke O’Neil is a freelancer who one day, after reporting a story on Northside Media’s shitty pay practices for the Huffington Post, finds out he can either wait to receive his payment in full, or pay a third-party service about $50 and get paid that same day. O’Neil argues this is basically a payday loan and cannot wrap his mind around why this feature exists, who uses it, and more importantly, who stands to benefit from it. He ends up tracking down a spokesperson from the third-party service and interviewing them about it; the result is amazing, even as the answers to O’Neil’s questions remain mysterious. It is also pretty funny. (My favorite bit is when he asks, “I know you can’t say so but, come on, isn’t it kind of weird?” and the flack offers, “The first part of your statement is correct!”) —Frida Garza

“The Road to Progress Is Paved With Pain” by Rebecca Traister

It feels like a personal show of weakness to pick this one piece amid all of Rebecca Traister’s excellent political reporting and commentary this year, because I choose it for utterly emotional reasons. Out of psychic need, you might even say. In the wake of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Traister told me what I needed to hear: She acknowledged the centuries-long setback and devastation of the vote, while framing it as proof of progress. “This road is winding, long, unjust and cruel,” she wrote. “But it also shows us, sometimes in blinkingly small and incomplete instances, that those victories are sometimes possible. If they weren’t, these powerful men and their allies wouldn’t be so desperate to silence and stop the masses from exerting their will, their rights, and their humanity as somehow equal to the humanity of those who wield power over them.” —Tracy Clark-Flory

“What Does It Mean to Die?” by Rachel Aviv

Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life or Death Crisis” by Linda Villarosa

Neither of these are straight political pieces insofar as they don’t tackle the tick-tock of politics and have little to say about the ideological wrangling of either Capitol Hill or state legislatures. Instead, both pieces are about the politicization of health, particular black women’s health, and who has the right to medical care. In Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker report, she revisits the case of Jahi McMath, a black girl who was declared brain dead after a botched surgery, and profiles her mother who has relentlessly fought for Jahi’s care. Aviv’s story raises the question of what it means to be alive and the politics—both medical and legislative—that determine the possible answers to that question. But Jahi’s case, as well as Linda Villarosa’s New York Times report on the staggeringly high mortality rate of black mothers and their babies, are a stark reminder that medical care—who has the right to it—and the treatment—both medical and circumstantial—received by patients and their families is deeply embedded in race, class, and gender. It’s the grim reality of politics, even as the pretense that politics is little more than a series of abstract policies, or a game to be won, somehow endures. —Stassa Edwards

Gay, Inc.: The Nonprofitization of Queer Politics by Myrl Beam

This book turns a critical eye on the history and function of the LGBT nonprofit sector, a model of queer politicking so synonymous with the fictive capital-C Community that its existence is often taken for granted and left uninterrogated, despite not even really existing until a few decades ago. —Harron Walker

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