Magdi Semrau

How the press distorts the reality of Biden's agenda

President Joe Biden's polling appears to be in a slump. His approval average is 43 percent, with 52 percent disapproving.

These numbers are perplexing, given a majority supports his legislative agenda. For example, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll recorded Biden's approval at 41 percent, whereas support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill was 63 percent and Build Back Better was 58 percent. The same poll also found that the GOP midterm advantage is higher than it's been since 1981. All despite the fact that Republican representatives largely oppose the agenda that voters support.

These polling trends are likely due to multiple causes.

Typically, new presidents start with high approval ratings. Those ratings fall as voters shift to favoring the out-party in midterms. So part of Biden's slump may just be typical political dynamics.

READ: 'You were gullible': Federal judge torches Trump's election lies — and a rioter who believed them

However, the decoupling of the president's approval and his agenda is unprecedented in modern American politics. Both previous presidents — Barack Obama and Donald Trump — experienced approval ratings that slumped in tandem with opposition to their legislative agendas.

So what's going on?

One cause may be the economy.

Current inflation may be temporary, but it is causing real stress for many Americans and voters will typically assign responsibility to the party in power. Additionally, Democrats could improve messaging, such that it may be true that Biden could have done a better job attaching his own face to his agenda by doing more public appearances. Finally, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema likely did Democrats no favors by stalling popular legislation in Congress.

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Another player driving this odd mismatch: the media.

Blaming the media can seem like an easy scapegoat. However, given the current set of circumstances, there are good reasons to question whether the press corps — those who are meant to convey information about legislation to the public — are doing a good job.

First, we have to understand the media environment, including our own role as news consumers. The press should not be presidential cheerleaders. Its job is to critically relay facts and analyses. That said, the media and media consumers are subject to a level of negativity bias that can drive public perception in irrational directions.

Humans are more likely to engage with negative information. In terms of Biden's agenda, this means reporting has focused on more negative, rather than more positive, news. In one recent interview, for example, after the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, a journalist asked Biden if his next bill, Build Back Better, was "doomed" due to the lack of Republican support.

READ: The Pentagon budget exposes Manchin and Sinema's hypocrisy

The reporter did not mention, in the exchange, that the public overwhelmingly approves of the legislation. Reporters don't need to say, "Build Back Better is awesome," but their reporting would, in fact be more neutral if they added objective facts, such as the bill's popularity, rather than focusing on gloom in the legislative process.

Crucially, social science research has shown that disproportionate negative coverage actually shapes human perception in a way that does not match the political reality. This has real consequences for voters' decision-making in a democratic society.

That the media has some role to play in Americans' perception of Biden's legislation is supported by evidence. Multiple polls have indicated Americans' have only a sparse understanding of the Build Back Better bill. When the bill still stood at $3.5 trillion dollars, one October poll from CBS News indicated that Americans had heard most about the price tag (59 percent) and tax increases (58 percent).

In contrast, only 46 percent had heard about universal pre-K and only 40 percent had heard about Medicare Coverage for dental, vision and hearing, as well as lower Medicare drug prices. In the same poll, respondents expressed whopping support for federally funding these same provisions. Sixty-seven percent supported universal pre-K, 84 percent supported expanded Medicare coverage and 88 percent supported lowering prescription drug prices.

READ: Tucker Carlson's 'nakedly fascist propaganda' leads to resignations, internal outrage, public fury — and a silent Murdoch

So there appears to be a disconnect between voters' perceptions of the president and his agenda. Is this entirely the media's fault? Of course not. But it's difficult to ignore the connections between reporting and public awareness. As the Columbia Journalism Review observed, there's been a demonstrable breakdown in media communication if 59 percent have heard about the cost of the Build Back Better bill and far fewer have heard of its popular provisions.

In addition to negativity bias and lack of coverage on legislative content, there's another problem: the erasure of Republican agency.

Democrats are attempting to actually govern. Such attempts will always involve negotiations between various political actors and interests. Yet these negotiations are hammered away as being signs of "Democrats in disarray." Meanwhile, there has been very little said about Democrats being frequently reliant on two obstinate senators precisely because they cannot rely on any Republican support. Republicans refuse to take on the messy process of engaging in democracy and then manage to slip past the media's negativity-biased radar, all while Democrats are portrayed as feckless and chaotic.

In concrete terms, this asymmetrical coverage creates conditions in which Democrats are punished for legislating, the popularity of their agenda gets relegated to the shadows, and, worse, Republicans' own opposition is rarely conveyed to voters. One striking example of this can be seen in a recent ABC News report featuring disappointed Biden voters. One such voter, an 82-year-old Pennsylvanian, said economic stress was stretching his social security thin and, given these circumstances, he was intending to vote Republican in the midterms.

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This voter's pain is real and he deserves to be heard, but other things are true as well: Build Back Better would cap his drug expenses, provide elder care and expand Medicare. It's also true that Republicans are fighting against these same provisions and have a well-known antipathy towards expanding Social Security, which was the issue most affecting the featured voter. None of this is mentioned in the article.

Consider, for just one moment, how voters' perception of the political reality would shift if clearer, more balanced frames were provided when discussing the current political debates. For example, imagine the following headlines, all of which include concrete details of Democrats' agendas, as well as Republican opposition:

"Majority of Republicans oppose Biden's bipartisan infrastructure agenda, which is supported by 63% of Americans."
"Majority of Republicans oppose Biden's plan to fix bridges, replace lead pipes and bring broadband to rural communities."
"House Republicans oppose childcare subsidies, expansion of the childcare tax credit and universal pre-k."
"House Republicans voted against Medicare for dental care, capping insulin costs and putting a limit on seniors' out-of-pocket drug spending."

Changing journalistic frames does not require advocating for Democrats or bashing Republicans. Reducing disproportionate negative coverage and highlighting Republican agency would actually give voters a more objective sense of political reality. Democrats want to fix bridges, provide childcare and lower drug costs. Republicans don't. These are political facts and voters should be aware of them.

Biden's sinking approval ratings are, again, likely determined by multiple factors. That said, the decoupling between Biden's personal approval and support for his agenda is a real cause for concern.

READ: Watchdog warns of 'serious problems' with 'fundamentals of democracy' in US

The media is not responsible for improving Biden's polling, but it should be aware of the role it has to play in educating citizens.

Relentless negativity, paired with the omission of objectively positive facts, doesn't neutrally describe reality; it non-neutrally distorts perception. If this media environment persists, citizens will go to vote based on fogs and shadows, rather than actual legislative content.

This will have real consequences not just for their own personal lives, but for our democracy itself. The press will be partly culpable.

Republicans declare war over race in public schools — and Black kids get left out of the discussion

Over the past year, Republicans have declared a war on how race and racism are addressed in public schools. This enmity was forefront in the gubernatorial election in Virginia, as well as battles over school boards across the country. In the past few months, at least seven states have banned so-called "critical race theory" from curricula. Over a dozen more are moving similar bans through state legislatures.

It would be naïve to expect more from the Republican Party. It requires an ongoing and bloody culture war to win. But there is another party with a role to play, who might be receptive to correction: the media.

Overall, the media's coverage of the battle over education has been, let us say, "deeply problematic." Reporting on the issue has overwhelmingly featured white parents describing the discomfort their children felt in discussions about racism.

Apparently, no one has thought it relevant to consider the experiences of Black children. This is regrettable as it's impossible to cover a story about race in education while amplifying exclusively white voices.

How would the coverage change if the media approached the topic with an eye to informing citizens? To answer that question, consider just a few relevant data points.

First, Black kids experience racism before they enter school.

Research has shown that Black children are aware of racism usually before age five. Black kindergarteners are far more cognizant of their own race than their white counterparts. They are also keenly aware of racism, though they can't always name the experience.

Black children's awareness of racism is not illusory. It is based on empirically demonstrated lived experiences that are shaped by interactions with peers and teachers. White teachers are more likely to direct Black kids to special education and less likely to recommend them to gifted classes, even when their performance is at the same level as their white peers. Punishments for similar behaviors are more severe, resulting in Black children being systematically humiliated, in addition to being more frequently detained and suspended.

As they age through the school system, Black children report feeling more and more isolated. It's not in their imagination. Even Black 5-year-olds are more likely to be described by their white teachers as angry or threatening than their white classmates. White teachers are more likely to perceive Black children as older than they are, which contributes to teachers responding to them in age-inappropriate ways. White children get comfort. Black children get punishment.

And I've only talked about preschool and kindergarten

Black children are often unfairly disadvantaged by their dialect and linguistic discrimination. When children enter primary school, they begin the process of learning to read. This requires mapping alphabetic visual symbols onto the sounds we use when we speak.

Many Black children are speakers of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a dialect of our language that is just as rich and systematic as any other. However, because this dialect differs from the standard dialect, Black children who speak AAVE are told that they have a "home language" and a "school language."

The former has no place in the classroom and the distinction between "home" and "school" inevitably plays into linguistic stereotypes of AAVE as somehow inferior or sloppy. White children are rarely told the dialect they speak is not befitting of a school environment, even when their dialects also differ from the standard.

Further, Black students who speak AAVE are given little help in making the bridge from their dialect to the "standard" demanded of them. The systematic differences in their dialect are not noted; these differences are more commonly just characterized as "wrong." Consider how terribly confusing that must be for a 6-year-old child.

At this point, we've just talked about play and reading.

Despite the repeated falsehoods on the right, it is extremely rare for a curriculum to devote considerable attention to racism as a systemic and ever-present problem. Rather, the opposite is usually taught: that racism and racists are far, far away and that children are color-blind.

Combine such lessons — no racists here! — with Black children's empirically demonstrated experiences of racism and it's hard to imagine a more comprehensive and vicious form of gaslighting.

It is unsurprising many Black children develop chronic stress as a result of overt and covert racism. This chronic stress, in turn, has not just been linked to social, emotional and academic outcomes, but also to physical health. Black children experience elevated levels of cortisol throughout the school day, a physiological state that not only leaves children exhausted, but also impedes their ability to work.

Discrimination results in the prevalence of "stereotype threat" among Black children, adolescents and college students, such that if attention is brought to their race by a white educator, their performance on a task will decrease. Racism — from childhood to adulthood — is and will be a constant assault on both the body and mind.

The fact that Black people are so invisible from our public framing of the education debate shows just how intellectually impoverished the conversation is. They exist primarily as objects of discussion in the imagination of white Americans. A subject to debate, not people to listen to. This rendering of Black Americans as invisible is, perhaps, an argument for teaching more about racism in society, not less.

The GOP is waging a race war. We shouldn't expect them to care about Black kids. We should, however, demand that the rest of us place Black children within the scope of our conversation about education.

How Facebook exploited our cognitive flaws and biases — for profit

The public has been given insight into Facebook's business practices. Many of these disclosures have come from a whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who, in her testimony before Congress, stated: "I am here today because I believe that Facebook's products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy."

The Facebook leaks have shown, among other things, that the company provided a breeding ground for right-wing extremism. For example, Facebook's own researchers determined that a fake user who was tagged as "Conservative, Christian, Trump-supporting" would be hit by a deluge of conspiratorial and racist propaganda within days of joining the platform. Similarly, in India, over the course of only a few days, a fake user was inundated with anti-Pakistani rhetoric, such as, "300 dogs died now say long live India, death to Pakistan."

How did Facebook's algorithms radicalize users across the globe?

We don't have the complete answers, but here's what we do know: Facebook designed algorithms that played upon a web of human cognitive biases and social dynamics to maximize engagement and derive profit. And the very factors that made these algorithms profitable also made them a veritable petri dish for extremism.

To understand this, we can first reflect on the underlying psychological mechanisms that the company exploited.

We, as social creatures, are subject to multiple forces that shape the information we consume and our social interactions.

  • Confirmation bias: We seek out information that confirms our beliefs rather than that which would falsify them.
  • Congeniality bias: We seek out supportive behavior from others who affirm our beliefs.
  • Emotional bias: We favor emotional information over neutral information in general. We favor engaging with negative content over positive content, especially on social media.

These biases then lead us to self-select into groups. We want to interact with people who agree with us. We want affirmation. We bond over powerful emotions, rather than neutral facts.

Once we join groups of like-minded people, we are subject to multiple effects that arise from our interactions with other group members. Within a group, we are less likely to express dissenting opinions than we are to express agreement. Further, we are driven to not just agree, but to rather make more elaborate points. These tendencies can be benign, or even productive, but research has also shown that, over time, the confluence of agreement and elaboration can be detrimental: specifically, the more members of a group speak about a topic about which they all agree, the more extreme their rhetoric becomes.

None of us are immune to these pressures, including myself. I'll hesitate before expressing dissent within a given social group, whereas I'll feel bolstered when I express agreement. When I express agreement, I'm rarely enticed to say, "Yes, I agree;" rather, I feel inclined to offer an elaboration. This is all ordinary human behavior.

However, biases and behaviors become pernicious within the domains of bigotry and conspiracy theories. If a group rewards members for bigotry, they will engage in more frequent and extreme acts of bigotry. If the group rewards members for the brilliance of a conspiracy theory, members will increasingly elaborate on the conspiracy theory.

What does all of this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook made specific algorithmic choices that not only facilitated these psycho-social phenomena, but exploited and amplified them. Why? Because appealing to biases and group behavior leads to user engagement. User engagement, in turn, leads to greater profit.

Facebook is still not fully transparent about its algorithms, but here is what we do know: Before a user views a given piece of information — whether it's a news report or a post from another person — that information gets filtered to maximize the user's engagement.

To achieve this, the algorithm evaluates a person's profile and provides them with information that conforms to a user's identity. It also down-weights — or, frankly, suppresses — information that disconfirms the user's priors. This entails that if a user expresses doubt about vaccines, they will see more doubt about vaccines rather than pro-vaccine arguments. If a user expresses bigotry, they will see more bigotry, rather than anti-bigotry arguments. This aspect of Facebook's algorithm thus relies heavily on confirmation bias to engage users.

But the algorithm's cognitive tricks don't end there.

In 2017, Facebook made the decision to give five times more weight to posts that elicited extreme emotional reactions — such as rage or love — than posts that elicited mere likes. This decision exploited biases towards emotional valence. The company also decided to double down on promoting group membership to combat a decline in engagement. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, wrote: "There is a real opportunity to connect more of us with groups that will be meaningful social infrastructure in our lives . . . that can strengthen our social fabric."

At the same time, researchers warned that Facebook's group dynamics could be a hotbed of extremism. In 2018, one researcher went so far as to state group algorithms produced bot-like behavior among humans and introduced "radicalization via the recommendation engine."

As we know from psychology, if you are in a social group, you are societally rewarded for increasingly extreme behavior. But, on Facebook, you're not just rewarded by other members of the group, you're also rewarded by the company itself. When you get a lot of likes from your group, Facebook rewards you. When you post something that elicits more extreme responses, such as anger, Facebook rewards you even more. As one internal Facebook report stated, "Our algorithms exploit the human brain's attraction to divisiveness."

Furthermore, Facebook decided to show group members unrelated posts from other members of the same group. This inevitably led to an interconnected web of extremist ideologies. Research has shown that once a Facebook member joins one extremist group — such as flat-earthing — Facebook will recommend they join interconnected groups, such as those pertaining to anti-vaxxing or chem-trails.

And, if group membership correlates with white supremacy, users will start to see that, too. As one researcher put it, "The groups recommendation engine is a conspiracy correlation index."

When we look at all of this, it becomes clear how Facebook's specific choices to maximize engagement facilitates a snowball of interconnected conspiracy theories and radicalization. Users are shown information that confirms their beliefs. They are encouraged to engage with others who share those beliefs. They are furthermore rewarded for increasingly extreme posts. And, then, when they engage in one extremist group, they will be exposed to several others.

Perhaps, one could argue, Facebook shouldn't be held too accountable here. They are a company that is trying to make money. Their ability to make money is dependent on engagement. They didn't design the algorithm with the explicit purpose to encourage radicalization.

This excuse falls apart the moment one realizes that, for years, Facebook was warned by people both inside and outside the company that their algorithms led to the rise of right-wing extremism globally.

What we now know is that Facebook drew people in based on their relationships with friends and family, and then it exploited specific cognitive biases in order to maximize engagement with other content.

We know the company made choices it was warned could lead to radicalization globally. The company not only ignored these warnings, but suppressed evidence by their own researchers that demonstrated dire predictions about the algorithm were coming to fruition.

We know radical content led to more engagement, which, in turn, was good for the company's bottom line. Facebook is therefore culpable of not only exploiting human beings' ordinary cognitive biases, but knowingly encouraging political extremism for profit.

Joe Manchin is making a big mistake about what it means to be 'entitled'

Joe Biden's human infrastructure bill (aka Build Back Better) promises the largest expansion of the social safety net since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. It is also one of the most pro-women and pro-child bills in US history. Among its progressive provisions are expanded child tax credits, paid leave and assistance with childcare expenses.

According to Axios, one reason the bill has stalled in Congress is due to US Senator Joe Manchin's demand that only one of these progressive provisions be included in the final version of the bill.

Manchin said he opposes these elements of the bill. He said: "I don't believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society. I think we should still be a compassionate, rewarding society."

So what does Manchin mean when he says Biden's human infrastructure bill would transform our "rewarding society" into an "entitlement society"? And would that be so bad?

"Entitlement" has potent negative connotations in US politics. Entitlements are, above all, undeserved. Listeners, upon hearing the word, are invited to imagine lazy slobs leaching off those who actually work. It conjures images of free-riders and "welfare queens," the latter being another example of how conservatives skillfully use language as a tool of oppression. Thus, calling a policy — any policy — an "entitlement" is a convenient way to disparage it, requiring none of the work usually associated with policy criticism.

Yet what the term denotes — that individuals in a society have rights to certain provisions — is extremely positive. It is fundamental to liberalism, and even found in the work of conservative intellectuals.

Friedrich Hayek, beloved icon of Paul Ryan, said: "There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has … the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom. … [T]here can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody."

Hayek's argument is not unlike that made by President Roosevelt while advocating for the Social Security Act of 1935: "If, as our Constitution tells us, our Federal Government was established … to 'promote the general welfare,' it is our plain duty to provide for that security upon which welfare depends." Thus, the idea that citizens are entitled to certain societal security is not a foreign or toxic concept.

While the US lags behind in securing its citizens the means to thrive, the few major programs it does have are extremely popular.

Social Security ensures that citizens receive financial assistance so they do not have to work until they die. Medicare and Medicaid provide healthcare for the elderly, poor, and disabled. Public education provides every child at least 13 years of education.

What more does President Biden believe American children and their parents are entitled to receive? To answer this question, consider the status quo, Manchin's "compassionate" and "rewarding society."

Childhood poverty:

  • In 2019, one out of seven American children lived in poverty. In West Virginia alone, Joe Manchin's home state, 17 percent of parents reported their children don't eat enough because the family couldn't afford food.
  • On average, across the country, childhood poverty costs $700 billion a year. That's 3.5 percent of GDP.
  • Children who experience poverty early in life are less likely to finish high school and more likely to be unemployed later.
  • Only 8 percent of children raised in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution rise to the top 20 percent as adults, a rate of upward mobility that lags behind other democracies


  • US families, on average, spend 40 percent more of their income on childcare than what The Department of Health and Human Services considers affordable.
  • The cost of childcare rose 37 percent between 2000 and 2012, while the average middle income for families fell by 8 percent. Post-2012, these costs have only continued to rise.
  • Parents spend roughly $11,000 a year on care for a single child, more than the cost of public college in 33 states.
  • The cost is indeed so immense that three out of five millennials report delaying having a child due to financial reasons.
  • Prior to the pandemic, 42 percent of American children under the age of 5 lived in a "childcare desert," where no childcare was accessible. The pandemic only exacerbated this crisis.

The childcare crisis also has significant economic consequences, reducing productivity and market participation:

  • Women frequently leave the workforce to care for children and are twice as likely as men to say this time off hurt their careers.
  • Leaving the workforce for five years of childcare is estimated to cost American women 20 percent of their earning potential.
  • On average, businesses lose an estimated $12.7 billion annually due to childcare problems, such as when a worker must take time off to care for a sick child.
  • Lack of childcare in general is estimated to cost the US economy $57 billion every year.
  • When parents leave the workforce to care for their children, childcare centers close and childcare workers — primarily working class women — lose their jobs.

This is Manchin's "compassionate" and "rewarding society."

Women choosing between raising children and pursuing careers. Couples, facing economic security, waiting to start a family, if they start one at all. Impoverished adults giving birth to impoverished children who later become impoverished adults, perpetuating a cycle of suffering. Our "compassion," apparently, extends just far enough to ensure that few in poverty actually starve to death. So "rewarding" is our society that children born to wealthy parents are rewarded with the security of wealth. Children born to poor parents are rewarded with the insecurity of poverty.

So how would Biden's human infrastructure bill change things?

Recall the bill's more progressive provisions: an expanded child tax credit, paid leave and childcare. These, you'll notice, are responsive to exactly the problems facing American families. These "entitlements" would, of course, improve the welfare of countless America citizens.

But, as the economic data indicates, they also serve to strengthen society overall by increasing the labor force, increasing economic output and market participation and, importantly, caring for children.

Additionally, if Americans who want children are unable to do so for financial reasons, we risk a lopsided population crisis such that, in a generation, there will be fewer workers to participate and pay taxes to support the programs we already have, such as Social Security.

The word "entitlement" has long carried negative connotations. But it shouldn't. We should be proud that, as a society, we have decided the elderly are entitled to financial assistance. We should be proud that we have decided that children are entitled to an education. And, now, Joe Biden and other Democrats should be proud that they are arguing that women are entitled to freedom and children are entitled to care.

Democrats should fight to preserve every pro-family aspect of the human infrastructure bill. And individuals like Joe Manchin should be challenged as to why they argue for the vicious status quo.

A status quo that hurts individuals and the economy. A status quo that rewards few but punishes many, especially women and children.

The media's 3 big failures are concealing the reality of Joe Biden's agenda

In the 1960s, President Johnson waged one of the most consequential battles in US history: The Great Society. It was a package of legislative reforms that would touch almost every aspect of American life, from healthcare to civil rights to education. Headlines were admirably clear. The New York Daily News: LBJ'S BLUEPRINT: Billions for Schools; Aged; Medicare & War on Poverty. The Los Angeles Times: "LBJ's 'GOOD FIGHT': Pledges War on Hate, Poverty." The Times covered the philosophy underlying it: "President urges new federalism to 'enrich' life" and "Johnson Pledges Great Society; Will Visit 4 Needy Areas Today."

In this coverage, Johnson was described as an agent — a passionate one — engaged in an ideological, even visionary, battle. What Johnson was fighting for was clearly delineated: alleviating poverty, investing in schools and enriching American life. The societal circumstances that merited this battle were also identified. The country needed to be rebuilt. Both individuals and communities were vulnerable.

Contrast this to the press coverage of President Biden's Human Infrastructure Bill, which, if passed, would be the greatest expansion of the social safety net since Johnson's Great Society. The Times: "As Senate Democrats return to Washington, divisions remain over a spending bill." ABC News: "Panel OKs Dems' $3.5T bill, crunch time for Biden agenda." Politico described the current week of legislative battles simply as, "Joe Biden, Welcome to the Thunderdome."

In these headlines, Biden is rarely described as an ideological warrior advocating for a specific vision of American society; rather, the president, if assigned any agency at all, is depicted dispassionately as negotiating with recalcitrant senators. When Johnson said his agenda was aimed to "enrich life," this made the front pages. We've seen fewer bold citations of Biden's proclamations that "investment in our physical and human infrastructure are inextricably intertwined" or that he desperately wants to give "breathing room to families."

Overall, there have been three main problems in coverage of Biden's proposal, as well as the congressional battle.

First, the big picture is obscured. As was the case with Johnson's Great Society, the overarching concept of "Human Infrastructure" is revolutionary: Democrats are arguing that the structures that allow our society to function are not limited to highways and bridges, but extend to human networks. These structures must be buttressed by investing in human welfare. When individuals suffer, society suffers. The bill thus represents not only a paradigmatic shift in American political policy, but also an existential battle about the proper role of government in ensuring human welfare and a functioning society.

The second problem with the coverage is that significant details of the proposal are glossed over or ignored. Critical provisions of the bill are rarely mentioned in headlines. Universal pre-K. Childcare for working families. Tuition-free community college. Support for small businesses. Investments in school infrastructure. Workplace development and job training. Affordable housing. Investments in clean energy. Drought and forestry investment to reduce carbon emissions and prevent wildfires. The list goes on and on. And yet these stakes seem often absent from media portrayals of the congressional battle.

The third problem with the press coverage is that the economic impact of the bill is badly misrepresented. Although headlines focus on the package's $3.5 trillion cost, few reports note that this cost would be spread over a decade. And even fewer mention the bill's possible long-term economic benefits. Consider how its provisions would actually save Americans money and generate revenue.

  • Climate Change. The economic toll of climate change far exceeds $3.5 trillion. It's only going to get worse: The cost of 2021's Hurricane Ida was $95 billion. 2017's Hurricane Harvey cost was $125 billion. In 2020, the cost of drought in just the southwest was estimated to be between $515 million and $1.3 billion, not counting forest fires. In 2018 alone, California wildfires cost the US more than $148.5 billion.
  • Education. High-quality early education for disadvantaged children can return four to nine dollars on every one dollar spent. Children who go to preschool are more likely to graduate from high school and ultimately go to college. Those who graduate from high school will earn more money and, therefore, participate more in the market economy, as well as pay more taxes. Furthermore, investments in K-12 education are estimated to increase GDP by between $32-$76 trillion over the next few decades. Community college, included in the bills, has been correlated with higher earnings and reduced need for social services, saving the economy $46.4 billion a year.
  • Childcare. Childcare subsidies boost labor force participation, especially among low-income mothers. Childcare helps businesses. Lost earnings, revenue and productivity due to lack of childcare are estimated to total $57 billion dollars every year.
  • Housing. Investments in affordable housing benefit virtually everyone. According to a 2015 National Low Income Housing Coalition report, over half a million jobs were either created or sustained through housing investments. The creation of just 100 affordable rental homes would generate almost $12 million in local income and $2 million in taxes.

Those who consider themselves fiscally responsible should enthusiastically consider the proposal on these merits alone. People hear the Human Infrastructure bill's price — $3.5 trillion — and probably assume that if it doesn't pass the country is spared $3.5 trillion more in debt. But in reality, the price of inaction is far higher. In this sense, the Washington press corps is failing on a basic empirical metric. If you cite the cost, you must also consider the benefit.

There is one more consideration worth noting: the function of journalism in our democracy. The press's role is to inform Americans about the democratic process, including the content of legislation that could meaningfully transform their lives. Farmers should know, right now, that Congress is debating how much to help them survive the devastating effects of climate change. Coastal communities should know Congress is debating how to protect their homes from extreme weather. The adult children of elderly parents should know Congress is debating providing assistance for eldercare to relieve families of the painful strain. Parents of young children should know Congress is trying to relieve strain on their end, too, by providing childcare assistance. None of this has been well-conveyed to the public.

As they did with the Great Society, the press should inform the electorate about the existential battle at hand. They should be clear about the various motivations of the political agents. There is no need to call Biden a "warrior," but there's also no need to obscure his stated intention to help families as well as to combat climate change.

Furthermore, the American citizens — including children, parents and the elderly — who will be affected by these policies should be highlighted. The potential cost-saving and revenue generation of the bill's provisions should be mentioned just as much as its initial cost.

In the 1960's, Johnson's vision was for a "Great Society." He was fighting for "needy communities" in a "war" against poverty. Now, 60 years later, by advancing Human Infrastructure, who does Biden claim he is fighting for? And what is his vision? The press is failing to tell us.

How anti-vaxxers co-opt sciences to spread disinformation

Since the covid pandemic struck, Americans have been exposed to scientific information at an unprecedented rate. While such availability of science is a welcome development, the news is not all good.

Given the nature of science and academic research, even thoughtful media consumers may be misled by reporting, even when it's accurate. This has presented purveyors of disinformation with an opportunity.

Anti-vaxxers in particular have appropriated research to great effect. By distorting findings, and selectively appealing to others, anti-vaxxers give their misinformation a veneer of scientific credibility, rendering propaganda both harder to spot and more difficult to correct.

Two recent cases of such scientific misrepresentation demonstrate the effectiveness of this anti-vaxx strategy: research on natural immunity and the relative infectiousness of vaccinated people.

The case of "natural immunity"
In recent weeks, anti-vaxxers have gone wild over an Israeli study comparing natural immunity to vaccine-induced immunity. The preprint reported that breakthrough infections among the vaccinated were more common than re-infections among the unvaccinated. The authors interpreted this as indicating that natural immunity is more robust than vaccine-induced immunity, at least in the short term.

Anti-vaxxers eagerly misinterpreted these findings. People on Reddit, Twitter, and elsewhere reasoned that, if natural immunity is more robust than vaccine-immunity, as science says, it is thus preferable to become naturally immune than it is to be vaccinated. This bizarre conjecture ignores the fact that covid infection carries great risk, including death and permanent damage to lungs, kidneys, heart and brain. Serious risks from vaccination are virtually non-existent.

Notice, the strength of the science is not at issue. The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, may be perfectly sound. What's troubling here is the fallacious argument that you should prefer to become naturally immune. We're led to believe this enjoys the authoritative stamp of scientific approval despite its utterly unscientific pedigree.

Misinformation about natural immunity is not just relegated to the dark corners of the internet. Harvard medical professor Martin Kulldorff has given the Israeli study a heavy boost on Twitter while offering no context about how the findings should be interpreted. Although replies to his tweets are filled with anti-vaxxers declaring vindication, Kulldorff has issued no correction. When another researcher cautioned Kulldorff to be careful about the data and subsequent inferences, anti-vaxxers responded with incredulity: how dare you question a Harvard scientist? Predictably, conservative media then amplified the flawed information.

A related myth alleges, based on the Israeli study, that vaccinated people are more dangerous to others than those with natural immunity alone. Additionally, politicians and conservative media are using "natural immunity" as a counterpoint to Biden's recent call for vaccine mandates, asserting that the research proves Anthony Fauci, Democrats and the CDC are the real enemies of science.

The case of "infectiousness of the vaccinated"
Another prominent case of the misuse of scientific information concerns the infectiousness of vaccinated people.

In late July, the CDC published research indicating that viral loads among vaccinated people who experienced delta-breakthrough infections did not significantly differ from unvaccinated people. Other studies have shown similar results. These findings received substantial media attention of variable quality. While many headlines specified that the scientific data pertained to vaccinated people with breakthrough infections, others were less cautious, generalizing to the entire vaccinated population. For example, the AP declared, "Study: Vaccinated people can carry as much virus as others" and the New York Times tweeted, "The Delta variant . . . may be spread by vaccinated people as easily as the unvaccinated."

Many people — and not just anti-vaxxers — came away with the mistaken impression that science had demonstrated that all vaccinated people are just as infectious as the unvaccinated, such that, even if they had not progressed to infection, they were still as likely to carry the virus. This inference is spurious because vaccination vastly reduces the risk of getting infected in the first place; further, preliminary research indicates that several factors, including decreased viral shedding and less severe symptoms, may render even infected vaccinated people less contagious.

The CDC and other officials reacted appropriately to the research on breakthrough infections and viral spread by advocating for increased caution among vaccinated people. In the presence of scientific uncertainty, an abundance of caution approach is warranted.

However, anti-vaxxers seized on this same information to further undermine the rationale for vaccination. For months the public health message has been that people should be vaccinated to protect themselves and their communities. Anti-vaxxers are now exploiting the research on breakthrough infections to contradict that message, arguing that, if science tells us that vaccinated people are just as likely to spread the virus, what's the value in getting vaccinated at all?

Fox News leaned in heavily on this message, with Tucker Carlson implying that the CDC data on transmissibility among vaccinated people was a direct contradiction of President Biden's argument that vaccination was a patriotic duty. And, as we saw with natural immunity, Carlson wrapped himself up in a cloak of scientific authority, claiming "It turns out that the COVID vaccines — those wonder drugs that were absolutely perfect, more impressive than the moon landing, the drugs you were not allowed to question in any way — don't actually work in the way they told us they did. The science is more complicated than we thought."

Notice that the research on breakthrough infections appears to be sound. The problem is not the science itself, but how it has been misrepresented by members of the public and, in some cases, the straight news media. Indeed, the more credible the research, the more credibility is lent to the anti-vax propaganda it allegedly supports.

The role of risk perception
To some degree, misunderstanding of public health, particularly in the domain of personal risk perception, has made this abuse of science even more effective. Reporters and pundits — not just conservative ones — have consistently emphasized personal risk of contracting covid over community risk. Parents have been advised to make decisions based on the risk-profiles of their children, rather than considering the risk they pose to the community. Young adults have been told, repeatedly, their personal risk from covid is minimal.

Framed this way, it's easy to see why people come to believe some of the anti-vax messaging, particularly if it's framed as scientific. If you perceive your own risk as low, why would you get a vaccine when you've just heard natural immunity is superior? And what's the point in protecting your community if vaccinated people are just as infectious?

The interplay between bad scientific interpretation and risk perception will also likely play a role in the next big covid battle: childhood vaccination.

A recent poll found only 51 percent of parents said they would "probably" or "definitely" vaccinate their children — much lower than the percentage of parents who are vaccinated themselves.

This effect was present even for Democrats: though 88 percent of this group is vaccinated, only 66 percent responded that they were likely to vaccinate their children. Predictably, this number is even lower for Republicans: Though 55 percent of Republicans are personally vaccinated, only 35 percent say they will vaccinate their kids.

Conservatives are already seizing on this framing, claiming natural immunity and low childhood risk render childhood vaccines not just unnecessary, but evil.

If we are to combat misinformation, we need to appreciate how science has been coopted to spread it. We should worry less about the ravings of anti-vaxxers obsessed with microchips, and more about the falsehoods that, enjoying a patina of scientific authority, are harder to identify and harder to correct. This subtler variety of deception, cloaked in the language of science, is far more troubling.

Why anti-vaxx attitudes fit so perfectly with far-right ideology across the globe

It is increasingly clear that much resistance to vaccination in the United States is driven by partisanship. Fox News has spent months comparing vaccination efforts to apartheid and forced sterilization. Conservative politicians have been vaccinated in private, if at all. GOP voters have declared that their opposition to vaccination is driven by opposition to liberals. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, hundreds of thousands have participated in anti-vaccination protests throughout Europe. Many far-right politicians in Europe have aligned themselves with these movements. In France, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen has called mandatory vaccination for health workers an "indecent brutality," while her Italian counterpart, Giorgia Meloni, has described vaccination passports as "totalitarian."

This swell of international activity has left some journalists wondering, why is anti-vaccination emerging as a distinctly right-wing phenomenon across the globe?

The answer is multiply determined, as is typical of socio-political phenomena. There is, nonetheless, a clear explanatory variable for much of this trend: anti-vaccination sentiment is perfectly aligned with extant populist ideology, particularly within the far-right.

The meaning of "populism" is contested. It's often used imprecisely and may denote a variety of things. However, populism is commonly associated with a cluster of concepts. Populism is a superficial or "thin" ideology, meaning it rarely reflects deep thinking about policy.

Populist movements characteristically embody the pathos of the masses in opposition to an imagined "elite." The "masses" are, typically, not representative of the public at large, but rather ethnically and culturally homogeneous. Populists are bound together by strong cultural identity and moral superiority and perceive their values as under perceived threat. The populist's opponents—including politicians, academics, scientists, ethnic and religious minorities—are not only corrupt, but actually evil. They are, quite literally, enemies of the people.

From this perspective, it is hardly surprising that anti-covid vaccination movements have become associated with far-right populist movements. The two are made for each other like adjacent pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Within the context of public health, especially vaccination, the quintessential populist themes of victimization, moral righteousness and distrust of authorities are all simultaneously afforded opportunity for expression.

Consider, for example, some recent expressions of anti-vaccination sentiments.

The Holocaust and related symbols are being coopted by anti-vaxxers. Protesters and politicians alike are decorating themselves in golden stars, symbols of Jewish persecution. Some blithely compare vaccination efforts to the cruel pseudoscience of genocidal torturers, such as the Nazi doctors. A Republican Senate candidate in Oklahoma tweeted a photo of Anthony Fauci donning a Hitler mustache in front of the words, "Faucism: Scare them into Submission; Profit from the Panic." In the UK, Kate Shemirani, an ex-nurse, gave an anti-vax speech in Trafalgar Square in which she compared the vaccination efforts of the NHS to experimental torture by Nazi Doctors, shouting to a cheering crowd, "Get their names. … At the Nuremberg trials, the doctors and nurses stood trial and they hung."

In Poland, rather than relying on symbolism of the Holocaust, some anti-vax groups have taken the route of blaming Jews for the pandemic, an old technique that merges bigoted tropes about Jews and infectious disease with those about Jews and global control. Another Polish anti-vax group recently expressed themselves by burning down an inoculation clinic.

Notice also how, in the United States, Donald Trump and the Republican Party have been actively weaving the threads of populism throughout their own response to the pandemic, from anti-lockdowns, to anti-masking, to anti-vaccines. And they haven't stopped at merely casting doubt on science and inspiring rage towards public health. Trump has declared that those who doubt the vaccine do so because they believe the 2020 election was illegitimate, thus explicitly tying anti-science to political loyalty, as well as to distrust in government, and, indeed, in distrust of democracy itself.

Tellingly, this distrust in science extends beyond sowing doubt about vaccines. For example, when Trump was contradicted by scientists about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, he dug deeper in his advocacy for the treatment. Now, effective anti-virals have been developed, yet far rightists continue to tout the benefits of hydroxychloroquine, some even claiming it as part of their personal treatment. Thus, as is the case with anti-vaccination, a dubious treatment has itself become a symbol of populist resistance. Hydroxychloroquine, doubted by scientists, is glorified. Vaccination, validated by scientists, is portrayed as a tool of Nazi-esque torture.

To be sure, the marriage of populism and the anti-vaccination movement is not a recent development. The French, German and Italian far-right were already turning towards anti-vax rhetoric even prior to the arrival of covid. The pandemic has, however, certainly strengthened the union.

The marriage also has limits. Anti-vaccination sentiment is a powerful tool for fomenting social discord, and undermining trust in government and institutions of the "elite'." This is useful for budding authoritarians seeking to gain power or secure more of it. It is less useful for those who are already powerful enough to be held accountable. This logic is supported by the facts.

For example, leaders in power who rely on populist rhetoric have approached vaccination differently. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro once hypothesized that the Pfizer vaccine would turn people into crocodiles, but has since changed course. Polish President Andrzej Duda was anti-vax in 2020 when that was politically advantageous during an election. Now that the election is over, Duda has expressed doubts about mandates, but has generally toned down any vaccine skepticism. Meanwhile, Viktor Orban, of Hungary, is advocating for limited vaccine mandates. And Rodrigo Duterte, of the Philippines, is threatening unvaccinated people with jail or forced injections of anti-parasitics used to treat animals.

The US domestic context also demonstrates the complex relationship between the possession of political power and the proclivity to exploit anti-vax sentiments. Federalism affords state-level officials finite plausible deniability. The response of right-wing governors is therefore far from uniform. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has condemned the unvaccinated. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson has declared he regrets his support of a ban on mask mandates. Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis continues to wage war against private companies who wish to enforce vaccinations. All of these politicians have, to some extent, engaged in anti-government and anti-science populist rhetoric during the pandemic. Some, like Ivey, are adjusting in the face of the delta variant and others, like DeSantis, are recalcitrant.

What happens next? Some near-term predictions are possible. In terms of public health, strict mandates and negative incentives—such as barring unvaccinated people from large public events—are likely necessary. Those who have made anti-vaccination a crusade of the virtuous against the corrupt are unlikely to be convinced by mere rhetoric. Populism is, again, a thin ideology, motivated by rage over reason.

It is much harder to say, with any confidence, what the mid-to-long term future holds. The marriage could end. Populists could abandon the anti-vaccination movement the moment it ceases to further their agenda. Alternatively, anti-vaccination could become an enduring feature of our politics, endemic as the virus itself. Perhaps it, like anti-immigration sentiment, will soon enough be a staple of the far-right. This raises serious public health concerns, far beyond covid.

It's hard to know how things will develop. The future is uncertain. But the marriage between the far-right and the anti-vaccination movement is no mystery.

Vaccination was always going to be fodder for right-wing populists.

I had tuberculosis — and it taught me a lot about how we must deal with COVID

As covid struck the country, many Americans had their first encounter with the concept of "public health." We heard about testing and "positivity rates" and contact tracing. We obeyed orders to lock down, to minimize social contact and, eventually, to wear masks. But since last spring, misconceptions have been rampant. People from across the political spectrum have overly focused on individual risk of the disease when, as far as public health is concerned, what matters is community risk. Others have gone farther, painting public health efforts as an affront to American liberty and, by proxy, to American identity. These critics, typically Republicans, have argued that we should rely on "personal responsibility" over government action.

This antipathy toward public health fundamentally misunderstands how, historically, infectious disease has been contained. Americans rarely encounter infectious disease precisely because public health strategy has minimized reliance on individual responsibility.

Even before the advent of bacteriology and virology, it was clear that humans transmitted disease to one another in some cases, and, in many others, polluted the common environment. In response to this human-based threat, public health departments sprung up across the country throughout the 19th century. Inspectors traced diseases and isolated infectious individuals. Mandated disease registries were created. Then, in 1905, a landmark United States Supreme Court decision upheld the right of the state to dictate individual behavior for the purpose of disease control, stating that "in every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members, the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint."

Since then, public health has done everything in its power to eradicate infectious diseases. Some of these efforts, such as placing infected patients in so-called "sanitariums," were extremely intrusive. Others, such as normalizing childhood vaccinations, were less so. These measures have led to an astonishing result: Over the last 100 years, the US mortality rate from infectious disease has decreased by 95 percent.

Because of the immense success of such measures, most Americans had very little or no experience prior to covid with the purpose or power of public health. Public health was so successful we rarely saw it. However, public health has always operated in the background, willing to wield both carrots and sticks to protect American communities.

Unlike many other Americans, I had personal experience with public health prior to covid. In 2016, I was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Everything that happened next was like pulling back a curtain and witnessing a complex machine I had never known existed.

I was immediately transferred to the care of the government and placed in quarantine for two weeks. I could not choose my doctor. The government would choose for me. I underwent extensive contact tracing. Public health workers swarmed the hallways of my university and camped out at my favorite bars looking for those I might have infected. I was subject to countless X-rays and blood draws. I gave weekly sputum samples, many of which required medically-induced choking. Were I to decline any of this, I would be jailed.

I was required to take a series of antibiotics for seven months. It numbed my limbs, gave me rashes and made me so dizzy I could not leave bed. One drug turned all of my bodily fluids—from sweat to tears—an angry orange. Another drug interacted with my antidepressants, resulting in "serotonin syndrome." Since I could not stop the antibiotics, I was forced to stop taking antidepressants.

Given the serious side effects of these drugs, many people would not complete tuberculosis treatment on their own. Or they might skip the pill that makes them vomit. Knowing this, public health does not allow tuberculosis patients to administer their medicine; rather, they come to your home every day, unwrap every pill and watch as you swallow.

If public health had relied on my own personal responsibility, instead of mandating treatment and quarantine, the result wouldn't have just harmed me, but could have also harmed countless others. In the case of tuberculosis, when people take their medication irregularly, the risk of drug-resistant strains increases. As bad as my treatment was, treatment for drug-resistant tuberculosis is far worse, lasting years and causing injuries from psychosis to profound hearing loss.

The extreme measures taken in my case—and the cases of all other tuberculosis patients—are why this disease, once the third leading cause of death in the US, has been relegated to the shadows of American consciousness. Infections have dropped 95 percent since the 1950s. For Americans, the disease may seem like something out of a Brontë novel, but in countries with less effective policies, tuberculosis still ravages populations. The disease remains in the top 10 causes of death worldwide, killing someone every 22 seconds. Because the personal choices of American tuberculosis patients are restricted, most citizens are unaware of the horrific reality of the disease.

Given my experience with tuberculosis, it's hard for me to empathize with those who continue to protest much smaller measures to contain covid. What's needed to stop the current pandemic? Two doses of a quick and almost riskless vaccine, costing nothing but a person's time and perhaps three days of side effects. Yet many Americans are still refusing the vaccine, despite the protection it provides for their own health, let alone the health of their communities. Frequently, they cite individual responsibility and "freedom of choice" as a justification.

We're witnessing the consequences of this ideology. Covid is surging. Hospitals in several states are past capacity. Cancer treatments and organ transplants have been canceled. Anything requiring medical care—from a heart attack to a miscarriage—is potentially more fatal, all because when we run out of doctors, we run out of care. And as COVID19 incubates in bodies, we risk more dangerous vaccine-evasive variants emerging. We are seeing that when it comes to infectious disease, "personal responsibility" often entails community harm.

Before 2020, few Americans appreciated living in a country largely free of preventable infectious disease. This is precisely because public health has done its job well. From legal orders to mandated treatments, it protected the community. But after covid emerged, many Americans raged against the system that has kept them safe.

What is to be done now? The history of public health features the use of carrots and sticks to persuade individuals to act in the best interests of the community. Perhaps it's time, in the covid era, to bring out the sticks: vaccine mandates in schools, airlines, businesses and every other arena where they are possible. If optionally unvaccinated Americans want to be "personally responsible" for their own health, they can be so. But they should not be allowed to endanger the lives of others. Public health has never been about any one individual or their freedom. It has always been about protecting society at large.

Magdi Semrau writes about the politics of language, science and medicine for the Editorial Board. She has researched child language development and published in the New York Academy of Sciences. Born and raised in Alaska, she can be found @magi_jay.

Why people resist vaccines — and how to change their minds

We are seeing a new coronavirus surge in the US. In response, governments have engaged in a variety of vaccine incentives, from lotteries to free marijuana to straight-up cash. Pop star Olivia Rodriguez was invited to the White House. Rapper Juvenile changed "Back That Thing Up" to "Vax That Thing Up." These efforts have emerged in an environment in which a sizable number of Americans remain unvaccinated, allowing variants to proliferate. Hospitals are, once again, on the verge of collapse. There is a growing recognition that greater vaccination could have prevented this.

Who are the unvaccinated? Can we change their minds?

Prior to covid, the unvaccinated by choice could be sorted into two categories.

The first group, the most well-known, is the extreme anti-vax movement. These are high-profile figures like Jenny McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, Jr., who sow doubt about even the extremely safe and effective measles vaccine. They whisper about false links to autism and the danger of mercury. In the last decade, such disinformation has proliferated on social media. This group used to be a small, extremist set who opposed vaccination with an almost religious fervor. Members of this group were not merely misinformed; they were ideologues and conspiracy theorists. Though their numbers were small, they have caused significant harm, spreading just enough doubt about vaccines to facilitate outbreaks of both measles and mumps. When it comes to public health and infectious disease, even small cracks can produce system-wide damage.

The second group of unvaccinated Americans is less well-known, but surely equally as important. They, too, existed prior to covid. Unlike the extremists, their choice was not ideological. Some were hesitant, perhaps having minor doubts. Sure, vaccines were probably safe, but were they worth it? Many more were simply complacent. To some extent, this group has people you know. Or maybe even you are a member of it.

Americans are typically good about getting their children the standard roster of shots. They take kids in for check-ups during the first years of life and, with these check-ups, come vaccines. However, as these children age, compliance decreases. In adulthood, Americans fail to get booster shots and chronically skip the annual flu vaccine.

The complacency isn't surprising. Whereas the Silent and Boomer generations remember public pool closures, children with ravaged limbs and terrified parents, younger generations have lived in a world where infectious diseases like measles, mumps and polio have been largely eradicated in the United States. The life-threatening diseases are not distant memories for them. They just don't exist.

Pre-covid, various people did not get vaccinated for various reasons. Some were extremists. Others were merely complacent. Post-covid, the two basic categories remain. What's new is the sizable partisan contingent that has joined the extremists.

Public opinion polling indicates that there are two groups of Americans who are covid-unvaccinated. Kaiser Health has categorized these Americans as "Wait and See"—about 12 percent of adults—and "Definitely Not"—about 13 percent. The "Wait and See" are likely motivated by multiple factors, many of which relate to historical patterns in under-vaccination. This is apparent from their demographics.

About a third of "Wait and See" are young—18-29 years old. They are likely to perceive their personal risk to the coronavirus as low. Early in the pandemic, much reporting gave the impression that the dangers of covid were limited to the elderly and to those with pre-existing conditions. Many people regrettably absorbed this message. "Wait and See" are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. They're also racially and ethnically diverse: 49 percent white, 22 percent Black and 20 percent Latino.

All of this is good news. If young Americans are driven by complacency, public health campaigns can help. And Black and Latino people are not likely, historically, to be anti-vaccine extremists. They may lack access to medical care or they may experience anxiety due to the outcomes of medical racism. This, too, can be addressed through improved medical communication as well as community-level public messaging. In other words, the "Wait and See" are reachable. Their minds can be changed. We've already seen, as time passes, that their numbers decrease. Their numbers were greater in January than they are in July. Apparently they are actually waiting and seeing.

The "Definitely Not" group is quite a different sociopolitical beast. The overwhelming majority—70 percent—is white. Two thirds of the group identifies as Republican. Eighty-four percent are 30 or older. Members are more likely to be suburban than rural or urban. The majority (57 percent) have at least some college education. "Definitely Not" are barely budged by incentives. Whereas "Wait and See" are 14 percent more likely to get a vaccine when offered $100, willingness among "Definitely Not" increases by 1 percent. Offering other kinds of incentives produces similar results. The "Wait and See" respond to various nudges. The "Definitely Not" remain steadfast.

The "Definitely Not" thus comprise not only traditional anti-vaccine extremists, but also conservative partisans. On account of the right-wing media downplaying the risk, they may, like the "Wait and See," perceive their risk to be low. Unlike "Wait and See," however, they are not moved by incentives whatsoever. Like the pre-covid anti-vaxxers, their commitment to being unvaccinated has the character of a political, or even a religious belief. It is part of their personal and group identity. The conversation is not a medical one. The decision isn't sensitive to evidence. It is deeply ideological.

What should we infer from the data? One lesson is clear enough. Many who are unvaccinated—the "Wait and See"—are reachable. What's the best strategy? Throwing every strand of spaghetti at the wall is probably the right approach. There's almost no risk, and the potential societal benefit is tremendous. Bring in the celebrities. Bring in the clergy. Throw money at people. Give them free weed or free booze or free whatever. Don't give up and unless you have a better suggestion, don't sneer at methods that may only convince 5 percent of them. Every shot in every arm matters.

What about the "Definitely Not"? Unfortunately, there is little reason to think public health efforts will make a difference. However, it is still possible things could change. Consider two recent events. The first is the arrival of the Delta variant, which now accounts for 80 percent of cases in the United States. Hospitals in Florida, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Alabama are at or past capacity. Medical workers have returned to social media, begging people to get vaccinated and telling dire tales of deaths among the unvaccinated. And, although the data is still spotty, anecdotal reports suggest that young people may be suffering from more severe disease.

Second, conservative media and some Republican politicians have shifted their stance on vaccines. A few weeks ago, Fox was comparing vaccines to apartheid and forced sterilization. Anthony Fauci, the figurehead of American disease control, was Public Enemy No. 1. Then last week, the network changed its tune, advising viewers to get vaccinated and even praising Dr. Fauci as a fundamentally decent human.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, once lax about covid control, gave an angry speech declaring that the "unvaccinated folks are letting us down." The rhetoric that bred the new partisan wave of vaccine resistance seems to be changing for the moment. Some of the "Definitely Not" may listen. Perhaps some have witnessed covid's devastation in their communities. Maybe these factors will change the minds of the "Definitely Not."

Of course, any optimism must be measured. The GOP is still opportunistic, willing to tolerate loss of life for a victory in the culture war. And Trump is still Trump. Just last week, as Fox pivoted toward being pro-vaccine, Trump announced his followers were vaccine-hesitant because they did not believe the election was legitimate. He more firmly tied vaccine hostility to partisanship. We should expect that, if such antipathy benefits Trump in the slightest, he'll continue to promote it even as bodies pile up.

The real problem with conservative thought on college campuses

Eric Kaufmann published last month a perplexing account of ideological diversity on college campuses for National Review. He opens the piece by noting that, in a recent survey of female college students, only 6 percent said they would date a Trump supporter, which, as Kaufmann see it, "reveals the predilection among many young elite Americans for progressive authoritarianism." Kaufman then segues into an account of discrimination against conservatives and the problem of liberal over-representation. This, he maintains, like race-based discrimination, merits federal intervention. Solution? Mandating "viewpoint neutrality" in higher education.

Kaufmann's piece was roundly and rightly criticized for its troubling implications regarding free speech as well its bizarre inferences about dating and authoritarianism. I won't rehearse those arguments. But there is something else worth noticing.

Many commentators, including some on the left, have uncritically accepted two of the premises underlying Kaufmann's argument. One, that social justice is increasingly illiberal. Two, that ideological imbalance on college campuses is a societal problem.

For example, in his critique of Kaufmann, New York's Jonathan Chait writes, "Despite veering off immediately into absurdity, Kaufmann does identify a real problem. Many elite American institutions, most dramatically but not exclusively in academia, are becoming ideological monocultures in which commitment to progressive goals is becoming a formal or informal criteria for membership within the community."

This description of a "monoculture" echoes concerns previously voiced by writers from across the political spectrum. In 2019, Nicholas Kristof wrote, "Yet while I admire campus activism for its commitment to social justice, I also worry that it sometimes becomes infused with a prickly intolerance, embracing every kind of diversity except one: ideological diversity." Similarly, the signatories of the 2020 Harper's letter, ranging from leftists to conservatives, also critiqued the social left's "restriction of debate." In this same vein, George Packer's most recent piece in The Atlantic characterized current social justice in America as bordering on tyranny.

When writers—from the left, center or right—reference "ideological conformity" or "monoculture," they often offer little in the way of details. References to homogeneity of thought surely sound troubling. But it all remains very abstract. What's missing is concrete description. So let's unpack these claims a bit to see the box is empty.

Democracy relies on debate between citizens. This does not presume every debate is worthwhile, though. Nor does it imply ideological conformity is always bad. We should not, for example, be concerned about conformity concerning the tooth fairy or the shape of Earth. It's good to agree that the human body is made of cells, that Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and that 2 + 2 = 4. Conformity is often the result of the truth.

Some might protest. The problem of ideological conformity doesn't revolve around objective facts, some say; rather, it's about the lack of representation of conservative thought. OK, but be specific. What conservative thought has been silenced?

Critics of "monoculture" aren't concerned that the work of Milton Friedman or Frederick Hayek is excluded from economics courses—such a concern would be false. In 2021 alone, Google Scholar yields around 8,000 results for articles mentioning these authors. Nor should we worry that anti-capitalist sentiment is taking over college campuses, given the sheer number of works churned out extolling the merits of markets. Universities from Georgetown to Cornell to Texas Tech have whole institutes devoted to this subject. Libertarians, conservatives and liberals all participate.

So one has to ask, again, what conservative thought is being ignored exactly? More likely, the complaint is that college classrooms lack positive representations of the current political beliefs of the Republican Party. And herein lies a small problem: the political beliefs of the GOP are, in fact, diametric to the entire project of education.

Just to make a quick list: according to current Republican belief, climate change is, at best, a natural phenomenon unaffected by human behavior and hardly worth worrying about. More often, it doesn't exist. The party also continues to deny the results of a fair and secure democratic election. Republicans have also argued that masks are an ineffective public health measure, covid is just like the flu and George Soros, a Jewish billionaire, pays protesters who disagree with Republican Party policy. Within the party, doubts still remain about whether Barack Obama was born in the United States.

The list goes on. Just the past few weeks have seen Fox News run endless anti-vaccination commentary, including the assertion that guidelines are akin to apartheid. Breitbart featured headlines on the Marxist threat to Taylor Swift. The Federalist published deep dives into Obama's potential connections to critical race theory. The American Conservative published a piece arguing the mass graves of Native children in Canada were "good, actually" as they were a product of a "sincere concern for the salvation of their souls." In the Meantime, Claire Lehmann, the editor of Quillette, spent her week tweeting about Black women's nails as a signal of possible drug abuse.

Given all this, why exactly should we be worried about Republican thought being less well-represented on college campuses? Are we concerned that students won't learn enough falsehoods? That they won't be exposed to enough racism? That covid denialism isn't being taught in biology class? That psychologists aren't seriously considering debates over whether or not Black people are intellectually inferior?

Or maybe conformity really boils down to colleges and universities recognizing and promoting the scientific consensus that gender is fluid, which aligns with guidance from the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association? Is this the terrifying monoculture?

Look, colleges should be maximally permissive in order to protect academic freedom. They should do everything they can to be ideologically blind while hiring. No one should try to ascertain an applicant's ideology. Trump supporters should be hired just as readily as Biden supporters. No professor should be sanctioned for teaching conservative economic theories. Nor should any professor get in trouble for being skeptical of critical race theory or Marxism or any other intellectual framework. However, professors should be sanctioned when they fail to do the basic requirement of their job: education. Modern conservative thought is antithetical to this project.

So do I fear this liberal monoculture in academia? No. One, academia is actually quite ideologically diverse. Two, in cases where "ideological conformity" does exist—such as "the earth is round" and "racism is bad"—perhaps we shouldn't be that fearful of it.

Overall, if analysts are concerned by the lack of representation of conservative ideology, they should be more explicit about which ideas within the Republican potpourri of falsehoods and bigotry should be adopted in college curricula.


Happy Holidays!