Magdi Semrau

Here's what the media refuses to admit about Joe Biden's first year in office

It’s been one year since Joe Biden’s inauguration and many are evaluating his performance.

In one such analysis, New York Times reporter Nate Cohn argued that “Biden was supposed to be FDR. Instead, he's following the playbook of the last half century of politically unsuccessful Democratic presidencies, from LBJ and Clinton to Obama.”

Cohn went on to claim that Biden’s ostensible lack of success was due to an over-commitment to Democrats’ “activist base,” an inadequate focus on the economy and a disconnect from the issues facing the American public at large.

This analysis is spurious on multiple levels.

READ: Kyrsten Sinema's base of support is crumbling around her

First, the denotation of “unsuccessful” in this analysis is unclear.

Are we talking about legislative achievements, popularity, or both? Either way, LBJ, Clinton and Obama all had victories in domestic policy.

LBJ passed the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act. When Clinton left office, the economy was booming and the United States had a surplus. Obama brought the country out of a recession and passed extensive healthcare reform, ultimately expanding insurance to millions of Americans.

So the premise that Johnson, Clinton and Obama were unsuccessful seems a bit shaky, but what about Joe Biden?

READ: New filing unveils startling details of possible fraud by the Trump Organization

In his first year as president, Biden passed two large pieces of legislation: The American Rescue Act (ARPA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill (BIF). For some reason, analysts seem to consider these pieces of legislation unimportant.

Perhaps ARPA gets neglected because it’s viewed as an emergency measure intended to address the bleeding wounds inflicted by the pandemic.

But ARPA was, in fact, a pretty big deal.

The $1.9 trillion legislation provided financial assistance to citizens and small businesses. The childcare tax credit helped American families in the working and middle classes, and mitigated childhood poverty. School funding and the extension of unemployment insurance likely saved many American lives, as well as mitigated economic harm. The American economy also recovered more quickly than the economies of other developed countries.

READ: Why Ivanka Trump has become increasingly important to the Jan. 6 committee

Cohn’s memory-holing of the infrastructure bill – BIF – is equally strange. Our nation languished for decades without a substantial investment in infrastructure.

Such investment was so desperately desired that former President Trump frequently declared it to be “infrastructure week” to distract from various scandals. The term subsequently entered the lexicon as a metaphor for hollow, manipulative rhetoric about non-existent policy.

Then Biden came along and did what Trump proved incapable of: He passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The bill not only enjoyed massive public support, but was also broadly endorsed by unions representing diverse groups of American workers, from truckers to farmers to civil engineers.

Yet, for some reason, both analysts and the public seem to have forgotten this historic legislation even exists.

READ: Bombshell draft order reveals a plan for Trump to seize voting machines after the 2020 election

This may be driven by the fact that infrastructure is popular and uncontroversial. The majority of Congressional Republicans voted against the bill, but they also refrained from waging a public battle.

Infrastructure was thus not very spicy, so the press didn’t cover it as a Biden victory and it has faded from public memory.

Thus, in this case, the popularity of Biden’s agenda may also render this same agenda foggy in press coverage and public consciousness.

Underestimating Biden’s achievements is not the only area where Cohn’s analysis falters.

READ: A ‘buried’ poll result reveals a trend in the GOP that looks bad for Trump

Cohn also claims that, “Biden’s efforts have shifted from the pandemic and the economy” and decided to “prioritize the goals of his party’s activist base over the issues prioritized by voters.” These choices, according to Cohn, are responsible for Biden’s waning favorability.

This analysis is spurious.

ARPA, BIF and BBB are all bills focused on the economy. ARPA protected businesses, workers and ushered in a relatively swift economic recovery. BIF was hailed as a historic investment in infrastructure, providing funds for bridges, roads, environmental clean-up and broadband internet.

BBB is equally economically focused. The investments in climate change mitigation will save money. Further, both BIF and BBB address long term inflationary effects and could create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

These factors led the Brookings’ institute to declare: “America finally has a generation-defining infrastructure bill — and if the reconciliation budget comes through, too, America will begin a building spree larger than what happened during the New Deal.”

This doesn’t look like Biden’s not focused on the economy.

Cohn’s claim that Biden’s agenda is too catered to the “activist base” of the Democratic party is equally wobbly.

When Americans are directly polled on the provisions included in BBB, such as prescription drug prices or childcare subsidies, they express overwhelming support. Further, while voters express support for provisions like the child tax credit, only 38 percent believe Biden is responsible for this benefit.

Thus, Biden isn’t ignoring causes important to American citizens; rather, an information gap exists between Americans’ assessment of their interests and the Biden policies that address these same issues.

None of this looks like narrow catering to a leftist base; rather it looks a lot like addressing the interests of a broad spectrum of Americans.

So what’s actually going on with Biden’s favorability?

Biden’s current political situation is, in some ways, not that abnormal. One way to look at this is to compare Biden’s polling with former President Trump’s favorability during this same period in his presidency.

Whereas Biden is at 43 percent, Trump was at 37 percent at the one-year mark. In the polls, both Trump and Biden enjoy high within-party support and low support from the opposing side. Their numbers with independents are roughly similar.

However, Biden’s situation is also somewhat unique because, unlike Trump, his agenda is actually popular.

Biden’s first year is also distinct from Clinton’s and Obama’s, both of whom faced massive public backlash against their healthcare agendas, as well as highly effective Republican fear-mongering about socialism and government control.

In contrast, Build Back Better continues to enjoy broad public support. There are no public protests and Republicans have limited their attacks to concern-trolling about the cost of the bill, rather than its contents.

So what’s actually going on with Biden’s favorability?

It’s likely driven by many factors. Perhaps the public is frustrated by the stalling of BBB and uninspired by BIF. The public is also depressed by covid and worried about inflation.

Additionally, some of this might just be due to political gravity. Biden, like Trump before him, remains popular within his own party, unpopular within the opposing party, and is getting grief from independents.

Either way, though, it’s pretty clear Biden’s approval rating is not linked to opposition to his agenda, which is broadly popular.

The agenda is not too far left. It does address economic concerns. The real dynamics at play likely involve political forces over which Biden has little control, the pandemic, and critically, a lack of public awareness about Biden’s agenda itself.

Overall, it’s too soon to tell if Biden is a “successful” president.

We’re only one year in.

That said, Biden has had a remarkably successful first year. He passed two major pieces of legislation. A third piece of legislation passed the House, despite Democrats holding a narrow majority. In the Senate, the bill enjoys broad support, but is held up by the opaque interests of two people.

Is Biden winning a popularity contest with independents? No. Is he winning over the hearts and minds of Republicans? No.

But these are not necessarily the metrics by which we should judge his success.

Rather, we should ask what Biden has actually done. From ARPA to BIF, Biden has passed economically focused legislation that enjoys broad political support from citizens.

Perhaps more first-year analyses should focus on these facts.

What Biden’s more likely experiencing is a confluence of polarization, national depression and anxiety, and large gaps in public awareness of legislation. There is no evidence, though, that his agenda is out of step with the American public. In fact, all of the evidence indicates Americans endorse his plans.

The damning evidence against Trump and his allies is just the tip of the iceberg

We have arrived at the one year anniversary of January 6, 2021, when supporters of the president waged war against a co-equal branch of government. Over the past few months, the public has been receiving piecemeal information about both this violent insurrection and the quieter plots that preceded it. While there are many unknowns, here is what is certain: there was an attempted coup on American soil.

In the weeks leading up to January 6, Trump and allies plotted to overturn the election and undemocratically seize power from President-elect Joe Biden. Then, on January 6, Trump supporters attacked the Capitol, potentially delaying certification.

Many have viewed these two threads – the ostensibly soft coup and the hard coup – as perhaps independent events. It’s important, now, to outline what we know and what questions are outstanding about the extent to which these various plots – from quiet proceduralism to violent insurrection – were intertwined.

The Eastman plot
In the weeks before January 6, 2021, Trump and allies mounted a multipronged scheme to overturn the election. Their command center was a “war room” at the Willard Hotel, in Washington, DC. Between November and January, the team mounted multiple legal challenges.

READ: 'Is that English?': Newsmax cuts away from Marjorie Taylor Greene as her speech about Jan. 6 baffles critics

Trump pressured state election officials, as well as his own attorney general. Parallel to these efforts was the scheme outlined by John Eastman, in a now infamous memo: On January 6, Vice President Mike Pence could throw out electors from several key states if these states had proposed alternate electors, kicking the election to Trump.

As January 6 approached, however, Trump’s ability to carry out this plot became more tenuous. Why? Many Republicans in the states in question were willing to comply, but they needed more time.

Coordination
At this point in time, there is no public evidence that Trump and his allies were coordinating with the insurrectionists with the explicit goal to stage an attack. We have not seen, for example, text messages where a Trump ally has said, “We want you to storm the Capitol.”

We do, however, have plenty of other evidence that paints a chilling portrait of possible, if not likely, coordination.

READ: Jen Psaki tears apart Ron DeSantis’ criticisms of Biden’s pandemic testing program: ‘It’s pretty rich’

The insurrectionist groups mingled with Trump’s team in the days before January 6. For example, members of the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and Stop the Steal were gathered at the Willard Hotel on the night of January 5. The Oath Keepers also served as personal security to Trump’s ally Roger Stone on January 5 and 6. At least one of the Proud Boys has admitted their plot was to stop the transfer of power.

Members of these same groups were also in contact with Trump’s allies in Congress, prior to January 6. In December, Ali Alexander, founder of Stop the Steal, texted Mo Brooks, a Republican representative, writing that “January 6 is a big moment in our Republic” and that his group would be in DC to “stand ready to help.”

Alexander also told Brooks that Michael Flynn would be in contact. Other organizers of the Stop The Steal rally allegedly met with “close to a dozen” Republican lawmakers or staff prior to January 6.

Additionally, January 6 rally organizers allegedly bought burner phones (cheap, pre-paid and disposable) to communicate with officials connected to Trump. One such organizer, Kylie Kremer, had formed a Facebook group “urging boots on the ground.”

READ: 'What the hell is going on?' Tucker Carlson slams Ted Cruz for describing Jan. 6 as a 'terrorist attack'

Katrina Pierson, a Trump ally who was organizing the January 6 rally, arranged for the most extreme members of the pro-Trump crowd — such as Alex Jones and Ali Alexander — to give speeches on January 5.

That evening, Alexander inspired the crowd to chant “Victory or Death!” In early December, Alexander tweeted “I am willing to give my life for this fight.” He was then retweeted by the Arizona GOP, who asked: “He is, are you?”

Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, sent an email on January 5 informing an individual that the National Guard would “protect pro Trump people.” There is also evidence of contact between insurrectionists and Mark Meadows. According to a House report, Meadows “exchanged text messages with, and provided guidance to, an organizer of the January 6 rally … after the organizer told him ‘[t]hings have gotten crazy and I desperately need some direction.’”

Finally, we know that, once the attack was underway, John Eastman attempted to exploit the violence to further the coup. He wrote to Mike Pence’s lawyer during the insurrection and declared, “The ‘siege’ is because YOU and your boss did not do what was necessary.”

READ: The Republicans work to unbuild a country already coming apart at the seams

Keli Ward, head of the Arizona GOP, tweeted, “Congress is adjourned. Send the elector choice back to the legislatures.” Later that evening, Eastman wrote to Pence’s lawyer again, arguing that, given the debate had exceeded the allotted time, Pence should proceed to reject the electors from Arizona, just as was outlined in Eastman’s memo.

The military
When we’re talking about coups, we have to talk about the military.

The details of what, exactly, was going on with the military between November 3, 2020, and January 6, 2021, remain murky. What we do know, however, paints a portrait of internal conflict, such that members of Trump’s team repeatedly attempted to exploit hard power in their coup attempt, whereas other members of the military took extraordinary measures to prevent this same action.

On November 9, 2020, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper for insufficient loyalty and replaced him with Christopher Miller, who then served as Acting Defense Secretary. Trump also installed Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Michael Flynn ally, to the position of Undersecretary for Intelligence and Security. Trump made other changes at the Pentagon, including installing a man who had called for Trump to declare martial law in a top position.

READ: Trial reveals that Republicans used ‘secret maps’ during redistricting process: ‘He feels lied to’

After Esper was fired, Gina Haspel, the CIA director, voiced concern about Trump’s extensive restructuring of Pentagon power, allegedly telling the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley: “We are on the way to a right-wing coup.” Her concerns were well-founded.

During this same period, Michael Flynn contacted the newly installed Watnick-Cohen to request that the DoD begin to “effectuate orders and seize ballots.” There would be, Flynn said, “an epic showdown over the election.” Sydney Powell, a lawyer advising Trump, also called Cohen and tried to enlist him in a plot to detain Haspel in Germany. Powell allegedly cited a Qanon conspiracy that Haspel was on a secret mission to destroy evidence of rigged voting machines. When speaking to Watnick-Cohen, Powell asked for a special operations mission to detain and force a confession from the CIA director.

Meanwhile, Acting Defense Secretary Miller and Chairman Milley were increasingly concerned about what would unfold on January 6, though their theories of violence diverged. Milley was concerned that troops, if placed on the streets in DC, could be redirected by Trump to do his bidding. Miller had a different fear: he did not necessarily believe Trump would redirect the military, but, rather that Trump supporters would goad troops into a “Boston Massacre Type Situation.”

The big picture
This is all just the tip of the iceberg. What we know is this: Trump and allies plotted a coup. They were in frequent contact with the individuals who would ultimately attack Congress. At the very least, Trump and allies knew this attack would advance their aims while it was underway. Trump and allies also repeatedly resorted to pressuring the Department of Defense to involve itself in their seizure of power. Some at DoD may have supported this scheme; others resisted it.

In the coming months, as we learn more information, it is crucial to tie these threads together, because, unfortunately, the Republican Party now has what they ran out of last January: time. They are using this time to restructure state elections and install Trump loyalists, thus laying the groundwork to make their next coup more successful.

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.

READ: Watch: Ahmaud Arbery prosecutor delivers devastating closing argument with this simple test for the jury

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.

READ: 'No evidence of fraud, you know that': CBS News' Margaret Brennan shuts down Ted Cruz's election lies to his face

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

Childcare:

  • 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.

Here's what George Packer's 'the Four Americas' gets wrong

George Packer's "The Four Americas" appears in the July issue of The Atlantic. The piece describes four divergent narratives about our country and ourselves. The central claim is that, given these different views of our country's history, culture and meaning, we, the citizens, do not occupy a shared reality. Thus, conflict is inevitable and interminable (intractable). Packer's argument is complex and I won't attempt to be comprehensive. There is, however, a significant issue that should not go unaddressed.

Packer's four Americas seem limited to, well, four white Americas.

Much of Packer's very long piece develops the titular four-part taxonomy. While there's something recognizable in each of the descriptions, the endeavor is unavoidably reductionist. Consider the four Americas, described roughly:

  • "Free America" encapsulates the history of American intellectual conservatism. This America is defined by libertarian tendencies, devotion to capitalism and an emphasis on individual liberty, conceived of as freedom from interference.
  • "Smart America," as far as I can tell, consists mostly of college-educated white Americans. Its citizens watch HBO, eat heirloom tomatoes and enjoy cultural novelty. They, like Free Americans, embrace market capitalism. Some favor a limited social safety net, but by and large, they are wary of economic redistribution. They are not anti-America, but they are not patriotic either.
  • "Real America" is populated by Palinites (after Sarah Palin) and Trumpists. They are white, populist, religious and strenuously patriotic, if not nationalistic. Their love of Trump and the rage he embodied was, according to George Packer, a "kind of revenge" against cultural judgment and fueled by economic anxiety.
  • "Just America" is home to the so-called social justice warriors. In Packer's analysis, they are troubled by actual injustices, but their response is never proportional. Their critique of language—asking for a non-standard pronoun—is a kind of verbal tyranny. They want to abolish assessments in public education. They are also, somewhat puzzlingly, nihilistic, Packer says. They are convinced that America is incapable of change. Just as they march for justice, they seem convinced justice can never succeed. Overall, "Just Americans" value subjectivity over reason. The very notion of individual achievement is anathema. In "Just America," according to Packer, "merit as separate from identity no longer exists."

No taxonomy of a nation's identities will be perfect, but Packer's is particularly messy. "Free America" better describes an intellectual movement, than a substantial category of American voters. "Real America" is perhaps Packer's most accurate category, describing an actual demographic with political power. "Smart America" is somewhat impressionistic—a mishmash of stereotypes about upper-middle class white people, some conservative, some liberal. The union-smashing, capitalism-loving members of "Smart America" do not necessarily vote the same way as the heirloom tomato-lovers who are skeptical of patriotism. Given the scope of Packer's project, however, some gross generalizations are to be expected—and perhaps charitably overlooked.

That said, Packer's account of "Just America" is problematic. More than simplifying what's complex, his characterization misrepresents the subject it seeks to portray.

Packer's depiction of "Just America" consists, centrally, of a series of straw men. It is also paradoxical. In one instance, "Just America" attacks American systems to the extent that what was once "innocent by default" is now "on trial." But, in another instance, Packer writes, "What is oppression? Not unjust laws—the most important ones were overturned by the civil rights movement and its successors." Rather, per Packer, activists have relinquished oppression to ineffable subjective impressions.

We're also told that, as "Just America" views our country, progress as impossible. But they are also concerned to protest police brutality. But, of course, nihilists don't march in protests. The reader is invited to see "Just America" as increasingly oppressive —policing even the words you use—but also frivolous, performative and hollow.

Citizens of "Just America" demand that our language acknowledge things such as "systemic racism," "white privilege" and "anti-Blackness." The importance of what these phrases refer to is in Packer's rendering never given serious consideration. Further, Packer's presentation unhelpfully omits the fact that such emphasis on language is the product of scholarship and activism by people of color. Packer's problematic treatment of "Just America" suggests a more pervasive problem. He has four Americas to work with, yet he still is unable to find a place for Black people.

For example, while there's plenty of room for ordinary white Americans in so-called "Real America," few Black families would likely call it home. "Just America" is the only category that potentially includes Black people and people of color, but even that is limited to analysis of academics and activists. And even then, Black academics and activists would struggle to live comfortably in this America because, as Packer has defines it, the anti-racism protests of 2020 could be defined as "disproportionately Millennials with advanced degrees making more than $100,000 a year."

Herein lies the real crux of the problem with Packer's piece. His categorization of the Four Americas seems to entirely exclude Black people and people of color.

What about the millions of Black Americans who care deeply about racism but are not scholars, politicians or activists? Black people appear, in Packer's telling, as either the targets of "Real America"'s racism or the focal point of "Just America"'s ineffectual-but-also-oppressive activism. In the Four Americas, Black people are defined by white people's responses to them. Black people are a useful foil, hardly requiring positive characterization. White people get to have their social justice warriors, their patriotic picnic-throwers and people who straddle both worlds. White people have esoteric academics, Chomsky devotees, libertarians, helicopter moms and workers who feel marginalized by globalism. Black Americans have no narratives of their own.

They exist only as a shadow within white imagination.

Where, in the Four Americas, are the Black mothers who not only fear for their children's lives, but know, intuitively, that their sons and daughters will face disadvantages in education, employment, and healthcare? Where is the Black working class? Where are the Black service members who make up 30% of the Army?

Black Americans are also ideologically diverse. There are Black leftists and Black conservatives. There are intense debates among Black Americans about slogans like "Defund the Police." There are Black Americans who are disillusioned by the two political parties and then there are those who passionately organized for Hillary Clinton. There are religious Black Americans and atheist Black Americans. There are Black Americans who protest the Fourth of July and others who celebrate it just as devotedly as the Trumpist white people in Packer's "Real America."

It's not just that Black Americans are ideologically diverse. They have internal disagreements about justice, especially the racial injustice that pervades their lives. They, too, live in a complicated America filled with unity and tension, including divisions about their own narratives. Their Just America is far from just one thing.

Are there Black citizens in each of the Four Americas described by Packer? Yes, to some extent. But they are all strangers, from out of town, temporary guests, passing through and never settled. None of George Packer's Americas are defined by Black people's interests or history or quests for justice and freedom. None substantially reflect Black citizens' contribution to our country's history, culture or meaning.

Reading Packer's essay, one cannot help but sense a certain irony. He decries the centering of subjective experience in activism and yet he's produced an essay about America entirely filtered through the lens of his own subjective experience. He hints at the tyranny of language—upset by words such as "whiteness"—in the very same essay that describes an America in which Black people are conspicuously absent. From this perspective, Packer's essay itself lends credibility to some of the correctives issued by residents of so-called "Just America." Perhaps those citizens are not the petty tyrants they are made out to be. Perhaps their concerns should be taken seriously.

Mitch McConnell's big bluff: Here's the real reason he wants to keep the filibuster so badly

Last week, United States Senator Kyrsten Sinema expressed ongoing support for the filibuster, arguing that "it is a tool that protects the democracy of our nation" and prevents our country from "[ricocheting] wildly every two to four years back and forth between policies." Then, over the weekend, Joe Manchin echoed a similar sentiment, writing that Democrats have "attempted to demonize the filibuster and conveniently ignore how it has been critical to protecting the rights of Democrats in the past."

Sinema and Manchin have been rhapsodizing over the filibuster and the virtues of bipartisanship for months, so these arguments are far from surprising. One obvious problem is they fly in the face of overwhelming evidence that bipartisanship is (mostly) dead. However, there's another, more troubling problem that warrants our attention.

Sinema and Manchin maintain that the filibuster protects not only our democracy, but also the Democratic Party. If we rely on a mere majority for legislation, the thinking goes, any leftward movement will be met with an equal rightward shift when the GOP inevitably returns to power. Thus, we are to believe that the filibuster not only ensures stability, but, in the long run, actually protects Democratic Party's legislative interests.

This analysis presumes that both parties are equally interested in passing legislation and that both equally benefit from a procedure that impedes democratic change. A moment's reflection on the contemporary GOP shows these assumptions to be false.

Consider this question: why didn't Mitch McConnell nuke the legislative filibuster during the first two years of Trump's presidency when the Republicans held control over both chambers of Congress? The Senate majority leader—with the support of Senate Republicans—happily abolished the filibuster for Supreme Court justice nominees. This was after McConnell had refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, essentially hobbling another branch of government. At the time, McConnell even declared: "One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, 'Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy."

So is there something about the legislative filibuster's role that's more valuable to McConnell than other norms he's broken? No. He only wants to maintain the legislative filibuster because, despite what Sinema and Manchin claim, the procedure ensures an imbalance of power that benefits Republicans while harming Democrats.

A 60-vote threshold would benefit any conservative party over a progressive counterpart by minimizing change. Even if a conservative party desires regressive change—such as the privatization of a public entitlement (e.g., Social Security or Medicare)—their next priority is, at the very least, maintaining the status quo. The GOP is thus well-served by a procedure that favors inaction at the federal level.

The asymmetrical benefit of the filibuster doesn't stop there. The GOP doesn't want to build anything. They want to either destroy the safety net we have or, at the very least, ensure it doesn't get more expansive. This predictably results in congressional gridlock. Major legislation is rarely passed, which makes distinguishing the two parties' agendas difficult. And guess who benefits from this state of affairs?

Republicans.

An amorphous mass of congressional inaction fuels voter apathy which, in turn, negatively impacts Democrats more than Republicans among key constituents, such as young voters. Why vote in the midterms if neither party does anything meaningful?

Republicans further benefit from national gridlock because their policies are unpopular. Majorities support Democratic policies on a variety of issues, ranging from gun control to immigration to healthcare. For example, as polarized as we are as a nation, if voters hear a party-neutral description of the public option, 68 percent endorse it. Meanwhile, though Republicans were successful at ginning up opposition to the Affordable Care Act throughout Barack Obama's presidency, their actual attempt to repeal it correlated with increased support for the Democratic position.

So Democratic policies are popular on a national level. Republican policies are not. Republicans know this, which is one among their reasons for maintaining a dysfunctional Congress. Meanwhile, Republican causes are well-advanced on the state and local level, as well as through packing the federal courts with right-wing judges.

Consider abortion. Two months ago, McConnell threatened that, if Democrats abolished the filibuster, Republicans would respond by putting a variety of conservative measures, including a ban of abortion, on the docket once they regained power. McConnell was essentially making a similar argument as Sinema and Manchin: if Democrats abolish the legislative filibuster, Republicans will respond in kind.

McConnell is likely bluffing. A national fight over abortion would be disastrous for the GOP. Fifty-nine percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Younger Americans are pro-abortion by a whopping 69 percent. Pushing an abortion ban through Congress would not only serve to fully differentiate the two parties. It would also likely energize young voters and eliminate Democrats' midterm turn-out disadvantage. There's no better way to get a 25-year-old white guy passionate about voting than by telling him that he'll be stuck with a kid if the condom breaks.

Thus, Republicans are much better served by fighting on the state and local levels while packing the courts. This allows them to chip away at popular policies under the radar while resting peacefully with the knowledge they control the Supreme Court.

Importantly, if the ACA or Roe get struck down by the courts, the GOP won't be directly blamed. The dire consequences would be a step removed. McConnell and other shrewd Republicans recognize this. They know their battles are better fought on furtive ground. They also know that, due to the unpopularity of their policies, congressional gridlock serves as a shield. Voters will see nothing getting done and blame both parties. Apathy—which especially afflicts young voters—will prevail. Democrats and their popular policies will suffer when they're unable to enact them.

Sinema and Manchin overlook the differences between the parties and how these differences are asymmetrically bolstered by congressional inaction. The filibuster doesn't make our democracy more robust; it impedes democratic change, vastly privileging one party's agenda over the other's. Crucially, these benefits occur in an electoral system whose quirks give disproportionate power to Republican senators.

Like many Democrats, I am growing tired of Sinema and Manchin's arguments over the filibuster. The bipartisanship they hail does not exist. Retaining the filibuster won't fix that. Nor does it equally benefit both parties. Republicans know this, which is why the legislative filibuster is the only "democratic norm" they will fight to protect.

Republicans want to turn crime into their new cudgel — but here's the truth about the murder rate

We've been hearing a familiar drumbeat: violent crime is rising and Democrats are to blame. CNN published an article entitled "Defund the police encounters resistance as violent crime spikes" and The Daily Beast opined, "If violent crime rates keep rising like they have over the last year, it will reaffirm long-held stereotypes about bleeding-heart liberalism." Republicans are, predictably, seizing on the issue. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, declared: "From coast to coast, American families are facing an explosion of violent crime on their streets and in their neighborhoods."

The party of "law and order" is clearly salivating over exploiting the crime rate and, unfortunately, many in the news media are amplifying hyperbolic inaccuracies. The truth about the crime rate is more complicated and less politically expedient.

So what's actually going on?

The FBI hasn't yet released final numbers for 2020, but estimates based on preliminary data indicate a rise in homicide and aggravated assault rates in 2020, compared to 2019. Robberies and rapes, on the other hand, are expected to have decreased over the same period. Similar effects can be seen in preliminary data from 2021.

How should we interpret these data?

If the Republicans actually cared about national rates of homicide and aggravated assault, they'd do something about all the guns.

Well, first of all, contrary to Republican propaganda, violent crime is not generally on the rise. Homicides and aggravated assaults have risen—and this is concerning—but other forms of violent crime are actually in decline. Additionally, while we might be seeing the beginning of an actual increase in homicide and aggravated assaults, we can't really tell at this point. Crime rates fluctuate quite a bit from year to year, so we can't actually extrapolate a broader pattern based on one or two increases. Such fluctuations also seem extreme given that violent crime is a low probability event.

To put this in context, the homicide rate in the United States has dramatically fallen since the 1990s. However, within this decline, there have still been fluctuations, which can be seen in data from the FBI. Homicides rose after 2000 and declined after 2007, culminating in a record low in 2014. Homicide rates then rose again in 2015, before beginning a decline in 2017. Even the surges were below 90s levels. That said, however, "HOMICIDE SPIKE" makes a much more compelling than the real story, which is this: there is a lot of variation and criminologists can't completely account for it.

Chart, line chart Description automatically generated

The 2015 rise in homicides also inspired GOP attacks on Democrats, as well as dire predictions by the news media. The New York Times, for example, published a piece about a "Murder Surge," writing that, "the country's murder rate jumped more last year than it had in nearly half a century." 2015 seemed to portend a grim future of continuously increasing murders. Then homicides fell again. No one said much else.

Now, in 2021, the current change in homicide rates has once again brought multiple theories to the public for debate. So, why have rates risen? The best answer is that we really don't have the data yet. Anyone who stipulates a definitive causal factor—like "Defund the Police" intimidating law enforcement officers—is just making things up. We can say, however, that some hypotheses are clearly better than others.

A hypothesis that makes a lot of sense is that 2020 was unique. In 2020, the entire social order was disrupted. As a pandemic gripped America, state and local governments took unprecedented actions to restrict human contact. Americans witnessed their fellow citizens dying. Hospitals buckled, businesses closed and millions lost employment. During this disruption, George Floyd was murdered, which inspired large protests against racial injustice across the country. It is not at all surprising that such general societal unease would correspond with rising crime.

There are also less reasonable hypotheses, namely that police are so intimidated by criticism they can't function. A similar hypothesis was floated around under the name "The Ferguson Effect" after crime rose in 2015 and has since been debunked.

And here's just some basic logic to apply to this claim: if increased crime were due to police being newly shy in the face of protests, why would the homicide rate rise while rape and robbery rates fell? Is there something specific about racial justice protests that makes police less able to control murders, while becoming more efficient at preventing rape and robberies? Absent more data, this doesn't seem plausible.

Additionally, the limited national data on violent crime rates obscure important local differences, including the relationship between the type of policing and crime. Areas like West Memphis, Tenn., and New Bedford, Mass., have actually observed decreases in crime that officials attribute to community-based policing. Camden, NJ, credits stronger community relationships for more efficient detective work in solving homicides. And Baltimore, often cited as one of the crime capitals of the US, has seen a 20 percent decline in violent crime. Baltimore observed this difference after deprioritizing the policing of minor offenses, such as drug possession and sex work.

So what does this all mean?

It's already clear that Republicans will attempt to use the national rise in homicide rates to their advantage, blaming Democrats for a terrifying scourge of carnage and fear. News organizations are following suit, going so far as to publish articles on a "plague of violence." Hyperbolic headlines risk instilling fear in Americans, when, in fact, the data tell a more complex story. How should liberals respond?

First, liberals should say they have proposals that would likely reduce not only violent crime, but all crime, such as social support in healthcare, education and housing.

Second, we already know, regardless of year-to-year changes, the US homicide rate is far too high, a fact liberals are also attempting to address through gun control. Our homicide rate vastly exceeds other Western democracies because our society is saturated with guns. No matter how much the rate changes every year, over 70 percent of all homicides are carried out with a gun. This is one trend that is not fluctuating.

So, the next time you see Republicans whining about violent crimes, remind them that violent crimes are not increasing overall. Homicides are up, but the overall rate is still low. The streets are not on fire. Rapes and robberies are down. "Urban" America is not descending into dystopia. Maybe we're seeing the beginning of a new crime wave, but we might be just witnessing random variation or the unique effects of the pandemic.

Either way, year-to-year increases in the homicide rate are less concerning than the fact that homicide in the United States is generally elevated compared to other countries. "Defund the Police" is not responsible for any of that. Tools that allow for the quick and efficient destruction of human lives are. If Republicans actually care about the homicide rate, they should do something about all the guns.

The dark history behind a revealing Fox News chyron

For decades, the GOP claimed the mantle of an economically conservative party and exploited societal issues such as racism and abortion to bolster their electoral support. Yet over the past few years, a reversal has occurred, such that the GOP's cultural identity now eclipses any pretense of an economic agenda. As an example, just this week, Fox News declared, "Critical Race Theory Replaces Economy as Top Issue."

Over the course of the 1980s through the 2000s, American conservative thought was often framed as primarily economically oriented. The Republican Party, however, gained electoral support by appealing to societal resentments. From Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" to encouraging turnout with anti-LGBTQ legislation, the GOP augmented cultural wars. It knew how to exploit culture to win elections and power.

Yet during all this time, the GOP had an economic agenda—"fiscal conservatism"—that appealed to voters less moved by resentment. This agenda revolved around deregulation of industry, reductions in government spending and tax cuts. The GOP also had an even broader vision: deconstruction of the social safety net as established by the New Deal and the Great Society. From Reagan to Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush, Republican leaders mounted attacks on the safety net, largely centered on privatization and incentives to encourage Americans to choose other options.

The GOP's coalition thus entertained a hodgepodge of interests, ranging from those animated by culture wars to those more concerned with tax policy and their own pocket books. The GOP's image as a fiscally responsible party was primarily catered to the latter group, but their popularity was increasingly reliant on the former.

This dynamic was in full swing during President Obama's first term. To oppose the Democratic president's policies, the GOP leaned into economic complaints about the deficit. Billionaires funded "populist" anti-government uprisings. The success of this opposition was partially, if not primarily, driven by racist backlash against the first Black president, yet to some extent, the GOP seemed convinced they were also winning an economic argument, rather than just subsisting on bigoted fumes.

The GOP miscalculated the nature of the beast they cultivated, a mistake that, in hindsight, was evident during the 2012 election. Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ryan, like Romney, rhetorically focused on economics over culture. At the time, Ryan's star was so bright it was considered almost heretical to question his economic bona fides. And Ryan wasn't just any economic conservative—he was radical. His proposals would effectively launch the safety net back to the 1950s.

So, at least in 2012, it looked like the GOP chose the conservative economic message. They relied, as they had for decades, on prejudice for electoral success, but their rhetorical focus was on extreme conservative economics. And then they lost.

In response, the RNC commissioned an election autopsy, which reported that the GOP should moderate itself on cultural issues, such as LGBTQ rights. It recommended the GOP pass comprehensive immigration reform and reach out to minority voters and organizations. Finally, the report stressed the GOP was in an epistemic bubble: "We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people," the authors wrote, before warning the party had "lost the ability to be persuasive" to other voters and risked "driving in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac."

The GOP stayed in the cul-de-sac. In 2016, the party nominated Donald Trump, who ran a campaign fueled by racism and rage, while leaving his economic agenda unspecified beyond rants about China and vague promises about healthcare.

Then Trump won.

After Trump's victory, the GOP held the holy trifecta of the presidency, the Senate and the House and was therefore well-positioned to reanimate the old battles of Reagan, Gingrich and W. Bush. Yet they not only squandered this opportunity, they seemed to be fully unprepared. For example, despite voting for ACA repeal over 70 times while Obama was president, no Republican leader—including the wonky Paul Ryan—had a plan for what to do with healthcare after demolishing the current system. The GOP cobbled together clumsy legislation, which they then failed to pass. It was clear: they had no real conservative economic vision for healthcare beyond "not Obamacare."

The 2017 tax cut legislation had a different outcome, but also served to undermine the GOP's brand as thoughtful economic conservatives. Whereas the ACA battle showed they had no real vision, the tax cuts revealed their eight years of screeching over the deficit was unprincipled pablum. Meanwhile, Trump's presidency was consumed by incompetence, criminality and racism. Though they packed the courts, the GOP didn't rebuild its economic brand in American minds; rather, it chose to defend Trump during endless scandals while embracing the cultural resentments he inflamed.

Both of these actions—the abandonment of any pretense of economic seriousness and the embrace of bigotry—likely contributed to the Republican Party's hemorrhaging of white college-educated suburban voters. This damage to the GOP's coalition facilitated a Democratic sweep of the House in 2018, as well as Biden's victory in 2020. Notably, the GOP made little attempt to win over any voters based on an economic agenda during either election. Instead, again, they chose the path of a culture war, with buzz-phrases such as "socialism," "defund the police" and "law and order."

Since the inauguration, the GOP has made a few flaccid endeavors to gin up opposition through appeals to their old economic standbys: excessive spending and looming deficit. Yet this rhetoric is doing what it did in 2009. Biden is perceived as moderate and, due to his whiteness, is not as vulnerable a target as Obama. It also hasn't helped the GOP that, during the Trump presidency, they chose to deprioritize any real economic messaging, as well as to undermine their previous reputation as conservative intellectuals. Meanwhile, Biden's economic policies remain popular.

So what is the GOP left with? They do not seem to be attempting to appeal to the white-college educated voters they've lost. Instead, they are doubling down on Trumpism as their final political form. They have spent the past months raging against "woke-ism," "critical race theory" and the imagined genitalia of a plastic potato.

The party has clearly decided that a grand culture war, rather than an economic agenda, is how they will maintain power. In this sense, the GOP is becoming almost indistinguishable from radical far-right parties in Europe, groups that also engage in fuzzy economics while focusing their primary rhetoric on nativism and bigotry.

None of this means that the GOP no longer entertains their longer goal of deconstructing the safety net. Many in the party are still deeply committed to this agenda and, once they regain power, they will likely turn once again towards gutting entitlements. However, in terms of messaging, the GOP seems to realize their base is unmoved by this economic agenda. And so they've made yet another choice: to embrace their emerging identity as a party that is fully oriented towards a cultural battle rather than a party with any real vision for the American economy.

The decades of deceit behind the 'Big Lie'

Since the 2020 presidential election, the phrase "The Big Lie" has been deployed to describe the former president's undermining of American democracy. This phrase has its roots in authoritarian propaganda, most notably in Adolf Hitler's assertion that if you tell a lie often enough, it will become truth in the minds of your audience.

Trump's own "Big Lie" began with a refusal to concede electoral defeat. This deceit was then formalized in frivolous lawsuits and it ultimately inspired an insurrection on January 6, 2021. Since then, members of the GOP have either explicitly endorsed Trump's "The Big Lie" or tacitly allowed it to flourish in the consciousness of their voters, such that 60 percent of Republicans now believe the 2020 election was stolen.

However, Trump's own "Big Lie" is not actually a singular falsehood; rather, it is the culmination of a long attack on our shared reality. The undermining of the democratic process itself is only possible due to the decades of disinformation that preceded it.

Where did the Republican lies begin? The assault on Medicare is a good starting point. In 1961, Ronald Reagan argued that Medicare was a stealthy vessel for complete government control over not only medicine but society. In this narrative, those who claimed to care for the vulnerable were exploiting the same to usher in socialism. Reagan warned that if Medicare prevailed, Americans would soon be telling their children and grandchildren "what it once was like in America when men were free."

The Republican Party followed Reagan's lead. It didn't take long before all government programs were called "socialism" and were framed as inherent threats to freedom. This GOP project was accelerated by the great white backlash against the passing of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. White people should not only fear the social safety net, they were told, but any government intervention to ensure equal citizenship.

After the 1960s, the GOP's attack on truth began to encompass not just antipathy towards government, but a broader rejection of institutions. Consider the issue of climate change: In the 1980s and 90s, there was at least some bipartisan recognition of the problem and support for addressing it.. The Republicans mounted a propaganda campaign in response. They were successful. In 2001, there was a 13-point gap between Democrats' and Republicans' belief in climate change. It's 53 points now. The Republican Party had therefore not only undermined government but science, too.

Since then, the Republicans lied about WMDs in Iraq. They lied about Obamacare, calling the market-based plan "socialism" and warning that it would lead to so-called "death panels." Though many did not explicitly lie about Barack Obama's birthplace, most of the Republicans allowed that lie to fester. It was among the biggest of them all: The president of the United States may not be an American given he's Black.

The GOP's status as the party-of-lies was then accelerated by Donald Trump, who told an estimated 30,573 falsehoods during his presidency. From the moment Trump took office and lied about the crowd size at his inauguration—something we could confirm or deny with our very own eyes—it was clear his presidency would be different. Trump proceeded to lie about things as varied as US intelligence on Russia's interference in the 2016 election to the extraordinary number of men who wept in his presence.

Then came COVID-19. Trump and the Republican Party compared the novel respiratory coronavirus to the flu, rolled their eyes at liberal hysteria, and pushed unscientific treatments with potentially deadly consequences. And, importantly, the Republicans didn't just lie to protect themselves; they actively exploited the crisis for broader cultural and political advantage. This is nowhere more evident than the almost religious fervor they employed to discourage the simple act of wearing a face mask.

Initially, it seemed possible that lying about COVID might finally be the breaking point in the GOP's history of dishonesty. Every other lie the GOP has told had distant effects, allowing them to escape accountability. From attacks on the safety net to climate change, the GOP evaded consequences because the harmful effects of their policies were temporarily distant. It seemed implausible that they could pull off equivalent deceit about COVID. That their falsehoods could overpower the pleas of doctors or the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of dead Americans.

Yet Republican lies took hold even in the face of immediate evidence. The pernicious effects of their disinformation continues. Now, in 2021, the GOP has shifted from being anti-mask to being anti-vaccine, with 43 percent of GOP voters expressing "vaccine hesitancy." Though general anti-vaccination efforts have gained steam over the past decade, there were few partisan divisions prior to COVID. In 2015, for example, Democrats and Republicans both endorsed standard vaccinations in roughly equal numbers. Thus, the political divides about vaccination are relatively new.

It is within this broader context that we should view the "Big Lie." This lie—which strikes at the heart of the democratic process— is only possible because of the GOP's longer assault on truth. Medicare is socialism. Welfare is for greedy, lazy people. Climate change does not exist. The president is Black and therefore not American. Russia didn't interfere in the 2016 election. COVID-19 is just like the flu.

In some ways, it might seem like we have reached the culmination of the GOP's deception. They have so thoroughly radicalized their followers that many no longer value medical advice about their own personal safety, let alone believe the results of a democratic election. How can it get any worse than this? It seems that it can.

Liz Cheney, who committed the crime of recognizing Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, has been expelled from party leadership. Believers of Q-Anon are clawing their way into Congress. Republicans continue to turn a blind eye, despite the clear anti-Semitic and racist nature of the movement. The rest of the party denies their previous leader, Donald Trump, inspired an insurrection against the US government. Now the House GOP leader says he doesn't support a commission to investigate it.

2020 was not just a year in which many denied the results of an election. They put their own health at risk for a culture war. None of this would have been possible if not for decades of deceit. The "Big Lie" is, in fact, the "Long Lie": the generational priming of minds to reject all evidence and view any authority—from the government to scientists—with hostility and distrust. From lies about Medicare to lies about Obama's birthplace, this project has been long in the making. The entire GOP is responsible.

The media grossly distorted a new study about Democrats and race — here's what it really said

Political scientists released last month a pre-print entitled "Racial Equality Frames and Public Policy Support: Survey Experimental Evidence." Its findings traveled widely across social media and were reported in multiple press outlets, from the New York Post to the Times. Jonathan Chait, from New York magazine, tweeted, "Democrats lose support when they frame their ideas as anti-racist," a post which was shared by a reporter from NBC News. The message, according to journalists, was clear: If the Democrats mention race in campaign messaging, it will hurt them electorally.

The passionate reaction to the research paper was likely inspired by a decades-long debate. How should Democrats tailor their messaging? Does talking about social justice, especially anti-racism, hurt them? These questions found new life during the 2016 Democratic primary, as well as in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton's loss to Donald Trump. Perhaps, some posited, Clinton's loss was due to so-called "economic anxiety" among white working-class voters, a claim that has since been debunked. Or perhaps Democrats' demise was tied to an over-emphasis on racism and other issues of social justice, such as LGBTQ rights. Given this background, it's unsurprising that this new research was met with enthusiasm. It fit nicely within an existing narrative.

There was, however, one small problem: people almost universally misinterpreted the results. The researchers did not, in fact, find broad evidence that mentioning race was detrimental to support for Democratic policies. So what did they actually find?

The researchers recruited 5,089 participants and exposed them to Democratic policies on issues ranging from climate change to housing to Medicare. Participants read policy descriptions that were either neutral or framed in terms of class, race or class+race. Participants ranked approval on a scale of 1-7 (strongly agree to strongly disagree). The researchers compared responses between the neutral condition and the conditions of class, race or class+race. If a given frame induced responses significantly more positive or negative than the neutral condition, the researchers could infer that the frame increased or decreased policy support. Let's take a look at the results.

When the researchers looked at the whole sample, they found that class-framing marginally increased support for all policies by .09 scale points. They did not, contrary to journalistic reports, find that race- or class+race-framing decreased support. The researchers also looked at results divided by partisanship. They found that both the class and class+race frames increased support among Democrats. For Republicans, the class+race framing decreased support. However, class-only framing was non-distinguishable from the neutral condition for Republicans. For self-identified independents, none of the frames significantly increased or decreased support.

What do these results mean? If we look at all Americans, class-framing might subtly increase support for a policy. But mentioning race does not decrease support. The only case in which an actual detrimental effect was observed was for Republicans. And yet it was widely reported that if the Democrats campaign on race, it will hurt them.

How should Democrats incorporate these findings? Perhaps they could exploit the fact that class-framing can increase support for any given policy. Maybe such framing could be of particular use in specific states or congressional districts. Democrats should not, however, infer that mentioning race or racism is detrimental. At least, not unless they are concerned with avoiding backlash among Republican voters.

Furthermore, moving beyond this one study, there are complex effects in political messaging that occur outside of specific policy frames. For example, Democratic rhetoric doesn't occur in a vacuum. It occurs alongside Republican messaging. As some experts pointed out to the Times' Thomas Edsall, since the Republicans are explicitly racist, it could harm the Democrats if they are not explicitly anti-racist.

We should also consider real-world results. For example, after the 2016 election, many posited that Democrats should de-emphasize social justice. As a national party, Democrats did the opposite and proceeded to a historic victory in the 2018 midterms.

Not only did Democrats win while explicitly championing social justice, they won with diverse candidates. Sharice Davids, a Native American LGBTQ woman, flipped a seat in Kansas. Lucy McBath, a Black woman, flipped Newt Gingrich's old seat in Georgia. And, although we lost the Texas senate race, Beto O'Rourke came within two points of Ted Cruz, a margin that was previously unimaginable. O'Rourke achieved this while embracing racial justice, stating, "I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, in any place."

We can also see these effects beyond the 2018 midterms. The transformation of Virginia—the heart of the old confederacy—is notable. Democrats there have won the Holy Grail: the legislature as well as the governorship. With that, Virginia Democrats have advanced an agenda that is economically and socially progressive, including expanding Medicaid, passing LGBTQ protections, and banning hair discrimination. Joe Biden went on to win Virginia by a historically large margin in 2020. Has there been a backlash? Probably somewhere. But Democrats are still winning elections.

We should also consider the entirety of the 2020 election. In the wake of George Floyd's murder, as protests erupted across the country, there were murmurs about 1968. Would these anti-racism protests be Democrats' downfall? Some went so far as to suggest that Joe Biden should have a "Sister Souljah moment"—the idea that Biden needed to throw at least a few Black people under the bus to counteract the swell of anti-racist sentiment. But Biden was steadfast in his support for racial justice and proceeded to not only win the election, but flip Arizona and Georgia.

What does this all mean? Well, first, that many misinterpreted the results of a scientific study and argued, without evidence, that mentioning race in policy-framing was detrimental. Fact is, it showed a backlash among Republicans only. Next, while this research is of real value, no one should view a single study as the last word. We should consider its findings as one piece of a larger puzzle that includes real-world results.

Finally, when considering all of this information, Democrats and journalists alike should also ask Black Americans about their opinions on how to emphasize race in policy. Black voters are, after all, the base of the Democratic Party, the reason the party has any power in the first place. Their support should not be taken for granted.

How the right wing uses language as a weapon

Right-wing operatives have recently mounted a campaign against the idea and practice of "wokeness." The word has the pretense of a neutral reference, but is increasingly used to debase and belittle the underlying meaning of anti-racism and anti-bigotry. Similar rhetorical tactics have a long history in conservatism, as they allow the GOP to obscure policy objectives, while simultaneously evoking negative and positive emotions. Overall, the GOP benefits from imprecise language soaked with connotation. Unfortunately, journalists and some liberals keep falling for it.

In the case of "woke" and "wokeness," conservatives are undermining a positive idea with derisive figurative language. Consider a converse example, in which the Republicans advanced an ugly principle through positive framing: waterboarding. It was described as "enhanced interrogation" by conservatives, and that was repeated by the press corps. However, if you actually describe what's involved in waterboarding—making a person temporarily experience drowning—Americans respond with repulsion. Conservatives knew this, so they chose to be evasive. "Enhanced interrogation" is more palatable than both "torture" and "simulated drowning."

Language can be exploited to great political effect. Words convey meaning two ways. By denotations, the actual real-world reference of a given word or phrase. And by connotations, the feelings they evoke. The GOP systematically uses language that obscures denotation and advances connotation. The case of "wokeness" is not so different from "enhanced interrogation," but, in this case, the underlying denotation—awareness of social injustice—is good whereas the connotations are unfortunately negative. As they did with "enhanced interrogation," conservatives are using figurative language to obscure deeper principles and create a fog of feeling, rather than reason.

The GOP's use of such language—figurative, imprecise, but laden with connotation—gained prominence in their backlash to the civil rights movement. After a certain point, it was of little benefit to conservatives to explicitly state they were opposed to equal rights for Black Americans, so they adopted fuzzy terms. This strategy was famously outlined by the late Lee Atwater, a chief architect of modern GOP rhetoric:

You start out in 1954 by saying, '[n-word], [n-word], [n-word].' By 1968 you can't say '[n-word]'—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. … 'We want to cut this' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "[n-word], [n-word]."

Here, Atwater specifically argued that, to advance racism, conservatives should embrace abstractions, given that racial slurs no longer confer electoral success. This tradition of linguistic manipulation continues to pervade our discourse. From "illegal alien" to "states' rights" to "politically correct" to now "woke," the Republicans have perfected the art of language devoid of concrete specifics, but charged with big feels.

That language has this power presents a challenge for journalists. Reporting should be informative and neutral. Yet with increasing frequency, the press corps uncritically adopts whatever linguistic frame has currency. The result, predictably, is neither informative nor neutral. What do Republicans actually mean when they criticize "wokeness?" It's unclear. Yet journalists repeat their rants without clarification.

Consider what "woke" actually denotes. The origin of the expression is unknown, but references to "staying woke" in African-American English can be traced back to Lead Belly's recording of "Scottsboro Boys," a song about young Black men who were falsely accused of rape. Recently, "woke" gained prominence during the 2014 Ferguson protests when it was used to signal awareness of anti-Black racism. "Woke" then proliferated online where its meaning broadened to describe anyone who was aware of systemic racism. Finally, the meaning shifted to encompass an awareness of bigotry in general. Now, lexicographers define "woke" as "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)."

While the current use of "woke" arose from African-American English, "awake" as a metaphor for awareness has deep cross-cultural roots. Wakefulness as revelation is referenced throughout both Buddhism and Christianity as well as in the work of poets and playwrights. It is, in fact, the same metaphor underlying the "Age of Reason"—or the Enlightenment—such that Kant wrote, "Enlightenment is the release of man from a state of bondage. … Have the courage to use your own understanding!" "Wokeness" was present in American political movements long before BLM. Republicans—proud descendants of Abraham Lincoln—might be interested to learn that an early anti-slavery faction within their own party called themselves "The Wide Awakes."

So, what "wokeness" denotes is overwhelmingly positive: awareness of bigotry and concomitant opposition. Yet, recently, as conservatives have co-opted it, the term has become derisive. "Woke" people are unserious. You're allowed to roll your eyes at them, because they are sensitive and sanctimonious. In this sense, "woke" has unfortunately become a dysphemism. Whereas euphemisms soften underlying meaning (the dead "passed away," for instance, or the woman is "with child"), dysphemisms do the opposite (the dead "croaked', for instance, or the woman got "knocked up").

What's denoted by "woke" has been eclipsed by connotations. When we hear "woke" now, we do not think of its history as a metaphor for awareness. We certainly do not think of the Enlightenment. We think of pious scolds. And then, perhaps unwittingly, we transfer this pejorative connotation to the underlying principles of social justice.

We can't expect rhetorical honesty from the GOP, but we can ask more of the press corps that reports on conservatives' use of "woke." When reporters repeat the GOP's derision of "wokeness" without explaining the underlying denotation of the word, they are serving as a conduit of conservative propaganda. Such reporting is neither informative nor neutral. The meaning of what's said is, at best, obscure and imprecise. Failure to report the underlying meaning allows the negative connotations to prevail.

So, if an elected official claims "wokeness" is bad, journalists should ask them what they mean! Journalists could ask, for example: "Is anti-racism bad? What about anti-bigotry in general?" If they refuse to define what they intend when they deride "wokeness," journalists should do it for them by citing the dictionary definition.

We are in an existential battle. The forces of bigotry are strong, and, in many ways, our electoral system allows them to flourish. However, the evidence is clear: the actual principle of "wokeness"—the broad "awareness of social injustice"—is increasingly popular. We cannot let conservative rhetorical manipulations muddy this fact.

A paradoxical view of Black people emerged as a defense for the killing of George Floyd

In the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, the defense mounted a perplexing account. Mr. Floyd, we were told, had an enlarged heart and inelastic lungs. Mr. Floyd was so weak that his death was all but inevitable. Had Mr. Floyd been healthier, he might have survived the relentless pressure of a knee upon his neck. But, then, the defense's narrative seemed to change: Derek Chauvin's use of lethal force was, in fact, necessitated by Mr. Floyd's purported superhuman strength.

Was Mr. Floyd so physically weak he succumbed to an innocuous use of force? Or was he so strong that restraining him required extraordinary force? One defense witness offered a unifying explanation: perhaps Mr. Floyd's terrifying strength was caused by heart disease itself. Or, perhaps, a tumor triggered a fight-or-flight response that elevated his blood pressure. In this narrative, Mr. Floyd died because his underlying fragility triggered superhuman strength which, in turn, triggered fatal weakness.

It may be tempting to attribute this illogical argument to desperation on the part of the defense. This would be a mistake. Chauvin's defense was sadly rational. The prejudice it sought to exploit is pervasive and longstanding. In American society, Black people are viewed as both preternaturally strong as well as uniquely weak.

White people must fear Black people and use extraordinary measures to protect themselves. Except, of course, when white violence or negligence triggers Black illness or death. Then, it is the fragility that precipitates the demise of Black bodies. Either way, one thing is clear: In American consciousness, Black people can rarely be victims. This notion—that Black people are at once too strong and too weak—has deep roots in American history, beginning in slavery and continuing in modern medical racism.

During slavery, doctors postulated that Black people were especially susceptible to Tuberculosis and malaria. That this susceptibility was produced by the conditions of slavery was not seriously considered. Rather, vulnerability to disease was identified as a feature of Blackness. Enslaved Black people were also, according to doctors, uniquely resistant to pain, even as they suffered disproportionately of all manner of disease. Doctors used these false premises—inherent medical fragility paired with pain resistance—as justifications for the use of Black bodies in horrific medical experiments, ranging from intentional infection to gynecological mutilation to the boiling of flesh. The purported frailty and strength of Black bodies made Black human beings, in the eyes of many doctors, a perfect specimen for scientific exploration.

Even today, health outcomes for Black Americans, by virtually every measure, and at every stage of life, are comparatively poor. Some of this disparity can be explained by socioeconomic and environmental factors. Black people are disproportionately struck by poverty. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods afflicted by pollution and nutritional deprivation. They suffer from inadequate access to healthcare. These factors matter. But they do not tell the whole story. Disparities persist even when socioeconomic or environmental differences are controlled for.

Indeed, researchers are finding that racism itself is an environmental variable that crosses socioeconomic barriers and induces life-long health complications. From diabetes to reproductive care, the evidence is converging. The chronic stress of anti-Black racism, independent of other variables, ravages Black American bodies. Little is spared. From brains to kidneys to bones, Black American bodies endure trauma, misdiagnosis and neglect. These patterns begin at birth and persist until death.

For example, Black babies are less likely than white babies to have early hearing loss identified and treated. Black children are less likely to receive tubes to treat otitis media, a crucial intervention that correlates with language development. In school, Black children are under-diagnosed with ADHD and over-diagnosed with conduct disorder, compared to their white peers, even when their symptomology is similar.

As Black Americans enter adulthood, health disparities become even more stark. Black men, for instance, are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia and less likely to be diagnosed with depression than their white male peers. Diagnoses of dementia—critical for early intervention—are also chronically delayed for Black Americans.

Racial disparities are especially stark in reproductive outcomes. Black women are more likely to experience miscarriages, preterm birth and stillbirth when compared to white women of the same socioeconomic status. Black women are less likely to get breast cancer, but they are 43 percent more likely to die after diagnosis. Black women are also more likely to undergo hysterectomy. In cases of heart disease, Black people are less likely to receive diagnostic angiography and preventative catheterization.1

Black people are also often blamed for health outcomes, in both subtle and overt ways. The most obvious examples are in the right-wing media, as well as in specific cases such as the criminal defense of Derek Chauvin. However, we can also see examples throughout even ostensibly unbiased sources, such as the medical literature.

Type II diabetes has long been blamed on the "African American Diet." Differential success of diabetes treatment has been attributed to poor "medical literacy." Poor medical literacy is cited as a factor in the delayed diagnosis of Black infants' hearing impairment. Note the explanatory variable of "medical literacy" places responsibility on Black patients, not their doctors. This is in spite of research indicating that racial disparities in doctor-patient communication results from doctors' behavior, such as reduced listening, personal interaction and devotion of time to outpatient care.

The blaming of Black people has, in some cases, extended beyond "poor medical literacy" or "bad diets" to the nature of Black bodies themselves. One literature review went so far as to state "variation in obesity and body-fat distribution" may be a primary factor in the late diagnosis and poor prognosis of breast cancer in Black women. Similarly, doctors have explained that the systematic late diagnosis of Lyme disease in Black people is attributable to early signs of disease being difficult to detect on dark skin, to which one Black doctor responded: Is it actually that hard to identify on Black skin, or have doctors just been exclusively trained to treat white people?

And then, finally, we must address Black pain. Multiple studies have shown that Black patients are under-diagnosed and under-treated for pain. Black patients are less likely to receive pain treatment for almost any diagnosis, even in the case of visible physical harm, such as a broken bone. Even Black children with appendicitis are less likely to be given pain treatment than white peers are. Research has shown white medical workers endorse racist stereotypes related to pain. One study demonstrated that an astonishing number of white medical workers endorsed a variety of racist myths, such that they believed Black patients' skin is thicker and their blood coagulates more quickly. These judgments most certainly correlate with treatment decisions.

The clearest example of racial disparities in medicine is in kidney disease. Here, we can see a trajectory beginning with negligence and ending with tragedy. We all learn that Black people suffer from disproportionate rates of kidney disease. We are told this is the fault of Black Americans. But we do not learn that Black people are:

  • 23 percent less likely to be assessed for transplantation, even when all other variables are controlled (e.g. socioeconomic status; disease stage).
  • 18 percent less likely to be placed on a transplantation list.
  • 53 percent less likely to receive a life-saving organ once on the list.
  • And we certainly do not learn that, all other variables being equal, Black Americans are more likely to receive a limb amputation than white Americans.

Let that sink in: This country does not only deny life-saving organs to Black Americans, but we also lop off their toes, feet and legs at disproportionate rates.

The treatment of Black bodies and minds in medicine reflects broader societal biases about Black pain. Physiological research indicates that white people exhibit decreased physiological responses to the emotional and physical pain of Black people. To put this plainly: if a white person witnesses a Black person experiencing pain, their neuronal responses remain close to baselines. They sweat less. Heart rates barely budge. And, although diminished responses to Black people in pain do correlate with overt racism, they also persist in white people who score very low on cognitive measures of racism.

This history—the rejection of Black pain and dehumanization of Black bodies—was the clear pretext for the criminal defense of Derek Chauvin. Mr. Floyd was to blame for his own death, because he was weak. However, his body could also be abused, because he was so strong. Chauvin's defense team was not unreasonable to attempt this, because they must have known, intuitively, as we all know, that a Black man's body is not viewed as the same as a white man's body. That a Black man's pleas for his mother or even oxygen will never be as worthy as a white man's same suffering.

These societal biases—and the cruelty they facilitate—were clear in our country's response to COVID-19. As the pandemic struck, it became apparent that Black people would be hit especially hard. And thus the frame shifted to a constant repetition of "Well, the only people who suffer will be those with pre-existing conditions."

The more we heard a right-wing refrain about diabetes, obesity, asthma and other ailments, the clearer it was: if you're Black and you die from COVID, it is your fault. We need not take extraordinary measures to protect you. The Trump administration itself admitted it was not compelled to relieve those who were not "[their] people."

Here, as in the murder of George Floyd, Black bodies were on trial. Black people were, again, to blame for their own suffering. In law enforcement, Black bodies induce white violence. In medicine, Black bodies deserve nothing more than white negligence.

In the case of Derek Chauvin, the defense placed George Floyd's body on trial. The jury rejected this argument in a verdict we should celebrate. But the problem is much bigger than this single case. Black bodies and minds are abused from birth until death. Before we can adopt policies that might fix the problem, we need to appreciate its scope and history. We must recognize our society characterizes Black people as too strong as well as too weak. Above all, we need to recognize our society's systematic abuse of Black bodies, and our almost pathological denial of Black victimization.

Why Republicans are suddenly panicked by the market they used to love

Did Mitch McConnell cancel the market? Answer: No. He was never a real fan.

For the past few decades, the GOP's interests aligned harmoniously with those of corporations. Businesses amassed wealth while staying out of social issues. The GOP, in turn, rewarded businesses with tax cuts. The status quo was fine.

This state of affairs allowed the Republican Party to reward itself with the mantle of the "pro-market" party. However, as society has become more socially liberal, businesses are adapting to their customers' evolving preferences. A longstanding symbiosis has been upset and the Republicans have begun panicking.

The Senate minority leader issued an ominous warning to corporations who stood in opposition to voter suppression laws in Georgia, stating, "My advice to the corporate CEOs of America is to stay out of politics," adding these corporations would "invite serious consequences if they became a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country."

Many noted that McConnell's stance was blatantly hypocritical. How can a conservative party that has argued that corporations deserve the rights of speech now be telling these same entities to shut up? And, certainly, one wouldn't expect the party of markets to be troubled by corporations responding to customer preferences. So what happened to the Good Old GOP, champions of markets and freedom?

The answer is simple. The Republicans never defended markets on principle. It was always an alliance of opportunity. The rhetoric of markets was a useful instrument—an anti-government cudgel—wrapped in the language of freedom. The GOP's claim, since Reagan, was that the markets promote freedom and the government does not. Thus: lower taxes and shrink the government. Start with eroding protections for civil rights.

The branding was effective. The GOP is widely perceived as the pro-market and pro-liberty party by conservatives and liberals alike. But, if you start to poke beyond this veneer, a different picture emerges. Its love of markets, it seems, is as sincere as its periodic despair over the deficit, which reliably animates opposition to Democratic policies, but recedes as soon as the resident of the White House is a Republican.

To understand the GOP's relationship with the market, we need only to consider its entire platform since Reagan. Republicans have consistently advanced policies that facilitate what economists call market failure. Such failures occur when conditions, such as monopolies, information asymmetries, and externalities, prevent the market mechanism from operating properly. By this measure, the GOP does not fare well.

Consider, first, how the GOP's deregulatory policies proliferate negative externalities. The predictable result? Depletion of resources, increased pollution, and poisoned communities. In these cases, the Republican Party seems conveniently unconcerned about personal responsibility. They're happy to have businesses impose costs on the rest of us, and eager to ensure that responsible parties escape accountability.

The second issue stems from the GOP's cavalier attitude toward monopolies. While some Republicans opine about anti-trust when it suits their interests, the party as a whole continues to encourage monopolies. For example, few Republicans have expressed any qualms about Sinclair—a rightwing group—buying up local media stations, thus creating an information monopoly. While the GOP may wax poetic about the marvel of markets, their favored policies hamper their proper function.

That the GOP's commitment to markets is disingenuous—tenuous and unprincipled—is elsewhere apparent. For example, markets could better improve people's welfare if wealth and income wasn't so concentrated. Yet the GOP's fiscal policies reliably produce income inequality, as if by design. This correlates with lower market participation. Rather than using markets to improve lives, the GOP prioritizes the returns of a tiny minority. Or, to take another example, consider the GOP's resistance to increasing the labor force, such as investing in childcare. They favor policies that keep individuals in perpetual debt, unable to engage in a variety of markets, such as housing. They also oppose legislation that alleviates job lock, such as the ACA.

We should not believe this party ever cared about markets. They loved the rhetoric of markets. It was useful. It allowed them to adopt a faux neutrality in their opposition to civil rights. Their hostility towards government could be dressed up as principled support for freedom. Yet they have stood by while markets crumbled, content to encourage the accumulation of wealth, as others drowned in bankruptcy and poverty.

Despite all of this, the GOP is regarded as pro-market. Their rhetoric worked. Why? Because American consumers were largely content with the social status quo. There was little reason for corporations to take a stand on social issues. Thus the happy symbiosis between Big Business and the party of corporate tax cuts was preserved.

But now the times are changing. The GOP hasn't undergone a reformation, nor have CEOs developed a collective sense of social conscience. The real shift is occurring within American society. The market reflects this. It has become relatively unpopular to be a bigot. Majorities of Americans now support same-sex marriage and pluralities support the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, let's not overstate the point. The country still has a problem with bigotry (we elected Trump, after all) and much of the anti-bigot movement might be performative or aesthetic. But, overall, people who identify as non-bigots are in the majority, especially among the younger generations.

Big businesses recognize this shift and its implications. They see how the path to profit has changed. They don't necessarily oppose the Georgia voter suppression laws because of deeply held moral principles. They just see the writing on the wall. Customers prefer companies that oppose bigotry and stand up for civil rights. Businesses, to survive, are doing what the GOP has always said they should: listening to the market. But the message of the market has changed. The GOP can't accept it.

As corporations have come out against Georgia's voter-suppression laws, Republican voters have launched their own boycotts. If the pro-market party truly cared about the freedom of the market, they would say, as they always have, "let the market decide." But now, given they're unhappy with the market's decision, they can't say that. The market is becoming less useful. The marriage of convenience is over.

So what is the GOP left with? Not much. Since they won't adapt to changing preferences—of consumers or voters—they'll resort to something else. There is already some indication of what's to come. They might deploy more of the empty populist rhetoric that served the previous administration. Or they might try to find some middle ground. They might argue, as The Wall Street Journal did in an editorial last week, that "markets" are still sacred; but the heads of business are nefarious. Perhaps they'll ultimately settle on a strategy. But at the moment, the party is panicked.

The GOP's future is uncertain. What's clear, however, is that the party will continue to do whatever it takes to pursue their actual goals: bigotry, wealth and power.

Here's the truth about how Democrats compare to conservatives in Europe

"In Europe, Democrats would be conservative." This assertion is so pervasive in American discourse that it has been repeated by both politicians and journalists. In a piece in Foreign Policy, Carlo Invernizzi Accetti said this of former Vice President Joe Biden in March of last year. "The Democratic front-runner's ideology has less to do with Obama or the Clintons than a distinct style of European conservatism."

This is a myth, but debunking it is difficult, as it involves sorting through a tangle of variables. If you do start picking through the various cross-country comparisons, though, you'll find the actual US analogue of European conservatism is the GOP.

First, what do people mean when they say that Democrats are similar to European conservatives? What policies are they talking about? And what "Europe" are they referring to? Surely, people are not thinking about Polish conservatives, who have sought to ban abortion and investigate miscarriages. And they can't be referring to Hungary, where activists may face criminal penalties if they help asylum seekers.

So people must not be equating Democrats to conservatives in Europe as a whole, but those in specific areas of Western and Northern Europe. Yet this is still problematic.

There is no fixed definition of "conservative" in even these specific regions of Europe. Traditional center-right blocs are in flux, as they both compete with the far-right for voters and engage in post-electoral coalitions with these same parties.

In France and Italy, for example, the center-right parties have imploded, losing much of their support to the far-right. In Germany, Angela Merkel's CDU1—often perceived as the last bulwark of sensible conservatism—is leaking voters to the far-right and facing pressure from extremists within the party itself. Meanwhile, in Sweden and Spain, traditional conservatives have entered into post-electoral coalitions with extremist far-right parties who espouse anti-Muslim and anti-women beliefs.

Thus, the comparison of US Democrats to European "conservatives" is inherently messy. However, perhaps there are some ways to mount cross-country comparisons between parties. For example, how do parties position themselves with regard to extant government spending and support? How do they approach immigration or civil rights? The answers reveal that many European conservatives are less wedded to the project of government spending than they are to the trend of Thatcherite neoliberalism. They are also clearly influenced by xenophobia and nationalism.

France is a good example. The country's last mainstream conservative president—Nicolas Sarkozy—advanced tax reforms benefiting the wealthiest. He also proposed increasing privatization of education, raising the retirement age, and reducing the power of labor. This platform was adopted by other conservative leaders. In 2017, France's conservative prime minister, Édouard Philippe, said that "The French are hooked on public spending. Like all addictions, it doesn't solve any of the problems it is meant to ease. And like all addictions, it requires willpower and courage to detox."

Do these conservatives sound like Nancy Pelosi? No. They sound a lot like Paul Ryan, who famously described his desire to gut social security over a keg in college.

Similar conservative ideologies can be observed throughout Europe. From the UK to Spain to Sweden, conservative parties argue for policies that would reduce their respective welfare states, as well as reduce taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Do these parties openly declare that they want to take a hammer to popular government programs? No. They would rather nibble at the edges, just as the Republican Party in this country attempts to do regularly with Medicare and Social Security.

So comparisons between the Democrat Party in the US and conservative parties in the EU are misguided within the economic domain. When one considers social policy—such as civil rights and immigration—the comparison becomes flat-out ludicrous.

More than a dozen European countries have passed laws banning burqas or hijabs in public spaces. Such bans have not only placed Muslim women in jail or burdened them with legal fees, but they have also restricted access to employment and education. These bans are championed by conservatives, but also gain support from many liberals and progressives under the guise of feminism or secularism. This is just one manifestation of xenophobic policy and rhetoric that is endemic across Europe.

In France, Algeria has become a political flashpoint, with Emmanuel Macron—the centrist president—walking back his previous promise to apologize for French colonialism. The most recent conservative candidate for president—François Fillon—went so far as to declare: "France is not guilty to have wanted to share its culture with the people of Africa." Even the leader of France's largest leftist party has demonized the French-Chechnyan community and denied France's role in the Holocaust.

This doesn't sound like the rhetoric of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

And US Democrats don't just perform better than France. Denmark, hailed as an progressive utopia, has taken perhaps the farthest right turn in social policy. It has taken to confiscating money, jewelry and other valuables from asylum seekers. Some Danish cities have mandated municipal menus serve pork to promote "pro-Danish identity," thus excluding Muslims and Jews. Notably, these policies haven't just been pursued by conservatives but by members of Denmark's center-left party: Mette Frederiksen, the Danish Prime Minister and head of the Social Democrats, recently went so far as to suggest non-Western immigrants be relocated to North Africa.

If you peel through every major political party in Europe, you might find a conservative group here and there that looks like the Democratic Party. Such a discovery, however, would be an exception, not the rule. In social policy, you will find that US Democrats are more progressive than even many European left-wing parties.

Overall, the Democrats here are committed to civil rights and they want to expand our social safety net programs, whereas EU conservatives typically want to shrink their own. These same conservatives are either overtly xenophobic or in coalition with neo-fascists. If you want to compare European conservative parties with anyone in the US, compare them with the Republican Party. That's where the real similarities lie.

This is a time of immense opportunity for progressives — but they risk wasting it

Last week, Jacobin published an article entitled "The Democratic Party's Real War in 2020 Was Against Bernie Sanders." It argued that Democrats' primary fear in 2020 was not that Trump might be reelected, but that the party would be lost to "socialism."

The piece gave little evidence for this point, but rather offered familiar tropes about imagined tensions that proliferate in modern discourse. In reality, the rift between the center-left and far-left is more practical than ideological. Center-left Democrats and the far-left agree, overwhelmingly, that the state should do more to promote social welfare; they disagree about how. If we misdiagnose this disagreement, we risk losing out on the present opportunity to meaningfully advance the progressive agenda.

There are ideological divisions in US politics, to be sure, but they serve primarily to separate the parties. The modern GOP gleefully parrots Ronald Reagan's line, "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help." This quote is beloved by Republicans because they fundamentally believe the government shouldn't help. Such a deep commitment to limited government is shared by few within the left-of-center spectrum. That the Democratic Party has an appetite for social expenditures is easily confirmed. One needs to look no further than the American Rescue Plan, one of the most aggressive spending bills in modern history. On the fundamental questions, the far-left and center-left agree with one another: the government can do a lot of good. The disagreements that persist are therefore not so much deeply ideological, but rather about what is politically feasible.

Consider healthcare. Perhaps more than any other issue, exaggerated claims of ideological division abound. Both the far-left and the center-left are committed to the universal provision of healthcare. Sure, many on the far-left advocate for a single-payer system that excludes private insurance while the center-left favors a hybrid model wherein the government competes alongside private providers. These differences are not trivial. But they aren't purely ideological either. The goal of achieving universal healthcare is shared. It is the means of achieving the goal that's a matter of dispute.

Consider education. Here, too, practical disagreements are often interpreted as reflecting intractable differences. No serious person within the left-of-center spectrum believes individuals should suffer under crushing debt or that anyone should be denied higher education for financial reasons. There is in fact significant consensus among friends on the left, such that so-called socialists and liberals agree: the government can help. What is unresolved is how this help can be best actualized through policy. Do we, for example, eliminate all student debt in one fell swoop, or do we target debt relief towards those with greatest need? After addressing the current debt crisis, what can be done to prevent the next one? How much should be allocated for K-12 education? What other measures are needed to maximize social welfare and the common good?

The tendency to portray debates within the left-of-center spectrum as deep and ideological, rather than instrumental, is also apparent in the portrayal of major political figures. The ideological differences between the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) and the Democratic Party's leftmost member (US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) are easily and often exaggerated. This is no less true of the differences between Joe Biden and United States Senator Bernie Sanders. These figures, like most in the left-of-center, agree that the government can and should improve citizen's lives.

Correctly diagnosing the disagreements within the left-of-center spectrum is not merely an academic matter of political taxonomy. We need to understand which of our differences are matters of value and which are matters of expediency. The latter, but not the former, are amenable to compromise. Those who gleefully quote Reagan will resist any expansion of the welfare state. The rest of us waste time catering to such uncompromising requests. But, in contrast, members of the far-left and center-left actually share an ideological space and should be optimistic about the prospects of collaboration. Their primary differences do not constitute a cavernous divide between values; instead, they span the more negotiable domain of instrumentation.

My contention is not that there are absolutely no ideological differences within the left-of-center, nor do I wish to suggest that all differences are merely cosmetic. Rather, my claim is that, if you objectively quantify debates between the far-left and center-left, pragmatic disagreements over means are far more significant than ideological differences over ends. And this, I should stress, is of practical import.

First, instead of caricaturing Democrats as rapacious capitalists opposed in principle to government expansion, the far-left would benefit from delineating shared goals with the center-left. Second, and relatedly, far-left activism would be most usefully directed at issues of political feasibility, which, again, is often the primary point of disagreement. In the context of healthcare, for example, progressives might advocate for auto-enrollment to a public option. This would measurably increase access to healthcare without introducing obstacles the center-left fears. Even if the far-left considers a hybrid system as non-ideal, provisions like auto-enrollment would universalize the Democratic proposal. Or, to take another example, progressives could pursue increased taxation on the wealthy to reduce co-pays. Proposals like these are both politically feasible and worth pursuing. Here, progressive change is possible.

Overall, this is a time of immense opportunity for American progressives. The Democratic Party has moved left on both social and economic policies since the election of Barack Obama in 2008. There is little evidence that this trajectory has a defined endpoint, given the expansive government spending in The American Rescue Plan (2021) and other policy proposals. The question now is how to continue to target government resources through specific policies. The far-left has a real chance to shape the agenda. This opportunity will be squandered if attention is focused on ideological disputes like those imagined in Jacobin. In recognizing that the primary forces dividing the left-of-center spectrum pertain to instrumentalization, rather than ideology, we may sooner arrive at policies that do a lot of good for millions of Americans.

Liberals and leftists are united in this: Reagan was wrong. There is nothing terrifying about a government invested in helping citizens. The government can and should help. The question we should debate among ourselves is: how can it help the most?

BRAND NEW STORIES
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by fontsempire.com.