Paul Rosenberg

Progressives should go bold to break gridlock and expand their power

Conventional wisdom was wrong about the midterms, but in a deeper way than most observers have yet realized. It's not just that Democrats did better than expected, and the Dobbs decision and Trump-backed election deniers weren't the only reasons. A lot of things went into those results, which were more complicated than most narratives allow. Through the haze of conflicting post-election narratives, the possibility for a long-term progressive realignment can be seen, combining the government activism of Joe Biden's major legislation (the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act) with the growing power of diverse social movements advancing racial, gender and climate justice, gun safety and more. As the younger voters who overwhelmingly support Democrats grow in strength, there's a path out of current gridlock and polarization based on a progressive agenda. But conventional wisdom can't even see it.

As I've noted previously — here, here, here, here and here, among others — as far back as 1967, Hadley Cantril and Lloyd Free's landmark book "The Political Beliefs of Americans identified a "schizoid" asymmetry in American politics: On the one hand, there's a plurality preference for conservatism, on an ideological or symbolic level, while on the other hand there's supermajority support for what the authors called "operational liberalism," meaning big government spending to solve specific problems. That's essentially what the Biden administration has delivered, as White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre recently summarized: "The most significant economic recovery package since Roosevelt ... the largest infrastructure plan since Eisenhower ... the most sweeping gun reform bill since Clinton ... Landmark China competitiveness legislation that's already bringing manufacturing jobs back from overseas ... the largest climate change bill in history."

The internal division that hobbled Democrats over the past two years was often presented as progressives versus centrists, but was really about good-faith actors (whatever their supposed ideology) versus bad-faith ones, most notably Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. As a result, many "Dems in disarray" articles clouded the public's understanding, making it difficult to see how much got done despite that obstructionism. As Way to Win reported in its Battleground State Poll Readout, 78% of all voters couldn't name anything Biden had done that directly helped them. All those people had received $1,400 stimulus checks, so the problem was much less that Biden and the Democrats hadn't done enough than how little voters knew about what they'd done.

Democrats are in a good place politically, if they can get past that problem. Progressive economics are popular — including Social Security and Medicare, family leave, the expanded child tax credit and student loan debt forgiveness — as are progressive positions in the culture wars, where the Dobbs decision in particular exposed Republican weakness. On criminal justice reform, the phrase "defund the police" became a liability, but the actual policy it describes — reallocating funding to social workers, mental health and other social services — is highly popular. In one survey of Los Angeles voters, 75% of people in households with a police officer supported that policy.

So it's not extremism that threatens Democrats' prospects, but the opposite: lacking the boldness to secure the allegiance of young voters. My argument stands in direct conflict with New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall's "What Really Saved the Democrats This Year?" which ludicrously ignores the Dobbs effect, quotes only male commentators and frames everything in terms of a battle between "moderates" and "progressives."

An overlooked popular foundation

My argument is founded on three key facts: First, Biden's agenda — most notably the trifecta of the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act — was grounded in the Biden-Sanders Joint Task Force Recommendations, which NPR described as the "Blueprint for a Progressive Presidency" and enjoyed almost universal Democratic support. Second, that the Dobbs decisionand Trump-backed attacks on democracy fueled a backlash that reflects a historical turning of the tides in America's culture wars. Third, that voters under 30 — whose share of the electorate will only grow with each election cycle — favored Democrats by almost 30 points. Those are the voters who most clearly see the failures of neoliberal politics as usual over the past 40-plus years, particularly on issues like gun violence, climate change, mass incarceration, reproductive freedom and economic inequality.

While Republican control of the House will certainly stall things in the short run, the next two years could be crucial in laying the groundwork for a generation or more of progressive Democratic dominance on a scale not seen since the New Deal or the Great Society. The potential pieces are there — they just need to be put together, and the process of doing so has already begun.

"This cycle and election made clear that milquetoast, centrist approaches are ineffective and losing strategies — they just don't excite new base voters and hold the middle," Way to Win president Tory Gavito told Salon:

Candidates that ran on persuasive progressive platforms won up and down the ballot across the country from the Senate to state legislatures. The way to win is through offering voters — especially our Democratic base — bold agendas, ideas and solutions that will make tangible impacts to improve their lives and communities, and making an argument for these solutions to independents. We must remind voters that MAGA has nothing to offer but trumped-up culture wars, through the vision we promote on air to the talking points we share on the doors.

Gavito reiterated that Way to Win polling showed that a large majority of voters couldn't name a single accomplishment that Biden or the Democratic Congress had achieved. That was a "wake-up call," she said, but "also a massive opportunity heading into 2023 and 2024. ... Democrats have a unique opportunity to tell and show voters how their actions and policies are making real-world impacts that are improving our economy."

The best economic policy in 40 years

The main headwind Democrats faced this year was the inflation issue, which, as I wrote earlier this month, was both a worldwide problem for which Biden and Democrats were not responsible and also part of a complicated story that showed lower-income workers doing much better overall, with more jobs, faster wage growth, rising home ownership and refinancing of existing homes. In other words, the U.S. economy was recovering well from the COVID shock and generally doing so in a healthier, more equitable manner.

This was a shared objective of the Biden-Sanders Task Force, reflected first in the American Rescue Plan, which economist Claudia Sahm called "the best economic policy in 40 years." She wrote: "Yes, inflation's been higher and for longer than expected by proponents of more relief like myself," then adding further context: "If you look broadly at what's happening in the U.S. economy — inflation-adjusted consumer spending, jobs, business investment and household balance sheets — it's clear that Americans are winning," which was not the case after the Great Recession.

When the ARP was passed, the U.S. economy was "still in a bad place," Sahm told Salon. "We were just coming out of the omicron wave, the winter had been bad. There was no guarantee we were going to have the recovery or that it was going to be strong." But in fact, she said, "we've had the first job-full recovery in decades," in stark contrast to the "crushingly slow" recovery from the Great Recession of 2008.

After the Obama administration's inadequate response, Sahm said, "Republicans came in and did austerity" which suited their donors just fine. "Wealthy people came back quickly. The stock market came back quickly. House prices, for those who did not lose their homes, came back. But the jobs did not come back, and long-term unemployment has disastrous effects on people's careers — not just bad while you're out of work, but bad for years," If Biden's plan accomplished nothing else, she said, the "job-full recovery makes it the best policy that we've had to fight a recession" in decades.

Slashing child poverty

Unfortunately, the expanded Child Tax Credit in Biden's plan — which cut child poverty by 30% — was only temporary, and later allowed to lapse thanks to Joe Manchin's opposition, As I wrote in 2015, based on papers from the LIS Data Center, America has a terrible record in fighting child poverty, but it could easily afford to cut child poverty almost in half by enacting a $4,000-a-year child allowance. That would cost about $160 billion every year, but would produce a net benefit of about $90 billion, since childhood poverty costs the country even more, with "lost productivity and increased crime and health care costs as primary factors."

The extended CTC would have made us somewhat competitive with other rich nations, at a net annual savings of more than $50 billion. That's what Joe Manchin blocked, based on shifting rationales that didn't hold up to scrutiny in terms of either the experiences of other countries our America's trial run under the ARP. Sahm told Congress in October 2021 that the CTC "would be the 'biggest bang for the buck,' supporting families now and investing in our next generation."

The Child Tax Credit was allowed to lapse, Sahm said, because "Larry Summers convinced Joe Manchin that the child tax credit was inflationary," a view she calls "absolutely absurd." In an analysis last July, she explained: "Unlike stimulus checks that came out in a burst, accounting for 16% of disposable personal income in March 2021, the new Child Tax Credit was monthly to families and was 0.5% of income from July through December." In short, it wasn't a contributor to inflation, and was a crucial investment in the next generation.

The question here is not whether this example of "operational liberalism" works. The evidence is clear enough. The only real question is whether, or when, we can gather the political will to get it done.

Taking Trumpers seriously

But there's another, more immediate barrier: The often ill-informed Republican base, which despite its affection for Donald Trump is nonetheless right about something. That's the argument Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, makes in "The Case for the Trumpers' Anger."

"There is no justification for the racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry that Trump has cultivated since he entered politics," Baker wrote. "But there is a reason why it suddenly has so much appeal," that being the basic reality of how badly the non-college-educated majority of Americans have fared over the last 50 years or so.

Consider this: If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since its peak real value in 1968, the national minimum wage would be over $12 an hour today, rather than $7.25. But if it had kept pace with productivity growth, as it did for three decades prior to 1968, it would be almost twice that, or $23 an hour. That would mean a couple working full-time minimum-wage jobs would earn about $92,000 a year — a very different world than the one we live in today.

Since only about 40% of adults have college degrees, Baker writes, "This means a large majority of the population has grounds to be unhappy about their economic circumstances in recent decades. Given this reality, suppose that the poor prospects for non-college educated workers was the result of deliberate policies pushed by the people who control debates on economic policy, as in people with college and advanced degrees."

In fact, that's exactly what has happened, he argues. "The winners really did screw them and they have concocted nonsense stories to conceal that fact. ... Of course, that doesn't mean that every university professor or librarian was in on the scheme, but as a class these people have in fact put in place economic structures that redistribute from the less-educated to those with college and advanced degrees."

That analysis may be skewed, in that the prime movers weren't upper-middle-class professionals but a handful of extremely wealthy elites, and the neoliberal worldview they promoted was surrounded by so much propaganda that it was difficult to see what absolute nonsense it was. But still, as a class educated professionals did go along with it, accepting much of that nonsensical propaganda along the way. So what can be done to remedy that now?

"Democrats need to actively push policies that will reverse the upward redistribution of the last four decades," Baker told Salon via email. "For example, cracking down on the bloated financial sector is a great place to start. Taxing financial transactions, starting with crypto, would both raise lots of money, which could be used for things like child care and might also eliminate many of the big fortunes earned in the sector." He also suggests reducing prescription-drug costs "by publicly funding the research and making the resulting drugs and inventions available as cheap generics sold in a free market." This would reduce health care costs and free up money for other purposes."

In short, there are relatively straightforward things we can do, which in Democratic politics today are generally coded as "progressive." That's also misleading, because their appeal would reach far across party lines. Baker certainly wouldn't guarantee that such measures could bring white working class voters back to the Democrats, but it could be crucial for securing the allegiance of younger voters, the potential foundation for decades of Democratic dominance.

The end of Roe and court reform

But economics — although certainly crucial — is only part of the story. For decades Republicans have relied on culture-war issues, abortion foremost among them. More precisely, conservatives have devoted immense energy and resources to controlling the courts, thereby enforcing minority views they could never democratically write into law. But having finally realized their goal of overturning Roe in 2022, everything has changed, largely because these culture-war issues have always relied on some degree of subterfuge, and the Dobbs blew a hole in all that, exposing the messy, complicated reality obscured by facile "pro-life" rhetoric. Voters in Michigan, Vermont and California overwhelmingly approved initiatives enshrining abortion rights in their state constitutions, while voters in Kansas, Kentucky and Montana (three solidly Republican states) said no to bans or restrictions. But this is clearly just the beginning of years of further struggle that will be about much more than abortion rights.

The extremist, anti-democratic Supreme Court is a massive problem, but most discussions about how to solve it have been overly abstract and hobbled by a limited sense of history. One exception is a new paper by David Gans, director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Citizenship Program at the Constitutional Accountability Center, which proposes concrete potential remedies by drawing on the most compelling historical example we have. That was during Reconstruction, when Congress both expanded and contracted the size of the Supreme Court, limited its jurisdiction and expanded the power of federal courts to protect citizens' rights. The most lasting and consequential impacts came from the last option, which he believes could guide us this time around. "When six Justices insist on rolling back fundamental rights and putting accountability further out of reach," he writes, "Congress should do what it did during Reconstruction: employ its enforcement powers to pass landmark civil rights legislation that opens the courthouse doors and ensure the promise of justice for all Americans."

Gans told Salon that reforming the courts "is about more than the composition of the Supreme Court." While it's highly unlikely that reform legislation can be enacted in the next two years, he said, "progressives in and out of Congress should use this time to develop a multi-pronged approach. The Constitution gives Congress powerful tools to reform our federal judicial system and to ensure that our federal courts — including the Supreme Court — uphold the rights and ideals that lie at the core of our Constitution, including liberty and equal justice under law.

"In this moment, progressives should think boldly about how to deploy these tools to fix a Supreme Court whose conservatives seem bent on decimating fundamental rights and equality. To build popular support, progressives should use every chance they get to make the case that the conservative super-majority of the Supreme Court is getting the Constitution dead wrong and that far-reaching changes are necessary to honor the whole Constitution's safeguards and promises."

Criminal justice reform

In contrast to abortion, an issue that has shone harsh light on the arbitrary or outright lawless actions of the Supreme Court, things are much more muddled on another crucial front: criminal justice reform. As I wrote earlier this month, crime and inflation were "two Dems-in-charge/situation-out-of-control narratives" that were "custom crafted in the Fox News ecosystem" which the New York Timestook a lead role in spreading farther across the political spectrum during the recent midterm campaign, "crowding out other contrasting narratives in the process."

New York was clearly an epicenter on this issue, and bail reform was a key focus. Early in December, civil rights attorney Scott Hechinger, who heads Zealous, a criminal justice reform initiative, co-authored a commentary on the bail reform question, specifically calling out Democrats who tried to blame it for midterm losses. "Research has established no connection between bail reform and any increase in crime," he wrote, and "New York City has remained secure even though headlines could make one think otherwise." Three of New York's five boroughs "are among the safest 15 counties in the U.S." he noted, while Nassau County, just east of the city on Long Island — where 64 mayors recently called for the repeal of bail reform — has twice since the law's implementation been ranked the safest place to live in the country.

In short, the panic over a supposed crime wave and bail reform in New York was pure political bullshit. "Democrats lost because they ran from the truth about bail reform," Hechinger writes, "amplifying lies instead of championing what should have been their policy win. In short, they made themselves indistinguishable from Republicans on this topic."

That's exactly what some misguided pundits and strategists consistently tell Democrats to do. But all evidence suggests the opposite is true. "Other candidates who told the truth about bail reform's success and stood strong against fearmongering won," Hechinger notes, and that shouldn't be surprising. As I noted above, the actual policy behind the notion of defunding police — meaning the reallocation of funding to social workers, mental health and other social services — is overwhelmingly popular.

The logic behind policies of mass incarceration is at least as bad or worse, as Hechinger noted in an email to Salon:

We invest more than any other society in the history of the world on policing, prosecutions and punishment. So if the current massive investments into these approaches actually worked, you'd expect we'd be the safest and healthiest society in the word. We're obviously far from it, by police and politicians' own admission. We need to follow facts and reasoned solutions, not fear: Why we need to abandon our current approaches that only further drive violence by creating environments of isolation, shame, economic deprivation, and violence — the very characteristics of overpolicing and prisons parallel the very drivers of violence itself.

The alternative already exists, he continued:

People don't have to 'imagine' what non-carceral, non-punitive, non-police responses to public health and safety look like. The safest & healthiest communities are those with greater community investments, not more police. One need look no further than wealthy white suburbs to see how substance use, mental health issues, interpersonal violence and conflict between and among young people are dealt with largely without police.

Even where conditions are bleak, proactive progressive alternatives have proven remarkably effective in reducing crime. Perhaps most important is restorative justice, a concept described at length in Lois Forer's 1994 book, "A Rage to Punish":

Restorative justice programs recognize that punishment and prison neither heals trauma nor holds actors accountable. This is extraordinarily difficult and intentional work, with both the harmed party and the person who harmed and then ultimately with the support of community bringing both sides together to communicate, to see each other, connect, make agreements, set forth community based consequences, and focus forward. In Brooklyn, when survivors of violence are informed that the restorative justice program Common Justice is an option, they choose it over the normal process over 90% of the time. And recidivism rates among those who complete the program are near zero.

The second approach is violence interruption:

The 'Interrupters Model' pays and trains trusted insiders of a community to anticipate where violence will occur and intervene before it erupts, work in neighborhoods and hospitals, meet with survivors to help and prevent retaliation, and work with people at highest risk for causing harm. Violence interruption works: There was a 31% drop in homicides and 19% in shootings in two Chicago districts where interrupters worked. And it's significantly more cost-effective, especially when measured against outsized policing that has been proven by their own statistics not to work at all.

In short, the hot-button issue of crime, which Democrats have spent decades running away from, could actually be a winning issue for progressives if they can successfully cut through the hysteria. Hechinger concluded by saying we need to "understand things police enforce as 'crime' as public health issues — and that includes violence — that we, as a society, have failed to properly address, and can address."

The public health framework

Seeing crime through that kind of public health lens fits with a broader argument I made last year and can apply to liberal or progressive policies more broadly: "[E]nvironmental health, racism, gun violence, injury and violence prevention, healthy housing, and reproductive and sexual health" are all recognized by the American Public Health Association as major areas of concern, and their list "also intersects with human rights in the field of global health, and deals with issues of income inequality, education, housing, incarceration, nutritional equity, literacy, health care coverage and access."

The public health framework can also provide a coherent overarching narrative:

The challenge for Democrats and progressives is to do what Republicans and conservatives have been doing for decades: Craft a coherent ideological narrative that makes sense of what people already feel. But for Democrats, it's not just about vague free-market fantasies, or romantic longings for a past that never was. It's about concrete things people can do to empower themselves through government action, creating a future with more possibilities for all.

In the conclusion to Cantril and Free's "The Political Beliefs of Americans," the authors called for "a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve" which "would focus people's wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner."

A public health narrative can make sense of the "operational liberalism" identified in that book and can address diverse social movements that energize the Democratic base, as well as the multi-pronged project of court reform. It also speaks to the failures that led to such extreme economic inequality in America, as well as the disastrous failures of neoliberal policy that both enabled and sought to justify it. Adopting a public health framework to make sense of our politics and bring us together to solve our most difficult problems might well help Democrats win elections, but that's not the point. Far more important, it could restore a common framework for overcoming the partisan polarization and political gridlock that seems inescapable today, but doesn't have to be.

What's behind Elon's Twitter disaster? A fundamental misunderstanding of 'free speech'

As was widely predicted, there's been a greatdeal of chaos since Elon Musk purchased Twitter: Advertisers fleeing, mass firings, hate speech spiking, a plague of fake accounts, even talk of bankruptcy. At this point it's easy to forget the early warning signal when Musk tweeted a link to a baseless anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about the Paul Pelosi attack from a known misinformation website that had once pushed a story that Hillary Clinton died on 9/11. But it was precisely the sort of telling, seemingly minor and idiosyncratic act that poets and playwrights since time immemorial have locked onto as character portents of destiny.

That came just a few news cycles after Musk assured advertisers that "Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-fall hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences," promising that "our platform must be warm and welcoming to all." Musk deleted the Pelosi link after it had already gotten more than 24,000 retweets and 86,000 likes — in other words, after the damage had already been done. Needless to say, there were no consequences for Musk, at least not right away.

That made me think of Chris Bail's book, "Breaking the Social Media Prism" (Salon interview here) and his ideas about how to build a better platform — meaning both one more civil and more likely to produce reliable information. If Musk genuinely wanted Twitter to "become by far the most accurate source of information about the world," he'd listen to Bail, a leader in the growing community of social science researchers who're developing a sophisticated understanding of our emerging online world. So I reached Bail what he made of the situation, before turning to others as well. While Twitter's financial woes and disastrous non-moderation policies have been big news over the past week, they remain rooted in the realities that Bail and his colleagues have studied intensively for years.

Bail suggested that Musk's retweet of the nonsensical Pelosi story was an attempt to "make a point," that being that "there's always two sides to every story, and seeing this as an opportunity to demonstrate that Twitter has some kind of bias in favor of liberals." But sharing such blatantly misleading information, he continued, "demonstrates what happens if any person tries to make content moderation decisions on their own. You get suboptimal outcomes, because drawing the line between what's acceptable and not acceptable is always going to inspire debate and criticism and disagreement."

What Bail found "particularly tragic" was that "Twitter already has mechanisms in place to promote effective content moderation. The one that's most important in my view is the Birdwatch initiative, which empowers Twitter's users to label posts misleading or false in a sort of crowd-source model, where people can then agree with those annotation, and they become boosted in the Twitter timeline." That sort of "community-led model," Bail said, can avoid the "hot take" mistake Musk apparently made.

Ironically, Musk pointed to Birdwatch (which he has renamed "Community Notes") when Jack Dorsey challenged his statement about accurate information by asking, "accurate to who?" But a Birdwatch note corrected him: "The stated goal of Birdwatch is 'to add helpful context to Tweets.' It is not to adjudicate facts or to be a universal source of information." An article in Poynter highlighted another problem:

"This feature is an absolute game-changer for fighting mis/disinformation at scale," Musk tweeted Saturday. However, as of Nov. 2, there were only 113 notes which were logged after Musk's purchase visible to the public — up from 34 before — which accounts for only 14% of the total notes submitted by Birdwatchers.

Of the community notes made public after the purchase, only one addresses misleading information about voting and elections. Dozens are about Birdwatch itself. One is about the vaccination status of a red panda at the Toronto Zoo.

Even if Community Notes takes off, it will have a tough time catching up with disinformation and misinformation spread by Twitter users, including the flood of $8 fake blue-check accounts he unleashed (and then apparently rolled back).

Then there's the issue of "whether the CEO of the major social media company should be chiming in on a case-by-case basis," Bail said. "I think the answer there is probably no, because it'll be impossible to appear objective by occasionally weighing in on stories of the day. That's not going to create the kind of environment that he seems to want to create, where equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats are upset."

Cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, whose work I've drawnonrepeatedly over the pastdecade, expressed similar concerns. Musk's actions since taking over Twitter "are problematic and do not augur well for democracy," Lewandowsky said via email. "To take just one example, consider moderation. Without moderation, platforms become a cesspit of misogyny, racial hatred and antisemitism, without any conceivable benefit for society. Holocaust denial is not free speech — it is hate speech, and at least indirectly incites discrimination or violence. It is, at best, a shallow and uninformed interpretation of free speech to want to abolish moderation."

Furthermore, Lewandowsky said, Musk is "completely out of step with the public on this issue." In a pre-print article with several co-authors, Lewandowsky added, he shows that "people in the U.S. by and large support moderation and content removal for disinformation (such as Holocaust denial) that is harmful."

Musk's seeming indifference to spreading misinformation "indicates that he really does not understand what free speech means," Lewandowsky continued. "Free speech does not mean the freedom to make things up or to intentionally create and disseminate false information in pursuit of political goals. When Hitler claimed that Poland was attacking Germany in 1939, he was not exercising free speech. He was using propaganda to justify his own war of aggression. Putin is now doing the same with respect to Ukraine," he said. "The important thing to understand is that speech can only be free if is protected from propaganda, hate speech and incitement to violence."

Bail suggested that the key to improving online discourse is changing the "incentive structure." In other words, "Rather than rewarding posts that get a lot of engagement, which tend to be those that have outrageous content, promote the type of content that produces consensus."

Cautions about misinformation and a process that allows for discussion and voting on content labels has proven successful, Bail noted — though it can't be seen as a sure thing. "The problem is that Republicans and Democrats may start to use the misinformation labeling as a political game," he said, and that's indeed what happened with Birdwatch at first. "But then Twitter implemented an algorithm that boosted those messages where both Republicans and Democrats appreciated the note, and this seems to have created an environment where people stop spreading misinformation. If you incentivize people to find consensus, it may have particularly good outcomes in the aggregate."

This dovetails with the findings in Lewandowsky's pre-print article cited above, that even in our current contentious political climate, there's an untapped potential within social media for bringing people together to have reality-based conversations rather than symbolic or identity-based feuds. Elon Musk apparently sees himself as a champion of democracy, fighting against the danger of "echo chambers." But Bail's book argues that the echo-chamber metaphor is misleading and leads into a dead end.

Consider Musk's widely quoted letter to advertisers:

The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence. There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society.

In the relentless pursuit of clicks, much of traditional media has fueled and catered to those polarized extremes, as they believe that is what brings in the money, but, in doing so, the opportunity for dialogue is lost.

There's a profound flaw in that reasoning, Bail argued. "Like many tech leaders," he told me, Musk seems to "believe that social media should be a competition of ideas where everyone should be allowed to speak their mind and as these ideas compete, the truth or the most reasonable opinions will naturally rise to the top," Bail said. "So the concern is that if ideas can't compete, if some are banned, or if conservatives are only having conversations with each other on places like Parler and Gab and liberals don't engage in those conversations, it's inevitably bad for democracy."

The first problem with that, Bail said, is that "the vast majority of people are not in echo chambers," because "most people don't care a lot about politics, and you can only be in a political echo chamber if you have political views." But it gets worse from there.

The second problem is that taking people outside an echo chamber of mutual agreement "doesn't necessarily make them more moderate," Bail continued. "To the contrary, there's some evidence that it may even make them more extreme. The goal of most social media users is not to engage in reasoned debate and convince others about their views. It's instead to gain status, often by taking down people from the other side. So the effect of getting people outside the echo chamber is sometimes, counterintuitively, to create more conflict."

In his book, Bail gets into the more subtle dynamics that can emerge in social media. But these broad lessons are enough to signal that Musk's preferred pathway isn't likely. Indeed, every social media platform seems to go through something similar, as Mike Masnick laid out in a hilarious SNL-skit-for-nerds account at Techdirt, "Hey Elon: Let Me Help You Speed Run the Content Moderation Learning Curve":

Level One: "We're the free speech platform! Anything goes!"

Cool. Cool. The bird is free! Everyone rejoice.

"Excuse me, boss, we're getting reports that there are child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSAM) images and videos on the site."

Oh shit. I guess we should take that down. ...

Level Twenty: "Look, we're just a freaking website. Can't you people behave?"

It's a wicked, hilarious piece of work that illustrates why Musk and people like him don't understand what they're up against.

Lewandowsky called it "spot-on," saying, "I suspect Musk considers himself the great technologist and disruptor who cannot fail — he certainly acts like that — and that prevents him from taking a break to actually study the world and learn from it. He may yet learn, or at least his lawyers will, but that doesn't mean Twitter will become benign. There is lots of barely legal speech that's extremely harmful. That's what we have to worry about and monitor carefully."

Bail characterizes the disconnect this way:

Many social media leaders have treated social media as an engineering problem and simply argued we just need better AI, we need better software engineers. That appears to be very much the technique that Mr. Musk is using. The problem is, social media is not really just a piece of software. It's a community of people, and a community of people often resists attempts at social engineering. Also, engineers just often lack the understanding of what drives human behavior in order to make design choices that will promote more civil behavior.

Bail wryly adds, "I would love for Mr. Musk to learn from the many talented social scientists inside Twitter, but also from the broader field of computational social science." What he might learn there could challenge "a lot of his own assumptions about social media," including the idea that it's biased against conservatives or "that allowing a broad range of views will naturally produce consensus."

Another expression of Musk's engineering-based mindset was in this Nov. 3 tweet: "Because it consists of billions of bidirectional interactions per day, Twitter can be thought of as a collective, cybernetic super-intelligence."

That led research scientist Joe Bak-Coleman to tweet a response thread (upgraded to an article here), where he traced the hive-mind idea back to Aristotle's "Politics," noting that neurons are a poor analogy for individual human behavior, since they have no competitive goals. A better model, he said, is flocks of birds or schools of fish. The way those work is "remarkably complex, but themes emerge: groups are constrained in size or modular+hierarchical, attention is paid to only a few neighbors, etc." In the article he concludes:

So, Elon's premise that Twitter can behave like a collective intelligence only holds if the structure of the network and nature of interactions is tuned to promote collective outcomes. Everything we know suggests the design space that would promote effective collective behavior at scale — if it exists — is quite small compared to the possible design space on the internet.

Worse, it might not overlap with other shorter-term goals: profitability, free speech, safety and avoiding harassment… you name it. It's entirely possible that we can't, for instance, have a profitable global social network that is sustainable, healthy, and equitable.

In short, it's ludicrous to suggest that a social media platform as dynamic and complicated as Twitter is just an engineering problem. Another key point "about collective behavior, networks and complex systems" was highlighted in a quote-tweet by Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, one of the co-authors of the preprint article cited above: "Self-organization does not mean anarchy, but that good things can emerge if the (micro) rules of interaction are well crafted. Neither top-down nor hands-off will work." I reached out and asked him to elaborate further:

The magic of Twitter (and most other online platforms that rely on user-generated content) are emergent phenomena. Communities form, discussions evolve, and trends arise when people network with each other, but the results are neither random nor easily predictable; rather, they depend on the implementation of those interactions. That's the beauty of self-organization, when something emerges that is greater than the sum of its parts, which is what makes social media so fascinating and exciting, but also scary. But don't make the mistake of thinking that self-organization doesn't have rules, it just works differently than laws. The current version of social media serves primarily commercial purposes, and that also drives the evolution of its interaction rules. These interaction rules are what make complex systems like social media so counterintuitive: they operate at the microscopic level, between two actors, but their effects scale up to the macroscopic dynamics in unpredictable but not random ways.

In the current version of social media, some of these emergent dynamics are great, funny memes but also important social movements have their origins in such phenomena, but also all the dangerous dynamics of radicalization, polarization and conspiracy theories are fueled by the collective dynamics that are only possible on social media. But they are largely byproducts of the way social media has been used to date.

He went on to say that redesigning social media to serve societal goals, rather than purely commercial ones, will take hard work — and some very familiar strategies. He used the analogy of automotive traffic, where most of us support "the regulation of individuals with top-down rules," such as speed limits, seatbelt laws and severe punishments for drunk driving:

The opposite, the choice of a supposedly neutral hands-off approach, will lead to emergent phenomena that will, however, be driven and dominated by those privileged by the connections they already have and who are active because they seek power and abuse the scale of social media. These will be given a tool that self-reinforces their positions through collective dynamics, a scenario that we already see in the current version of social media and that is not consistent with democratic principles (e.g., representation).

We're better off sticking to democratic principles, Lorenz-Spreen argues, "because democracy itself is a self-organized system whose rules have evolved over many centuries. We may still need new rules for interaction on the internet, because we can (and need to) design them in an unprecedented level of detail. But that will have to be done carefully, and certainly not by one guy."

Lewandowsky responded to a recent Washington Post article on "Musk's Trump-style management," which author Will Oremus summarized this way: "Inside Elon Musk's 'free speech' Twitter, a culture of secrecy and fear has taken hold. Managers and employees have been muzzled, Slack channels have gone dark, and workers are turning to anonymous gossip apps to find out basic info about their jobs."

"Appeals to free speech, and complaints about being censored, have been a major talking point of the hard right for decades," Lewandowsky told me. "So we now have commentators on Fox News or columnists in newspapers with an audience of millions complaining about being 'canceled,' just because someone opposed their views."

There are darker possibilities. Investigative journalist Dave Troy responded to Musk's "cybernetic super-intelligence" tweet with a thread that inquires whether Musk is describing "the concept of the Noosphere," which Troy links to Vladimir Putin's policy agenda and a heritage of relatively obscure Russian and European 19th-century philosophy and theology. Troy suggests that "Musk is aligned with Putin's agenda and will continue to use Twitter as part of an effort to challenge the dollar, the [U.S. government]. NATO, the EU and other governments."

Whatever lies ahead for Twitter — which may or may not survive Musk's chaotic early regime — there's a community of people there and elsewhere, who have a far more realistic grasp of the promise, possibilities and problems involved in social media than he does. Musk can clearly corrupt or destroy the platform he now controls, but he cannot control the future or the emergence of something better.

How 'religious freedom' became a right-wing assault on equality and the rule of law

The Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wadesent shockwaves through the American electorate. But as shocking as the destruction of a fundamental right may be, more radical changes may lie ahead, as Andrew Seidel warns in his new book, "American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom." As I have arguedrepeatedlyover the past several years, the religious right has mounted a sustained struggle to pervert the meaning of religious freedom, transforming it from a shield to protect the rights of all to worship freely into a sword wielded by the most powerful.

There are many facets to this struggle, but there's no doubt that the most consequential field of battle is the Supreme Court. Seidel's book does a masterful job of laying bare the full scope of that struggle and the stakes involved — which could ultimately mean a de facto end to the rule of law as we normally understand it. As Seidel notes, 150 years ago the Supreme Court warned that weaponized religious freedom would "permit every citizen to become a law unto himself," so there's much more at stake here than "just" the First Amendment.

As Seidel explains, his book is not meant to be a comprehensive account of this entire complicated history. Instead, he focuses on a handful of key cases, including a few that predate the modern "religious freedom" crusade that are nonetheless crucial to the story. He doesn't discuss these as lawyers normally do, in terms of court decisions and written and oral arguments. Instead, he tells the nitty-gritty story of what really happened in each of the cases, because official accounts often badly misconstrue the actual events. For example, in the famous "wedding cake" case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Seidel interviewed the gay couple as well as two members of the Colorado civil rights commission that the Supreme Court majority slandered as anti-religious bigots. The result is closer to a living history of our time than any other book about the Supreme Court you're ever likely to read.

I recently interviewed Andrew Seidel by Zoom. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The title of your book is "American Crusade." So how would you characterize this crusade? What are the crusaders trying to accomplish?

Religious freedom has long been a shield. It is this right that all Americans possess, and the words etched into the edifice of the Supreme Court tell us, "Equal justice under law." This right applies equally to all of us. It was supported by a strong separation of church and state, but not anymore.

There is a well-funded powerful network of Christian nationalist organizations and judges that are working to weaponize the First Amendment, to turn the protection of religious freedom enjoyed by all of us into a weapon of Christian privilege for the few. The crusaders' religious freedom challenges are superficially about things like Christian crosses and veterans or playgrounds or private school vouchers or bakeries and gay weddings, but really they're about religious privilege, often literally about privileging religion over non-religion, Christianity over other religions and the right kind of conservative Christians over other Christians. At its most basic level, they are trying to turn religious freedom into a weapon to reclaim and entrench their lost status as the dominant caste in American society.

You write that to understand religious freedom, you must understand three basic lines of argument. I'd like you to explain each of them and why they matter. The first one is "action versus belief."

What I try to do in the book is really simplify what has become — I want to say it's become a complicated issue, but that's not true: It's an issue that was deliberately complicated, and where so much disinformation has been pumped into this debate that the waters have been muddied. Because questions of religious freedom are not hard. Sometimes they're emotionally fraught, but in their push to weaponize religious freedom, the crusaders have misled and confounded so many Americans about where we draw the legal lines on this founding principle. So, historically and legally they're not hard questions, and I try to boil it down simply into these three lines.

The first one is that we distinguish between belief and action. So your right to believe is absolute. It's probably the only absolute right we have under our Constitution. But your right to act on that belief is not. The example that really drives it home for a lot of people is to think about all those parents — there are far too many of them — who hear God telling them that they have to kill their children. They're free to believe that, but I think everybody agrees that the civil law can step in and prevent them from acting on that belief. So the belief is unlimited, but the action is limited and can be limited by our laws.

That brings us to the second line.

Right. Where is it permissible for the government or the law to step in and stop that action, religiously motivated or otherwise? The answer here is pretty simple as well: where the rights of others begin. Your right to swing your fist, as the old legal adage says, ends where the other person's nose begins. It's the same thing with your religion: Your right to swing your religion or your rosary or whatever it is ends where the rights of others begin. Put another way, religious freedom is not a license to infringe on any other person's rights.

And then finally line three: church and state.

I think line three is pretty easy too. This line has been under assault for longer than the crusade has been in existence. I think the example here that's useful is a citizen who wants to pray. Citizens are free to pray all they want, that's line one. They're free to pray all they want, so long as that prayer doesn't infringe on somebody else's rights. Perhaps praying on someone else's property might not be OK. But they can even pray on public property, that's religious freedom too.

But they don't get to broadcast that prayer over a government PA system, for instance, because then they are using the power of the state to impose their religion on everybody else. Similarly, they don't get to use an office of the government, a position as governor or president, for instance, to impose that prayer on everybody else. I think the thing that is really important is that this line protects religious freedom. Mr. Johnson might pray every night, but Sheriff Johnson can't lead prayers at staff meetings or with prisoners. That's an abuse of power and sadly, the abuses of power in this context are pretty common.

We will decry similar abuses of power when a politician uses their official power to line their pockets or sexually harass staff or benefit partisan political campaigns. But when the abuse of power promotes Christianity, people tend to be silent, and I think it's really crucial that people understand this: Every American has a right to a secular government as a matter of personal religious liberty.

In Chapter 4, you take the case of the Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue a marriage license to David Emerald and David Moore. What do the different lines tell us about that case?

First, I think it's obvious that Kim Davis can believe whatever bigoted beliefs she wants about marriage, be they biblically accurate or otherwise. But when she is acting as a county clerk — and that is the only way that she has the power to issue these licenses — she is bound by other rules, including line No. 3. She doesn't get to use the power of that secular office to impose her personal religious beliefs on other people. That's not a question of religious liberty. It's a question of line number three. It's a question of the separation of church and state.

This is actually, in my opinion, a pretty basic and easy case, and it was complicated or blown up, we might say, turned into a circus by one of the crusaders in that case, Liberty Counsel. So again, line No. 1 says she's free to believe whatever she wants. Line No. 2 says that belief is not a license to act, and in that case she was denying other people their rights. That couple had a right under the law to be married, and Davis was violating that right using her official power. So she trespassed on line No. 2 and she trespassed on line No. 3.

The next case you take is Masterpiece Cakeshop. You note that the widespread unfamiliarity with civil rights was read into thousands of bad gotcha analogies. That's critical because the crusaders want to use religious freedom to undermine civil rights. So what basics are involved in making it an easy case to decide, as opposed to all the bad analogies?

So with Masterpiece Cakeshop, it's really crucial for people to understand how our civil rights laws function, because a lot of these religious freedom cases seek a license to trespass on those civil rights laws. It's a measure of how far this crusade has come, because those arguments have been around since the Civil Rights Act was passed in the '60s. One of the first challenges to the Civil Rights Act at the Supreme Court tried to argue that it contravenes the will of God and the religious freedom of business owners, and the Supreme Court laughed that argument off in a footnote. That's where we were, and now we have the Supreme Court seriously entertaining these arguments and possibly in the future deciding one of these in favor of business owners.

But the way public accommodation civil rights laws often work is that they list classes of people that are protected under the law, and often these are minorities that have faced discrimination in the past. So we often are protecting people on the basis of race or creed or color or sexual orientation or national origin. Different states in different civil rights laws protect different groups of people. But what they all do is to establish clear rights for those particular people, which is important because when you're talking about line No. 2, you don't have a license to violate somebody else's rights.

So you have three clear things for there to be a good analogy under any of the civil rights laws. There has to be a protected class that's actually protected. It has to involve a business — usually referred to as a "place of public accommodation" — and then you have to have a service that business provides generally, but is denying to people in the protected class. A lot of the gotcha analogies that we saw just completely missed those things.

One of my favorites was forcing a kosher deli to serve bacon. That's never going to happen, because that's not a question of discrimination. Kosher delis don't serve bacon in the first place. No law is going to turn around and force them to. But if a kosher deli serves sandwiches to folks, then it has to serve them to everybody equally under those protected classes.

In this case, you wrote: "The Supreme Court should have reiterated Line #2 in this case. Sorry, bakery, your owner's religion does not trump the rights of others. Done." But that's not what happened, because Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote an opinion about the alleged "hostility toward religion." You later say that there's a trio of cases that shows the evolution of this idea of hostility in religious freedom cases, of which this was one. Describe that evolution and what it shows.

It's really important to understand that there was no hostility in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. That was completely manufactured by Kennedy and the Supreme Court. A really good example of genuine hostility occurs in Chapter 6 of the book, Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. You have what can only be described as a mob scene in the town in an effort to shut down a Santería church that was trying to open there. I tell the story of this city council meeting where you have the police chaplain — which is a whole other thing — and members of the city council saying, "What can we do to prevent this church from opening?" and members of the public talking about how the city needs to shut the church down.

So you have very clear hostility from government officials acting in their official capacity toward a minority religion, and then the city council goes on to pass all of these laws that effectively outlaw the practice of Santería in the city. They did what the Supreme Court at the time called a religious gerrymander. Animal sacrifice was one of the sacred rites of Santería and the city outlawed it, just as a religious practice, but still allowed, for instance, exterminators to kill animals and vets to euthanize animals, still allowed kosher slaughterhouses to exist. So it was very clear that the laws they were passing targeted one particular religion for suppression.

So where did it go from there in terms of the next cases?

So that case lay dormant for quite a while. Actually Justice Kennedy wrote the decision in that Santería case, and then the next time it crops up, that I mention, is in the case of Donald Trump's Muslim ban. So you have Kennedy writing a concurring opinion in that case too, and there's a difference. Religious liberty in the Santería case is clearly this shield to protect a hated and stigmatized religious minority from the hostility of the majority. And then, in the case of the Muslim ban, you have the court using it as a cudgel to advance conservative Christianity.

I don't think it could be any clearer that that opinion permitted hostility against Muslims across the world, and actually favored immigration for Christians, which a lot of people tend to forget. Even though that hostility was very clear, very openly stated, the Supreme Court essentially ignored it. I think it's a nearly perfect analogy to the Santería case. But for this court, for the modern Supreme Court under John Roberts, they didn't care when it came to hostility against minorities.

But with just a few weeks' difference in time we get the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, where the Supreme Court allows a business to discriminate in the name of Christianity, at the same time as it is allowing the government to ban immigration of Muslims. To me it is one of the most striking examples of how this court is trying to favor Christianity and use religious freedom to enshrine Christian privilege into our Constitution.

This is such a complicated history. There's been so much misinformation piled up over the years. I think the simplest way to tell the Smith case is that counselors employed at a private drug counseling organization were fired for using drugs. The question in the case is: Does religious freedom require the state to pay unemployment benefits to private drug counselors who took drugs and were therefore fired for cause?

Now that's a pretty easy question to answer. I think it's pretty uncontroversial that it is perfectly acceptable for private organizations to say that drug counselors can't do drugs and keep their jobs. But it got complicated so much along the way, and up to this day, in part because Justice Scalia wrote a couple of paragraphs in the opinion that were far out of balance. He had a venomous pen and loved to use it, and here he essentially dared Congress to act. There were so many other explosive factors that went into this case, although the fact is that it was drug counselors who took drugs and were then fired for doing that led us to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that Congress passed.

So what's the arc from that response to its problems becoming apparent with the Hobby Lobby case?

Congress responded by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is essentially a constitutional amendment. It certainly oversteps its authority; it's been called a super-statute. It cuts through every other law, and that is also known as a constitutional amendment, which should have gone through the proper amendment procedures in Article VII, but didn't. Since then we have seen the crusaders abusing RFRA, as it's known, to advance their crusade. The idea was that, first, we'll get our weaponized understanding of religious freedom into this federal law, and once we've done that we'll graft it onto the First Amendment of the Constitution, and we will no longer need RFRA. There are so many problems with that, too. RFRA restores — that's the key phrase — it restores religious discrimination and Christian supremacy.

So how does that lead to the Hobby Lobby case?

After RFRA passed, there were a whole bunch of state versions. As with the federal RFRA, a lot of people agreed that they were necessary, but when you get into the 2010s people start to wake up to the dangers these laws pose, especially to things like the Affordable Care Act, to public accommodation laws, to all sorts of civil rights laws. By the early 2010s you have this divide where conservatives are pushing for RFRAs as a way to weaponize religious freedom and liberals, progressives and other activists are fighting against those RFRAs. That divide comes to a head in 2014 with the Hobby Lobby case, which really begins the onslaught of this crusade.

There were a flurry of COVID-related cases with the court ignoring precedents that go back 100 years. What happened there, and how did that break with precedent come about?

There's so many problems with the COVID cases, from how they were brought in this expedited shadow docket to how they were decided to the utter ignorance and denigration of medical expertise and science. Unfortunately, we saw a lot of American churches, especially the more conservative churches, attacking public health measures. The coronavirus seems to haunt churches; worship services are almost designed to be super-spreader events. I go over a number of these haunting examples in the book, where you get primary spread, secondary spread and even tertiary spread among people who go to church, then bring the virus home to their family members, who spread it at their workplaces.

If you look at the evolution of the cases, two things become clear. One is that labeling some businesses, such as grocery stores, "essential" and labeling medical care "essential," while labeling others as "nonessential," was taken as an affront by a lot of the crusaders, including the crusaders on the Supreme Court. And they took not extending the "essential" label to churches as an affront, as did Trump. I wonder in the book whether, if we had chosen a different label, we would have seen such a backlash against these public health measures.

The second thing that becomes clear is that Amy Coney Barrett proved absolutely pivotal to the crusade here. There is a very clear inflection point in this area of law, where Chief Justice Roberts, though he is a crusader himself, was not willing to allow the crusade to help spread a pandemic, at least not right away, and Justice Barrett absolutely was. Because once she gets on the court, all of a sudden our 100 years of precedent in this area is overturned.

And the precedent here, I should say, is absolutely clear. Your religious belief, your right to go to church, your right to exercise a religious belief does not include the right to spread a lethal pandemic. That's line No. 2. Your rights don't include the right to infect others with a lethal pandemic and possibly kill them. But once Amy Coney Barrett was put on the court — jammed onto the court, shotgunned onto the court — all of that changed. Not because the law changed, but because the personnel on the Supreme Court changed.

In chapter 15, on religious freedom and "segregation academies," you trace the modern concept of school vouchers back to their origins in the "massive resistance" to school desegregation. How do the current legal battles relate to those earlier ones? What do we need to know about them to clearly see what's going on now?

I think there's a couple of important things. I think this is absolutely crucial, especially when you look back at things like Masterpiece Cakeshop and some of the other cases the Supreme Court has decided recently. The court has said that hostility toward religion, at any point in any law, means that law should be struck down. That's where the court is evolving. Yet in the context of school vouchers or school choice or any of these newly created neo-voucher systems that we're seeing crop up all over the country — which all trace back directly to clear attempts to maintain segregation — the Supreme Court has no problem with upholding those policies and practices. They're more than willing to allow the privatization of education to continue even if the privatization actually furthers segregation, which we know for a fact happens.

This is to me one of the more appalling aspects of this crusade. There is a deliberate assault on public education in this country, and it is being aided by the crusaders and the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the quotes I share in the book makes a point that I think a lot of people don't realize. It's not just an attempt to push for vouchers. It's not just an attempt to privatize education. It's also an attempt to destroy public education, and Jerry Falwell was explicit on this point when he said he hoped "to see the day when . . . we don't have public schools. The churches will have taken them over and Christians will be running them." Kyle Olson, who created National School Choice Week, said that he thought "Jesus would destroy the public education temple." So this is part of a deliberate push to destroy our public schools, and it's rooted in the value of equality that the Supreme Court upheld in Brown vs Board of Education.

In Chapter 6 you write about Fulton v. Philadelphia, the same-sex foster parents case where the court reached a unanimous decision. Explain what that case was about and what you think the liberals missed in going along with it?

I think it's kind of a sleeper case, or rather a sleeper opinion. in a way a lot of people don't understand, part;y because of John Roberts' trick here and partly because of how bad this case could be for the future.

Philadelphia wanted to ensure that its citizens were treated equally. The city itself did not want to discriminate and did not want to ask its taxpayer funds to fund discrimination. It also has the duty to care for children who are in dangerous situations. There are something like 6,000 foster children in Philadelphia who need help and need homes. So the city doesn't want to discriminate, but Catholic Social Services does, and Catholic Social Services had contracted with the city to do some administrative duties of the foster care system, including vetting children for foster care. Catholic Social Services told Philadelphia, "We are not going to vet any caregivers who are LGBTQ. Our God says we don't have to do that."

Just to be clear, Catholic Social Services refused to do the job it was contracted and paid to do, and the city then terminated its contract for foster care vetting. It still contracted with CSS to do a bunch of other stuff where it wasn't going to engage in that kind of discrimination or bigotry, but at bottom CSS refused to do the job it was paid to do, and it sued. It claimed a religious-freedom right to contract with the city to take that taxpayer money and then to discriminate in the name of its God. People need to grasp that in this case all nine members of the Supreme Court sanctioned discrimination against a minority in the name of God — taxpayer-funded discrimination — and that really ought to shock us all.

You call it a sleeper case. Why?

It's a sleeper case in that a lot of people think it had a minor impact, and that was probably why the liberals on the court joined. Roberts based his opinion, basically, on a technicality. It reads like the court was looking for a loophole or a technical formality, to avoid making the big decision in the case. But what Roberts effectively said was that unless a law applies to everyone all the time, anybody who claims religious freedom is exempt from that law.

This is really hard for the average person to understand, but every law we have has some exemptions and exceptions and deliberate loopholes, because we don't necessarily want the law to apply to absolutely every single person. What Roberts has said, then, is effectively that every single law in the country now must exempt people who make a religious-freedom claim against it. So if you take it back to the Smith case, that unemployment law was riddled with exceptions, meaning that that case would have come out the other way under Roberts' reading. And that's essentially what the court did in one of the COVID decisions early on. But I don't think people really grasp how big a deal that is, and how much that torpedoes the rule of law and puts the rule of conservative Christianity in its place.

Can you elaborate on that? You argue that by allowing religious exceptions, you're essentially destroying the rule of law. You're erasing at least the second of the three lines, and possibly even the first.

A question I ask throughout the book is: What is the worst that could happen in this case? For instance, in the Kim Davis case, she still gets to go to church, she still gets to pray, she still gets to issue marriage licenses, she still gets to keep her job. She just doesn't get to use the power of her office to impose her religion on other people. What's the worst that would have happened in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case? A business that is incorporated and has all kinds of liability shields under the state law of Colorado would be required to follow other state laws of Colorado. These cases rarely involve a real violation of religious freedom.

But let's ask a different question: What's the worst that could happen with weaponized religious freedom? Because that's what the Crusaders are seeking, and that's what we're getting in a lot of these cases, and the answer really is alarming. Because the rule of law does disappear. The Supreme Court actually wrote about this 150 years ago. They asked what would happen if we allowed everybody to follow the rule of their God instead of the rule of law, and essentially what they said was that everyone would become "a law unto himself," and government could exist only in name in such circumstances. In a system that values one individual's right to act on any belief, there is no law. There is only what the individual believes their God commands. So we will have traded the rule of law for the rule of each conservative Christian's personal God. I don't think people quite realize how dangerous that is.

So what needs to be done in response?

I do get into some solutions to this problem in the book, and I hope the window is still open for those possible solutions. But I think it's very clear that our Supreme Court has been hijacked by the crusaders. The crusade depends on Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump and Leonard Leo cheating and stealing and packing the courts to put their collaborators in place and that requires an immediate fix. We need to expand and rebalance the Supreme Court.

Finally, what's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer?

I think the most important question is why? Why is there a crusade to weaponize religious freedom? A lot of people may recognize that there's this attempt to pervert the meaning of religious freedom, to turn this hallowed protection into a sword. But I don't think a lot of people understand why. This is a question that I really try to get at in the book. I think it's pretty clear that the goal here is to elevate conservative Christianity above the law, while disfavoring nonreligious and non-Christian citizens.

This is a weapon to codify privilege and supremacy. But the answer to the "why" question is that it's largely a backlash against equality realized. Conservative Christianity was once able to discriminate on the basis of race, and now that's largely unthinkable. Conservative Christianity was once able to legally subjugate half the population, and that's not really possible now. Conservative Christianity was once able to discriminate against LGBTQ people, but now it isn't. As more people realize the rights that are due them by virtue of being human, the sphere of religious imposition shrinks, and the crusade is seeking to reclaim that lost ground. Really, when you get down to it, this is about a dominant caste that is waning in cultural status and is desperately trying to cling to that privilege and supremacy. They are using the First Amendment and religious freedom to try and do that.

Political scientist explains how states serve as a 'wrecking ball clearing a path for Trumpism'

Every week seems to bring a new stress fracture in American democracy to light. While the drama of the Jan. 6 hearings focuses attention on former Donald Trump's top-down predation, the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wadehas unleashed a torrent of state and local conflicts that only grow more intense. This is happening even as many states now enforcing or enacting abortion bans laws actually have pro-choice majorities, as noted in this Monkey Cage analysis by political scientists Jacob Grumbach and Christopher Warshaw.

What comes next is very much up for grabs, but Grumbach's new book "Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics," casts a dramatically different light on how we got here, which in turn says a lot about the task of setting things right.

While "Trump has been characterized as an aberrant wrecking ball that disrupted American politics, Grumbach writes, "it was the states that were the wrecking ball, clearing a path for Trumpism throughout the American political system." His book refutes received wisdom about wisdom of American federalism: Rather than stabilizing and strengthening American democracy, the relative autonomy of states has played a significant role in undermining it, and the disconnect between abortion laws and public opinion disconnect is just one example of a broader democratic breakdown.

State politics is not so much the culprit as the conduit, as Grumbach's subtitle indicates. As the two national parties became more homogeneous with the breakdown of the New Deal coalition, the nature of state-level politics changed significantly. In the period Grumbach's data covers, from 2000 to 2018, there was significant change in public opinion regarding marijuana legalization and LGBTQ rights that was reflected in state legislation. But these two high-salience issues were the exception, not the rule. "For the rest of the issue areas, state policies have changed profoundly, but state opinion has been mostly static," he writes. "And you can't explain change with a constant."

This antidemocratic lawmaking was just one example of a nationally-driven agenda that voters weren't asking for, either on the state or national level. That's the good news, as well as the bad. To make sense of this contradictory state of affairs, I recently spoke with Grumbach about his new book. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In your preface you use the metaphor that the states served as a "wrecking ball clearing a path for Trumpism." What are some salient developments you'd cite as examples of this?

There's many angles to take on this. One is that since the 2010s there is a huge shift in state-level democratic institutions and some serious democratic backsliding in a handful of states, including key Midwestern and Atlantic seaboard swing states. States like Wisconsin and North Carolina, which Barack Obama won in 2008, proved hugely consequential, as an example, in the 2016 election.

In the 2010 redistricting cycle, you saw states like Wisconsin set records for partisan bias in legislative gerrymandering for both their U.S. House seats as well as their state legislative seats. This allowed a minority of voters to set state legislative majorities, and also to affect who controls the U.S. House. So, that's one thing. Later, after the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, those state legislative majorities were able to restrict voting rights and make it more costly and burdensome to vote.

By contrast, other states, like where I am in Washington state or Colorado, were expanding access to the ballot over that same time through things like automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration and expansive mail balloting with drop-off locations. That divergence in democratic performance proved really consequential, and that's happening at the state level. And if the Supreme Court rules on the "independent state legislature" doctrine, which may be incoming, it will be even more so.

You also write that "the three monumental crises in 2020 [meaning the pandemic, policing and democracy] revealed an American political system that lacked the capacity to solve fundamental challenges." Keeping in mind that you don't blame federalism alone, what would you highlight to make your point?

Those three crises are different, but they all strongly point us to the role of decentralization and state governments in not solving these problems and allowing them to worsen over time. First would be COVID-19. Early on state governments had trouble coordinating on getting PPE equipment to essential workers, and lack of coordination during the economic crisis precipitated by COVID-19 was hugely important. Also, states don't have a unified unemployment insurance system. They have various underfunded and decentralized forms of welfare state provision, like unemployment insurance or Medicaid. The fact that states were allowed to reject Medicaid expansion, even though the federal government is paying for it through the Affordable Care Act, means that people who are working poor, but may not have children do not have access to Medicaid in these states, which worsens COVID relief, and COVID-based health care.

Finally, with Trump in the White House and governors of different parties in the states, decentralized authority means decentralized accountability. So that means that no one political office or legislature was really responsible for the outcomes of COVID-19. Decentralized authority means that politicians at different levels of government — mayors, governors, presidents — can reasonably point to the other and say, "That crisis going on in your area, it's this other level of government's fault!" This makes it extremely difficult for voters — especially in the context of sensationalist national media and the decline of state and local journalism — to hold their politicians accountable. If you're a Republican, you can say, "It was my dumb Democratic governor's fault." If you're a Democrat, you can say, "It's Donald Trump's fault." It's really hard to draw lines of accountability there.

What about the second crisis: policing?

Policing is constitutionally a state level authority, and states then delegate authority to local governments. So mayors are the commanders in chief of their police departments and states then have ultimate authority over them. Yet what we see pretty consistently is that police departments tend to be the de facto government and they're extremely insulated from democratic inputs. Police departments are essentially impervious to reform, so when reform-minded mayors and district attorneys come in at the local level what you see is not much change.

One finding I have in the book is that criminal justice policy, unlike other policy areas like abortion rights, the minimum wage, labor relations, health insurance or climate change — all of those areas are really polarized by party. But in terms of policing and incarceration, there's not much difference between red and blue areas, they all tend to take the "tough on crime" approach, even when reform-minded state and local politicians take office. Unlike in other democracies that tend to have centralized authority over policing, in the U.S. this decentralized form of policing allows police department cartels to really run their towns and cities.

And what about the last crisis: democratic backsliding?

We see throughout American history that state-level authority — state legislatures, especially — have been the main forces of democratic backsliding. They're often aided by a permissive Supreme Court that says, "States, you can do what you wish" with respect to elections or gerrymandering or, in the past, Jim Crow laws and before that slavery, giving states free rein to do that. Democratic backsliding right now is not as extreme as under Jim Crow or slavery, but it is meaningful. What we see is that Congress then decides to get its act together and stop the state-based backsliding, or not. And Congress has not organized to pass laws to ban gerrymandering or certain forms of voter suppression, which it certainly could.

You argue that today's Democratic and Republican parties have nationalized in a way that has fundamentally changed how American federalism operates. So, two questions. First, how have they nationalized in a new way?

Throughout American history, the constitutional system has been really decentralized. But what's new and recent is that the political parties are no longer decentralized. They're very nationalized through a series of processes since the 1970s. One is the breakdown of the New Deal coalition, which meant the Democratic Party in the mid-20th century was extremely decentralized. Southern Dixiecrats were pro-Jim Crow, while Northern labor and civil rights Democrats were in favor of egalitarian racial democracy and economic justice. So the Democratic Party was very decentralized through racial politics and then, more recently, you see the Republican Party take on a "Southern strategy" since Nixon which made the party much more Southern.

So that's part of it: racial realignment. But the other processes are things like the nationalization of fundraising since the '70s, where activist organizations, new technology, changes in campaign finance, economic inequality which gave donors much more money to spend, all those things contribute to nationalizing how politicians can be successful. No longer do you tap into local elites to get elected, you can tap into national fundraising and also nationalized media. Since the 1990s, the advent of the internet and Craigslist really destroyed newspaper revenue, so we saw the decline of state and local political journalism, the rise of the internet and especially cable news.

It seems cliché at this point to say that Fox News had a big effect, but it really had an overwhelming effect on nationalizing politics and making the Republican Party much more competitive. That started in the 1990s, which coincided with the Gingrich revolution that made the Republican Party much more extreme and aggressive and nationalized in orientation. Great research by Greg Martin, for example, shows causally that Fox News has improved the electoral fortunes of Republicans over this time period. On the Democratic side, you've got groups like MoveOn, environmental groups and various other activist groups that have nationalized the Democratic Party. There are huge differences between the parties on all sorts of dimensions, but it is true that both became nationalized.

So how did this connect with the main consequences that you cite? First, the resurgence of state-level policymaking?

As the parties nationalized you see that Democrats across the country become more similar to each other. There are no longer Southern conservative Democrats and northern liberal Democrats. There's one Democratic Party and one Republican Party. States like Mississippi and Arkansas had Democratic state legislatures up to the 2000s. It's really remarkable how long it took for them to go Republican. They had a lot of Joe Manchins and even more conservative Democratic state legislators in the South.

Those states become Republican and start passing things for the national Republican agenda. That also happened in the Midwest after 2010. On the Democratic side you see states start to have similar agendas on things like climate and LGBTQ rights and so forth.

Talk about Louis Brandeis' phrase "laboratories of democracy," and why it didn't work out that way.

The idea was that states would serve as national laboratories making policy experiments and would learn best practices from each other. So we have a financial crisis, let's see which states do best in tweaking economic policy, and we'll copy them. In the modern period you don't really see any evidence of that. Policies that do well are no more likely to be emulated by other states, unless that state is controlled by the same party. It's much more about two national communities of state governments, when it was not all about party in the previous period.

What about democratic backsliding in states controlled by the Republicans?

States have done really bad things for democracy in the past — slavery, Jim Crow and so forth. But the politics of those moments of backsliding were much more regional. They were barbaric, but they were really not about national goals. Whereas now you see through Jan. 6, for example, as well as issues around trans rights or critical race theory, that these are really national in orientation. If you listen to the Republican voting base, they say, "Our country is slipping away," and their opposition to the direction of the country is in terms of multiracial democracy rather than highly localized and regional conflicts like Jim Crow legislation.

You're seeing a national orientation, where if the Supreme Court rules on this independent state legislature doctrine, state governments and state legislatures are really battling over who is going to control the country. So when they decide to gerrymandering House districts or suppress the vote, or shut down ballot drop-boxes or whatever — all these voter suppression policies are done with national ambitions to affect national elections, not just control of your state. And that is fundamentally different than before. So the collision of these national parties with these decentralized institutions is creating this explosive moment for American democracy that we may see in the 2024 presidential election.

Talk about the arguments in favor of federalism. We've already discussed the Brandeis tradition, but what about the "decentralist" argument?

Going back to the Federalist Papers and James Madison, the "decentralists" argue that in a large, diverse country like the U.S., it will be more harmonious if we can customize our local areas to the policies we like and not have to battle this out at the national level. So places that are very religious can have a more socially conservative life, while places can be more permissive and libertarian in spirit, they can be customized to local culture and conditions.

Another argument Madison made is this idea of "double security": Federalism, by decentralizing authority, meant that one autocrat or dictator couldn't capture the whole system easily. I think there's something to both of those arguments, in the best of times. If you have a would-be dictator with national power, certainly that's not the time to centralize all sorts of institutions. At the same time, state-based authority and decentralization helped propel Trump to office in the first place, right? So there's a flipside to the trade-off.

What about the "new federalist" argument?

So the new federalist arguments are a set of more political economy-based theoretical arguments in the latter half of the 20th century as the social sciences were getting more sophisticated. They believe a lot of the arguments of the decentralists, but use more sophisticated tools. One of their big arguments is that governments will be more efficient and effective because individuals in a decentralized system can move to the place that they'd like to live under.

There's not much evidence that's working very well. First, it's hugely costly to move, even across states, and the people that are able to threaten to move and can influence governments by saying. "I don't like the taxes in this state, I'm going to move," tend to be much wealthier people. So this gives wealthy individuals and big business an advantage over ordinary workers and voters. You hear this all the time, whereas ordinary people don't have that same ability to threaten to leave.

One key observation you build on is that while policy has shifted dramatically at the state level, public opinion in the states has been mostly static over the past generation.

A key example is abortion policy. I wish I had written this knowing all of this would happen now, but I think I called it pretty accurately. Legal abortion has like 61% support in the U.S. and has been at about that level for a generation or more. But right now we're seeing some states banning abortion despite no real change in public opinion or, if anything, an increase in support for legal abortion over time.

Note that the issues where you do see a lot of responsiveness are those that have seen big changes in public opinion, like on marijuana. States that saw huge support for legal marijuana legalized it. The same with LGBTQ rights. Before the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all states, more progressive states started implementing marriage equality.

But on other issues where you see states take hugely important policy changes over the past generation — on taxes, or on labor relations, where in the Midwest they totally dismantled labor unions, for example — you actually don't see people suddenly saying, "Oh, I really hate unions." That's just not happening. It's happening because of these group coalitions when a party takes power in a state and has an ambitious policy agenda based on its coalition. Now the party that controls your state really, really matters for policy outcomes. Again in most areas, you don't see much change in public opinion despite these huge policy changes.

The "laboratories of democracy" idea wasn't about isolated state-level experimentation, but the collective learning process that's typical of science. So how did that model break down?

One trend I do find is that policy emulation or copying between states is much more within one party — parties only share policies within themselves now — than it was in the 1970s. Policies that political economists used to think were objective standards of quality — things like whether the economy grows or whether unemployment gets reduced by state economic policies — are not likely to be emulated by other states if they're controlled by the other party. So it doesn't matter how well the state next to you is doing: If it's controlled by the other party, you will not copy their policies.

Your most crucial finding has to do with the undermining of democracy itself. How do you go about measuring the state of democracy and democratic erosion?

Democracy is a really tough, big concept. One thing that democratic theorists and philosophers do is to break it down into different components. So I mostly talk about electoral democracy. That's things like: Are elections free and fair? Do people have a reasonably easy time getting to the polling place and casting a ballot, or are there really tough burdens to doing that? How fairly are districts drawn in legislative maps? How secure are elections and how much integrity do they have? Do states follow public opinion when passing policy?

take a bunch of indicators or variables of measures of how fair districts are, or whether a state has certain policies around allowing people to register to vote on Election Day. Or, you know, whether they allow absentee voters, or do they have to prove an onerous health burden, things like that. I put them into a statistical model which then tells me how to weigh those different indicators in measuring democracy. So it's not me imposing my philosophy of things on it. It generates a state democracy score over the past couple of decades, and the big finding there is that some states have done some really serious democratic backsliding, and that has pretty major consequences for democratic performance in the U.S. as a whole, and for the stability of the American political system.

What were the competing causal theories that you tested to explain this democratic backsliding?

This has been a big question for a long time. What causes a society to be a democracy or an autocracy or an oligarchy or whatnot? There's been hundreds of years of theorizing about this. With the focus on the U.S. and recent democracies, there's been some focus on the idea that democracy is really about political competition between the parties, or that it's about polarization between the parties: How distant are the two parties? If they're very polarized, democracies may not work very well.

Another argument is about immigration and racial threat. This is true around the world: As societies change through immigration or there's increased economic or political power of a minority group within society, the majority group gets threatened and will reduce democracy. You see in European far-right parties that are anti-democracy that they are really mobilized against new immigration.

Finally there's one line of theory that's more focused on parties of the wealthy and parties of racial hierarchy, Those tend to be anti-democratic parties and the Republican Party, kind of uniquely around the world, is a party whose elite constituency wants high-end tax cuts and things that help the very wealthy, and also wants to restrict multiracial democracy and maintain racial hierarchy at the electoral base level.

Both of those things point towards not wanting to expand democracy and potentially wanting to backslide democracy. What I find is none of those other potential causes are really driving democratic changes in the states. It's really the national Republican Party. When it controls a state it backslides democracy and I think this can be explained by the fact that the wealthy constituency of the Republican Party doesn't want a robust democracy of working people redistributing their wealth, and the electoral base doesn't want a party that has important political influence and political power for Black Americans especially, as well as recent immigrant groups.

You use the term "plutocratic populist partnership" in talking about the GOP. In contrast, you note that civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, as well as labor leaders such as Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther, emphasized linkages between race, class and democracy, arguing that powerful interests exploit racial division for political gain. This is precisely the argument that Ian Haney López and Anat Shenker-Osorio make, and I read this passage as a de facto endorsement of their approach.

Yeah, I really like those two. I would say they're focused on the behavioral aspect of it and whether messaging in the race-class narrative, as they put it, is most effective. I don't do that. I do the political economy and policy side rather than the psychological and behavioral side, so I can't comment on whether that's the most effective messaging. It seems pretty effective to me, but that's not my area of expertise. But it's clear that one thing that's driving changes in democratic institutions — and we see this in terms of political coalitions throughout American history — is this tragedy of the white working class rejecting coalitions with Americans of color that are also working class. They've rejected class-based multiracial coalitions, and as W.E.B. Du Bois has written, have been willing to accept a lower status that at least is not the lowest rung.

The Republican Party at the elite level, which I study much more, is clearly about maintaining this coalition. You see wealthy individuals and big business titans, they realize they're not going to be popular for their economic platforms. It's really hard to win elections saying, "Let's cut taxes for billionaires." So you have to build a coalition with more popular items and somehow get members of the white working class to support the big-business party that supports tax cuts and anti-labor policy. One way to do that is to really focus on anti-immigration politics or social conservatism around gender and sexuality, to avoid elections being about your economic platform. Because it's clear that the Democratic economic platform of more labor rights and health care spending tends to be more popular, but Republicans are very electorally competitive and it's not for their economic platform. It's for these other cultural areas of politics.

So what do you suggest should be done to protect American democracy, in terms of the problems you identify?

A basic pointer for politicians at the national level is this: If you have the opportunity, it's really important to pass national policy that prevents states from doing this type of democratic backsliding. I know that seems ridiculous to say, with getting things through the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court the way it is. But it's clear there have been missed opportunities to pass national policy that would prevent democratic backsliding. You could pass a gerrymander ban. You can reform the Electoral Count Act to prevent a stolen presidential election by state legislatures. There's a lot of things like that.

There's also things that are just as important for protecting democracy, through national policy supporting the labor movement and labor unions. My research with Paul Framer shows that the decline or destruction of labor unions has really increased the power of resentment-based politics, and has helped the Republican Party in this era of the culture war. The decline of labor is not just a problem for wages and health benefits and working situations, it's also a big deal for democracy.

For ordinary activist types reading this book, I would say that state-level politics is highly important and hard to monitor, and that organizations really matter and it takes a long time to produce electoral gains. So long-term organizing, especially through the labor movement, is important. The labor movement is well situated for this, because locals within the unions are federated but have a national coordinating mechanism. It's important to get involved with long-term robust organizations, not just sending a check to a national group in D.C., but getting involved in your community in an organizational capacity. Even though it's extremely boring and thankless, it's more effective over the long term than all the phone-banking and text-banking every presidential election.

One reason labor unions are really important is that we go to work all day. That's like our main task in life. That's one reason why the gun-rights community on the right has been very successful, and the religious right. Having something that brings you together through a social aspect makes you a really powerful force in politics. Groups on the left should think about that. The resurgence of young people organizing union campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks is, I think, one of the bright spots in American politics.

Trumpism without Trump: He taught Republicans how to seize power — and they may not need him anymore

Donald Trump's recent endorsement struggles (most notably in Georgia) in the weeks leading up to House Jan. 6 hearings have led to renewed speculation that the former president is losing his grip on the Republican Party. In fact, recent reporting suggests that several prominent Republicans are likely to run for president in 2024, whether or not Trump himself launches a third campaign. But let's put that in the proper context: Trump's oft-repeated Big Lie about the stolen 2020 election has been called the new "Lost Cause" (in literally hundreds of articles) but it's only one facet of a broader mindset that has moved to the center of GOP politics — and none of that is going away, regardless of what happens to Trump as a person or a political figure.

That mindset is rooted in Trump's claim that the system is specifically and maliciouslyrigged against his base — meaning white Christian conservatives, especially men, who are wholesome, innocent victims of malevolent outside forces, sinister elites and dangerous minorities. This echoes the Lost Cause reframing of the Civil War to cast white Southerners as the noble and innocent victims of similar malevolent forces. Freedom, not slavery, was the cause the South fought for, according to the Lost Cause story goes — "freedom" defined as "states' rights," but only for certain states and on certain issues, of course. Their soldiers, led by General Robert E. Lee, — were depicted as the greatest and most noble warriors of history. That's the heart of the big lie that Trump's big lie echoes, as attested by the Confederate flags carried into the Capitol during Trump's failed coup attempt, and echoed in his repeated defense of Confederate monuments that wildly misrepresent history.

The "great replacement" theory echoes the same basic claim of victimhood, as do a number of other Trump-era big lies: the "fake news" deflection of all damaging revelations, the QAnon conspiracy theory, the "critical race theory" panic and the related anti-"woke" crusade. (It also underlies Fox News' decision not to air the Jan. 6 hearings — a point I'll return to below.) With all these victimhood narratives in place, it's ludicrous to expect the return of a "strong, responsible" GOP that Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden and the never-Trump Republicans yearn for.

Two days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, historian Karen L. Cox drew striking parallels, in a New York Times op-ed, between Trump's wholesale mendacity and the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy, whose central hero was Robert E. Lee. "Mr. Trump's lost cause mirrors that of Lee's," she wrote. "His dedicated followers do not see him as having failed them, but as a man who was failed by others. Mr. Trump best represents their values — even those of white supremacy — and the cause he represents is their cause, too."

But in both cases, the myths were bigger than the men, Cox continued:

The Lost Cause did not belong to Lee; Lee belonged to the Lost Cause — a cultural phenomenon whose momentum could not be stopped.

Even if Mr. Trump were to remove himself from public life in the coming years, his lost cause and the myths he's helped create about elections, voter fraud and fake news will likely continue, a cultural and political phenomenon that shows no sign of ending.

Cox is hardly alone in making this point. Five years earlier political scientist Angie Maxwell, co-author of "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon interview here), identified Trump's candidacy with the Lost Cause. "Southern white support for Trump is not just about losing the Civil War. It's about losing, period," she wrote. Nor was it limited to the South, even if that was where he ran strongest. "Trump's Southern strategy turns out to be less about geography and more about identity. And many want to go back to an America in which people like them run the show," Maxwell wrote. While race was clearly a fundamental ingredient, the defensive logic goes much farther:

Southern whiteness expands beyond racial identity and supremacy, encapsulating rigid stances on religion, education, the role of government, the view of art, an opposition to science and expertise and immigrants and feminism, and any other topic that comes under attack. This ideological web of inseparable strands envelops a community and covers everything, and it is easily (and intentionally by Donald Trump) snagged.

All this was in place before Trump ran in 2016, but it wasn't center stage in American conservative politics. Now it is. And even if Trump leaves the stage, the play will go on. Evidence to that effect is overwhelming. As noted above, the same basic victimhood mindset underlies the Fox News decision not to air the Jan. 6 hearings, catering to the whole spectrum of reality-denying narratives about Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election. "There is a kind of perverse public service standard there. Fox is protecting its public from the news," NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted. "It has made the call that the committed audience won't stand for having the hearings 'shoved down our throats.'" This may not qualify as new information, but Fox News is in the identity-protection business, not the "news" business. That quasi-cult identity has been reshaped by Trump over the past seven years, even as he previously reshaped himself as someone capable of doing that.

Republicans like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger successfully defied Trump's efforts to steal the 2020 election, and then defeated Trump-endorsed candidates. But it's important to understand that they're committed to project of potentially stealing future elections, by repeating, amplifying and acting on a subset of election lies that they're personally most comfortable with — which of course could always shift again in the future.

That's precisely what happened with the original Lost Cause, as historian Adam Domby explores in "The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory," which focuses on the unique political culture and history of North Carolina. "The construction of a coherent Lost Cause narrative was not always a deliberate process," Domby writes. "At times, it was an organic one built on minor exaggerations and fabrications woven into daily life. Some stories were created to serve a specific purpose for an individual, often for monetary gain; others, to garner social capital; and others still to aid in political mobilization." A similar narrative mishmash was used by many so-called conservatives, first to justify supporting Trump in 2016, then to explain away his 2020 election loss, and now to justify or explain away the Jan. 6 insurrection. In every case, a supposedly conservative, no-nonsense, traditionally-minded population engaged in fanciful, inventive storytelling in order to create a new comfort zone and then inhabit it.

As noted above, the core of the Lost Cause lay in denial about the central cause of the Civil War and in portraying the Confederacy as engaged in an heroic struggle for freedom, not slavery: "freedom" defined as states' rights to self-determination, thus turning the North into a tyrannical bogeyman. "This allowed Confederates to be recalled not as traitors but as noble patriots fighting to defend a set of principles that survived the war despite defeat on the battlefield," Domby notes. "In addition to a new gallant cause, this narrative required a legacy of valiant military deeds. The Lost Cause presented Confederate soldiers as the greatest in human history, warriors who only lost the war due to the overwhelming resources of the North."

These key elements shaped others, such as the disappearance from historical accounts of any white Southern opposition to slavery or secession and the historical fabrication of "Black Confederates," along with the disappearance of mass Black resistance.

"Confederate mythmakers excised the memory of southern dissenters, Unionists, deserters, draft dodgers, and even ambivalent southerners from their retelling of the war," Domby writes. "Neither black nor white North Carolinians of the Civil War generation believed there had been black Confederate troops during the conflict," but the long-belated creation of "Class B" pensions for formerly enslaved people "reinforced white supremacy by perpetuating a myth of widespread loyal slaves," even though the arguments made for such pensions around the turn of the century "made clear that the loyalty being rewarded was to white slave owners rather than the Confederate state." Only in the last two decades has the existence of these pensions been trotted out to argue that enslaved people fought for the Confederacy in any meaningful sense.

Domby's book is strongest in illuminating how these different strands weave together, serving different subjects and their shifting needs over time. For simplicity's sake, military historian Edward Bonekemper's "The Myth of the Lost Cause" effectively demolishes the core of that false narrative. He identifies seven main tenets that fall into two main categories: The first two are devoted to denying the central role of slavery in the conflict, and the rest to casting the war in chivalric terms, with Lee as doomed hero. Although he devotes separate chapters to refuting each tenet, two brief passages effectively refute the first four tenets in just a few sentences.

The first two tenets are these:

Slavery was a benevolent institution for all involved but was dying by 1861. There was therefore no need to abolish slavery suddenly, especially by war.

States' rights, not slavery, was the cause of secession and the establishment of the Confederacy and thus of the Civil War.

In response, Bonekemper cites one simple fact: When the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened in 1850, "the fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery led some fifteen to twenty thousand free Northern blacks to migrate to Canada between 1850 and 1860." This terror-driven mass migration is clearly incompatible with the invented notion that slavery was on the way out, or that the South was genuinely committed to the principle of states' rights.

The next two tenets — central to the chivalric account — are also quickly demolished.:

The Confederacy had no chance of winning, but did the best it could with its limited resources.

Indeed, it almost won, led by Robert E. Lee, one of the greatest generals in history.

Bonekemper points out, however, that in military terms, "All the Confederacy needed was a stalemate, which would confirm its existence as a separate country. The burden was on the North to defeat the Confederacy and compel the return of the eleven wayward states to the Union."

If Lee had really been "one of the greatest generals in history," surely he would have understood this. Instead, he pushed for dramatic victories, leading to catastrophic defeat. Bonekemper has written an entire book on that topic, "How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War," but this observation alone suffices to pierce the great man's myth. A military commander's first responsibility is grand strategy (as we have seen more recently in Ukraine), and getting that wrong is to inflict carnage and defeat on your own troops.

Of course historians have much more to say about these questions, but the point here is that the Confederate Lost Cause myth can be refuted with a few straightforward facts — and the same is true of Donald Trump's 2020 Lost Cause. The 63 court cases Trump and his allies lost offered absolutely no hard evidence for his stolen-election claims, and we just heard former Attorney General Bill Barr, no friend to the Democrats, calling many of those claims "complete nonsense," "crazy stuff" or simply "bullshit." We also now know that Trump's internal campaign operatives, who had remained loyal through and after Election Day, told him clearly he had lost, and that his own daughter took Barr's word for it.

But here's the thing about myths: They generally can't be punctured by evidence. What matters for myths is their power to make meaning, as Karen Armstrong argues in the introduction to "The Battle for God." Secondly and even more important, the consequences of Trump's election lies continue to unfold: There's a vigorous multi-pronged effort to enable Republicans to win the White House in 2024, regardless of what voters want and regardless of whether Trump himself is the candidate. In other words, Trump's Lost Cause myth is still thriving, even if it will never give him what he wants most: erasing the stigma of being a loser.

Kemp and Raffensperger's success in winning re-election despite Trump is evidence, in fact, that Trumpism can continue even without its namesake. Much the same can be said about the other Trump-era big lies I referenced above. The QAnon cult began, for example, to deflect attention from Robert Mueller's investigation deflection, although it had deep roots in American conspiracy culture and historical antisemitism. Ambiguity was part of its DNA, morphing in all manner of ways, so the end of the Mueller investigation without any payoff made little difference to its spread, and belief in QAnon has reportedly increased since Trump left office, even though he can no longer order the mass arrests of alleged pedophile liberals.

Similarly, the hollowness of the "critical race theory" panic, as captured in Don Moynihan's "Bullshit, Branding and CRT," is its not-so-secret source of strength. If Trumpism is our real problem, more than Donald Trump as a figurehead or actual candidate, then opponents of Trumpism need an appropriate counter-myth. Trump triumphed over the rest of the Republican field in 2016 because conventional conservatism had utterly failed to deliver on its promises.

Conservatives have excelled at winning elections and gaining political power, as shown in Edmund Fawcett's historical overview, "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition" (author interview here.) But exercising political power hasn't gone nearly as well — because conservative solutions based on ideologies of "small government" and the "free market" simply don't work. Rather than running away from "big government" as Democrats have habitually done, at least since the Clinton years, liberals and progressives need to think constructively about how to make government serve people better — not just as a matter of policy, but as a way of shared meaning-making, because that's literally what it is.

This is most visible in public schools, public libraries, public parks and other such areas of the commons, as explored in the recent book "The Privatization of Everything" (author interview here), yet we consistently fail to recognize or celebrate that, let alone be guided by it in more difficult realms, such as responding to crime or inflation, to cite two highly relevant examples.

The essence of democracy is the promise that the people, acting together, can shape a better world. When democracy fails to deliver, openings are created for autocrats, who will promising impossible, quasi-utopian solutions in order to gain power. Once they have power, as we have recently discovered, they never give it up willingly. By allowing anti-government conservatives to hold power for far too long, along with their Democratic appeasers, we have left ourselves vulnerable to authoritarian takeover. Even if Donald Trump is beginning to fade from the scene, that danger is very much still with us.

Researchers explain the rise of partisan violence: 'Extreme conspiratorial vilification gets mainstreamed among Republicans'

A single incident can't prove anything in terms of social science, but it can certainly serve as a vivid illustration. That was the case with the Buffalo massacre that horrified the nation and the world last weekend, which seemed almost inevitable in light of the new book "Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy" by Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason.

The Buffalo shooter's so-called manifesto, Kalmoe told me, consists of "partisan Republican media talking points," especially those of Fox News' Tucker Carlson, "along with the most radical elected Republican leaders." I wrote about the history of the "great replacement" theory last year, but "Radical American Partisanship" provides a broader perspective. "Our book talks about the long history of racial-partisan violence and how those two things are linked," Kalmoe said. "We don't know the shooter's media exposure so we can't begin to judge cause and effect, but we can say this is the kind of action you'd expect more people to take as explicit white supremacy, antisemitism and other extreme conspiratorial vilification gets mainstreamed among Republicans."

That mainstreaming creates another causal pathway by way of "norm erosion," as co-author Mason noted in a Twitter conversation with other social scientists: "More people holding radical (in our case, violent) beliefs changes the social norm-enforcement mechanism, by reducing the number of people who will engage in norm-enforcing social sanctions."

Partisan violence is part of our history, as Kalmoe explored in his 2020 book "With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War" (Salon interview here), but when Kalmoe and Mason began their collaboration in 2017 they could hardly find any public-opinion research on the subject. They didn't quite have to invent a new field from scratch, but they did have to weave together a bunch of different strands of academic research that hadn't previously been integrated into how we think about partisan politics. The surveys reported in this book, which basically cover the period of the Trump presidency, from 2017 to early 2021 will reshape our understanding of this long-neglected aspect of American politics. But they're also important right now, for tragic and obvious reasons. I interviewed Kalmoe and Mason recently by email. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.

The massacre in Buffalo immediately made me think of your book. The shooter's stated rationale wasn't "partisan," in the normal sense, but his worldview surely was. Your book begins by asking why it was so easy for Donald Trump to stoke the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Beyond the immediate answer — his own incitements — you argue that "the bases of each party are divided into nearly warring factions with radically opposed visions for America," and that this is "a battle over the future — and the past — of the United States." So what consequences flow from that?

Mason: One of the main findings of the book is that Republicans who are high in racial resentment and hostile sexism are also the most likely to vilify and dehumanize Democrats. For Democrats, it's the people low in racial resentment who are the most likely to vilify and dehumanize Republicans. These vilifying and dehumanizing attitudes (what we call "moral disengagement") are common precursors to mass violence in other countries. For Republicans in particular, the most powerful predictor of moral disengagement is an opposition to racial and gender equality or a denial that any inequality exists.

This means that one of the biggest divides (and sources of conflict) between Democrats and Republicans is a fundamental disagreement about whether the U.S. has made enough progress toward racial and gender equality, or whether we have gone too far and need to roll back some of the progress we have made. Americans aren't very good at talking about racial and gender equality in a calm and composed way. These conversations often erupt into violence throughout American history.

So what's different right now?

Mason: It's already a volatile topic. But now that we've organized the discussion along partisan lines, it allows our electoral politics to become as violent as racial conflict. The "replacement" theory that Tucker Carlson, Rep. Elise Stefanik and others are pushing is, on its face, a political one. They say that Democrats are trying to replace white voters (who tend to vote for Republicans) with "immigrants" who are "more obedient" and will automatically vote for Democrats. This "sanitized" version of replacement theory allows racial animosity to be papered over with "political" animosity — which is generally more socially acceptable.

All of this comes out of the increasing trend of "social sorting" between the parties, with the Republican Party becoming the party of white Christian rural men, and the Democratic Party representing everyone else. The party divide mirrors the divide between those at the top of the traditional social hierarchy and those who are traditionally marginalized. The Buffalo shooting, however, made clear that even if Tucker Carlson is speaking about a political conflict, the racial message still comes through quite clearly.

Partisan violence is very understudied in political science, so much so that there were very few surveys you could use. But that's not the case with social psychology. Why is there a difference, and what tools does social psychology provide that you built upon?

Kalmoe: Political violence, including violence instigated by parties, is a big research area among political scientists studying other countries, but it has rarely been a focus for scholars of American politics, partly because of our bias toward studying the present and recent past. Many assumed that what's happening "over there" can't happen here, even though it already happened here in the more distant past.

The founding research on American partisanship focused narrowly on the national electoral politics of the 1950s. There was white supremacist political violence in the South targeting civil rights efforts at the time, but that conflict divided Northern and Southern Democrats rather than dividing the two parties. Thus, the account of partisan identities and motives among ordinary people is quite tame.

Social psychology was founded at the same time, but with a heavy focus on explaining the violence of the Holocaust, which followed empowerment of the Nazi Party in Germany and fascists elsewhere. What caused ordinary people to participate in atrocities on an unfathomable scale? They focused on the harms that can emerge from us-vs.-them identity categorization, and the extent to which people are susceptible to following leaders and peers — opinion leadership and social influence.

We identify strength of social identification with a political party as one vital factor distinguishing those who are more likely to endorse radical partisan views, and we test the role of messages for top party leaders in changing the views of their followers and opponents.

You focus on two major concepts: partisan moral disengagement and partisan violence. How are these defined as concepts? How are they related, and how do you measure them?

Kalmoe: Partisan moral disengagement builds on psychological research by Albert Bandura and others showing that people who hurt others tend to hold views that rationalize that harm. For example, we measure views that political opponents are a national threat, that they are evil and that they lack the traits to be fully human. We expected that people who endorse some of all of these views would be more likely to endorse physically harming opponents, and that is what we found in our surveys.

We measured support for partisan violence with more than two dozen different questions, ranging in specificity of the context and severity of harm. Our four most common questions asked about approval of threats against opposing leaders and voters. One question on whether violence by one's own party is justified, and there was a final question on support for violence if the opposing party wins the next presidential election. We also asked specific questions about assassinating opponents, about support for the January 2021 Capitol insurrection, and reactions to the shootings of Rep. Gabby Giffords (a Democrat) and Rep. Steve Scalise (a Republican), for example.

One important thing we found is that people have lots of different things in mind for the term "violence." While psychologists define it as resulting in severe maiming or death, many of the people who endorse partisan violence in our surveys told us in follow-up questions that they had lesser harms in mind, like fistfights, for example. So levels of support for "violence" include a broad range of behaviors, though they're all contentious and worrisome in their own ways.

Historically, you argue, "Americans seem to support political violence in some historical cases and under certain conditions." When do they support it, and when don't they? And what falls in between?

Kalmoe: One of the most important takeaways from our research is that there is no single level of support for political violence to find. Support depends entirely on the details. For example, we found modern support for the political violence of the American Revolution at 80% among partisans, which is about four times higher than our standard measures and orders of magnitude above some of our most severe and contextually specific questions.

We know from historical episodes of political violence in the past that millions of ordinary Americans can be organized into violent conflict, as during the Revolution and the Civil War, along with the organized racial-partisan violence during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

We argue that the most important factors that shift public support for political violence, and participation in that violence, are the factors identified by social psychologists: influence from trusted leaders and from peer social networks. Both serve to set the norms for attitudes and behaviors regarding violence, and when the group says it's OK, people think and act accordingly. Of course, individual attributes like "trait aggression" still influence who is especially inclined to be an early adopter of those views and behaviors.

How is support for violence calibrated? In the extreme, some people involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection were ready or even eager for civil war. But how many people were willing to go that far?

Kalmoe: Our research speaks most to public attitudes about political violence, which certainly serves as a risk factor for the few who engage in violent acts. We began this project, however, thinking about the broader social environment for contentious partisanship. The prevalence of violent views could serve as a vital accelerant or brake on violent acts when neighbors and friends learn that someone in their social circle is planning violence. Their own views about violence could serve to encourage or discourage actions by others, and it will affect how they respond politically to violent political attacks in general. Our work doesn't directly analyze participation in political violence. That vital question is being answered by others.

How did the measures of partisan moral disengagement and partisan violence change over time? What did those changes reflect or reveal?

Kalmoe: We found steadily rising levels of support for partisan violence from our first survey in 2017 through our last reported in the book, in February 2021. Our vilifying questions for partisan moral disengagement also steadily rose over that time. Support for threats against leaders and citizens were a little more variable, rising at times of greatest contention and then dropping afterward. Those results tell us that, even within our current contentious period, those radical views are becoming more prevalent.

The trends in our survey work generally comport with rising levels of threats against leaders. For example, the Los Angeles Times cataloged steadily rising threats against Congress from 2016, when they numbered just under 1,000, to 2021, when they nearly reached 10,0000 — an order of magnitude more in just four years.

What's the role of "trait aggression," which you mentioned earlier? What role does it play in predicting partisan violence, and how does it interact with partisan moral disengagement?

Kalmoe: Trait aggression is an individual tendency to behave aggressively in everyday interactions with other people, including verbal and physical forms. We found that aggressive tendencies translate into greater support for partisan violence. In fact, trait aggression is the strongest predictor of violent partisan views among the many factors we tested.

But the political component of those views is important too. We found the strongest relationships between trait aggression and support for partisan violence among people who vilified partisan opponents, and likewise, we found that partisan moral disengagement predicted violent partisan views most among people who were interpersonally aggressive.

We can see a similar dynamic in violent political behavior. Those perpetrators almost always seem to have a history of aggressive criminal behavior and often a history of perpetrating domestic violence too.

You write that "the same things that predict conventional political actions like voting can also predict and explain aggressive behavior and violence." How so?

Kalmoe: Strength of social identification with the political party is one of the most important motivating forces for partisan action through voting, volunteering, donating and other nonviolent participatory acts. Our work shows that that same identity-based motivation also leads some partisans to endorse violence against their partisan opponents.

You write that one of your survey results "means [there are] roughly 20 million [Americans] who endorse assassinating U.S. leaders." That would surely be a shocking result to most people. What was the question that produced this result, and why is it so at odds with "common sense" political discourse?

Kalmoe: In one question, we asked "How much do you feel it is justified for [your own party] to kill opposing political leaders to advance their political goals these days?" Response options ranged from "not at all" to "a great deal." Nearly 90% of respondents chose "not at all," but 11% said assassination was at least "a little" justified.

Many people tend to censor their most extreme views in public for fear of social and legal sanctions, so the extreme rhetoric we hear often lacks that violent specificity. But we've also heard quite a lot of explicitly violent rhetoric stated publicly in recent years. Pundits and researchers have been too quick to dismiss those as merely expressive and fundamentally unserious. Of course, there are ranges of seriousness across people, but it is a mistake to dismiss these expressions as just blowing off steam. Given the rise in political violence and threats, alongside violent rhetoric and violent attitudes, some of the folks who set the conventional wisdom are beginning to wrestle with the degree and prevalence of that extreme hostility.

You report that "Political victimization is prevalent in the U.S.," ranging from insults to physical attacks. While far fewer people report aggression, you wrote that even the small percentages you found "potentially represent the behaviors of hundreds of thousands — even millions — of Americans engaged in extreme political behavior that goes unnoticed in news and scholarship."

Kalmoe: In addition to asking about extremely hostile and violent attitudes, we asked people to report their own aggressive political behavior, and whether they have been on the receiving end of aggression over politics. Nearly half of our respondents said they had been insulted, one in six said they'd been threatened, and 3% said they had been physically assaulted over politics. The numbers were substantially higher among those who said they regularly talk about politics, as you'd expect.

The portion admitting they themselves had behaved aggressively over politics was much lower: about one-quarter for insults, and only 1% for threats and physical altercations.

Both sets of results are novel, as far as we know. Few if any researchers are asking questions like these, even among those now asking about political violence. One reason that people might be so surprised by political violence like the 2021 Capitol attack is that no one has been systematically documenting the prevalence of milder aggressive behaviors that apparently are very common. And of course the people who engage in low-level political aggression are the likeliest to participate in more extreme actions.

After the 2020 election, you found that "about a fifth of American partisans were ready for a full-blown violent rebellion against the newly elected president and his government." What are the implications of that?

Kalmoe: Clearly, several thousand Americans went beyond support for violently overthrowing the newly-elected government to acting on that view in the 2021 Capitol attack. That episode, and the thousands of death threats targeting election administrators and others for upholding their civic duties after the 2020 election, are the clearest implications.

Most people who support political violence won't act on it. Of course, that's true in wars too. A majority of Americans initially supported the Iraq war, for example, even though a tiny fraction actually did the fighting. But their support for violence has important effects on the actions of those few, and helps determine whether the numbers of combatants will grow in spirals of provocation.

What did you find about the potential impact of anti-violence messages? How did this compare with what Donald Trump actually did?

Mason: A piece of good news from the book is that leaders seem to have a powerful ability to pacify violent attitudes among partisans. When we had survey respondents read a message from Biden or Trump denouncing political violence, we found that strong partisans responded by becoming less supportive of violence. We saw this effect even after reading a single sentence from a leader. It follows that sustained anti-violence rhetoric from leaders should be even more powerful. Importantly, Trump did the opposite in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection. He very likely could have prevented the violence that occurred if he had broadly discouraged it in the first place. But instead Trump stoked violent feelings and behaviors.

In our surveys, we observe similar levels of support for violence among Democrats and Republicans. But observed levels of real violence in the American public are almost entirely from right-wing actors. This is likely due to the difference in rhetoric between Democratic and Republican leaders. Condemning violence is extremely important, even if the original violent message is purported to be "only a joke."

What did your research show about the relative influence of Fox News and MSNBC?

Mason: Americans who consumed partisan media (Fox News and MSNBC) were significantly more radical in their partisan views than those who watched CNN. For Fox News in particular, their viewers were both more morally disengaged from Democrats and more willing to endorse sending threats to Democrats. Those who watched MSNBC were not more morally disengaged than those who watched CNN, but they were more likely to endorse sending threats to Republicans. Overall, Fox News viewers seem to be significantly more likely to dehumanize and vilify Democrats than consumers of any other news source.

The recent wave of attacks on Democrats who support LGBTQ+ rights as "groomers" — by implication, pedophiles — seems like another worrying example of dehumanization. Aren't media elites and politicians who take up such language grooming their followers for violence?

Kalmoe: The "groomer" and "pedo" conspiracy rhetoric accomplishes two things at once for Republicans. It ties into long-standing vilifying tropes of LGBTQ+ people that appeal to the most radical religious base, but it also serves a broader purpose of vilifying Democrats and liberals generally. It's hard to imagine anything more vile than sexually abusing children, so the attempt to invent that political reputation for their opponents is the horrifying logical conclusion of increasing vilification. By going to those vilifying extremes, they make political violence against all those groups more likely because it's easier for people to rationalize violence against people whose evil behaviors define them.

What did you find in terms of prospects for the future? How should we understand the stakes and the risks we face?

Mason: We're in a pivotal moment as a country. Every time we make progress on racial equality and civil rights, we tend to see a backlash. The current political clash is about whether we can continue to improve the country's progress toward a fully multiracial democracy, or whether we go back to a time when white Christian men had full control over society. It's an intense conversation, but also it's one that we need to have. When we can't talk about racism and sexism, that protects racism and sexism. There is no way to have this conversation about the country's past and future in a way that is without conflict, but there is also no guarantee that equality will always win and prejudice will always lose. So it's an intense moment, but it's also a very important one.

Any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?

Kalmoe: We make very clear in the book that while levels of radical partisanship are sometimes similar between Democrats and Republicans, the roots of that radicalism are not morally equivalent. We also acknowledge that political violence is sometimes a last resort, and that viewing opponents as a threat may be an objective evaluation and not a view to be condemned.

We should also note that while our research focuses on partisan violence, the biggest threats to democracy in the U.S. are from legal channels, not civilians acting out violently — although those sometimes reinforce each other. Legislatures, governors, courts, administrators and presidents all have far more influence over whether the U.S. moves toward or away from democracy than any mob, militia, terror cell or assassin.

Historians' first verdict on Trump: You're fired! But there's more to it than that

"The Trump presidency was not an aberration but the culmination of more than three decades in the GOP's evolution." So writes historian Julian Zelizer, seeking to answer the question of "how the 'Party of Lincoln' had become the 'Party of Trump." That also sums up the shared perspective of more than a dozen historians contributing chapters to "The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment."

Trump's presidency "was not some one-off that will automatically result in a course-correction," Zelizer writes, "but a period of deep-seated conflict that profoundly wounded our polity. When his term was done, the Trump presidency cemented some of the biggest fault lines in the nation."

This book comes as a welcome corrective to the news media's eternal puzzlement over Trump: It's a rich collection that significantly expands perspectives, beyond the familiar media frames, across a wide range of topics. But two crucial elements are missing. It lacks a blunt account of how conservatism's decades-long policy failures opened the way for Trump, and it doesn't provide a nuanced account of the ways Trump's presidency was both a historical culmination and a potential breaking point, shifting America to a form of competitive authoritarianism — in which elections still occur, but are not significant in determining who holds power.

That hasn't happened yet, and it's arguably not a historian's job to address the abyss that still lies ahead. As Zelizer explains, this volume is intended to be a first draft of history, "part of an ongoing conversation" that "will continue to evolve in perpetuity." But if American democracy continues to crumble, that conversation will inevitably take a darker turn.

Zelizer describes the book's chapters as falling into four groups, six that "focus on the institutional and coalitional foundations on which the Trump presidency was built," five that "explore the roots and impacts of Trump's domestic policies," three that do the same for his foreign policies, and four that "look at the political and policy forces that checked and weakened" Trump's presidency — and ultimately ended it.

Setting the stage: What made Trump possible?

Zelizer's chapter in that first group sketches a broad evolutionary argument, stressing how "increasingly conservative voices tied to a grassroots movement pushed their way to the top of the party," with many Trumpian elements — the personalized attack politics of Lee Atwater and Newt Gingrich, the contempt for expertise of the George W. Bush administration — largely in place long before Trump took center stage. It's a solid beginning for the book that follows, but what's notably missing is the role of elite funders and the institutions and organizations they created to shape, nurture and mobilize that movement. The role of the radicalized religious right is also notably absent, which is a surprising omission considering the role of white evangelical support and Christian nationalism (e.g., dominionist leader Lance Wallnau's book "God's Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and the American Unraveling") in cultivating support for Trump.

He says little about conservative media, too, but that side of the story is well covered by Nicole Hemmer ("Messengers of the Right"), whose chapter, "Remade in His Image: How Trump Transformed Right-Wing Media" is one of the strongest for its combination of historical scope and nuanced detail. Hemmer begins in the 1950s with publications like National Review and radio shows like "The Manion Forum," whose host promised, "Every speaker over our network has been 100 percent right-wing. … No left-winger, no international socialist, no one-worlder, no communist will ever be heard."

The ideological purity and isolation of that statement set the tone for so much that followed, with the rise of populist right-wing talk radio, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Hemmer's account reflects how seamlessly Trump's manipulations fit into the larger dynamic in which media figures radicalize their audiences through feedback loops that have grown exponentially more powerful, marginalizing those who are unwilling or unable to keep up.

Angus Burgin's related chapter, "The Crisis of Truth in the Age of Trump" is descriptively apt, noting that Trump "promised from the outset to deal with a slew of fictitious problems…. And he promised his audiences a fictitious future." But Burgin is needlessly constrained when he agonizes that "the central concern raised by the crisis of truth in the age of Trump was not — despite his obvious admiration for those in positions of despotic power — about an excess of authoritarianism but rather about a possible excess of democracy. ... [H]ad the evolution of our media environment created a need for heavier-handed regulation?"

Burgin notes that Jürgen Habermas has "expressed an enduring faith in the prospects for reasoned debate in an age of information abundance," but does not connect that such faith with recent work being done to vindicate it, such as Chris Bail's "Breaking the Social Media Prism" and Philipp Lorenz-Spreen's paper on promoting online "truth, autonomy and democratic discourse."

Three chapters on substantive demographic politics follow. The most crucial is Kathleen Belew's on "Militant Whiteness in the Age of Trump," followed by Geraldo Cadava's "Latinos for Trump" and Leandra Zarnow's chapter on "Trump's feud with feminists" and the "triumph" of conservative women. Belew explains a key source of Trump's strength, while the two others explore why Trump and the Republican Party's alleged demographic weakness is not quite what many liberals and leftists imagine. Crucially, Belew illuminates the relationships between white power, white nationalism and white supremacy:

White power refers to a branch of the larger militant Right, a coalition that also includes some violent conservatives who say they are not motivated by race. White power is both white supremacist and committed to violence. White nationalism, on the other hand, can refer in common usage to two very different things. One is the idea that there is something about America that is, and should be, intrinsically white, and that people pursuing policy making should ensure that this remains so.... The second use of the term refers to people seeking a white homeland (also sometimes called white separatism).

That sets the stage for explaining what happened under Trump:

[T]he Trump years featured both a white nationalist policy project helmed by people in the administration and a white power social movement that believed many of the same claims about whiteness but wished for a white ethnostate, ideally through the overthrow of the country. … White power and white nationalism both fall under a broader category: white supremacy. This refers not only to people who have racist belief systems (overtly or covertly) but also to a broad array of systems, histories, and infrastructures that continue to contribute to racial inequality even when individual racism is absent.

This kind of analysis is crucial to understanding not just what Trump and his allies were (and are) actually doing, but also how to respond to backlash obfuscations like the "critical race theory" moral panic, which intentionally collapses the distinctions Belew carefully draws.

Cadava calls Trump's Latino outreach "perhaps the most ordinary part of an extraordinary presidency," drawing on a GOP playbook dating back to Reagan's 1980 campaign, when a trio of Mexican-American advertising and media executives identified four things as core characteristic of the Hispanic Republican: "religious devotion, a tireless work ethic, anticommunism, and the related belief in free market capitalism as the best path to prosperity." While Trump certainly differed from Reagan in many important ways — most notably on border and immigration issues — this playbook remained essentially intact. As Cadava writes, "the understandable and justified media coverage of the outrages of the Trump era obscured the more mundane but effective ways that Trump built Latino support with his persistent focus on immigration, the economy, religious freedom, and the supposed rise of socialism within the Democratic Party."

Zarnow's chapter begins with the worldwide Women's March the day after Trump's inauguration, which may have begun with white women's gut reactions on social media but matured into a sophisticated centering of diverse, marginalized identities. After setting the stage, however, she echoes Cadava's historical parallels:

No president since Ronald Reagan offered right-wing women more opportunity to be political insiders with a direct channel to the West Wing. For this personal success, they were grateful and devoted. "I've never felt anything but respected and empowered by him to do my job," professed Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Zarnow goes on to note that the "language of empowerment Sanders uses here, like color blindness, has been deployed by conservatives as a device to counter how much the mass feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s successfully shifted the gender landscape in the United States." That's true, of course. It's equally true that Trump has a long history of employing and promoting women, precisely because they're almost universally undervalued and are a great source of underpaid labor, as are the undocumented immigrants he has often employed at his various projects and properties. Neither Zarnow nor Cadava appears to notice that telling comparison.

Domestic policies

Three of the five chapters on Trump's domestic policies also emphasize the centrality of race. Two do so specifically, "Immigration Policy and Politics Under Trump" by Mae Ngai and "From Color-Blind to Black Lives Matter" by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Race also figures centrally in "The Rhetoric and Reality of Infrastructure During the Trump Presidency" by Jason Scott Smith, which mentions white supremacy in its second sentence.

Ngai's primary focus is giving shape to Trump's savage, shambolic immigration policies, whose wanton cruelty is more widely understood than their sheer scope and volume. "Altogether, some one thousand changes in immigration policy were made by rule modifications, directives, form changes, memos, certifications, executive orders, presidential proclamations, pending rule changes, and other bureaucratic actions," she writes.

Ngai also provides concise historical context, first by noting that nativism tends to emerge during "periods of [economic] expansion associated with large structural transformation, or what economists call sectoral change," which "engender[s] anxiety as opportunity looms simultaneously large and elusive for portions of the population."

Immigrants do not create such change, nor do they generally "replace" native-born workers, but they do tend to work in newly expanding sectors. Ngai also notes that upsurges of nativism are "symbiotically linked — politically and structurally — to contemporaneous surges of racism and racial oppression of African Americans."

But specific episodes require specific analysis. "In our time, racism against immigrant communities of color, especially Latino communities, is the fundamental core of nativism," Ngai writes. "But open racism became impolitic in the post-civil rights era. It became dressed as a complaint against 'illegal aliens,'" providing a veneer of legitimacy unwarranted by facts on the ground: Most Latinos in the U.S. are citizens, and undocumented workers overwhelmingly take jobs that citizens or documented workers don't want.

"Nativism has been a staple of conservative politics since the 1980s," she writes, but Republican opinion was split between "business interests, which wanted to exploit immigrants, and racial and cultural nationalists, who wished to expel them." By 2016, the latter had triumphed, she notes, but without exploring the reasons why — which goes back to the missing analysis of conservative policy failure.

Smith's infrastructure chapter follows and is closely related. "Trump's pledge to rebuild the nation's infrastructure was by far his most popular campaign promise, but it was one that went seemingly unfulfilled," Smith notes, leading some conservatives, like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, to dismiss Trump. Nonetheless, he continues:

Trump's rhetorical commitments to infrastructure in fact underwrote a sea change in the legal mechanisms and policing practices of the federal government, changes with profound consequences, particularly for immigrants, asylum seekers, and people of color. … Trump used the language of infrastructure as a strategic weapon, as historian of rhetoric Jennifer Mercieca has perceptively observed: to unite supporters, divide opponents, and avoid accountability for his words and deeds.

Gallup found at the time of Trump's inauguration that his infrastructure plan was his most popular campaign promise, rated "very important" by 69% of Americans, compared to just 26% who felt the same about building his border wall. The former promise "to rebuild the nation's network of roads, bridges, and airports" exemplified "Trump's optimistic appeal to an earlier era," Smith writes, while the border wall signified "a turning away from America's founding myth of the open frontier, embracing instead reactionary populism and racist nationalism." Yet it was the one piece of infrastructure Trump actually delivered on, if only in small pieces and largely by pilfering funds authorized for other reasons. Smith calls it "a powerful example of how rhetoric successfully transformed reality."

Taylor's chapter is less about Trump's specific policies on race and more a historical analysis examining "how Trump's ascendance was rooted in the mainstream in the aftermath of the Black movement in the 1960s." She begins by pairing a description of Trump's campaign announcement, with its invocation of Mexican "rapists," with the nearly simultaneous racist murder of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, whose perpetrator reportedly declared, "I have to do it. You're raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go." The two claims had much in common, Taylor provocatively observes:

The invocation of rape, by Roof and Trump, was a graphic and brutal envisioning of white men as the feminized victims of rogue outsiders who have taken advantage of a flaccid state ill equipped for war, unable to protect its borders, soft on crime, and generally weak and unable to function effectively, the result being white Americans shoved from the security of their position in the social hierarchy, cast about, and unsure of what the future holds.

This was fantastical, of course, and Taylor proceeds to trace what happened in reality: First the trajectory from Nixon to Bush by which "conservative politics pushed the bounds of racist innuendo, framed as color blindness," and then the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. In that period, "more than 240,000 Black families lost their homes," while the Occupy Wall Street movement "sharpened the focus on systemic crisis, pivoting away from the fixation of the political class on the behavior and morality of the poor and the working class."

That also dovetailed with the publication of Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow," which "drew the public's attention to the systemic factors fueling young Black men's disproportionate arrests and incarceration," and coincided with a wave of videos showing the police killings of Black men. That led to the Black Lives Matter movement which marked, Taylor writes, "the emergence of a new Black Left" and coincided with the rise of a broader "new left" that created "pressures not only on liberalism but also on the Right to more sharply rebuke new demands for expanding government after years of neglect":

A space beyond the color-blind innuendo of the post-civil-rights era emerged for more direct and racist attacks on entire groups of people, cultures, and religion as a way for the Right to more clearly distinguish itself. This was not necessarily in reaction to these new movements, but developed in reaction to the Obama presidency, which became a dress rehearsal for a later brand of Trumpism.

Two more chapters on domestic policy have distinctly different flavors. Bathsheba Demuth's "Against the Tide: The Trump Administration and Climate Change" juxtaposes the international scientific community's call for "urgent and fundamental departure from business as usual" with the scant attention given to climate issues in the 2016 campaign, even facing the hottest year on record, intensified climate activism and 15 domestic weather events that each caused over $1 billion in damage. Demuth situates Trump's climate denialism in the framework of GOP anti-regulatory politics, paired with intensifying youth climate activism, epitomized by the Sunrise Movement and the climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. It isn't just Democrats or liberals who are concerned with climate issues, Demuth notes: In 2019, two-thirds of registered Republicans under age 35 "described themselves as worried about climate change, an 18-point increase over five years."

Demuth observes that the Trump administration's last-minute sale of Arctic oil and gas leases — which actually occurred on Insurrection Day, Jan. 6, 2021 — was supposed to bring in almost $1 billion to help pay for Trump's 2017 tax cuts. But major fossil-fuel companies declined to bid, and the sale netted less than $15 million. In many ways, she writes, this "was a fitting summation of Trump's climate change stance: hasty, unpopular, a policy relic from a different century.... It was emblematic of how out of sync Trump, and many in his party, had become."

In her chapter "The Gilded Elevator: Tech in the Time of Trump," Margaret O'Mara chronicles an epochal shift from the period when tech had been celebrated to one where it's criticized from all sides. Although Trump's use of social media clearly makes him a central figure in this narrative, O'Mara contextualizes him as very much a product of his environment, particularly the focus on "engagement," which is most effectively activated through fear and rage.

There have always been significant contradictions in the tech realm, as explored in Paulina Borsook's classic "Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech," but they have remained remarkably well-contained until recently. "America's high-tech regions may have been some of the most Left leaning in the country, but the industry itself was built by Reaganomomics, growing large in a four-decade era of tax cuts, deregulation, pro-employer labor laws, and a laissez-faire approach to anti-trust enforcement," O'Mara notes.

"These companies had long branded themselves as a nobler strain of capitalism, able to make money and do good at the same time," she continues, but that image crumbled during Trump's term. "Because of their market-gobbling business models and the fractious politics of Trump's America, these moguls and their companies faced stiff political headwinds from both the progressive left and populist Right," yet ended the Trump years "richer and more entrenched in American life than ever."

International affairs and foreign policy

Two of the three chapters on global matters are strikingly different, due partly to the subject matter — China and the Middle East — while the third, Jeffrey Engel's "No More Mulligans: Donald Trump and International Alliances," mentions but fails to develop a crucial theme that arguably could undergird this entire book: Trump's 1990 admission to Connie Chung, "I'm a non-trusting person."

Engel contrasts this with Dwight Eisenhower, who once said, "Patience, tolerance, frankness, absolute honesty in all dealings, are absolutely essential." Trump's fundamental distrust of everyone not only informed his foreign policy ("Our allies take advantage of us far greater than our enemies," "We must as a nation be more unpredictable" and so on), but everything else he has ever done — which is a crucial part of his appeal. It's axiomatic that you can't run a healthy society on this basis, still less forge successful international alliances. America's post-World War II success relied on leading broad coalitions, Engel notes, and "Trump's approach to international alliances and international organizations, therefore, eroded the very cooperative ethos that made the America of Trump's youth the world's greatest power in the first place."

After surveying the chaos Trump sowed, Engel concludes: "The world might have been willing to give the United States a new chance to revert back to the mean in 2009," as signaled by Barack Obama's utterly unearned Nobel Peace Prize, but "is unlikely to so fluidly offer a new chance this time around."

James Mann's "Trump's China Policy: The Chaotic End to the Era of Engagement" offers a clear structural framework — there were three phases to Trump's policy and three factions of China hawks among his advisers (as well as some free-traders) — while Daniel Kurtzer's chapter on Trump's Middle East legacy describes an episodic "series of tactical maneuvers without an underlying strategy." In both cases, Trump was driven primarily by wanting to repudiate prior policies, but different timeframes are highlighted: From Richard Nixon onward, in the case of China, and the post-9/11 period in the Middle East.

That latter decision avoids many of the darker complexities of America's history in the Middle East, or its ludicrous claims to support democracy. Kurtzer concludes with an unsurprisingly negative view of Trump's record, writing that he "left behind a more dangerous Middle East, in much worse shape than what he inherited," but does nothing to connect those failure to the longer trajectory of flawed American policy in the region.

In the case of China, Mann observes that "Trump often operated with bipartisan support" on policy questions, "because American views on China were changing." At the same time, "Trump's pronouncements on China also set loose some of the darker forces that he displayed elsewhere: demonization, conspiratorial thinking, and a strain of racism, along with some self-dealing for the family business."

Mann divides Trump's policy into three phases: a year of tentative maneuvering with the Chinese regime, followed by two years of negotiations which were abruptly upended by the COVID pandemic. His advisers were split between free traders who represented the waning continuity of bipartisan policy and three distinct factions of China hawks: those focused on trying to end China's restrictive trade practices; more political advocates "focused less on specific policy actions than on nativist rhetoric"; and the less visible but often more influential national security hawks at the Pentagon, FBI, CIA and Commerce Department.

Of course there was one more faction: the Trump family itself, particularly Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, whose "role and influence on China policy waned, after reports were published of some of their business dealings." Mann's framework makes more sense of Trump's China policies than anyone could reasonably expect and helps situate it within the broader reassessment of the U.S.-China relationship.

Countervailing forces and the end (for now)

The book's chapters dealing with the "forces that checked and weakened" Trump are necessarily more diverse — but perhaps not diverse enough. Beverly Gage's chapter, "'Nut Job,' 'Scumbag,' and 'Fool': How Trump Tried to Deconstruct the FBI and the Administrative State," is focused on Trump's battles against the FBI, for example, though it does provide some historical background along with a few references to his broader attacks on other federal agencies. But there's no discussion of Trump's widespread practice of appointing acting officials in order to wreak havoc both within the executive branch and in terms of congressional oversight.

Merlin Chowkwanyun's chapter on Trump's response to the COVID pandemic employs a carefully considered framework, but ultimately in a way that implicitly lets our ex-president off the hook. "I situate Trump's inaction in three contexts: state and local autonomy, cultures of antiexpertise, and resource misallocation and inequality," Chowkwanyun writes, and that proves to be a sensible analytical framework. He offers a sensitive nuanced treatment of the ways that anti-expertise culture can be constructive, as with the rise of the women's health movement or HIV/AIDS and environmental justice activism.

That nuance is absent at a higher level, however. After identifying the three contexts, Chowkwanyun introduces "the 60/40 question: If you had to apportion culpability, how much would you lay at the feet of Trump and how much at the larger social forces in which he operated?" In fact, there's no way to separate Trump's culpability from the larger social forces because he repeatedly amplified, intensified and exacerbated the worst of those forces at virtually every turn, making it difficult if not impossible for others to act responsibly. A better question might be: How much did Trump do to exacerbate existing problems, and how many did he create on his own?

The first section of Michael Kazin's chapter, "The Path of Most Resistance: How Democrats Battled Trump and Moved Left" is tellingly entitled "Herbert Donald Trump?" Kazin begins in the late 1970s, when "the Democrats' nearly half-century reign as the majority party ended." (Neither party has held a consistent majority since.) From that point onward, "the election of a Republican president and large GOP gains in Congress had always persuaded [Democratic] party leaders to shift rightward."

But Trump differed from his GOP predecessors by being uninterested in "developing a coalition that could forge a new Republican majority," preferring to cultivate his MAGA movement instead. This kept his popularity numbers in the low 40s, where "he could not scare Democratic politicians" into echoing him. Instead, many identified with "the Resistance," whose "inchoate nature became a strength instead of a liability," allowing for a wide range of expression.

Translating this into electoral politics was more complicated, of course. In the end, for Democrats the 2020 election "spelled relief instead of deliverance from the dilemma of how to build an enduring new majority," Kazin writes. If there is a winning formula for Democrats in the years ahead, he suggests it must lie in a rearticulation of "moral capitalism," a touchstone of successful Democratic Party politics throughout its history.

In "Impeachment After Trump," Gregory Downs notes both the supposed ubiquity of reverence for the Constitution and the harsh reality of constitutional destruction. Trump's Senate trials, he writes,

were, by and large, paeans to the Constitution, although often homages to quite different constitutional interpretations. Democrats voted for conviction to save the Constitution from abuse. Republicans claimed their acquittal honored the Constitution's high standard for impeachment.

In the end, Trump's acquittals "raise the specter that future political leaders will know that they have almost complete impunity as long as they retain the support of their base, no matter what the Constitution says."

The underdeveloped back story here is that since Nixon and Watergate, the GOP has increasingly become an anti-democratic party. Downs' account of how things have changed avoids stating that clearly, with both-sides commentary that is factually true but misleading: There was increased talk of impeachment under both Bush and Obama, with roughly similar polling support — but Bush was accused of fraudulently leading the nation into a disastrous war, whereas Obama was falsely accused of having been born in Kenya. In the Trump era, Downs writes, "It was clear that impeachment talk was central to U.S. politics and that actual impeachment might never work." In other words, the Constitution has been amended — if not nullified — without making any changes to its text.

This points to the larger problems that surround the Trump presidency. American democracy as we've known it is suffering a fundamental breakdown, unlike anything seen since the Civil War. While this volume provides a rich collection of historical insights, I was haunted by what's missing that might help address that threat: For instance, the broader comparative perspective found in Federico Finchelstein's "From Fascism to Populism in History," the longer cross-cultural historical perspective of Edmund Fawcett's "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition," the psychological dimensions found in Ian Hughes' "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy" or Steven Hassan's "The Cult of Trump," and the social, cultural and economic dynamics in Peter Turchin's "Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History."

While "The Presidency of Donald J. Trump," has important insights to offer, it should be read alongside these works and others like them, if we truly want to engage with the most basic questions about whether our nation can long endure.

Historian explains how 'freedom dreams' fueled the civil rights movement — and why we need them now

How does the historically impossible become reality? It's a timely question in the days after the U.S. Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. A crucial part of the answer can be found in "Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement" by Victoria Wolcott, to be published later this month. It's not about the famous period of civil rights activism starting with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, but rather about the under-appreciated decades of activism that built the foundation for that period of rapid, epochal change.

One thing that sustained that struggle throughout labor education organizations, cooperatives, churches and pacifist groups was a utopian belief that another world was possible, if not inevitable, and that it could be brought into being by dedicated believers who were willing to act as if that future already existed. That kind of utopianism had significant resonance in 19th-century America, but one singular expression of it, Christian socialist William Bellamy's 1888 novel, "Looking Backward: 2000-1887," played a particularly significant role. In a vignette that opens Wolcott's book, a young woman named Coretta Scott gives a copy of that book to her future husband, Martin Luther King Jr.

"I welcomed the book because much of its content is in line with my basic ideas," King responded, "I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic…. Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world."

Bellamy influenced others to go beyond preaching. As Wolcott notes, some in the civil rights movement "lived their utopian dreams, creating small communities that modeled Bellamy's vision." This included noted figures like Ella Baker, Pauli Murray, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin and James Farmer, whose shared utopian orientation tells a deeper story than individual biographies can capture. Bellamy wasn't the only influence, of course. Gandhi's example played a similarly powerful role, spreading through the same network of activists whose visionary activism Wolcott traces from the late 1910s to the Freedom Rides of 1961, when a young John Lewis spent three days engaged in nonviolence training and preparation at the Washington Fellowship House, a utopian outpost that caused him to marvel, "I'd never been in a building like this. I'd never been among people like this."

Those influences persist to the present day, Wolcott notes in her afterward, which culminates in a reflection on the resurgence of utopianism in activist movements like Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter and the proliferation of local and specific organizations and struggles who have much in common with the subjects of her book.

Utopianism was not the only driving force behind the civil rights movement, of course. "Without mass marches, Black Nationalist strategies, and political mobilization, among other elements, the major successes of the movement would not have been achieved," Wolcott writes. "But it is striking how little known utopian practices and ideas are in the civil rights movement's public image and in many scholarly works." Recovering that missing history provides an invaluable resource for similarly situated activists today and tomorrow, whatever struggles they may face. That was why Salon was eager to speak with Wolcott about her book and the history behind it.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book is called "Living in the Future." Why that name?

Because that reflects the fairly capacious definition of utopianism that I use. Another way to think of it that political scientists use is the word "prefigurative," where the idea is that you're creating the world that you're imagining for the future. So if utopia is a form of social dreaming, what these folks do by "living in the future" is trying to create the future in the here and now, as much as they possibly can. That's really key to the idea of prefigurative politics, the idea of balancing means and ends, so rather than sacrificing the means to get to your ends, these are folks who very much want to have the means — the practice and the politics — match what they want to see at the end point.

You open with an anecdote about Coretta Scott giving a copy of Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward" to her future husband, Martin Luther King Jr. You go on to say that the book "helped shape the twentieth century's most powerful social movement," not just through its influence on King, but also through "contemporaries [who] went even further and lived their utopian dreams, creating small communities that modeled Bellamy's vision." What was distinctive about Bellamy's vision and the impact that it had?

It had a really enormous impact. I think we've forgotten how important that novel was, how much it reverberated. He was as part of this group that's often referred to as the utopian socialists in the late 19th century, in contrast to the scientific socialists, like Marx and Engels. In fact, Marx and Engels are very critical of the utopian socialists. Bellamy and other utopian socialists wanted essentially a nonviolent revolution. Bellamy envisions this transition to a socialist future for the United States without the violence of revolution and class conflict. So that's going to be very appealing to pacifists and otherintellectuals and political activists who were put off by some of the violence and conflict of the late 19th century.

After the publication of the novel, there are these Bellamy clubs that form by the hundreds —many are in the Northeast, but they're elsewhere in the United States and in Europe as well — where you have folks sitting around talking about the book and talking about ways to usher this socialist future in more quickly. It had a revival in the 1930s: The followers of Upton Sinclair, the socialist who ran for governor in California were very enamored with Bellamy's ideas. I think that's why Coretta Scott was familiar with it. It had a sort of second life during the Great Depression, when people are really struggling.

In your first chapter, you discuss a trio of workers' education institutions. The earliest was the Women's Trade Union League's Training School for Women Organizers, which opened in Chicago in 1914, followed by Brookwood Labor College and Highlander Folk School. How did their concept of workers' education build on that definition of "living in the future" and did it set them apart from other things in the labor movement at that time?

I think the workers education movement, while it sounds very dry, was actually really powerful and is a possible model for contemporary labor politics. It was explicitly developed by feminist labor activists in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and they often talked about the concept of bread and roses, which might be a phrase that people are familiar with. They were emphasizing the roses alongside the bread. What's distinctive they weren't only asking for higher wages or seeking safer working conditions — although those things are really significant, obviously — but they were also saying that working-class people had a right to leisure, had a right to intellectual life, had a right to artistic endeavors, that they had a right to live a more full life. The ILGWU set up these wonderful things called "Unity Houses," often on the outskirts of cities in rural, natural areas where workers could go for a long weekend, could go swimming, eat good food swim and have some exposure to this broader life.

That gets reflected in the Brookwood Labor College and the Highlander Folk School, which brought workers to communities, again in bucolic, rural areas, giving them access to a fuller education and also access to leisure, access to companionship, access to music and theater. That was and this is in distinction to the pure and simple trade unionism that the AFL practiced — the American Federation of Labor, which was about working conditions and higher wages, and was very much limited to skilled workers, the vast majority of whom were white. The workers' education movement, "social unionism" as it's sometimes termed, was explicitly was trying to bring in women and African-Americans in the 1930s and trying to democratize the labor movement.

One method that comes across as really important in your book was the use of theater, particularly at Brookwood. You write, "Workers' theater had a direct application to the civil rights movement. Nonviolent direct action was inherently performative." Could you elaborate on that?

It's one of the things that surprised me when I was doing the research. I wasn't thinking I'd be writing much about theater, but it was really central to workers education, and it becomes clear that once you get into the 1930s and early 1940s, when you start having the application of nonviolent direct action, that people need to know what to expect when they engage in a sit-in, whether as a labor activist in the factory floor or at a segregated park or other public accommodation.

The nonviolent activists actually set up training programs where they're using theatrical skills to train people to respond appropriately when they're being attacked, to know what to expect, to have a kind of narrative, a kind of script, which is refined over time. In terms of the nature of the nonviolent direct action, that was absolutely key. That's something that Martin Luther King talks about later in the movement. But again, you see it in the late 30s and early 1940s, where the very act of confronting segregation and white supremacy in public spaces, with this script in mind can really effectively engender change.

There was actually a direct connection to the famous sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, in 1936.

The major organizers of the UAW and the CIO in the 1930s were all graduates of the Brookwood Labor College. So the sit-in as a tactic was something that was basically developed in many ways though conversations at workers education institutions. And then the Brookwood Players actually go out with their bus, during the strike itself in Flint, and they are performing plays outside the factory floor, they're singing songs so that the workers who are sitting down can hear them, they hand out lyrics to sing along, so it literally becomes a theatrical moment, the performative nature of the sit-down itself.

The other major institution you talk about is the Highlander Folk School, which is better known and associated with the civil rights movement. But it started as a labor institution.

Its founder was Myles Horton, a white Southerner who had gone to Europe and gotten some training there, particularly in the Dutch folk schools. He had that background and he knew about Brookwood Labor College and wanted to do something similar in the South. But it was in some ways even more democratic than Brookwood. Horton felt very strongly that the folks who were going to come to Highlander — initially mostly labor activists and workers, and then later more civil rights — should develop the curriculum themselves. So it was very much a grassroots form of education. A big part of the Highlander mission was living in community, cooking and cleaning and singing together as you're developing these kind of skills.

Horton and other Highlander teachers — very much like you would see with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, later in the larger civil rights movement — were very intent in trying to understand what people actually needed on the ground. That might be child care, that might be food aid, along with organizing CIO unions throughout the South, which was really their goal. They shifted to civil rights, in part, because the labor movement, by the time you get to the mid-1940s, begins to fall apart in the South because of the rise of conservatism, Cold War politics and also white supremacy, because these were interracial unions in many cases.

So Highlander shifts its focus away from labor and more toward civil rights and interracial organizing around issues of mass segregation and the vote. Rosa Parks goes to Highlander just a few months before the Montgomery bus boycott starts. Martin Luther King Jr. goes there as well. All the major civil rights activists of that period spent time at Highlander, engaged in that training and trained other people as well.

You write about notable people who came through these institutions, such as Ella Baker and Rosa Parks, who became known for their roles in the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s. Can you give an example of someone who engaged with them and what that journey looked like?

'll say something about Pauli Murray. Some people might be familiar with her, there's a new documentary about her. An absolutely fascinating, important figure in the 20th-century civil rights and feminist movements. She goes to Brookwood Labor College in the 1930s and spends time there, with workers education, and then she goes to Harlem and does some work alongside Ella Baker on developing cooperatives as part of the New Deal program. She goes to Howard University, where she works with theologian Howard Thurman, who I write about in the book. Thurman goes on to form this interracial church in San Francisco, the Fellowship Church of All Peoples. And Thurman also becomes the African-American to meet with Gandhi in India, and was instrumental in bringing down his teaching about nonviolence to the United States.

So Pauli Murray is involved with that, and also involved in the Fellowship House movement. The Fellowship House in Philadelphia is where Martin Luther King Jr. hears about Gandhi and nonviolent direct action, so there's a direct connection there as well. She spends time in the Harlem Ashram, which is one of these "peace cells" or utopian communities that I talk about, in the 1940s. So she has interactions in all sorts of ways with these groups who are talking about cooperation, who are talking about nonviolence and applying those things to the civil rights struggle.

In Chapter 2, you tell the story of the Delta Cooperative and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. What led to the creation of these organizations?

The Delta and later Providence Cooperative farms were developed by a group of international Christian socialists, and the most important figure here was a white man named Sherwood Eddy. He ran these amazing things called the Americans Seminar, where he would take radical activists across the country to Europe, including into the Soviet Union. They'd go to Eastern Europe, to the Soviet Union and elsewhere to learn about different kinds of models of labor organizing and cooperation.

Eddy was very interested in the Southern Tenant Farmers Workers Union, a very interesting socialist-leaning union trying to organize sharecroppers in the South during the Great Depression. Lots of violence and oppression is associated with their organizing. So he goes down and experiences some of this violence first hand, and has the idea to raise money to develop a cooperative in Mississippi where black and white sharecroppers could live together, which of course was quite radical for this period. And also try to develop an economic cooperative. It's largely funded through other like-minded individuals sending money. People like Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, supported the Delta Cooperative. Pauli Murray and other activists often we travel down there and spend time there.

It was a grand experiment in interracial living and using cooperation to eventually become self-sufficient. There was a lot of interest in this, for instance in developing health care because sharecroppers were often malnourished. Eventually, by the 1950s when you get to the white supremacist massive resistance to both the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the growing civil rights struggle, white terror becomes so extreme that they have to disband. But there was a period through the '30s and '40s where they were quite successful.

You mention them as prefiguring the activism of the Freedom Summer. Can you talk about the similarities a little bit there?

When I was looking at the records of the Delta and Providence farms, is that there were people, particularly in the summertime, circulating into the farms all the time to do volunteer work there, many of them white college students from places like Swarthmore and Antioch College, progressive or liberal schools. Some of them were African-American students as well, and then some adult activists who would go down to the South for a few months, work on these farms, have this experience of living in community and living interracially in these spaces. That for them very formative. It wasn't just the farms. They also did a lot of work in the surrounding Black community outside the farms. There were community centers, essentially, and health clinics that were open to everybody in the surrounding communities. In the Freedom Summer of 1964, SNCC in coalition with other civil rights organizations, brings college students down to Mississippi to do voter registration and education and other kinds of campaigns, so there is a parallel there. There's a deeper history to this: a radical summer camp, in some ways, that becomes very important for the longer legacy of these groups.

Chapter 3 is all about Father Divine's Peace Mission, which to be honest I knew almost nothing about. It was really astonishing to find a major part of American history that I was truly ignorant about. Who was Father Divine, and what did his organization accomplish?

I think you are certainly not alone. For the most part, except maybe in some pockets, he's been misremembered or forgotten. But his movement, the Peace Mission movement, is really the most successful utopian community of the 20th century. It is the largest, it achieves the most and it made a huge impact. It was very much known in everyday households during the late 1930s. There was a lot of media coverage of the Father Divine movement, but it was part of a a broader charismatic religious movement, mostly among African-American migrants.

The other one that people might be familiar with is the Nation of Islam, which emerges around the same time, in Detroit in 1933. Father Divine is a little bit earlier. Father Divine, however, has the idea of an interracial utopia. He believes that race is purely a construct and does not exist in any other level except as a kind of human construct. So it is an interracial movement, which is really interesting. It has all sorts of religious teachings which he takes from various strands of African-American religious traditions, as well as things like New Thought, which is a 19th-century Protestant idea, very American, faith healing.

He also combines this with civil rights activism. So the Divinities actually use nonviolent direct action to carry out desegregation campaigns, they deliberately buy properties in segregated communities and desegregate them by having his followers go there. Economically, he's very successful. He uses the model of cooperatives to great effect. He ends up having a lot of his cooperative businesses — apartment buildings, gas stations, all sorts of properties — both in Harlem and upstate New York, in an area he calls "the Promised Land," and also in Philadelphia. This was a utopian community experiment that's quite successful, and was really important at the time.

The next chapter deals with a broad movement in the Christian left, and the key figure there is Howard Thurman. As you've already mentioned, he was the first to African-American to meet with Gandhi, and he went on to lead a major interracial church in San Francisco. So what was distinctive about Thurman and about that church?

Thurman was a hugely influential theologian. His most famous book, "Jesus and the Disinherited," sold huge numbers of copies and Martin Luther King Jr. had a copy in his pocket as he carried out his various civil rights campaigns. In fact, Thurman and King had a close relationship. Thurman was influenced broadly, for example, by some of the mysticism of the Quaker church. He spent time in Kendall Hill, which is a Quaker retreat. He also comes out of more traditional Black Protestant traditions, similar in some ways to Father Divine, although in a more "respectable" way. He believed in trying to basically eliminate any kind of racial barriers. He wanted to create an interracial, intercultural church, where people of all races, ethnicities and even faiths could come together and engage in a variety of practices, including meditation. He was interested in Eastern religion, so he brought some Eastern practices into his church, in his liturgy. There is often dance and theater involved in his liturgy at the Fellowship Church, and of course at a certain level political activism.

They were interested in what was happening with the early civil rights movement, with labor organizing. They were in touch with some of the major people like A.J. Muste, who was probably the most prominent pacifist of this time, who headed up the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I already mentioned his relationship with Martin Luther King. He was really a mentor for Pauli Murray, as well as people like James Farmer and other early Black activists. He was very much part of the network that was developing nonviolent direct action, tactics that would prove to be so central and powerful for the movement.

It's striking that the Fellowship Church in San Francisco wasn't just biracial. It was actually in a building that had been a Japanese church and been dispossessed. A group of women who were crucial in its founding lived in a house called ...

The Sakai House. They took possession of a house that was dispossessed when Japanese-Americans were interned during the war. That was true of the first church, which had been Japanese as well. And they were advocating against Japanese-American internment and were also safeguarding property so they could return it to the rightful owners when they were released from internment. There was a lot of concern about the plight of the Japanese-Americans on the part of this pacifist community, and they became very much part of that interracial intercultural community, those who actually returned to San Francisco. So that was definitely part of the movement as well: It has a global human rights aspect. There was a famous pacifist from England, Muriel Lester, who spent time there in San Francisco. This was a global movement in the 1940s for intercultural, interracial understanding, essentially to fight against fascism and militarism.

Your next chapter deals with the broad movement associated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). What struck me most was the scope of success they had in desegregating the North in battles that are largely forgotten but were clearly foundational for the later mass movement in the South. Could you give some examples of what they were able to accomplish?

This relates to my last book — this is how I got into this project. I wrote this book called "Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters" about the struggle against segregated recreation. That's when I realized how extensive these desegregation campaigns in the North and Midwest were, much earlier than anybody really talks about — as early as the late '30s but really in the '40s and early '50s. In much of the history that's been written the importance of these radical pacifists in this earlier period has been very much downplayed.

The assumption was that CORE wasn't really doing very much in this period, and that's just not the case. When you delve into the records, you find that there's chapters either of CORE or affiliated groups, these are often radical pacifists living in peace cells or ashrams or other kinds of communities, and they're using this playbook, this script that CORE has developed to go into local restaurants and swimming pools, places like that — which should have been protected by civil rights laws, but were routinely segregated throughout the North — and using nonviolent direct action tactics to challenge this and desegregate them. This often turned into lawsuits and court cases, so sometimes the NAACP or the ACLU would take up these cases and get them through the courts. But CORE was actually quite effective throughout this period: You see a lifting of some of the segregated accommodations by the time we get to the second half of the 1950s.

But they didn't completely ignore the South.

They only did one major campaign in the South, which was called the Journey of Reconciliation, in 1947. There was a Supreme Court ruling that transportation between states had to be desegregated — within a state it was still considered legal. So they were trying to demonstrate that and publicize it. It was somewhat successful, although they ended up in jail, unsurprisingly, once they got to the South. The Journey of Reconciliation was the first Freedom Ride. When you get to the Freedom Rides that we're more familiar with in 1961, one things I thought was interesting is that the training for that ride was done at the Fellowship House in Washington. So this physical space, a house where John Lewis and other activists could go and live in an interracial community and be trained in what to expect during the Freedom Ride, would do meditation and read these important works, translating Gandhi for American audiences and so forth.

The folks who were training those Freedom Riders in the early '60s were these radical pacifists, now a little bit older, including Bayard Rustin, who was involved in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, who had come of age in the 1940s in this Christian left pacifist culture. At this point they had 20 years of experience on how to do this work, and they went on to train the students and younger activists who carried out the mass civil rights movement of the early 60s.

You have a quote from John Lewis about how he'd never seen a place like that before or experienced people like that before.

Yeah, people talk about that with Highlander as well, particularly African-Americans when they go there and they're being served food by white people. Rosa Parks talks about that, it was a powerful experience to live in that situation.

It struck me that these were small communities, but there's a constant flow of people, so they influence many more people than just the numbers in the communities. Can you talk about that and how that their influence circulates?

They are small communities and I'm glad you picked up on this circulation piece, because that's what really struck me as I started to add up how many workshops they had, how many activities they did, how many people they corresponded with. The numbers got larger and larger. But they also created publications, training manuals on how to do this kind of activism. Thousands of these were printed up and disseminated across the country, and then you have some of these pacifist groups creating basically left-wing, progressive publications where Martin Luther King is writing, all sorts of important information about how to carry out this kind of activism, and how it relates to Cold War pacifism, anti-militarism. Over time this is very important for the antiwar generation in the Vietnam era, who also are reading these publications. They're doing it through print and they're doing it through these workshops, in whatever way they can. I mentioned before about theater and music as well.

In your afterword you bring things more up to date, and talk about some of the heritage that lived on. You mention Afro-futurism in the '70s, for example, up through the prison abolition and Black Lives Matter direct action movements. How does this connection continue through time?

I think there's actually a resurgence of interest in utopia. I just saw the other day that Margaret Atwood has created this eight-week online course where she's having people from around the world collaborate to come up with ideas about practical utopias, how we can envision a future that combats climate change and racial injustice. What our would houses look like? What food would we eat? That's just one example, but there is a lot of interest right now in this idea of social dreaming or, as my favorite historian, Robert Kelly, talks about, this idea of freedom dreams.

In the 1970s, the most important utopian thinking was being done within the Black power movement, which I talk about in the afterword. This is different from the interracialism that I talk about throughout the book, but you do have Black power experiments in creating communities like Soul City, or the community MOVE, which people mostly know about because of the bombing that happened there in Philadelphia in the early 1980s. But that's a very important strand, Afro-futurism in the '70s.

But today, I'm in Buffalo, where on a local level you see a lot of interest in a cooperatives as a way to address issues about poverty. Living community is something that young people who are dealing with the housing crisis are doing in some ways. I think right now there's also a recognition, because of COVID of a kind of care crisis and the ways in which creating community, creating networks of support, can fill in the gaps when the state is failing us in so many ways.

I also saw your book as a mirror image of another impressive book, "The Long Southern Strategy," (author interview here) which talks about how not just race but gender and religion were involved in forming identities that were inherently fragile and how reactionary politics was built around these sort of identity formations. You're describing the polar opposite, telling the story of a shared quest to transcend our fixed identities and to imagine new, shared identities. So I wonder if you have any thoughts on what this says about the basic nature of progressive versus reactionary politics?

That's a really interesting point about identity formation, because they are trying to create alternative identities. There is a belief among many of these folks that human nature is, if not maybe perfectible, that there's a kind of openness, what bell hooks talks about as revolutionary love. Martin Luther King talks about the kind of concept of love, which is an optimistic idea that for some on the left can sound mushy or emotional or not pragmatic. But I think you see, in places like Highlander, this being played out in ways that were really powerful but also fragile.

It's not as though a place like a Brookwood Labor College, for example, did not have hierarchy. It did. A.J. Muste was very much in charge. There were definitely issues around questions of hierarchy, questions of gender tensions, within these groups. They are not perfect societies. But there is a kind of openness — again, this idea of social dreaming or freedom dreams — and openness to thinking about a world in which full equality was actually possible. That's very regenerative, and it creates strategies for change that can be can be very powerful.

Finally, what's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

I get asked lot about why utopia is considered so problematic as a concept. One thing I see often is people associating notions of utopia with totalitarianism or authoritarian states. So one reasons the whole concept of utopia loses traction during the Cold War is because it's associated with fascism and it's associated with Stalinism. And you might think of Cambodia later, with Pol Pot, or Mao's Cultural Revolution. These kinds of authoritarian, totalitarian states are trying to create the perfect society and it all goes terribly wrong and millions died. So therefore the concept of utopia is inherently problematic.

But I don't see authoritarian or totalitarian large states being utopian. The utopian tradition within the United States is more based on a kind of anarchism in terms of political philosophy, that is, small communities that are relatively self-sufficient, often deliberately separate from the state and not dependent on it, who are developing this way of life that offers alternatives to things like competitive capitalism, environmental destruction and, in some cases, racial violence and inequality. That's really the kind of utopian tradition, that American tradition, that we should be thinking about.

Echoes of George W. Bush and a lesson for America’s elite: How Putin fell prey to 'intel failures' and arrogant fantasy

Google "Putin miscalculation" and you get more than a trillion hits. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine turned catastrophic for both Vladimir Putin's ambitions and the Ukrainian people, many have suggested that the Russian president's miscalculation is the result self-isolation and listening only to a shrinking handful of yes-men, a pattern that's common in personalist autocratic regimes where power is concentrated in a single individual.

On Feb. 4, well before it was clear that Putin had decided to invade, much less how badly it would go, Adam Casey and Seva Gunitsky laid out the argument in a Foreign Affairs article entitled "The Bully in the Bubble," arguing that Putin had fallen prey to "information isolation" and warning that "if he makes a miscalculation and launches a major invasion, it will likely be because of the personalist features of his regime." The authors specifically cited U.S. intelligence reports that Putin was "underestimating the costs of invading Ukraine because his advisers are withholding information about the depth of local Ukrainian opposition to Russia and, relatedly, the strength of Ukraine's resistance."

Since the invasion, other experts who have studied personalism have weighed in to flesh out the picture, and to highlight that personalism is particularly dangerous when combined with the politics of oil. A more recent Foreign Affairs article has even asked whether this might be "The Beginning of the End for Putin?" The odds of that aren't high, but they're rising, the authors argued:

In personalist authoritarian regimes — where power is concentrated in the hands of an individual rather than shared by a party, military junta, or royal family — the leader is rarely driven from office by wars, even when they experience defeat…. But the thing about repressive regimes like Putin's Russia is that they often look stable right up to the point that they are not. Putin has taken a major risk in attacking Ukraine, and there is a chance — one that seems to be growing — that it could mark the beginning of his end.

The article concludes with the statement that "Putin's downfall may not come tomorrow or the day after, but his grip on power is certainly more tenuous than it was before he invaded Ukraine."

The historical arc that could lead to the end Putin's regime would be strikingly similar to the way that George W. Bush's pursuit of the "War on Terror" brought about the collapse of the Republican establishment, which lost control of Congress and the White House to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, before staging an apparent comeback beginning in 2010. That became something of an uncontrolled reaction, with Donald Trump emerging as GOP voters' collective rejection, of not just the Republican leadership but the entire political establishment.

Of course, the Bush administration, dreadful as it was, is not comparable to Putin's regime. But Bush's "faith-based presidency," as summed up in Ron Suskind's 2004 article, "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush," was similarly impervious to inconvenient facts. Suskind argued that "open dialogue, based on facts" was not valued in that context: "It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker." That was amplified in the famous quote from a Bush aide (widely assumed to be Karl Rove) who dismissed the "reality-based community," saying:

We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Vladimir Putin could hardly have said it better. Functionally, then, the Bush administration was strikingly similar to Putin's in suppressing unwanted information (such as the reports that Osama bin Laden was "determined to strike" the U.S.), manufacturing phony intelligence, promoting false narratives (primarily about Saddam Hussein's imaginary weapons of mass destruction or his supposed ties to 9/11) and ultimately undermining the political support of its base, in a collapse that took Bush and his allies totally by surprise. For the most part, the broader political establishment, including the media, basically went along with them: Hence Sam Smith's classic "A history of the Iraq War told entirely in official lies."

As mentioned above, in a personalist regime, power is concentrated in the hands of a single individual. Such leaders face few meaningful checks on their power, cannot be punished for failures and choose advisers primarily based on loyalty rather than competence, "surrounding themselves by scared and sycophantic underlings who feed them limited, biased, self-censored, and overly optimistic information," as Casey and Gunitsky put it. They continue:

For strongmen, the consequences of losing power can be extreme — prison, exile, or death — and so they tend to surround themselves by sycophants. Their governing bodies can therefore descend into groupthink, and policy can lock onto a single path.

That of course does not describe the Bush administration, which faced no serious threat of prison, exile or death. Bush's Cabinet appointees were well within U.S. political norms and had considerable reputational capital, most notably in the case of Secretary of State Colin Powell, previously a respected military general. But groupthink set in nonetheless, and the administration's policy locked onto the single path of an all-out "war on terror," including the invasion of Iraq, within weeks after the 9/11 attacks, without as USA Today reported on the first anniversary of 9/11.

Bush's determination to oust Saddam Hussein by military force "was set last fall without a formal decision-making meeting or the intelligence assessment that customarily precedes such a momentous decision," that report found. Its "key findings" included:

  • "There wasn't a flash moment. There's no decision meeting," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice says. "But Iraq had been on the radar screen — that it was a danger and that it was something you were going to have to deal with eventually ... before Sept. 11, because we knew that this was a problem."
  • Members of Congress weren't consulted. Nor were key allies. The concerns of senior military officers and intelligence analysts, some of whom remain skeptical, weren't fully aired until afterward.

That was an explosive story at the time, revealing that the decision to invade Iraq had been made almost a year earlier, with little discussion or evidence, and virtually no consideration of the potential risks — yet it was also virtually ignored. It was as if Bush's inner circle didn't need to think through the decision, and America's political and media elite felt no need to question their reckless support for war. No Putin-style figure was required, in either case, to control information, curtail criticism or enforce groupthink. Yet everyone involved acted just the way such a personalist leader would have wanted.

America's elite groupthink rapidly committed to a military response, which was precisely what Osama bin Laden wanted and intended — allowing him to wrap himself in with the mantle of "holy warrior" rather than "mass murderer." This completely ignored the framework of military restraint, informally known as the "Powell doctrine" and formatted as a series of questions, that had been adopted in the aftermath of the U.S. debacle in Vietnam. Most pointedly, the answer to the question, "Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?" was obviously no. The same could be said of "Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?"

The groupthink was also visible in Congress, which authorized the Iraq invasion almost unanimously — with only Rep. Barbara Lee of California opposing it — and in elite opinion columns at the New York Times and Washington Post, where FAIR identified 44 columns stressing a military response, and just two advocating non-military ones, in the first three weeks after 9/11.

In sharp contrast, an International Gallup Poll found worldwide supermajorities, averaging over 70%, in 34 out of 37 countries, saying that the U.S. government "should extradite the terrorists to stand trial" rather than launch a military attack "on the country or countries where the terrorists are based." The exceptions were even more telling: Public opinion in both Israel and India favored a military attack by over 70%, despite those nation's decades-long histories of failure pursuing exactly that strategy themselves. Public opinion in the U.S. favored a military attack by 54% to 30%, but with 16% unsure.

Those responses made clear that two further questions on the Powell doctrine checklist should have been considered more carefully. First was, "Do we have genuine broad international support?" From governments, perhaps, but not from the people. As for "Is the action supported by the American people?" Even at that moment, the answer was not clear: Narrow majority support when elites are totally united offered a clear warning about the prospects for a lengthy war.

Two other parallels to the Putin predicament are worth noting: the illusion of quick victory, based on previous experience, and the role of historical fantasy. Putin apparently believed the Ukraine invasion would be a relatively quick operation, buoyed by his past successes in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and the Crimean peninsula. He did not expect the level of Ukrainian resistance the Russian military has encountered, much less the unified opposition of the West.

Similarly, the Bush-era invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq followed a series of relatively easy military victories, as the U.S. sought to recover from its experience in Vietnam: There were the wildly lopsided ventures in Grenada under Ronald Reagan and Panama under George H.W. Bush, and then the first Gulf war of 1991, which had a limited scope and a broad international coalition.

When it comes to narcissistic historical phantasy. Putin seems to imagine himself in the tradition of Peter the Great, restoring the glory of imperial Russia, which has produced a flood of incoherent narratives about Russian-Ukrainian relations and the claim that Ukraine cannot or should not exist as a nation.

The U.S. version of this involves delusions about remaking the world in America's image, as described by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." This produced a chaotic flood of free market ideologues, incompetents and grifters, all woefully disconnected from the reality of life in Iraq and the broader Middle East. The devastating portrait of folly in that 2006 book takes on a still darker tone after the emergence of ISIS a few years later. In the introduction to "ISIS: A History," Fawaz Gerges describes four key factors behind that phenomenon:

The first is that ISIS can be seen as an extension of [al-Qaida in Iraq] which was itself a creature of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. By destroying state institutions, the invasion reinforced popular divisions along ethnic and religious rather than national lines, creating an environment that was particularly favorable for the implantation and expansion of groups such as AQI and ISIS. Second, the fragmentation of the post–Saddam Hussein political establishment and its incapacity to articulate policies that emphasized the country's national identity further nourished intercommunal distrust, thus deepening and widening the Sunni-Shia divide.

The chaotic failure of the Iraq war to pacify the Middle East, much less curtail terrorism, began the erosion of the GOP establishment's credibility. Next, the explosion of ISIS, which flooded Europe with refugees and shocked America, took things to another level: That was what tipped the balance toward a new/old politics of right-wing ethno-nationalism, bringing Brexit to Britain, fueling far-right parties and Europe, electing Donald Trump as president and driving many Bush-era figures out of the Republican Party entirely.

Many of those figures have become eloquent champions of democracy, staunch opponents of Trump's limitless mendacity and corrosive attacks on democracy, and equally staunch opponents of Putin's aggression. Some of them have even tried to grapple with their own roles in having made Trump's politics possible. There should be no doubt about the need for a united front to defend democracy, both here and abroad. But there should also be no doubt about the collective need for a long, hard look in the mirror, one that reflects how badly our political elites failed in their responsibilities to the people. Such a failure can turn representative democracy into nothing more than a sham, virtually indistinguishable from a personalist dictatorship in terms of its horrific end results.

Manchin and Sinema are wrecking America — here's how to beat them

By opposing filibuster reform — thereby blocking voting rights protections — and Joe Biden's Build Back Better package, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have dramatically increased the odds that Republicans will take back both the House and Senate in 2022. More important still, Republicans may also entrench state-level autocratic power that could effectively subvert the 2024 presidential election. These two "centrists" haven't just weakened the Democratic Party, they've severely threatened the future of American democracy.

Yes, there's a dominant media narrative that blames all the Democrats' problems on progressives, but as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said recently on MSNBC's "11th Hour," it isn't progressives who have controlled the agenda as Biden's approval ratings have collapsed:

Biden has governed pretty much exactly the way they have asked him to. But the problem is that the way they have asked him to govern has been to slow down, not do too much, and we are now seeing the political consequences of not directly improving people's lives quickly.

Leaving aside Biden's relative neglect of executive action, no one has done more to slow things down than Manchin and Sinema, neither of whom has been transparent or consistent about what they want. In the Guardian, Robert Reich accurately identifies out-of-control egotism as a large part of the problem:

Before February of last year, almost no one outside West Virginia had heard of Manchin and almost no one outside Arizona (and probably few within it) had ever heard of Sinema.
Now, they're notorious. They're Washington celebrities. Their photos grace every major news outlet in America.
This sort of attention is addictive…. Once addicted, the pathologically narcissistic politician can become petty in the extreme, taking every slight as a deep personal insult.

These aren't just two willful individuals, as Reich makes clear: their narcissism is structurally fueled by how the Senate and the national media work. They illustrate America's structural political constraints in combination with both individual and collective narcissism.

America prides itself on being the world's oldest democracy, but given our institutional rigidity and reluctance to learn from others, that actually means our system is archaic and outdated. Many states borrowed from Switzerland and added the initiative process over a century ago, for example. But we've never even considered a federal version. The record is even worse with proportional representation, which is standard in many other countries and barely even visible here.

Far from being a beacon to the world of successful self-government, America offers a case study of failure. We're the only country in the world where mass shootings happen so regularly that only the special ones make national news, for example. But it's foolish to even dream of the Senate doing anything about it, even though universal background checks were supported by 84% to 89% in polls last year. We're almost the only country in the world without paid family leave, which two polls last October found 70% and 73% support for, at around the same time Manchin publicly nixed it from Build Back Better. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices had 83% support in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in early October, about a month before Sinema torpedoed the Democrats' efforts to include it in Build Back Better.

It's a systemic problem

This isn't just about a few high-profile examples, deeply troubling as they should be. The problem is systemic. A 2014 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page covered 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 where public opinion could be matched to a clear policy outcome, and they found that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence." Their study gave rise to a flurryof stories characterizing America as an oligarchy, echoing Occupy Wall Street's critique of the 1%.

A more extensive follow-up study by Matt Grossmann, Zuhaib Mahmood and William Isaac painted a more nuanced picture, finding that "affluent influence does not arise through control of both political parties." Specifically:

The Republican Party and business interests are aligned across all issue areas and are more often aligned with the opinions of the richest Americans (especially on economic policy). Democrats more often represent middle class opinions and are uniformly aligned with advocacy groups.

So there's hope. But "more often" isn't good enough, as the current situation with Manchin and Sinema makes clear. And America remains far from being a truly healthy democracy.

"We have status-quo-biased institutions that limit (even popular) policymaking without bipartisan support and wide interest group support," Grossmann told me via email. "People sometimes blame this on the Democratic leadership, but Democrats regularly back liberal policy changes supported by the middle class, even if they don't pass."

As David Dayen wrote in October, in an article aptly titled, "The Case for Deliverism": "You cannot talk about the same popular items, fail to deliver on them, and expect the voting public to keep listening to you." For political scientists like Grossmann, there's a significant difference between the picture Gilens and Page presented and the one he and his colleagues have found. But for the ordinary voter, that's barely visible.

"Democrats are closer than ever to supporting institutional changes that would make the status quo more vulnerable," Grossmann said, "but they would probably need a sustained large national majority (that isn't forthcoming) to implement them because many of the pivotal elections are on conservative ground."

That's why Manchin and Sinema's obstructionism is so crucial: They're blocking even the possibility of building that Democratic majority. And their insistence on the need for bipartisanship as a transcendental virtue gives oligarchs a de facto veto. They talk in terms of building a broader consensus, but only within bounds set by the GOP and the forces of Big Capital, which is why popular policies like paid leave and negotiated drug prices get tossed overboard. This so-called consensus has been neglecting America's true needs for decades, if not generations.

When "consensus" is destructive

For a critical perspective on that consensus I reached out to two long-term thinkers, historian Jack Goldstone, author of the 1991 book, "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World," which fundamentally changed our understanding of revolutions and the sources of political instability, and Ian Hughes, author of "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy."

Goldstone's book highlights the problem of "selfish elites" who "protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength," as a troubling parallel to the preconditions of the French Revolution, the English Civil War and similar examples of state breakdown. Hughes in turn sees that problem as a driving force in the neoliberal order that's dominated our politics for almost 40 years.

To understand why revolutions happen at some times, but not others, Goldstone developed a model that combines measures of demographically-driven social stress from the mass population, the elites and the state to produce a single number, the "political stress indicator." State breakdown — and subsequent revolution — only occurs when that rises to dramatically high levels, as it is doing in America today.

Just weeks after Biden's 2020 victory seemed to provide an opportunity to change that trajectory, I interviewed Goldstone, who held out the hope that Biden and Republicans might be able to work together:

If Mitch McConnell works with moderate Democrats to move away from the cliff, that will strengthen the moderate Democrats and reduce the power of the more radical or progressive wing, because the moderates will be getting more done.

That's clearly not how things have unfolded, so I reached out by email to see how his thinking had changed. "Things have deteriorated," he told me, but said he didn't find fault in the center. Democrats "should not have rushed a second impeachment [of Donald Trump] that was highly unlikely to yield a conviction," and progressives sabotaged Biden "by holding up the infrastructure bill for months while waiting for an unattainable Senate majority for their Build Back Better wish list."

I disagreed, but after some back-and-forth we found points of consensus, It's not centrism per se that's the problem, I argued, but the relative question: "Centrism compared to what?" Republican radicalization has created special conditions, given the nature of the U.S. political system, where the logic of "strengthening the middle" simply doesn't apply. Instead, a new middle has to be created.

In some cases, centrism can be harmful, Goldstone agreed:

I used to say this when Barack Obama was negotiating with the GOP. As the smartest guy in the room, he would identify the reasonable compromise position that a rational GOP would take with regard to the Democratic position and use that as his goal for negotiations. But that was unrealistic, because he was not dealing with a rational GOP, but an obstructionist GOP. When he tried to identify a reasonable middle ground, they saw that as a major concession and tried to jerk him further. It would have been better to start with his desired goal, hold out for as much as possible and concede as little as possible. Centrism just hurt his position.

I also agree that Sinema and Manchin may be motivated by outmoded ideas of centrism at best, and by selfish stubbornness based on ego at worst. But I don't much care why they are blocking Biden's program, I just want Biden to find some way to twist their arms to get an agreement.

You are right that centrism is pernicious — on climate change, a "compromise" position that makes token efforts to reduce greenhouse gases is not "prudent"; it is more akin to suicide. … My anxiety is that our whole political system is built on the need to find compromise and build broad coalitions among diverse views. It's not a parliamentary system, where a prime minister can command his party and always has a majority (or loses office).

How narcissism makes this worse

The need to find compromise and build broad coalitions is profoundly complicated by bad actors like Manchin and Sinema, who seem to be nurtured by collective narcissism, the belief that one's in-group is unique and exceptional. The Senate, which reflexively thinks of itself as "the world's greatest deliberative body," positively wallows in collective narcissism, so absorbed in preserving its supposed traditions its members seem incapable of seeing the broader destruction of democratic norms and practices sweeping the country outside their chamber.

As he argued against filibuster reform, Manchin proudly stood beside a large poster proclaiming his central argument: "The United States Senate has NEVER been able to end debate with a SIMPLE MAJORITY," which as Jon Skolnik noted here, is ridiculously false. Surely he must know this, as Skolnik pointed out:

The last three Supreme Court nominees — Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — were all confirmed with a simple majority … In fact, Manchin himself was the 51st senator to back Kavanaugh, single-handedly ending debate on the scandal-plagued judge's confirmation.

But many of Manchin's fellow senators believe such nonsense. It's part of their collective narcissistic delusion. In early January, Norman Ornstein wrote an op-ed demolishing "Five myths about the filibuster," of which Manchin's was No. 1. The others were:

  • The framers feared "the tyranny of the majority."
  • The filibuster fosters moderation and cooperation.
  • Keeping the filibuster now will preserve it in the future.
  • A rule change would make the Senate just like the House.

Ornstein isn't the first to refute these myths, but senators like Manchin simply ignore the refutations, because their narcissism and privileged position enable them to. The senate is an exalted body! Why should its members care what anyone else thinks?

Narcissists often fixate on ideas, presumed facts or proclaimed principles that no one else is allowed to criticize or challenge. They refuse to engage in a back-and-forth discussion, much less a good-faith debate. The reason is straightforward, therapist and author Elizabeth Mika (a contributor to "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump") explained. "A good-faith debate requires enough humility to acknowledge that we may not know everything and we could be wrong — a no-no for a narcissist who is convinced s/he is always right.

As Skolnik notes, Manchin himself previously blasted the filibuster, demolishing Ornstein's third myth. "We have become paralyzed by the filibuster and an unwillingness to work together at all, just because it's an election cycle," Manchin told the Charleston Daily Mail, in an article still posted on his Senate website. He even voted in favor of enforcing the "talking filibuster," even though it failed. If Manchin weren't such a narcissist, his past positions might be useful to argue against his current one. But not if he's convinced he's always right.

Besides, there are all those other senators who agree with him! (Who are almost all Republicans.) "Our collective narcissism [as a country] enables that of our Senate," Mika said. "It goes without saying that such an exceptional country will have an exceptional Senate and senators. Just spectacular and beyond reproach. Unlike anywhere else on Earth."

She continued: "I think this is a common delusion of grandeur of most, if not all, folks in power, and not just in the U.S. The higher one gets in the hierarchy of power, the more narcissistic one becomes, and the less in touch with reality. So much so that this narcissism turns psychopathic as it erases our capacity for empathy."

What is to be done?

With all that in mind, the question Goldstone focused on was simple: What can be done to get around Sinema and Manchin? He offered two ideas:

  1. Statehood for the District of Columbia, which will elect two Democratic senators, making Manchin and Sinema's votes no longer crucial.
  2. Offer a cabinet position to a Republican senator in a state with a Democratic governor. If they accept, the governor appoints a Democratic replacement.

That second proposition is wildly unlikely; in the current political climate, Republicans would never fall for it. But the first really shouldn't be. A new law review article argues that D.C. statehood should be seen as constitutionally required. Citing the 14th Amendment's Citizenship Clause, "as glossed by subsequent amendments," it argues: "All Americans living in the United States, including in D.C., are constitutionally entitled to claim state citizenship where they reside." Goldstone fears time could be running out:

There is a danger that, just as Arlington, Virginia, was once part of D.C. but returned to Virginia, that the GOP — if they take power — will change the "Capitol District" to just include the Mall/Capitol/White House federal lands, and seek to merge the rest of D.C. with Maryland, to end the D.C. statehood thing once and for all. I think it is imperative to try to bust the filibuster and get D.C. statehood now. But I don't think it will happen.

When Goldstone asked if I had any ideas, I mentioned Perry Bacon Jr.'s threefold strategy, starting with executive actions. Bacon called attention to the American Prospect's Day One Agenda, which I wrote about in November 2020. "The Biden administration has taken at least some action on about one-third of the 77 policies we outlined," the Prospect's David Dayen wrote last October. "But he has shied away from some of the more impactful ideas," such as canceling student debt for 42 million borrowers and giving millions more workers access to overtime pay.

Second, Bacon wrote, "Biden should use his informal power aggressively," articulating "a compelling vision for 2022 America and push[ing] the country toward it." He can "provide rhetorical support to the kinds of changes that he wants to see" and also "seek out righteous fights," such as "hold[ing] events with election administrators and school board members who have been threatened by Trumpian crazies for just doing their jobs."

Third, "Biden should leverage his popularity and influence in blue America," focusing on "getting key planks of his agenda adopted at the city and state levels wherever they can," such as robust paid leave, child care and pre-K programs. "If Biden wants to take on problems such as internet misinformation, gun violence and college affordability, he can have enormous influence just meeting with big-city mayors, university administrators and tech industry figures, almost all of whom likely support him."

In short, as Obama did in his final two years, Biden needs to shift attention away from Republican senators and their two narcissistic sidekicks and focus on folks who will work with him:

I want Biden to save his presidency for the good of the country, in particular for the people who voted for him. He should stand with them, defending their rights and doing whatever he can to improve their lives, instead of wasting more months courting Republicans, conservative Democrats … and voters who are never going to support him.

Imagining the long term

This is not an electoral solution, Bacon says. But at least it plants seeds for the long term, which is the timeframe Ian Hughes helps illuminate, including the question of how we got here in the first place. Returning to the problem of elites who "protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength," Hughes identified this as "part of the 'evil genius' of neoliberalism and the current social order":

[Margaret] Thatcher's revolution in the U.K. of encouraging everyone to buy their own home — as a means of ensuring everyone became a "stakeholder in society" — has resulted in the fact that the majority of people are now part of the "selfish elites" who resist any changes that threaten their private wealth.What has happened is that the majority have become stakeholders in their own private wealth at the expense of their contributions and commitment to collective society and public goods — including public services. And of course, the wealthier you are, the less reliant (and invested) you are on public services for health, education, security and so on. So the problem of "selfish elites" is not a problem with a minority (although there is clearly a very big problem with a small percentage of the ultra-wealthy because of their inordinate power). It is a problem of a substantial majority.

Here in America, George W. Bush pushed his vision of an "ownership society" at the beginning of his second term, with an initial focus on trying to privative Social Security. At the time, L. Randall Wray wrote a brief critique for the Levy Institute:

[T]he history of the Western world since the advent of liberalism has been marked by a gradual rise in the power of those who lack property. Some of the milestones in this progression include universal suffrage, regulation of business, and progressive taxation. Bush's ownership society proposals … would result in a partial reversal of the progress of the last 250 years. The reason is that, while Bush's plans would undoubtedly increase the choices and power of those who have property, they would fail to democratize ownership. Many gains to the wealthy would come at the expense of the poor, the sick, and the elderly.

In short, the rhetoric of ownership, freedom and choice can distract attention from the fact that, in reality, most people's everyday existence is becoming increasingly precarious. While this may remain more or less hidden for years, it becomes overwhelmingly obvious in times of crisis. The question of who is responsible all too easily becomes the subject of conspiracy theories, which narcissists and psychopaths excel at spinning out.

Hughes then responded to Goldstone's observation that "if the middle left and the middle right can work together, they keep the extremists marginalized," first made in 2020. It's only true "so long as the middle left and middle right are working together on policies and visions that can deliver for society," Hughes said. "The problem now, as Yeats would say, is that the center cannot hold":

This is true everywhere because of climate change and environmental destruction — our current carbon-based economic system is driving the planet to destruction. Our contemporary model of growth-driven unregulated exploitative capitalism has produced socially destabilizing levels of inequality and eroded democracy. And in the U.S. in particular, you need only to listen to cable news for 10 minutes to see how totally structurally dysfunctional the political system has become. To try to work from the center of that mess is to invest your efforts in a Herculean effort to stay on the road to destruction.

The most dangerous extremists right now are those who want to destroy democracy. There are no "both sides" in that struggle. The GOP has become an extremist anti-democracy party tapping into and stoking a wider anti-democracy movement. Trump was a symptom of that. He strengthened the anti-democracy faction of the GOP and made it respectable to be a fascist in America, so the problem of anti-democracy extremism is not going away. The problem is, there is no pro-democracy response with anything like the rage and intensity needed.

Finally, I asked Hughes to comment on the need to create a "new middle," one that did not seek to bully people into agreement, but could draw them into necessary conversations aimed at solving long-neglected problems. He replied:

Amitav Ghosh has a wonderful image for what is happening globally right now. Under normal circumstances, Ghosh says, we are able to ignore large parts of reality — poverty far away or out of sight, the warming of the planet that hasn't yet impacted us, the destruction of nature in far-away places, and so on. With these things safely hidden away, we can construct a narrative of our lives that is understandable, predictable, comfortable.

But with climate change, the impacts of the vast inequalities we have created, the hollowing out of our democracies, all of these neglected issues are rushing in from the background and crashing in upon us, destroying our cozy narratives. In such circumstances we need new "extremists" — visionaries who can see the world as it could be, activists whose lives are devoted to common good and not private wealth, agitators who remind us that our current systems of economics, politics, gender, militarism are deeply broken. We need, first and foremost, to recognize that the systems that make up our current civilization are finished. Only then can we start to build back better.

It may help to reflect on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema one last time. Their contrast with Biden — himself a life-long embodiment of centrism — is instructive. Biden had to shift his thinking, more in some ways than in others, in order to become a viable presidential candidate in 2020. Along with many other establishment Democrats, he proved that such adaptation was possible, without repeating many of the mistakes of the Obama era.

Blind spots remain, to be sure: There are failures of messaging, issue-framing and engagement with the progressive grassroots, which have left Biden and his party vulnerable not just to right-wing attacks but to anti-democratic "centrist" obstruction. But we can hope that the need to learn has been learned. Because Hughes is right: The center, as conventional politics understands it, cannot hold. A new center must be created.

Manchin and Sinema are wrecking America — here's how to beat them

By opposing filibuster reform — thereby blocking voting rights protections — and Joe Biden's Build Back Better package, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have dramatically increased the odds that Republicans will take back both the House and Senate in 2022. More important still, Republicans may also entrench state-level autocratic power that could effectively subvert the 2024 presidential election. These two "centrists" haven't just weakened the Democratic Party, they've severely threatened the future of American democracy.

Yes, there's a dominant media narrative that blames all the Democrats' problems on progressives, but as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said recently on MSNBC's "11th Hour," it isn't progressives who have controlled the agenda as Biden's approval ratings have collapsed:

Biden has governed pretty much exactly the way they have asked him to. But the problem is that the way they have asked him to govern has been to slow down, not do too much, and we are now seeing the political consequences of not directly improving people's lives quickly.

Leaving aside Biden's relative neglect of executive action, no one has done more to slow things down than Manchin and Sinema, neither of whom has been transparent or consistent about what they want. In the Guardian, Robert Reich accurately identifies out-of-control egotism as a large part of the problem:

Before February of last year, almost no one outside West Virginia had heard of Manchin and almost no one outside Arizona (and probably few within it) had ever heard of Sinema.
Now, they're notorious. They're Washington celebrities. Their photos grace every major news outlet in America.
This sort of attention is addictive…. Once addicted, the pathologically narcissistic politician can become petty in the extreme, taking every slight as a deep personal insult.

These aren't just two willful individuals, as Reich makes clear: their narcissism is structurally fueled by how the Senate and the national media work. They illustrate America's structural political constraints in combination with both individual and collective narcissism.

America prides itself on being the world's oldest democracy, but given our institutional rigidity and reluctance to learn from others, that actually means our system is archaic and outdated. Many states borrowed from Switzerland and added the initiative process over a century ago, for example. But we've never even considered a federal version. The record is even worse with proportional representation, which is standard in many other countries and barely even visible here.

Far from being a beacon to the world of successful self-government, America offers a case study of failure. We're the only country in the world where mass shootings happen so regularly that only the special ones make national news, for example. But it's foolish to even dream of the Senate doing anything about it, even though universal background checks were supported by 84% to 89% in polls last year. We're almost the only country in the world without paid family leave, which two polls last October found 70% and 73% support for, at around the same time Manchin publicly nixed it from Build Back Better. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices had 83% support in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in early October, about a month before Sinema torpedoed the Democrats' efforts to include it in Build Back Better.

It's a systemic problem

This isn't just about a few high-profile examples, deeply troubling as they should be. The problem is systemic. A 2014 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page covered 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 where public opinion could be matched to a clear policy outcome, and they found that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence." Their study gave rise to a flurryof stories characterizing America as an oligarchy, echoing Occupy Wall Street's critique of the 1%.

A more extensive follow-up study by Matt Grossmann, Zuhaib Mahmood and William Isaac painted a more nuanced picture, finding that "affluent influence does not arise through control of both political parties." Specifically:

The Republican Party and business interests are aligned across all issue areas and are more often aligned with the opinions of the richest Americans (especially on economic policy). Democrats more often represent middle class opinions and are uniformly aligned with advocacy groups.

So there's hope. But "more often" isn't good enough, as the current situation with Manchin and Sinema makes clear. And America remains far from being a truly healthy democracy.

"We have status-quo-biased institutions that limit (even popular) policymaking without bipartisan support and wide interest group support," Grossmann told me via email. "People sometimes blame this on the Democratic leadership, but Democrats regularly back liberal policy changes supported by the middle class, even if they don't pass."

As David Dayen wrote in October, in an article aptly titled, "The Case for Deliverism": "You cannot talk about the same popular items, fail to deliver on them, and expect the voting public to keep listening to you." For political scientists like Grossmann, there's a significant difference between the picture Gilens and Page presented and the one he and his colleagues have found. But for the ordinary voter, that's barely visible.

"Democrats are closer than ever to supporting institutional changes that would make the status quo more vulnerable," Grossmann said, "but they would probably need a sustained large national majority (that isn't forthcoming) to implement them because many of the pivotal elections are on conservative ground."

That's why Manchin and Sinema's obstructionism is so crucial: They're blocking even the possibility of building that Democratic majority. And their insistence on the need for bipartisanship as a transcendental virtue gives oligarchs a de facto veto. They talk in terms of building a broader consensus, but only within bounds set by the GOP and the forces of Big Capital, which is why popular policies like paid leave and negotiated drug prices get tossed overboard. This so-called consensus has been neglecting America's true needs for decades, if not generations.

When "consensus" is destructive

For a critical perspective on that consensus I reached out to two long-term thinkers, historian Jack Goldstone, author of the 1991 book, "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World," which fundamentally changed our understanding of revolutions and the sources of political instability, and Ian Hughes, author of "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy."

Goldstone's book highlights the problem of "selfish elites" who "protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength," as a troubling parallel to the preconditions of the French Revolution, the English Civil War and similar examples of state breakdown. Hughes in turn sees that problem as a driving force in the neoliberal order that's dominated our politics for almost 40 years.

To understand why revolutions happen at some times, but not others, Goldstone developed a model that combines measures of demographically-driven social stress from the mass population, the elites and the state to produce a single number, the "political stress indicator." State breakdown — and subsequent revolution — only occurs when that rises to dramatically high levels, as it is doing in America today.

Just weeks after Biden's 2020 victory seemed to provide an opportunity to change that trajectory, I interviewed Goldstone, who held out the hope that Biden and Republicans might be able to work together:

If Mitch McConnell works with moderate Democrats to move away from the cliff, that will strengthen the moderate Democrats and reduce the power of the more radical or progressive wing, because the moderates will be getting more done.

That's clearly not how things have unfolded, so I reached out by email to see how his thinking had changed. "Things have deteriorated," he told me, but said he didn't find fault in the center. Democrats "should not have rushed a second impeachment [of Donald Trump] that was highly unlikely to yield a conviction," and progressives sabotaged Biden "by holding up the infrastructure bill for months while waiting for an unattainable Senate majority for their Build Back Better wish list."

I disagreed, but after some back-and-forth we found points of consensus, It's not centrism per se that's the problem, I argued, but the relative question: "Centrism compared to what?" Republican radicalization has created special conditions, given the nature of the U.S. political system, where the logic of "strengthening the middle" simply doesn't apply. Instead, a new middle has to be created.

In some cases, centrism can be harmful, Goldstone agreed:

I used to say this when Barack Obama was negotiating with the GOP. As the smartest guy in the room, he would identify the reasonable compromise position that a rational GOP would take with regard to the Democratic position and use that as his goal for negotiations. But that was unrealistic, because he was not dealing with a rational GOP, but an obstructionist GOP. When he tried to identify a reasonable middle ground, they saw that as a major concession and tried to jerk him further. It would have been better to start with his desired goal, hold out for as much as possible and concede as little as possible. Centrism just hurt his position.

I also agree that Sinema and Manchin may be motivated by outmoded ideas of centrism at best, and by selfish stubbornness based on ego at worst. But I don't much care why they are blocking Biden's program, I just want Biden to find some way to twist their arms to get an agreement.

You are right that centrism is pernicious — on climate change, a "compromise" position that makes token efforts to reduce greenhouse gases is not "prudent"; it is more akin to suicide. … My anxiety is that our whole political system is built on the need to find compromise and build broad coalitions among diverse views. It's not a parliamentary system, where a prime minister can command his party and always has a majority (or loses office).

How narcissism makes this worse

The need to find compromise and build broad coalitions is profoundly complicated by bad actors like Manchin and Sinema, who seem to be nurtured by collective narcissism, the belief that one's in-group is unique and exceptional. The Senate, which reflexively thinks of itself as "the world's greatest deliberative body," positively wallows in collective narcissism, so absorbed in preserving its supposed traditions its members seem incapable of seeing the broader destruction of democratic norms and practices sweeping the country outside their chamber.

As he argued against filibuster reform, Manchin proudly stood beside a large poster proclaiming his central argument: "The United States Senate has NEVER been able to end debate with a SIMPLE MAJORITY," which as Jon Skolnik noted here, is ridiculously false. Surely he must know this, as Skolnik pointed out:

The last three Supreme Court nominees — Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — were all confirmed with a simple majority … In fact, Manchin himself was the 51st senator to back Kavanaugh, single-handedly ending debate on the scandal-plagued judge's confirmation.

But many of Manchin's fellow senators believe such nonsense. It's part of their collective narcissistic delusion. In early January, Norman Ornstein wrote an op-ed demolishing "Five myths about the filibuster," of which Manchin's was No. 1. The others were:

  • The framers feared "the tyranny of the majority."
  • The filibuster fosters moderation and cooperation.
  • Keeping the filibuster now will preserve it in the future.
  • A rule change would make the Senate just like the House.

Ornstein isn't the first to refute these myths, but senators like Manchin simply ignore the refutations, because their narcissism and privileged position enable them to. The senate is an exalted body! Why should its members care what anyone else thinks?

Narcissists often fixate on ideas, presumed facts or proclaimed principles that no one else is allowed to criticize or challenge. They refuse to engage in a back-and-forth discussion, much less a good-faith debate. The reason is straightforward, therapist and author Elizabeth Mika (a contributor to "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump") explained. "A good-faith debate requires enough humility to acknowledge that we may not know everything and we could be wrong — a no-no for a narcissist who is convinced s/he is always right.

As Skolnik notes, Manchin himself previously blasted the filibuster, demolishing Ornstein's third myth. "We have become paralyzed by the filibuster and an unwillingness to work together at all, just because it's an election cycle," Manchin told the Charleston Daily Mail, in an article still posted on his Senate website. He even voted in favor of enforcing the "talking filibuster," even though it failed. If Manchin weren't such a narcissist, his past positions might be useful to argue against his current one. But not if he's convinced he's always right.

Besides, there are all those other senators who agree with him! (Who are almost all Republicans.) "Our collective narcissism [as a country] enables that of our Senate," Mika said. "It goes without saying that such an exceptional country will have an exceptional Senate and senators. Just spectacular and beyond reproach. Unlike anywhere else on Earth."

She continued: "I think this is a common delusion of grandeur of most, if not all, folks in power, and not just in the U.S. The higher one gets in the hierarchy of power, the more narcissistic one becomes, and the less in touch with reality. So much so that this narcissism turns psychopathic as it erases our capacity for empathy."

What is to be done?

With all that in mind, the question Goldstone focused on was simple: What can be done to get around Sinema and Manchin? He offered two ideas:

  1. Statehood for the District of Columbia, which will elect two Democratic senators, making Manchin and Sinema's votes no longer crucial.
  2. Offer a cabinet position to a Republican senator in a state with a Democratic governor. If they accept, the governor appoints a Democratic replacement.

That second proposition is wildly unlikely; in the current political climate, Republicans would never fall for it. But the first really shouldn't be. A new law review article argues that D.C. statehood should be seen as constitutionally required. Citing the 14th Amendment's Citizenship Clause, "as glossed by subsequent amendments," it argues: "All Americans living in the United States, including in D.C., are constitutionally entitled to claim state citizenship where they reside." Goldstone fears time could be running out:

There is a danger that, just as Arlington, Virginia, was once part of D.C. but returned to Virginia, that the GOP — if they take power — will change the "Capitol District" to just include the Mall/Capitol/White House federal lands, and seek to merge the rest of D.C. with Maryland, to end the D.C. statehood thing once and for all. I think it is imperative to try to bust the filibuster and get D.C. statehood now. But I don't think it will happen.

When Goldstone asked if I had any ideas, I mentioned Perry Bacon Jr.'s threefold strategy, starting with executive actions. Bacon called attention to the American Prospect's Day One Agenda, which I wrote about in November 2020. "The Biden administration has taken at least some action on about one-third of the 77 policies we outlined," the Prospect's David Dayen wrote last October. "But he has shied away from some of the more impactful ideas," such as canceling student debt for 42 million borrowers and giving millions more workers access to overtime pay.

Second, Bacon wrote, "Biden should use his informal power aggressively," articulating "a compelling vision for 2022 America and push[ing] the country toward it." He can "provide rhetorical support to the kinds of changes that he wants to see" and also "seek out righteous fights," such as "hold[ing] events with election administrators and school board members who have been threatened by Trumpian crazies for just doing their jobs."

Third, "Biden should leverage his popularity and influence in blue America," focusing on "getting key planks of his agenda adopted at the city and state levels wherever they can," such as robust paid leave, child care and pre-K programs. "If Biden wants to take on problems such as internet misinformation, gun violence and college affordability, he can have enormous influence just meeting with big-city mayors, university administrators and tech industry figures, almost all of whom likely support him."

In short, as Obama did in his final two years, Biden needs to shift attention away from Republican senators and their two narcissistic sidekicks and focus on folks who will work with him:

I want Biden to save his presidency for the good of the country, in particular for the people who voted for him. He should stand with them, defending their rights and doing whatever he can to improve their lives, instead of wasting more months courting Republicans, conservative Democrats … and voters who are never going to support him.

Imagining the long term

This is not an electoral solution, Bacon says. But at least it plants seeds for the long term, which is the timeframe Ian Hughes helps illuminate, including the question of how we got here in the first place. Returning to the problem of elites who "protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength," Hughes identified this as "part of the 'evil genius' of neoliberalism and the current social order":

[Margaret] Thatcher's revolution in the U.K. of encouraging everyone to buy their own home — as a means of ensuring everyone became a "stakeholder in society" — has resulted in the fact that the majority of people are now part of the "selfish elites" who resist any changes that threaten their private wealth.What has happened is that the majority have become stakeholders in their own private wealth at the expense of their contributions and commitment to collective society and public goods — including public services. And of course, the wealthier you are, the less reliant (and invested) you are on public services for health, education, security and so on. So the problem of "selfish elites" is not a problem with a minority (although there is clearly a very big problem with a small percentage of the ultra-wealthy because of their inordinate power). It is a problem of a substantial majority.

Here in America, George W. Bush pushed his vision of an "ownership society" at the beginning of his second term, with an initial focus on trying to privative Social Security. At the time, L. Randall Wray wrote a brief critique for the Levy Institute:

[T]he history of the Western world since the advent of liberalism has been marked by a gradual rise in the power of those who lack property. Some of the milestones in this progression include universal suffrage, regulation of business, and progressive taxation. Bush's ownership society proposals … would result in a partial reversal of the progress of the last 250 years. The reason is that, while Bush's plans would undoubtedly increase the choices and power of those who have property, they would fail to democratize ownership. Many gains to the wealthy would come at the expense of the poor, the sick, and the elderly.

In short, the rhetoric of ownership, freedom and choice can distract attention from the fact that, in reality, most people's everyday existence is becoming increasingly precarious. While this may remain more or less hidden for years, it becomes overwhelmingly obvious in times of crisis. The question of who is responsible all too easily becomes the subject of conspiracy theories, which narcissists and psychopaths excel at spinning out.

Hughes then responded to Goldstone's observation that "if the middle left and the middle right can work together, they keep the extremists marginalized," first made in 2020. It's only true "so long as the middle left and middle right are working together on policies and visions that can deliver for society," Hughes said. "The problem now, as Yeats would say, is that the center cannot hold":

This is true everywhere because of climate change and environmental destruction — our current carbon-based economic system is driving the planet to destruction. Our contemporary model of growth-driven unregulated exploitative capitalism has produced socially destabilizing levels of inequality and eroded democracy. And in the U.S. in particular, you need only to listen to cable news for 10 minutes to see how totally structurally dysfunctional the political system has become. To try to work from the center of that mess is to invest your efforts in a Herculean effort to stay on the road to destruction.

The most dangerous extremists right now are those who want to destroy democracy. There are no "both sides" in that struggle. The GOP has become an extremist anti-democracy party tapping into and stoking a wider anti-democracy movement. Trump was a symptom of that. He strengthened the anti-democracy faction of the GOP and made it respectable to be a fascist in America, so the problem of anti-democracy extremism is not going away. The problem is, there is no pro-democracy response with anything like the rage and intensity needed.


Finally, I asked Hughes to comment on the need to create a "new middle," one that did not seek to bully people into agreement, but could draw them into necessary conversations aimed at solving long-neglected problems. He replied:

Amitav Ghosh has a wonderful image for what is happening globally right now. Under normal circumstances, Ghosh says, we are able to ignore large parts of reality — poverty far away or out of sight, the warming of the planet that hasn't yet impacted us, the destruction of nature in far-away places, and so on. With these things safely hidden away, we can construct a narrative of our lives that is understandable, predictable, comfortable.
But with climate change, the impacts of the vast inequalities we have created, the hollowing out of our democracies, all of these neglected issues are rushing in from the background and crashing in upon us, destroying our cozy narratives. In such circumstances we need new "extremists" — visionaries who can see the world as it could be, activists whose lives are devoted to common good and not private wealth, agitators who remind us that our current systems of economics, politics, gender, militarism are deeply broken. We need, first and foremost, to recognize that the systems that make up our current civilization are finished. Only then can we start to build back better.

It may help to reflect on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema one last time. Their contrast with Biden — himself a life-long embodiment of centrism — is instructive. Biden had to shift his thinking, more in some ways than in others, in order to become a viable presidential candidate in 2020. Along with many other establishment Democrats, he proved that such adaptation was possible, without repeating many of the mistakes of the Obama era.

Blind spots remain, to be sure: There are failures of messaging, issue-framing and engagement with the progressive grassroots, which have left Biden and his party vulnerable not just to right-wing attacks but to anti-democratic "centrist" obstruction. But we can hope that the need to learn has been learned. Because Hughes is right: The center, as conventional politics understands it, cannot hold. A new center must be created.

Right-wing Christians launch an assault on public school. But parents are finding a secret weapon

"Masks are not healthy for most people. Just the bacteria that grows in them is causing more issues than any issues masks would prevent," Nicole Konz claimed in a Facebook post last February. On Nov. 2, she was elected to the school board of Academy District 20, near Colorado Springs, a district serving more than 23,000 students. It wasn't an accident. There was a lot of money and power behind her. And Konz wasn't alone.

The district's other new board member was Aaron Salt, already the board chair of a nearby charter academy, who said after his election, "We know that mask usage increases mental health problems and issues. ... That's not something that I'm willing to sacrifice." They were just two of 28 school board candidates elected across Colorado with the backing of a Christian nationalist organization — the Truth and Liberty Coalition (TLC) — whose ambitions are "national, international and eternal," as Frederick Clarkson wrote at Religion Dispatches.

Pandemic restrictions and the moral panic over "critical race theory" are the most recent hot-button recruiting tools integrated into a broader menu of carefully nurtured grievances reflected in TLC's five-issue "Christian Voter Guides," under the headings "Critical Race Theory," "Parental Rights," "Boys Playing Girl Sports" [sic], "Sex Education" and "Gender Identity Pronouns." What's missing is even the pretext of concern for academic content or achievement, budgeting or any other traditional responsibility of a school board.

Clarkson wrote that these school board races in Colorado "were the pilot project in a long-term campaign by the Truth and Liberty Coalition and its de facto training institute, nearby Charis Bible College, in Woodland Park, a suburb of Colorado Springs."

Andrew Wommak, who founded the unaccredited Bible college in 2014, co-founded TLC in 2017 along with Lance Wallnau, preeminent promoter of the "Seven Mountain Mandate," a manifesto for evangelical Christians to conquer and claim dominion over seven key facets of life: education, religion, family, business, government, entertainment and media. So while they claim to speak out as Christians and to express a broadly Christian worldview, they have something radically different in mind from anything America has ever known.

"The 'biblical worldview' is code for a theocratic or theonomic vision of society, in tension or at odds with secular institutions," Clarkson told Salon. "It's not the siloed issues. It's the whole enchilada."

Wallnau was also one of Donald Trump's earliest and most prominent evangelical endorsers. His book "God's Chaos Candidate" was published during the 2020 campaign, just a week before the "Access Hollywood" tape became public. One prominent TLC board member is the evangelical pseudo-historian David Barton, whose 2012 book "The Jefferson Lies," which claimed to debunk claims by legitimate historians about Thomas Jefferson's secular, pluralistic worldview, among other things, was recalled by its evangelical publisher for its numerous falsehoods. (The book was later republished by Glenn Beck, and sold very well to his far-right followers.)

TLC and its allies' ability to turn out agitated and misinformed voters in low-turnout elections is yet another ominous sign about the electoral landscape Democrats face in the 2022 midterms. In El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs, Republican turnout was 47.3%, compared to 37.6% for Democrats and 28.9% for independent voters.

This was not an isolated phenomenon. Clarkson writes that as in "past waves of fresh political action, there are other organizations doing similar things for similar reasons, often in close collaboration. Their impact is undoubtedly greater than the sum of their parts in the movement." He specifically cites a group called Church Voter Guides, launched earlier this year by Steve Holt, former pastor of a Colorado Springs megachurch, that targeted some of the same races. TLC issued a press release in early October promoting the voter guides of both groups, and casting the election as "a referendum on parental rights."

On the national level, Business Insider noted the involvement of the 1776 Project PAC, which won all 11 of its targeted Colorado school board races, and a majority of the 55 races it targeted nationwide — in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Kansas — focusing on the bogeyman of critical race theory. Clarkson also noted the existence of similar groups in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas, primarily reacting to school closures.

Clarkson also mentioned the "School Board Boot Camp" run by FRC Action, the political action arm of the Family Research Council. "Calling these trainings 'boot camps' and illustrating them with military boots," he said, "is consistent with the theme that they are in a war, and that it is more than metaphorical and is more than a little ominous, post-Jan. 6."

In an earlier "boot camp," held in June, FRC president Tony Perkins warned attendees, "We need to get worked up" about "what is happening across the nation, the indoctrination taking place." He related his first experience of so-called indoctrination: "In elementary school I had encountered one of those newly-minted leftist teachers that was a part of the left's long march through America's institutions, and began teaching the theory of evolution as fact," he recalled. "When I wouldn't yield to it, I found myself punished." He didn't say what the alleged punishment was.

This is how these people think: Teaching science that was revolutionary 160 years ago, but that undergirds all of biology today, is evidence of an organized leftist takeover of America's institutions — all of which need to be "taken back for God" (as in the "Seven Mountains Mandate"). Of course this requires a specific version of God, since many millions of Americans — including many evangelicals — have no trouble reconciling religion and science. For those who refuse to do that, any scientific advance whatever can potentially be construed as sinister heresy, and the more firmly the science is established, the more vast and sinister the Satanic plot must be. That's the basic conspiracy-theory logic that drives Perkins, his organization and a wide range of like-minded allies.

"The FRC boot camps reveal how the school board campaigns fit in the evolving coalition that constitutes the religious and business right in the age of Trump," Clarkson told Salon via email. "The June boot camp has presentations from inside-the-Beltway conservative think tankers as well as ostensibly grassroots parents' groups. While the Colorado campaigns appeared to focus on evangelicals, the June boot camp also features Mary Hasson, a conservative Catholic from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, underscoring the Catholic dimension of the historic and evolving coalition."

A presentation by a Virginia parents' group at a different post-election boot camp "mentioned an alliance with a Patriot group, Bedford County Patriots," he said. "We saw a similar alliance in Colorado as well."

That was a reference to another group, FEC United ("Faith, Education, and Commerce") that drew significant local media attention, particularly from the Colorado Springs Independent, where Heidi Beedle reported that "FEC United has organized protests against masks, vaccines and critical race theory at school board meetings across the Front Range. [Founder Joe] Oltmann has stated on his podcast, Conservative Daily, that teachers are 'recruiting kids to be gay' and that LGBTQ teachers should be 'dragged behind a car until their limbs fall off.'"

Beedle also reported that FEC United's board of directors included John Tiegen, "a Marine veteran and Benghazi survivor who was at a sniper position during a speech given by UCCS professor Stephany Rose Spaulding in June 2020. Tiegen is also the head of FEC United's armed wing, United American Defense Force."

Then there's the dark money. In late October, NBC affiliate KOAA reported the influx of $130,000 in dark money from Colorado Springs Forward to the Springs Opportunity Fund, which spent massively in all three districts targeted by TLC. But final figures from the Colorado secretary of state went much higher. Slate advertising in support of Konz, Salt, and incumbent board member Thomas LaValley eventually totaled $132,411, while spending in all districts exceeded $350,000.

"They had robocalls, Google ads, text messaging ads, YouTube ads, and even Hulu and Discovery+ ads for conservative candidates throughout El Paso County," Rob Rogers, a core organizer with BIG FA$HION, a playfully-named parent's group active in Academy District 20, told Salon.

Even with this unprecedented level of outside influence, the situation on the ground was more fluid than the turnout numbers suggest. "If we would have had another month, I think that we would have seen some different results," said Bernadette Guthrie, another BIG FA$HION parent organizer. "What a passionate group of parents can do in a short amount of time was just awesome," said Lara Matisek, another core organizer.

"We went from going to parent-teacher conferences to jumping into the mix of starting a political expenditure committee and learning a lot like in the process," Rogers added.

TLC targeted 17 school districts across the state, with its success heavily concentrated in the Colorado Springs area (nine seats in three districts) and nearby Woodland Park (four seats in one district), which is home to Wommak's church and college, plus three seats each in the town of Elizabeth and the western Colorado city of Grand Junction.

Elsewhere its results were mixed, but in this case, "success elsewhere cannot be measured entirely by the score," Clarkson noted, pointing specifically to how TLC;s voter guides and candidate framed the races around a set of five culture-war issues and away from "the traditional wonkery of school budgets, curricula, and test scores."

This aligns with a decades-old agenda of attacking public education, according to Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism," and "The Good News Club," an examination of the religious right's efforts to infiltrate and undermine public education. It also makes sense of the prominent role played by anti-mask and anti-vaccine hysteria.

The "division and chaos" this kind of political activity "provokes in public schools and at school board meetings is not an unintended consequence," Stewart told Salon. "It is precisely the point, and it is of a piece with the movement's longstanding hostility to public education. The Rev. Jerry Falwell made the agenda clear in 1979 when he wrote, 'I hope to see the day when there are no more public schools. Churches will have taken them over and Christians will be running them.'" That aptly describes the Truth and Liberty Coalition's agenda today.

But it's only one facet of that agenda. "The religious right's animosity toward public education is just one part of a general assault on the foundations of modern liberal democracy," Stewart said. "Undermining confidence in our public institutions, in science and critical thinking, and in the social compact that public schools represent is a way of delegitimizing the process of rational policymaking. The growth of irrationalism and anti-intellectualism in education and in society lets powerful religious and economic leaders, along with their political allies, pretend that they represent the will of the people even as they advance their own interests."

That "concerted and organized effort to tear down public education" was a shocking discovery, the Colorado Springs organizer Rob Rogers said. Stewart observed that it may be shocking but is nothing new:

In certain conservative circles, the phrase "government schools" has become as ubiquitous as it is contemptuous. It is characteristic of a movement with longstanding hostility to public education, a hostility with deep roots. The Reconstructionist theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony, whose ideas influenced a number of movement leaders, took an attack on modern democratic government right to the schoolhouse door. His 1963 book, "The Messianic Character of American Education," argued that the "government school" represented "primitivism" and "chaos." Public education, he said, "basically trains women to be men" and "has leveled its guns at God and family."

The Colorado Springs school board races provide a microcosm of how this is playing out today. "The word 'unprecedented' is used a lot. I don't think this is anything compared to what we've seen in the past," organizer Guthrie said. "Instead of hearing about real issues, in terms of testing scores and mental health in schools, violence in schools and teacher shortages, instead of hearing about real issues that plague our district, the local news cycle was masks and critical race theory. There was no real talk of any real issues by the seven self-proclaimed conservative candidates. To try to overcome that and consistently change the conversation and reroute it to the real issues was something we struggled with throughout the entire process."

The church voters guide in Colorado Springs "was heavily, heavily an influencer" in the school board races, Rogers said. Its influence "was really hard for us to overcome," Guthrie agreed. "It was heavily distributed through all the church communities, targeted at an older, conservative, retiree population who don't even have kids in the schools…. It was really difficult for us overcome."

To explain the depth of dishonesty, BIG FA$HION organizers put me in touch with Brian Coram, a Colorado Springs real estate agent and former counselor who ran for school board in the recent election. The guide's five issues were labeled, as mentioned above, as "Critical Race Theory," "Parental Rights," "Boys Playing Girl Sports," "Sex Education" and "Gender Identity Pronouns," with each candidate's position described simply as "agree," "disagree" or "refused." But those simplistic terms had little relationship to the actual questions asked, as Coram explained.

The issue of "Critical Race Theory" was defined in the Church Voter Guide in relation to a declarative statement: "The United States is systemically and fundamentally racist, and students should be educated on white privilege and the unfair benefits that it generates." But that wasn't what Coram, who is Black, was asked in an early phone interview.

"The first question they asked was, 'Is America systematically racist?' he recalled. "My response to that was, 'Yes, absolutely, 100%. And here's why. I work in real estate. There's a thing called redlining. We know what that is. We know how the process works. We also know that even if we're not doing it today America builds on that foundation and therefore, as a system, it started as a racist system. Does that mean that we are still there? No, it doesn't. Do I still think we have issues? Of course. That's not the important part. You asked the question, I answered the question." His answer was summarized in the guide as "Does endorse CRT," although that was never discussed.

Equally problematic was the issue of "Parental rights," which functioned as de facto code for objecting to mask mandates, but not of course for parents' rights to protect their children from COVID. But the specific wording contained other trapdoors.

"I remember one of the questions being, 'Should parents always be informed of any medical decisions that the school makes for the children?'" Coram recalled. "I answered that question with, 'OK, so hold on, I have a background in social work. So you're telling me that if a kid comes into school with a bunch of bruises and whatnot and all that stuff, you're going to call the parent, who could in fact be the abuser, and say, 'Hey, we're going to do this,' and they'll go, 'Oh no, don't do that, I'll come get him,' and then they end up murdering that kid. Because that's what happens. I worked in social work. I've seen that before."

The interviewer objected, saying that wasn't what they were asking. But "any medical decisions" was in the original question, and Coram's response was labeled "refused." Regarding sex education, "What they asked was, 'Should sex education be abstinence-only?'" Coram recalled. "They did not say age-appropriate." The voter guide language added another layer of deception, framing the issue as "Sex education should be age appropriate, emphasizing the abstinence-based model."

In sharp contrast to TLC, BIG FA$HION's voter guides were completely unedited and transparent. (See Coram's here.) "We invited all candidates to participate and we told them their responses would be unedited, unaltered, submitted with screenshots of what was said so they didn't have any worries about us editing things out or putting things in," said Lara Matisek. None of the seven self-described conservative candidates responded. "It was very telling that they did not want to participate," she said. "Hundreds of parents wanted these questions answered that were never answered with the church voter guide."

The voter guides weren't the only resource TLC provided. They also had a whole webpage of links to voter tools, including "Worldview Resources" from My Faith Votes, which includes a series of short videos purporting to explain what the Bible has to say about a series of questions, such as border control and immigration, abortion and gun control.

Given that guns weren't invented until at least a thousand years later, you might conclude that the Bible doesn't have much to say about them, and you'd be correct. The Bible is also silent on abortion, although practiced and skillful cherry-picking is at work. On the subject of immigration, you might expect to find the famous passages from Exodus 22:21: "You shall not oppress a stranger nor torment him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" or Leviticus 19:34: "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself" or, for that matter, Matthew 25:35: "I was a stranger and you invited me in."

Nope, there's none of that. Instead we get, "Romans chapter 13 verses one through seven says there that the laws that have been given to us as a nation have been given to us by God and that those who are called to enforce those laws are actually ministers of God's righteousness. So we are to obey the laws that exist."

That's pretty much it: Exactly the same logic used to defend slavery — which, to be fair, has considerably more biblical support than do bans on abortion or restrictions on immigration. In short, the worldview here has very little to do with what's in the Bible. It's a charade, at best, or as Clarkson said, it's "code for a theocratic or theonomic vision of society in tension or at odds with secular institutions."

If secular liberals and progressives are to successfully fight back, they need to understand what they're up against. But they also need to understand their own strengths, which brings us back to BIG FA$HION and how they got their name.

"The one thing that has kept us going and helped us to sustain momentum is that we find humor in pretty much everything we do," Matisek said. "When all the 'Unmask our kids' stuff was going on, we had partaken in some commentary on social media: 'Yeah, you know, we don't want to mask the kids. We shouldn't even be pantsing them! Unpants Colorado, while we're at it! Who needs pants in school?' So BIG FA$HION kind of got its name from some commentary we were doing."

Their opponents frequently claimed that Big Pharma was behind COVID restrictions and vaccine mandates, Guthrie explained, "So the joke that got legs and ran off was that Big Fashion was trying to keep us all wearing pants."

This spontaneous playfulness in response to right-wing manufactured outrage reminded me of Dannagal Goldthwaite Young's book "Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States" (Salon interviews here and here). As she explains, the left can never realistically hope to match the right's capacity to generate outrage, even in response to blatant efforts to steal elections and overthrow democracy. What can help empower progressives to save themselves is a shared capacity to laugh at the absurd rather than be imprisoned by it — a capacity to mock those who would make a mockery of democracy. We will need as much of that ability to laugh as we can manage.

This legal scholar argues the Constitution gives Congress a duty to overrule anti-democratic state law

The past decade has seen voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering grow dramatically worse, while the Supreme Court has undercut efforts to fight back through litigation — both by striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and by declaring that partisan gerrymandering is not a matter for the courts. But the courts aren't the only avenue for protecting America against democratic erosion. Congress has a key role as well — in fact, it has an urgent duty to act, according to a recent article about the U.S. Constitution's "Guarantee Clause" by Carolyn Shapiro, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Democrats in the Senate are reluctant to act, because that would mean altering or ditching the antiquated filibuster, which has been tinkered with repeatedly before. What they haven't taken seriously, at least so far, is the constitutional obligation enshrined in the Guarantee Clause, a topic also recently addressed by New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie: "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government."

For more than a century, courts have refused to act on this clause, viewing it as a "nonjusticiable" political question. As Shapiro notes in the abstract of her paper, "many see the Clause as purely vestigial." She continues: "But nonjusticiable does not mean toothless, and this view fails to recognize the Clause's grant of power to Congress," which the framers included, she argues, "because they feared that some forms of government, such as monarchy, were incompatible with republicanism, which they understood as representative self-government."

Those fears "appear prescient" in light of the democratic erosion we're seeing now, Shapiro argues: "Fortunately, the Guarantee Clause allows — indeed, requires — Congress to address these antidemocratic state-level practices."

Shapiro's case amounts to the claim that congressional action on this issue is a crucial constitutional duty, clarified and reinforced by our history, which has seen the meaning of "republican" government evolve, even as the core rationale remains the same. This dual reality — an evolving meaning with a stable rationale — illustrates the logic of living constitutionalism and the folly of "originalism," while the plain language of the Guarantee Clause refutes the right-wing trope that "states' rights" must be seen as the antidote to a tyrannical federal government. The danger of state-level tyranny was clearly recognized by the Constitution's authors.

The need for such action has never been more urgent, as reflected in a recent statement by more than 150 scholars of American democracy, calling on Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, "if necessary by suspending the Senate filibuster rule," and warning that if it fails to act, "American democracy will be at critical risk." Shapiro casts things in an even sharper light by elucidating the constitutional duty — which was vigorously fulfilled by the Reconstruction-era Congress, even before passage of the 14th and 15th amendments. Salon recently asked Shapiro to explore her argument in depth. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The Guarantee Clause promises that the United States "shall guarantee to every state in the Union a Republican form of government." That part of the Constitution gets relatively little attention. Why does it deserve our attention now?

Well, it deserves our attention because it was created, in part, for a moment like the moment we're in, where we have movement away from compatible forms of government between the states. The "republican form of government" is a very broad term, it can mean a lot of different things at different moments in history.

But the framers were very worried that there would be certain forms of government that would just be incompatible with each other, and that the country would fall apart. A situation we are in now — where we have some states that do not appear to be committed to democracy, and are working to undermine democracy in some pretty significant ways — that's exactly the kind of situation that the Guarantee Clause speaks to.

You write that "making sense of the Guarantee Clause today requires recognizing that republicanism means something broader and more democratic than it did at the founding." So, first of all, what's the core meaning that's still applicable? And how has it broadened and changed?

At the founding, the idea of republicanism was actually quite malleable. The real vision of republicanism had to do with trying to prevent corruption, prevent anarchy, to promote virtue, in a way that political thinkers thought of as being similar to the Roman and Greek republics, which is where the term republicanism comes from. They had very different ideas about what that might look like. So, in Britain, they thought it could be compatible with monarchy, whereas in what became the United States, that was absolutely rejected as a possibility.

There were some core features of republicanism, and one of them was representative democracy, with some level of representation by whoever they consider to be the people. Of course, we think of "the people" today as much broader than they did at the time. But that came out of this desire to promote virtue and prevent anarchy, and try to prevent corruption among leaders — that there was always a danger of self-interest getting in the way. So you wanted to promote virtue among the leaders, among the people who were making decisions on behalf of the people. And one way to do that was to make those leaders answerable to the people.

So how has that broadened and changed?

We would not today consider what they saw at the founding as representative democracy. At the founding, only white men, and in many places only white men who were property owners, were allowed to vote, and that continued well into the 19th century in some states. Rhode Island had extremely restrictive franchise rules well up until the 1840s. So we wouldn't recognize that as a kind of representative democracy.

The other piece of what is important about the Guarantee Clause has to do with this idea of a structural guarantee — that it's about making sure that we can be a cohesive country. There are limits to what can happen in one state without it affecting the governance in another state and the cohesion between states.

You can see that with what happened with slavery. At the founding, there were people who were against slavery, but there was a general acceptance that it might be at least possible or even likely that we could have a country where slavery was legal in some states and illegal in other states. What happened over time is that it became clear that was untenable. In order to enforce slavery in the slave states, it was impossible for the free state to protect their own people. It was impossible for the free states to have their own laws.

We saw that in cases like Prigg v. Pennsylvania, where slave-catchers could come into a free state and abduct people, including people who were born free in Pennsylvania, and say, "Well we own these people, and we're going to take them back to Maryland," and there was nothing Pennsylvania could do, even with a law that says you can't kidnap people, even under claim of ownership. So slavery became inconsistent with national cohesion, and at the same time with republicanism, because it undermines the whole notion of a functioning representative democracy.

You write that "the story often told is that the Framers were determined to protect the states from the federal government, or the parts from the whole, in order to protect against tyranny" but that in fact the protections "run in several directions." How should the Guarantee Clause be understood in this context?

It's in a part of the Constitution that generally talks about those relationships. It includes a variety of different promises that the federal government is making to the states, not just a guarantee of a republican form of government — for example, a guarantee of protection against invasion. There's this promise that if New York invades Pennsylvania, the federal government will aid Pennsylvania. It's about trying to find that balance in doing something quite new, in having this country made up of sovereign states that have given up a fair amount of their sovereignty, and in exchange are getting these promises.

In your paper you talk about the "spillover effects" that laws in one state can cause in others. Can you explain what those are and why they're such a concern?

Spillover effects is a concept not necessarily related to the question of a "republican form of government." That arises from the notion that sometimes things decided upon by the government of one state can have negative — or, for that matter, positive — effects in another state. So, the easiest one to think about is pollution. If I'm in a state with not much regulation of pollution and we're throwing a lot of stuff into the water and it's going downstream into the next state, the next state is experiencing, quite literally, a negative spillover effect.

But it's not limited to pollution, that's just the easiest concrete example. What I argue in the paper — and this is not my idea, it comes out of the work of many other scholars on democratic decline — is that there can be a negative feedback loop related to anti-democratic or pro-authoritarian impulses. So if one state is bound and determined to not allow a certain set of people to vote, or is going to gerrymander its legislature in such a way that it is highly unrepresentative, that has effects that go beyond that state itself.

Some of those effects are kind of literal: That gerrymandered legislature, in turn, is going to gerrymander the congressional delegation, which is going to affect everybody in the country, for example, through how they choose their presidential electoral votes. But the democracy scholars talk about the tit-for-tat situation that develops over time, where states begin to respond to each other: "Well, the other side is doing this. If they're gerrymandering so extremely, then we better do the same," for example. That can really devolve into an anti-democratic spiral, which I think we're seeing.

You argue that the Guarantee Clause "may require a federal legislative response to state-level actions when they threaten antidemocratic spillovers" — not just "justify" but "require," you say. Why should we see it this way?

Well, it's a guarantee. It's a promise. It's not an enforceable requirement. You can't go to court and make Congress do it. But I think it is an appropriate way of thinking about the clause. "Guarantee" is a big word. It's not like you know, "the United States shall facilitate," or "shall promote." It says "guarantee," and I think thinking about the reasons behind such a promise is so important.

I don't think it's to be taken lightly. I don't think that I would support an argument that the Guarantee Clause allows Congress to come in and do anything it wants in restructuring state government. I don't think that's what it says at all. I think it's specifically about the kind of danger that we are currently facing.

Obviously there's room for debate, and there would be judgment calls about exactly when we're in such a situation, and what types of responses are justified. But I don't think that changes the reality that this promise is premised on the challenge of having a diverse country, even though the diversity at the time of the founding was very different. There was still worry about different states not respecting their place as coequal states, coequal members of this new country, that there could be expansionist tyrannical efforts to overtake other states' interests. I think that fairly describes a lot of what we're seeing today.

The Guarantee Clause was largely unused before the Civil War, as you discuss. What lessons can we draw from that time period?

We can draw a number of lessons. One is that if it's unused, of course, it's not very meaningful. We can see it was unused for reasons that were not necessarily very good. I talk in the paper about some of the reasons why, in the most crucial moment, around the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island — when the president was approached and Congress was approached and then later, the Supreme Court was asked to weigh in — there really was resistance to doing anything. Many historians think that was in part because the slaveowners and the slave states understood the Guarantee Clause as a threat to them. Because if it was taken seriously, it was not going to be possible to reconcile a republican form of government with slavery. And abolitionists in the 19th century were making this argument, they were arguing that's what the Guarantee Clause had to mean.

So there was great reluctance on the part of the Supreme Court, which was dominated by justices from slave states — some of them slaveowners themselves — and from the president at the time, who was from the South, to do anything that might open the door to relying on the Guarantee Clause to undermine slavery.

The Civil War obviously brought about a sea change, but the role of the Guarantee Clause is usually obscured in that history. What should we know about that?

The Reconstruction Congress relied on the Guarantee Clause to do a number of things before they enacted or sent to the states the 14th and 15th amendments. For example, they refused to seat delegations from some states unless and until they thought the states complied with having the type of government that they considered to meet the Guarantee Clause requirements. That meant things like universal male suffrage — and that was before the 15th Amendment was ratified. So they saw the Guarantee Clause as a crucial piece of undoing slavery, just as the slaveowners had worried that it would be. So it's very consistent.

But ultimately when the 14th and 15th amendments were ratified, a lot of attention, understandably, shifted to those amendments. One of the arguments I make is that an unanticipated consequence of those amendments has been that a lot of the debate we have about voting and election law is bound up in those amendments, which are really understood to provide individual rights and protect people's individual rights, whereas the Guarantee Clause is not about that. As I've argued, it's a guarantee about the relationship between the states. Even though the 14th and 15th amendments on the one hand and the Guarantee Clause on the other may address very similar concerns, they do so in a very different kind of way.

That leads into my next question, about how things have developed since the post-Civil War era. One was that shift of focus, but you also talk about the development of our national identity as a democracy. What's important about this for us today?

I think it's important for a couple of reasons. One is that the more cohesive we are as a country, both in terms of political culture and national identity, but also in terms of how the federal government operates in general — it is a much more significant force than it was at the founding — all speak to the potential dangers of the negative spillover effects that the Guarantee Clause was designed to address. So it's not necessarily better or worse. It's different.

I talk about how people today, as a general matter, are more likely to identify as Americans than, say, Illinoisians. I talk about how with massive immigration, with massive internal migration — where people are really moving from state to state but maintain connections with people in other states — the distinct state cultures which were very important at the founding have fallen away. And of course we have technology and an ability to travel that completely eclipses anything that was the case at the time. In essence, we function much more as a single political entity than we did at the founding.

At the same time, the history of the country is a history of moving towards increased democracy. Even in the 19th century, when you start to have people in Rhode Island during the Dorr Rebellion, say, "No, it's not OK for only men who have $134 worth of property and their eldest sons to vote. Other people should be able to vote too." And it's not OK to have a state legislature so malapportioned that rural towns were able to dominate the increasingly populous cities in Rhode Island.

Now, that's long before the Supreme Court started weighing in, that was 120 years before the Supreme Court weighed in on "one person, one vote," it was before the 14th Amendment itself. But that's part of this ongoing trend, right through to the abolition of slavery, to the 14th amendment, the 15th amendment and the 19th amendment, all of these different amendments about expanding democracy. So there's an increased constitutional commitment to popular, representative democracy that really does allow for full participation among the citizenry. That's been a pretty consistent trend.

We didn't always live up to it. The end of Reconstruction was a big backslide. But I talk in the paper about all these examples of presidents claiming, "We're going to make the world safe for democracy" or "We're going to bring democracy to the Middle East" or "The Axis Powers of World War II are trying to undermine democracy." It's a rallying cry for the country and has been for well over a century, at least since the Civil War. So I think those two put together, when you have a national identity focused on democracy and when you have that being undermined in individual states, that is a dangerous situation.

That brings us to the current moment and the threats we face now. How should they be understood in terms of the Guarantee Clause?

Well, they should be understood, in terms of the Guarantee Clause, exactly as a true threat to the ability of the country to function as a single country and as a democratic country. Federalism is often used when people talk about how states get to decide who votes and how they vote and how elections are run, and that the Constitution gives that power to the states. But the Guarantee Clause is like the safety valve on the other side, to say that we could go too far in allowing each state to decide what to do.

If a bunch of states were to say, "You know what, we're not going to have popular elections of presidents anymore." If they were to say that through gerrymandered legislatures that are themselves not democratically elected, enough states with undemocratic gerrymandered legislatures decided to take the vote for president away from the people — and they had enough votes among themselves to elect a president — it's hard to imagine that that presidency would be understood as fully legitimate by all the people who weren't for that president, whether in those states or in the other states. So that's an example where antidemocratic actions in one state, if there are enough of them, can completely undermine our national government and our ability to accept our national government.

You write that in interpreting and enforcing the Guarantee Clause, "Congress is due more here than the limited deference the Court gives to congressional efforts to enforce individual rights" under the 14th and 15th amendments — which is exactly what happened with the Shelby v. Holder decision. Do you think that would protect against the court invalidating congressional action based on the Guarantee Clause?

It's a fool's errand to say for sure what the Supreme Court is going to do. So I don't think there's a guarantee, no pun intended. I think they are very different, and I think the arguments are powerful — let me put it that way. I I think that if the Supreme Court decides it's not going to define the scope of the Guarantee Clause, which it has decided, and if the Guarantee Clause is directed to the government as a whole, which it is, and if Congress makes meaningful findings — and I don't think Congress can act willy-nilly; an appropriate use of the Guarantee Clause requires a thoughtful explanation for why they're doing what they're doing — but if Congress does that, I think a significant deference is owed to their judgment.

It's exactly the kind of political judgment that led the court to decide it couldn't weigh into the Guarantee Clause in the first place. And since it hasn't provided any definition of the scope of what that clause means — unlike the rights protected by the 14th and 15th amendments — it would essentially be like a guessing game: "No, that one didn't work. Try again." That's not the way coequal branches are supposed to operate.

So, can I tell you the Supreme Court would agree with me and would do what I suggest here? Of course I can't make that promise. But I think the arguments are powerful. I think there are very meaningful differences between the different clauses and the amendments. Some of them have to do with the way they are written, and some have to do with how the Supreme Court has interpreted them, or declined to do so.

When it came to extreme partisan gerrymandering, until Anthony Kennedy left the court, it looked like they might say, "Yes we can and should do something about it," and then they pulled back. By the logic that you're proposing, this would strengthen Congress's hand in acting, correct?

This is a key: Under the elections clause, Congress can outlaw extreme partisan gerrymandering for congressional elections. I think that's widely accepted. But I think under the Guarantee Clause they can actually do it for state legislatures, and there is no other part of the Constitution that provides for that power. In fact, at the time of the founding there was a genuine fear that some states would try to establish monarchies in their own state. And if you think about it, if enough states were to say tomorrow, "We're not going to call it a monarchy, but our governor is going to serve for life and the governor gets to pick their successor, and then that person serves for life, etc.," would we stand for that? What if the state said, "We're also going to allow for that governor to handpick the members of the legislative body'? Would that be OK?

I don't think that would be OK. Congress could refuse to seat a delegation from a state that looks like that, but that could actually undermine the only small-d democratic function that the state might have left. So I think it would be well within Congress' power to say, "No, states must have a popularly elected governor and a popularly elected legislature," without a lot of detail. If a state decided to have a parliamentary form of government, that would not violate the Guarantee Clause because we see that as an appropriate form of representative democracy today. But monarchy or aristocracy? I don't think that is consistent with our understanding of republicanism.

So we're at a point of crisis now. More than 150 scholars of democratic backsliding just issued a statement in support of the Freedom to Vote Act and setting aside the filibuster, saying that if Congress fails to pass the act, "American democracy will be at critical risk." How should we understand the relationship between your argument and this call for action?

I think they come from the same place. We are in a really dangerous situation where a lot of significant efforts are being made in many states to change the way we choose our leaders, to exclude significant numbers of people from being able to have a say. We look increasingly like a country close to what we looked like before the Voting Rights Act, in terms of large parts of the country not having a government that is in any way responsive to and or elected by the people. It's elected by a subset of the people, and responsive to a subset of the people. In turn, because the legislatures in most states draw the maps for the legislature, and in most states draw the maps for Congress, and in all states get to decide how presidential electors are chosen, there's a whole series of knock-on effects that become very, very hard to undo over time.

In your survey of threats that we face today you don't just mention extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression. You also talk about anti-democratic lame-duck lawmaking, which we've seen in Wisconsin and North Carolina. How might Congress respond?

This really is most relevant in states that are pretty purple, that could go either way. You have this heavily gerrymandered supermajority Republican legislature and in statewide elections Democratic statewide officials are elected — whether the governor and the attorney general, as in North Carolina, or Supreme Court justices in some states — and then in the interim period, before the new governor comes in, the state legislatures have enacted laws that change the structure of government in a meaningful way, taking power away from the incoming Democratic officeholders and reallocating it to the legislature.

In the case of Wisconsin, one particularly outrageous thing was that one of these laws had the intent and effect of making it impossible for the new Democratic governor [Tony Evers] to fulfill one of his primary campaign promises, which was to get out of the anti-Obamacare lawsuit. He supported Obamacare, and withdrawing from the lawsuit was a big issue in the campaign, not a small thing. And then the legislature enacted a law, which the outgoing governor signed, that prevented that from happening. To me, that's particularly outrageous, because we had a small-d democratic election, people said, "This is what we want," and then an undemocratic gerrymandered legislature with an outgoing governor undermines that.

I think one way of addressing that is that if a legislature is passing laws in that lame-duck period that reallocate authority within state government in some way, those laws have to go through some form of pre-clearance to establish that it's not an attempt to undermine the democratic decisions of the people of the state. I would argue that it should be nationwide. I think it would be a pretty deferential standard, because there's lots of things that state legislatures can and should do in that context. But as a nationwide system it would at minimum discourage that kind of democratic undermining.

In two respects your paper goes against conservative constitutional mythology. First, you reveal the obvious shortsightedness of regionalism and, second, by focusing attention on the text you push back against the states' rights ideology, making it clear that the Constitution grants federal power to protect against tyranny coming from the states just as much as it protects the states against federal tyranny. Do you have any broader thoughts about the importance of freeing ourselves from these kinds of partial and misleading myths?

That's a big question. I am not an originalist, that's pretty obvious. But on the states' rights side, that is, I think, a really crucial contribution, in the way I think about the Guarantee Clause. There's this whole long saga about how a big central government is tyrannical, by definition, that the states are closer to the people and can prevent us from tyranny. That's the story that we get told. I teach a version of that story when I talk about what the founders were thinking, but they weren't oblivious to the danger that tyranny could come from within a state. They thought there were some forms of government that are incompatible with democracy. You can't have unlimited states' rights.

Finally, what's the most important question that I haven't asked? And what's the answer?

The most important question is, "What do we do to try to protect democracy in our country?" And I think the answer is enormously complicated. I think Congress should absolutely pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and should pass some of the ideas I propose in the paper. Of course I think that.

But I also think ordinary people should take responsibility for talking across ideological divides, promoting meaningful civic education that teaches young people how to do that. It's something I do as faculty director of the Constitutional Democracy Project at Chicago-Kent. One thing democracy scholars talk about is that an antidemocratic spiral arises out of this belief that if the other side wins it's the worst thing that could happen. I think we are in a moment in our country where both sides think that — it's an existential threat if the other side wins. I don't know the answer to that, but I don't think the answer comes from Congress. It has to come from people.

How extremist Christian theology is driving the right-wing assault on democracy

Progressive policies and positions are supposed to be rooted in reality and hard evidence. But that's not always the case when it comes to the culture wars that have such an enormous impact on our politics — especially not since the unexpected evangelical embrace of Donald Trump in 2016, culminating in the "pro-life" death cult of anti-vaccine, COVID-denying religious leaders. If this development perplexed many on the left, it was less surprising to a small group of researchers who have been studying the hardcore anti-democratic theology known as dominionism that lies behind the contemporary Christian right, and its far-reaching influence over the last several decades.

One leading figure within that small group, Rachel Tabachnick, was featured in a recent webinar hosted by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (archived on YouTube here), as part of its Religion and Repro Learning Series program, overseen by the Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson. Tabachnick's writing on dominionism can be found at Talk2Action and Political Research Associates, and she's been interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

Her presentation sheds important light on at least three things: First of all, the vigilante element of the Texas anti-abortion law SB 8. Second, the larger pattern of disrupting or undermining governance, including the "constitutional sheriffs" movement, the installation of overtly partisan election officials and the red-state revolt against national COVID public health policies. While Donald Trump has exploited that pattern ruthlessly, he did not create it. And third, the seemingly baffling fact that an anti-democratic minority feels entitled to accuse its opponents — including democratically elected officials — of "tyranny."

Some dominionist ideas — such as the biblical penalty of death by stoning — are so extreme they can easily be dismissed as fringe, others have been foundational to the modern religious right, and still more have become increasingly influential in recent years. Those latter two categories are what we need to understand most, say both Tabachnick and Jackson.

"One of the things that struck me, as a relative newcomer," said Jackson, a former Congregationalist minister, "was that there was not sufficient understanding about the theological frames used by many individuals who are opposed to abortion." She continued, "I'm a strategist in a lot of ways, and one important strategy, I believe, must be to understand what the teachings and the theological frames are" on the other side. Which links directly to the question of what progressive activists need to do differently in this changed environment.

This failure to understand the nature of dominionism has hampered activists, not just in the realm of reproductive justice, but across an entire spectrum of political issues, both cultural and economic. Jackson discussed her own background, raised within a conservative Christian worldview.

"I was taught a very individualistic approach," she said, "taught that we shouldn't pay taxes, because doing so enabled people who were not working, and enables people whose lifestyle we don't agree with." There's nothing new about such views, but dominionism provides believers with an even stronger foundation for them.

Jackson describes her current understanding of religious faith as highly intersectional: "We believe that to understand the attacks on abortion also invites us — or even requires us — to look at attacks on voting, to look at attacks on immigrants, attacks on prison reform, attacks on equal pay and on and on," she said. "It's all of the same cloth: They are all attacks on humans flourishing. That's my language. The God of my understanding wants all of us to flourish in who we are."

The language of dominionism is strikingly different, to put it mildly. In her webinar, Tabachnick played a clip of one of the movement's leading figures, C. Peter Wagner, providing a definition:

Dominion has to do with control. Dominion has to do with rulership. Dominion has to do with authority and subduing. And it relates to society — in other words what is talked about, what the values are in heaven [that] need to be made manifest here on earth. Dominion means being the head and not the tail. Dominion means ruling as kings. It says in Revelation chapter 1:6 that "he has made us kings and priests," and check the rest of that verse, it says "for dominion." So we are kings for dominion.

Later she provided a definition from Frederick Clarkson, author of the 1997 book, "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy":

Dominionism is the theocratic idea that regardless of theological view, means, or timetable, Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.

Wagner, who died in 2016, is known as the founding father of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), one of the two main branches of dominionism, which grew out of the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions within evangelical Christianity. Dominionists in the other branch, known as "Christian reconstructionism," come out of conservative Calvinism, with a focus on bringing government and society under biblical law. They tend to be more circumspect, often obfuscating their true intentions and avoiding the word "theocracy" in favor of "theonomy," for example. But not Wagner, as can be seen in the title of his 2011 book, "Dominion!: Your Role in Bringing Heaven to Earth." The NAR talks constantly about taking dominion over the "seven mountains" of society: education, religion, family, business, government, arts and the media.

But it's the other branch, the Christian reconstructionists, who have excelled at strategic organizing and providing blueprints across different right-wing constituencies for almost 50 years. They are the ones Tabachnick focused most of her presentation on, specifically two key figures: Rousas John Rushdoony, the movement's master theologian, and his son-in-law Gary North, a prolific strategist, propagandist and networker who was once a staffer for Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian hero.

Christian reconstructionism, Tabachnick explained, is "about bringing government in all areas of life under biblical law, a continuation of the Mosaic law in the Old Testament, with some exceptions." This dispensation would include, "according to Gary North, public execution of women who have abortions and those who advise them to have an abortion."

In a recent private presentation, Frederick Clarkson asked a rhetorical question: "People have long said that there should be Christian government, but if you had one, what would it look like? What would it do? Rushdoony was the first to create a systematic theology of what Christian governance should be like, based on the Ten Commandments, and all of the judicial applications he could find in the Old Testament — including about 35 capital offenses."

But the "Handmaid's Tale"-style extremism of dominionists' ultimate vision shouldn't really be our focus, Tabachnick told Salon. "Nobody cares about the theocratic, draconian future envisioned by reconstructionists because they don't believe it will happen," she said.

What's happening right now, however, is that this ideology has had tremendous impact on more immediate politics. "Christian reconstructionism is the merger of a distinct brand of Calvinism with Austrian School economics," Tabachnick said. "In other words, it's an interpretation of the Bible grounded in property rights." The results have been far-reaching:

For more than 40 years, its prolific writers have provided the foundations and strategic blueprints for the attacks on liberation theology and the social gospel, as well as many other streams of Christianity which do not share the Reconstructionists' belief in unfettered capitalism as ordained by God and its fierce anti-statism.
The larger religious right's attack on public education, the social safety net and most government functions are largely grounded in the writings, strategies and tactics formulated by reconstructionist writers. Reconstructionism is not the only (and certainly not the first) source of interposition and nullification in this country. However, much of what is currently being taught today about using interposition to undermine the legitimacy of government is sourced in reconstructionism.

This idea of "interposition" comes through what's known as the doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," which we'll return to below. But its significance — especially in the post-2020 Republican Party — has only recently become apparent. Reconstructionism's initial appeal was more immediately, as Tabachnick explained in the seminar:

What Rushdoony provided is a package that included attacking what these fundamentalists hated and feared most in society, often expressed in terms of "This is communist. This is socialist." But Rushdoony provided a way to sacralize these ideas, and at the same time not just tear down the old order, but provide a blueprint for the new order.

Everyone didn't have to agree on the blueprint, she said: "Rushdoony's ideas went out in bits and pieces. The Christian right leaders took what they wanted and discarded what they didn't."

"Christian reconstructionism, as articulated by Rushdoony, provided a standard by which everyone else had to measure themselves," Clarkson told Salon. "Not everyone on the Christian right agreed with Rushdoony and his fellow Reconstructionist thinkers on, for example, the contemporary application of capital crimes listed in the Old Testament. And followers were often at pains to distinguish themselves."

Clarkson cites the case of conservative Presbyterian theologian Francis Schaeffer, who disagreed with Rushdoony on the applicability of biblical law, but became a driving force behind the anti-abortion activist movement Operation Rescue. That "militant Schaefferism," Clarkson said, "led activists to think: What's next, beyond political protest and stopping abortion? This is where the conversation has been in the Christian right for decades."

The doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," mentioned above, first emerged into public discourse out of Operation Rescue. But it did so as part of a larger, more complicated story.

There's a long history of right-wing opposition to federal authority, particularly grounded in the 19th-century defense of slavery and continuing in the defense of Jim Crow segregation. In his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke specifically of the governor of Alabama "having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification."

As detailed by Randall Balmer in "Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right," the religious right wasn't initially fueled by opposition to the Roe v. Wade decisionin 1973, but by opposition to a lesser-known decision in 1971, Green v. Connally, which threatened the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory institutions, most famously the evangelical stronghold Bob Jones University.

Anti-abortion activists have long sought not just to bury that past but to stand it on its head, somehow equating Roe v. Wade with the notorious Dred Scott decision of 1857 and claiming the moral heritage of abolitionism.

"Throughout these movements there is also an attempt to turn the tables on the claims of racism," Tabachnick said in her webinar. "This is one of the roles that anti-abortion activism as abolition plays. Also, there's a promotion of narratives that provide a different history and legal justifications for interposition, nullification and even secession. One of the things that Christian reconstructionism has added to this dialogue is the concept of the lower magistrate."

As Tabachnick explains it, the "lesser magistrate" is a heroic figure who "resists the tyranny of a higher authority" — defining "tyranny" in biblical terms, potentially including any number of popular or common-sense laws or policies. This notion first gained salience in the anti-abortion context in the 1980s and '90s, as Tabachnick went on to explain.

"Many violent anti-abortionists have justified their actions in reconstructionist teachings," she said. "One of these was Paul Hill, who studied under one of the major reconstructionist leaders and corresponded with others." Hill went on to murder Dr. John Britton, a physician who performed abortions, as well as Britton's personal bodyguard, in 1994. Hill was executed in 2003, but the reconstructionist movement sought to cast him out well before that.

"Gary North responded, after the murders had taken place, in a book called 'Lone Gunners for Jesus,'" Tabachnick said. His message to Hill was, "You're going to burn in hell, you've been excommunicated. This was because Paul Hill stepped outside the bounds of the guidelines set by the movement."

To explain this, she quoted a passage from another book by North that offered qualified support for Operation Rescue: "We need a statement that under no circumstances will Operation Rescue or any of its official representatives call for armed resistance to civil authority without public support from a lesser magistrate."

"On the basis of their belief of what the law or the word of God is, they are allowed — on the advice, on the interposition, of a lesser magistrate — to commit acts of violence," Tabachnick continued. North was seeking to control or curb anti-abortion terrorism, but without rejecting it in principle. Murdering abortion providers — or even murdering women seeking abortions — could be morally justified, with the blessing of a lesser magistrate.

This is relevant to SB 8 in Texas in at least two ways. That bill bans abortions after six weeks and is enforced not by state officials, but by deputizing private individuals to sue anyone who performs the procedure or "aids and abets" it. First of all, giving private individuals these vigilante-style rights seems a lot like making them into "lesser magistrates," however narrowly constrained.

Second, the Supreme Court's refusal to stay the law — which clearly violates the Constitution and existing precedent, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued in her dissent — can be seen as an example of the doctrine in action. In more normal circumstances, the court would have stayed the law pending consideration on the merits, even if a majority of justices intended to overturn precedent. That's how common law has worked for centuries.

But biblical law isn't common law, especially as reconstructionists understand it. Under the doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," Roe is not precedent but an instance of tyranny — and the justices have a duty to God to resist it. Of course, not even Amy Coney Barrett or Clarence Thomas has said anything like that, but it's entirely consistent with their behavior — as well as with their silence, since openly making such an argument would clarify just how radicalized they have become. But adherents of the doctrine of the lesser magistrate must surely appreciate the drift in direction.

Nor is the doctrine limited to abortion cases, as already noted. Matthew Trewhella is a pastor who was a prominent leader of violence-prone wing of the anti-abortion movement in 1990s, and author of the 2013 book, "The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates," which greatly heightened its visibility.

"Trewhella is now all over radio and the internet," Tabachnick said in her webinar, "claiming to meet with state legislators and attorney generals at the moment, with the cause of fighting the 'tyranny of mask mandates' and vaccination for COVID. So you can see how this is a concept that is not just limited to abortion. It is a concept that can be used in resistance of government authority all over the country in all different kinds of ways — FEMA, EPA, Bureau of Land Management and so forth."

Trewhella isn't breaking new ground here. Clarkson's 1997 book "Eternal Hostility" describes him making similar arguments in a speech to an anti-tax group in Wisconsin. He was just one figure among many spreading the seeds of reconstructionist resistance to federal authority among militia members, "freemen" and anti-abortion activists at the time.

"This movement believes that rights come from God and not from any government," Tabachnick told Salon. "Therefore, any 'rights' that conflict with their interpretation of God's law are not actually rights. They are 'humanist' or a product of man's laws and not God's laws. This theme of 'human rights' versus inalienable rights from God has been at the center of the Christian Reconstructionist movement since its beginnings."

She pointed to "What's Wrong With Human Rights," an excerpt from a book of the same name by the Rev. T. Robert Ingram published in "The Theology of Christian Resistance," a collection edited by North. Ingram sweeps aside the Bill of Rights as "a statement of sovereign powers of states withheld from the federal authority of the Union," and turns instead to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason in 1776.

The first section of the Virginia Declaration, beginning "That all Men are by Nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent Rights," is dismissed by Ingram for omitting any mention of God, as an "error of unbelief which falsifies all the rest that is said about human life." The second, beginning "That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from the People; that Magistrates are their Trustees and Servants, and at all Times amenable to them," he dismisses as well: "The meaning could not be more clear, nor more opposite Biblical thought. The ruling proposition of Scripture and Christian doctrine is that 'power belongeth unto God.'" In short, there are no human rights.

The connection to the doctrine of the lesser magistrate is clear: Power comes from God, not the people. Whatever the people want is irrelevant. Whatever laws they may pass are irrelevant, too, if they go against God. "Tyranny" is whatever the Christian reconstructionist decides he doesn't like.

Elsewhere, Ingram denigrates freedom of speech and the press:

Freedom of speech and freedom of press are, in fact, applied seriously only to giving government protection to instigators of riot and rebellion, as well as those who would undermine human order by more subtle attacks on morals and customs.

As for the right to dissent, he calls it "not a lawful claim to own or to do something, which is the true right," but "a turning upside down of right and wrong, calling good evil and evil good." Similarly, there is no scriptural right to "resist authority," only that granted by the false doctrine of "human rights."

Ingram's interpretation of the Civil War is that "Yankee radicals inflamed the Northern peoples to mount the Civil War in the name of a 'human right' to be free ... if they did not destroy the whole Southern Order, they did at least dismantle its vast and efficient plantation economy." The civil rights movement, unsurprisingly, is understood as a defiance of "Tradition, law, and custom, which preserved public peace and order in the bi-racial state of the union, both North and South," and became "the target of the right to resist in the 60's, the supposed human rights justifying the violent means."

Tabachnick didn't dig into this text in her webinar, but it serves to illustrate her central principle: "This attack on the very concept of 'human rights' can be found throughout today's religious right."

Jackson told Salon that the most important part of Tabachnick's presentation came "when she talked about humanism and the humanistic frame, from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Those who are within the dominionist camp see that as contrary to God. I read those same documents and I say, this is pointing us toward the direction that God wants for us. They look at it and see that as counter to God, because humanism from their perspective is something very contrary to God."

If we take such arguments seriously, then we understand why for dominionists there is nothing wrong with breaking any law at all, so long as "God wills it" and you have the blessing of a so-called lesser magistrate. This is the reconstructionist argument supporting a whole range of chaotic right-wing activity today, including baseless claims that the 2020 election was a fraud. After all, the fundamental reconstructionist argument is that all such democratic government is illegitimate.

"The goal of reconstructionism is to tear down the existing order and reconstruct a new society based on biblical law," Tabachnick said. "Even if we assume that this vision of a theocratic America will never come to fruition, it's important to recognize the movement's impact on the ideas, strategies and tactics of the larger religious right and its role in sacralizing the actions of other anti-statist fellow travelers.

"As I wrote almost a decade ago, the theocratic libertarianism of Christian reconstructionism has been surprisingly seductive to Tea Partiers and young libertarians — many of whom may not realize what is supposed to happen after the government is stripped of its regulatory powers."

The nightmare scenario that could make former Trump adviser Stephen Miller a U.S. senator

At its best, the California recall election aimed at unseating Gov. Gavin Newsom may serve as a wakeup call for 2022. An election that shouldn't even be happening — much less be close — has energized Republicans in a most unlikely place, highlighting the high-stakes dangers of Democratic complacency. After polls dangerously tightened in August, they now suggest that Newsom is likely to survive. But turnout remains the crucial question, and no one's taking anything for granted.

Understanding what's driving this recall, and why this is even a race, is vital if Democrats are to beat the odds in the 2022 midterms rather than lose seats, as is the norm. No one has shown a better grasp of what's involved than Los Angeles Times columnist Jean Guerrero, who is also the author of "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda."

Others may have been surprised when right-wing talk-show host Larry Elder quickly emerged as the leading GOP candidate, but Guerrero was perfectly prepared. In fact, Elder had been Stephen Miller's formative mentor, essentially launching his career. Guerrero had interviewed Elder for her book, and had even read his memoir, "Dear Father, Dear Son." She also understood how Elder and Miller's anti-immigrant views fit into the long history of reactionary politics in California, as does the entire recall effort. Salon reached out to Guerrero recently to discuss the recall and its ramifications, using the columns she's written about the race as a jumping-off point. This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Back in mid-July, you wrote about Larry Elder's role in contributing to the development of Trumpism, most notably by mentoring Stephen Miller, the subject of your book "Hatemonger." What should people know about Elder, and what does that tell us about the kind of governor he would be?

Larry Elder was a mentor to Stephen Miller back when Miller was a teenager at Santa Monica High School. Stephen Miller called into his show to complain about multiculturalism and racial equity initiatives at the school. Larry Elder told me, when I interviewed him for my book, that he was very impressed by how articulate Stephen Miller was. He decided to have him on as a regular guest, and ultimately he was on 69 times, according to Elder. So he mentored Stephen Miller and remained in touch with him over the years, even through the Trump campaign when he was sending Miller talking points for Trump and ideas for the campaign.

But it's not just about Larry Elder mentoring Stephen Miller. He mentored a number of other Trump acolytes, like Alex Marlow, now the Breitbart editor-in-chief, who had an internship with Elder. As Larry Elder himself told me, he gave a lot of confidence to young conservatives like Stephen Miller and Alex Marlow to express their viewpoints without fear of being called racists, because he himself is a Black man who holds and promotes these views that were once considered racist — things like, black people are more racist than white people, really incendiary stuff that Larry Elder built his career around.

As far as what kind of governor he would be, Stephen Miller was to the right of Trump on immigration issues. He pushed consistently in a more extreme anti-immigrant direction. Trump was mostly against illegal immigration, but Stephen Miller made his administration really go after legal immigration in the form of gutting the refugee system, gutting the asylum system, things like that.

So I believe that Larry Elder, who helped shape Stephen Miller's anti-immigrant views, would be the most anti-immigrant governor that California has ever seen, even more so than Pete Wilson. I think he would transform the state from one of the most pro-immigrant-rights states in the country into one that systematically attacks not just immigrant communities but Latino communities and other racially diverse communities where many people have mixed status. He would terrorize these communities by working closely with federal immigration officials to enforce laws that are contrary to the values in California.

One of the things you've mentioned about Elder's influence on the Trump campaign was that he urged Miller to stress that undocumented immigrants were harmful to inner-city Blacks and Latinos, correct? Which is not just anti-immigrant, but setting different races against each other

Exactly. He advanced this false view that divides brown and Black communities against one another and keeps them fighting and distracted from the institutional problems that are making their lives miserable.

He also passed on some misogynistic advice targeting Hillary Clinton as well. Could you talk about that?

He encouraged Stephen Miller to read up on the sexual harassment and sexual assault accusers of Bill Clinton and about Hillary Clinton's alleged mistreatment of them, and he told him, you know, you should read up about this. I forget whether he told him specifically to bring it up during the debate, or if he said, "Let's talk about how to use this down the line." Just a few months later, Donald Trump held that press conference with the accusers, to distract attention from the tapes that came out where he's talking about assaulting women.

In mid-August you wrote that Elder "isn't afraid to deny the reality of systemic racism by maligning Black people," even by relying on bogus data from Jared Taylor, a leading white supremacist figure. How has he done this?

He'll go on his talk show, or when he's a guest on other talk shows, and over the course of his career, ever since the '90s, he has repeatedly cited statistics saying that Blacks commit a disproportionate number of violent crimes. Sometimes the data is completely made up, and other times he's using real data and completely leaving out the context in order to put forth the idea that black people are somehow innately more violent than white people — an idea that harks back to the eugenicists, when people believed in race-based pseudoscience that has since been discredited. There aren't any real differences between the races, but he puts forward this data to make it seem like all the problems in the Black community are the result of Black people misbehaving or having something wrong with them.

You recount an anecdote Elder told during an L.A. Times interview in which he explained away his own first-hand experience of systemic racism. What happened to him, and how did he explain it away?

He was telling us that when he was a young man, within the first year after getting his driver's license he was pulled over by police between 75 and 100 times. When we heard that we asked him, "Well, how can you believe that you weren't being racially profiled? That's not the experience of most non-Black people. Most non-Black people are not pulled over between 75 and 100 times in a single year by the police." He said that it was because he looked young, that it had nothing to do with race, and that the idea that he was being racially profiled was absurd. It just goes to show that even when it comes to his own experience he is unable or simply refuses to acknowledge the reality of systemic racism and the way that it operates, and continues to operate, in people's lives.

That struck me as bizarre. He went on to say that as governor he would tell people just to comply with the police and they'll be OK, even though last year hundreds of millions of people repeatedly saw that that's not the case. I'm just wondering if you have further thoughts about what kind of psychology he has, to make those kinds of statements.

It has to do with a refusal to see context or history, and just a desire to blame any person's problems on their own behavior. What helps me to understand it a little bit better is when I read his memoir about his father. Nearly the entire first half of the book is about how abusive his father was. His father allegedly would whip him and his brother for very minor infractions and emotionally terrorized them when they were growing up. It created a lot of anger in Elder toward his father.

But then he writes about how he confronted his father, and his father explained, "You just have to have self-reliance in life, and then things will turn out OK." Somehow his father sharing his own story of abuse made Larry Elder no longer angry at his father. Suddenly he felt incredibly aligned with his father and grateful to his father for his presence in his life, almost as if his father's allegedly abusive behavior had made him the person that he is today, and therefore had been a good thing.

So I think this whole idea of might makes right that is popular among conservatives — that there is no law apart from might makes right, you have to use force to make people behave — that is something that I think is core to the identity of Larry Elder. And it is clearly tied to his relationship to his father, given that he's often talked about how the main problem in Black communities is fatherlessness, the absence of fathers in the home.

First of all, he's not acknowledging the reason that we have this problem with the absence of fathers in communities of color is because of the institutional racism that results in so many of these men being locked up. He's also almost advocating for these men to remain in the home and to behave in the way that his father behaved. He doesn't say that, but given that he became ideologically and emotionally aligned with its father, it just makes sense that that's what he thinks is appropriate.

Elder also portrays Latinos as being more prone to crime as well. Could you say something about that?

In that same memoir he writes about how when he was growing up by the convention center in downtown Los Angeles his neighborhood became more and more overwhelmingly Hispanic, and as Hispanics moved into his neighborhood his neighborhood became more dangerous and more crime-ridden. He basically conflates the new criminality of his neighborhood with the arrival of Hispanic people, as if there's something innately crime-prone in them. I think that is part of what explains his support for draconian immigration policies, his desire to get rid of sanctuary protections, his desire to get rid of health care and public education for undocumented migrants, his desire even to get rid of birthright citizenship, the constitutional right to become a citizen if you were born in this country. He doesn't believe that should be the case for people who are born to parents whose papers are not in order.

That apparent hostility that he has towards Latinos is something that would guide his governorship in a similar way to his apparent disdain for the Black community, who he regularly maligns and blames for very complicated problems that have to do with institutional forces that he refuses to acknowledge.

You also wrote a column stressing that Gavin Newsom has been one of the most pro-Latino governors California has ever had. Folks may know that he appointed the state's first Latino U.S. senator, Alex Padilla [who replaced Kamala Harris], but that's only one example. What else should I know about this record? He has been more engaged with Latino civil society than any previous governor, according to civil society leaders I spoke with. He was giving them a seat at the negotiating table from his early days as governor, and listening to them. Among the many actions that he took in response to those conversations was to prioritize high-risk Latino neighborhoods for COVID vaccines. He has made unprecedented monetary investment in public education, some of which well help Latino communities — for example, giving two years of community college to first-time students and measures to drive down the cost of textbooks, which many Latinos cannot otherwise afford, He also extended health care coverage to undocumented seniors and provided housing during the pandemic to essential workers, and to farmworkers who tested positive for COVID, so that they wouldn't infect their family members. He also expanded the Dreamers' access to college loans for grad school.

So according to civil rights and civil society leaders I spoke with, he has been one of the most, if not the most, pro-Latino governors in California history. He perhaps doesn't come across that way in his demeanor because he's this wealthy white man with slicked-back hair. But his actions have really benefited the Latino communities in California and particularly the most vulnerable, those with mixed-status families and those who are undocumented and the essential workers who had to keep working throughout the pandemic and keep the economy running — agricultural workers and domestic workers and things like that.

You point to the "reasons for the recall" in the official voter information guide, which include the claim that Newsom has endorsed laws that "favor foreign nationals, in our country illegally, over ... our own citizens." I have two questions about that: First about the factual basis of what he's actually done, which you've just described. And second, how could it be more accurately characterized?

That statement that's in the voter information guide fails to acknowledge that so many citizens in California come from mixed-status families, and when you help undocumented people you are also helping to alleviate poverty and crime in these communities as well. First and foremost, Newsom did help undocumented people in California, but that's not the only contingent of the Latino community who he helped.

That's certainly true, but I was also thinking that he's not really favoring immigrants, undocumented or not, over natural-born citizens. It's more like he's just removing discriminatory barriers to equal treatment.

That's exactly right. He's been taking actions to decrease inequality in these communities, and in so doing has improved the lives of all Californians. We all benefit and have benefited from the economic and public health contributions of our undocumented residents. Like I said, he has also made record monetary investments in public education, which helped all working-class Californians to rise out of poverty.

Conservatives attack sanctuary laws because they say that we're letting criminals out on the streets, and then they go out and commit more crimes. But the whole reason we passed sanctuary protections in the first place is because law enforcement officials found that fear of deportation made people in Latino communities, who so often come from mixed-status families, afraid to call the police and report crimes, because that could lead to their deportation or the deportation of a loved one. So sanctuary laws actually improve public safety, and in addition the economy of California, because they encourage people to come out of the shadows and to interact with the police in situations where they otherwise would not.

But there's more to the recall argument. It goes on to say: "People in this state suffer the highest taxes in the nation, the highest homelessness rates, and the lowest quality of life as a result." Those claims are factually false. We have a high homeless rate, but not the highest, for example. And we only have the highest tax rate for the top 1%, while the bottom 80% are taxed below the national average. So those are false, but so is the alleged causality. That leads directly to something else that you wrote about recently: the role of anti-California propaganda and racism driving the recall. There's three different components I'd like you to discuss. First, California's own racist history of targeting multiple different races.

People think of California as a very blue, very liberal state, and in many ways it is. But it still has traces — we have more hate groups in any other state and we still have a fringe, a very powerful white supremacist element in our state, along with our white supremacist history. As recently as the 1990s, California passed a number of measures targeting Latino and Black communities.

We had the racist three-strikes law which disproportionately led to Black men being incarcerated in mass numbers. We had Prop. 187, which targeted social services for undocumented migrants, including public school for their children, which was later deemed unconstitutional. We had attacks on bilingual education. We had attacks on affirmative action. There was just a lot of anti-immigrant hysteria in the 1990s in California because of demographic change, as California went from a white-majority state to one where non-Hispanic whites became a minority by 1999 or early 2000, and basically underwent the extreme demographic shift that the United States as a whole is now undergoing as we head into the 2040s, when non-Hispanic whites will become the minority nationally.

In response to that demographic change, there was a lot of fear-mongering by conservative politicians, including then-Gov. Pete Wilson, who blamed all of the state's fiscal problems on what he called an invasion at the border, and even sued the federal government for the alleged cost of having to deal with that. He was putting out advertisements on television that showed immigrants crossing the border with, like, this ominous narrative saying, "They keep coming." There was just a lot of anti-immigrant hysteria whipped up by Pete Wilson and other conservatives in California, including Rush Limbaugh, who had previously been broadcasting out of Sacramento. It just took over the state.

There was also a huge white separatist movement in Southern California led by Tom Metzger, who even won a Democratic nomination for a seat in Congress. There was a lot of white supremacist activity in California in the 1990s, which was soon relegated to the fringes. But now it appears to be resurgent nationally, in a much stronger and even more dangerous way.

Another factor you say was pushing it was anti-California propaganda. California, Massachusetts and New York have been the three states conservatives have consistently attacked over the years, but California has been especially targeted. How has that played out in recent years?

In recent years conservatives have loved to bash California and portray it as a failing state, and their portrayals always have racial undertones. A good example is what happened when in 2019 when there were are all these failed early efforts to recall Gavin Newsom. Right-wing media launched an anti-California campaign, casting California as a "third-world state" that came as a results of policies of racial diversity. A lot of that was showing images of homeless people, who were disproportionately African-American, Native American and Latino. For example, Tucker Carlson recently called California "the Zimbabwe of the Pacific."

There's always talk about how the state's leaders are "kinder to illegal immigrants than to citizens," as we saw in the voter information guide. A lot of it is just tied to the fact that we saw demographic change in the 1990s that conservatives nationally are terrified of the United States experiencing. They try to portray California as a place that has failed and that is deteriorating and decaying and being destroyed as a result of leaders who have embraced that diversity and sought to empower everyone in an equal way. They want to portray that as an apocalyptic approach that's going to result in the end of civilization.

That leads right into my third question, about your discussion of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview, which I also wrote about recently. How does that tie things together?

This recall election is fundamentally about discrediting multiracial democracy and the idea that it could possibly function, that it does function. In order to discredit multiracial democracy they're using a narrative straight from the book, "The Camp of the Saints," which Stephen Miller promoted in 2016 and Steve Bannon did as well, in the lead-up to the Trump administration. It's a book that is popular among white supremacists, which portrays the destruction of the white world by a horde of brown refugees who are described in really degrading language, words like "monsters" and "beasts," and also that maligns anti-racist politicians and activists who embrace the brown refugees, and blames them for the "destruction of the white world" as well.

That entire book is about creating hatred for not only people of color, but also anyone who helps them or embraces them or sees them as equals. That narrative, which is incredibly apocalyptic, relies on tropes about "white genocide" — this whole "great replacement" theory of white supremacists, that brown and Black people are systematically replacing white people, and are being helped in that process by liberal elites, often Jewish in some tellings of the white supremacist tale. It's a tale that has become mainstream on Fox News and on other right-wing media — this idea that Democrats are embracing immigrants with open arms because they want to replace "legitimate citizens" and white people with people from the "third world."

It's an incredibly dangerous idea, because if you believe there is a conspiracy to replace white people with people of color, then violent action is the logical reaction to that, as "The Camp of the Saints" captures. The book's characters repeatedly call for genocide and massacres and violence against the brown refugees to "save the white people." That is what is being dog-whistled every time Tucker Carlson talks about voters in the United States being "replaced," which by the way relies on a definition of replacement that is completely false. When you have immigration you're growing the population, you're not replacing the population. But it connotes violence and it connotes catastrophic destruction, and therefore logically incites violence against people of color.

In contrast to that, you note that there's a powerful counter-narrative about California "as the place that took chances and succeeded," as you put it, drawing on Manuel Pastor's book "State of Resistance." The negative narratives have been repeated ad nauseam. What does that positive counter-narrative sound like?

The positive counter-narrative is that California is the most welcoming place for people of color to live, because of the immense progress that the state has made on immigrant rights, on racial justice, on criminal justice reform. It is on its way to being one of the safest and most prosperous states, it's already the fifth largest economy in the world, it attracts half the nation's venture capital, it has among the best public health outcomes in the nation. And the problems that do exist here — which are exploited by conservatives, such as our problem with homelessness, due to high housing costs — have nothing to do with progressive policies, as conservatives would like us to believe. They have to do with the fact that there is still a very powerful constituency of conservatives and moderates, and even faux-progressives, who are opposed to the construction of affordable housing anywhere near their neighborhoods. That is what has stalled progress in terms of economic equality in this state.

But if we were to continue on the path that we have been on in recent years, and which Newsom has been a part of, then I think we as a state would conclusively show how successful a multiracial democracy can be. That is the idea that is under attack in this recall election. They want to prove that that multiracial democracy and progressive policies do not work. But they do work. We've seen that they've been working, and we have a long way to go, but the actions that have been taken to address inequality have been incredibly successful. They've been slowed down by the minority conservatives and white supremacists who live in this state, but they've shown that they can work to improve the lives of Californians everywhere, and to lift up the entire country, honestly, because of our economic success.

One thing you've written about that could take up a whole interview is the importance of Latino turnout, and your concerns about it. What's most significant at this point?

Latinos are arguably the community in California that has the most to lose in this election, but there are concerns that they will not turn out in sufficient numbers because of the fact that, first of all, they're being targeted with disinformation on social media, with anti-Newsom propaganda. Secondly, despite all the actions Newsom has taken to make our lives better, Latinos have still borne the brunt of the pandemic, because of the jobs that they have, and have borne the brunt of death tolls and economic tolls.

So we are traumatized, not just from the pandemic but also from four years of anti-Latino rhetoric from the Trump administration. I think a lot of Latinos, especially young Latinos, are just so overwhelmed with everything that we've experienced over the past few years, that after Biden won we wanted a period of letting out a sigh of relief, and just not thinking about politics for a little while. But I think that as the Newsom campaign and civil rights groups have been going out and disseminating information about all that is at stake, that is changing. The polls now reflect that, and I think the election will reflect that as well.

What's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer?

Someone asked me recently in an interview, "Is it possible that Larry Elder would appoint Stephen Miller to replace Dianne Feinstein if something were to happen to her?" That thought had never occurred to me, honestly. It seems so outlandish and far-fetched. But Larry Elder did tell Stephen Miller that he hopes to see live to see the day that Stephen Miller becomes president. I think we need to acknowledge that.

Some of us try to downplay how much a Republican governor could actually do, if they were to come into power with only a very short period until the next election [in 2022], and with a legislature that has a Democratic supermajority. But the governor does have powers to appoint significant positions. It's possible that if something were to happen to Dianne Feinstein that we would see someone like Stephen Miller be selected as one of the senators for California. That would be clearly catastrophic for the Biden agenda, and for any progress our nation was looking to make on addressing issues of inequality.

The dark history of the 'Great Replacement'

In April of this year, Tucker Carlson got into hot water after offering an impassioned expression of the white nationalist conspiracy theory known as the "Great Replacement" during a monologue on his Fox News prime-time show. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt wrote to Fox News in response, citing just a small fragment of Carlson's long racist record, and noting that "Carlson has suggested that the very idea of white supremacy in the U.S. is a hoax." Greenblatt concluded, "Carlson's full-on embrace of the white supremacist replacement theory ... and his repeated allusions to racist themes in past segments are a bridge too far. Given his long record of race-baiting, we believe it is time for Carlson to go."

Predictably enough, Fox News and its ownership refused to take this seriously. Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch responded by falsely claiming that "Mr. Carlson decried and rejected replacement theory." But the only evidence he offered didn't sound like rejection, only an attempt to sanitize Carlson's remarks through denial and reframing: "As Mr. Carlson himself stated during the guest interview: 'White replacement theory? No, no, this is a voting rights question.'"

It's worth looking back at that episode now for several reasons. First, Carlson has again been pushing "Great Replacement" discourse more recently, this time by attacking the idea of bringing Afghan refugees to the U.S. in the wake of the Taliban's lightning conquest of that country. Second, because Fox News' defense of Carlson has only supported the spread of this racist conspiracy theory. Third, because that theory has a bloody record of inspiring mass murder — not incidentally, but as a logical consequence of its central argument.

"The great replacement is very simple," its originator, French conspiracy theorist Renaud Camus, has said. "You have one people, and in the space of a generation you have a different people." In this formulation, immigration is equated with genocide, which logically requires or demands genocidal violence in response.

And then there's the final reason: Because the "Great Replacement" and a family of similar, almost interchangeable conspiracy theories — claiming that Western culture and civilization are being destroyed by immigration, which is permitted or enabled by weak or malicious cosmopolitan elites, often though not always identified as Jewish — effectively defines a radical shift in conservative ideology over the last few years. Indeed, one could almost call it a great replacement of previous conservative thought.

Here's a key portion of what Carlson said in April:

Now I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term "replacement," if you suggest the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that's what's happening, actually. Let's just say it! That's true.

Renaud Camus could not have said it better. That was no rejection of the theory; if anything, it was an overt embrace. As conservative Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson noted, "Nearly every phrase of Carlson's statement is the euphemistic expression of white-supremacist replacement doctrine." It was, Gerson wrote, "what modern, poll-tested, shrink-wrapped, mass-marketed racism looks like."

In fact, it's much more than that. For two decades Republicans have been screaming about organized voter fraud, while never producing any evidence. So here is a new and much darker conspiracy theory, so sweeping that it does not rely on hard evidence, but has even more sinister implications.

This past week, Carlson helped spearhead right-wing opposition to welcoming Afghan refugees who aided the 20-year U.S. war effort. He understood that argument was a tough sell and framed it around a familiar trope, telling his millions of viewers they were being manipulated by unnamed conspiratorial elites:

You should be happy you live in a country where your neighbors love children and dogs and want to help refugees. We are a generous and empathetic people and we can be proud. Unfortunately, there are many in our ruling class who are anxious to take advantage of our best qualities. They see our decency and weakness and they exploit those things and they do it relentlessly. "Let's try to save our loyal Afghan interpreters," we tell them. "Perfect," they think. "We'll open the borders and change the demographic balance of the country."

There is no evidence for this, of course. It's pure paranoid fantasy — but not Carlson's alone. He's only a transmitter of extremist views into the mainstream. A key source for these views is the notorious 1973 novel "The Camp of the Saints" by French right-wing author Jean Raspail, which argued that mass migration is an invasion that will eventually destroy Western culture and replace Western populations, that Western political elites lack the moral strength to defend their civilization and therefore that the invaders must be physically removed or destroyed. When I interviewed retired intelligence analyst James Scaminaci III last year, he described how the novel's paranoid vision has inspired an entire worldview:

The main variations within this "Camp of the Saints" worldview are whether the political elites lack moral strength to resist the invasions ("Great Replacement"), enact immoral policies which weaken Western societies to invasion ("demographic winter") or actively collaborate with the governments of the invading migrants to facilitate the invasion (as in John Tanton's network). The other variation distinguishes the neo-Nazis from all the other segments: whether or not the Jews are responsible for the destruction of their societies ("white genocide").

These variations can bleed together. Catchphrases like "great replacement" or "white genocide" easily cross the boundaries Scaminaci describes, as part of their lingua franca. So does the record of terrorism. Here are some examples.

On July 22, 2011, right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik murdered 77 Norwegian citizens (mostly teenagers) and injured an additional 319, at the same time electronically distributing a 1,518-page conspiracist manifesto calling for the deportation of Muslims from Europe, and dividing blame between Muslims themselves and "cultural Marxism," an alleged Jewish conspiracy to destroy Western culture and civilization by promoting multiculturalism and undermining traditional values.

The manifesto used the terms "cultural Marxism" or "cultural Marxist" more than 600 times, and plagiarized almost the entirety of William Lind's 2004 Free Congress Foundation book "'Political Correctness': A Short History of an Ideology," the most significant text promoting the theory, which uses the terms "cultural Marxism," "political correctness" and "multiculturalism" almost interchangeably. The book disappeared from the FCF website shortly after the massacre. But Breivik was doing exactly what Lind had called for. He just did it a little too quickly.

On Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the deadliest attack against Jews in American history. Before the attack, he referenced the anti-Semitic variant, "white genocide." Bowers had a record of posting anti-Semitic comments on Gab attacking the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). One congregation at the synagogue had participated in HIAS's National Refugee Shabbat the week before, and Republicans were trying to whip up hysteria about migrant "caravans" during the midterm election campaign. Referencing those, Bowers posted on Gab that "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."

On March 2019, Brenton Tarrant live-streamed himself killing 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand. In advance, he released an 74-page online manifesto called "The Great Replacement," elaborating on Camus' ideas and citing Breivik as an inspiration. The manifesto included neo-Nazi symbols, although Tarrant denied being a Nazi, calling himself an "ethno-nationalist" and an "eco-fascist." Equating immigration with genocide, he wrote, "Radical, explosive action is the only desired, and required response to an attempted genocide," underscoring the inherently violent nature of this worldview.

On April 27, 2019, the last day of Passover, white supremacist John Earnest killed one person and injured three others at a synagogue in Poway, California. He posted a letter of explanation, which the ADL summarizes:

The letter includes a laundry list of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories,including the longstanding white supremacist assertion that Jews are responsible for non-white immigration, which "threatens" the white race. "Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race," the letter states, adding "… For these crimes they deserve nothing but hell." This mirrors the language used by both Bowers and Tarrant prior to their attacks.

On Aug. 3, 2019, white supremacist Patrick Crusius opened fire at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. The final death toll was 23, with almost two dozen others wounded. As the ADL reported, Crusius' manifesto claimed that his attack was a "response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas," and that he was merely defending his country from "cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion." What's more, he also claimed that "he did not intend to target the Hispanic community until he read 'The Great Replacement.'"

This is the conspiracy theory Tucker Carlson is spreading, with Fox's explicit blessing. More than that, what Scaminaci calls the "Camp of the Saints" worldview "is widespread in right-wing media, think tanks, and political parties." He continued:

Thus, there is very little difference between the rhetoric of right-wing media and the rhetoric of right-wing terrorists or mass murderers. The manifesto of the El Paso terrorist and nightly broadcasts of Fox News or the tweets of Donald Trump are remarkably similar. Right-wing elites may be "shocked" by these periodic massacres, but they keep priming the pump. In turn, these massacres create new right-wing "heroes" and "martyrs" and spur others to beat their "score" while spreading the conspiracy theory further.
Even more than the massacres noted above, this points to the most frightening aspect of all: a transformation in conservative ideology which promises more such massacres. In 2012, Arun Kundnani shed light on this in "Blind Spot? Security Narratives and Far-Right Violence in Europe," published by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague in the aftermath of Breivik's attack.
"Every perception has a blind spot, the area that cannot be seen because it is part of the mechanism of perception itself," Kundnani writes. "This paper considers whether, since 9/11, the far‐right has been the blind spot of counter‐terrorism, the problem that could not be perceived clearly because it had begun to absorb significant elements from official security narratives themselves."

This absorption was in fact only one aspect of a longer-term transformational process Kundnani identified. He describes a threefold evolution of far-right ideology in Europe, which has allowed it to move into the mainstream from the fringes. Post-World War II neo-Nazi parties were ostracized for decades, but this began to shift from the 1980s onward, with a focus on culture rather than race, followed by the latest evolution in the wake of 9/11.

"In the 'counter-jihadist' narrative, the identity that needs to be defended is no longer a conservative notion of national identity but an idea of liberal values, seen as a civilizational inheritance," Kundnani explains. "Islam becomes the new threat to this identity, regarded as both an alien culture and an extremist political ideology. Multiculturalism is seen as enabling not just the weakening of national identity but 'Islamification,' a process of colonization leading to the rule of sharia law."

Summing up, Kundnani writes, "In moving from neo‐Nazism to counter‐jihadism, the underlying structure of the narrative remains the same, but the protagonists have changed: the identity of Western liberal values has been substituted for white racial identity, Muslims have taken the place of blacks and multiculturalists are the new Jews."

That phrase, "the identity of Western liberal values," should set off alarm bells, coming from neo-Nazi-affiliated political activists. It's perhaps best understood in terms of something else promoted by the above-mentioned William Lind, a pioneer of white supremacist ideology, which I've written about before: fourth-generation warfare.

In 4GW — to use a shorthand familiar to aficionados — Carl von Clausewitz's distinctions between the government, the army and the population collapse. There is no clear dividing line between war and peace, combatant and non-combatant, or, as Tucker Carlson may see it, between immigration and invasion — or even genocide. It is, above all, a war of perceptions, a war for legitimacy. So when it comes to defining the identity of Western liberal values, the current Republican obsession with defining freedom as the freedom to infect others with a deadly virus shows just how ludicrous a war of perceptions can become — and still have a legitimate chance of succeeding.

Scaminaci also told me that Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson, co-editors of the book "Doublespeak: The Rhetoric of the Far Right Since 1945," argue that far-right movements have engaged in what they call "fifth-column discourse," described as a "form of deception and political cunning intended to attack an enemy from within; in this case, by aping the language of liberal democracy." That's clearly similar to Kundnani's argument.

I asked Scaminaci whether racist right-wingers claiming to be defenders of Western values offer a paradigmatic example of fourth-generation warfare, and also whether that helps explain Tucker Carlson's man-crush on Viktor Orbán, Hungary's autocratic leader.

He agreed, adding that the version of 4GW articulated in this instance was "extremely clever." He turned to Kundnani's description:

This new "identitarian" narrative makes the defense of Western civilization and Enlightenment values from invading Muslims and Islam central to its appeal. The new internal enemy are the multiculturalists instead of the Jews. This is consistent with a larger conservative narrative of the "clash of civilizations." One consequence of this new narrative is that the Jews and Israel are now potential allies. But this new narrative is entirely consistent with the central argument of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview.

Indeed, support for Israel has a double appeal: First to fight Islam, second, to provide cover for continued anti-Semitism on the right. The older narratives haven't gone away just because new ones have emerged. For some, "cosmopolitans" may have replaced Jews on their enemies list. For others, that's just rhetorical code.

As for Carlson's bromance with Orbán, Scaminaci said:

Tucker Carlson is following a well-worn path. Orbán embraced this "Camp of the Saints" worldview and made it the centerpiece of his political strategy. Orbán and [Benjamin] Netanyahu were allies and white nationalists found encouragement in casting Israel as a white-settler enclave worth defending. When Donald Trump went to Poland in July 2017, he delivered a "Camp of the Saints" or "Great Replacement" speech.

There's another dimension to the story not yet mentioned, the "Eurabia" variation of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview, as explained by Scaminaci:

Trump and Orbán were following the path laid out by Egyptian-Jewish author Bat Ye'or in the 1990s. Ye'or, in her "Eurabia" writings, brought Jews and Christians together to fight against a Muslim invasion of Europe. Ye'or made common cause with proponents of the Serbian genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as did William Lind, the originator of fourth-generation war. This Serbian genocidal policy was then imported into the Republican Party and the Christian right. Tucker Carlson is just the latest in a long line of Bat Ye'or followers.

Kundnani's description of the evolution of neo-Nazi narratives into "counter-jihadist" narratives was framed in a European context, where multiparty democracies allowed extremists to use existing party structures to claw their ways into the political mainstream. America is locked into a two-party system that presents a different dynamic, and Nazi ideology was never strong in the U.S. So the lines weren't as clearly drawn and the evolution wasn't as obvious or direct. But a similar story can be told about American politics as well, Scaminaci said:

By now everyone is familiar with Lee Atwater's observation that the Republican Party used sanitized and abstract concepts like taxes rather than more crass and vulgar white supremacist terminology. GOP rhetoric from the 1980s up to Trump used sanitized code words to appeal to ... voters feeling their status was being threatened from below or they were being abandoned from above by Democratic Party elites.

Trump dropped the dog whistles [and] never abandoned his central narrative that his key strategist, Steve Bannon, had borrowed and pushed into the conservative media ecosystem, namely, the "Camp of the Saints" worldview. Trump may not be a true card-carrying white nationalist, but he's close enough that they immediately recognized him as a kindred spirit.

The "Camp of the Saints" worldview provides a new framework for conservatism, an overarching narrative that connects things together more tightly than postwar conservatives ever managed in the past. If "invading hordes of immigrants" are the enemy, and falling white birthrates are key to the problem, then the right's misogynist agenda and its xenophobic agenda are much more tightly linked than ever before.

Connections with Christian nationalism — an Old Testament-based worldview fusing Christian and American identities — are similarly strengthened. A 2018 paper, "Make America Christian Again," which I wrote about here in 2018, explained that "Christian nationalism … draws its roots from 'Old Testament' parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism."

In short, all the major electoral facets of American conservatism are more tightly unified by the "Camp of the Saints" worldview than they ever were, or ever could have been, in the days of William F. Buckley or Ronald Reagan. What's more, the practical need to suppress voters of color becomes a central ingredient.

As Scaminaci put it: "The underlying motivation of the Great Replacement and voter suppression is the same: Nonwhite voters are inherently illegitimate because they vote for an illegitimate political party that itself poses an existential threat to Western civilization or America or White America or White Americans, because it conspires with external nonwhites to destroy the country."

So the Great Replacement that has actually taken place is the replacement of the ideas, ideals and mores of conservatism. As debased and depraved as those had already become, they have now been supplanted by much darker principles, which have deadly real-world consequences and pose an existential threat to what remains of American democracy.

"The right wing wants to use the language of liberal democracy and of the Enlightenment," Scaminaci said in conclusion, "but the right wing is intellectually incoherent":

It no longer has a governing philosophy. Thus it must make its appeals to resentments, to frustrations, to anger and to fear, using liberal language in defense of Enlightenment values — while their arguments make little or no sense and cannot withstand scrutiny. But there is an underlying logic and that is the logic of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview. And they continue to develop rhetorical and narrative strategies to make that worldview palatable and electable.

Those rhetorical and narrative strategies will necessarily involve doublespeak, of which Tucker Carlson is a master. For example, in June, David Neiwert, author most recently of "Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us," called out Carlson for inverting the reality of demographic change in the Mountain West, in a further extension of replacement theory.

Carlson had suggested on his prime-time show that Montana, Idaho and Nevada now face "similar problems" to the demographic change right-wingers view as catastrophic in California: "The affluent liberals who wrecked California aren't sticking around to see how that ends. They're running to the pallid hideaways of Boise and Bozeman, distorting local culture and real estate markets as they do it."

Neiwert responded that as "a fourth-generation Idaho native with family in Montana, I can tell you that this is a complete inversion of the historic demographic reality in those places":

It could only be accurate if viewed from a very short-term perspective — and even then, it's wrong. Idaho and Montana have only become deep-red Republican states in the past decade or two. Prior to that, they were classic "purple" states, electing a mix of Democrats and Republicans. What changed that was an in-migration of right-wing voters.

We can expect more such gaslighting arguments in the days ahead. The far right now finds itself deeply at odds with the Western values it pretends to defend. Even if it has convinced the vast majority of conservative voters to go along, it can only hope to gain and hold power by standing those values on their heads — including, most fundamentally, the biblical value of not bearing false witness.

A social scientist's terrifying new theory: Fake news and conspiracy theories as an evolutionary strategy

Political misinformation — whether "fake news," conspiracy theories or outright lying — has often been attributed to widespread ignorance, even though there are numerous examples of 20th-century propaganda aimed at those most attentive to politics. Books like Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent" began to challenge that notion, as did the 1991 study of media coverage of the first Gulf War with the memorable bottom line, "the more you watch, the less you know." In the age of social media, scholarly explanations have shifted to discussions of "motivated reasoning," which could be defined by Paul Simon's line from "The Boxer": "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

But the ignorance perspective has a deep hold on us because it appeals to the Enlightenment notion that we are motivated to pursue truth. We are "the thinking animal," right? The important part of that expression may be "animal." Human beings have an evolutionary history, and deception is commonplace in the animal world because it confers evolutionary advantage. There's good reason to believe we're not so different, other than the fact that humans are ultra-social creatures. In ancestral and evolutionary terms, being part of a successful social group was every bit as essential as food and water. So deception among humans evolved from group conflicts. That's the thesis of a recent paper called "The Evolutionary Psychology of Conflict and the Functions of Falsehood" by the Danish political scientists Michael Bang Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen and American anthropologist John Tooby.

While the paper aligns with the "motivated reasoning" perspective, its focus goes deeper than the psychological mechanisms that produce and reproduce false information. These researchers are trying to elucidate the functions of those mechanisms, that is, to answer the question of why they evolved in the first place. I interviewed Petersen three years ago, about a previous paper, "A 'Need for Chaos' and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies," which was summarized on Twitter thusly: "Many status-obsessed, yet marginalized individuals experience a 'Need for Chaos' and want to 'watch the world burn.'" That paper provided crucial insight into prolific spreaders of misinformation and why they do what they do. But that individualist account was only part of the story. This new paper seeks to illuminates the evolutionary foundations and social processes involved in the spread of outright falsehoods. So I had another long conversation with Petersen, edited as usual for clarity and length.

Over the past decade or so, it's become more common to regard the spread of political misinformation, or "political rumors," as they're sometimes called, as the result of "motivated reasoning" rather than ignorance. But your new paper proposes a broad evolutionary account of the social functions behind that motivated reasoning. Tell me about what led you to writing it, and what you set out to do?

One of our major goals with this research is to try to understand why it is that people believe things that other people believe are completely bizarre. I think it's clear for everyone that that problem has gained more prominence within the last few decades, especially with the advent of social media. It seems that those kind of belief systems — belief in information and content that other people would say is blatantly false — is becoming more widespread. It can have some pretty dire consequences, as we could see for example with the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

So what we're trying to understand is, why people believe things that must be false. The traditional narrative is, 'Well if you believe false things, then you must be stupid. It must be because you haven't really made an effort to actually figure out what is going on." But over the last few decades, more and more research has accumulated that suggests that's not the case. In fact the people who are responsible for spreading misinformation are not those who know the least about politics. They actually know quite a lot about politics. In that sense, knowledge doesn't guard against believing things that are false.

What we're trying to do is to say, "Well, if it's not because people are ignorant, then what is it?" In order to understand that, we utilize the framework of evolutionary psychology, basically trying to understand: Could there be anything adaptive about believing false information? Could this in some way be functional? Is it actually sort of on purpose that false information is believed and spread, rather than being an accident?

Before you discuss human evolution, you have a section of nonhuman animals. What can we learn from deception and conflict in the animal world?

I think that's an important stepping stone, to look at the animal world, because most people would say that what animals do is the products of biological evolution, and has some sort of evolutionary advantage. And what we can see in animals is that they spread false information all the time when they are engaged in conflict.

One sort of obvious example is that animals try to appear larger than they are when they are engaged in conflict with other animals. That's, of course, to send a signal to the other animals that you shouldn't mess with me and if we actually get into a real fight I will win. So animals are trying to get an upper hand in conflict situations by making false signals.

So how does that change, or not change, when we look at humans?

First, that is also what we should expect that humans do, that if they can send false signals that are advantageous to them, then they should do it. What we then discuss is that there are certain constraints on the degree of falsehood in animal communication. That constraint is that communication systems evolved in the first place because they are a helpful for both individuals or both organisms involved in the exchange. So before a communication system can evolve it should be adaptive for the sender and for the receiver. That means that even in conflict situations you cannot set up blatant falsehoods. There are some kinds of reality constraints.

We are then saying that actually, in some situations, with regards to humans and human evolution, these constraints doesn't operate. That's because if we look at nonhuman animals, then the conflict is often between two individuals, but in human conflict it's often between two groups, and the members of one group, are cooperating with each other against the other group. That means there might be certain advantages, within one group, to spread misinformation and spread falsehoods, if that can give them an upper hand in the conflict with the other group. Then we go on to discuss a number of ways in which that might be true.

You identify three functions of information sharing: group mobilization for conflict, coordination of attention, and signaling commitment. You argue that accomplishing these goals efficiently is what gets selected, in evolutionary terms, not truth or veracity. Can you give an example of each, starting with mobilization?

When you want to mobilize your group, what you need to do is find out that we are facing a problem, and your way of describing that problem needs to be as attention-grabbing as possible before you can get the group to focus on the same thing. In that context, reality is seldom as juicy as fiction. By enhancing the threat — for example, by saying things that are not necessarily true — then you are in a better situation to mobilize and coordinate the attention of your own group. The key thing is that it may actually be to your group's advantage that if everyone is in agreement that we don't like these other guys, then we make sure that everyone is paying attention to this other group. So by exaggerating the actual threat posed by the other group, you can gain more effective mobilization.

The key to understand why this makes sense, why this is functional, is that one needs to distinguish between interests and attention. A group can have a joint set of interests, such as, "Well, we don't like this other group, we think we should deal with this other group in in some way." But on top of that interest or set of interests, there is the whole coordination problem. You need to get everyone to agree that this is the time to deal with that problem. It's now, and we need to deal with it in this way. It's in that sort of negotiation process where it can be in everyone's interest to exaggerate the threat beyond reality, to make sure that everyone gets the message.

You've more or less answered my next question about coordination. So what about signaling commitment? How does falsehood play a role there?

I think these are the two major problems, the mobilization on the one part and then the signaling on the other part. When you're a member of the group, then you need other group members to help you. In order for that to take place, you need to signal that, "Well, I'm a loyal member of this group. I would help you guys if you were in trouble, so now you need to help me."

Humans are constantly focused on signals of loyalty: "Are they loyal members of the group?" and "How can I signal that I'm a loyal member?" There are al sorts of ways in which we do that. We take on particular clothes, we have gang tattoos and all sorts of physical ways of expressing loyalty with the group.

But because we humans are exceptionally complex, another way to signal our loyalty is through the beliefs that we hold. We can signal loyalty to a group by having a certain set of beliefs, and then the question is, "Well, what is the type of belief through which we can signal that we belong?" First of all, it should be a belief that other people are not likely to have, because if everyone has this belief, then it's not a very good signal of group loyalty. It needs to be something that other people in other groups do not have. The basic logic at work here is that anyone can believe the truth, but only loyal members of the group can believe something that is blatantly false.

There is a selection pressure to develop beliefs or develop a psychology that scans for beliefs that are so bizarre and extraordinary that no one would come up with them by themselves. This would signal, "Well, I belong to this group. I know what this group is about. I have been with this group for a long time," because you would not be able to hold this belief without that prehistory.

I believe we can see this in a lot of the conspiracy theories that are going around, like the QAnon conspiracy theory. I think we can see it in religious beliefs too, because a lot of religious beliefs are really bizarre when you look at them. One example that we give in the text is the notion of the divine Trinity in Christianity, which has this notion that God is both one and three at the same time. You would never come up with this notion on your own. You would only come up with that if you were actually socialized into a Christian religious group. So that's a very good signal: "Well, that's a proper Christian."

Right. I was raised Unitarian. As a secular Jew in Northern California at that time, the only place we could have a home was a Unitarian fellowship. It was filled with secular Jews, definitely not "proper Christians."

Yes, I went to a private Catholic school myself, so I've been exposed to my portion of religious beliefs as well. But there's another aspect that's very important when it comes to group conflict, because another very good signal that you are a loyal member is beliefs that the other group would find offensive. A good way to signal that I'm loyal to this group and not that group is to take on a belief that is the exact opposite of what the other group believes. So that creates pressure not only to develop bizarre beliefs, but also bizarre beliefs that this other group is bad, is evil, or something really opposed to the particular values that they have.

This suggests that there are functional reasons for both spreading falsehoods, and also signaling these falsehoods. I think one of the key insights is that we need to think about beliefs in another way than we often do. Quite often we think about the beliefs that we have as representations of reality, so the reason why we have the belief is to navigate the world. Because of that, there needs to be a pretty good fit or match between the content of our beliefs and the features of reality.

But what we are arguing is that a lot of beliefs don't really exist for navigating the world. They exist for social reasons, because they allow us to accomplish certain socially important phenomena, such as mobilizing our group or signaling that we're loyal members of the group. This means that because the function of the beliefs is not to represent reality, their veracity or truth value is not really an important feature.

In the section "Falsehoods as Tools for Coordination" you discuss Donald Horowitz's book, "The Deadly Ethnic Riot." What does that tell us about the role of falsehood in setting up the preconditions for ethnic violence?

"The Deadly Ethnic Riot" is an extremely disturbing book. It's this systematic review of what we know about what happens before, during and after ethnic massacres. I read this book when I became interested in fake news and misinformation circulating on social media, and this was recommended to me by my friend and collaborator Pascal Boyer, who is also an evolutionary psychologist. Horowitz argues that you cannot and do not have an ethnic massacre without a preceding period of rumor-sharing. His argument is exactly what I was trying to argue before, that the function of such rumors is actually not to represent reality. The total function of the rumors is to organize your group and get it ready for attack. You do so by pointing out that the enemy is powerful, that it's evil and that it's ready to attack, so you need to do something now.

One of the really interesting things about the analysis of rumors in this book is that, if you look at the content of the rumors, that's not so much predicted by what the other group has done to you or to your group. It's really predicted by what you are planning to do to the other group. So the brutality of the content of these rumors is, in a sense, part of the coordination about what we're going to do to them when we get the action going — which also suggests that the function of these rumors is not to represent reality, but to serve social functions.

What I was struck by when I read Horowitz's book was how similar the content of the rumors that he's describing in these ethnic massacres all over the world, how similar that is to the kind of misinformation that is being circulated on social media. This suggests that a lot of what is going on in social media is also not driven by ignorance, but by these social functions.

One point you make is that to avoid being easily contradicted or discredited, these kinds of "mobilization motivations should gravitate towards unverifiable information: Events occurring in secret, far away in time or space, behind closed doors, etc." This helps explain the appeal of conspiracy theories. How do they fit into this picture?

When we look at falsehoods there is a tension. On one level, there is a motivation to make it as bizarre as possible, for all the reasons we have been talking about. On the other hand, if you are trying to create this situation of mobilization, you want the information to flow as unhindered as possible through the network. You want it to spread as far as possible. If you're in a situation where everyone is looking at a chair and you say, "Well, that chair is a rock," that's something that will hinder the flow of information, because people will say, "Well, we know that's really a chair."

So while there is this motivation or incentive to create content as bizarre as possible, there is also another pressure or another incentive to avoid the situation where you're being called out by people who are not motivated to engage in the collective action. That suggests it's better to develop content about situations where other people have a difficult time saying, "That's blatantly false." So that's why unverifiable information is the optimal kind of information, because there you can really create as bizarre content as you want, and you don't have the risk of being called out.

We see a similar kind of tactic when conspiracy theorists argue, "Well, we are only raising questions," where you are writing or spreading the information but you have this plausible deniability, which is also a way to avoid being called out. Conspiracy theories are notorious exactly for looking for situations that are unverifiable and where it's very difficult to verify what's up and what's down. They create these narratives that we also see in ethnic massacres, where we have an enemy who is powerful, who is evil and who is ready to do something that's very bad. Again, that completely fits the structure of mobilizing rumors that Horowitz is focusing on. So what we've been arguing, here and elsewhere, is that a lot of conspiracy theories are really attempts to mobilize against the political order.

In the section "Falsehoods as Signals of Dominance" you write that "dominance can essentially be asserted by challenging others," and argue that when a given statement "contradicts a larger number of people's beliefs, it serves as a better dominance signal." I immediately thought of Donald Trump in those terms. For example, he didn't invent birtherism, and when he latched onto it he didn't even go into the details — there were all these different versions of birther conspiracy theories, and he didn't know jack-shit about any of them. He just made these broad claims, drawing on his reputation and his visibility, and established himself as a national political figure. I wonder if you can talk about that — not just about Trump, but about how that works more generally.

Yes, I can confess that I too was thinking about Donald Trump when writing that particular section of the paper. So I will talk a little bit about Donald Trump, but I will get to the general case. I think one of the first examples for me of that tactic was during the presidential inauguration in 2017, where the claim was that there were more people at Trump's inauguration than Obama's inauguration, and everyone could clearly see that was false.

In the section "Falsehoods as Signals of Dominance" you write that "dominance can essentially be asserted by challenging others," and argue that when a given statement "contradicts a larger number of people's beliefs, it serves as a better dominance signal." I immediately thought of Donald Trump in those terms. For example, he didn't invent birtherism, and when he latched onto it he didn't even go into the details — there were all these different versions of birther conspiracy theories, and he didn't know jack-shit about any of them. He just made these broad claims, drawing on his reputation and his visibility, and established himself as a national political figure. I wonder if you can talk about that — not just about Trump, but about how that works more generally.

Yes, I can confess that I too was thinking about Donald Trump when writing that particular section of the paper. So I will talk a little bit about Donald Trump, but I will get to the general case. I think one of the first examples for me of that tactic was during the presidential inauguration in 2017, where the claim was that there were more people at Trump's inauguration than Obama's inauguration, and everyone could clearly see that was false.

Just to start with that particular observation, I think with that sort of denial — for example, "This is not racism, this is not sexism," or whatever — part of the function is again to have plausible deniability, whereby you can make sure that the information spreads, that everyone who needs to hear it will hear it and it's not really being blocked. Because you could say that outright racism or outright sexism would be something that would stop the spread of the information. So people who are in a mobilization context are always caught in this cross-pressure between making sure that the signal is as loud as possible, and that it is disseminated as widely as possible. Often there is this tension between the two that you need to navigate. I think looking at and understanding that conflict and that tension is an important theoretical next next step.

As we say numerous times in the chapter, this is a theoretical piece where we are building a lot of hypotheses which are in need of empirical evidence. So I think one important next step is to gain and develop the empirical evidence or empirical tests of these hypotheses, to see what actually seems to hold up, and what may be misguided.

One thing I'm very interested in personally is to to look into who uses these tactics more than others — who is most motivated to engage in these kinds of tactics to win conflict. This is a line of work that we have been studying, and one thing we are finding is that people who are seeking status are the most motivated to use these kinds of tactics to gain that status.

I always like to end by asking: What's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

I think the most important question that you may not have asked is this: We started out talking about motivated reasoning, so what is the difference between what we are bringing to the table, compared to the traditional theories of motivated reasoning? Those argue that you hold certain beliefs because they feel good. You like to believe certain things about your group because it gives you self-esteem. You like to believe the other group is evil because that also helps you feel good about your group. When social scientists have abandoned the ignorance argument for those kinds of beliefs and looked into social function, then they say, "Well, the social function of these beliefs is to make you feel good about yourself."

What we are saying is that while it is probably true that these beliefs make you feel good about yourself, that's not really their function, that's not their real purpose. We're saying that evolution doesn't really care whether you feel good or bad about yourself. Evolution cares about material benefits and, in the end, reproductive benefits. So the beliefs that you have should in some way shape real-world outcomes.

We are arguing that these false beliefs don't just exist to make you feel good about yourself, but exist in order to enable you to make changes in the world, to mobilize your group and get help from other group members. I think that's an important point to think more about: What it is that certain kinds of beliefs enable people to accomplish, and not just how it makes them feel.

Journalists who present GOP's attack on democracy as normal politics are complicit in Republican propaganda

The first witnesses in the House select committee's investigation of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack last week were clear about what its goals ought to be. Officer Harry Dunn put it most bluntly: "Get to the bottom of what happened. "If a hit man is hired and he kills somebody, [the] hitman goes to jail. But not only does the hitman go to jail, but the person who hired him does. There was an attack carried out on Jan. 6, and a hitman sent them. I want you to get to the bottom of that."

The others agreed. "We do need to get to the bottom of it," Sgt. Aquilino Gonell echoed. "Who incited, who brought those people here."

"That is what I am looking for, is an investigation into those actions and activities which may have resulted in the events of Jan. 6," said Officer Michael Fanone. "And also whether there was collaboration between those members, their staff and these terrorists."

"Fanone hit the nail on the head there," Officer Daniel Hodges followed up. "I need you guys to address if anyone in power had a role in this. If anyone in power coordinated or aided or abetted or tried to downplay, tried to prevent the investigation of this terrorist attack."

These were not partisan witnesses with a partisan agenda. They were law enforcement officers with a patriotic agenda. What they asked for was precisely analogous to what was asked for from the 9/11 Commission, whose example Democrats had originally hoped and tried to follow, only to be thwarted by Republican opposition, organized by House Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. What they asked for was a full accounting, to ensure that it would never happen again.

This ought to be utterly uncontroversial, especially for journalists, whose job it is to get to the bottom of things. But not anymore, it seems. Instead, the very existence of the hearings was treated as a partisan exercise of power, utterly contradicting the fact that Republicans had scuttled the balanced 9/11-style model Democrats had initially tried to advance. And much of this came from journalists who obviously knew better.

CNN's Chris Cillizza first excoriated McCarthy for his committee picks, correctly observing, "He has zero interest in getting to the bottom of what really happened (and why) when the US Capitol was stormed by rioters," and noting that Rep. Jim Jordan's proposed "presence on the committee ensures then is that it will be a circus." But the next day Cillizza turned amnesiac, with a piece headlined, "Nancy Pelosi just doomed the already tiny chances of the 1/6 committee actually mattering." Not only would the committee would be seen as partisan, Cillizza argued, but "you should give up on" any hope that it "might produce a report that would help us understand what happened in the lead-up to that day," without noting that this new claim directly contradicted what he'd written just the day before, about Jordan in particular.

With reactions like this, journalists violate something even more fundamental than getting to the truth — that is, getting the truth to the people. Seeking the truth just to know it for oneself isn't journalism. Journalism is a public profession, a civic profession. Its purpose is to make the world legible, so that citizens can make democracy work. It's about the making of common sense. That's why autocrats the world around throw journalists in jail. Or shut down news outlets altogether, like Apple Daily in Hong Kong. When it happens abroad, we have little trouble seeing it. In contrast, the purpose of propaganda is to make the world illegible, making it impossible for people to be effective citizens. We have little trouble seeing this when it happens abroad, particularly in such perceived global adversaries as Russia and China.

Yet this is what much of mainstream "journalism" is doing right now here at home: making the world illegible so citizens throw their hands up in despair. It couldn't come at a worse time. The GOP is trying to normalize Jan. 6, normalize Donald Trump's pathological destruction of democratic norms and institutions, and move toward the establishment of a competitive authoritarian system in place of electoral democracy. And the press, for its own muddled reasons, is helping them do this. Prominent media figures and institutions are normalizing the attempted slow-rolling overthrow of American democracy, and de facto allying themselves with Republicans by misreporting their fundamental hostility to democracy as just another bout of partisan warfare, in which both sides make equally serious, facially valid claims.

It's not easy to see this as propaganda, because we assume that propaganda comes from one side or another, whereas this "journalism" goes out of its way to "balance" both sides. But when both sides have been so profoundly different for so long, pretending otherwise can only make the world illegible, whether the issue is infrastructure, voting rights or the future of democracy itself. Critics have complained about such practices for decades, offering alternatives as well — see James Fallows' 1997 "Breaking the News" or Jay Rosen's 1999 "What Are Journalists For?" as classic examples.

But the widespread misreporting of McCarthy's attempted sabotage of the 1/6 investigation starkly casts things in a harsher light. This isn't simply "flawed" journalism. It isn't journalism at all. It's the opposite: It's propaganda. It actively undermines the capacity for understanding, and thus, for self-governance. It was aptly described as "The absurd coverage of the January 6 committee" in a particularly perceptive piece by Jon Allsop for the Columbia Journalism Review.

"Both sides" metastasized

"This is, indeed, bothsidesism as we've come to understand the term, insofar as it bent over backward to find Democratic culpability in a problem that Republicans created," Allsop writes, saying it represented "a slippage from a clear-cut understanding of the term" as previously understood, "the idea of false equivalence."

There was that, of course — coverage "casting it as part of a 'partisan brawl,' or juxtaposing soundbites from Pelosi and McCarthy without adding much context" — but there was also coverage that "committed far graver sins; arguably, the worst of it was so bothsidesy that it approached onesideism, scolding Democrats while letting Republicans off the hook."

Allsop goes on to note three particular problems, starting with Brian Beutler's observation of a perverse inequivalence: "the commonplace journalistic assumption that 'Republican bad faith … is just a feature of the landscape,' whereas a given Democrat is 'an actor with agency, and subject to scrutiny.'" Along the same lines, Beutler earlier wrote, "Baking the presumption of GOP bad faith into everything, rather than treating it as a series of choices by human agents, creates a kind of impunity (through exhaustion or savviness or whatever else) where it isn't even worth pressing them on their conduct."

Second, Mehdi Hasan's observation on "Pod Save America" that "in the eyes of many pundits, a given political development is often framed as being Bad News for Democrats, but not for Republicans." Third, there's the particular kind of what I'd call brain-dead analysis that, "taken on its own terms, [gets] lost down a series of empirical and logical dead ends."

Allsop cites a couple of examples: One was the claim that Pelosi set a dangerous precedent, when in reality, Republicans have repeatedly been willing to break precedent whenever it suited them, so the idea that "they need the cover of Democrats doing it first is absurd." The other was the discussion of "credibility," linked either to accepting insurrectionists onto the committee, or to criticizing Pelosi for destroying its bipartisan nature. This either ignores renegade Republicans like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger or discounts them based on "Alice in Wonderland" logic: "Such an analysis implies that, to satisfy the demands of bipartisanship, Republicans aren't Republican enough if they take seriously the thing the committee was created to take seriously. This, clearly, is circular, and self-defeating."

Allsop doesn't tie these different problems together, but that part is easy. It starts with "both sides" journalism treating both parties symmetrically, when they're fundamentally different in important ways. One way they differ is in terms of bad-faith politicking, which has grown especially pronounced since Newt Gingrich's speakership. Once the press accepted and normalized Gingrich's tactics, Democrats were at a perpetual disadvantage, so much so that framing anything "as being Bad News for Democrats, but not for Republicans" was simply a way of reflecting how much the game had been rigged in advance. Finally, the brain-dead analysis reflects the media's tendency to record and accept Republican descriptions of their fantasy world, and then to pretend it reflects reality.

Another feature or bug of the "both sides" approach is what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls "the savvy style," which he has described this way:

When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to "win." Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can … well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders' game invites the public to become "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement," which is strange. Or it lavishes attention on media performances, because the insiders are supposed to be good at that: manipulating the media.

This was always a bad idea, including when Rosen wrote that in 2011. But consider the last few decades, when the celebrated media performances go from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Gingrich to George W. Bush — and then to Trump and his eager sycophants.

By trying to be "balanced" and savvy — and maintaining the relationships on which insider-sourced journalism depends — the dominant media response has obscured what's obviously going on: Republicans are deeply complicit with Trump (even more so after Jan. 6) and adamantly opposed to a truth-seeking investigation.

All this happens, mind you, while the majority of journalists are Democrats. But it's not their party affiliation that most intimately impacts how they do their jobs. That comes predominantly from their professional ethics, which are misunderstood and under-scrutinized, as described in Jeremy Iggers' 1999 book, "Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Good," and from peer group pressures and expectations. Generations of right-wing attacks have taken their toll, resulting in deep-seated tendencies to bend over backward in order not to seem biased. Conservatives get to rail against the liberal media whenever they want, and the media responds by normalizing it — well, that's just what conservatives do! — while bristling at any criticism from the left.

"Both sides" rooted in asymmetric politics

The ethos of "both sides" "journalism" requires treating both parties symmetrically, but the two parties have never been symmetrical, as Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins showed in their 2016 book, "Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats" (Salon review here).

"The Democratic Party is focused on producing concrete solutions for citizens whereas the Republican Party is obsessed with conservative ideological purity," I wrote at the time. "This is useful for understanding how the nation got to a point of contemplating a possible Donald Trump presidency. (In the authors' view, Trump is the unintended product of a Republican Party purification process.)"

One key factor underlying this asymmetry was first fully documented in Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril's 1967 book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans." As I summarized in 2018, "At the level of individual opinion, more people identify as conservatives than liberals, and conservative ideology ('free markets,' 'limited government,' etc.) is more popular. But on the other side of the ledger, support for specific liberal policies like Medicare, Social Security and so on is even more lopsided." It was a disconnect the authors called "almost schizoid."

This fundamental difference explains a great deal, including the contrast between the Trump infrastructure train wreck and Biden's (so far) low-key success. Trump saw infrastructure as a symbolic signature issue, and reveled in staging a series of "infrastructure weeks," but couldn't marshal the technical know-how to get a functional deal done, and never even really tried. Biden and the Democrats, on the other hand, have been working on so-called "human infrastructure" issues for decades. The term itself is new for most, but the thinking behind it isn't. (Rosa DeLauro's almost 20-year campaign to advance the expanded child tax credit is a particularly striking example.) So they're better prepared for this legislative task than Republicans ever could be.

This basic reality is not just ignored, but actively obscured by "both sides" coverage. Take, for example, this short, telling passage from CNBC:

Republicans have so far refused to raise any corporate or individual taxes to offset the new funding, which will be added to an existing transportation bill for a total of $1.2 trillion. The White House, in turn, has refused to impose user fees on the improved highways and rails.

Nice, neat, symmetrical and factual, at least on the surface. But beneath the surface it's profoundly deceptive. User fees are regressive taxes, falling disproportionately on the poor and the working class, whose incomes have stagnated for decades now, with only brief periods of respite. Corporate and high-income individual taxes are progressive taxes, which were cut sharply under Trump, and are far below historical averages.

So that symmetrical formulation fails to describe an asymmetrical reality, which is reflected in public opinion as well. A mid-June survey conducted by Invest in America and Data for Progress (memo here) found that huge majorities of likely voters support "paying for new investments in infrastructure by making corporate taxes fairer" and "increasing taxes on individuals who earn more than $1 million a year on income from stocks and bonds and on individuals who earn more than $400,000 a year." by margins of 45-points and 38-points, respectively." That was no fluke; a mid-July AP/NORC poll had similar results.

Furthermore, "likely voters overwhelmingly oppose increasing user fees (like highway tolls) or the gas tax in order to fund infrastructure investments." So on both alternatives, the public overwhelmingly supports the Democratic position. But how many members of the public understand that, and what impact does that widespread consensus have, when the practitioners of "both sides" journalism do their utmost to obscure it, making it seem that the public must be evenly divided, aligned with whichever party they voted for in the last election?

The AP/NORC poll mentioned above also revealed remarkably strong support for all kinds of specific infrastructure spending, which is significantly at odds with the picture painted by media coverage of supposedly deadlocked Senate negotiations. Results range from 83% support for "roads, bridges and ports" to a low of 45% support (but only 29% opposition) for electric vehicle charging stations. Notably, funding for local public transit — which Republicans generally oppose — is supported by 61% to 14%, and funding for caregivers for the elderly — which Republicans also want to drop — is overwhelmingly popular, with 75% support. How different would American politics be if journalists made the will of the American people clear, rather than obscuring their substantial agreement on matters of fundamental public policy?

The asymmetry of bad faith

That's only the beginning. Let's return to "The Political Beliefs of Americans," whose authors called for an end to the "almost schizoid" disconnect they observed between broad ideology and specific policies:

There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people's wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.

That restatement never happened. Instead, the racist backlash to advancing civil rights provided a framework for sharply increased attacks on "big government," which liberals became increasingly reluctant to defend. At the same time, as explained in "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon interview here), the GOP focused on fragile, threatened identities — first around race, but then about gender and religion as well. Bad faith was central to this strategy—not just because these three identities were deeply rooted in the bad-faith mythology of the Lost Cause, but also because it depended on constantly raising the level of perceived threat.

Asymmetric bad faith took a quantum leap under Reagan, who slashed taxes dramatically while railing against deficits, a core GOP bad-faith dynamic ever since. It took another quantum leap under Gingrich, culminating in the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about an affair at the same time that Gingrich himself was covertly cheating on his second wife.

Bad faith has long since become pervasive throughout the GOP, and completely normalized by the press. Commenting on a recent Punchbowl News article about McConnell "taking a very hard line on the debt ceiling," Brian Beutler noted, "The bad-faith GOP strategy of threatening to tank the economy while Dems are in charge, based on pretexts Republicans plainly don't believe, and even though the Dems don't engage in the same kind of nihilism, is just presumed and unexamined (and, of course a problem for Dems)."

Bad faith can be found in Republican claims to be "the party of life" as they cheerfully spread COVID disinformation. Bad faith can be found in their claims to be "the party of law and order," while they heap contempt on the officers who defended the Capitol and want them to get to the bottom of that attack Bad faith can be found in their claims to be the party of patriotism, as they defend Confederate monuments and defending the Jan. 6 insurrectionists from scrutiny or consequences, paving the way for the next attempted overthrow of government.

When journalists cannot honestly report what is happening, when they normalize the ongoing destruction of democracy, they become complicit in it. When their posture of balance makes the world more illegible, so that democratic self-governance becomes all but impossible, they're no longer journalists. They have become propagandists, and cannot be allowed to define the standards of a profession they no longer practice.

The Christian nationalist assault on democracy goes stealth — but the pushback is working

In April 2018, researcher Frederick Clarkson exposed the existence of Project Blitz, a secretive Christian nationalist "bill mill" operating below the radar to shape and enact legislation in dozens of states, using a network of state "prayer caucuses," many of which had unsuspecting Democratic members. Its plan was to start with innocent-seeming bills, such as requiring public schools to display the national motto, "In God We Trust," and to culminate with laying the foundations for a "Handmaid's Tale"-style theocracy, enshrining bigotry in law under the guise of "religious freedom."

Salon was the first to report and build on Clarkson's findings, as well as subsequent progressive organizing efforts which eventually drove Project Blitz back underground, following a high-profile USA Today exposé (Salon follow-up here.) Now, three years later, Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, has unearthed the playbooks Project Blitz has used since going dark, and discussed their implications with Salon in an exclusive interview.

"The playbooks advise legislators to cloak their religious mission in the guise of more secular intentions and they've renamed several bills to make them sound more appealing," Clarkson reported at Religion Dispatches. But there's another, more hopeful message: These playbooks "also tell a story of the resilience of democratic institutions and leaders in the face of movements seeking to undermine or end them."

Clarkson told Salon, "While most people to the left of the Christian right view the Project Blitz playbook with revulsion, I see it as a gift to democracy. The playbook and their accompanying briefings and events laid bare their intentions and their game plan." Because of that, he continued, "We were handed a vital tool for the defense of democratic values and, arguably, the wider defense of democracy itself. The things that happened in response, I think, are underappreciated, even by some of those who should be taking great pride in their victories."

In particular, Clarkson said, "We were fortunate that Rachel Laser, the then-new president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recognized this right away and made taking on Project Blitz a signature campaign of her presidency." One highlight of Laser's work was "organizing dozens of national religious and civil rights organizations to issue a joint letter to state legislators opposing the anti-democratic, Christian nationalist intention" behind Project Blitz.

He also cited the webinars staged for various national groups by Alison Gill of American Atheists, Elizabeth Reiner Platt of Columbia University Law School and Clarkson himself, which "laid out the implications of the Project Blitz campaign," Clarkson said. (My reporting on that is here.) That in turn led to the formation of Blitz Watch, which focused attention on the continuing threat.

In Clarkson's article for Religion Dispatches, he writes, "In 2020, depending on how one counts, 92 bills were introduced, 8 of which passed. In 2021, so far, 74 bills have been introduced, 14 of which have passed, according to Blitz Watch." So Project Blitz is still in action, and still a threat. But it's not the massive and successful onslaught that its founders intended and hoped for — and the fact that it was forced into stealth mode shows how successful the pushback has been.

At the end of his story, Clarkson offers this summary:

The ongoing exposure and response to Project Blitz has taught us several things. First, that it's possible to stand up to and prevail against anti-democratic movements and measures, and that our democratic institutions are more resilient than they sometimes seem. Sen. John Marty showed that — when he spoke up for the integrity of his faith and stood down a national smear campaign led by Fox News, as noted earlier. Librarians and their allies showed that, even in the face of demagogic attacks on the competence and integrity of public libraries, state legislators could be made to see reason. Efforts since 2018 by scores of national organizations organized by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Blitz Watch, have also shown that it's possible to defend democracy and its institutions against a secretive and formidable opponent of democratic values, and of democracy itself. What's more, journalism has once again shown that sunlight remains the best disinfectant.


Elaborating on this last point, Clarkson told Salon, "Scores of national media outlets covered either Project Blitz directly, or covered the patterns of bills introduced in legislatures across the country, especially the most common, In God We Trust bills…. Thus Project Blitz was exposed as part of wider problem of manipulation of state legislatures, and found itself compared to the tobacco and the pornography industries as corruptors of democratic institutions."

What's equally important is that these lessons can also provide tools and strategies to counter the right's latest culture war offensive — the racist backlash flying under the banner of fighting "critical race theory." Although the two campaigns are dissimilar in some respects, in both cases the right is defending a founding myth (America as a "Christian nation," or America as a flawless "beacon of liberty") and perverting or taking hostage a progressive value to claim it as their own (religious freedom or racial equality). In both cases, the reliance on blatant deception tells us that conservatives themselves understand that progressives hold the stronger hand. The right may be more mobilized now — just as it was before Project Blitz was first exposed — but it won't win if progressives can learn, and adapt, the lessons of their recent success.

As Clarkson first reported, Project Blitz originally divided its bills into three tiers. The first tier aimed at importing the Christian nationalist worldview into public schools and other aspects of the public sphere. A signature example is display of the motto, "In God We Trust," a Cold War replacement for "E pluribus unum" — out of many, one — which better reflects America's pragmatic, pluralist foundations.

The second tier, "Resolutions and Proclamations Recognizing the Importance of Religious History and Freedom," aimed at making government a partner in "Christianizing" America, largely by promoting bogus historical narratives. For example, Clarkson told me, the model "Civic Literacy Act and the Religion in History Acts," required the study or posting of "the founding documents" in the public schools, but with a twist:

"Curiously, the Mayflower Compact is included as a founding document," he said, "but there is no mention of the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty [the law Thomas Jefferson wrote which served as the model for the First Amendment] ... because it throws a monkey wrench into the Christian nationalist narrative, which seeks to link Christianity and national identity from the British colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth to the present."

The third tier contained three types of proposed laws that "protect" religious beliefs and practices specifically intended to benefit bigotry. "Although category three is divided in three parts, you could also see it as having two main underlying intentions," Clarkson explained in a later story. "First to denigrate the LGBTQ community, and second to defend and advance the right to discriminate. This is one way that the agenda of theocratic dominionism is reframed as protecting the right of theocrats to discriminate against those deemed second-class, at best. As the late theocratic theologian R.J. Rushdoony said, 'Only the right have rights.'"

The basic structure of Project Blitz's agenda hasn't changed much, but its presentation has. "The 2020-2021 playbook offers slicker arguments than previous years," Clarkson notes. "For example, they deny that they seek a theocracy, try not to be overtly Christian, present secular arguments for their legislation and attempt to give the appearance that they respect religious pluralism. But they don't quite succeed."

The contradictions he notes are not surprising. Authors of these proposed laws insist, for example, that they're not out to "change our model of government into a theocracy" and that the bills don't "mimic or enact any particular religious code." But the inclusion of "The Ten Commandments Display Act" isn't very convincing on that score. They further insist that the model bills promote "religious tolerance" and "do not force any religion on anyone," yet the "National Motto Display Act" calls for the posting of the Christian religious slogan "In God We Trust" in public schools and buildings. Still they allege that "tolerance [is] sorely lacking in those who reject various aspects of religious teaching," an old talking point that frames rejection of imposed religion in public spaces as "intolerance."

That last point is another example of how the right attempts to usurp progressive values and turn them on their heads. It also represents an attempt to erase religious liberals, progressives and radicals from the public sphere, by pretending that only "secular humanists" can possibly oppose what they are doing.

The 2019-2020 playbook was more narrowly focused, dealing only with bills related to sexual orientation and gender identity. That made sense, since it was the rapid shift in public attitudes around LGBTQ rights that put the religious right into its current defensive posture, out of which it conceived its counter-offensive: recasting religious bigotry as a defining feature of faith, and claiming a right to discriminate as an essential aspect of "religious freedom." The fact that the other tiers were dropped from the 2019-2020 playbook is a tell of sorts — but of course the playbook's authors never expected it to become public.

The 2020-2021 playbook returned to the full three-tier format, under a new rubric of "categories," adding two additional ones. "Category 4 offers 'talking points to counter anti-religious freedom legislation,' which is simply a breakout of the talking points previously included in other sections," Clarkson notes, while "Category 5 provides four new model policies dealing with prayer in public settings — three for public school settings and one for municipal settings, such as city council meetings."

One important new ingredient

One new bill that Clarkson draws attention to would criminalize libraries and librarians, and became infamous even before Project Blitz adopted it:

The "Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act," introduced by then-freshman Missouri State Rep. Ben Baker (R-Neosho), ignited a state and national controversy in January 2020 shortly after he took office. …
His bill sought to create "parental review boards" with the authority to "convene public hearings" and restrict access to anything they deemed "age-inappropriate sexual materials." Not only would their decisions be "final," but the bill also prescribed fines or jail for librarians who "willingly" violated board decrees regarding what is inappropriate, and included the potential state defunding of libraries accused of violating the statute.

This bill is deceptive in two key ways. First, as Clarkson notes, it "feigns a democratic method to achieve an anti-democratic result." These board members wouldn't be chosen in a general election, but by voters who show up in person at a scheduled public meeting where the issue is raised. "Thus the boards could be elected by small groups of zealots able to pack an otherwise routine evening meeting of a town council," Clarkson writes. These boards would then be given powers to overrule existing library boards, which are either democratically elected or appointed by democratically elected officials. In short, this is an attack on local democratic control, the very principle it pretends to embody.

The second deception is over the term "age-inappropriate sexual materials," since the impetus for the original bill wasn't about sexual content at all, but rather gender representation:

Baker said he was originally concerned about the popular-but-sometimes-controversialDrag Queen Story Hour in libraries and bookstores around the country.
Drag Queen Story Hour describes its events simply as "drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools, and bookstores … [where] kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress up is real."

Baker sees something more sinister at work. Any break in rigid gender stereotypes is inherently subversive to his snowflake sensibilities, as he explained to the New York Times: "What inspired this bill is becoming aware of what is taking place at our publicly funded libraries with events like Drag Queen Story Hour, and materials that have a clear agenda of grooming our children for the L.G.B.T.Q. community with adult themes and content that fit the description of a objectionable sexual nature."

In this worldview, any breakdown in rigid gender stereotypes is associated with "grooming our children" for the LGBTQ community," a trope used by the right dating back at least to the Eisenhower-era John Birch Society, when scientific knowledge about gender orientation and identity was virtually nonexistent. Not only does this lack any scientific credibility, it's also a hysterical overreaction, since no one is forced to attend Drag Queen Story Hour. If this law were passed, as an official with American Library Association warned, not just Drag Queen Story Hour could be censored, but also displays relating to Pride Month, Black History Month and other specific commemorations.

This attempted intrusion into local library politics is just one example of how Project Blitz overlaps with the new wave of white backlash under the banner of fighting "critical race theory." For several decades, he right has repeatedly mobilized to take over nonpartisan school boards, and occasionally library boards, as a way of building grassroots power and grooming candidates for higher office. Such elections usually have low turnout and relatively little campaign organization, which makes them attractive targets for extremists running scare-tactic campaigns. The parental oversight bill takes things one step further by empowering small activist groups who invadie local government meetings, but the organizing principle is the same: Use fear and stealth to seize power, and use simulated democratic legitimacy to advance a divisive, reactionary agenda.

These library-centered battles served to underscore a broader point that Clarkson made to Salon. "When people are invested in democratic institutions like public libraries, or any aspect of government, it is important not to 'other-ize' government, which in a democratic society is intended to be an expression and function of what we need and want to do together, and is necessarily an expression of democratic values," Clarkson said.

"That librarians and allies around the country rallied to the defense of the archives of democratic knowledge, culture and practice is a case example of how we need not be bullied by Christian right demagoguery. Screechy charges may make headlines and bring in ad revenue on right-wing talk radio, but most people, most of the time, do not want their schools and libraries messed with by authoritarian bigots and mobs of the easily led."

Reflecting on lessons learned

Exposure was the key to success, according to two important figures in this struggle, both mentioned above. Rachel Laser is president of Americans United For Separation of Church and State, and Alison Gill is vice president for legal and policy matters at American Atheists.

"To oppose Project Blitz effectively, we first had to raise awareness about this campaign," Gill said.

"Project Blitz's strategy was to start with seemingly less controversial legislation that organizers thought they could slip past the public," Laser said, "then build to even more harmful, more controversial bills. They had some success early on. But once we exposed that strategy and people became aware of Project Blitz and its agenda of codifying Christian nationalism, the initiative began to unravel, because people don't want to force religious beliefs on public schoolchildren and they don't want our laws to license discrimination in the name of religious freedom."

Gill focused more on exposing the secretive workings behind the Project Blitz operation. "At first, the campaign worked discreetly and without broadcasting their intentions to lure unsuspecting lawmakers into state prayer caucuses," she said. "These caucuses then provided a structure with which to pursue the Project Blitz legislation. By elevating the campaign to media and lawmakers, highlighting its connection to Christian nationalism and showing that these bills were not organically driven by in-state interest, we succeeded in neutralizing their advantage."

Gill cited two other lessons as well. "Our work to oppose Project Blitz reinforced the importance of cross-movement collaboration," she said. "Project Blitz is a campaign that targets civil rights in multiple fields — LGBTQ equality, access to reproductive services and religious equality — and so coordination with organizations across affected movements was required to effectively oppose it."

That took time and crucial information, Laser added: "It wasn't until we learned of the Project Blitz playbook and their organizing strategy that we were able to build a coalition of allies to fight this movement at its source, rather than only state by state and bill by bill."

Gill cites the pooling of resources as another important factor. "Project Blitz provided Christian nationalist lawmakers and activists with all the tools they needed in one place to pursue these bills and flood state legislatures with harmful legislation," she said. "However, the resources necessary to oppose these varied bills were scattered and less organized, so initially the opposition work was less cohesive. By bringing advocacy and messaging resources together at BlitzWatch.org, we helped ensure that lawmakers and advocates opposing Project Blitz had access to all of these tools."

More worrisome than Project Blitz itself, Gill said, are the forces behind it. "The same forces pushing forward Project Blitz have now seized upon new issues, and they are already flooding state legislatures with dangerous model bills," she said. "There were at least four major waves of harmful legislation propagated in 2021: anti-trans youth legislation, religious exemptions to COVID-related public health protections, broad denial-of-care bills, and bills that undermine abortion access."

Of those, she says the most dangerous element is a "renewed emphasis on Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) measures at the state level. RFRAs create a limited exemption from state laws whenever religious organizations say that their activities are burdened. RFRAs have been used to attack nondiscrimination protections, access to contraception and abortion, and even child labor laws."

Such laws were a major focus of conservative activism during Barack Obama's presidency, although "none were successfully passed after significant public setbacks in 2015 in states like Indiana," Gill noted. "In the wake of the pandemic and state-imposed public health restrictions," she said, "activists have rebranded these bills as necessary to protect churches from government overreach." Three states — Arkansas, Montana and South Dakota — passed RFRAs this year, and we should expect to see many more coming in 2022, she warns.

It's also important to consider how these lessons can be applied to the racist backlash formulated around the bogeyman term "critical race theory," which Fox News has repeated thousands of times without ever clearly defining it. This can be seen in the state legislative map as well. Chalkbeat has tracked efforts in 27 states to "restrict education on racism, bias, the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history, or related topics," compared to efforts in 12 states to expand education. Brookings reports that seven states have passed such laws, though only one explicitly mentions "critical race theory." Brookings lists actions taken by state boards of education, other state actors and local school boards as well. So the scope of right-wing activism is clear, as is the need for an effective response.

For Laser, the parallels are clear. "White Christian nationalism is the belief that America is and must remain a Christian nation founded for its white Christian inhabitants, and that our laws and policies must reflect this premise," she said. "They completely reject church-state separation. White Christian nationalists oppose equality for people of color, women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and the nonreligious.

"The same white Christian nationalist ideology that is behind Project Blitz is also driving the backlash against a deliberate caricature of critical race theory," she continued. "Therefore, a similar strategy to the one that has hamstrung Project Blitz — recapturing the narrative about our nation's ideals, exposing the real intent of the extremists, making clear how their agenda harms freedom and equality for all of us, and bringing together a diverse coalition of people and groups to speak out against this harmful movement — should be part of the strategy to combat opponents of racial justice."

Gill sees similarities, but differences as well. "Both campaigns are similar in that they focus on redefining and manipulating language for political advantage — 'religious freedom' and 'critical race theory,' respectively," she said. "However, there are also significant differences. The anti-CRT campaigns seem at once better funded and less organized than Project Blitz. Moreover, there is a degree of moral panic associated with the anti-CRT efforts that was not as present for Project Blitz."

Still, she offered three specific lessons learned from the resistance to Project Blitz:

  1. Raise awareness about the anti-CRT campaign and bring to light where it came from, who is funding it and for what purposes.
  2. Build collaboration between the various sectors that support diversity education in schools to push back against anti-CRT efforts. Successful coalitions must include educators, experts in diversity education, political leaders, civil rights leaders, parents and students.
  3. Ensure that tools and messaging to oppose anti-CRT efforts are effective and widely available.

If America's founding was really "as pristine as the religious myth requires it to be," Clarkson observed, "it cannot be marked by the racism and genocide that the facts of history reveal. History is thus an existential crisis for Christian nationalist beliefs. That's why history must be revised and the evils that mark so much of our history be erased, rather than acknowledged and addressed. The attack on the straw man of CRT is of a piece with what we might call the purification of American history in the name of God's history."

But history and politics tend to be messy, not pure. "The Christian right, supported in part by the Project Blitz playbooks, is using — and mastering — the tools and institutions of democracy in order to erode or end them," Clarkson said. "They know that well-organized factions can win elections, beginning with low-turnout party primaries, and that the Christian Right minority can gain the mantle of democratic legitimacy by out-organizing those of us who actually believe in it." So it's up to "everyone to the left of the Christian Right," as Clarkson puts it, to mobilize for democracy.

"This includes identifying some common approaches to history, as well as religious freedom, which will remain a battleground," he said, "as well as better approaches to electoral organization at all levels of government. This will mean jumping into electoral democracy with both feet, and learning the mechanics and calendar of electoral democracy." This may mean, he warns, avoiding the distractions of cable news, social media and other forms of entertainment in favor of real-world organizing. "To borrow from and with apologies to the late Gil Scott-Heron," Clarkson said, "the mobilization will not be televised."

An edition of the Bible aimed at right-wing evangelicals has quietly scrubbed references to slavery and 'the Jews'

Long before Donald Trump made attacks against "political correctness" a key theme of his 2016 election campaign, evangelical leaders like Wayne Grudem, author of "Systematic Theology", have railed against it, particularly when they see it invading their turf — with gender-neutral language in Bible translations, for instance. But a new study by Samuel Perry, co-author of "Taking America Back for God" (I've previously interviewed his co-author, sociologist Andrew Whitehead), finds Grudem himself involved in much the same thing.

"Whitewashing Evangelical Scripture: The Case of Slavery and Antisemitism in the English Standard Version," looks at how successive translations have changed in the English Standard Version of the Bible, for which Grudem serves on the oversight committee.

In revisions from 2001 through 2016, Perry shows, the word "slave" first gains a footnote, then moves to the footnote and then disappears entirely — in some contexts, like Colossians 3:22, though not others — to be replaced by the word "bondservant," which could be described as a politically correct euphemism. A similar strategy is used to handle antisemitic language as well, Perry shows.

It's one thing for politicians to hypocritically switch positions mid-air, or hold contradictory positions simultaneously, but it's quite another thing for theologians — or at least it's supposed to be. Evangelical Christians in particular are supposed to revere the literal truth of the Bible, not fiddle around with it to make it sound better to contemporary audiences. So Perry's findings deserve much wider attention, which is why Salon reached out to discuss what he discovered and what to make of it. The interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Your paper examines how a recent Bible translation was successively revised to tone down and ultimately erase language supporting slavery and antisemitism — in effect, to make the Bible more "politically correct," more in tune with contemporary moral sensibilities, although those doing so would surely object to that characterization. How would you characterize their work?

It's a fascinating story. All Bible translations have to navigate these waters, so the English Standard Version is really just an example of it, and they're kind of a fascinating example because they have marketed themselves as an essentially literal translation that resists the PC push. The general editor, Wayne Grudem, had for years denounced contemporary Bible translations, like the New International Version, for doing those kinds of things: becoming PC, changing the language to conform to modern sensibilities, that kind of thing, especially with regard to gender.

So for years they have said, "Hey, we're not going to translate certain things in a gender-neutral fashion, because we want to be as literal as possible, and if you like that it's capitulating to the feminist PC culture." So ESV has marketed themselves as a very popular evangelical translation that is used most faithfully by complementarian Protestant Christians for that reason: because it's conservative and because it's supposed to be literal.

But at the same time, the fact that that the "slave" language in the New Testament is so obvious creates a real apologetics problem, because of all this talk about "slaves obeying your masters," and how slaves should subject themselves not only to good masters but bad masters, and how slaves should stay in the station of life where they were called. It creates this really ugly impression of the New Testament, and especially Paul advocating for slavery.

So what you can see in the English Standard Version is that with each successive wave, from the 2001 revision of the Revised Standard Version to the 2011 revision and then finally in 2016, our most recent revision, was that they started by introducing a footnote in 2001 to the "slave" word, and then in 2011 they replace the slave word and put it in a footnote, and then they said, "We're going to call this a bondservant. So it's different from a slave."

By 2016 they didn't use slave language at all. If you read that translation you would have no idea that the original translation — and I think the most appropriate translation — would be "slave." All you see is this kind of Christian-used churchy word "bondservant," which you never hear outside of a biblical reference. Nobody knows what that means, but it's a way that the English Standard Version and other Bibles like it can kind of say, "Hey, these are slaves, but they're not real, real slaves. They're not really bad slaves like we think of in the antebellum South, like chattel slavery. It's something different."

So they're changing the text on one hand, while pretending to be more faithful on the other?

Yes. What I write about this in this article is an example of the way evangelical Bibles try to do both things. On the one hand they're trying to appeal to people within their community, and to say, "Hey, we interpret the Bible faithfully and consistently," but at the same time, they're also trying to translate such that they can avoid charges that the Bible is socially regressive and condones oppressive relationships and is socially or culturally backward. So this is kind of an example of that.

In previous studies, I showed how the English Standard Version, in particular, had actually taken the Revised Standard Version of 1971 and made the gender language more conservative. So what they did with the slave language, they did the opposite with the gender language. They actually made gender language more complementarian, more about men's and women's roles, and that kind of thing.

So ultimately this is a broader project of mine on demonstrating how really Bibles are constructed by individual choices by groups who have incentives. I don't mean incentives monetarily, though sometimes money is involved, like the consumer market. All these Bibles have to sell. But oftentimes there are culture-war issues going on. They want to be able to demonstrate, "Hey, the Bible is not culturally regressive. Look, there's no slave language at all!" Or they want to be able to say that the Bible endorses women submitting to their husbands: "Look how clear it is right here!"

So what you can do is just adjust the language here and there in the translation and make it back your own theological preference, or the preference of the people you're trying to market that Bible to. And this is fascinating thing. It's so interesting when you think about how fluid the language can be, based on whatever purposes you need, whoever you're marketing that Bible to.

But that's part of a much broader phenomenon, isn't it? I mean, you specifically say that it's not unique.

Let me give you another example. This is one I don't talk about in the article. The English Standard Version has been adopted recently by the Gideons — you know, the people who put Bibles in hotel rooms. So for years, the King James Version was the Gideon Bible. They later moved to the New King James, but since 2012 the Gideons weren't going to use the King James anymore, they were going to use the ESV.

They worked out a deal with Crossway, the makers of the ESV, to adjust some of the language in the ESV to conform to the preferences that the Gideons wanted, because they had always had the King James Version and they liked that. So certain verses and texts in the ESV were modified to conform to the preferences of the Gideons, who were going to buy massive amounts of Bibles and wanted to bring it into greater conformity with the KJV. They're not drastic changes, yet the ESV folks were willing to compromise on the language. It was like, "Hey, if this is what your group needs, sure. We'll move some stuff to footnotes, we'll change stuff around here and there."

There's all kinds of things that go on like that, but in the example I'm talking about here it's about how this particular Bible which has a reputation for being anti-PC is pretty clearly moving toward greater political correctness, so that they can avoid the charges of promoting slavery.

What about the issue of antisemitism? That was handled differently but along similar lines, was it not?

Again, Wayne Grudem is a culture warrior. Within the last five years he became kind of a shill for Donald Trump. He went on record several times to talk about why Christians should vote for Trump, and wrote a shocking, breathtaking article where he argued that he didn't think Trump had ever intentionally lied. He said, like, Trump may bend the truth or may not know all the facts, but he never intentionally lied, which makes my head explode.

So Wayne Grudem is a culture warrior, politically active, a very conservative anti-PC guy. He had for years argued against any change. Especially in the Gospel of John, there's lots of instances where John talks about this group that literally is translated as "the Jews." That's exactly what he's saying, he's saying "the Jews." But if you actually read the things that he's saying about this group called "the Jews," it's really ugly. They are chasing the apostles around, they're persecuting Jesus, they're scheming, they're looking for an opportunity to kill him. They just look like murderous, scheming people. Paul does this several times as well. So most modern New Testament translations have modified that language. They don't translate that word as "the Jews" anymore because it sounds blatantly antisemitic. What they do is they translate it, like, "Jewish leaders" or "religious leaders" or something like that, so they specify, these are the bad ones, these aren't all the Jews.

But the ESV and Wayne Grudem have for years said, "Oh, you guys are PC wimps for doing that." But the editorial committee of the ESV has realized over time that it looks really, really ugly. So what they've had to do is to introduce footnotes over time, where they can qualify when they use that word "the Jews." They do it strategically, because it's not every time you see the word "the Jews." But every time you see the words "the Jews" and the context is "Hey, this is a really bad group of people," they put an asterisk there, and a footnote that says, "Hey, no, John is not referring to all the Jews. This is probably just a group of religious leaders who are persecuting Jesus and his followers."

These are just examples of how Bibles get modified and adjusted in order to make them more palatable and attractive, and by extension make Christianity more palatable and attractive. That's the end goal, and part of it is about making that Bible more usable and user-friendly. In a broader scheme, these people are Christians and they want people to find Christianity attractive too. They want to be able to guard against accusations that Christianity is OK with slavery and antisemitism. So you've got to head that accusation off by helping your people out a little bit, putting a footnote in there, changing the language.

You begin your article by saying, "Religious communities in pluralistic societies often hold in tension the task of reinforcing core identities and ideals within the community while negotiating public relations among those outside the community." You add, "Christian communities have sought to accomplish both projects materially through Bible modification." The first task is accomplished via what scholars have called "transitivity." What does that mean?

Transitivity is not my word. That was come up with by a scholar named Brian Malley, who is a cognitive anthropologist. About 20 years ago he wrote a great and, I think, very underrated book called "How the Bible Works." One of the things he writes about is how evangelical Bible study isn't really an attempt to get meaning out of the text, as if people were coming to it like blank slates. What happens within a group context is that groups come to the Bible with theological presuppositions. They already have an idea what the Bible is. What they do together is they basically try to explain how the text that they are reading affirms what they already believe.

So they'll come to the text and they'll find a verse and they'll try to fit that verse within their broader scheme. "OK, this is what we think God is all about, this is what we know he likes and prefers, this is what we believe." This is why you end up with so drastically different readings of the Bible. This is why when Democrats come to the Bible, Jesus ends up looking like a Democrat and when Republicans come to the Bible, he sure does look like a Republican. We oftentimes just bring our own biases and lenses and interpret a passage of scripture with that. So transitivity, and how Bible translations really reinforce this transitivity project, is because they can adjust the content of the Bible to support what the community already believes.

This is a more general process, right? It's not just the ESV?

This isn't just the English Standard Version, this is all of these translations. Really blatant examples would be things like the 1995 project called "The New Testament and Psalms, An Inclusive Version." This translation team took the New Revised Standard Version and said, "You know what, we don't believe that God would want to translate anything that would support racism, antisemitism, ableism or any kind of gender identity at all." So they went through that Bible and they removed all traces of gendered language — God is no longer "father," he is "a parent" or "father/ mother," Jesus is not "the son," he's "the child." So they made the Bible conform to their own beliefs of what they felt God would like and God would want. That was an example of a transitivity project. They were making the Bible conform to their own views, and ESV has also done that with respect to gender. They made the gendered language of the RSV more conservative, so that it would back up their own theological and cultural preference.

You have coined a new term, "intransitivity." What does that mean, and what's a good example?

The gendered language of the ESV is a transitivity move, making the text conform to your own tribal or cultural positions. "Intransitivity" refers to the idea that you're trying to eliminate the possibility of a negative evaluation of your own group or the Bible by translating a passage in a more culturally acceptable way. Establishing intransitivity means you're trying to cut off the possibility of a negative social interpretation.

So retranslating those passages about "the Jews" to be about "religious leaders" or "the Jewish leaders" or that kind of thing is an intransitivity project. It is a move to be able to cut off outsiders who say, "Hey Christianity is antisemitic and the Bible is antisemitic." They can say, "No, that's not how the verses read." The same with the slavery example. You cut off the negative social interpretations by saying "No, these are 'bondsmen,' not slaves."

You go on to say that this study examines the ways evangelical translation teams seek to accomplish both agendas simultaneously — the transitivity and intransitivity agendas — creating a "materialized instantiation of engaged orthodoxy." What does that mean?

"Engaged orthodoxy" is the sociologist Christian Smith's term. A little over 20 years ago he talked about evangelicals as this unique group, in that they hold two ideas in tension. One is that they want to be different from the culture and they want to have distinct theological identities, so they value theological conservatism. It's self-policing. You can see this now, it's the most obvious thing in the world. All the debates are about, you know, are we leaving our orthodox theological roots by coming to be more culturally adaptive or "woke" or whatever?

So evangelicals want to be orthodox, and they desire that aggressively. And yet a part of evangelical identity is also that we are not retreating from the world, we are engaging the culture. You can call it culture warfare, and that's part of it, but there's a mandate to transform the culture with the gospel. So engaged orthodoxy is this idea that we are fighting for cultural distinctiveness and orthodox theology, yet at the same time we are engaged in the fight, we are trying to influence people who are outsiders with the gospel, with the Bible and with our culture.

So when I say a "materialized instantiation of engaged orthodoxy," what I mean is that through both of these moves with the Bible — they're trying to modify the Bible to make it conform to their own theologically conservative faith, while at the same time modifying other parts of the Bible to avoid negative characterizations of the Bible and their faith — they're engaging in this process of engaged orthodoxy. They're trying to be orthodox and conservative, while at the same time not trying to put up unnecessary barriers to people finding the faith attractive. So they want to be conservative, but they don't want to be blatantly racist or blatantly oppressive, that's just too far, that's too much.

Yes. That sounds tricky!

They really find themselves in a pickle sometimes because of examples like Wayne Grudem, who trashes PC Bible modification, and says, "Hey, we need to be conservative and literal," yet at the same time they don't want to translate things too literally, because it ends up looking pretty negative if you're talking about slave language or antisemitism. So they have to be subtle, which is one of the reasons why they don't necessarily announce all the changes that they make. They just change stuff sometimes. Sometimes they announce it, sometimes they explain it. Other times they just kind of do it. They make changes and don't really broadcast that, because they want to make people feel like "Hey, this the Bible, not something that is our little project that we keep on modifying."

You draw attention to the fact that changes were made to the ESV in 2001 without being talked about, but then in 2011 they actually announced it in the preface. What did they say in that preface, and what did that accomplish?

In the preface they started to telegraph that they're going to change some of the slave language and gave a little bit of the reasoning. But the reasoning they provide is intended to support the change that they wanted to make for, I think, more politically correct kinds of reasons. So they're trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to be characterized as a literal translation that is faithful and they don't want to come across as capitulating to the culture or being politically correct, Grudem really backs them into a corner that way.

They don't sell to their target audience of conservative evangelicals on the basis of being politically correct; they sell because they're literal or because they're faithful. So what they were trying to do in that preface was explain that these words for slave in the Old Testament and New Testament—in the Old Testament it's ebed, and in Greek, in the New Testament, it's doulos. So what they're arguing in the preface is that, hey, in the Old Testament and the New Testament, sometimes that slave language, those words, could be used to define a broad spectrum of relationships. Sometimes it describes people who are legitimately like slaves, and other times it describes something more like a servant or a bondservant, somebody who's not necessarily volunteering for it, but who could benefit from the relationship and earn money, and even get their freedom someday.

So they're trying to set the reader up to say, "We sometimes translate these words differently depending on the context," because sometimes what they feel the authors have in view is not "slave" like we talk about in the South, where you are a slave on the basis of race, you are a slave for life and so are your children.

So that's their theory. How good a theory is it?

The only problem with that is that most scholars that I've read and respect on these issues would argue that what both the Old and New Testament authors have in mind really is a slave. It's not like this weird, churchy word "bondservant," which is intended, I think, to create some rhetorical difference between what a slave really was and this kind of nice version of slavery that Christians would like to pretend the Bible talks about.

But it doesn't really exist. It was still dehumanizing. It was still somebody who, like your children, was property. You were still owned by people and you couldn't just leave if you wanted to. That wasn't the deal. So it kind of attempts, on the part of evangelicals, to introduce an idea that, like, slavery wasn't so bad sometimes, rather than just saying, "Hey, it's a slave."

What happened in the preface in 2011 was that the ESV said, "We need to change these words so that we can make these relationships a little bit less offensive." Ultimately they're saying, "We don't want you to think, every time you hear the word 'slave' in the New Testament or the Old Testament, about Southern Dixie slavery, because that's really ugly. That sounds really bad." If the New Testament is saying "slave, obey your master," that sounds really horrible, and it is really horrible. That creates a problem that they try to solve with this translation.

You're focused on the key process of biblical revision. But there's a larger cultural process and historical record to consider. Historically, biblical references to slavery played a central role in justifying it, especially as abolitionist sentiment increased from 1830 onward. All the distancing in the world can't change that history. More recently, anti-abortion evangelicals have tried to claim the abolitionist mantel for themselves, likening Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision, while also ignoring their own historical indifference, if not acceptance, to Roe when it was decided, given the Bible's silence about abortion. How do you think your analysis should be seen in terms of this broader framework of claiming spiritual, moral and political authority?

I think the strategy of Bible modification is actually a way to solve some of that historical, reputational problem. As you say, there there is a record of evangelical Christians using the Bible to condone and defend slavery as an institution, because it is obviously there and it's easy to do, given that the New Testament authors didn't condemn it in any way, and in many ways enabled and justified it as an institution,. That was readily used by pro-slavery advocates in the antebellum South, and under Jim Crow for issues like segregation. Even up to the late 1990s, Bob Jones University was citing biblical references for segregation or prohibiting interracial dating on campus.

Bible modification is a way that you can clean that up by saying, "You know what? These people were obviously misinterpreting scripture, because it's right there. Look, it doesn't say 'slave,' it says, 'bondservant'!" You can point back at this group of conservative Christians in the past as people who misunderstood the Bible, rather than reading it in the plain language like we have it now. That is very important in this evangelical culture of biblicism: They want to interpret the Bible in plain language, and to be able to do that you have to adjust the language, to make it conform to exactly what you want to say.

What about the anti-abortion side of this?

I haven't detected any instances of Bible modification that are "pro-life" angles, though I think you see gestures toward that. For example, Andy Schlafly, the founder of Conservapedia, said in 2009 that he was going to start something called the Conservative Bible Project, where they say explicitly, "We're going to going to retranslate the Bible to conform to conservative political leanings. We're going to fight the liberalism that has crept into Bible translations." They said on the front end that they were going to translate the Bible such as to highlight the pro-life implications of certain texts. They're transparently saying that they want to elevate this kind of cultural interpretation, this political interpretation, that is more squarely biblical. They're reverse-engineering it.

I was just looking at the phenomenon of proof-texting pro-life verses this morning. I was reading over Focus on the Family verses that they have put together to argue for pro-life positions. It is interesting how selective those texts end up being — texts about how "God does not punish the children for the sins of the parents." Using that as a response to, "Well, what what about abortion in the case of rape or incest" by pointing to those verses is a pretty selective reading, given that God explicitly commands the wiping out the Canaanites, including children, including women who were with child, including children who in the womb.

So there are obviously instances in the Old Testament where you can argue that Yahweh formally commands [abortion], and you get this obviously selective reading of key texts. From there, I think it's a pretty small step to, "OK, how do we how we get rid of these problematic verses? How do we make these verses conform?"

If I were to pay attention to where I think those changes might pop up, it would be passages where God in the Old Testament formally commands the wiping out of Canaanites, the putting to death of women with children or of young children. Those are particularly problematic, given the pro-life leanings of evangelicals.

What's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer?

I would like to underscore that this isn't just a problem with the English Standard Version. The ESV is a really explicit example because they're relatively young and you can see how they're revised the text over time pretty clearly. So they end up being a really fascinating example of this.

But I think you can also see examples of the New International Version cleaning up its translation over time to become, in some ways, more politically correct. It's a fascinating story in itself, because in the mid 2000s you have all this controversy about gendered language, and the NIV feels pressured to say, "OK, we won't do this, we won't make the language inclusive," because all these evangelicals spoke out against it.

Well, eventually they did it anyway, in the form of what's called Today's New International Version in 2005. Well, that gets panned by evangelicals, nobody buys it, it's a sales failure. So they pull Today's New International Version off the shelves, and they no longer sell it. But then they did a revision of the NIV where they basically just snuck in all the translations they did in 2005, except now it's called the "New International Version, 2011 edition."

So that's an example of how the NIV translation team, the Committee on Bible Translation at Zondervan, wanted to appeal to evangelicals because that's their primary consumer market, while at the same time adjusting the text to be more user-friendly for those outside conservative evangelicalism. That's another example of this tendency toward Bible modification in the direction of both trying to appeal to one subculture while also trying to appeal to those outside the culture.

This forecaster predicted Democrats' big wins in 2018. Now she's trying to stop them from losing in 2022

Political scientist Rachel Bitecofer made a name for herself as an election analyst who saw the 2018 blue wave coming long before anyone else. On July 1 of that year, she presciently predicted a 42-seat gain for Democrats — a near-perfect call, when others still envisioned smaller gains. At the same time, she warned that the landscape would be very difficult for Democrats in 2022, based on the same understanding of negative partisanship and the ways the electorate has changed. The 2018 midterms were a referendum on Donald Trump's presidency more than it was about individual candidates and individual races, she argued, foreseeing that aggrieved Republicans would be similarly motivated in 2022.

Salon's 2019 interview with Bitecofer helped her gain the recognition she deserved, leading to her first appearance on MSNBC's "The Last Word." In that interview, she told Salon:

Under my model, Democrats win the White House in 2020, and then in 2022 they're going to have a very tough electoral cycle, because turnout for Democrats will go back to normal. And because Democrats have poor electoral strategy, they're going to compound that problem, probably by not appealing to Democrats to get them to the polls.

For all the attention Bitecofer gained since that interview, that basic message still hasn't penetrated the Democratic establishment as a whole. So rather than fruitlessly try to change their thinking, Bitecofer has decided to go around them, leaving the academic world and creating her own super PAC — Strike PAC — to do the kind of messaging her research suggests is key to winning elections with today's electorate. There are no big-money donors involved. She's counting on grassroots support to deliver a grassroots message. The first batch of ads she's released paint a clear picture of the threat to democracy the Republican Party now presents, and an equally clear picture of how Democrats should respond.

Salon spoke with Bitecofer about her PAC, this new wave of advertising and the thinking behind them — and of course how she sees next year's critical midterm elections. This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

On "Morning Joe," you said your new PAC "is about bringing a brand offensive against the whole Republican Party. It's not just about Donald Trump, but it definitely includes him." Three things struck me about that. First, that seemed to be exemplified by your ad, "Fuse." Tell me about that one. Why is it shaped the way it is, and why now?

All four of our launch-packet ads are targeted toward different aspects of this branding offensive. "Fuse" is geared towards a national audience. In political advertising, the conventional two types are what we call "persuasion" — which is trying to get voters who don't have a firm vote to come over and vote for you — and the other type is "mobilization," making sure your core voters will show up.

What Strike PAC is doing is not within those two buckets. It certainly has overlap — it's performing both persuasion and mobilization. But what it's arguing is, "Look, the GOP doesn't really run anything except a marketing/branding op and it's predominantly a branding offensive against the left." They don't spend a lot of time on their own brand, but they do spend a lot of time in their messaging on discounting, discrediting and debasing our brand. That will go from everything from economics to the "woke" war, so it's always about showing us as unattractively to voters as possible. We've never answered that.

Democrats, up until now, have been told by their consultants, "Don't worry about it," or "Don't push back on 'socialism' or 'defund the police.'" To their credit, candidates are starting to understand when somebody is lobbing missiles at you, you can't just stand there and pretend it's not hitting. They are starting to try to put forward a response. But the it's a defensive mechanism, it's not offensive. The GOP is saying, "We're going to have a debate about these topics," and when you enter into that field, you are basically on the defense the whole time because you're having a conversation that's been structured by the opposition party.

So that's what "Fuse" is trying to change?

It's flipping that GOP tactic over to our side. It's attacking the Republicans to make a conversation about their anti-democratic power grab, that goes back from contesting the results of 2020, an armed insurrection, Trump actually trying to use the Justice Department to stage a coup, and the Republican Party's wholesale embrace of that.

It's not like Trump did these things and the Republican Party stood against him. They have slowly but surely normalized this anti-democratic behavior. In fact, they have doubled down on it by going into these state legislative sessions trying to restrict voter access for progressive parts of the electorate, even going so far as to put provisions that take the certification process away from nonpartisan actors and into their partisan hands.

That conversation is something you might see if you're me or you, if you're very political, but for the broader electorate it's happening completely invisibly. There's very little media coverage — certainly not saturation coverage like you would see for Clinton's emails — about this power grab, what that means for democracy and what it means for Democrats in the next cycle.

So "Fuse" is about fixing that problem, putting the stakes of 2022 in clear-eyed focus for the other half of the electorate. Because the Republican electorate has been told now for a while that the other side is coming after democracy, right? So it's their belief in a Democratic Party that has been articulated by the GOP. It's completely out of whack of reality, but Republican voters believe that Democrats are trying to "destroy democracy," and what they're doing is saving it. It's not like they don't have a motivation. So we really need this side of the electorate to realize that this meta-conversation about American democracy is on the ballot in 2022.

To me, "bringing a brand offensive" pretty much describes how Republicans have run the vast majority of their national campaigns at least since Ronald Reagan, if not Richard Nixon. Democrats have virtually never done so—not even when Trump first ran in 2016. Why do you think that is?

That's exactly right. You could believe it's a problem that began when polarization really began to take off in the mid-2000s when asymmetry appears, and to some extent that's true, because Republicans developed this technique of making every election a referendum on the Democratic brand. But you're right, it does have its roots back in the 80s.

That said, we really do see a distinct version of the modern GOP that has its origins in that 2004 Bush re-election campaign with Karl Rove, to use the gay marriage issues to turn out on their side, but also to talk about politics — including Senate and House races that might have otherwise been more local — with the intention of making them about the national party, about the national political climate and the national brand. That really starts to solidify with the 2010 midterms. They made it a referendum on Obamacare and Nancy Pelosi, and tied every candidate to that as tightly as they could. So every candidate really didn't stand for re-election on their own performance in office or voting record, things that people think traditionally mattered. Instead, it was all about whether they were a Democrat.

We never made that adjustment at all. In fact, it seems like we don't even really recognize how distinctly different voter behavior in the two coalitions are and how hyper-partisanship has changed things. Whether or not we want that change, it's there, right? We've been grasping for this old-school model of electioneering, it's like when Sega was replaced by Nintendo.

The GOP is running this very strategic, very intentional branding campaign, and we're still talking about politics in terms of policies and things like that. We're arguing that we are making a huge mistake when we're tinkering around in the branches of electioneering infrastructure on the left, because our real problem lies at that root level, where we are not engaged in a campaign technique that matches the moment.

That segues to the third thing I wanted to ask about. "Bringing a brand offensive" sounds like a logical outgrowth of your election analysis in terms of the hyper-polarization driven by negative partisan. So, how did the idea of Strike PAC develop out of your earlier work?

You could say it had its genesis on election night 2020. Around 7 o'clock it was clear that Biden was going to win the presidency — at least to me — with the Midwest swinging back to the Democrats. But it was also becoming increasingly apparent that Democrats had delivered a tremendous underperformance down-ballot. I understood exactly why those two things were, the most important factor being the asymmetry in terms of how they do politicking, how they do campaigns and elections at that messaging and strategic level.

The way that you would nationalize the 2020 campaign down-ballot is that instead of Biden running against Trump, the party should have run against Trump and the Republican brand. You don't make it about one guy, you make it about the whole party embracing and covering for him and staying next to him. But you also make it about economics. Reaganomics has now got a 40-year track record, and it's a total shitshow. It should be easy to eviscerate. In 2020, for example, Democrats could have made the economic argument for the HEROES Act. The HEROES Act was introduced in July and then blocked by Mitch McConnell in the Senate. The Democrats should have been from top to bottom, even at the state legislative level, hammering the Republicans for denying economic aid in a crisis. And that did not happen.

I also saw many things that I assumed would get fixed after 2016 go completely unaddressed. It was dramatically underwhelming in terms of what changed. And then there was suspension of field operations [by Democratic campaigns]. That was a huge mistake. Yes, I understand that, ethically, you do not want people knocking on doors in a pandemic. But when the opposition party is doing it and it is the only thing that really ever shows a measurable effect — at least if you're doing it to mobilize people, not persuade them — then you have to find a way, right?

So I was watching that and I was deeply concerned. At that point I wasn't even sure if Democrats would hold onto the House. It's just unbelievable, they had the best fundamentals you could ever hope for in 2020. You've got a man who's mismanaging this pandemic, completely incompetent. At that point his negligence had led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people and you don't make that a central theme? Like, "Hey! These people can't do government!" So I realized these things were not going to change unless I found a way to do it myself.

While "Fuse" exemplifies the idea of a brand offensive against the GOP, you have another ad that does that as well, "Hold the Republican Party Accountable," which starts with Donald Trump saying, "Part of the problem is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore. You'll never get back our country with weakness." Tell me about this ad.

It's not one that we necessarily would show in its entirety to target voters, because it's a little long. But this ad is about trying to get people to understand that we seem to have two conversations in America. We have the right talking about how extreme and crazy the Democrats are. Then we have Democrats bitching about that, bitching about "woke" culture and self-inflicting. It's like, the Republican Party makes a critique, and then Democrats jump in and start having that conversation too, just amplifying it.

We don't have any conversation on this side about a party that literally is extreme, has an extremism problem which has been quantified throughout dozens of political science articles, and Democrats just assume, "Well everyone knows the Republican Party is extreme."

Actually, the average person on the street, if they're not one of the 10% of people like us and your readers, you ask them about the Republican Party and they are apt to say, "Low taxes, right?"

There's no media ecosystem that's focused on how crazy the Republican Party is. The assumption is that the mainstream press has a liberal bias, but left-wing topics are not centralized in the way that right-wing topics become. There's no intensive conversation about what the Republican Party has been doing for the last five years as it has progressively fallen down the pathway towards fascism. So that ad is about telling that story and tying those disparate events into a cohesive story.

our website says, "We modernize electioneering strategy. STRIKE PAC's electioneering model revolutionizes how Democrats campaign from top to bottom." More specifically, you promise "Messaging that creates a 'reverse' referendum on the GOP by putting them on the defense" and implementing "high-stakes, nationalized messaging maximizing coalitional turnout and conversion." You have two state-level ads that seem to embody these points. Let's talk about the Virginia ad first. Virginia's important because it's an off-off-year election — its state-level elections are not on the regular calendar. Two states do that, New Jersey and Virginia. New Jersey would be more interesting if it spent more time in political competition, but it doesn't. So Virginia has long been seen as a temperature check for the newly-elected president. There was a long history of breaking against the new party in power that really only started to fall off in the 2013 election, when [Democrat] Terry McAuliffe won the governorship even though Obama had won the White House the year before.

Nevertheless, political conversations will center very much around the narrative that comes out of Virginia's 2021 election. Whoever wins in that cycle will go into 2022 with the political media giving them a more positive narrative. That's incredibly important for Democrats in particular because they're expected to do well now in Virginia, and expectations matter. And No. 2 because any political scientist will tell you that one of the most striking and robust patterns is the midterm effect, where the president's party loses seats in the Congress in the subsequent midterm election. So when we talk about Democrats facing tough fundamentals, that's one part.

So what they need to do is they need to hold onto their trifecta in Virginia [the governorship and both houses of the state legislature], so the media narrative is positive. In terms of Virginia, the worry is because the messaging from the Democratic Party and allied organizations doesn't focus on coalitional turnout and doesn't nationalize and speak plain messaging, that turnout might decline enough where you could even have McAuliffe win the governorship, but because of that ballot drop-off problem we saw in 2020, Democrats maybe lose the [legislative] majority, and the narrative then becomes mixed.

So that's the problem. What's the solution?

What we're doing in Virginia is going to be heavily focused on stake-framing, and just really napalming the GOP brand, getting people exposed for the first time to a message that argues that the Republican Party has been a shitshow for the economy and for you, personally and economically. All of these credit-claiming things we see from Democrats is a step in the right direction, but credit claiming is not as good as telling them other people are coming to take things away. You really want a sophisticated messaging.

In the case of our first ad, we chose to focus on the issue of the voting laws, because I could see the Democrats having this wonky policy conversation like they normally do, calling it voter suppression and access. It'd be great if we had that electorate, but we do not. We do not have those voters. We have the ones that the GOP talks to more effectively and so we must make it clear to people: This is a power grab. They're coming to steal your vote. If they can take power in Virginia, they're going to pass a law like they did in these other places. Those laws aren't about "voter access," they're about election rigging.

You also have an ad about the California recall targeting Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. How does that embody your strategy? And how does that contrast with the Democrats' ineffectual response to the 2003 recall of Gray Davis?

Yes, exactly. You hear that the electorate is much more Democratic than it was in 2003 and that is verifiably true, OK? But that doesn't mean that California isn't still at risk of having a repeat of 2003. In the recall in 2003, the turnout was in the 30% range, and when you're talking about only 30% of California, there's a very motivated Republican Party versus a complacent Democratic one. Because Newsom will probably poll pretty decently and [folks will say] "Oh, this is in the bag. It doesn't really matter. I'm not worried about it."

We're doing a couple things with this ad. Again, we're doing the nationalization component that's lacking in Democratic messaging, and is the bread and butter of the GOP. But it's also innovating — I wanted to show an example of something that other people might want to copy, which is to make the frame of the recall not about Newsom. Because if it's about Newsom, then you're going to have this conversation about whether he shut down too long, or too little and blah blah blah. You're just playing right into their hands. That's the conversation they want to have.

Instead, you want to personalize the stakes of the recall to the electorate, so that they feel the connection, and you want to paint to them a picture: "It's not about Newsom or the Democrats, it's about you controlling California and turning it into a liberal wonderland. And they're coming for it!" You want to make voters feel motivated about the recall, and also attacked. Their identity is being attacked. That's how the Republicans would approach it. That's how they defended Scott Walker, which is what I'm modeling this on.

Another key aspect of your modernization strategy is "Building a positive, values-driven firewall Democratic brand." You've released another ad called "This is What Democracy Looks Like" that starts with John Lewis saying, "We may have come here on different ships, but we are all in the same boat now," and proceeds with short clips from a wide range of notable Democrats—from Sherrod Brown to Katie Porter, AOC, Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock. What was the thinking here?

That ad in particular is again a movie-style ad. It's aimed specifically at Democrats, but ultimately the same methodology will be adapted to go after young people, especially voters of color. Latinos are a huge persuasion target for conversion right now and even young Black voters, but younger white voters in particular. The GOP, in my opinion, still over-performs with white young people, people under age 30, relative to what the Republican platform, and their embrace of racism and fascism, should warrant. When you've got one party that is constantly taunting the Democrats — "They support Hamas, and they're socialists, yada yada yada," you want to create an image for those younger voters: "No, this is what the Democratic Party really is."

Another aspect of your modernization strategy is "Undermining the Republican brand and areas of perceived dominance, like the economy." You did this in an ad you showed on "Morning Joe" [at 9:25] comparing Democrats' and Republicans' record on the economy since 1933, on GDP growth, job creation and the stock market, using sports imagery from football, basketball and baseball to drive home the point that Democrats do much better on all these key indicators. The difference is stark, but Democrats never talk about it.

That's exactly right. If you ask the average voter, the GOP often wins or at least breaks even on the question of which party is good for the economy, although the facts bear out a completely different story. But instead of making an affirmative case for ourselves, especially as we move through Reaganomics — and even by the early 2000s the failures of that economic philosophy were already legion — instead of running on that, saying "The GOP tried this thing and it totally destroyed our infrastructure, it destroyed our K-12 education system," and going on what I've called a brand offensive, you see Democrats try to align themselves rhetorically with their opponents, saying "I'm a fiscal conservative."

The economy tends to be the most salient issue, or second-most salient, every election cycle. So why would we concede on an issue that's that important to so many people? Especially when we're better at it? So that's why we're going after that, and the other sacred cows for the GOP, national security. I'm going to go after national security as well because the performance of the Republican Party over the last 20 years on foreign policy and national security is terrible.

That's good to hear, because I was going to ask about what's to come. Could you say a bit more about that?

What's to come will depend on you — I mean you, the readers, the listeners and the people who support this idea — understanding that we lose winnable elections and want to stop. Because never before been has a super PAC been raised from such humble roots as someone like me. I don't come from the electioneering world. I don't come from money. I don't have a good Rolodex to start this from. So, this is what I consider to be a people PAC. How far I'm able to get with my creative concepts and my strategy is going to depend on how successful we are. If my goal was to become personally famous in political nerd circles, I'm on a fine trajectory for that. But if my goal is to win as many races as possible and to disrupt what might be the collapse of American democracy in 2022. I need to be able to deploy all this creative energy in a sophisticated way to where it needs to go and how it needs to go.

The playbook I intend to run in electioneering doesn't come from any established playbook. It's kind of like Space-X is to space and to NASA. NASA is focused on space, but Space-X was able to start their program by looking at how that other one was shaped and made and being able to understand what the strengths and weaknesses of that old system were and design one completely to the realities of space travel.

There are two other aspects of your strategy I'd like you to discuss. First, "Innovative persuasion and mobilization messaging and micro-targeting strategies." We can see some of that in the state ads we just talked about, but what else do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I can't speak with specificity about all of the things I have cooking. I'm trying to build an organization. But I will say that what people see from this launch is just the tip of the iceberg as to what I have planned in deploying messaging in ways where people are forced to see it. The old Democratic model was TV-reliant, it had an old playbook. The direct mail system runs on this basically phoned-in template. My vision and plan is to build this organization so I can come in and redo how we talk to voters and how we work on winning elections, in all of those spheres and more.

The second aspect is about "unleashing the power, scalability and scope of digital for year-round party branding" Same question: The seeds of that are clearly present in the ad we talked about before — showing young voters what the party really is — but do you have future examples in mind?

Here's one thing I will tell you. The status quo of electioneering on the left is "Oh, we're innovating now. We're telling people what we're doing," which is fine and dandy. But if you're assuming that telling people "I'm doing this stuff for you" is good enough to get people to actually show up to vote, that's a mistake. And then a lot of the innovation is focused on how we go back and get these white working-class voters to vote for us.

If you don't understand that realignment is moving in one direction and one direction only, and that what we should be doing is leaning into our own realignment — which is especially white-collar, educated voters, especially as the newer ones that are moving in party politics, who maybe have been voting Republican because their parents were Republican — we should be working on breaking their party brand loyalty. Kind of like Coke vs. Pepsi.

You want people to see what the Republican Party is actually doing and hear about what it's up to — but not in ways that are focused on "Think of how this will hurt some nameless, faceless other," which is how all of our messaging is structured on the left. Instead, we have to make it highly personal to the particular voter and really target that hard.

Finally, what's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

You didn't ask what the URL is for people to donate to Strike PAC!

This PA lawmaker is a Christian zealot, an academic fraud and an insurrectionist. He's the tip of the iceberg

On May 9, the New Yorker published a feature story by Pulitzer winner Eliza Griswold about Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who could well be the Republican nominee for governor next year, as a flagship example of the swelling power of Christian nationalism within today's GOP. That's an issue I focused on in a 2018 story largely driven by a paper called "Make America Christian Again," co-authored by sociologist Andrew Whitehead. I described this phenomenon as "an Old Testament-based worldview fusing Christian and American identities, and sharpening the divide with those who are excluded from it," and quoted from the paper:

Christian nationalism … draws its roots from "Old Testament" parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism.

Despite the "Old Testament" slant, this version of Christianity has no room for Exodus 22:21: "You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt," or numerous other biblical passages — which is why Christian nationalism can't be considered synonymous with Christianity per se. Many people in Trump's base perceive it that way, however, as that paper first showed. And Griswold rightly chose Mastriano as a shining — and troubling — example of what that means in practice today.

First elected to the State Senate in a special election in May 2019, Mastriano has quickly gained prominence over the past year, as Griswold explains:

[H]e has led rallies against mask mandates and other public-health protocols, which he has characterized as "the governor's autocratic control over our lives." He has become a leader of the Stop the Steal campaign, and claims that he spoke to Donald Trump at least fifteen times between the 2020 election and the insurrection at the Capitol, on January 6th.

Since Griswold's story was published, Mastriano has claimed to have Trump's endorsement for governor, along with a promise to campaign with him (though a Trump adviser has disputed this), while new evidencecasts doubt on his claims of non-involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. On June 2, he was one of three Pennsylvania lawmakers who toured the Arizona election "audit," calling for the Keystone State to follow suit, the latest front in Trump's effort to delegitimize Biden's election.

Griswold's story is important and compelling, drawing attention to a perennially undercovered phenomenon whose importance is only growing as much of the GOP's traditional issue package has fallen to the wayside — but certainly not its culture war component. Griswold touches base with a wide range of relevant experts, and brings much-needed attention to the under-appreciated power of Christian nationalism within today's GOP, even as Mastriano and others involved with it disingenuously reject that identification.

But right-wing religious politics is so poorly understood by outsiders that any story will inevitably leave a lot out. Beyond that, journalists must navigate layers of deception and denial — reflected in repeated televangelist scandals, for example — that have made the religious right such a perfect epistemic fit for Trump's gaslighting style. That fit, and what lies behind it, was highlighted by retired intelligence analyst James Scaminaci III in a 2017 essay, "Battle without Bullets: The Christian Right and Fourth Generation Warfare." (The confusion of Christian nationalism with Christianity on the one hand and American democracy on the other reflects the main thrust of what "fourth-generation warfare" is all about, as I'll describe below.)

To avoid such deception, the term "Christian nationalism" could be more sharply clarified, to dispense with its adherents' denials. The religious movement Griswold mentions — the New Apostolic Reformation — could be more clearly defined, and doing that can shed light on Christian nationalism's lesser-known, but more nefarious fellow-traveler, Dominionism — a creed that adds two more elements: a belief in "biblical law," as adherents define it, and the religious supremacy of their version of Christianity.

All of these are not just threats to American democracy but are also biblicallyquestionable, to say the least, which should be a focus of primary concern to those they appeal to most strongly. At a more granular level, there's a need to illuminate the groundwork for the emergence of figures like Mastriano that's been laid over time — for example, through the state-level organization of Project Blitz, devoted to passing three tiers of increasingly theocratic laws. It's also important to examine Mastriano's Christian nationalist deceptions prior to entering politics, as well as the role of fourth-generation warfare. Let's consider each of these in turn.

Defining Christian nationalism

Griswold summarizes Christian nationalism as "a set of beliefs … which center on the idea that God intended America to be a Christian nation, and which, when mingled with conspiracy theory and white nationalism, helped to fuel the [Jan. 6] insurrection." She quotes the aforementioned sociologist Andrew Whitehead (Salon interview here) saying, "Violence has always been a part of Christian nationalism. It's just that the nature of the enemy has changed."

She follows with five lengthy paragraphs of Mastriano's biography before returning to a discussion of Christian nationalism by giving center stage to its gaslighting denials:

Many white evangelicals reject the Christian-nationalist label. "Christian nationalism doesn't exist," Franklin Graham, the evangelical leader, told me, calling it "just another name to throw at Christians." He added, "The left is very good at calling people names." Mastriano also rejected the phrase, writing to me, "Is this a term you fabricated? What does it mean and where have I indicated that I am a Christian Nationalist?"

She goes on to note that "historians and sociologists have found the term useful" and brings several expert voices to bear. But centering their denials as she does conveys a false impression that their positions possess some legitimacy. Whitehead addressed this in an email:

Yes, Graham and Mastriano's claim is absurd. Christian nationalism clearly exists and Americans are found all along a spectrum of how strongly they embrace it. … Survey after survey of the American public demonstrates that Christian nationalism is present within the population, and especially among white evangelical Protestants, where upwards of 80% are at least somewhat favorable of a fusion of Christianity and American national identity.


Graham and Mastriano are clearly within that 80%, and they're more than "somewhat favorable" toward that fusion of Christian and American identity. Graham's father, the Rev. Billy Graham, was the public face of popularizing Christian nationalism in post-World War II America, as Anthea Butler noted on his death in 2018.

"Fusing Christianity and Americanism together to create a potent cocktail of Evangelical Christian Nationalism" was part of Billy Graham's lifelong work, Butler wrote. It began with his Feb. 3, 1952 service on the Capitol steps, an AP account of which she directly quotes. That in in turn lead to the establishment of the National Day of Prayer and the prayer breakfasts run by the secretive organization described in Jeff Sharlet's book, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power."

As Butler went on to note, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Franklin Graham simply represents a more strident version of 1950s Billy Graham."

Typically, Christian nationalists have been proud to conflate their religious faith and the national identity. So why, I asked Whitehead, are they now upset about being called "Christian nationalists"? He said he had no data available to answer the question:

My guess is that despite being proud of their Christianity and national identity, they see the clearly negative outcomes associated with embracing Christian nationalism and so they balk at being placed in that group. In one sense they want to be able to take pride in both identities, and claim this culture for Christianity, but not wrestle with the repercussions of melding those identities.

Is that a sign of insecurity, I wondered? Perhaps, Whitehead said. Or it may reflect ignorance of what the term means and why academics study it, which of course is "because it is a powerful force in our culture. ... "My sense is that they generally fear anything that might make them reflect on their personal beliefs and actions and consider harm they might be doing to Christianity and democracy in the U.S."

This idea that Christian nationalism is actually harmful to Christianity, is a central concern of Christian critics and opponents of Christian nationalism, as seen in John Fea's book, "Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump," for example. As I explained in my review:

Fear is Fea's central concern, and the one most directly at odds with the Bible. "The Bible teaches that Christians are to fear God — and only God," Fea writes. "All other forms of fear reflect a lack of faith."

An unacknowledged lack of faith may be Christian nationalism's mortal flaw. But it's one secular writers avoid discussing, with a knee-jerk aversion to questioning anyone's religious faith, even when it's bad faith shot through with obvious contradictions and manipulative or even malicious intent. Christian nationalist avoid scrutiny from their co-religionists by demonizing any secular scrutiny whatever, leaving themselves accountable to no one. Their seemingly inexplicable affinity for Donald Trump is a natural consequence.

As Whitehead's research makes clear, Christian nationalism is very much about drawing lines of inclusion and exclusion, and defining the cultural and political landscape in their own terms. It's only natural to ask if their denialism can be seen as a power move, meant to deny others the power of drawing contrasting distinctions.

"This makes sense to me," Whitehead responded. "Language shapes and forms our realities and so being able to say something 'doesn't even exist' allows them to shape that reality. It is similar to consistently pointing to antifa or 'critical race theory' as threats. It doesn't matter so much if those terms are defined, or even exist in any substantive reality. Using them, or in the case of Christian nationalism saying it doesn't even exist, allows them to forego any sustained interrogation of their personal actions or beliefs."

Denialism frequently goes hand-in-hand with projection, such as Franklin Graham's claim that "The left is very good at calling people names." When asked about this, Whitehead said:

Political scientist Paul Djupe shared this wonderful concept, the inverted golden rule. He finds white evangelical Protestants generally "expect from others what you would do unto them." They assume any attempt to understand the reason why they see the world the way they do (Christian nationalism as a cultural framework) is merely to smear them in some way. Which again, isn't true. Perhaps their fear of such an attack is because this is generally how they treat their perceived opponents.


The New Apostolic Reformation

Griswold reports on Mastriano's involvement with events "events held by a movement called the New Apostolic Reformation," though he denies directly working with the movement. "Many members believe that God speaks to them directly, and that they have been tasked with battling real-world demons who control global leaders," Griswold explains. "Prominent members in the group go by the title Apostle or Prophet to hark back to early Christianity."

This movement was named by C. Peter Wagner, its chief architect. Three of his key teachings — the "Dominion Mandate," the "Seven Mountain Mandate" and the "Great End-Time Wealth Transferal" — are summarized by a Christian critic here. Battling demons is such a central part of the NAR worldview that it can fairly be viewed as a syncretic religion, incorporating elements of the pagan religious traditions it pretends to be fiercely battling against — in that sense, as scholars of religion might note, a replay of the Colossian syncretism.

Roland Chia, a professor of Christian doctrine at Trinity Theological College, put it this way in an article titled "Paganising Christianity":

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of NAR is their acquiescence to and legitimisation of neo-pagan and shamanistic practices such as contact with angels (or spirit guides), angel orbs, portals of glory, teleportation and 'grave-sucking' (the belief that one can obtain the anointing of the deceased servants of God by visiting their graves).

A precursor movement known as "Latter Rain" was declared heretical by the Assemblies of God (America's largest Pentecostal denomination) in 1949, and related practices were again condemned in 2000. That second ban had significantly less impact, thanks to the growth of mass media, which has significantly eroded traditional church authority in favor of charismatic hucksters who spread their messages through cable TV, YouTube and other online channels, as well as live mega-events publicized to a global audience, such as the August 2011 event former Texas Gov. Rick Perry used to launch his presidential campaign. One of that event's organizers had written that there was a "demonic structure behind the Democratic Party" — specifically, the demon Jezebel. That "demonic structure" is the reason Black people are so wedded to the Democratic Party rather than the "party of Lincoln," she argued, ignoring the whole history of the "long Southern strategy."

The bottom line is that the NAR is a long way from traditional Christianity. Despite some strategic backtracking, its own proponents, such as Wagner, proudly proclaim as much: NAR represents a "new wineskin" in which the pastor appoints the elders, who report to him, as opposed the "old wineskin" of mainstream Protestant denominations, in which pastors report to church elders. One can clearly criticize the NAR without "attacking Christianity," just as it's legitimate for believing Christians to criticize Christian nationalism as damaging to their faith by shifting focus onto divisive fights over flawed human creations. In both cases, extremists demonize secular scrutiny as a way of escaping orthodox religious scrutiny, while themselves claiming to embody true religious orthodoxy. It's a game of spiritual three-card monte.

The NAR's untethering from institutional roots gives it a fluidity ideally suited to political activism, as Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers," told me.

The NAR has been much more explicit about its political aims than some of the more traditional or established religious right groups. The theology is very much tied to political developments in the here and now. In the Trump era, they also played a significant role in political mobilization. For a subsection of the Christian right, the NAR has functioned as a kind of Overton Window.


In her New Yorker article, Griswold wrote: "The N.A.R.'s overarching agenda — to return the United States to an idealized Christian past — is largely built upon the work of the pseudo-historian David Barton, who has advanced the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation."

This overlooks the fact that the NAR's agenda is global, and looks forward to a fantasy future in which the wealth of the "wicked" is magically transferred to believers. But it's accurate enough within the framework of domestic American politics, which is Griswold's focus. Barton, who was vice-chair of the Texas Republican Party from 1997 to 2006, has been a key figure in advancing Christian nationalist ideology, both through the GOP and through his fraudulent scholarship on America's founding.

"Barton has been discredited by every American historian I know, including evangelical historians who teach at the most conservative Christian colleges in the country," evangelical historian John Fea told me in 2018. But because his fake history is so politically useful, the fact that all legitimate historians reject his claims is a feature, not a bug. Stewart discussed his significance:

Even as David Barton has cultivated links with the big names in Republican politics, he has stayed close to some of the most extreme representatives of the Christian nationalist movement. He paired up with evangelists Lance Wallnau, who wrote a book comparing Donald Trump to King Cyrus, and Andrew Wommack, who has said opposition to Trump was "demonic deception" and "one of the signs of the End Times," in the Truth & Liberty Coalition, an activist and messaging organization whose mission was described on their website as "the reformation of Nations by igniting the latent potential in the Body of Christ." The website champions "the 7 Mountains Mandate, a powerful, transformative campaign intended to bring about social transformation," a reference to the idea, popularized by C. Peter Wagner and others, that Christians who hold similar beliefs are to dominate seven key areas of culture and society.

Project Blitz — and an instructive precursor

Just after mentioning Barton, Griswold writes this:

"Mastriano's significance, alongside that of the N.A.R., is that he is attempting to create a theonomy — a system of enacting God's law on earth," Frederick Clarkson, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, told me. Bills that Mastriano supported in the legislature would have mandated teaching the Bible in public schools and would have made it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples, among other things.

What's left out here is that the bills in question supported are part of an organized nationwide effort known as "Project Blitz," first uncovered by Clarkson in 2018 (Salon report here.) Barton was also a key architect, heading one of its three organizational sponsors. The bills are arranged in three tiers, with the first aimed at importing the Christian nationalist worldview (including Barton's bogus history) into public schools and elsewhere in the public sphere, the second aimed at making government a partner in "Christianizing" America, and the third using a false narrative of religious liberty to privilege religious bigotry. As I wrote:

Bills protecting the "right" to discriminate against the LGBTQ community are the most salient example of how Project Blitz aims to produce a radically altered "Handmaid's Tale"-style America. But even the most innocent-seeming proposal — introducing the motto "In God We Trust" into schools — has a divisive, discriminatory, damaging impact, sharply at odds with its presentation.

As I described in a later story, Project Blitz commonly works through deceptively named "prayer caucuses," outwardly presented as social bodies devoted to religion, faith or prayer, and not specifically pushing a religious right agenda. "By deceiving caucus members about its ultimate goals and purposes, it can then deceive others as well," I noted.

Clarkson has continued to research and report on Project Blitz and its broader Dominionist connections. Most recently, in late May, along with his PRA colleague Cloee Cooper, he published an article on the "convergence of far-right, anti-democratic factions In the Pacific Northwest" and its national consequences. The story focused on two former military officers with Dominionist ties, one of whom, Matt Shea, was a Washington state representative from 2009 to 2020, and was founding chairman of the Washington Legislative Prayer Caucus in 2018, a year after he was elected chair of the state legislature's Republican caucus.

Shea provides an instructive complement to Mastriano, whose rapid emergence in the Trump-COVID era can be challenging to comprehend, compared to Shea's well-documented record. Clarkson writes:

In May of 2013, Shea spoke at a founding meeting of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) along with prominent Patriot and far-right leaders including Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers.

The "Constitutional Sheriffs" are a far-right organization claiming that county sheriffs have a unilateral right to decide what laws are constitutional and whether they will enforce them. Needless to say, this doctrine is entirely unsupported by the Constitution itself, in which the word "sheriff" never appears. This is simply a form of lawlessness in "law-and-order" drag.

This lawlessness came to the fore with Shea's involvement in the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by right-wing activists. "For this," Clarkson writes, "he was characterized as a domestic terrorist in a well-documented December 2019 investigation commissioned by the state House of Representatives," which concluded that Shea presented "a present and growing threat of risk to others through political violence." He was subsequently removed as GOP caucus chair, and didn't seek re-election in 2020. Included in that investigation was Shea's 2016 manifesto on the Biblical Basis for War, "which reads like a to-do list for religious civil war," Clarkson noted, including the assertion that "Assassination to remove tyrants is just, and is not murder." John Wilkes Booth would surely approve.

"Shea and Mastriano have had different trajectories in their respective state legislative careers," Clarkson told me via email. "Shea launched his career in public life via leadership in Christian right organizations. Mastriano seemed to get right into it — apparently anointed by NAR leaders.

"In one sense, this is what one would expect in any movement or party," he explained. "People will necessarily come from different places to get to where they are. The larger context is the long-term effort by the Christian right to take state legislative seats and chambers. That these politicians used their offices as launching pads for insurrection is troubling, but not really surprising."

This leads us to the question of Mastriano's previous history, and how it prefigures his ongoing insurrectionary activity.

Sgt. York and history: Mastriano's academic fraud

As mentioned above, patterns of denial and obfuscation common to Christian nationalists make it difficult to get a fix on Doug Mastriano's actual commitments and involvements. He clearly knows the strategic value of keeping his position ambiguous. In a 2016 article about Russian hybrid warfare, he wrote about how well this works for Vladimir Putin, citing Putin's use of the "so-called 'little green men' who appeared in Crimea in 2014 — soldiers without national affiliation on their uniforms, who seized key places in the peninsula" as an example.

"This approach was cloaked in a veneer of ambiguity, which played upon the fears and doubts of Western political leaders," Mastriano wrote. "The ambiguity gave Putin near complete flexibility to lower or raise Russian intervention based upon the level of Western resolve." This is highly illuminating, since Mastriano has pursued a similar strategy of deceptively fostering and exploiting ambiguity, as Griswold's account clearly shows.

Before his recent rise in politics, Mastriano's earlier history shows a clear pattern of deception, alongside his Christian nationalist beliefs. This was summarized in a March 20 story by Mark Scolforo of the AP, focused on Mastriano's academic research into the legendary World War I Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Alvin York, who led a small group of U.S. soldiers behind German lines on Oct. 8, 1918, killing more than 20 German soldiers and capturing 132. That research earned Mastriano a doctorate in history from the University of New Brunswick, along with a book contract from the University Press of Kentucky. But there were two major problems, as Scolforo notes:

For more than a decade, other researchers have questioned Mastriano's claim to have conclusively proved exactly where York was during the October 1918 battle. They argue his research is plagued with errors and that a walking trail he helped build actually takes visitors to the wrong spot.

In the past two months, University of Oklahoma history graduate student James Gregory has filed complaints with Mastriano's publisher and with the Canadian university.

"Many of his citations are completely false and do not support his claims whatsoever," Gregory said in a Jan. 25 email to the University Press of Kentucky, identifying footnotes with no apparent relation to their corresponding book passages.

I contacted Gregory, who told me he had cited 35 such examples in his letter to the Kentucky press. Half of those were simple transcription errors, he told Salon, but the rest were "examples of academic fraud. They are instances where Mastriano has made a claim and cited a source, yet the source does not say what he claims. He does this often. ... He also likes to make claims of half-truths or make false 'confirmations' without any evidence."

The most glaring false confirmation is the photo used on the cover of his book — purportedly of the German soldiers York captured on Oct. 8, 1918. That same photo appears in the National Archives catalogue, and is dated Sept. 26. Mastriano knows this, but insists that the archive records are wrong, Gregory explained, forwarding a Feb. 22, 2017, email from Mastriano complaining about records at the Army Heritage and Education Center. "I have no idea why the tag in AHEC says 26 September. It is simply wrong," Mastriano wrote, following a description of York's movements after the battle, which attempts to explain why that photograph was taken by a soldier from the 35th Army Division, not the 82nd, in which York served.

Mastriano's tortured explanation conflicts with two accounts of the 35th Division's movements that Gregory consulted. "Honestly, Mastriano is really showing his lack of skill as a researcher," Gregory told me, explaining that the 35th Division was roughly 33 miles away from the French village where York's famous battle occurred on Oct. 8, 1918, and there is no plausible way that a photographer from the 35th took any photo related to anything York did. One history of the 35th, however, noted that the division had captured an estimated 450 prisoners on Sept. 26, evidence that the National Archives' official date for the photo makes sense.

So Mastriano put a fake photo on the cover of his supposedly legitimate historical work, and has defended it with bald-faced lies. This episode has become a major embarrassment to the University Press of Kentucky, whose director told Gregory by email, "We are reviewing all of the author's manuscripts."

There's more. "Every time Mastriano writes about York, he focuses on York's religious convictions," Gregory told me. "Even in the introduction of his book,Mastriano breaks into a discussion of York's faith," claiming that "people who have tried to attack York's deeds are just attacking his faith and therefore those detractors are an example of cynicism in our age."

Gregory summarized Mastriano's pseudo-scholarly approach this way: "To question Alvin York is to question God. Therefore, anyone who speaks against York is against God and his ability to interact with our daily lives. This is the problem, as I see it, with Christian nationalism and history. Those who write about history through the lens of religion run the risk of writing in a way that creates an ultimatum: If you do not believe that God helped Alvin York, then you do not believe in God."

Christian nationalism provides a compelling, coherent narrative for its proponents — but at the cost of ignoring, rejecting or demonizing anything that does not fit. That includes much of the Bible, as well as the Constitution. It selects the elements it wants and ignores, denies or rejects the rest.

What is "Fourth-Generation Warfare"?

As Frederick Clarkson told me:

Shea, Mastriano and others are coming at this from a "fourth-generation warfare" perspective, seeking to delegitimize the institutions of democracy with a moral narrative that casts them as evil or occupied by evil, and presenting themselves as a moral alternative with a more compelling moral narrative. James Scaminaci is spot on that this is a core strategy of the Christian right in all of its manifestations, and is a good lens through which to view many current events.

He's referring to Scaminaci's essay "Battle Without Bullets: The Christian Right and Fourth Generation Warfare," which described Donald Trump's final campaign argument in 2016 as "a classic example of a right-wing strategy developed in the late 1980s: Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW)," which involves "going beyond the charge that one's individual opponent is wrong or misguided, to claim that the system is illegitimate and one's opponents have no right to power or even to exist."

The hard right in all its manifestations (cultural, religious, militarist, etc.) has always held that liberalism — if not democracy itself — is illegitimate. What's new about 4GW is that it provided the right a shared model of how to systematically delegitimize an opponent. Although 4GW theory's claims of historical accuracy have been severely criticized, it works well as an organizing mythology for its proponents.

In brief, 4GW theory holds that the three prior "generations" of modern warfare involved massed manpower, massed firepower and non-linear maneuver, but we have now reached a new phase: "4GW expands warfare beyond the physical level to include the mental and moral dimensions," Scaminaci explained. "At the highest level of combat — moral conflict — the central objective is to undermine the legitimacy of one's opponent and induce a population to transfer their loyalty from their government to the insurgent." In other words, 4GW normalizes the concept that political opponents are enemy combatants, building on generations of religious conservatives demonizing liberals as evil or demonic.

This mentality and its fruits — if not the explicit theory itself — now informs Trump and his allies' relentless claims that the 2020 election was stolen, along with the GOP's ongoing efforts to make it easier for them to steal the next one. When legitimate office holders use their powers illegitimately to change the system, simultaneously claiming that they're the ones doing everything correctly, that's 4GW at work. It's also the logic behind the "constitutional sheriffs" movement noted above, as well as the state legislatures that tried to interfere with the 2020 election and are now trying to rig all future ones. The same applies to the "Oath Keepers," with their selective list of which oaths they will keep and their assumption of a unilateral right to interpret their meaning and act accordingly.

Christian nationalism helps support all of this, deploying its warped and selective version of Christian faith to attack all other Americans, not to mention other Christians. While pretending to represent the ultimate in Christian belief and American patriotism, it is really a fundamental attack on the core values of both.

The 'third wave of autocratization': Analyzing red-state America's place in a landscape of democratic decay

As the Jan. 6 insurrection recedes in time, media attention is beginning to focus on potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates, including "new faces" like Kristi Noem and Josh Hawley, old also-ran Ted Cruz and others and, of course, Donald Trump. In a representative democracy, it's only natural that elected leaders — or credible potential ones — should be a significant focus of attention.

But there's an air of unreality hovering over all such portrait-mode coverage when a broader landscape view shows that the very survival of democracy is up for grabs — not just in the U.S., where GOP House members are in deep denial about the Jan. 6 insurrection while Republican legislators have introduced voter suppression bills in 47 states, but around the world. The Swedish-based V-Dem Institute's 2021 annual report notes that "the global decline in liberal democracy has been steep during the past 10 years and continues in 2020" and concludes that the "level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020" has fallen "to levels last found around 1990." At that time there was a jubilant buzz about the "End of History." Now there's an undertone of dread that we could "meanly lose, the last best hope of earth," as Abraham Lincoln warned.

Talk of as many as 24 potential GOP candidates in the next cycle recalls pre-2016 talk about the GOP's "deep bench," which, as I noted at the time, was a media-hyped myth. Those andidates fell into three groups: governors with horrible to mediocre job-creation records plus some ex-governors who hadn't run in a while, first-term senators with paper-thin résumés in a particularly dysfunctional Congress, and assorted wild cards, including Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, as well as a certain New York real estate developer turned reality-TV star. I focused primarily on the shared failure of GOP economics, the party's purported strong suit. "The degree to which key articles of GOP economic faith clash with overwhelming expert judgment is staggering — and there's nary a hint of it in most of the media," I wrote. "It's a disconnect reminiscent of global warming, but much less widely recognized."

The problem goes much deeper now, to the shared failure of Republican patriotism, as their party has turned against democracy. While media awareness may be better, without grounding coverage in a "landscape view" of the problem journalists are fumbling the biggest story of our time — the global threat to democracy, and the enormous potential for a renewal that could finally realize democracy's full promise for all.

America's place in a landscape of democratic decay

What's known as the "third wave of autocratization" — characterized by creeping democratic erosion rather than violent coups — continues to spread: V-Dem's report notes that "25 countries, home to 34% of the world's population (2.6 billion people), are in democratic decline by 2020." One especially disturbing highlight "is that India — formerly the world's largest democracy with 1.37 billion inhabitants — turned into an electoral autocracy," meaning a system in which elections continue to be held but the chance of power changing hands is virtually nil. Prior to Jan. 6, the U.S. seemed far from being in a similar situation, but that is effectively what the new wave of GOP voter suppression laws could accomplish, especially with added provisions that jeopardize the post-election process.

America is still a long way from becoming India — but things can change quickly. The U.S. score on V-Dems "Liberal Democracy Index" or LDI is 0.73 (out of a possible 1) while India is less than half that, at 0.34, a precipitous decline since 2010 that places it among the planet's top 10 major "autocratizers." While the U.S. doesn't make that ignominious list, it's marked in red to "signify cases of significant and substantial autocratization." In 2010, the U.S. was among the highest-ranked nations, and is now no longer in the top 30, falling below Chile and Greece, countries with recent histories of military rule.

"The U.S. is somewhat unusual among the decliners," a trio of V-Dem researchers — Anna Lührmann, Dan Pemstein and Juraj Medzihorsky — told Salon via email. "Most of the decliners are reasonably young democracies," they wrote, adding that the U.S. has had a high and stable LDI in their rankings since the civil rights era. "The U.S. is a very different case than India or Brazil and also the various Eastern European countries [which] have much shorter democratic histories, despite being at similar levels in 2010."

The American case, they note, "shows that it is possible for this illiberal playbook, which we're seeing play out in diverse places ranging from Brazil to India, Hungary and Poland, to gain traction even in consolidated liberal democracies."

The party landscape: Even starker

Things look even more perilous from two other landscape views: the landscape of parties across the world, and the landscape of state-level government. A V-Dem briefing paper and its followup, entitled "Walking the Talk: How to Identify Anti-Pluralist Parties," found that the Republican Party has shifted dramatically in recent decades, from being in the same ideological territory as the British Conservative Party in 2000 to the neighborhood of India's Hindu nationalist BJP now, while the Democratic Party has barely moved at all.

"In 2000 the GOP was a party that was clearly committed to democratic standards as listed in the paper," the V-Dem scholars wrote. "In 2018 (the last point of measurement), this commitment was not clearly visible." They continued:

The data shows that the Republican Party in 2018 was far more illiberal (that is anti-pluralist) than almost all other governing parties in democracies. Only very few governing parties in democracies in this millennium (15%) were considered more illiberal than the Republican Party in the U.S. Conversely, the Democratic Party was rated slightly less illiberal than the typical party in democracies. In 2018, the Republican Party scores much higher than almost all parties in democracies on almost all of these indicators.

The shifts they observed were especially dramatic in two of four areas: "demonizes opponents" and "encourages violence."

Given the asymmetric change between the two major American parties, I asked if there were other countries that could shed light on what might happen next, or whether we were in uncharted territory?

"We did not see any sufficiently similar examples that we could bring up," Medzihorsky responded. "Given the information that we have, we refrained from speculation."

The red-state landscape of democratic decay

Another landscape perspective that can shed some light is that of state-level government, explored by University of Washington political scientist Jacob M. Grumbach in a paper called "Laboratories of Democratic Backsliding." Inspired by the V-Dem model, Grumbach developed a measure of subnational democratic performance called the State Democracy Index. He tested a range of different theories about what might contribute to democratic erosion over the period from 2000 to 2018, "based in party competition, polarization, demographic change, and the group interests of national party coalitions." Strikingly, he found "a minimal role for all factors except Republican control of state government, which dramatically reduces states' democratic performance during this period."

I reached out to Grumbach to ask about his findings and their significance. He began by discussing certain consequences of the American federal system:

Even compared to other countries with federalism, American federalism is especially decentralized, giving more control over political institutions to the lower subnational units. This means that the U.S. can experience extreme regional differences in democratic performance, as it did during the slavery and Jim Crow periods. Current regional differences in U.S. democracy aren't as big as they were in Jim Crow, but they're substantial and growing.

Grumbach's data only goes through 2018, but we're now seeing a vast wave of Republican efforts to suppress democracy and crack down on dissent and education, as I discussed in a recent Salon story on conservative "cancel culture." I asked Grumbach where he thought we might be headed.

We've seen 300-something new voter suppression bills out of Republican state legislatures since the 2020 election, as well as anti-protest bills and bills to outlaw particular forms of educational content that challenge nationalistic interpretations of U.S. history. We've also heard continued claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. All of these are threats to key tenets of democracy, including free and fair elections and civil rights and liberties. Although the politics and policy moves have been distinct, we've seen similar threats to democracy in Hungary and Brazil in recent years, which makes me concerned about the global trends.

The V-Dem 2021 report outlines a typical pattern to the process of "autocratization": "Ruling governments first attack the media and civil society and polarize societies by disrespecting opponents and spreading false information, then undermine elections." That seems like a strikingly accurate description of what happened during Trump's four years in the White House. But Grumbach's work points to a lengthy prehistory as well. I asked how we should understand the whole story, from the state-level story he describes through Trump's time in office to the fall-out today. He responded:

This is such an important question. I argue that Trump — and the [Jan. 6] insurrection — were just the latest and most visible manifestations of a longer term antidemocratic trend in the GOP. We've heard about "Stop the Steal" since 2020, but the GOP has for decades been selling conspiracies about mass voter fraud and suggesting that Democratic governance is illegitimate. The GOP currently is a coalition of two groups, an elite coalition of the very wealthy and an electoral base motivated by white identity politics. Both of these groups have an interest in pursuing minority rule through voter suppression, norm erosion, gerrymandering and other tactics.

Finally, Grumbach noted another dimension where partisan differences were minimal:

It's important to note that my main State Democracy Index focuses on electoral democracy, and there you see the GOP leading democratic backsliding. However, when I focus the measure on civil liberties and freedom from state authoritarianism, this kind of illiberalism has been bipartisan. American federalism puts policing and incarceration authority at the state level, and Democratic, divided and Republican state governments have all pursued "tough on crime" policy that has led the U.S. to become the most heavily incarcerated country on earth (more than dictatorships with larger populations).

How that came about is one of three interconnected social policy strands described by Cornell historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann in her 2017 book, "Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America." (I'll be interviewing her for a forthcoming Salon feature.) Last year's Black Lives Matter demonstrations signaled a long-overdue challenge to that wretched bipartisan consensus, forged in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. Because national Democrats have shown at least some willingness to respond to this challenge, Trump and the Republicans have sought to demonize them for it, so this may become another party-polarized dimension — or, more optimistically, part of a new consensus, as suggested by various public opinion polls, as well as the almost 2-to-1 passage of Florida's Amendment 4, which restored ex-felons' voting rights (although that was later gutted by the Republican legislature and governor, an issue now in litigation).

Discerning the differences between the two realms — electoral democracy and civil liberties — is precisely what a landscape view of politics makes possible: differences of history, agency, motivation and possible futures. Making sense of these different landscapes and their relationships is crucial to navigating them — and perhaps making meaningful democratic governance possible.

Denialism vs. democratic decay

Perhaps inevitably, there's a nascent right-wing denialist response that tries to reject any such analysis of democratic decay. At the Free Beacon, Aaron Sibarium wrote a story criticizing Grumbach's scoring system, and more broadly all such systems, called "The Myth of Measuring Democracy." But simply claiming bias and crafting a self-comforting narrative doesn't exactly prove a counter-argument.

Bias could emerge, Sibarium argued, through "the choice of variables used as proxies for democracy and the process by which those proxies are assessed." He attacked Grumbach for the first, and V-Dem for the second:

At least three of the factors that decrease a state's democracy score — voter ID laws, high incarceration rates, and denying felons the right to vote — are things that large majorities of Americans support. According to Grumbach, maximizing democracy means defying the popular will.

Sibarium called V-Dem's framework, "the most balanced," then went on to say that "it too reflects the liberal consensus — because the indicators are all scored by liberal academics."

Both Grumbach and V-Dem offered detailed responses. In essence, Grumbach said, Sibarium assumes that democratic support would make slavery democratic — one answer to what's known as "Wollheim's paradox." Grumbach also said his index includes measures that capture both sides of the paradox, meaning "policy responsiveness to majority opinion and procedural indicators of how costly it is to vote, how gerrymandered districts are, etc."

"Because people might have different opinions on how to measure democracy, I simulate 100,000 different measures that weight indicators differently," Grumbach explained. "Across the 100,000 measures, it is clear that GOP control of state government reduces democratic performance. This finding isn't an artifact of some particular way that I measured democracy."

The V-Dem trio called Sibarium's criticism "part incorrect and part banal." It was incorrect in labeling the expert scorers "liberal academics," they said: Many are outside the academy and they come from all over the world. "Ascribing all of these experts from different countries and backgrounds the same ideology — 'liberal' or otherwise — is simply silly," they said.

The criticism is banal, they said, "because of course the values are a mathematical representation of expert opinion. ... The purpose of the project is to measure concepts that are incredibly important but inherently difficult to observe."

"Scholars have subjected the V-Dem data to a multitude of validity tests, and it has generally held up well," they said. "We also emphasize that our measures exhibit uncertainty — experts disagree! — and provide public estimates of the scale of that uncertainty."

n short, the measures used by V-Dem, Grumbach and others are meant to inform our understanding of how well or poorly democracies are functioning, not to dictate judgments. They don't pretend to tell us everything. The unique status of the U.S. as the highest-ranked democracy to undergo "significant and substantial autocratization," its two-party system with only one party radicalizing, its decentralized federalism and its distinctive, highly contested racial history, among other factors, mean that it's imperative to seek out other approaches as well.

Leaders, norms and violence: A different landscape view

One of the most helpful of those is to look back at our own history, as in Nathan Kalmoe's book "With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War" (Salon interview here). Kalmoe has a lot to say about how political leaders and partisan media affect the potential for violence — another example of a "landscape mode" effect, as opposed to a "portrait mode" direct-causation account.

"Whether looking at U.S. history or cross-nationally at politics around the world," Kalmoe said in a more recent exchange, "party leaders, including media figures, play a key role in how ordinary partisans think and act. That extends to extremes like violence."

Leaders both embody and influence group thinking in multiple ways, he said:

Leaders are experts whose judgment their followers trust, and leaders are seen as definitional group members whose words and deeds set the norms for the group. Party leaders are especially influential when they simultaneously represent multiple political and social identities (e.g., race, religion), and those group alignments make violence more likely.
Leaders mobilize violence in many ways, not just direct calls for violence, though those may be most powerful. They also encourage violence with their failure to condemn violence by their own group, by violent metaphors and coy remarks implicitly supporting that violence, and by using vilifying and dehumanizing language that makes it easier for group members to rationalize harming their opponents.
Leaders set norms for the group and those norms can shift overnight. In conventional politics, for example, we see instant 10 or 15 point swings in policy views among partisans when top leaders endorse a policy, even when it goes against the party's ideology. In the historical context of Civil War violence, northern Democrats followed their party in initially supporting and then violently rejecting the war to uphold Lincoln's election, including a change in their willingness to kill and die in that war.

Once a new group norm is established, Kalmoe continued, "leaders and group members then police the new bounds, silencing and expelling dissidents within the group. We're seeing that now with Republicans rallying around defense of Trump's multifaceted attempts to reject his loss in a free and fair election."

In short, despite the unique situation we find ourselves in, there's nothing exceptional, or even especially unusual, about the partisan leadership dynamics involved.

Profound change? Landscape of a possible future

But in a broader sense our situation may be historically unique, as suggested by Ian Hughes, author of "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy" (Salon interview here.) Hughes combines studies of key 20th-century pathocracies (Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, etc.) through the lens of the "the toxic triangle" — destructive leaders, susceptible followers and conducive environments — with an argument that democracy can be understood as a multi-layer defense system against such disordered leaders and the pathocracies they create.

"This system of defenses comprises the rule of law, electoral democracy, the principle of liberal individualism that underpins the separation of church and state, social democracy and legal protection for human rights," Hughes explains. Those principles have all come under relentless attack during the Trump era, in ways for which we were woefully unprepared. But now there's a chance to recover, and rebuild.

Now that he's stripped of official power, "Trump is not the real issue anymore," Hughes told me via email. He sees "an opportunity to step back, understand the big picture" and "move the U.S. and the world onto a better path," not just a slightly improved one.

"We are at a historic moment of profound change," Hughes said, going on to explain:

Most of the social institutions that have been holding society together, however brutally and inequitably, are failing. They are failing in two senses. First, they have contributed to what Biden referred to in his Inaugural Address as the cascading crises of our time — climate change, species extinction, levels of inequality within and between nations that are undermining social cohesion and international order, the erosion of democracy and the persistence of authoritarianism, and the emergence of cultures of animosity, polarization and blame. The list goes on. These cascading crises are the fruit of failing systems of economics, politics, technology, gender, religion and education.
These social institutions are also failing in a second sense. Not only have they helped create the multiple crises we face, they are also (as Einstein might have said) incapable of resolving these crisis, given the level of thinking they are trapped within.

Hughes sees much more than a landscape of failures. "There is also hope, enormous hope," he said. "For each of the social institutions I listed above there is a global movement aimed at building something new, of making that radical rupture with existing paradigms." He continued:

In economics, for example, there is a whole variety of movements exploring "beyond growth" economics, circular economies, economies where care is recognized and rewarded, an economics that can rein in the parasitic and destructive system of contemporary financial capitalism, and so on. The same is true for gender and race with the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter movement being part of a much broader reimagining of societies where participation and diversity lead to radical system transformations. Well-being and spiritual movements are questioning the valorization of material wealth as the epitome of human development and are reclaiming values of empathy, cooperation and love from their monopolization by organized religion. In the area of technology, movements demanding the responsible development of new technologies and the taming of the destructive uses of existing technologies now have global reach.

Conventional, portrait-mode analysts look at Joe Biden's agenda in terms of distinct issue categories — pandemic relief, infrastructure, voting rights and so on, and consider the major political actors in each realm. But Hughes' description of democracy as a multi-layer defense system suggests a more expansive landscape viewpoint, with a powerful central theme.

From that perspective, Hughes said, "Biden's agenda can be assessed by the degree to which it can successfully join up all the 'rivers of progressive change' and empowers them further as a means of dismantling the structures that continue to shore up Trump and the pathological incarnation of the GOP," Hughes said. The central question, then, is "to what extent can Biden not bring the U.S. back to normal, but help bring about something new."

The portrait-mode approach to politics naturally favors the "return to normal" orientation. Familiar figures doing familiar things, to familiar praise, regardless of the medium- or long-term results. But a landscape view more readily accommodates change: We can at least potentially see different pathways, different destinations and even imagine different landscapes that might become visible if we stood on different, distant peaks.

"The degree to which Biden is able to empower these forces for building something new is also the degree to which he will have successfully constrained the former guy and his yesterday's men in the GOP," Hughes said. "In a sense, Trump and the GOP are a perfect fit for our dysfunctional times. Biden's challenge — and the challenge of any democratic leader at this historic moment — is to change our times so that Trump and his fellow authoritarian narcissists stand out as the misfits they truly are."

Conservatives claim to hate 'cancel culture' — but it's the heart of the right-wing agenda

You know who's not canceled? The endless parade of conservative pundits and politicians complaining about "cancel culture." You know who is canceled? George Floyd is canceled. Breonna Taylor is canceled. Ma'Khia Bryant is canceled. Andrew Brown Jr. is canceled. They are the true victims in America's longest-running culture war. Anyone who tells you different is just gaslighting. You want "cancel culture"? America is plagued with cancel culture. And no one is more American than conservatives, as they never cease reminding you.

Despite earlier boutique appeal, the term "cancel culture" had only faintly registered with the broader public before the July Fourth holiday last year (Google trends), when then-President Donald Trump gave a speech at Mount Rushmore, warning of "a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for," and saying that his opponents' "political weapons" included ''cancel culture' — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees."

It was a ludicrous accusation coming from the man who's signature line — "You're fired!" — was the quintessential expression of actually-existing cancel culture. More recently, Trump had been the main driver of the cancellation of NFL Colin Kaepernick, demanding not just that the NFL quarterback be fired, but driven from the country. That absurdity prompted CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale to post a list of people or institutions Trump had called out to cancel on Twitter over the years, ranging from corporations like AT&T, Apple and Macy's to newspapers like the Dallas Morning News and the Arizona Republic to liberal commentators like Paul Krugman and Touré and even conservatives like Karl Rove, Rich Lowry, Charles Krauthammer and Jonah Goldberg.

But now that Trump himself has been canceled by the votes of 81,268,924 Americans, "cancel culture" has become a go-to weapon of choice for Trumpian conservatives, fueled by a branded string of stories in conservative media, including the New York Post, Breitbart, the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire. With Trump himself no longer dominating news cycles 24/7, there's a huge void to fill. Conservative "cancel culture" panic helps fill that void by providing a shared cookie-cutter framework to both fuel and give shape to that panic — which is in fact a genuine cultural panic about the white right's loss of power to impose its worldview, and resulting judgments, on others. To hold onto power, conservatives are committed to building the "cancel culture" narrative, casting themselves as victims — along the lines of my December Salon story on perceived victimhood.

A meaningfully meaningless term

As Media Matters editor Parker Malloy argues, regarding the terms "cancel culture," "woke" and "identity politics": "Whatever real definitions these words had before they were co-opted by the right have been diluted to the point of meaninglessness." For conservatives, that meaninglessness is a feature, not a bug. Those words mean whatever a right-wing accuser needs them to mean in the moment. They are talismanic terms, representing the very cultural power the right feels itself losing in today's rapidly changing world. "Cancel culture" in particular has a profound Orwellian or even Nietzschean power: a transvaluation of values, transforming a moment of existential loss into one of triumph, at least for as long as we let them get away with it.

There are, however, two modest constraints on meaning we can observe: the notions that cancel culture is something new, and that it comes exclusively from the left. The reality is exactly the opposite. For as long as culture has been changing, conservatives have tried to stop it by suppressing or demonizing anything that challenges their worldview. Not all conservatives, of course, and not in all ways. But this has been a central thrust of conservative thought, not just in the modern political era, when the terms "liberal" and "conservative" emerged, but as far back as ancient Greece, as Eric Alfred Havelock showed in "The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics."

In American history we can see dramatic examples of conservative cancel culture in the Alien and Sedition Acts, in the 4,743 post-Civil War lynchings to terrorize and suppress black political power, in the post-World War I Palmer Raids, in which 10,000 were arrested and 556 deported, in the McCarthy era, during which hundreds were imprisoned and 10,000 to 12,000 Americans lost their jobs — including the long-neglected anti-gay Lavender Scare — and in the FBI's COINTELPRO Program, which targeted the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements, labelling Martin Luther King Jr.'s SCLC as a Black nationalist "hate group." Trump's obsession with canceling people he fears fits squarely within this historical tradition. After all, his political mentor and second father-figure was Joe McCarthy's lead investigator, Roy Cohn. We shouldn't be the least bit surprised or confused by the cancel culture hysteria being promoted today as a front for the same evils it pretends to be fighting against.

Still, the term itself is new compared to this centuries-long history, so it warrants clarification. In early April, the Washington Post's Clyde McGrady provided an excellent guide, "The strange journey of 'cancel,' from a Black-culture punchline to a White-grievance watchword." McGrady offers a concise cultural history, from legendary songwriter/producer Nile Rodgers' experience with a bad date, rendered into the 1981 Chic song "Your Love Is Cancelled" to its appearance in "New Jack City" a decade later to 2000s songs "Hustler's Ambition" by 50 Cent and "I'm Single" by Lil Wayne and finally to Black Twitter.

"Declaring someone or something 'canceled' on Twitter was not really an attempt to activate a boycott or run anyone from the public square," McGrady explains. "Saying someone was 'canceled' was more like changing the channel — and telling your friends and followers about it — than demanding that the TV execs take the program off the air."

It's worth highlighting that Rodgers' bad-date experience at the root of all this sprang from his working-class common man rejection of tossing his cultural weight around:

[A]t heart, he was still a humble kid whose parents had struggled with drug addiction and who felt fortunate to have made it as far as he did. So, when his date asked the maître d' to remove people from a table so they could sit there instead, Rodgers bristled. …

Her attempt to use his celebrity to push people around was a dealbreaker. "No, no, no, I don't do that," Rodgers remembered explaining. "I don't play that card."

In short, canceling everyday people in the way that conservatives portray "cancel culture" to work was the exact opposite of what motivated Rodgers to coin the term in the first place, as well as how it's been used on Twitter. Think about that anytime you hear the term used.

You should also think of everything conservatives are doing — or trying to do — right now to cancel the views of those they disagree with. The following are just a few prominent examples. In each case, it's about those who wield power "canceling" — or at least trying to cancel — those who would challenge them. Their efforts to cancel democracy at the ballot box (with 361 bills in 47 states as of March 24) and in the streets (81 anti-protest bills in 34 states as of April 21) are deadly serious threats to American democracy.

But the right's most persistent, long-running cancel-culture attacks center on education. As Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting noted on William F. Buckley's death, "Buckley's career began in 1951 with the publication of 'God and Man at Yale,' an attack on his alma mater that urged the firing of professors whom he felt were insufficiently hostile to socialism and atheism."

Cancel culture in education

In March, Boise State University abruptly suspended all 52 sections of a required general education course, "Foundations of Ethics & Diversity," citing "allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values." Suspending 52 sections of a required course without investigation for perhaps a single student complaint is of course wildly out of bounds, as pointed out by John K. Wilson at the Academe blog:

Even if one instructor had done something terrible in one class, that would only justify (in the most extreme cases) suspending that instructor temporarily and finding a substitute to continue the class. It could not justify suspending all 52 classes in which there was no evidence of any misconduct.

Shedding light on the over-reaction, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported, "The cancellation of the classes comes after more than a year of lawmakers' efforts to rein in classes at Idaho universities and colleges." But the legislature wasn't acting on its own, as Wilson made clear:

The Idaho legislators are being pressured by right-wing nonprofits who demand censorship of liberal ideas on campus. A December 2020 report from the right-wing Idaho Freedom Foundation and the Claremont Institute declared that "eliminating social justice initiatives at Idaho's universities is necessary for meaningful reform, as well as disrupting their ability to provide stable careers for social justice advocates." The report called for the state legislature to act by "penalizing universities that continue to emphasize social justice education." This report urged the state legislature to violate academic freedom and ban classes it deemed too liberal: "Direct the University to eliminate courses that are infused with social justice Ideology." Leading right-wing think tanks are actively demanding a ban on courses based on their ideology. This is an example of conservative cancel culture far more extreme than anything pushed by left-wing activists.

The report doesn't just call for eliminating individual courses, however. It calls for the elimination of five whole departments — Gender Studies, Sociology, Global Studies, Social Work and History — that it claims are infused with "social justice" ideology. (A sixth blacklisted department has since been added: Criminal Justice.) Eight other departments (later updated to nine) are on a watch list of sorts, judged to be "social justice in training." What conservatives want here is strikingly similar to what Viktor Orbán has done in Hungary, where he's just announced the privatization of 11 public universities, to be run by political allies.

Boise State's recklessly illegal actions are just the tip of the iceberg. On April 15, Education Week reported that Republican lawmakers in eight states (including Idaho) have drafted bills restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. "The bills use similar language as an executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity trainings for federal workers," it reported.

Georgetown political scientist Donald Moynihan saw all this coming years ago. In a New York Times op-ed just before Trump took office, Moynihan — then at the University of Wisconsin — focused attention on what was really happening where he worked.

"At least three times in the past six months, state legislators have threatened to cut the budget of the University of Wisconsin at Madison for teaching about homosexuality, gender and race," his article began. All the discussions focused on the dangers of "political correctness" (the buzzword of choice before "cancel culture") bore no relation to his own experience teaching at public universities in three states over 14 years. "Students can protest on the campus mall, demanding that policies be changed; elected officials can pass laws or cut resources to reflect their beliefs about how a campus should operate," he wrote. "One group has much more power than the other."

I asked Moynihan about how he came to write that piece when he did. Here's what he said:

I was first engaged on speech issues when the then-governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, proposed to remove "the search for truth" from my university's mission statement. (He would later claim it was a typo.) He then reduced tenure protections for faculty and new policies that would have made it easier to bring guns on campus.

Republican politicians would talk about free speech on campus, but seemed to be intent on eroding the conditions to protect such speech. Politicians were also willing to target faculty members. The chair of the Assembly Higher Education committee started monitoring faculty syllabi and calling for the firing of faculty whose courses he did not like.

That was when I spoke out…. It seemed deeply unfair that state officials would so blatantly use their power to determine what was, and what was not, acceptable speech. ...

Soon after a Ben Shapiro talk was interrupted for about 10 minutes the legislature proposed and the conservative Board of Regents adopted a new set of policies that they said protected free speech but effectively forced campuses to punish students for protest. Our Board of Regents was almost uniformly conservative appointees who seemed to see it as their job to attack the institution they had been appointed to represent.

I'll have more to say about Shapiro's role below. But it's part of a broader campaign. "Conservatives have been successful at demonizing the people who work on campus — faculty, staff and students — as threats to free speech," Moynihan told me. "Attacking universities became a staple of the far right, propelled by an entire ecosystem of media funded by donors like the Koch or DeVos families, such as Campus Reform. [More on them below, too.] Tucker Carlson had a themed segment called 'Campus Craziness.'"

Worse than that, Moynihan said:

The mainstream media bought it. It wasn't just on the right. Journalists at the Atlantic or writers in the New York Times told us that students were becoming dangerously intolerant, and faculty were brainwashing them. My op-ed in the Times was one of the few that pushed against that general narrative. The dominant narrative, even in places like the New York Times, was that conservative speech was being suppressed, and the students and faculty were the villains. Someone counted this! They found that over an 18-month stretch, there were 21 op-eds about the suppression of conservative speech but just three, including mine, on conservative threats to speech.

Remember: Moynihan's op-ed ran just days before Trump took office, having made complaints about "political correctness" a recurrent campaign theme.

"Once the general narrative was established, even trivial examples — students at Oberlin complaining about food names - were presented as serious and representative threats to speech," Moynihan continued. "There were also a series of college tours by people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro who said offensive things designed to enrage people, and then generated protests and interruptions that embellished their brands as fearless free-speech champions."

In March 2018, Sanford Ungar reported on results from the Georgetown Free Speech Tracker:

[M]ost of the incidents where presumptively conservative speech has been interrupted or squelched in the last two or three years seem to involve the same few speakers: Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter…. In some instances, they seem to invite, and delight in, disruption.

At Vox, Zack Beauchamp put a finer point on it:

What Ungar is suggesting here is that the "campus free speech" crisis is somewhat manufactured. Conservative student groups invite speakers famous for offensive and racially charged speech — all of the above speakers fit that bill — in a deliberate attempt to provoke the campus left. In other words, they're trolling.

Trolling takes other forms as well, as Alice Speri reported for the Intercept in early April. Her story carried the subhead, "Campus Reform and its publisher, the Leadership Institute, are siccing armies of trolls on professors across the country." Campus Reform purports to expose "liberal bias and abuse on the nation's college campuses," but regularly relies on misrepresentation, first to elicit faculty comments and then to mis-report them, making them seem as sinister as possible. "Over the last several years, Campus Reform has targeted hundreds of college professors," Speri reported, "leading to online harassment campaigns, doxxing, threats of violence, and calls on universities to fire their faculty."

A Trinity College assistant professor, Isaac Kamola, "has tracked more than 1,570 stories posted on Campus Reform since 2020 and surveyed the 338 individuals they targeted." He "found that at least 40 percent of respondents received 'threats of harm' following a Campus Reform article, mostly via email and social media." She goes on to say, "Less than half the people surveyed by Kamola reported receiving support from their universities' administrations, and more than 12 percent reported facing disciplinary action as a result of a Campus Reform story. Three people said they lost their jobs."

In short, they were canceled. And no one put them on national TV to talk about it. That's just one more way in which conservative gaslighting about cancel culture advances the very thing conservatives claim to be concerned about.

"Having created the narrative of the intolerant liberal campus as a problem, conservative politicians could propose a solution," Moynihan continued. "They could make a case for why their policing of speech on campus was actually protecting free speech. They effectively persuaded many that politicians should be trusted to monitor speech on campus, more than the people who lived on campus and have historically done a pretty good job of protecting speech."

But none of this matched reality. "Wisconsin has a long history of protest and counter-protest on campus, some of it quite violent. The idea that students had suddenly become aggressive seemed clearly wrong to me," Moynihan recalled. "These terms I kept hearing just did not fit with my experience with the students I engaged with. The gap between my lived experience on campus and what was being portrayed in the media was large."

At the same time, "I looked around the world and saw a very disturbing trend: Authoritarian governments in places like Hungary, Turkey and China were policing speech on campus as part of their effort to stifle dissent, using many of the same tools that U.S. state legislatures are adopting," Moynihan said. "For example, a bill in Florida encourages students to record and monitor their professors to expose their views. What could be more chilling to speech in the classroom? This is the same tool that China uses to control universities: Student informers report any dissent against the party."

Canceling democracy at the ballot box

Trump's refusal to accept his defeat in the 2020 election was the epitome of attempting to cancel democracy. But it was only an intensification of processes already underway. Republicans have only won the popular vote for president once in eight elections since 1988. They have not represented a majority of voters in the Senate since 1996. Their $30 million REDMAP project in 2010 created the most sweeping partisan redistricting of the House in US history, as former Salon editor in chief David Daley recounted in "Ratf**ked." Baseless claims of voter fraud have been repeatedly invoked in justifying and motivating voter suppression efforts. More broadly, a new study of state-level democratic backsliding since 2000 found that "Republican control of state government, however, consistently and profoundly reduces state democratic performance during this time period."

Still, what's happening now goes considerably further. A majority of Republicans refuse to believe Biden legitimately won the election, leading to an avalanche of new voter suppression bills — 361 bills in 47 states as of March 24, according to the Brennan Center, which reported:

Most restrictive bills take aim at absentee voting, while nearly a quarter seek stricter voter ID requirements. State lawmakers also aim to make voter registration harder, expand voter roll purges or adopt flawed practices that would risk improper purges, and cut back on early voting.

Sharply underscoring the cancel culture motivations — the conflict between established state power and shifting public opinion — the report continued: "The states that have seen the largest number of restrictive bills introduced are Texas (49 bills), Georgia (25 bills), and Arizona (23 bills). Bills are actively moving in the Texas and Arizona statehouses, and Georgia enacted an omnibus voter suppression bill last week."

The most infamous aspect of the Georgia law is its restriction on giving water to people waiting in long lines to vote. But as election law expert Rick Hasen explained in a New York Times op-ed, there's something even more sinister involved, a "new threat of election subversion" that "represent[s] a huge threat to American democracy itself." Specifically, "The Georgia law removes the secretary of state from decision-making power on the state election board," which is aimed at Brad Raffensperger, who refused to "find" 11,780 votes to overturn Biden's victory. "But the changes will apply to Mr. Raffensperger's successor, too, giving the legislature a greater hand in who counts votes and how they are counted," Hasen explained.

It's hardly an isolated case, he noted: "According to a new report by Protect Democracy, Law Forward and the States United Democracy Center, Republican legislators have proposed at least 148 bills in 36 states that could increase the chances of cooking the electoral books." More precisely, the press release says:

Many of the bills would make elections more difficult to administer or even unworkable; make it more difficult to finalize election results; allow for election interference and manipulation by hyper-partisan actors; and, in the worst cases, allow state legislatures to overturn the will of the voters and precipitate a democracy crisis. If these bills had been in place in 2020, they would have significantly added to the turmoil of the post-election period, and raised the prospect that the outcome of the election would have been contrary to the popular vote.

This is what a real cancel culture crisis looks like. And it's 100% conservative from top to bottom. There are of course some individual conservatives who strongly object — but nowhere near enough.

Canceling democracy in the streets

But democracy doesn't begin and end at the polls. The First Amendment protects basic freedoms that make meaningful democracy possible, including "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Republicans have been busy trying to cancel our democracy on this front as well, with 81 anti-protest bills introduced in 34 states during the 2021 legislative session, "more than twice as many proposals as in any other year, according to Elly Page, a senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law," the New York Times reported on April 21. (Those laws are tracked here.)

"Republican legislators in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed bills granting immunity to drivers whose vehicles strike and injure protesters in public streets," the Times reported. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. "We've seen at least 15 bills introduced that would create new immunity for drivers who hit protesters with their cars," Page's colleague Nick Robinson told Democracy Now! on April 26. That just one of many objectionable features in a recently-passed Florida bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed while claiming it was as "anti-rioting." The ACLU of Florida characterized it instead as "anti-protest." Just three people would be enough to constitute a "riot" and 26 would constitute an "aggravated riot," potentially facing long prison sentences.

"Under this new bill, let's say you just go to a protest, and a handful of people kick over a trash can. Just by being part of that crowd, you can be arrested and prosecuted for rioting and face a felony," Robinson explained. "Actually, under the law, no one actually has to commit any violence at all. If there's just a danger to property, then people can be arrested for rioting."

In short, this a naked governmental power grab, meant to squelch popular protest, and aimed specificallyat Black Lives Matter protesters. How do we know? Florida lawmakers said as much, and they included a provision blocking any Florida city or county from cutting police budgets without explicit permission from the state.

Conservative anti-protest cancel culture is nothing new, of course. The Palmer Raids were supposed to head off a Russian Revolution-style violent uprising, but only turned up a total of four pistols from thousands of arrests. More recently, Republican state lawmakers have focused on criminalizing climate activism, as the Brennan Center reported in March:

Since 2016, 13 states have quietly enacted laws that increase criminal penalties for trespassing, damage, and interference with infrastructure sites such as oil refineries and pipelines. At least five more states have already introduced similar legislation this year.

The laws are based on post-9/11 national security legislation to protect vital physical infrastructure, "but most state critical infrastructure laws focus more narrowly on oil and gas pipelines," the Center noted. "While protecting critical infrastructure is a legitimate government function, these laws clearly target environmental and Indigenous activists by significantly raising the penalties for participating in or even tangentially supporting pipeline trespassing and property damage, crimes that are already illegal."

And there's one final conservative cancel culture twist: the question of who's calling the shots:

Many laws are modeled on draft legislation prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC, a powerful lobbying group funded by fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Shell.

Cancel culture In Congress

Those are three broad areas where conservative cancel culture is both widespread and deeply dangerous to democracy. But that's hardly the whole story. Consider what's happened with two key Biden appointments, Vanita Gupta, for Associate Attorney General, and Kristen Clarke to head the DOJ Civil Rights Division. Both were subject to dishonest, racist right-wing smear campaigns, as CNN reported, and Gupta was confirmed 51-49, with just one Republican vote (Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) on April 21. Both were relentlessly portrayed as dangerous extremists, when they've actually been leaders of mainstream civil rights organizations — the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (Gupta) and Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights Under Law (Clarke). Both were attacked for supposedly being anti-police (no racial stereotyping there, right?) even though both had been endorsed by police organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police (Gupta) and the Major Cities Chiefs Association (Clarke).

The attacks on them were part of a broader pattern of attacks on nominees who are women and/or people of color, including Xavier Becerra (Health and Human Services), Deb Haaland (Department of Interior) and Neera Tanden (Office of Management and Budget). Becerra was confirmed 50-49 — with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine as his only GOP vote — while Tanden's nomination was withdrawn.

All this is simply accepted as normal now, but it's prima facie evidence of a concerted conservative cancel-culture effort to stifle the voices of key Democratic constituencies. It's visible in the broad reach of voter suppression efforts, of protest suppression efforts and curriculum suppression efforts as well. They've all but given up on advancing anything like a governing agenda. At the Atlantic, Ron Brownstein observed:

With their opposition to President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan, Republicans are doubling down on a core bet they've made for his presidency: that the GOP can maintain support among its key constituencies while fighting programs that would provide those voters with tangible economic assistance.

To accomplish that, they have to cancel reality itself. No problem — Republicans have been doing that for decades. The only difference now is that they've stopped doing anything else.

Why is online political culture so distorted and awful? Sociologist explains why — and how to fix it

It's become commonplace to speak about online political culture as a set of echo chambers that only serve to reinforce our existing views — but is that really the best way to understand it? Absolutely not, says Duke sociologist Chris Bail in his new book, "Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing."

The echo chamber metaphor tells us something about what's happening online, but not enough to guide us toward discovering solutions, Bail argues. In fact, it can be misleading, because breaking people out of echo chambers doesn't make them less polarized — it does the opposite, as Bail discovered with the first experiment on the pathway that led to this book.

What's more, online polarization is only one facet of the problem. "I believe the rapidly growing gap between social media and real life is one of the most powerful sources of political polarization in our era," Bail writes. You could even argue that people are internally polarized between their online and offline selves — though in very different ways for different sorts of people.

Bail's first book, "Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream" was a nuanced exploration of how a tiny handful of fringe anti-Muslim organizations managed to hijack the public discourse about Islam (Salon interview here.) Innovative explorations of online data were a central part of his analysis, along with a diverse mix of other approaches. His new book deals with generalized versions of many of the same themes explored in "Terrified," using a similarly mixed-method approach to gathering data — most notably via in-depth interviews with subjects of online experiments, whose results in turn are compared with a wide range of other research. But what's most telling is Bail's central insight into the root of the problem.

"We use social media platforms as if they were a giant mirror that can help us understand our place within society," he writes. "But they are more like prisms that bend and refract our social environment — disturbing our sense of ourselves, and each other." While more attention has been focused on the polarizing dynamics of extremists, theirs is not the only story that matters.

"The most pernicious effects of the prism operate upon the far larger group of social media users who are appalled by online extremism and eager to find middle ground," Bail observes. We are also misled by perceptions of much greater polarization than actually exists, a "feedback loop between the social media prism and false polarization," as Bail puts it. "One of the most important messages I'd like readers to take away from this book," he writes, "is that social media has sent false polarization into hyperdrive."

What's happening isn't necessarily something new and strange, Bail argues, just because the setting may be.

"We are addicted to social media not because it provides us with flashy eye candy or endless distractions, but because it helps us do something we humans are hard-wired to do: present different versions of ourselves, observe what other people think of them, revise our identities accordingly," Bail writes. This applies to moderates as well as extremists. "Although we scan our social environment, consciously or unconsciously, we are often quite wrong about what other people think," he continues — and the distorting prism of social media only compounds this problem.

The prism metaphor represents a shift in analytic frameworks so clarifying and compelling that it reminds me of the Copernican revolution. "Our focus on Silicon Valley obscures a much more unsettling truth: the root source of political tribalism on social media lies deep inside ourselves," Bail argues. Echo chambers are still there, just as the Moon still revolves around the Earth, but the larger landscape has been radically transformed, and things fit together in promising new ways.

Bail spends his first three chapters dealing with "the legend of the echo chamber" and what happens when we break out of it, and then looking at typical extremists and moderates, before focusing squarely on the social media prism itself.

Offering a thumbnail diagnosis, Bail says, "The social media prism fuels status-seeking extremists, mutes moderates who think there is little to be gained by discussing politics on social media and leaves most of us with profound misgivings about those on the other side, and even the scope of polarization itself." ("Status-seeking extremists," it should be noted, are not the same thing as strong partisans. How and why their views are held sets them apart.)

Getting rid of social media is unrealistic, he argues — it's become too much a part of our lives. But there are both bottom-up and top-down ways of reshaping our online experience. We can all make our own online experience more consensus-seeking, rather than divisive, and entire social media platforms could shift incentives — or new platforms could be intentionally created for that purpose.

Every one of Bail's chapters threads together multiple lines of thought — some dating back decades or centuries — interweaving the frontiers of online social science research with the traditions they emerge from. In the first chapter, he highlights the origins of social network research in the late 1940s with sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton, for example, and the origins of the term "echo chamber" in a 1960s book by political scientist V.O. Key.

In Chapter 4, he goes back even further. "One of the most ancient ideas in Western thought is that rational deliberation will produce better societies," Bail notes, an "idea [that] gained momentum during the Enlightenment." It's a noble idea with a persistent vaporware problem. Bail gives a lightning-quick description, passing from French salon culture through Jürgen Habermas' account of mass communications as echoing aspects of salon culture in a newly-created mass public and on to early internet fantasies of realizing salon culture online, which he describes as "a heavily idealized vision" that "may now seem whimsical," but whose basic logic "continues to motivate many technology leaders." (Note the name of this online publication, founded in 1995.)

As Bail puts it, our experience suggests that "social media are less like an eighteenth century salon and more like a sprawling football field on which our instincts are guided by the color of our uniforms instead of our prefrontal cortexes." There are ways to mitigate the situation, as he argues in his last two chapters. But doing so requires a lot of careful rethinking about the behavior, motivations and perceptions of both extremists and moderates.

Destructive extremist trolls do a lot to drive polarization, rooted in their own sense of powerlessness. "Many people with strong partisan views do not participate in such destructive behavior," Bail writes. "But the people who do often act this way because they feel marginalized, lonely, or disempowered in their offline lives. Social media offer such social outcasts another path."

In a section titled "Lonely Trolls," Bail notes that one such extremist "repeatedly mentioned that he had 'a couple thousand quote followers,' and he was truly proud to court count several prominent conservative leaders among them." But it turned out this person "only had about 200 followers," and "the high-profile conservatives he thought were following him we're actually people with copycat accounts."

Though isolated in their offline lives, trolls often coordinate with one another online, including launching attacks on their perceived enemies, which "serve a ritual function that pushes extremists closer together." Some extremists are political converts, particularly keen to prove their new loyalties as a kind of ongoing purification ritual.

Another purification ritual that extremists of all sorts engage in is to attack moderates on their own side. What's more, some closely monitor their followers, and can be even more savage in attacking anyone who stops following them. This leads to a broader comment about cult-like dynamics. "Proving one membership in a cult often becomes a sort of ritual," Bail writes, "in which members reward each other for taking increasingly extreme positions to prove their loyalty to the cause."

Bail concludes his chapter on extremists by identifying two interrelated processes driving such radicalization: It normalizes extremism on one's own side and exaggerates that on the other side. The more intensely extremists interact with each other, the easier it becomes to believe that everyone thinks that way. Thus, Bail writes, "At the same time that the prism makes one's own extremism reasonable — or even normal — it makes the other side seem more aggressive, extreme, and uncivil."

But extremists are only part of the story, Bail argues. "The most pernicious effects of the prism operate upon the far larger group of social media users who are appalled by online extremism and eager to find middle ground." The overrepresentation of extremists doesn't just drown out the voices of such "moderates," but discourages them from speaking up in the first place — not just for fear of attack by extremists, but also for fear of being mistaken for extremists themselves. Most people care more about social relations than they do about politics — particularly national politics. "Moderates Have Too Much to Lose," as one of Bail's sections is titled.

So the decision not to engage with politics online is a perfectly rational one for the vast majority of people. But it doesn't have to be, if the online experience can be changed. What's central to doing that is disrupting the aforementioned feedback loop between social media and false polarization. In the chapter dealing with bottom-up approaches, Bail describes three learning strategies "to hack the social media prism." First comes learning to see and understand how the prism distorts both our own identities and other people's. Second is learning to see ourselves through the prism and to monitor how our behavior gives the prism its power. Third is learning how to break the prism by changing those behaviors, replacing them with more productive ways of engaging with ideological allies and opponents alike.

It's a challenging task, but recent social science research suggests it's more doable than you might think. Bail and his colleagues have spent years developing new tools to help facilitate the process (available at Duke's Polarization Lab.).

One of the simplest tools is the "Troll-O-Meter": Answer six questions about an account and you can calculate the probability that you're dealing with a troll. Further help is offered with a chart of the most common terms used by political trolls over the last three years and the advice, "Take a look through the last dozen tweets of the person you think might be trolling you."

Users are invited to "Check out our tools for identifying and connecting with moderates who do not share your political views, as well as our issue-tracker that identifies the topics where research indicates you are most likely to find compromise."

Bail's discussion in the book, as well as the online instructions and explanations, help explain the logic of the approach, but three insights are worth highlighting. First is the concept of a "latitude of acceptance," meaning a range of attitudes one finds reasonable, even if one might not initially agree with them. Encountering ideas within one's latitude of acceptance makes one more likely to engage, and perhaps even end up agreeing.

Second is the value of listening. Rather than just jumping in feet first, Bail says, "Take some time to study what those people care about and, more importantly, how they talk about it." Arguments that resonate with the worldviews of others are inherently more persuasive. Third is to avoid talking about polarizing opinion leaders. People have low confidence in leaders generally, and such conversations tend to divert attention from ideas and issues back to identities.

While these bottom-up strategies can improve online discourse, in his last chapter Bail argues that "the only way we can create lasting improvement is to create a new playing field." This might seem improbable given the dominance of Facebook and Twitter, but "taking the long view teaches us that platforms come and go," he writes, and he's not looking for a new behemoth.

"I think there is room for a new platform for political discussion," Bail argues. "Would everyone use it? Of course not." But the social science is clear: "Most people get their opinions about politics from friends, family members or colleagues who proactively seek information about politics, regularly engage with others about such information, and care enough about issues to try and influence people in their social networks who trust their opinion."

Bail is agnostic about how such a platform might be created, but does discuss an experimental effort to explore how such a platform might work: an anonymous issue-based discussion forum that proved both depolarizing and enjoyable for participants. Whether that could be scaled up as a business, nonprofit or government-funded entity remains to be seen. But the basic principle seems clearly established, and the need is inarguable.

Existing social media platforms are politically dysfunctional because they were never supposed to be otherwise. "What's the purpose of Facebook?" Bail asks. "The company calls its mission is to 'bring the world closer together' but the platform began as a sophomoric tool that Harvard undergraduates used to read each other's physical attractiveness." And other platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram, had equally banal beginnings. No one's really tried to build a platform that would actively and intentionally promote the practice of democracy. With the clarion call of this book, perhaps that may change.

But will that be enough? Bail's analysis of the problem of online polarization is clarifying and compelling, but it's not the only mega-problem facing us, and I couldn't stop thinking about that as I read the book. Nor could I ignore other efforts to build consensus and strengthen dialogic politics, including ones I've written about before, such as "deliberative polling" with James Fishkin, or "citizens' assemblies" with Claudia Chwalisz.

So I had some questions to ask Bail about how his work fits into the larger framework of problems and possibilities facing us today. This supplementary interview, conducted by email, has been edited for length and clarity.

You analyze our current social media environment and point to ways it could be made less polarizing and more conducive to good government. Your analysis focuses on polarization as a group-identity based problem. While it seems reasonable that reducing polarization is necessary, it's not necessarily a sufficient condition for a healthy democracy. Reducing polarization after the Civil War led us to three generations of white supremacy under Jim Crow. You're advancing a major rethinking of online political culture, and it seems crucial to address that.

I am certainly aware of the broader public debate about the place of polarization, vis-a-vis other pressing social issues. I have a few general concerns about approaching this issue in a zero-sum manner. The first is that there are almost no counterfactuals that can help us realistically understand the effect of depolarization efforts on societal well being. We cannot analyze an alternative reality where the Civil War didn't happen, or where subsequent depolarization efforts did not happen. Also, it is nearly possible to tease out the impact of those efforts from the many other sources of social malaise at the time — to give only two examples, economic factors related to the restructuring of the economy of the U.S. South, or the long-term impact of war.

My second general concern when people wonder whether polarization is really a pressing social concern is: What is the alternative? Many of the most pressing challenges of our era — changing beliefs about race or the climate, for example, are not simply questions about passing legislation; they are fundamentally about winning hearts and minds. In other words, I worry too often that we are equating polarization with voting alone, and not the broader set of issues that determine what kind of country we aspire to be, or the value of social cohesion more broadly.

My third general concern (which sort of creeps into one of your other questions below), is that people are far too quick to equate Republican elected officials with Republican voters. There is quite a bit of evidence that many Republicans hold beliefs about issues as varied as background checks for handguns and the minimum wage that are far away from those of their leaders. This is why I took such care to discuss the "missing moderates" on the Republican side on social media — people like Sara Rendon.

My fourth general concern is that people too quickly equate depolarization efforts with compromise. Attempting to engage with the other side need not result in caving in on the issues that one is passionate about. I believe there is an intrinsic value to mutual understanding in democracy, even if it is not as vital as some of the early theories of democracy might have believed.

I certainly do not want to paint too rosy a picture here.There are extremely concerning developments in U.S. politics which mean there will be no easy fixes to the many issues that confront us. However, I do often worry that the sudden turn against depolarization efforts on the left will be counterproductive, and ultimately make it more difficult to create the lasting social change that so many Democrats want.

Relatedly, there needs to be some form of reality testing. Climate change is real, just as COVID is. (It didn't disappear on Nov. 4, as Donald Trump predicted.) A healthy online political culture that gets us all killed because it ignores reality doesn't seem fully thought out.

I personally agree with this point. But I also think it is dangerous to assume that one party is completely against reality. This is certainly true of many Republican leaders, and it is also true at the extremes of the Republican Party. But most of the data that I have seen indicates Republicans were in fact very worried about COVID. Perhaps not quite as much as Democrats, but — particularly in the early days of the pandemic — the partisan gaps in concern were fairly small, even if they eventually grew over time.

On global warming, it is also dangerous to equate skepticism about, say, the Paris Climate Agreement with concern about climate change. Many of the Republicans I studied over the past few years were in fact concerned about climate change (and believed it was real), but skeptical that the government could do anything to stop it. By the way, there is also evidence that as many as 40% of Republicans believe "the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change" (see, for example, this Pew report).

I think the debates about voter fraud are perhaps more concerning indicators of the potential of partisan differences in the definition of reality. Many of the studies done so far, however, use relatively imprecise wording that, in my opinion, make it difficult to parse people who are genuinely convinced that voting fraud happened from people who are simply upset or displeased about the result of the election (especially given growing evidence of expressive response to surveys among Republicans). This article captures my views on this pretty well — once we start to focus in on the people who really, sincerely believe that voter fraud happens, it might be much less concerning.

Your own data — along with other data on Congress, or on ideological and partisan alignment — shows that political polarization is asymmetric. It's true that "both sides do it" and also true that both sides do it at least somewhat differently. How does this affect your analysis?

The goal of my book was not to explain who is responsible for polarization, but to document how social media shapes the process. A proper analysis of the several decades of asymmetric polarization that you describe would require a much deeper historical analysis. I recommend Matt Grossmann's book "Asymmetric Politics" on this point.

You mention James Fishkin's work in passing, the main thrust of which is that reliance on rationality has been, shall we say, naive. But I see your work as pretty much in the same bin, albeit more ambitious. How is what you're trying to achieve different, or is it complementary?

My concern with Fishkin's argument is that rational deliberation alone will produce consensus. I think it leaves out the role of identity and status in shaping inter-group deliberation. I do not think it is possible to have rational deliberation on social media, at scale, until we learn to recognize how identity and status shape the process of deliberation. Even then, I am only cautiously optimistic.

One might say the point of your book is to argue for intentionally designing our online platforms to serve a collaborative public good, instead of our existing unplanned environment. But aren't conservatives already moving toward an intentionally polarizing alternative? How does this complicate the path toward a more healthy online public square?

I assume you are referring to Parler? It's not clear to me at this point that Parler will survive. The analyses I've seen so far indicate that it is mostly Republicans with extreme views who moved to that platform, and that overall growth has stalled. I have not done careful empirical analysis of this issue, however, so I would point you towards the first few working papers that have come out about Parler from the Stanford Internet Observatory and a lab at Boston University.

German scholar explains how Trump and the Capitol riot leveraged an entire universe of conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theories take can bewildering forms, as has become especially clear in the current era, when a recently deposed U.S. president became instrumental in spreading and popularizing an entire interlocking universe of demonstrably false conspiratorial narratives. But the historical development of conspiracy theories is becoming clearer, thanks to research across multiple disciplines, synthesized for a broad audience in German scholar Michael Butter's recent book, "The Nature of Conspiracy Theories."

None of that work in any of those disciplines — from psychology and sociology to philosophy, literature and cultural studies — gives us any reason to believe that conspiracy theories are going away anytime soon, simply because Donald Trump has left office. But they can help us make sense out of their persistence, which is why Salon reached out to Butter for an extended conversation.

In the first part of this interview, published two weeks ago, Butter — who teaches the history of American literature and culture at the University of Tübingen — discussed how conspiracy theories were long taken for granted. Winston Churchill, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln offer just a few entirely typical examples of major historical figures who believed in them. But conspiracy theories aren't universal throughout human history, Butter explained: They depend on the existence of a public sphere and the right sort of media environment.

Centuries before the internet, the printing press was responsible for the birth of conspiracy theories in their modern form. Butter also described the ways conspiracy theories can be categorized — they describe conspiracies from above or from below, from outside a society or from within — as well as the social and psychological needs they meet, and how they underwent a three-phase process of stigmatization that pushed them out of the mainstream after the 1950s.

In part two of the interview, Butter describes the three-phase process that brought conspiracy theories back into the public sphere as we know them today, their structural similarities with populism, the important case study of Donald Trump as a case study, what can be done to counter them and more. This transcript has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

In describing the comeback of conspiracy theory — which perhaps culminated with Donald Trump and QAnon — you outline what might be called a three-phase process of evangelism, in whose final stage we reach online conspiracy theories, which you characterize as "more rumors than fully fledged theories." How did this evangelical revival begin, and what defined it?

Conspiracy theories never really became unpopular. They were just flying under the radar for a while, in Europe far more so than in the United States. In the United States, conspiracy theories were always more part of popular discourse because of the [John F.] Kennedy assassination, because of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and also Watergate, than they were part of public discourse in Europe. Still, you could make the argument that full-blown conspiracy theories in the U.S. as well in Germany during the '70s and 80s and '90s were part of rather hermetic subcultures that are difficult to enter and whose members have problems articulating their ideas and finding a broader audience.

In the United States, of course, the emergence of talk radio and other venues, even before the internet, helps these people voice their ideas, but if you look at the Western world in general, I think it's really the emergence of the internet that turns these subcultures into what we could now call counter-publics, publics that are more easily found and whose members have far less trouble now finding a public for their ideas.

This again happens in different steps, in that during the late '90s we have these precursors of the internet like USENET, where people are writing in forums. Of course this is not yet happening in life on any large scale, because people are not online all the time. You need a modem, you need to connect through your landline telephone and you can't do that all the time. So you might download comments and then contribute to the discussion and people might look it up later. But on the other hand, it's very close to what's happening in social media these days — just a little slower.

Then, of course, a couple of years later we get platforms like YouTube where you can upload your own conspiracy film, something that before the advent of digital technology was really only possible for professional filmmakers and people who were very rich and who could afford all this equipment. Now you can just do these things on your laptop. The first version of the "Loose Change" films, which had tens of millions of viewers, was allegedly produced for just $1,200 on a laptop. Suddenly you can do that and put it online and you will find an increasingly big audience.

Then the third step would be what's happening to conspiracy theories because of social media — the echo chamber they increasingly generate and the specific conditions that they impose on how messages can be framed. If you have only 140 or 280 characters at your disposal, you can't really develop the conspiracy theory in the way a 90-minute YouTube video can do it. You have to restrict yourself to certain bold claims, and you don't provide any evidence.

I think in American culture the first case we can observe is what is called the "birther" conspiracy theory, which claims that Barack Obama was never eligible to become president because he allegedly was not born in the United States. I tried very very hard, with students of mine, to find anything on the internet where this conspiracy theory is developed in detail in the way older conspiracy theories were developed. But it's not really there. You only find the rumors, you find little bits and pieces of evidence. People taking apart the birth certificate and arguing that it's a forgery. You don't find a full-blown, completely developed conspiracy narrative about that.

At the same time, it's not the case that one of these online forums entirely replaces the others. Even now, in 2021, we still find fully fledged conspiracy theories. It's not all about conspiracy rumors these days, and it seems to me that these longer documentaries are even making a comeback. So there is this film "Plandemic" that you probably have heard about, which is really returning to a form that was popular 10 years ago with the "Loose Change" films, and there's a second part that's up now which is called "Indoctrination," which I think runs nearly two hours. So these older forms don't disappear and they're coexisting with the newer ones now.

You talk about how conspiracy theories today have a lot in common with populism, even though historically that's not usually the case. What do they have in common, and what distinguishes them?

There are a couple of structural analogies between populism and conspiracy. For example, both of them clearly divide the world into good and evil. For conspiracy theories, it's always the conspirators and the victims of the conspiracy and for populism is always the elite and the common people, and the elite is always acting against the interests of the common people.

This is coming back to what we talked about earlier, that contemporary conspiracy theories usually target an alleged conspiracy from above, and it's usually elites that are imagined as conspiring from above. So we could say that both populism and contemporary Western conspiracy theories have a common enemy and that is the elite.

Now, of course not all populist discourse accuses the elite of conspiring actively against the people. But usually accusations of conspiracy are one way of explaining why the elite is acting against the interests of the people that tends to coexist with other explanations within a populist movement.

For example, very often the elite is being accused of having lost touch with reality, of neglecting the common people — they're so caught up in other things, so detached from reality, that they no longer know what people need. Sometimes the elite is also accused of being corrupt, meaning that everybody that wants to just enrich themselves — which is why they act against the interests of the people — but they're not following one common systematic plan. And then there are those people who say, "Wait a minute, it's not that they are detached from reality. It's not that they're all corrupt. They are all part of a devious plot."

To a certain degree these explanations can overlap and the accusation of conspiracy grows naturally out of the other explanations. So we could say that accusations of conspiracy are one specific way in which members of the populist movement make sense of the fact that the elite is allegedly acting against the interests of the people.

Another analogy is that both populism and conspiracy theory are stigmatized in similar terms, aren't they?

Yes. Both populism and conspiracy theory are stigmatizing terms. If you call somebody a conspiracy theorist, you imply that you don't need to take them seriously, that this person is making baseless claims. If you call somebody a populist — I would suspect even more so in Europe than in the United States — you are also accusing them of being a fraud, of being somebody who is offering simplistic solutions to complex problems and is trying to rile up the masses.

Something we've observed again and again is that populists and members of populist movements accept people who believe in conspiracy theories, even though they themselves do not believe in these conspiracy theories. They say, "Well, you know, the elites are looking down on these people and think they are idiots because they believe in conspiracy theories. But they also think that we are idiots and should not be taken seriously, so there should be a space for these people within our movement." That's another parallel between populism and conspiracy theory.

You deal with Donald Trump as a case study, illustrating where conspiratorial thinking has most recently come to fruition. How did he rely on conspiracy rumors at first, rather than full-blown theories?

Trump is an interesting case, in that I think that he has been using conspiracy theories and conspiracy rumors very smartly from basically 2011 or 2012 onward, though most recent developments may have changed this. But initially he uses conspiracy rumors — those about Barack Obama's alleged birth outside of the country — to turn himself into a political figure. And this works — he's quite popular with Republican voters, suddenly, early in 2012 — and then he shuts up again, because he doesn't want to run against Obama just yet.

But he resuscitated these accusations against Obama and against conspiring elites in 2015, when he decided to run for the presidency. The interesting thing about Trump is that he usually does not articulate conspiracy theories. He doesn't really commit to anything; he restricts himself to conspiracy rumors. He just makes very short accusations, and usually leaves a safety net for himself. So he will always use phrases like "A lot of people are saying," or "I hear all the time," or "I've been told," or "Think about that." I would argue this is a strategy, because he does not want to alienate traditional Republican voters who have very little sympathy for conspiracy theories, and also people who might be receptive to his increasing populist stances, but who also favor other explanations of why elites are neglectful or corrupt over explanations of conspiracy.

But then, as you describe, that changed. When did that happen, and why?

It's only a couple of weeks before the 2016 election that he really makes this move from conspiracy rumors to conspiracy theories. In October 2016, the TV debates are over and he is behind in the polls to Hillary Clinton, and this tape has just been leaked to the press where he talks about sexually harassing women. I think this is the moment where Trump realizes that there is no chance that he's going to win over undecided voters or moderate voters. He knows that a lot of Republican voters will vote for him because they always vote for the Republican candidate and they really hate Hillary Clinton, but he now can reach out to people who are really receptive to his populist and conspiracist rhetoric.

So in his first public appearance after his tape goes public, he steps in front of his audience in Florida and talks for 45 minutes about a huge global conspiracy led by international banks and Hillary Clinton in order to destroy the American people. So here he really becomes a full-blown conspiracy theorist, because he knows he needs those people to vote for him now. This works and he wins the election, because, of course, of a couple of other factors interfere in his favor — James Comey's letter and also other things — and after the election he goes back to conspiracy rumors, at least usually.

This is the phase of the process I describe in the book. But since then things have developed further, and my impre