Paul Rosenberg

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 impression is that what happened to Trump is something that has happened to other political leaders who initially use conspiracy theories strategically as well, for example, Viktor Orbán in Hungary. It seems to me that Trump at some point starts believing some of his own conspiracy theories that so far he has only spread strategically.

That seems to apply both to the accusations against Hunter Biden that are connected to Ukraine — because otherwise there would be no point in sending Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to investigate all of this, and to expose himself in a manner that led to the first impeachment — and secondly, Trump had been talking about election fraud for many years, even before the 2016 election. Then, after that election, he said there had been illegal votes cast, and this is how he explains that he lost the popular vote.

He systematically picks up on this again from June 2020 onward, in order to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election. It seems to me that this is something that by now he genuinely believes in himself, because there is no longer any discernible strategy in maintaining these conspiracy theories. Even now, at the moment that we're speaking, with the second impeachment going on, he first ordered his lawyers to focus on the election fraud, not on arguing that impeaching him while he was no longer in office is unconstitutional. So he seems to have fallen victim to some of his own conspiracy theories.

You have some prescriptions for what to do about conspiracy theories. Regarding specific ones you recommend "pre-debunking." How does that work?

We know that debunking is very problematic. It's very difficult to convince people who already believe in conspiracy theories, or are drawn to conspiracy theories, that they are wrong. But we know from a couple of studies — and I know from conversations with teachers, for example — that something that what works much better is the so-called pre-debunking, which means you teach people about the arguments of specific conspiracy theories, but also about the way in which conspiracy theories generally work, before they are exposed to them. Of course schools would be the place to do that. If you equip people with the right education and the right knowledge, then the likelihood that they will come to believe in conspiracy theories significantly decreases.

This is something that we can explain historically, if we return to the stigmatization of conspiracy theories during the 1950s and 60s, which was also partly motivated by explaining to people why conspiracy theories are bad explanations, how they overemphasize intentions and why this is problematic. We know that educating people is a good means against belief in conspiracy theories, because education seems to be negatively linked to belief in conspiracy theories. While there are, of course, highly educated and intelligent people who believe in conspiracy theories, the likelihood that you will believe in them decreases with your level of education. So I think that education and pre-debunking really are key to fighting conspiracy theories.

You also speak more generally about social literacy, media literacy and historical literacy. Explain briefly why those are important in combatting conspiracy theories.

Media literacy is of course extremely important. People need to know which sources, especially on the internet, they can trust and which sources they cannot trust. Why does it make more sense to trust an article by the Washington Post or the New York Times than to trust something that somebody just writes in social media? People need to know about how the media work, how the internet works. They need to understand the search algorithms of something like the Google engine, that this is not an objective window on reality, but the results you get are predetermined by your earlier searches, for example, so that there is a certain subjectivity there right from the start. This is something people need to understand.

Right. Then explain what you mean by social literacy?

It's important to teach people about how politics works, how society works and why it is impossible to plan all of these things years or sometimes even decades in advance. These processes are extremely complex, which basically means that a large-scale conspiracies are virtually impossible. And this is basically what people realized in the '50s and '60s, when the stigmatization occurred.

Finally, historical literacy: What's most important here?

Historical literacy for me would mean that you study both historical conspiracies and historical conspiracy theories. Of course there have always been conspiracies, and there will always be conspiracies in the future. But if you look at historical conspiracies, you realize that in scope and reach they are much different from what conspiracy theories imagine. Far fewer people are involved than conspiracy theories claim. In the assassination of Julius Caesar it's just a couple of dozen people. Even in the toppling of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, back in the 1950s, by MI6 and the CIA, it's just a couple of dozen people, as opposed to faking the moon landing or orchestrating the 9/11 attack as an inside job, which would have required tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people.

And then real conspiracies usually revolve around singular events like a coup-d'état or an assassination. Conspiracy theories might begin with a single event but then we move on very quickly to all of history being a plot and people being deceived for years and decades.

Finally, if you study historical conspiracies, you also realize that usually something happens that the conspirators have not foreseen. Karl Popper writes in 1949 in "The Open Society and Its Enemies," when he coined the term "conspiracy theory" in its modern meaning, that the conspirators rarely enjoy the fruits of their labor. What he means by that is that something usually goes wrong. Think again of Julius Caesar. Roman senators killed Caesar because they saw him as a danger to the republic. They succeed in killing Caesar, but of course what ensues is a civil war and at the end of the civil war the republic ends. The time of the empire and the emperors begins, and the republic is history forever.

Or think of the recent Russian efforts to assassinate the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, to poison him. This didn't work in the end. He was brought to Germany and he was cured and now he's back in Russia and he's just been sentenced to two and a half years in prison, but he remains a real danger to the regime there. This was a conspiracy, but it didn't succeed the way it was imagined, and this failure is something for which there is no place in conspiracy theories. So studying historical conspiracies, I think, can alert us to seeing where conspiracy theories go wrong.

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

Not all conspiracy theories are dangerous, and not all conspiracy theorists are dangerous. It is important to contextualize. But generally speaking, there are three ways in which conspiracy theories can be dangerous.

First, they can be a catalyst for radicalization and thus ultimately lead to violence. People who believe in conspiracy theories can feel justified or even obliged to take up arms to interfere in the struggle between good and evil that is allegedly going on in front of them.

Second, medical conspiracy theories can be dangerous because people who deny established medical knowledge and dismiss it as part of a devious plot can endanger themselves and others because they do not take the necessary precautions.

Third, conspiracy theories can be a danger to democracy if they undermine people's trust in democratic processes and institutions. This danger is particularly high if a lot of people believe in these conspiracy theories and if they are articulated by people in power who stir up the masses.

All three dimensions can be observed in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. People who do not wear masks or socially distance, because they think that the coronavirus is harmless, violently attack the heart of American democracy because they have been stirred up by a populist leader.

'A moment of moral and political nihilism': Theologian breaks down the collapse of neoliberalism

In the wake of Donald Trump's failed insurrection, the most reflective observation I have encountered is theologian Adam Kotsko's article "An Apocalypse About Nothing," in a new left-wing Christian publication called The Bias. (That confusing name apparently has a heritage in the 1960s British Catholic left.) While the 24/7 cable news narrative has been all about how dramatically different the Trump and Biden presidencies are, Kotsko stressed the opposite: Trump's child separation policy was virtually the only thing to set him apart from previous Republican presidents, while "Joe Biden is the most conservative Democratic nominee of the postwar era."

While many people might argue with those assessments, it's more difficult to dispute Kotsko's deeper point about the broader historical pattern: "Over and [over] again, and to an increasing degree, the alternation of power between two broadly similar political parties is treated as an apocalyptic emergency." When every election is the most catastrophically important in history — when nothing is ever gained, beyond a temporary reprieve — something is surely missing at the core.

Kotsko also noted that "the word 'apocalypse' refers etymologically to a revelation, or more literally an uncovering," adding: "Apocalyptic literature always finds its society and historical moment to be corrupt and decadent." So rather than rail against the overheated apocalyptic rhetoric of others, Kotsko undertook his own cool-eyed, analytical version, saying, "I will follow my prophetic and apostolic forebears in diagnosing the root cause of that corruption and decadence as a failure to recognize the truth, which has resulted in a thoroughgoing moral and political nihilism."

That truth is not simply the failure of the neoliberal order — ushered in by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but embraced by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barack Obama as well — but a good deal more as well: the lies about human nature, freedom and the market which lie at the core of the neoliberal faith, as Kotsko unfolded in his 2018 book, "Neoliberalism's Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital." So I reached out to ask him to discuss what he had uncovered at the core of our historical moment's "corruption and decadence." This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Shortly after Trump's failed coup attempt, you wrote "An Apocalypse About Nothing." You called the attempt "a potentially apocalyptic moment, one in which all our certainties about constitutional government and electoral politics dissolved and all bets were off," and yet in terms of normal politics, you argue, it was hard to see why. Above the blow-by-blow melodrama, from a larger perspective many people would agree that the Democrats lack the confidence and vision to stand up to Republicans, and I think your work can help us better understand why. But I want to begin with your deeper argument. You write that in your book you argue that neoliberalism "has always been an apocalyptic discourse." First of all, how do you define neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is the political and economic project which has been a shared ambition by most major parties in most Western countries for the last generation. It is a project of trying to reimagine and re-create as many parts of society as possible on the model of a competitive market.

What do you mean by describing it as an "apocalyptic discourse"?

It started off as an oppositional movement. Especially after the First World War and the Great Depression, the free market ideal was under threat. It had been discredited and different alternatives were being tried, including more radical alternatives like the Soviet Union. So the people who were theorizing this before it became public policy were constantly like, "You need to adopt our free-market ideals or else you're going to be Communists." So it was like a voice calling in the wilderness: "Get back to the gospel of the free-market or else you're going to lose your freedom forever!"

When Reagan came in, and Thatcher as well, they adopted a similar kind of apocalyptic tone, except that they were kind of like the messiah implementing this plan. It was defeating all these enemies. Reagan is often credited — probably falsely — with delivering the crushing blow against the Soviet Union that made its dissolution inevitable and breaking the welfare state, all these powers that were literally demonized in a lot of neoliberal discourse The perception was that he was the one vanquishing them.

Then when the Democrats adopted the discourse themselves, how was it apocalyptic for them?

I think for them it turned around the idea that once the neoliberal order was established, it was no longer a matter of defeating these alternatives, because they had been all defeated. You know, the claim that there was no alternative to neoliberalism seemed true at that moment. The only threats were just these nihilistic threats of disaster — natural disasters, chaos, failed states, terrorism — these purely negative threats that were constantly menacing the world scene. The Democrats, and basically the left wing of neoliberalism in general, positioned themselves as trying to stabilize and rationalize the neoliberal system so that these nihilistic threats would not fester and lash out.

In your book, "Neoliberalism's Demons," you write that "neoliberalism makes demons of us all." Can you explain what's entailed in this demonization? It's a bit different from what folks might think.

I think the common use of the word "demonization" — aside from literally making an analogy between somebody and a demon — suggests saying something like really, really negative about them. Like, Republicans hate Hillary Clinton, so they demonized her. But I think there's a little bit more nuance to that, if you look at the theological tradition and what Christian thinkers were saying about how demons came about.

According to this mythology, God created them initially as angels, but then gave them this kind of impossible test, from the very first moment that they were created. Some of them were deemed to have failed for choosing not to submit to God quickly enough, or something like that. I took that to be emblematic of something that happens constantly in neoliberalism, which is that we're given a kind of false or meaningless choice that just sets us up to fail. That just puts us in a position where we are supposedly responsible for the bad outcome but doesn't give us enough power to actually change the situation, or change the terms of the choice we're given.

Your book talks about student debt in relationship to that. Could you say something more about that, to help flesh it out?

I think especially with talk of student loan forgiveness coming up, this is an especially relevant example. When people are arguing against student debt forgiveness, they say it's unfair to those who were responsible, and either didn't take on debt or worked their way through college or they paid them off, and that you're going to create incentives for people to take on all these irresponsible debts that they can't pay for. In general, student debt us a great example of this entrapment, because on the one hand, it's a contract that's freely entered into, but on the other hand, students are constantly told from a very young age that the only way they're going to have a livable life is if they go to college.

So they feel trapped. They have to take on student loans, because the alternative of not going to college just doesn't seem viable to them. And then they're on the hook for this very unusual form of debt that you can't get out of through bankruptcy, that you have to pay for even if you didn't finish your degree. It's a situation that's basically set up so that they can only fail, that they can only hurt themselves. But on a formal level, they are still responsible because they freely chose to do it.

You go on to talk about the benefits that flow to the purveyors of neoliberalism, both Republicans and Democrats, from leaning into this apocalyptic tone. Say a bit more about that.

If you look at what neoliberalism is promising, it's kind of boring. There's not a lot of dynamism or meaning to it. It's just like, if we set up economic incentives in the right way, then the right people will be rewarded and the lazy people will be punished, or something like that. I think Thomas Frank once wrote an article where he called neoliberalism "The God That Sucked." [Note: Frank was referring to the market with that term, but by extension the ideology of neoliberalism was clearly implicated.]

I think this apocalyptic rhetoric really gives us a sense of meaning and moral heft that it doesn't objectively have. It's the paradox of somebody claiming, "I'm on this great moral crusade and opposing these powerful forces," when really they're saying we should let the rich get even richer. The apocalyptic stance helps to resolve some of this cognitive dissonance, and give people an emotional attachment to it that wouldn't otherwise exist.

There's also an awful lot of scolding that goes along with neoliberalism.

It is very moralistic, very intent on blaming people. I think that neoliberalism presents itself as being about individual freedom and that it's trying to set up society so that whatever happens is a reflection of all of us collectively — or at least that it aggregates all our decisions onto the outcome that we all want. Since individual choice is the only kind of choice it recognizes, politicians wind up kind of pulling that string a lot to offload responsibility on individuals rather than themselves.

I think we've seen this a lot with COVID, the pandemic. It's intrinsically a shared, collective thing that requires a large-scale response, and yet we're constantly asked to be angry at individuals who choose not to wear masks, when there isn't a law making them wear masks. Individuals are supposed to discern what the true guidance should be on safety and respond appropriately, even though the political authorities haven't actually given that to them. It's really been reduced to a pretty absurd point in the pandemic, but it shows a dynamic that's always been going on.

You write that "Over and [over] again, and to an increasing degree, the alternation of power between two broadly similar political parties is treated as an apocalyptic emergency." But then came what you call "the genuine neoliberal apocalypse," meaning the great financial crisis of 2008. Why was that an apocalypse specifically for the neoliberal worldview?

Because it objectively discredited all their claims about how society works and how the market works. For them, the market is supposed to take individual choices and produce the appropriate rewards or punishments. But given that the crisis was so widespread and universal, it's not as though everybody just stopped and decided to make the wrong choices. And especially the fact that the choice that was being punished was buying a house, which is normally seen as the mark of responsibility. That added a kind of absurdity, like adding insult to injury. It also exposed the fallacy that the market is supposed to be much wiser and more far-seeing than any human being could be, when in fact the market was so completely wrong about these subprime mortgages and had built so much on them. That seemed to discredit the ideas that the market can handle things. So I think, objectively speaking, this should have forced a reckoning: Man, maybe we've been wrong this whole time. And it did not.

That's just what I wanted to ask about next: Why didn't we get any kind of significant or meaningful change?

I think that, first of all, we shouldn't have expected any change from the Republicans. They just kind of doubled down on their scapegoating, and they fantasized that the crisis was due to individual bad actors, which just so happened to be minorities. For instance, with the fantasies that mortgage subsidies somehow caused it, or something like that. So they're just stuck in a complete fantasyland of trying to make the math work out.

I think that for Democrats, it was both fortunate and also very unfortunate that Obama arose at the moment that he did. Because it seems like he was kind of a unique political talent, and the only one who could sell this agenda. He was very dedicated to doing neoliberal best practices, and bringing everybody in who supposedly knew what they were doing. They applied those practices and the economy did start to get better, based on the metrics, even if people were suffering, and even though the unemployment rate was misleading because so many people had supposedly given up. It still seemed to be getting better. And he then won re-election too, which seemed to endorse the fact that the best practices had worked.


I think that on the one hand, the Republicans became completely detached from reality, and on the other hand, the Democrats became complacent, because they were treating very meager successes as, like, a vindication of their entire strategy. The real problem is that, given the neoliberal hold over both parties for so long, there's just been basically brain drain. There's nobody other than old-timers like Bernie Sanders who has any kind of different outlook. Anybody who's come up since the neoliberal turn has to be within that mindset, or else they can't get anywhere in the party. So when the time came, there was nobody to ask questions or to look at the situation differently.

You also identify the coronavirus crisis as the second time in this young century when "the neoliberal paradigm has faced an apocalyptic challenge." There's a greater divergence between Trump and Biden's responses than there was between Bush and Obama's, but you write that "the goal was still to ensure that the market continued to function 'normally,'" and you make the related observation that both parties "cannot afford to tell the truth ... that the neoliberal consensus has failed and will continue to fail."

This ties into the beginning of your piece, where you argue that Trump is not all that different from other Republicans, while Biden was the Democrats' most conservative postwar nominee. I see Biden as a weathervane candidate, who responded to a younger, more diverse electorate to get elected and has some desire to try new things, although perhaps there's a lack of sustaining ideas.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the directions Biden has taken, although my expectations were basically at rock-bottom. I think that what's lacking — the ideas are not lacking. I mean, if we're talking about basically reforming every aspect of society, plans exist, activist groups exist, academic studies of their plausibility exist. In terms of knowing what to do, we've got it. But all those solutions seem to be impossible. I think it's good that Biden is pushing for more relief, but that's still basically cutting checks to people. That's not restructuring the economy to make it more robust against the next inevitable pandemic. We know they're going to become more frequent. We know this is going to happen again, and simply giving people aid now does not restructure the economy so that it's more robust against something like that.

Most absurd of all, I think, is the rejection of Medicare for All. if there's ever been an event that shows that health is an intrinsically public good that he should be handled by society as a whole, not on a for-profit basis, surely it's this pandemic, yet that's still off the table. Biden has ruled all along that option is off the table, and has even said he would veto it. So I don't think it's a lack of ideas. I think it's just that so much is dismissed as impossible from the get-go, or as unrealistic, that it doesn't even get discussed. There is a difference, obviously an important difference, between the two parties. But on the grand scale of things, it's minuscule compared to what could be done and needs to be done.

What I meant by "ideas" was overarching, organizing ideas that can make sense of specific proposals and provide a shared framework on the scale of neoliberalism, ideas that are sweeping enough to provide a common orientation and set of shared assumptions people can draw on in a political discussion. That seems to be what we're lacking.

Yeah, that makes more sense. I think there is a kind of grab-bag quality to a lot of progressive proposals. That was something that the Green New Deal was castigated for, kind of wanting to do everything at once, but without a shared, easy core idea that's animates all of it and tells us why it's all connected. Have you seen this book by Mike Konczal, "Freedom From the Market"? It seems like that could be a promising step in the right direction. Trying to reclaim the term "freedom," instead of the market and freedom being identified. Making clear that we realize that the market is constraining in a lot of ways, and that it doesn't do certain things well, doesn't always have the right answers.

I think it helps to see the market as a human creation. Wheels are good things, but we get flat tires all the time. The maintenance of wheels and the maintenance of bridges are part of the package that comes with them. The same applies to markets: They're useful creations, but you don't worship them. You fix them to work properly.

I'm sure you're right there are good uses for markets, but it's the idolatry of markets that's the problem, the idea that everything has to be in that mold. Even right now, we're only talking about them negatively. We don't have a positive alternative. I think you're right, that's what's lacking. It's probably unrealistic to expect a man in his late 70s to suddenly have a come-to-Jesus moment and develop a whole new politics. [Laughter.]

We could perhaps stimulate those around him, and those coming up, to seek an alternative! Another thing I'm struck by is that idolatry of the market leads to a contraction of moral considerations: Rather than facing a multitude of moral goods that need to be considered distinctly, in different situations, everything is given a market price. It flattens out all moral reasoning. I think we need to push back against that, to revitalize our sense of diverse, pluralistic moral goods, as well as moral agency.

Yeah, I think you're right. Whenever we do that, we're always in this defensive crouch. There's always a temptation to turn the corner and say, "Actually, if we were more humane to each other, that would help the economy!" It tends to be this black hole that sucks everything out. In my own experience — I'm an academic in the humanities, and we always have to prove our worth somehow. Why can't we say, "Hey, business leaders, why don't we prove the worth of what you're doing? Why should you dominate our lives? Why should you control everything? The one chance we get for education in our lives — why should it be for you? Why can't it also be for us? Why can't it be for our own minds and our own interests?"

But it seems like everybody's more stuck on, like, "We provide critical thinking skills that will make you better at doing business!" That may be true or not true, but it's still within that framework. I think you're right that we lack that alternative. Even in my book, I wind up saying, "We need to abolish the market," but I don't say, "And here's what it will look like when we do it. Here's the positive alternative that will replace it." So I'm just as guilty as anybody.

I like to end my interviews by asking, "What's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?"

Where you can buy my book. [Laughter.]

How America's paradoxical history of religious liberty offers a great push for Black freedom and racial justice

Falling midway between Donald Trump's second impeachment and Joe Biden's inauguration, Jan. 16 marked a less-noticed but arguably more important commemoration, the 235th anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That is now commonly recognized as the first law to establish religious freedom, and was one of three achievements that its author, Thomas Jefferson, had inscribed on his tombstone. That date has been officially recognized as Religious Freedom Day since 1993, and amid so much political tumult, it went almost overlooked this year. But it goes to the core of what America is all about, what Trump's supporters are trying to destroy, and what Black Lives Matter demonstrators so emphatically affirmed this past year.

Jefferson's statute provided unlimited freedom of conscience for all — a pluralistic paradise. But ever since Barack Obama's election in 2008, the religious right has seized on Religious Freedom Day as a key part of its Orwellian propaganda campaign to redefine religious freedom as a license to discriminate, an exclusionary license for religious bigotry and sectarian dominance — the exact opposite of what Jefferson fundamentally believed in. So it's only natural that both Jefferson and the Virginia Statute are almost entirely absent from any of the right's gaslighting celebrations of religious freedom.

Since 2016 (as I've reported), a growing chorus of religious and secular progressives — organized in part by people like Frederick Clarkson, senior research analyst at Political Research Associates — have pushed back, seeking reclaim Jefferson's original intent, which he later made explicit, writing that the Statute contained "within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination." Recovering the original meaning also entails pushing back against the right's anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ politics, which they've sought to protect under the mantle of their own beliefs, while forcing those beliefs on others.

Of course, Jefferson has come in for increasing criticism from the left as well, due to his slaveholder status, which looms larger than ever after last year's historic Black Lives Matters protests. But rather than argue over Jefferson's undeniable individual flaws, there's a growing movement in the Black religious community to adopt a much broader and deeper critical view of the discourse of religious freedom, even if it was initially promulgated by a slave-owning empire. These new voices are more in synch than at odds with those previously engaged in the battle to reclaim religious freedom, as seen in a roundtable forum produced by Political Research Associates, "Religious Freedom and the Machinations of the Christian Right," held on Jan. 14.

African Americans expand our perspectives on religious freedom

Two days earlier, the shared perspective among Black Christians and non-Christians was richly explored in Freedom Forum's book launch and webinar, "African Americans & Religious Freedom: New Perspectives for Congregations & Communities." Black people in the Americas, enslaved with a set of Christian justifications "and displaced from their lands, culture, religions and ancestors, have a unique and fierce historical commitment to the ideals of freedom," Baptist theologian Faith B. Harris writes in the first chapter of the book (pdf here). "With their very presence, New World Africans have a unique claim to religious freedom, despite the rhetoric embedded in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."

As the New York Times' 1619 Project reminds us, this presence predates Jefferson's statute by more than a century and a half. Harris continues: "Indeed, Black religion is best expressed by an enduring relationship to a freedom-loving/giving God. Theologian Kelly Brown Douglas argues that in the Black theological imagination, God is free and to be in a relationship with God is to be free."

The Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., raises provocative questions about the very language involved. "The concept of religious freedom strikes me as another rhetorical arrow in the quiver of nationalistic propaganda," he writes. "I am not moved by a nation that trumpets liberty while exterminating First Nations people, brutally enslaving and extracting labor from Africans and crushing the poor masses by hocking the universal benefits of capitalism."

From the beginning of European colonization in North America, Vanderbilt theologian Teresa L. Smallwood notes, "It was the twin discourses of race and religion which shaped the discourse of religious freedom. … The organizing principle of British colonial societies followed a religious logic and privileged landholding white men. These religious men acted brutally and used the labor of enslaved Africans to generate considerable wealth." In contrast, she notes, "Whatever the convention — Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, non-denominational, Indigenous —African Americans exercised religious freedom largely as a means of resistance and in the face of prolonged tyranny."

This larger perspective — grounded in the basic material experience of slavery, resistance and continued struggled — puts the focus on deeds more than words, and on practices, institutions and history more than disembodied arguments, be they theological, philosophical, judicial or political. A key text cited by several contributors was Tisa Wenger's 2017 book "Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal." Wenger explained:

Rather than asking how adequately Americans have achieved this freedom or how rapidly it advanced, I wanted to know who appealed to religious freedom, for what purposes, and what it meant to them. Somewhat unexpectedly, race and empire quickly emerged as key themes in my analysis. I found that some of the most frequent and visible articulations of American religious freedom were exclusive, even coercive. The dominant voices in the culture linked racial whiteness, Protestant Christianity, and American national identity not only to freedom in general but often to this freedom in particular. The most audible varieties of religious freedom talk ... helped define American whiteness and make the case for U.S. imperial rule.

But in response, the racialized and colonialized subjects of U.S. empire also rearticulated this freedom to defend themselves and their traditions. For them, religious freedom became a way to redefine communal identities, to carve out space for themselves and their traditions within the confines of a racialized empire, and even to resist its mandates.

Her book focuses on the period from the Spanish-American War of 1898 to World War II, "a pivotal period in our histories of race and empire but one that most scholarship on religious freedom has neglected," she explains. Much the same sorts of observations can be applied all the way from the colonial era to the present. And her perspective frames both the embrace of and skepticism toward the idea of religious freedom.

"There has always been just enough religious freedom in America for Black folk to nourish dreams of freedom, but hardly ever enough religious freedom for those dreams to be fully realized," writes Lamar. "This conundrum is, in essence, the foundation upon which my reluctant identification with the ideal of religious freedom rests — who has unimpeachable, unassailable religious freedom in America? Wenger reminds us that for Native Americans and Black nationalists it was curtailed. Who then can take this American ideal and use it to craft theological visions unmolested by imperial power? Can Black churches ever fully enjoy this ideal?"

On the other hand, Rahmah A. Abdulaleem, executive director of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, sees a stronger underlying foundation in the lived reality of African-American life — the religious diversity and pluralism she traces back to colonial times in her book chapter, "Race, Religious Pluralism and Religious Freedom," which she brought up to date in her forum presentation.

"I think it's important to focus on the fact that after 9/11 so many Americans were asked, 'Do you know any Muslims?' and most African-Americans could say, 'Yeah, I know Muslims. I grew up with them. They're in in my family.' We weren't others," she said. "So African Americans really need to focus on the fact that we always welcome others. It's always been important to us because we know what's like to be in the minority. We know what it's like to be otherized."

She continued with a moving and important family example:

My grandmother was blessed with 11 children and she considers herself a Universalist but not as a Universalist for the Universalist Church. She's like, "I'm universalist because my oldest daughter was a Buddhist, I have a daughter who is a deaconess in the Baptist Church, I have a son who's an imam, I have two sons that are Catholic." It's so important that for her they're all her children and they all are having some kind of connection to something bigger than them.

Ongoing discussions

These important Black voices have not yet been woven into the heart of religious freedom debates. But the promise of their imminent inclusion is a cause for renewed hope. While the religious right feeds constantly on victimhood fantasies, the African-American experience — grounded in four centuries of actual victimhood — has produced a rich diversity of humane and sober religious responses, along with its own freethinking and atheist traditions as well.

Indeed, a fair amount of the discussion held by Political Research Associates intersected with perspectives and concerns raised in the Freedom Forum book and webinar. As Frederick Clarkson put it:

This profoundly liberatory thing we call religious freedom came out of this morass of racism and genocide and extraordinary criminality, that the very people who were opposing Empire colonialism effectively replaced domestically. So what they did do was to give us this extraordinary idea of religious freedom: "OK, we still have an empire of sorts, but you are free to think differently than the people who hold power." You can therefore speak differently and you can have an oppositional press and you can organize politically differently. That was the opening, and they recognized that. But they realized their time as rulers might end, and should end. That is the extraordinary paradox of American culture and democracy that we actually still live through in many respects today.

"When you talk about urgently needing to address religious freedom and decolonization," ex-evangelical writer Chrissy Stroop said, "one thing that I think it's important to point out is how intertwined white supremacy is with white Christianity and particularly the white evangelical tradition. S, the same people who are trying to argue that religious freedom means their freedom to discriminate against other people in a Christian nation are the primary people who are fighting to maintain white supremacism, though many of them would not admit to that."

Stroop went on to cite the example of six seminaries within the Southern Baptist Convention, which "recently issued a statement condemning critical race theory and intersectionality as incompatible with Baptist theology, incompatible with the Bible as the Southern Baptists understand it." Stroop noted that Southern Baptists formed in the 1840s, in a schism from Baptists in the North over whether a slaveholder could be a Christian missionary.

"The Southern Baptist Convention has apologized for that legacy, and yet fails to fully reckon with it," Stroop said. "This explicit rejection by the official Southern Baptist structures of antiracist scholarship and antiracist analytical tools is quite striking," particularly given what has recently transpired.

"For someone like Albert Mohler — who is the head of the flagship Southern Baptist seminary — to come along and say after last Wednesday's insurrection that he's shocked that Christians would do this, that they would form a mob and storm the capital in support of the racist president, is really quite rich," Stroop remarked. "He just basically made this very racist move, and now he's saying, 'I can't believe that people would actually take that to the streets [and] try to overturn an election."

Another participant, the Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson, director of spiritual care and activism at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, has co-authored an article at Religion Dispatches with Clarkson, "We Can't Have Religious Freedom Without Reproductive Freedom." She brought that connection into the discussion as well, with specific reference to the recent Senate election in Georgia election.

"One of the issues that was raised by some regarding the Rev. Raphael Warnock [who took office this past week] was that he could not be a Christian minister and a supporter of reproductive freedom," Jackson said. To Warnock's opponents, it was as if "he didn't have a right to have a conscience of his own that would embrace both of those, that in many ways he didn't have the right to be a whole person and bring his theology and his politics in this intersectional way that came out with a different result from what people thought he should have."

Individual conscience is supposed to be primary in the Baptist tradition — a fact that has somehow been utterly disappeared over the last 40 years. But Jackson reminded us that Baptists weren't alone in this regard:

Some of you may know there is a doctrine within Catholic teaching that says the primacy of conscience has greater weight than teachings of the church, and I love that. Martin Luther, who was one of the shapers of the Reformation, also talked about the importance of conscience, and that following behind the church hierarchy was not as critical in his own spiritual and religious understanding as following his conscience. So we're in this era now where people are being villainized if their understanding of their conscience does not align with someone else's. That is a supremacist orientation that really not only flies in the face of what it means to be a human living in dignity, it also flies in the face of what it means to be a democratic republic.

She went on to say that while some people are psychopaths or sociopaths, "For most of us conscience leads us to a deep morality that is rooted in compassion and love. … Conscience, I believe for most of us, guides us to a higher nature that opens our hearts and our minds and our politics to way of being in society with one another that I think is really critical."

Fighting discrimination

Another facet of the fight to reclaim religious freedom was highlighted in a virtual briefing on the recently-heard Supreme Court case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. As the ACLU succinctly explains it, "On November 4, the Supreme Court heard a case that could allow private agencies that receive taxpayer-funding to provide government services — such as foster care providers, food banks, homeless shelters, and more — to deny services to people who are LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim, or Mormon." This briefing was closed to the press, but the moderator, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, from the Faith & Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, spoke with Salon afterwards.

"It's a common purpose across many faith groups we work with that we cherish religious freedom and want to celebrate Religious Freedom Day, and reject the false use of religious freedom to discriminate," Graves-Fitzsimmons said. "We want to do both at the same time." He was admittedly one of the few people who woke up the day after the November election to listen to the oral arguments in the Fulton case. But millions of people stand to be affected. "We are facing a challenge of raising awareness around this case, because there's so much going on and the Fulton case could have far-reaching implications beyond the particular circumstances in the case involving the City of Philadelphia and Catholic Social Services," he said. He explaind:

It is part of a larger trend we're seeing, which is conservative legal advocacy groups taking something that is a real core value, like religious freedom, and using it in a deceptive way to attack LGBTQ people and create a license to discriminate that extends beyond LGBTQ people — you have this foster care agency in South Carolina that's saying, "We won't work with Catholics or Jews." So the license to discriminate is broader than LGBTQ people, although that's the issue in this case. It then extends to reproductive health and abortion rights, and we've seen recently at the Supreme Court the use of distorted religious freedom arguments as an excuse to spread the coronavirus. We saw a switch in the Supreme Court's views since Amy Coney Barrett joined the Supreme Court. They went in a different direction than what Justice Roberts and the more liberal justices had done earlier in the pandemic.

"We warned you": The military's religious freedom problem

But if the Fulton case, and others like it, have gotten too little attention, that's even more true of religious freedom issues in the military, where long-standing Supreme Court doctrine subordinates religious expression to the military mission, which is to preserve freedom for all Americans. That in turn depends on maintaining unit cohesion, good order, morale and discipline — which religious proselytizing necessarily undermine. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has been fighting Christian nationalism as a destructive force in the military for more than 15 years, warning that it is fundamentally incompatible with the military's mission.

Some branches of the military are better, some worse, at restraining this corrosive force. The Air Force Academy, where MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein graduated, is arguably the worst. One of its graduates, Larry Brock, was one of two insurrectionists wearing combat gear arrested in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol invasion.

"The Air Force Academy is an unconstitutional train wreck of fundamentalist Christians, disgrace and shame," Weinstein told Salon. "Everybody at the Air Force Academy, the cadet wing, the staff and the faculty, all swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, not the gospel of Jesus Christ." The failure to live up to that oath can be seen in the fact that MRFF still has "hundreds of clients there, the vast majority of whom are Christians being persecuted by other Christians," Weinstein explained. "For years we've had — we still have — cadets at the Academy pretending to be fundamentalist Christians," purely because "they hope they'll be left alone."

in an open letter to the Air Force Academy, posted at Daily Kos, the MRFF wrote: "We warned you that this radical, right-wing influence found not only at USAFA, but tolerated or even endorsed by senior officers throughout the Air Force, caused a toxic leadership environment and eroded unit cohesion, good order, morale, and discipline. We constantly worried and warned that these seemingly (to some) innocuous events would lead to embarrassment for our Air Force Academy or worse — and that's exactly what's happened." The letter goes on:

The MRFF now calls on the Air Force Academy to not only clearly and publicly condemn the actions of its graduate, Mr. Brock, in the harshest possible manner, but also to call on all other USAFA graduates who attended the insurrection to identify themselves and either turn themselves in to police if they broke the law or disavow the violence and storming of the Capitol — if they, themselves, behaved in an otherwise peaceful manner.

To further clarify, Weinstein told Salon, "When you retire and accept a paycheck, you are still under the [Uniform] Military Code of Justice." Brock, like other ex-military insurrectionists, he argued, "should be brought back into the Air Force and should face a general court martial. He should be visibly and aggressively punished for what he did, as should anyone else that is getting a retirement check."

This is only a small and selective slice of activities related to Religious Freedom Day. In PRA's roundtable, for example, author and journalist Kathryn Joyce discussed her 2019 New Republic article, "The Man Behind the State Department's New 'Natural Law' Focus," illuminating how premodern Catholic teaching about natural law was used by Trump's State Department to delegitimize modern concepts of human rights — concepts that the U.S. government has played a crucial role in developing and promoting. Another roundtable participant, Minnesota State Sen. John Marty, has introduced a resolution honoring the true meaning of Religious Freedom Day.

In the Freedom Forum webinar, Charles Watson Jr., director of education at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, gave a spirited articulation of the centrality of freedom, in a sense that takes nothing away from anybody else:

I always tell people, I don't want a Biblical noose around my neck, and I don't want God shackles around my feet. I have to be free to change my mind, if I get better information, and my faith has to be free. And the only way for me to have that freedom is to be free to change my mind, think about God how I see fit to think about God, without government interference, and especially without somebody else that doesn't even care enough about me and my body to take up the mantel and fight for me.

This sense of freedom has Baptist roots that long predate Thomas Jefferson — and, as Jackson noted, has Catholic and Lutheran roots as well. But Jefferson's contribution was to enshrine that sensibility in law, protecting it as never before. Because Jefferson's vision is so central to the American project and its entire history, there are inevitable ramifications everywhere throughout our public life. And because the religious right has mounted such a sustained attack on his vision, seeking to turn it into a vampiric, soulless caricature of itself, there are countless battlefronts — large and small — on which Jefferson's vision must be defended and, of absolute necessity, enlarged.

How Donald Trump's destructiveness forced us to a point of reckoning about America

If every cloud has a silver lining, Donald Trump's destructiveness offers this one: He has forced us to a point of reckoning about America. If we think all this chaos is just about him, we've missed the whole point. On that point, there's wide agreement. Beyond that, however, there's considerable disagreement, if not confusion. The vast majority of elite discourse sees this in terms of a challenge to liberal democracy — a challenge that's been unfolding worldwide over the past decade or so, sometimes characterized as a "third wave of autocratization."

There's a large body of knowledge and experience behind this point of view (see groups such as Varieties of Democracy for a global perspective, or Bright Lines Watch in the U.S.). But such an idealized view of American democracy has always been challenged by African Americans, for instance: See Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" or Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again.") Trump's election, in obvious response to Barack Obama's, has had the effect of pushing the longstanding Black critique of American democracy to the very center of our politics.

In contrast, University of Wisconsin political scientist Mark Copelovitch has been tweeting his observations of American politics under the rubric of "Today in life under competitive authoritarianism." The term comes from Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way's 2010 book, "Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War" (introduced in an earlier paper here.) They cite "four minimum criteria" that modern democratic regimes meet, which these "hybrid regimes" (including most of the nations in the former Soviet Union) fail to meet on a systematic basis, thereby creating an uneven playing field between government and opposition. The first three of these criteria are that executives and legislatures are chosen through elections that are open, free, and fair; that virtually all adults posses the right to vote; and that political rights and civil liberties — including freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal — are broadly protected.

By systemically violating these criteria, and possibly a fourth — "elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to the tutelary authority of military or clerical leaders" — competitive authoritarian regimes seek to maintain the general appearance of being democracy-like in order to claim legitimacy, but without practicing actual, substantive democracy. In a late October pair of tweets, Copelovitch summed up his view:

Arguably, the US has basically not fully met the 1st 2 of Levitsky & Way's democratic criteria since the failure of Reconstruction. Trump-era backsliding is mostly on criterion 3 But the problem now is additive. EC + increases in gerrymandering & malapportionment + Trump.
I actually do think this is what we are starting to realize & why the Court/Senate/statehood reforms have gained traction. The immediate authoritarian threat of Trump since 2017 has shined light on the enduring undemocratic nature of our political institutions.

This framework of "competitive authoritarianism" offers a more realistic description of America's actually existing political system than calling it a backsliding liberal democracy. Our problem is not primarily a flaw in liberal democracy as such, but in the United States' consistent failure to actually embody what it pretends to be.

I asked Copelovitch about his "competitive authoritarianism" tweets, and he responded that the "most proximate reason" for writing them was his state of residence: "I have lived since 2006 in Wisconsin, which has been the canary in the coalmine for all of the developments and risks to American democracy that we've seen since 2016. ... What we're seeing at the national level under Trump is simply the extension of what's happened in Wisconsin, under [former governor] Scott Walker and [State Assembly Speaker] Robin Vos, to the U.S. as a whole." The fullest description of this can be found in Dan Kaufman's book, "The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics."

But there's also Copelovitch's own background, as he explained by email.

I come at all of this as a scholar of international political economy (the politics of international trade, money, and finance). For the last decade, I've been studying the causes and consequences of the Great Recession and the Eurozone financial crises and quite a bit of time collaborating with (and reading) comparative politics scholars focused on the rise of far right and populist nationalist parties. I've also spent a lot of time studying the politics of the interwar era, especially in the wake of the economic and financial crises in Weimar Germany (see my recent book), and it should come as no surprise that I, like many, see many similarities between that era and ours.

This approach fits well with Levitsky and Way's concept of "competitive authoritarianism," which they define in contrast with democracy on the one hand and outright authoritarianism on the other: "In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy."

Modern functioning democracies meet the four criteria named above. While there may be violations of any of the four criteria, "such violations are not broad or systematic enough to seriously impede democratic challenges to incumbent Governments," the authors write. "In other words, they do not fundamentally alter the playing field between government and opposition." But that's precisely what those violations are doing in America today — and have been doing since the demise of Reconstruction in the late 19th century, when it comes to free and fair elections with universal suffrage.

Passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 represented a giant step forward, but significant participation gaps have persisted, among minority groups in particular and low-income people in general, as documented in "Why Americans Don't Vote," which led to the passage of the 1993 "motor voter" law and "Why Americans Still Don't Vote," a sequel of sorts describing the continued obstacles. Since then, moreover, the Republican Party has increasingly shifted from passive obstruction of expanded voting rights to strategies of active voter suppression.

This fits within the "competitive authoritarian" framework Levitsky and Way describe:

Rather than openly violating democratic rules (for example, by banning or repressing the opposition and the media), incumbents are more likely to use bribery, co-optation, and more subtle forms of persecution, such as the use of tax authorities, compliant judiciaries, and other state agencies to "legally" harass, persecute, or extort cooperative behavior from critics.

Both the sweeping gerrymandering described in "Ratf**ked" by former Salon editor David Daley, and the Supreme Court's refusal to remedy the situation, are crucial examples of how this unfolds in America today. The same could be said of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, striking down the crucial pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act by invalidating the jurisdictional maps. It also applies to voter-suppression strategies such as voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect Democratic voters.

Race, even more than class, stands at the center of most of these voter suppression and disenfranchisement efforts, which descend from America's founding as a Herrenvolk democracy or republic (experts have argued for both). Today's Republicans certainly didn't originate this practice, but they energetically took it over, as described in "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon author interview here), for example. Other anti-democratic aspects of our political system have more mixed origins: "Ratf**ked," for example, shows how the GOP took traditional gerrymandering to a level never imagined before.

Copelovitch told me he began tweeting about "life under competitive authoritarianism" as a way of "linking these three things together: the anti-democratic institutional biases of U.S. politics, the unprecedented lawless authoritarianism of Trump and the GOP's active embrace of restricting democracy. I've kept it going largely because the developments have continued throughout the last several years, to the point that I believe there are real, serious concerns about the state of American democracy."

This is an especially important point: Copelovitch sees the awareness of these concerns as a real dividing line "between people arguing that 'the system has worked' over the last two months to prevent Trump's attempts to steal the election, and those of us still warning that the unprecedented authoritarian threat to U.S. democracy persists, despite Biden's victory."

Part of what defines that division is a deeper sense of how the system isn't working. Copelovitch has written earlier tweets referencing Robert Dahl's 1989 book "Democracy and its Critics" and noting that the U.S. basically violates the core criteria of democratic process that Dahl defines, especially relating to voter suppression, gerrymandering and the apportionment of U.S. Senate seats. "When you start to compare the U.S. by these criteria, to other countries' political systems, you quickly notice that we don't stack up well at all," he told me. "If you look at, say Germany or New Zealand, which have mixed-member proportional representation systems, you realize that our electoral institutions have institutionalized minority rule and locked in policies at odds with what large majorities of Americans seem to want on almost every issue." The $2,000 stimulus checks blocked by Mitch McConnell last week are merely the most recent high-profile example.

"In this sense, U.S. politics isn't really fully democratic," Coplevitch continued. "At the moment, every single branch of the government is currently controlled (or partially controlled) by the representatives or appointees of a party representing a minority of Americans and supporting a wide range of policy positions that are deeply unpopular with the median voter."

It's not that we don't know what to do, at least in theory. But the lessons are drenched in historical irony. "I've long been of the position that the U.S. got constitutional design mostly right in 1949, when we helped oversee the establishment of Germany's mixed-member proportional representation system at the founding of the Federal Republic," Copelovitch said. "New Zealand adopted this system in 1996, and it has been very successful. If one were starting from scratch and looking for the ideal federal system, this is the model we'd look to follow."

That might be politically impossible in the U.S. anytime soon, he admits. but there are other options. Copelovitch cites Lee Drutman's book "Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop," which advocates ranked choice voting, multi-member districts, enlarging the House of Representatives, automatic universal voter registration, statehood for both the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and fixed terms for Supreme Court justices, among other reforms.

The first bill passed by the Democratic House majority in 2019, H.R. 1, the "For the People Act," was a direct attempt to address this situation — even if it didn't go nearly far enough. Mitch McConnell's response was telling, characterizing the law as "a package of urgent measures to rewrite the rules of American politics for the exclusive benefit of the Democratic Party." Aside from the obvious projection involved, the Senate majority leader came awfully close to acknowledging the inconvenient truth that elite Republican positions are either profoundly unpopular or profoundly impractical. (This same contradiction, to a large extent, enabled the ascendancy of Donald Trump.) It's certainly possible that Republicans could find ways to compete on a more level playing field, but only by abandoning the extremist politics they've increasingly embraced over the past 40 years.

Recognizing that America is, or is becoming, a competitive authoritarian regime is undoubtedly painful and unsettling. But that's the critical first step in becoming the liberal democracy this nation has always pretended to be. As with addiction or mental illness, you can't fix a problem until you finally admit you have one.

A deepening democracy crisis: More than 70 percent of Trump voters distrust the best-run election in years

Angela Clark-Smith, a lawyer, started learning about the intricacies of observing elections when she was a member of the same sorority as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. In 2020, three decades later, she was deployed by the Georgia Democratic Party to observe the presidential election and, most recently, the processing of returned absentee ballots in its Senate runoffs.

"There's a process. It is very straightforward," Clark-Smith said during a break at an early voting center in an Atlanta suburb, where she praised poll workers and the process of verifying signatures on ballot envelopes and flagging problems for follow-up with voters. "Watching it was like watching a work of art."

Elections in Georgia are better run than those in many blue states. But as the state has become a national battleground following Joe Biden's narrow win there and during Senate runoffs that could return control of Congress to the Democrats, the artful process that Clark-Smith has seen and praised has become a "circus," she says.

Clark-Smith witnessed the turmoil that is tearing apart American democracy: where partisans do not understand the process; do not know what they are seeing as they view election administration up close for the first time; and are part of a tidal wave—nearly three-fourths of Republicans, according to an NPR poll conducted in early December—who don't trust that the 2020 election results are accurate.

"It went from a really dignified process to feeling it was like a circus," Clark-Smith said, referring to the Republican observers who came to watch the initial processing of the runoff's absentee ballots. "You had people who were jumping on tables and making accusations. There was this one man who said, 'We should count this vote!' And I'm like, 'Sir. It's a write-in vote for Mike Pence. He's not on the ballot! Relax… Sit down… Come on!"

A Deepening Democracy Crisis

American politics and elections have always had dark sides: Suspicions versus inquiries. Fictions versus facts. Conspiracies versus realities. Yet the darker impulses seem to be worsening. In every close presidential election since 2000, growing numbers of partisan activists and voters whose side lost are angrier.

The 2020 election stands apart because the president has been leading this truculence by making false claims to rally his base, raise hundreds of millions of dollars and dangle extremist courses to stay in power, such as recently floating a declaration of martial law. Trump's anti-democratic antics and sowing of wide distrust of electoral institutions are in a class by themselves. No foreign power has made as persistent an attack on American democracy.

There are other differences between 2020 and recent presidential elections that roiled voters. In 2000 and 2004, and then in 2016, voting rights reformers called out structural deficiencies—not fantasies. It was a real problem that all-electronic voting systems meant that ballots could not be recounted. It was a valid concern that central counting nodes could be tweaked by local election officials or their contractors to tilt outcomes, or theoretically infiltrated by computer hackers.

By 2020, some of these top criticisms had been addressed. Russian interference in 2016's presidential election was an unanticipated impetus to replace or shore up voting systems. Reformers' demands, such as using paper ballots and better vote count audits, were adopted. Other demands, mostly from progressives who could not accept that Republicans had again won, fell on deaf ears. Those demands, such as abandoning electronics in voting systems, have been seized by Trump backers.

What is more ironic from an election administration perspective, however, is that 2020's general election has been one of the best-run elections in years. The same can be said of the early voting for Georgia's Senate runoffs, which culminate in a January 5 election. The positive outlook on the 2020 elections is supported by facts, which Trump and his supporters ignore as they make baseless claims to the contrary.

No election is flawless. That's especially true of presidential contests, such as this fall's election where 158.2 million people cast ballots in a national exercise staffed by 900,000-plus citizen poll workers. There are always poll worker errors, uncounted votes and some people voting illegally. Most lapses are due to human error and do not affect the outcomes in major races. Those issues were seen in isolated instances in presidential battlegrounds this fall. Yet consider the objective measures about the larger contours of the 2020 general election.

Record numbers of voters participated—even in a pandemic. Automatic and online voter registration has never been as widespread. Voters had more options to cast ballots than ever: by mail, voting early or on Election Day. Never before have as many voters cast mailed-out ballots or voted early. Almost everyone cast paper ballots. More vote counts were double-checked by audits and recounts than ever. The counting process was widely streamed online and has never been as public. Georgia's presidential ballots were counted three times each using a different methodology—including an unprecedented manual count. Each count reaffirmed that Biden won. This catalog of election administration achievements is remarkable.

But it is also indisputable that these facts barely matter in some important circles. More than a few Americans, possibly tens of millions (if recent polls accurately represent the rest of the nation's 74 million Trump voters), will wince when Biden puts his hand on the Bible on January 20 to be sworn in. Some voters still expect that Trump will serve a second term. How these Trump supporters will react in the short and long run is not a trifle. Their response will impact what follows every major election, which are the lessons learned and the reform agendas for states and Congress.

When Mobs Are Swayed

When multitudes believe that elections cannot be trusted, democracy is in trouble. Those believers in 2020 include scores of Republican members of Congress, state attorneys general and legislators, all who signed onto pro-Trump lawsuits seeking to overturn the popular vote in their state—or more outrageously, in other states. Those lawsuits were filled with fabrications, shoddy analyses and lies that were overwhelmingly rejected by dozens of state and federal judges. Some of these same assertions have been recurring in GOP-led lawsuits targeting Georgia's runoffs. They are being rejected there as well. But these narratives have not disappeared from the court of public opinion, especially in right-wing media, whose audiences grow in response to baiting and fanning their fears and fantasies.

Many constitutional scholars believe that the country was lucky that Trump's lawyers overplayed their post-election cards. Had the 2020 election hinged on a single state, legal experts believe that the country could now be in a constitutional crisis. They doubt that a single state's laws and top officials could have withstood this White House's pressure to select—not elect—Trump as its Electoral College winner. Some Republicans in Congress, nonetheless, are still expected to challenge ratification of Biden's Electoral College victory on January 6. But a continuing Democratic majority in the House ensures that Biden will be sworn in as the next president on January 20.

The incompetence of Trump's legal team and its allies is one thing. Their power-hungry guile and ongoing effort to subvert the electoral process is another. And the willingness of more than 70 percent of Republicans to distrust the results, according to NPR's poll, is most disturbing of all.

Polls are imperfect snapshots of a slice of voters in any given moment. One can hope that the Trump team's ongoing failures to win election lawsuits will sink in and shrink the numbers who distrust 2020's results. But they probably will not, because these court defeats address false claims, not deeper feelings.

For example, in Georgia, the Republican lawsuits targeting the Senate runoffs have tried to disqualify hundreds of thousands of voters. The lawsuits cite a government database to posit that these voters are no longer state residents—rendering them ineligible to vote. But that database, the post office's national change of address file, was never intended to track voters. It mostly lists heads of households and addresses, not every person living at an address and every voter. Judges and county election boards have been rejecting the illegal voter claims. One result has been that the early voting turnout in the Senate runoffs has rivaled the general election. Accommodating high voter turnout is a sign of a well-run election.

But there's a disconnect. On one hand, those attacking the process in Georgia and disparaging the presidential results say that the electoral sky is falling. But quieter multitudes have found that it has been easier to vote in 2020, even during the pandemic. This is because there were more voting options in 2020: in person or via a mailed-out ballot, early or on Election Day. (Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a rare Republican who has stood up to Trump, said on December 23 that local officials are "overwhelmed" and called on the state's GOP-led legislature to reinstate the requirement that Georgia voters need an excuse to get a mailed-out ballot. Democrats won't be pleased if that proposal gains traction in 2021.)

Normally, in years when the presidency changes party, the period between early November's Election Day and late January's Inauguration Day is a time when experts seek to influence a new administration. In the election fold, however, some of the biggest players have been notably quiet. Some privately say that the attacks by Trump and his allies are still a big and unfolding crisis—a bonfire that won't disappear until he leaves office. The harms being unleashed, at least among the voters who backed Trump, may take years to undo.

Nonetheless, there has been some talk among elections experts since November 3 about what to do next in Congress and state capitals. Many of these experts from different disciplines have suggestions on how to fine-tune the voting process. Constitutional scholars say that holes in 19th-century law must be filled so that another president cannot overrule a popular vote and have state legislatures select him for a second term. Voting rights lawyers want to ward off efforts to shrink voting options, such as Raffensperger's move to reel in Georgia's absentee ballot program. Those talks are happening as Trump and his allies keep attacking the electoral process. But the full damage Trump has done to America's elections has yet to emerge.

Way Beyond Seeds of Doubt

Why do so many people believe elections are stolen if their presidential candidate loses? There's no one answer. From an election reform perspective, the fact that the intricacies of election administration are not readily apparent—or self-evident to untrained observers—does not help. But when so many partisans have a predisposed view that ranges from suspicious, to paranoid, or even conspiratorial, it is clear that something deeper is going on to trigger these assumptions and impulses.

Brené Brown, one of America's best-known trauma experts, recently said in a New York Times podcast that the most aggressive Trump campaign t-shirts—those saying, "Fuck your feelings"—are overly defensive and are a reflection of people who are struggling rather than embracing some high-minded cause. Apart from how that emotional dynamic unfolds politically, it means that election officials and experts seeking to improve America's elections are facing hurdles that cannot be cleared solely by emphasizing facts, instituting best practices, and producing better evidence of vote counts. If the mistrust of elections is as deep as polls suggest, one must ask what solutions can address the underlying triggers, so elections are not collateral damage in a wider societal or cultural schism.

American elections are not perfect. In the 21st century, they are privatized as never before. They are overly complex, meaning that impassioned citizens who race to election centers to observe cannot readily grasp what they are seeing. The many stages of the process, from the starting line of voter registration to the finish line of certifying the vote count, take years to learn, appreciate and unwind. These steps and stages are not sufficiently self-evident, which fans conspiracies.

One might like to think that there is a silent majority of Americans who have figured out how to ignore the noise and vote in a pandemic—even in numbers that have not been seen before. One can look to Georgia and see such turnout in its presidential election and in the early voting in the Senate runoffs. One might hope that there were more Republicans, such as Georgia's secretary of state and governor, who said "no" to Trump's demand that they select him as their state's Electoral College slate winner—ignoring the results of the 5 million votes cast by Georgians.

But elections will always be about power. There is usually more than one reason why political leaders do anything. Raffensperger might be saying that he wants to end no-excuse absentee voting in Georgia because county officials cannot handle the extra workload. That policy, should it be enacted before the 2022 governor's race, could undermine turnout. That impact may help a fellow GOP incumbent, Gov. Brian Kemp, who will be seeking reelection.

Is that an unduly cynical take? Perhaps. Or perhaps it shows why elections can become mirrors of societal distrust. Even if the process met challenges in 2020 and empowered record numbers of Americans to vote, some of the candidates seeking high office were less honest and less straightforward than the electoral process was. In 2020, the democratic process, if viewed apart from some candidates, might be better than ever. But American elections cannot be divorced from the candidates, especially not in the Trump era.

When America faces a leader with totalitarian impulses who thinks he can will his way into another term, it is also facing its greatest democratic crisis in decades. The passage of time always heals wounds, including political wounds. But what can be done to revive public trust in elections in the meantime is not just an open-ended question. Democracy's fragile skin has been stretched as never before, when tens of millions of voters say that they don't trust the results from the best-run election in years.

Trump and the right wing have mastered the politics of victimhood. Research suggests we're all its victims

"We're all victims," Donald Trump claimed at his first rally after the presidential election, on Dec. 5 in Georgia "We're all victims. Everybody here. All these thousands of people here tonight. They're all victims. Every one of you." That was quite a change from his 2016 election campaign, when he promised "So much winning you'll get bored." Liberals were supposed to be the "snowflakes," right? What happened? How did the once-proud party of masculine self-reliance and "personal responsibility" become such a bunch of whiny snowflakes?

There are lots of reasons one could point to, but in truth it's pretty much a blind-men-and-the-elephant situation. We have an abundance of particular insights, with different bits and pieces of the answer. But surprisingly little is known about the role of victimhood in politics in any organized sense, even though particular examples are well-known, some of them quite broad. A passage on white Southern victimhood in the conclusion of "The Long Southern Strategy" (author interview here) is a case in point, drawing together some of the major themes developed earlier in the book. But there is no shared empirical framework for comparing levels of Southern victimhood with victimhood levels elsewhere — unlike with other measures, such as modern sexism, which is used to great effect in that book. All kinds of political attitudes have been measured and studied over the years—enough to fill a whole volume, more than 20 years ago, but no one's ever studied victimhood with the same kind of rigorous scrutiny.

Until now, that is — in a new paper by Miles Armaly and Adam Enders, "'Why Me?' The Role of Perceived Victimhood in American Politics" (forthcoming in the journal Political Behavior.) Given how much of a role victimhood plays in politics, it's remarkable that this appears to be the first attempt ever to develop a way to measure it, and thereby open up a whole new realm of inquiry. By measuring perceived victimhood, the authors show that it's "largely unrelated to political predispositions or sociodemographic characteristics," but is related to, but various views of government, society and the world (especially with regard to perceived corruption and conspiratorial thinking) and personality traits such as narcissism and a sense of entitlement.

While the authors didn't set out to explain how Republicans became the victim party, Armaly told me in a recent interview, that makes a lot of sense in terms of what they did find. "The idea of many Trump supporters being 'victims' is borne out in our work," he said. "Inasmuch as cueing from political elites is responsible for some of these feelings, victimhood is currently manifesting in Trump supporters in large part because of 'we are the victims' messages," such as Trump's speech in Georgia.

The combination of two processes — top-down elite cues and bottom-up pre-existing attitudes — is one of three major distinctions drawn in this paper that clarify our understanding of victimhood, and how it helps shape the political landscape. "It's bottom-up in the sense that many psychological traits are. It's top-down in that elites can cue feelings of victimhood," Armaly put it. Neither of those things by itself can explain how victimhood functions in politics; both need to involved. But even to begin we need the help of another distinction — between objectively-defined victimhood and a subjective sense of victimhood — in order to focus on the common psychological factors shared by differently situated political individuals and groups.

Finally, "Why Me" develops a highly-clarifying twofold construct of subjective victimhood: It is egocentric, involving a tendency to agree with statements like "I am the victim because I deserve more than I get," and it involves a sense of systemic unfairness, reflected in sentiments like, "I am the victim because the system is rigged against me." The two are strongly correlated but distinct, with egocentric victims more likely to be Trump supporters, for example, while systemic victims are less likely to be.

In an added wrinkle, the paper's conclusion suggests the existence of a third form of victimhood, "an other-oriented, or accusatory one," and goes on to note:

Modern right-wing rhetoric, for instance, decries liberal "snowflakes," "safe spaces," and political correctness culture. In each of these instances, victimhood is projected onto others. This mobilizes the projectors because the "victims" are illegitimate — they are not deserving of victim status in the eyes of those doing the projecting.

If every accusation is a confession, this third form of victimhood offers a very big clue as to how Trump's base has turned snowflake.

Each of these distinctions is worth considering in turn. But first let's note three key points from the paper's conclusion. First, the centrality of victimhood:

Victimhood is central to politics. If politics is, as Lasswell (1936) famously described, about "who gets what, when, how," there are going to be victims. Some will be perceived as victims when they are not, others just the opposite. Political communication is, in no trivial sense, tasked with making some feel like victims, and others look like victims.

Second, victimhood in politics isn't necessarily pernicious:

That victimhood plays such a central role in politics is not necessarily troubling.
It is intuitive that politicians would make their case to constituents in such a way that victimhood is cued. Indeed, we want representatives that work to realize our values, fill our pockets, and facilitate a happy and healthy life.

Third, what's troubling is when a sense of victimhood fuels extremism:

Rather than the mere appeal to victimhood, it is the lengths one is willing to go in order to mobilize victimhood that poses the greatest potential normative threat to a civilized democratic political system. Speaking historically, it is precisely a feeling of hypervictimization that has caused people to turn to authoritarian regimes for relief.

Subjective vs. objective

Let's turn to the three distinctions described above: The objective/subjective distinction comes first. One reason perceived victimhood hasn't been systematically studied, Armaly told me, is because "there are actual political victims." In the course of getting the paper published, he said, "People were talking about 'How are Black people different from white people? How are women different from men?' Because people were stuck in the idea of genuine victims of the political process. I think that's one of the reasons that we haven't had this direct focus on perceived victimhood in political science or similar fields."

In fact, the paper itself notes: "Men seem to be slightly higher in perceived victimhood across the board. … Such an observation underscores our claim that victimhood — as a self-perception — does not require relative disempowerment or subjection to injustices."

In conversation, Armaly was more blunt. "It doesn't matter what's true," he said. "It matters what people think and what they feel."

A broader public understanding of this could be helpful, he said: "If people understand that these are perceptions, that they can be made to feel this way — and that's a powerful source for political elites." Indeed, promoting this kind of awareness was the underlying insight behind the race-class narrative project developed by Ian Haney López, Anat Shenker-Osorio, and Demos, which I wrote about here in June 2018. I described it as a suite of narratives "that call out scapegoating by greedy, wealthy special interests, and that call on people to unify across racial lines for the common good."

Armaly expressed the promise he sees in more general terms. "If an individual can recognize that perhaps they are being told they're victims when indeed they're not, maybe there's something there that people can learn from: 'Hold on, I'm not really the victim here.''"

The race-class narratives didn't specifically discuss victimhood, but they did confront the dynamic. For example:

California's strength comes from our ability to work together – to knit together a landscape of people from different places and of different races into a whole. For this to be a place of freedom for all, we cannot let the greedy few and the politicians they pay for divide us against each other based on what someone looks like, where they come from or how much money they have. It's time to stand up for each other and come together. It is time for us to vote for leaders who see all of us as equal, whether we are white, black, or brown, who respect all of our families, and who will govern for all of us.

Armaly's work suggests that other elite manipulations of victimhood could be countered with similar kinds of messages. Recognizing victimhood as a subjective state is the first step toward breaking its spell.

Egocentric vs. systemic

This distinction is the most fully elaborated of the three. What both poles have in common is that victimhood is "attractive," Armaly explained, "because it's placing the blame for one's lot in life on somebody else: 'It's not my fault.' It's a psychologically pleasing thing. I don't have to be blamed, because somebody else is doing this." From there, the two types diverge. "With the systemic, people are placing the blame with specific higher entities if you will, and with egocentric, people feel this way, they have the internal feelings of victimhood, but again, it's not their fault. It's always nice to lay blame somewhere else. That's the way to eliminate psychological pressure on oneself."

The difference between the two might seem subtle, and only emerged gradually over time. "We were discussing how to measure victimhood, and we have these ideas central to what we thought victimhood entailed," Armaly explained. "At a certain point we realized these are kind of tapping different things. So if you look at the items we use, four of them refer to the self, or 'me' or 'I' or something like that, and the other four are referring to outward sources."

The paper itself puts it this way: "The major distinction between egocentric and systemic victimhood is blame attribution. Systemic victimhood is a manifestation of perceived victimhood whereby the self defined victim specifically attributes blame for their victim status on systemic issues and entities." By contrast, "Egocentric victimhood ... is less outwardly focused. Egocentric victims feel that they never get what they deserve in life, never get an extra break, and are always settling for less. Neither the 'oppressor,' nor the attribution of blame, are very specific."

Indeed, the difference is striking: As mentioned above, egocentric victims are more supportive of Trump, while systemic victims are less likely to be. This makes intuitive sense, in terms of Trump's vague, self-centered language way — about victimization and pretty much everything else. The lack of evidence of voter fraud or any irregularities in the 50-plus election-related lawsuits Trump and his allies have filed does not matter nearly as much to egocentric victims as it potentially would to systemic victims. But the differential support could also reflect the fact that Trump was president when the study was done, Armaly noted. On top of that, "Trump is the establishment, he's wealthy, he's been around forever. So people who see wealth and maybe other systemic issues as victimizing don't support Trump."

There was a similar difference with regard to a set of racial issues, including affirmative action. "Somebody who thinks that they're the victim, an egocentric victim [is] going to view something like affirmative action as taking away possibilities that they think they rightfully deserve," Armaly explained. "Whereas a systemic victim seemingly recognizes that there are systemic forces that need to be corrected, and affirmative action is a correction for that type of systemic racial issue."

A similar logic applies with respect to anti-political-correctness attitudes, Armaly said. "The egocentric victim sees it like, 'I'm being told what I can and can't say. This is an infringement of My First Amendment rights.' Of course it's not. It's not coming from the government. But they perceive society as censoring them."

By contrast, people with a high sense of systemic victimhood "would think you really shouldn't speak to each other the way we do sometimes. Maybe some of this political correctness language is a good thing, because it's more inclusive, It helps people not feel so bad about how other people speak about them," Armaly explained.

With this more detailed understanding of systemic and egocentric victimhood in hand, we are better able to appreciate the significance of the third distinction, between the top-down and bottom-up aspects of victimhood. The primary focus of the paper (and the discussion above) is on the latter: Bottom-up aspects provide the primary data. But top-down elite messaging is central to the political process. There's no way to understand victimhood's political significance (not just potential) without it.

Subjects were presented with identical victimhood narratives attributed to Trump or Joe Biden, according to their partisan identification. "One thing we know from decades of political science research is people only respond to cues from sources they trust," Armaly noted. "Republicans are going to support Trump, Democrats are going to support Biden. Let's see if they can cue victimhood in their followers." The message was simple:

You, the middle class and working people, have been the victims of so much. You never seem to catch a break, and always seem to pay the steepest price. It's sad, it really is. And I'm going to keep fighting for you no matter what.

The result, the paper noted, was that "both egocentric and systemic victimhood increase as a result of hearing Trump or Biden describe the average people's inability to catch a break." In short, Armaly said, "This is not a Trump phenomenon. This is not a Republican or conservative phenomenon. It cuts across ideological lines and partisan lines. But Trump is very effective at it. And it seems like he's weaponizing this victimhood to adhere people to him, to the party, to certain policies. This is a powerful force and it's a powerful feeling. If people feel like victims, it's unlikely that they're going to see the other party as a way to fix victimhood.

"So Republicans who agree with Trump that 'Hey, we are the victims,' they're never going to turn to Joe Biden for the remedy. They're only going to turn to Republicans in the future, maybe even continuing to support Trump. So one consequence of this, we think, is entrenching polarization, furthering extremity in beliefs about politics, and making people set up more in their existing camps."

Of course, Trump election loss and his subsequent behavior has further intensified feelings of victimhood: "That's precisely what the 'Stop the Steal' thing is about," Armaly said. "'We're the victims of fraudulent elections,' even though there's no evidence pointing there and they keep losing in court. But that is definitely a victimhood-cueing rallying cry."

In a way, this helps makes sense of the decades-long thrust of "The Long Southern Strategy." Threatened identities — first around race, and then gender and religion — were key to the whole enterprise. As co-author Angie Maxwell told me, "They didn't have infrastructure in a lot of places for the Republican Party. So they had to create this sense of urgency, and you do that by tapping into things that people feel are fragile and are being threatened." In short, they had to promote feelings of victimhood.

I asked Maxwell to comment on the theme of victimhood for this story. She responded:

In an effort to cut an electoral map path to victory, starting in the 1960s, Republican strategists pushed individualism against the collective — against collective bargaining, protest, organizing. Individualism creates blinders that can deny systemic racism, sexism and privilege. Simultaneously, these GOP strategists, in order to shake Southern whites lose from their long-term connection to the Democratic Party, manufactured a sense of urgency about everything from the "war on Christmas" to the welfare queen bankrupting the taxpayer. That combination creates a self-focused, faux victimhood, reminiscent of the Lost Cause in the South but with a national appeal.

This is how, under the "Stop the Steal" banner, we get a majority of House Republicans supporting an utterly frivolous lawsuit before the Supreme Court that flies in the face of decades of GOP "states' rights" rhetoric. Surprise! The Southern strategy was never about states' rights, any more than the Civil War was. (The Dred Scott decision and the Fugitive Slave Act had already made a mockery of those Southern claims.)

On the role of narcissism

It's worth highlighting how significant Trump's narcissism is in this dynamic. He is utterly incapable of ever admitting he's been wrong. When finally forced to recant his support for birtherism, he double-falsely claimed, "Hillary Clinton started birtherism, and I ended it." Now, having lost an election by more than 7 million votes he claims the election is being stolen from him.

So even though narcissism is only related to victimhood statistically, it's still important to consider the role it plays. For this, I reached out to therapist Elizabeth Mika, whose chapter in "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" on "Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism" explained how tyranny is a "three-legged beast," encompassing the tyrant, his supporters and the society as a whole.

"A sense of victimhood — as opposed to real victimhood — is always based in narcissism: the erroneous, corrosive and inherently destructive belief that we are special — somehow better than others — and thus we deserve special treatment, perks and privileges," Mika said.

There's a logical connection, she continued. "Narcissists are eternal victims, as perpetual victimhood is the other side of the narcissistic coin. It can't be otherwise, because if you believe yourself to be special and the world does not reflect this back to you, as is always the case sooner or later, you are going to feel victimized by the lack of special treatment."

A similar logic applies to groups as well. "You can expect the members of historically privileged classes and groups to have a sense of specialness ingrained in them by the virtue of being part of that class," Mika said. "When their sense of privilege is threatened and/or eroded, by, for example, expanding the privilege to others, members of previously disenfranchised and thus 'inferior' groups, they react with anger and rage that seek suitable scapegoats, more often than not from among those who are seen as 'stealing' their privilege or otherwise responsible for its loss. For narcissists, the loss of privilege feels like oppression."

This description is a near-perfect fit for Trump's white, Christian nationalist base. That base easily delivered landslide re-election victories for Richard Nixon in the 70s and Ronald Reagan in the 80s, but has only managed one popular-vote victory since 1988. Its privileged position has been eroding for at least 30 years now, and has only survived this long because of multiple anti-democratic features of our politics: the Electoral College, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the Senate filibuster and ideologically-stacked courts. The longer that power has been sustained on such a fragile, illegitimate foundation, the more crushing its loss would seem. Hello, snowflakes!

A third kind of victimhood

As mentioned before, a third form of victimhood is proposed in the paper, an other-oriented or accusatory one typified by right-wing attacks on liberal "snowflakes" and political correctness in which victimhood is projected onto others. "This mobilizes the projectors because the 'victims' are illegitimate — they are not deserving of victim status in the eyes of those doing the projecting."

This is clearly more complicated than egocentric or systemic victimhood. But more than projection is likely going on. It may be a process known as "projective identification," discovered by British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, which I wrote about here in late 2015. It involves "introjection (imagining another — or aspects of another — inside oneself) as well as projection—or even both, simultaneously." The first example Klein gave was a specific form known as "envious reversal," in which the projector's unwanted inner states (thoughts, feelings, etc.) are projected (into what Klein called the "container") while the projector steals some desirable state of the "container."

If one is not a victim but claims to be, that's very likely an example of envious reversal. But if one is a snowflake and has spent years attacking others as snowflakes, that's also an example of envious reversal. So, too, if you believe that others are unfairly claiming victim status, when in fact that's been your go-to move ever since Brown v. Board of Education. So there's a potential for this kind of victimhood to lead into a hall-of-mirrors fantasy situation. But remember: This is still subjective victimhood. Questions about how subjective and objective realities align are incredibly important, but to fully address them we need to understand the subjective side as well as can.

The first step in studying "other-oriented victimhood," Armaly said, would be to examine whether the "correlates" are "similar to egocentric or systemic victimhood, or whether we are talking about a third, totally unique type?" His intuition is that such people "would reject the idea that they're victims, most of the time," but might also "reject the idea that others are victims. Other-oriented victimhood doesn't ever seem to be saying, 'Oh yeah, those people are victims of the political process,' It's usually used as a way to say they're not."

The notion of other-oriented victimhood can also have significance for the public as citizens in a democracy, helping us to see things more clearly. "The bleeding heart in me wants to talk about empathy," Armaly said. "Maybe let's not think about victimhood in terms of who is and isn't a victim. Maybe there's another way to approach it. Also, I think victimhood is not zero-sum. Multiple people can be victims — it's not mutually exclusive and not dichotomous in that way."

As a big-picture thought about victimhood as whole, Armaly raised a fundamental question. "We should be asking ourselves, 'Are we comfortable giving victims increased status to make social and political claims?'" he said. "And then, similarly, 'Are we comfortable judging the veracity of different claims?' We don't have a way to do this. Society isn't cohesive. We don't have the same mores and the same norms, necessarily, across all facets of society." He went on to note that, "Elevating some claims over others incentivizes these feelings of victimhood, and that's one of the reasons people are attracted to them. I think we have to consider whether incentivizing that feeling is a good thing."

Recalling the three points from the conclusion of "Why Me?" cited above, the answer may be that victimhood is inevitably central to politics and isn't necessarily pernicious, but that our capacity to deal with it without falling prey to hyper-victimization may be at a historically low ebb. That recognition could help orient us toward civic repair. Eliminating both actual victimhood and a sense of victimhood is not within our power. But continuing to be a victim of victimhood just might be. If, as Armaly argues, victimhood is not zero-sum, the best way to help any professed victims might be to help them all. Yes, even the snowflakes-in-denial who can't let go of their damaged and defeated president.

Congressional deadlock doesn't mean total paralysis. Here's how Biden can change US with executive action

Ever since Joe Biden was declared president-elect, a new subgenre of stories has appeared about his forthcoming use of executive actions, in the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CNN, NPR, The Hill, Mother Jones, Vox, etc. Some of these stories are standard issue — executive action is part of any new administration making its mark on the world, and prominent issues tend to draw special attention. But this year, the stories are more complicated, given the combination of Donald Trump's legacy, the sheer number of outstanding crises and the gridlocked, uncertain state of government.

Yet most, though not all, of these accounts tend to miss one crucial point: Biden has enormous power to shape a governing agenda, regardless of anything Congress might do — not just in one or two areas, but across the entirety of government. This point was first forcefully made 14 months ago, when the American Prospect rolled out what executive editor David Dayen dubbed "The Day One Agenda." This power does not reside primarily in the showy executive orders that Trump is so fond of signing, but rather in the matter-of-fact texts of laws passed by Congress over the long course of American history — specific grants of authority that are just sitting there, waiting to be exercised.

Not only is there tremendous agenda-setting power at the president's disposal, but a more recent Day One Agenda article, "Joe Biden's Four-Year Plan," underscored how such actions could help create a new governing coalition of engaged voters, much as Social Security and Medicare did in previous generations. Of all the articles published about executive action recently, Dylan Matthews' "10 enormously consequential things Biden can do without the Senate" in Vox stands out for grasping the breadth of possibilities, and explicitly drawing on the Day One Agenda. But it retains a typical Vox "here's some stuff" tone — it's absorbed in policy details, and divorced from the practical political considerations that have motivated the Day One Agenda all along.

Dayen told me in a recent interview that the idea started with "understanding the function of a president." He continued, "You go to Article II [of the Constitution], and you read what the job description of the president is, and other than being able to make treaties and being the commander in chief of the military, the main thing is that that they take care that the laws are faithfully executed. It's not that they have a legislative agenda or that they work to pass policy," he explained. "The idea is that Congress writes the laws and the president then implements the laws. Over the last 240-odd years, we've had a lot of laws written, and there's a rich tapestry within that set of laws that allows a president to put together an agenda that can make progress for people in really significant ways."

Not only is that what the Constitution clearly says, it's how things generally worked until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 — an issue we'll return to below. That's certainly not how the political establishment sees things today. In campaign debates, "The questions are all 'What are you going to do as president in terms of getting a legislative agenda passed?' and so seldom are the questions, 'What are you going to do to implement the laws that are already on the books?'" Dayen said. At the time, "Progressives were thinking in terms of a little bit of despair, because even if a progressive president were elected, Mitch McConnell would still either hold the Senate or have enough votes to frustrate any kind of a major bold policy shift," he said. "My whole goal was to counteract that and say, 'Look, here is an entire agenda, just sort of sitting there within the statutes waiting to be implemented.'"

What Dayen's publication found was a set of 30 meaningful executive actions with staggering potential, as he wrote at the time:

Without signing a single new law, the next president can lower prescription drug prices, cancel student debt, break up the big banks, give everybody who wants one a bank account, counteract the dominance of monopoly power, protect farmers from price discrimination and unfair dealing, force divestment from fossil fuel projects, close a slew of tax loopholes, hold crooked CEOs accountable, mandate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, allow the effective legalization of marijuana, make it easier for 800,000 workers to join a union, and much, much more.

Along with his overview, the American Prospect published detailed articles on specific policies, which included feedback from the leading Democratic primary candidates. After the primary was over, the Prospect examined the Biden-Sanders unity task force document of policy recommendations and found 277 policies that Biden could implement without congressional action.

"On their own, none of these 277 policies will fully solve any of the interlinked crises we now face," wrote Max Moran. "But they can go a significant way toward immediate harm reduction. Some can even solve long-standing problems, simply by enforcing or fully implementing laws already on the books. Perhaps most important, all of these policies are ideas that leaders in the moderate and progressive wings of the party broadly agree on, and that Biden should have no excuse not to enact, save for his own policy preferences. There is no hiding behind Congress on these topics."

I asked Dayen about the relationship between the two lists, and he said the first represented "the most impactful ones," "the real high notes," that could be found in existing law, while the second culled everything that has been specifically agreed to. One important aspect here was to underscore the distinction between executive orders and executive action. Trump issued "a ton of executive orders" most of which "sounded good but they didn't really do anything," Dayen said. But he did wield real power through executive action, for example, giving farmers billions of dollars to compensate for losses from his ill-conceived trade war, when "he used a law from the New Deal called the Commodity Credit Corporation."

Trump's use of New Deal legislation is ironic on multiple levels. As noted before, Dayen's account of presidential and congressional power describes how things generally worked until the election of FDR in 1932, in the midst of the Great Recession — a cataclysmic catastrophe for which existing laws were clearly insufficient, and which Congress was clearly unable to deal with through its accustomed means. Roosevelt's famous "100 days" fundamentally altered how we saw presidential leadership — and extending well beyond the first 100 days. We came to expect presidents to initiate legislation, rather than simply sign or veto it. And the Constitution allowed for that to happen, simply because it wasn't forbidden.

Many conservatives objected to the New Deal, complained that it had resulted in a "Constitution in exile," but when they finally elected one of their own — Ronald Reagan — half a century later, they cheered him on for doing the exact same sort of thing. In truth, they just didn't like content of the New Deal, which tended to help out the wrong sorts of people, from their point of view. It was Trump, ironically enough, who has much more fundamentally upended Roosevelt's constitutional order. Aside from his tax-cut bill — some version of which any Republican president would have proposed — he hasn't passed any major legislation at all. He has been a model "constitutional," pre-New Deal president. Even his "destruction of the administrative state," to use Steve Bannon's phrase, is perfectly in line with what Reagan claimed to promise when he declared that government itself was the problem.

This does not suggest that conservatives were right and the New Deal was all a tragic, unconstitutional mistake. Quite the opposite: It was an absolutely necessary response to the crisis we faced at the time. We face a similar state of crisis today, although it has multiple different dimensions: the COVID pandemic, climate change, the racial justice struggle and worsening economic inequality, just to name a few. What we need is some way out of the polarization and gridlock we've drifted into over the course of the last several decades. The prospect of compromise-legislating our way out of this crisis is dim, to say the least. Just look at how long it's been since the last COVID relief bill was passed. We need to start where we are — with executive power that depends on nothing else.

This is the thread picked up in the aforementioned article, "Joe Biden's Four-Year Plan," by Jeff Spross. His argument there is simple: Trump is gone for now, "but the shadow of the 2024 election already looms," with a Trump-shaped Republican Party that "will eventually win power again," probably with a more competent authoritarian candidate. "The only way to avoid that fate is for Democrats to use this time to win domination over government for an extended period, forcing the GOP to fundamentally change its political course and character to maintain its own national viability," Spross argues, just as it was forced to moderate in the wake of the New Deal.

Dayen and Spross see things similarly. "My feeling on the election," Dayen told me, "is that enough people thought Donald Trump was ridiculous enough to throw him out of office, but they didn't necessarily trust Democrats to give them the keys to the car. The only way that you're going to earn that trust is by making progress with people. Now, that sounds kind of silly, because some people say, 'You can't really make progress unless you get the keys to the car, right?' But we've identified some ways we could make progress, in fact, and then build on that and build a coalition."

Spross speaks in generally similar terms. "You need to pass policies that have a very concrete effect on people's lives that they can notice quickly and that will have this effect for as broad a swath of the population as possible," he told me. "I talk about Social Security and Medicare as two premier examples of this. Social Security is literally a check you get from the government on a regular basis. You know it comes from the government. You know it's because the government wants to take care of you, to make sure you have a decent income in retirement. It's a significant sum of money, and makes a big difference. So it's transparent. It's a meaningful contribution to a person's well-being, and at this point it's something like 60 to 70 million recipients."

The political effect of that huge benefit is also huge, Spross observed, citing Andrea Campbell's book "How Policies Make Citizens," which showed "how Social Security changed the political engagement of seniors," who hadn't previously been a significant political force.

"The argument is basically, if you give people a benefit, a base level, they will be grateful for it," Spross said. "That will be a sign to them that government cares about them, that it's engaged with them, that it is concerned about their well-being. They in turn will be engaged with government: They will want to protect that benefit, they will want to expand it. And beyond that, the fact they have more income means more resources, which means more free time. That all equates to more opportunity to engage with politics."

So the trick is how to do something similar, using the tools at hand — in other words, with laws already on the books. Spross does consider the possibility of legislation passed through reconciliation — which would avoid the filibuster — should Democrats win the Georgia Senate runoffs and hold a bare majority. One example he cited in conversation was a universal child allowance, "something like Social Security for children," which could obviously have a tremendous impact. But he doesn't depend on passing new legislation. In the article, he argues that Biden must pick his spots: "Not just any executive action will do, however. The Biden White House would need to focus on those changes that, again, could deliver broad, meaningful, and recognizable benefits as quickly as possible."

As examples from the Day One Agenda, Spross cites canceling student debt, lowering prescription drug prices (two different laws allow for this), and initiating postal banking services (full-fledged universal services would require legislation, but targeted services and pilot projects wouldn't). He also cites removing marijuana from the schedule of controlled substances, helping hundreds of thousands of workers unionize, beefing up enforcement of worker safety laws, and possibly raising the federal poverty line, "which would automatically expand existing welfare benefits to many more American families."

There are lots of other things that need to be done — particularly when it comes to the climate crisis, an existential threat to all of us. They don't necessarily have the kind of quick constituency-building potential that Spross has focused on. That doesn't mean they should be ignored — that would be profoundly irresponsible. Rather, it means that those most concerned about those major issues should recognize that these constituency-building policies are pragmatically crucial to their work as well. The more one delves into the Day One Agenda, the more one comes to see political possibilities in a new light. That light, in turn, can help illuminate a way out of our current political deadlock, and all the crises that have stemmed from that.

This historian saw it all coming 30 years ago: How America's failure is pushing us 'off the cliff'

As soon as Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election was clear, the question of what lies ahead immediately came to the fore: What do Democrats need to do, not just to help America recover from the profound damage of the Trump presidency, but to address the long-term underlying problems that made it possible in the first place? To help answer that question, I turned to the man who took the measure of those problems in the first place, sociologist and historian Jack Goldstone, whose 1991 book, "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World," revolutionized our understanding of revolutions as products of organizational failure in coping with demographic pressures.

Goldstone's book appeared just as America was celebrating "The End of History," as announced in a then-famous book by Francis Fukuyama. With the end of the Cold War, everything had supposedly been settled. There would be no more revolutions or ideological struggles. Almost 30 years later, no one thinks that anymore, and the demographic factors Goldstone identified — such as the "youth bulges" associated with the Arab Spring — have become commonplace terms in discussing potential revolutions. Goldstone's model combined measures of demographically-driven social stress from the mass population, the elites and the state to produce a single number, the "political stress indicator," or psi. State breakdown — and thus revolution — has only occurred when psi rises to dramatically high levels. Unlike earlier theories, Goldstone's approach explained when revolutions didn't happen, as well as when they did.

I discovered Goldstone's work by way of cultural anthropologist Peter Turchin, who refined and expanded his model and applied it to a broader range of societies, including modern industrial states. Four years ago, the month before Donald Trump was elected, I reviewed Turchin's book, "Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History," which predicted an approaching period of social and political disintegration, regardless of whether Trump won or lost.

But even in 1991, Goldstone had seen worrying signs in America of the same sorts of problems his book described in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively, as well as in China and the Ottoman Empire. Most notable was the problem of "selfish elites" who "preferred to protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength."

That's why Goldstone's perspective on the problems facing us today seem particularly worth our attention. He and Turchin combined to write an article for Noema magazine in September, "Welcome to the Turbulent Twenties," and BuzzFeed highlighted their perspective — and specifically, the role of psi — in a late October story on the possibility of rising political violence in the U.S. But their perspective deserves much more than an occasional mention — it should inform the entire framework in which our discussions take place.

I reached out to Goldstone even before this election had been decided, seeking the broadest perspective I could possibly get. Some of what he and Turchin wrote about is admittedly now difficult to imagine, given that Democrats may not win a Senate majority and have lost at least nine seats in the House. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World" came out just after the end of the Cold War, at the same time as Francis Fukuyama's celebrated book "The End of History and The Last Man," which claimed that we had reached "the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Fukuyama was hardly alone at the time, but you offered a strikingly different view, one much more consistent with how history has unfolded in subsequent decades. What was the key insight that gave you such a different view?

Most people had viewed revolutions as a result of great ideological struggles. And if there weren't going to be any more such great struggles, people thought there wouldn't be any more revolutions either. It's certainly true that the leaders of revolutions need an ideological platform, but in my view the causes of revolutions were organizational failures, and the ideological shifts come about when people feel the organizational failure of their society and look for new ideas on how to fix it.

In my view, organizational failure is not something that goes away with some march of history. It's always possible, even likely, that societies will get themselves into trouble. Governments tend to overspend, elites tend to fight taxation and accumulate resources. As elites grow in number, they tend to fight more and more among themselves for position and wealth, and if elites do not make sure that the wealth of society is distributed in the way that gives ordinary people hope and a stake in society, then they can be recruited to opposition, even radical movements.

So I feel the risk of revolutions is always there. The ideologies may change. We went from an ideology of liberalism to an ideology of communism and then, when communism faded, the Middle East and much of Asia started turning to an ideology of radical Islam. So I had no reason to believe that revolutions would disappear.

When they reappeared with vigor I was not surprised, and my work started getting a lot more attention — especially after the Arab Spring, which was a whole bunch of old-fashioned violent, civil war-inducing revolutions. They obviously had a lot to do with the failure of states to provide jobs for the young, the problem of over-educating a large cohort of youth, the failure to distribute economic progress equally.

So, my vision turned out — not happily but, as it turned out, correctly — to foresee that many more revolutions were possible. In fact, I'll go one step further. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people said, "Well, those aren't revolutions, those are something new. Those are refolutions" — with an F — "They're more like reforms, they're negotiated, they are peaceful or they are democratic movements." I was a little bit alone in saying, "Now, wait a minute, to me they look like revolutions."

You had a failure of states that were organized on the basis of state communism, and they unwound differently because the populations tended to be older and thus were less drawn to radicalism and violence. So you had the color revolutions as the response, but when you talk about why these things occurred and how they played out and whether we'll see more of them in the future, the answer was, "They're organizational failures. Yes, we will see more of these." And indeed, after 1998 is when so we started seeing more color revolutions across Asia, and we will continue to see those.

In fact, I think the real difference between color revolutions and violent revolutions is not just a matter of tactics or ideology. It's got a great deal to do with the age structure of the population, the educational job profile. When you have a younger population that's more educated, that's suffering higher unemployment, you're likely to get a more ideologically extreme revolution. When you have an older population that is in a stagnant economy, you're more likely to get the color revolutions, seeking just to open up and democratize politics.

Another big argument I had with people at the time was that they felt that once capitalism had triumphed, there would not be any more need for revolutions. But I said this is not about capitalism. The revolutions of the 19th century were still about the same kind of organizational state failures that we'd seen in earlier centuries, and once we get to the 20th and 21st centuries, we could still have organizational failures, even in modern, fully industrialized states.

Your model actually had three contributing factors to political instability: the mass population, the elites and the state. You've already talked about that dynamic, but could you break it down into those three parts and say a little more specifically about each of them?

Let's start with what it takes for society to continue to work and successfully reproduce itself across time. We tend to think about society as how it looks at a particular moment in time: Are people getting along or are they not getting along? Is it because they disagree or whatever? That to me is a very incomplete, shortsighted way to approach the dynamic nature of society. Instead I tend to think in terms of flows of resources, flows of people.

To reproduce itself over time, the government needs to continue to have enough revenue to carry out its responsibility for national defense and domestic administration. The government, the economy and other institutions like the church need to recruit a fresh flow of leadership every generation. So they need to have some system for training and selecting the next generation of elites or leaders.

If the government doesn't have a system to keep revenues in pace with expenses, it will start to go into debt, it will start to go broke, it will start having to scrounge around to find other ways to raise money. If society doesn't get the flow of elites correct, either there are not enough competent, well-trained people to move into leadership positions or what's much more common is that you have an overflow, where society ends with more people training and aspiring to elite positions, and believing that they deserve them, than there are positions for such people. For societies to grow stably, there has to be a system of recruitment and filtering that is seen as fair and legitimate to govern that distribution of elite positions. Otherwise, it becomes a dangerous free-for-all.

For much of human history that was simply inheritance. The older son inherits his father's position and the younger sons have to go work things out on their own. When we get to a meritocracy, you have people acquiring the training or degrees to provide the right certifications for elite positions, and that's fine as long as things grow at the same pace — if you have expansion of the universities, if you have societies expanding their bureaucracies, expanding the professional business positions and so on. But if you start training many more people for elite positions than the society can provide, you get the frustration of large numbers of overeducated youth, and that's politically dangerous.

Lastly, you understand that a government that's losing money and resources gets into trouble and it starts picking on other groups to say, "We need to tax your wealth, or we need to increase your taxes." But, if the elites can organize and be unified and simply say, "No, we're going to change the system," then you either get reforms or an elite coup-d'état. There's no need for a revolution if the elites are united and can agree what needs to be done.

But if the elites themselves are very divided and unsure — do we need to change government policy, or do we actually need to change the government and displace some of the conservative elites that are preventing the changes we need? — then members of the elite who believe change is necessary will try to recruit popular support. They want the demonstration that large numbers of the population are with them to demand the overthrow of conservative elites or an incompetent ruler.

So this ties into mass well-being, then?

Trying to stir up popular support for change is only feasible if large numbers of the people are unhappy with the situation. It's very hard for dissident elites to get people to take the risk and take the time to engage in opposition to government if most of them think everything's OK, as long as they're getting what they expect. It doesn't have to be great, but at least it's what they expect.

But if large numbers of people find there are shortages of land, that wages are going down or stagnant, that they don't have enough land to provide for their family or kids or enough income to provide a proper wedding for their daughters; if they can't find work, they lose their land to a greedy landowner and are thrown into the workforce and have trouble finding jobs, or become vagrants or bandits. Then, when things are bad enough for a large portion of the population, they are much more easily recruited to movements that say, "We gotta get rid of everything. These are bad people in charge. Things are never going to get better until we get them out of the way." That's how you recruit a mass movement for rebellion or revolution.

In your book, published almost 30 years ago, you warned that we were getting ourselves in trouble. You focused particular attention on the role of "selfish elites," which you've called a "key difficulty faced by regimes in decline." You warned that the U.S. was, "in respect of its state finances and its elites' attitudes, following the path that led early modern states to crises." What did you see then as the central problem that wasn't being addressed?

I had just spent 10 years studying how states gradually get themselves into a situation of breakdown, and one of the questions that motivated me was: Why should governments that have the ability to tax and to recruit the smartest people ever get into trouble? You would think that they're holding all the cards. But what I'd seen in my studies of state breakdown was that government got into trouble when it could no longer count on the support of elites, and that usually occurred because elites lost sight of what we used to call the public service ethic.

I was just reading about John F. Kennedy and what his parents drilled into his entire family: "Yes, you're rich and you're privileged, but you have responsibilities to serve the public." That's the same ethic that had been drilled into Roman centurions and senators, and had been drilled into the aristocracy of Europe — the whole code of chivalry was that if you're a knight or a lord, you have certain responsibilities to watch out for society and take care of those that are not as powerful and fortunate as you.

Throughout history, societies start down the road into collapse when elites start saying, "No, I've got to take care of myself first, because other people are after my position and I can't count on it being secure for my children. So I have to keep as much of what I have as possible." So elites start fighting with each other, they resist taxation, they become much less civic-minded. They give less in the sense of philanthropy and leadership for public efforts.

I was seeing that in the United States. We put a movie out that said, "Greed is good," and people started revering the work of Ayn Rand, who basically preached that whoever is successful owes that success only to themselves, and it's wrong for government or anyone else to ask that they share it. Well, that line of thinking makes elites feel very good and feel, "Yes, I've earned all of my success. It's all due to me and I have a right to enjoy it." But that leads to bigger yachts and private islands on the one hand, and deteriorating schools and ballooning budget deficits on the other. That was very clearly the way the United States was going in the '80s and '90s, and it really didn't change.

And now?

So here we are with this election. There was no mass rejection of Trump. It wasn't about Trump. People didn't understand that four years ago, and apparently they still don't understand it now. The breakdown, the polarization, the divisions of American society are not about Trump,. They are about people rejecting the actions of an elite — both conservatives and liberals, it really didn't matter; it was both New York elites and Texas elites — rejecting a notion of a society in which winners take all and government should be starved, with no provide benefits or support for communities that are in trouble, and basically leaving people on their own.

So, we have hundreds of millions of people whose lives, they feel, are slipping away from them. They feel their opportunities for their families and their children are getting fewer, rather than greater, they see the government getting further and further into debt. They don't see why. What's all that money being wasted on, if their lives aren't getting better? And so they are voting to reject everything in the traditional elites and establishment politics. They reject everything they've seen for the last 30 or 40 years, because it has neglected and demeaned their lives.

So, they're voting for the outsider, the renegade, the person who'll upset the apple cart and who at least says, "I'm doing this for you," regardless of the reality and regardless of the delivery. Someone who says, "The people that you're angry at are the people I'm angry at, and I'm going to do something about it for you." That's enough to earn their deep, steadfast loyalty, and that's why they came out in such large numbers to vote for someone, even if the other half of America says, "Well, you know, this guy Trump seems to be divisive and incompetent and nasty and so we're not going to vote for him."

You know, half of America thinks he still gets it: "He understands our situation. We don't want to be taxed and have money wasted. We don't want to live in a situation where we're constantly worried that other people are taking our opportunities, our jobs. We want to feel defended, supported." That's their America, and they want it back. I saw all this coming when you have an elite that lives inside guarded communities and makes it harder to get into school, and instead of investing to deal with declining productivity puts its money into fancy real estate and showy acquisitions.

In the article with Peter Turchin you published in September, you argue that American exceptionalism had been founded on cooperation. It unraveled during the 19th century but was "reforged during the New Deal," only to fall apart again beginning in the 1970s. You describe that cooperation as "an unwritten but very real social contract between government, business and workers," and what replaced it was the neoliberal contract, only between business and government. Now Trump comes in saying, "I'll stick up for you," but he didn't actually do anything for workers. How should we understand that gaping disconnect?

In my 1991 book, I said that there are two different playbooks you can get as leaders respond to this kind of crisis. Donald Trump has followed the typical dictator's playbook. That is, he finds a country where a lot of people are unhappy because they see they're losing out to greater inequality. The elites don't care about them. The elites are starving the government, so the government is basically incompetent, or becoming a tool of the elite. So they want to vote for a strongman to repair the damage.

But the dictator is smart enough to know that he also needs elite support. You can't just come in and stage a revolution. He doesn't even want a revolution, he just wants to be in power. He needs to somehow get elite support while harnessing the anger of the population, so what does he typically do? He directs that anger at others. He may direct it at the professional elite, at the left-wing intellectuals. "I don't need them. I just need the business elite." And the other thing he says is, "Look at the other people who are trying to take things away from you. Look at immigrants, look at foreigners, people of different religions." He finds scapegoats. So that's what Trump did, and that's why we're in the situation we're in now. It's a divisive, not a healing approach. It leads deeper into crisis.

But that's not the only alternative.

What we really need is the kind of leadership that can inspire elites to make sacrifices to strengthen all of society. This is what the Japanese did after World War II. It's what America did in World War II, and in leading the world in the Cold War. That kind of inspiration benefits from having a major external enemy. I remember Sputnik, and how afraid America got all the sudden. We won the Second World War, but then Russia had missiles and had nuclear weapons that could destroy us. So we needed to invest in ourselves, we needed to invest in science and education for the young, we needed to build our internal infrastructure to a high level, we needed to invest in research and development and put a man on the Moon. We were going to build modern communication, build the greatest scientific establishment in the world, and recruit — wherever it's useful — immigrants to come and strengthen us.

So a lot of the top engineers and scientists in our big Cold War movement were immigrants, and we continued that into the '70s and '80s. A lot of the people who built our computer industry were immigrants and children of immigrants. So, we had a bit of that new social contract — government investment and taxation rates were higher. People think Ronald Reagan got rid of taxation rates, but elite taxes were still 50% higher in the Reagan era than they are now.

We had a series of presidents — all the way, I would say, from Eisenhower through Reagan — who said, "America has an ideal, we're all going to contribute to that. We're going to pitch in, live up to that ideal, we're going to lead the world together." That pursuit of American exceptionalism worked pretty well to keep America together.

Now, it started to break down even under Reagan, because Reaganism started to join with the free-market competitive inequality that got worse and worse over the next 30 years. But at least after the Depression and World War II, Americans were being trained to pull together. It was minorities who legitimately felt that they were being left out of the conversation, so you had the civil rights movement and the women's movement saying, "We want to be part of this." What they wanted to be part of was an America that in general was moving forward and taking leadership in the world. That kind of notion, that everybody should move forward together and that the whole society needs to work together — that has been lost.

So it began to break down under Reagan. Then what happened?

It really collapsed after the Cold War, when it seemed that Americans just kind of took for granted: "We have the system that works. All we have to do is keep doing what we're doing and if the meritocracy gets more and more privileged and exclusive, well, that doesn't really matter. The rich get richer and richer, but they earned it. They're building new industries and doing what the railroad and steel magnates did in an earlier century to build a new America, so they're fine. We're not for the sales tax on Internet products and we're just going to let the intellectual, professional and business elites feather their nests, and everybody else can either catch up or fall behind. That's fair play in America."

That's been completely corrosive, and obviously it's also given opportunities for the dark side of American history: the hatred of foreigners, the hatred of minorities, the regional competition, the distrust between the city and the countryside. All those have been kind of long-standing elements of human nature. America didn't discover them, but we didn't get rid of them either.

Those dark elements come out more strongly when you're in a society that simply says, "We have open competition and the better you do the more proud you should be of yourself. You don't really owe anything to anyone else, and you certainly don't owe anything to the government to provide for the basic structure and investment in society. Government doesn't deserve it. They don't know what to do with it. So let's starve the government."

Well, you do that and you lose social cohesion. You lose the confidence and effectiveness of government and the government will not be able to respond when you have a crisis, whether it's a pandemic or a crisis of racial injustice or a crisis of income inequality. So those problems simply fester and lead to worse divisions and eventually to some kind of conflict.

In the article with Turchin, you describe a formula for past progress, referencing what happened in England in the 1830s and here in America in the 1930s. First, a leader trying to preserve the past social order is replaced by a new leader willing to undertake much-needed reforms. Biden replacing Trump may fit that mold, but he's not going to have much support in the Senate, or an FDR-style popular mandate. The second thing you describe is the new leader leveraging support to force opponents to give in to necessary changes. It looks like that's not an option, at least in the near term. So where do we stand right now?

I can tell you very simply: The most important person for the future of America has been and will be Mitch McConnell. The reason I say that is because we're going to have a president who wants to be a nonpartisan problem-solver. He definitely realizes that America needs to fix its infrastructure, and join the world in moving toward control of the terrible threat of climate change. Our West Coast is burning, our Midwest farmers are being flooded, and our East and Gulf coasts are being pounded by hurricanes.

So we need to do something about climate change before it destroys us, we have to take care of the pandemic, we have to make the economy work better for those people who are not on the cutting edge of the digital economy, we have to somehow restore dignity and opportunity for people from all walks of life. So there are big problems that need to be solved. Biden does want to address those in a bipartisan way, and he says it: "I want to bring America together again. I want to include everybody. I want to be the president of all Americans."

He's saying all the right things to put us back on the right track. You can think of the instability index that Peter and I talk about as measuring your distance from a cliff: How close are you getting to the edge of the cliff? We can't tell exactly where the edge of the cliff is, because you could say it's shrouded in fog. It depends on lots of particular circumstances. But we know there's a cliff out there, when government no longer commands the respect of the people and the elites can no longer work together. Our measurements say we're getting very close to that cliff. So Biden wants to turn around and change directions, and start backing away from that cliff edge. That's good.

If Republicans win the Senate and Democrats have the House, the issue is whether Republicans in the Senate will support that change in direction, to pull us back from the cliff. Or are they going to say, "No, if you're not going to put us in charge, if you're not going to do it our way, we're going to push you over that cliff, so that people can see how bad you are"? That's what they did with Obama, to a large degree: Just say no to everything and if there are failures, it's on you.

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. This is a very common situation in politics. You usually have an extreme left and extreme right, a middle left and a middle right. And if the middle left and the middle right can work together, they keep the extremists marginalized. They keep them weak.

But if the moderates cannot work together and cannot get anything done, that strengthens the extremists on both sides who say, "See, there's nothing to be gained by moving to the middle. There's nothing to be accomplished by compromise with our opponents. So let's just go all the way to get what we want."

So if Mitch McConnell is willing to say, "Hey, I want the moderate center of American politics to flourish and be rebuilt," if he is willing to work with the Democrats to pull us back from the edge of a cliff, we can start to move away from the dangerous spot that we're in. But if he says, "I'm going to be the party of no. I'm going to just wait until we get a Republican president again, and I will let things go as close to the cliff, or even over the cliff, if that's what it takes," that is going to increase the strength of the far-left progressives and the far-right radical Trump anti-government anti-globalist extremists — and we're going to end up having an election in 2024 that makes 2020 look relatively united.

The polarization will be worse, the anger will be worse, the recrimination on both sides will be vicious and nothing will have been accomplished in four years. That's what I really see if it continues in that direction. We're close enough to people taking up arms against each other in the streets now. That becomes almost unavoidable if Biden is pushed to the extremes by McConnell's unwillingness to work with him in the right direction.

I wanted to ask about innovative democratic reforms that can cross ideological lines. Ranked-choice voting is one example that can incentivize a less acrimonious, more substantive way of campaigning. Or citizens' assemblies, which have been widely used in other countries recently. Obviously the Senate is not going to start doing that, but these ideas are bubbling up in more local contexts. Could they be promoted to help change the conversation, or at least expand the possibilities for avoiding the cliff?

Absolutely. We don't want partisan solutions, even if they're good ones, rammed through on a partisan basis, because that does more damage by increasing the polarization and political division, even with good policy. I think citizens' assemblies are great. I like the idea of going back to an old device, the "blue ribbon commission," where you have a policy issue, you know it is important, you know it's contentious and you have some idea where you want to go. You appoint a bipartisan commission with some leading politicians, some leading experts, you try to work out a plan. And once that plan is developed to the point where you can make a good argument for it, you can show it has bipartisan support on the commission that developed it, then you offer it to the legislature.

We actually had that with the prison reform bill that President Trump signed. That wasn't something that came because he was so wildly enthusiastic about it when he ran for office, but it was a problem that both sides saw needed to be addressed and they came up with a plan that could be the basis of bipartisan legislation. I think we can do that again on climate and environmental policy. We can do it on infrastructure. We can do it on jobs and social mobility. We can do it on income inequality and opportunities.

There are a lot of ideas floating around, whether it's cash handouts or more progressive taxation or taxing capital and labor equally or providing preschool education to give everybody a better chance early on. But these ideas need to be discussed at length by people from different perspectives, in a room with technical experts who can answer questions, and with legislative aides who can hammer out concrete legislation to be a framework for bipartisan agreement.

I'm a big believer in universal citizen service, to bring people from all over the country from all different walks of life to work shoulder to shoulder on a common goal and get to know each other. That breaks down a lot of the polarization and enmity that grows up if people are educationally and residentially segregated, as we have become. I think there are a lot of things that can be done without changing the Constitution, and without radical overhaul of the income structure. There are things we can do to make progress on concrete issues that will help us pull together as a country and point us away from the edge of the cliff.

Reversing the Southern Strategy: Biden's win in Georgia wasn't a one-off. It follows years of hard work and a changing America

Democrats were hoping for a massive repudiation of the Republican Party under Trump, and a chance to strike out in a far more progressive direction. What they got instead was a much more muted victory that took days to unfold, and is limited to the presidency — at least for now.

But amid the immediate disappointment of Election Night and the exuberance that followed Joe Biden's eventual victory, the situation in the South stood out: the difference between the polling averages and the initial returns in Southern states like North Carolina and Georgia was about three points, compared to seven or more in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. Well before Biden inched into the lead in Georgia, and before it was clear that both Senate races there would require runoff elections, there was cause for hope in that region, foretold in a tweet from Angie Maxwell, co-author of "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon author interview here):

The Long Southern Strategy was a top-down effort to turn the South red that took 4 decades. Turning it blue will take a grassroots bottom-up effort over several cycles. What you see now in TX, GA, & NC is years of blood, sweat, and organizing.

I couldn't think of a better way forward than to ask Maxwell to expound on what she has seen unfolding, especially considering her uniquely insightful analysis of how the "Long Southern Strategy" worked, and how it transformed American politics nationally — and not just in the South. If anyone could shed light on how that strategy can finally be reversed — and how it already, slowly, is being reversed — I knew it would be her. As usual, this interview has been edited for clarity and length.

So Joe Biden has won the election, but Democrats fell short of hopes and expectations, most notably in the Senate. But you're from the South, and the trajectory of Democratic fortunes looks different from that perspective. Before the election, you tweeted about what it would take to turn the South blue and begin to reverse the "Long Southern Strategy." Do you still feel hopeful and determined?

I do! And I'm not saying that in some kind of Pollyanna way. I have to tell you, when you live down here in these deep red states and you study this as your specialty, to hear that the polls are closing in North Carolina and Georgia and Texas and it's too close to call — It's not just immediately red — I don't think people realize how hard that is to pull off in a pandemic, with the levels of voter suppression we've had and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. It's pretty remarkable.

Texas is moving blue, and I think North Carolina and Georgia are there. What you're going to see in North Carolina is some split ticketing — because that is often what happens when a state is flipping, for a couple of cycles. People are like, "I kind of like this Democratic governor, but I don't know nationally." They feel like somehow they're right in the middle and they're kind of balancing.

It happened in Arkansas for years, so that doesn't surprise me. The big factor I would say is we've just never done this with 80 to 90 million absentee ballots. I watched in Arkansas, specifically — and this is true in lots of different states — people really nervous about coronavirus, because it got real big here in the summer, requesting an absentee ballot and then hearing some of the static about the Postal Service delays, which got been pretty bad here, and then saying, "You know, I think I'm gonna go in person," and not realizing that there are things you have to do to be able to do that, that are state-specific. So, I was worried — when we're talking about margins that are tiny — I was worried about that.

There was an effort in Georgia to reach people whose ballots were considered provisional and have them cure the ballots — there are different state laws about how many days you have, who has to be the person who reaches out, all of that. But I think there was some misinformation — nobody's fault, just circumstances—that might have made a little bit of difference in a few places. It's reasonable to think we could've seen North Carolina go blue if it weren't for some of that.

So overall, you see the results as promising?

That's promising to me. Don't get me wrong, it's frustrating. You want it to happen tomorrow, but I know there's been an effort for 10 years in North Carolina. They been working at this and organizing for 10 years. Virginia, 12. Georgia has been about four. Texas has been about four. It builds on the cycles where you have good candidates and you have competition all the way down the ballot. You have to have Democrats running in as many state rep seats and state assembly seats as they can, for everything, all the way up, because it lifts the top of the ticket.

That takes infrastructure and organizing that no matter how wonderful a candidate is — say in Texas, Beto O'Rourke: charismatic and engaging — without the infrastructure, you're already going with a handicap in the South from voter suppression, It's hard. I know the Democratic database has been getting better in the South. For years it's been like a blank slate. If you don't have competitive primaries and things like that, you just don't know where people even lean. So the more competition there is, the better campaigns are at reaching voters they need.

What would you add in terms of how things are turning out? Anything more you'd like to say about any specific races?

I feel like we very much had an absentee ballot strategy and messaging that switched to "Go vote in person." It's hard enough to message once about voting. It's really hard — especially in Southern states, where we don't have same-day registration — to do that. It's really tough. Maybe a little more effort or just streamlining that could have helped, but hindsight is 20/20.

I'm pleased in terms of the candidates that ran — with the exception of [Cal] Cunningham and what came out about his personal life. I think Jamie Harrison is an exceptional candidate. Joyce Eliot, who was running for the Arkansas 2nd district in the U.S. House, a 30-year retired schoolteacher and state senator, an excellent candidate. I think the quality is high and I think that's what upsets people, what's disappointing, is they are pulling some amazing talent and running it, but talent alone cannot replace infrastructure, data and get-out-the-vote history.

But it can help build that for the future.

A hundred percent! You're not starting at zero in Texas. You're starting from where Beto O'Rourke left off. I've been watching today with people going into action in Georgia, that Fair Fight network is serious. There's smaller and newer groups here [in Arkansas] that are working hard to get those ballots counted in most statehouse races. If we didn't have those organizations here, we'd be leaving that to state rep candidates and their campaigns staff. That's hard.

States like North Carolina and Georgia came much closer to meeting expectations, as reflected in polling averages, than Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. Setting aside the polling problems, what lessons should Democrats nationally take away from these results?

Honestly, we just have to have targeted and tailored strategies. What works in Georgia, the coalition you're trying to build there, is not the same coalition you're trying to build in North Carolina necessarily. In Georgia it's really the urban areas and the African-American vote that's changing things, and in North Carolina, it's a high levels of education that are changing things. South Carolina has such a large African-American population, it needs a strategy that looks a little more like Georgia's. Texas is all different, because you have a Latino vote that a lot of scholars have been saying is not a monolith and people have to pay attention to country of origin and religious values and that the messaging's got to be real specific. I think sometimes we just think "South," and I think we really have to break that up. There's a couple of states that might be similar, but it's different than like the Rust Belt.

How should the party address that?

I think a lot of times in the South, organizers came from outside in the past, but you really need organizers inside, you need people who know that state backwards and forward and know its history and can be specific and local. One thing that North Carolina figured out a couple years ago when they elected the Democratic governor is that teachers and education was a messaging issue that was helpful for Democrats to pick up people they needed. That could be very different somewhere else. You can't make assumptions about how people feel and think.

For example, you look at places like in Arkansas a couple years ago and Florida, where they had had minimum wage on a ballot initiative. In Arkansas it passed with like 77% of the vote, and we couldn't get Republican legislators to take it up. When you start seeing that you realize where people are on certain issues and there's a disconnect with the party brand. That is something that has got to be addressed.

I wrote a piece for 538 right before the Super Tuesday primaries about Democrats in the South, and how they are different from Democrats outside the South. One thing we tend to stereotype is black voters in the South being moderate, or maybe even socially moderate, but I don't think that's it at all. I think they're pragmatic. Bernie [Sanders] did not do well in those Southern primaries, and it's not necessarily because people disagree with Medicare for All. It just seems like such a reach from where they are. And when you look at where Bernie did well, it was in blue states where the message he's giving seems like the next step, or seems doable. A lot of times in the South it may sound wonderful, but people who live here and know what it's like, it doesn't seem possible. It doesn't seem pragmatic, and I think that pragmatism is important to Southern voters.

Is there anything more specific to this campaign you'd like to add?

I think one thing that is a little bit of a missed opportunity was in terms of the coronavirus, not just touching on how badly it has been handled, but also what is the plan, instantly? What is done in month one? Is it to invoke that National Defense Authorization Act and quick mandatory testing in schools, so all the kids can go back to school? How fast can that be done? That kind of pragmatism where people go "OK, that would be better. Yes, I like that," instead of just like why it's all been so bad — and it has. But people are kind of used to that, that live in these red states, and they have been left with no plans, even by their local government.

A lot of people just bought into "This is not so bad," or "It's getting better," because it's hard to deal with it emotionally every single day, the uncertainty. I watched parents agonize over the decision of sending their children back to school in August and a lot of times it's like the second they made that decision it's like they did not want to think about it anymore. Because there really is no option and when they had to go back to work, or they always were working, they just can't live thinking, "Am I endangering my family?" So they need to kind of believe it's getting better, and our governor here stopped doing his daily press conferences on it and I think it was exactly for that reason. People just kind of don't want to hear it.

People can see the numbers going up, but when you have no control, no way of ending the uncertainty of it, that's a hard thing — for people to not tune out at a deep place. So, I'm just wondering if a little tweaking of that message would've helped.

That makes a lot of sense. People involved in politics get caught up in a vortex of message-thinking versus what you were just talking about: What it's like for ordinary people, and how they are coping with everyday life.

Right. A lot of people just kind of give up. They care, but they don't know what else to do. There is no plan in place, they don't see it getting better, and they can't live with that emotional turmoil every day, So being reminded of it and not being made empowered by it — like, "This what we're going to do. You're going to wear your mask, you're going to do this until this date, and when we get in office, this is what we're going to do in the first month." That kind of reassurance I think can be attractive.

I think what's upsetting to some is that they just cannot believe that with all of the things the Trump administration has done and said, that people would still vote for him. We know that in the South. People have been living with that a long time. And so that does not surprise me. It surprises me in a positive way that so many people organized to fight against it, and make some states down here really competitive.

Going back to your tweet that caught my attention. Your book discusses four things about the Southern Strategy I'd like to ask about: The first two are that race alone does not explain the Long Southern Strategy, that gender and religion were equally important, and second, that all were involved in shaping a defensive definition of identity.

Most people look at who's voting Republican in the South and say, "They're voting against their economic self-interest. That's so irrational for low-income people." But when you live with the kind of poverty you have in the South — not even hardcore poverty, but just no mobility, no opportunity in rural areas where the population is declining and education's so expensive. When you say they can get healthcare on an exchange and the deductible is $10,000, it might as well be $10 million. So when you quit thinking that government can do something that's really going to change your life, because you're below that curve that maybe some help can help tip you over into a little better quality of life — when you're below that, then you tend to default to values and identity.

So the Republican Party over the years has hit all three of those things. We also make the assumption that people are all three, but it's a very small percentage that feel excessive racial resentment and excessive modern sexism — which is a distrust of working women and support for hyper-masculinity — and then Christian nationalism, which is of course very different from being just religious. And a lot of people are one of three or two of three. I think lumping all of that together is where Democrats kind of miss the mark. People that are one of three can sometimes be reached.

But there's more to the story, right?

There's also a really weird thing going on with the branding. I've said before in the book it wasn't just the policy positions that the GOP took over time that won over some of these voters. They really adopted the Southern style, which is large rally-based campaigns, it's a politics of entertainment, and that to me is one of the most destructive aspects. It was V.O. Key in 1949, in his classic work "Southern Politics in State and Nation" who said the worst part about one-party politics is that it becomes a facade in the South, a kind of politics of entertainment and not a contest of policy ideas.

And that's so true when we see ballot initiatives pass at 70%, and the brand and the policies don't match up, they're not associated with each other. And that is because you don't have that kind of two-party competition, you just have kind of one umbrella and who gets the most attention, who can entertain the most, or who can be the most outrageous, get the most headlines. That has a long history in the South and Trump is kind of tailor-made for that.

The Republican Party kind of adopted that style. It's very much the politics of entertainment, it's also the us-versus-them style. People sometimes call it positive polarization, which is you do not define yourself by who you are, you define yourself as a candidate by who you're not. So, "I'm not a Nancy Pelosi, AOC whatever." Creating that kind of dichotomy, that has a long history in the South too, it resonates here. And in doing that, the Republican Party rebranded itself in the Southern image in a way that feels very familiar to people. And like politicians for decades from the region — even though Trump is from New York, he seemed like that. Because the Republican brand gives them that option already.

So Democrats have to think about how to brand themselves in a way that speaks to Southerners at a kind of a value level. We also find that Southern whites who are Democrats who grew up in the South, who are not transplants, when they become Democrats. we find that they go really far left — men and women. Then they're fighting within the Democratic Party about the brand because one group is really left and likes the national brand and even pushing it further, and the other is going, "But we've have to win more people over, we have to kind of be in the middle." And that is not something that's been reconciled.

Is there anything you can point to in the organizing now that's been successful in terms of forging a new sense of identity? I thought that Stacey Abrams' focus on voting rights was one possibility — where the Southern Strategy was focused on defensive identity, her focus on voting is about a proactive shared identity: Together we can create a different future. It's a big-tent identity people can share who may have different specific goals in mind, but they work together.

Absolutely! I think that is perfect example. One example — people don't think about it a lot because of the NRA's stronghold in the South, but Moms Demand has gotten people elected in the South in statehouse races by appealing to moms who are reasonable, who are saying, "Hey, we all care about our kids, and we want best practices." You know the Moms Demand in Arkansas, they give out gun locks, they're not saying, "Don't have them!" They're saying, "If you can't afford a gun lock we will give you one. Be safe." And they have remarkable success, even in states where the NRA is kind of strong, by hitting that kind of mom.

So that's another example, and then a third one that's an idea that would love to see utilized more is to push Democrats to really make an appeal to independence — "We're our own state." We don't let the national party set our own agenda. We're independent and we make decisions for ourselves and what's best in New York may not be best here and that's OK. We often see that people who converting from R to D, tat takes a really long time. Usually people will go to being an independent, or they split-ticket vote.

So, giving them permission to say, "Do what's best for your state, look at each office. Don't be beholden to a party," I think that could really appeal to some folks in certain states where Democrats are really underwater, like Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. In other words, say, "The Mississippi Democratic Party is something different, and we gotta address the problems in Mississippi," and to be Mississippi-centric.

They say politics is local, right? I think that could be a strategy for Democrats in those kinds of states. Because Republicans in those states really do attach themselves to the national agenda, and it leaves that lane open. So I would think "Go local, go local, go local. What are things that Mississippi needs?" Infrastructure, for example. We have places that don't have broadband.

I would like to see some of the Southern states get real state-specific focus in their races and in their candidates, all the way down the ballot. The advantage Republicans had when they started trying to flip the South is that the Southern voters they were trying to flip were starting to align with the national party. With the Democrats, it's the opposite. The only thing you can do is build from the bottom up, have Democrats running in every city council race, for every school board office. Because whoever that person is, that extra hundred people who show up because they actually know that person personally, sometimes those ballots go up.

So I think in the South they're doing a fantastic job of recruiting quality candidates. I would give them an "A" on that — just really picking great people. We just need more of them. It's a hard thing to do to step up to run when you know you might get 35% of the vote. But Republicans did that. They lost and lost and lost and lost in some places, until they won.

You've already spoken to the advantages and disadvantages of the grassroots organizing that's going on. Is there anything else you'd like to say about that?

One of the big advantages that Republicans had when they're flipping the south is that the issues they were pitching lined up with some institutions that already existed in the South, the white churches. So when you already have that network like that inside, it helps. When you don't, you've got to build them, and not just for election season. So where are your civic organizations? Where are your social media groups? Where are your PTOs? What is already existing , and what can be built on it?

I think in a lot of ways, some of that's what Moms Demand has done with moms' groups, but you have to find those things whether it's farmer coops or HBCUs or whatever and not just reinvent the wheel. There are some groups that are concerned about agriculture, concerned about climate, concerned about different things, those are perfect opportunities, kind of the way labor unions were outside the South — because of course we don't have them. But coronavirus showed us restaurant workers associations, all kinds of civic and volunteer groups that have helped at the local level, they can be reached politically too.

Your book shows that the Southern strategy transformed the GOP as well as the South, and as a result, transformed national politics as well. Is there a parallel potential to be found in the bottom-up organizing that's going on in the South today?

Oh, definitely! It's a little different in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, and so on. Because one election cycle of going one way or the other is different than what you're seeing in Texas. Democrats in the South were in power for so long in the 20th century, they got complacent in maintaining that infrastructure and keeping people excited about the party, and keeping a deep bench of candidates and getting young people involved in the party, and being a presence beyond election season. So when they lost power, they didn't know how to play offense. So I think it's pretty important for other states like Michigan and Wisconsin not to rest on the fact that it's almost always been Democratic. They could fall into that same trap.

If I was in charge of the Democratic Party, I would go, "We need a full autopsy, where are we killing it, where are we starting to see fewer contested primaries, fewer people coming in, all of that." Even when you're winning, or even when you rarely lose, you can't get complacent with it. The coronavirus just emphasized that. If Biden actually wins in Georgia, it's going to be because Stacey Abrams was prepared and was thinking all of this through and had people on the ground ready to help people to their polling places and all of that. That just takes a lot of investment, and I hope the Democratic Party keeps investing in the South.

Anything more you'd like to say about what did or didn't happen in the South?

I'm glad to see them fighting on every ballot. Count every ballot. Because that's what Republicans would do. If you get Southerners to show up and vote for a Democrat, they want to see that person fight for that vote. And the margins matter. You lose a race 45-55, that's one thing. You lose it 48-52, now you've got a lot of Democrats thinking they can do it next time: "I can close that gap!" It's thankless work when you keep fighting and losing and I think what Stacey Abrams and Beto O'Rourke did very well is tell their supporters, "We're not giving up."

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

What did Southern white women do? And I don't know the answer yet. Hillary Clinton won white women outside the South by four points, and lost them in the South by almost 30. With all this talk about suburban women — I'm not questioning it, but I always want to say, "Are you talking about white suburban women? And where?" Because so many national polls under-sample the South, and if those white suburban women in the South moved, that's a story. But I don't think they did. So I understand the criticism of white women and their vote, but knowing that it's potentially a regional problem is really important for our understanding of the national picture, because there are a lot of white women working hard for progressive issues outside the South. In fact, there's a majority.

And think about it: If they can flip Texas, it's not just six electoral votes. That fundamentally changes the game. Do people think that's going to be easy?

We're so close to changing everything.

We're so close to changing everything and that's when it gets the hardest, when you're right there. Because they will throw up every obstacle they can and that's exactly when you have to fight harder, and not give up. And that's what we're going to do.

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