Paul Rosenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how has that broadened and changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere, Ingram denigrates freedom of speech and the press:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dark history of the 'Great Replacement'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for Carlson's bromance with Orbán, Scaminaci said:

Tucker Carlson is following a well-worn path. Orbán embraced this "Camp of the Saints" worldview and made it the centerpiece of his political strategy. Orbán and [Benjamin] Netanyahu were allies and white nationalists found encouragement in casting Israel as a white-settler enclave worth defending. When Donald Trump went to Poland in July 2017, he delivered a "Camp of the Saints" or "Great Replacement" speech.

There's another dimension to the story not yet mentioned, the "Eurabia" variation of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview, as explained by Scaminaci:

Trump and Orbán were following the path laid out by Egyptian-Jewish author Bat Ye'or in the 1990s. Ye'or, in her "Eurabia" writings, brought Jews and Christians together to fight against a Muslim invasion of Europe. Ye'or made common cause with proponents of the Serbian genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as did William Lind, the originator of fourth-generation war. This Serbian genocidal policy was then imported into the Republican Party and the Christian right. Tucker Carlson is just the latest in a long line of Bat Ye'or followers.

Kundnani's description of the evolution of neo-Nazi narratives into "counter-jihadist" narratives was framed in a European context, where multiparty democracies allowed extremists to use existing party structures to claw their ways into the political mainstream. America is locked into a two-party system that presents a different dynamic, and Nazi ideology was never strong in the U.S. So the lines weren't as clearly drawn and the evolution wasn't as obvious or direct. But a similar story can be told about American politics as well, Scaminaci said:

By now everyone is familiar with Lee Atwater's observation that the Republican Party used sanitized and abstract concepts like taxes rather than more crass and vulgar white supremacist terminology. GOP rhetoric from the 1980s up to Trump used sanitized code words to appeal to ... voters feeling their status was being threatened from below or they were being abandoned from above by Democratic Party elites.

Trump dropped the dog whistles [and] never abandoned his central narrative that his key strategist, Steve Bannon, had borrowed and pushed into the conservative media ecosystem, namely, the "Camp of the Saints" worldview. Trump may not be a true card-carrying white nationalist, but he's close enough that they immediately recognized him as a kindred spirit.

The "Camp of the Saints" worldview provides a new framework for conservatism, an overarching narrative that connects things together more tightly than postwar conservatives ever managed in the past. If "invading hordes of immigrants" are the enemy, and falling white birthrates are key to the problem, then the right's misogynist agenda and its xenophobic agenda are much more tightly linked than ever before.

Connections with Christian nationalism — an Old Testament-based worldview fusing Christian and American identities — are similarly strengthened. A 2018 paper, "Make America Christian Again," which I wrote about here in 2018, explained that "Christian nationalism … draws its roots from 'Old Testament' parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism."

In short, all the major electoral facets of American conservatism are more tightly unified by the "Camp of the Saints" worldview than they ever were, or ever could have been, in the days of William F. Buckley or Ronald Reagan. What's more, the practical need to suppress voters of color becomes a central ingredient.

As Scaminaci put it: "The underlying motivation of the Great Replacement and voter suppression is the same: Nonwhite voters are inherently illegitimate because they vote for an illegitimate political party that itself poses an existential threat to Western civilization or America or White America or White Americans, because it conspires with external nonwhites to destroy the country."

So the Great Replacement that has actually taken place is the replacement of the ideas, ideals and mores of conservatism. As debased and depraved as those had already become, they have now been supplanted by much darker principles, which have deadly real-world consequences and pose an existential threat to what remains of American democracy.

"The right wing wants to use the language of liberal democracy and of the Enlightenment," Scaminaci said in conclusion, "but the right wing is intellectually incoherent":

It no longer has a governing philosophy. Thus it must make its appeals to resentments, to frustrations, to anger and to fear, using liberal language in defense of Enlightenment values — while their arguments make little or no sense and cannot withstand scrutiny. But there is an underlying logic and that is the logic of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview. And they continue to develop rhetorical and narrative strategies to make that worldview palatable and electable.

Those rhetorical and narrative strategies will necessarily involve doublespeak, of which Tucker Carlson is a master. For example, in June, David Neiwert, author most recently of "Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us," called out Carlson for inverting the reality of demographic change in the Mountain West, in a further extension of replacement theory.

Carlson had suggested on his prime-time show that Montana, Idaho and Nevada now face "similar problems" to the demographic change right-wingers view as catastrophic in California: "The affluent liberals who wrecked California aren't sticking around to see how that ends. They're running to the pallid hideaways of Boise and Bozeman, distorting local culture and real estate markets as they do it."

Neiwert responded that as "a fourth-generation Idaho native with family in Montana, I can tell you that this is a complete inversion of the historic demographic reality in those places":

It could only be accurate if viewed from a very short-term perspective — and even then, it's wrong. Idaho and Montana have only become deep-red Republican states in the past decade or two. Prior to that, they were classic "purple" states, electing a mix of Democrats and Republicans. What changed that was an in-migration of right-wing voters.

We can expect more such gaslighting arguments in the days ahead. The far right now finds itself deeply at odds with the Western values it pretends to defend. Even if it has convinced the vast majority of conservative voters to go along, it can only hope to gain and hold power by standing those values on their heads — including, most fundamentally, the biblical value of not bearing false witness.

A social scientist's terrifying new theory: Fake news and conspiracy theories as an evolutionary strategy

Political misinformation — whether "fake news," conspiracy theories or outright lying — has often been attributed to widespread ignorance, even though there are numerous examples of 20th-century propaganda aimed at those most attentive to politics. Books like Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent" began to challenge that notion, as did the 1991 study of media coverage of the first Gulf War with the memorable bottom line, "the more you watch, the less you know." In the age of social media, scholarly explanations have shifted to discussions of "motivated reasoning," which could be defined by Paul Simon's line from "The Boxer": "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

But the ignorance perspective has a deep hold on us because it appeals to the Enlightenment notion that we are motivated to pursue truth. We are "the thinking animal," right? The important part of that expression may be "animal." Human beings have an evolutionary history, and deception is commonplace in the animal world because it confers evolutionary advantage. There's good reason to believe we're not so different, other than the fact that humans are ultra-social creatures. In ancestral and evolutionary terms, being part of a successful social group was every bit as essential as food and water. So deception among humans evolved from group conflicts. That's the thesis of a recent paper called "The Evolutionary Psychology of Conflict and the Functions of Falsehood" by the Danish political scientists Michael Bang Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen and American anthropologist John Tooby.

While the paper aligns with the "motivated reasoning" perspective, its focus goes deeper than the psychological mechanisms that produce and reproduce false information. These researchers are trying to elucidate the functions of those mechanisms, that is, to answer the question of why they evolved in the first place. I interviewed Petersen three years ago, about a previous paper, "A 'Need for Chaos' and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies," which was summarized on Twitter thusly: "Many status-obsessed, yet marginalized individuals experience a 'Need for Chaos' and want to 'watch the world burn.'" That paper provided crucial insight into prolific spreaders of misinformation and why they do what they do. But that individualist account was only part of the story. This new paper seeks to illuminates the evolutionary foundations and social processes involved in the spread of outright falsehoods. So I had another long conversation with Petersen, edited as usual for clarity and length.

Over the past decade or so, it's become more common to regard the spread of political misinformation, or "political rumors," as they're sometimes called, as the result of "motivated reasoning" rather than ignorance. But your new paper proposes a broad evolutionary account of the social functions behind that motivated reasoning. Tell me about what led you to writing it, and what you set out to do?

One of our major goals with this research is to try to understand why it is that people believe things that other people believe are completely bizarre. I think it's clear for everyone that that problem has gained more prominence within the last few decades, especially with the advent of social media. It seems that those kind of belief systems — belief in information and content that other people would say is blatantly false — is becoming more widespread. It can have some pretty dire consequences, as we could see for example with the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

So what we're trying to understand is, why people believe things that must be false. The traditional narrative is, 'Well if you believe false things, then you must be stupid. It must be because you haven't really made an effort to actually figure out what is going on." But over the last few decades, more and more research has accumulated that suggests that's not the case. In fact the people who are responsible for spreading misinformation are not those who know the least about politics. They actually know quite a lot about politics. In that sense, knowledge doesn't guard against believing things that are false.

What we're trying to do is to say, "Well, if it's not because people are ignorant, then what is it?" In order to understand that, we utilize the framework of evolutionary psychology, basically trying to understand: Could there be anything adaptive about believing false information? Could this in some way be functional? Is it actually sort of on purpose that false information is believed and spread, rather than being an accident?

Before you discuss human evolution, you have a section of nonhuman animals. What can we learn from deception and conflict in the animal world?

I think that's an important stepping stone, to look at the animal world, because most people would say that what animals do is the products of biological evolution, and has some sort of evolutionary advantage. And what we can see in animals is that they spread false information all the time when they are engaged in conflict.

One sort of obvious example is that animals try to appear larger than they are when they are engaged in conflict with other animals. That's, of course, to send a signal to the other animals that you shouldn't mess with me and if we actually get into a real fight I will win. So animals are trying to get an upper hand in conflict situations by making false signals.

So how does that change, or not change, when we look at humans?

First, that is also what we should expect that humans do, that if they can send false signals that are advantageous to them, then they should do it. What we then discuss is that there are certain constraints on the degree of falsehood in animal communication. That constraint is that communication systems evolved in the first place because they are a helpful for both individuals or both organisms involved in the exchange. So before a communication system can evolve it should be adaptive for the sender and for the receiver. That means that even in conflict situations you cannot set up blatant falsehoods. There are some kinds of reality constraints.

We are then saying that actually, in some situations, with regards to humans and human evolution, these constraints doesn't operate. That's because if we look at nonhuman animals, then the conflict is often between two individuals, but in human conflict it's often between two groups, and the members of one group, are cooperating with each other against the other group. That means there might be certain advantages, within one group, to spread misinformation and spread falsehoods, if that can give them an upper hand in the conflict with the other group. Then we go on to discuss a number of ways in which that might be true.

You identify three functions of information sharing: group mobilization for conflict, coordination of attention, and signaling commitment. You argue that accomplishing these goals efficiently is what gets selected, in evolutionary terms, not truth or veracity. Can you give an example of each, starting with mobilization?

When you want to mobilize your group, what you need to do is find out that we are facing a problem, and your way of describing that problem needs to be as attention-grabbing as possible before you can get the group to focus on the same thing. In that context, reality is seldom as juicy as fiction. By enhancing the threat — for example, by saying things that are not necessarily true — then you are in a better situation to mobilize and coordinate the attention of your own group. The key thing is that it may actually be to your group's advantage that if everyone is in agreement that we don't like these other guys, then we make sure that everyone is paying attention to this other group. So by exaggerating the actual threat posed by the other group, you can gain more effective mobilization.

The key to understand why this makes sense, why this is functional, is that one needs to distinguish between interests and attention. A group can have a joint set of interests, such as, "Well, we don't like this other group, we think we should deal with this other group in in some way." But on top of that interest or set of interests, there is the whole coordination problem. You need to get everyone to agree that this is the time to deal with that problem. It's now, and we need to deal with it in this way. It's in that sort of negotiation process where it can be in everyone's interest to exaggerate the threat beyond reality, to make sure that everyone gets the message.

You've more or less answered my next question about coordination. So what about signaling commitment? How does falsehood play a role there?

I think these are the two major problems, the mobilization on the one part and then the signaling on the other part. When you're a member of the group, then you need other group members to help you. In order for that to take place, you need to signal that, "Well, I'm a loyal member of this group. I would help you guys if you were in trouble, so now you need to help me."

Humans are constantly focused on signals of loyalty: "Are they loyal members of the group?" and "How can I signal that I'm a loyal member?" There are al sorts of ways in which we do that. We take on particular clothes, we have gang tattoos and all sorts of physical ways of expressing loyalty with the group.

But because we humans are exceptionally complex, another way to signal our loyalty is through the beliefs that we hold. We can signal loyalty to a group by having a certain set of beliefs, and then the question is, "Well, what is the type of belief through which we can signal that we belong?" First of all, it should be a belief that other people are not likely to have, because if everyone has this belief, then it's not a very good signal of group loyalty. It needs to be something that other people in other groups do not have. The basic logic at work here is that anyone can believe the truth, but only loyal members of the group can believe something that is blatantly false.

There is a selection pressure to develop beliefs or develop a psychology that scans for beliefs that are so bizarre and extraordinary that no one would come up with them by themselves. This would signal, "Well, I belong to this group. I know what this group is about. I have been with this group for a long time," because you would not be able to hold this belief without that prehistory.

I believe we can see this in a lot of the conspiracy theories that are going around, like the QAnon conspiracy theory. I think we can see it in religious beliefs too, because a lot of religious beliefs are really bizarre when you look at them. One example that we give in the text is the notion of the divine Trinity in Christianity, which has this notion that God is both one and three at the same time. You would never come up with this notion on your own. You would only come up with that if you were actually socialized into a Christian religious group. So that's a very good signal: "Well, that's a proper Christian."

Right. I was raised Unitarian. As a secular Jew in Northern California at that time, the only place we could have a home was a Unitarian fellowship. It was filled with secular Jews, definitely not "proper Christians."

Yes, I went to a private Catholic school myself, so I've been exposed to my portion of religious beliefs as well. But there's another aspect that's very important when it comes to group conflict, because another very good signal that you are a loyal member is beliefs that the other group would find offensive. A good way to signal that I'm loyal to this group and not that group is to take on a belief that is the exact opposite of what the other group believes. So that creates pressure not only to develop bizarre beliefs, but also bizarre beliefs that this other group is bad, is evil, or something really opposed to the particular values that they have.

This suggests that there are functional reasons for both spreading falsehoods, and also signaling these falsehoods. I think one of the key insights is that we need to think about beliefs in another way than we often do. Quite often we think about the beliefs that we have as representations of reality, so the reason why we have the belief is to navigate the world. Because of that, there needs to be a pretty good fit or match between the content of our beliefs and the features of reality.

But what we are arguing is that a lot of beliefs don't really exist for navigating the world. They exist for social reasons, because they allow us to accomplish certain socially important phenomena, such as mobilizing our group or signaling that we're loyal members of the group. This means that because the function of the beliefs is not to represent reality, their veracity or truth value is not really an important feature.

In the section "Falsehoods as Tools for Coordination" you discuss Donald Horowitz's book, "The Deadly Ethnic Riot." What does that tell us about the role of falsehood in setting up the preconditions for ethnic violence?

"The Deadly Ethnic Riot" is an extremely disturbing book. It's this systematic review of what we know about what happens before, during and after ethnic massacres. I read this book when I became interested in fake news and misinformation circulating on social media, and this was recommended to me by my friend and collaborator Pascal Boyer, who is also an evolutionary psychologist. Horowitz argues that you cannot and do not have an ethnic massacre without a preceding period of rumor-sharing. His argument is exactly what I was trying to argue before, that the function of such rumors is actually not to represent reality. The total function of the rumors is to organize your group and get it ready for attack. You do so by pointing out that the enemy is powerful, that it's evil and that it's ready to attack, so you need to do something now.

One of the really interesting things about the analysis of rumors in this book is that, if you look at the content of the rumors, that's not so much predicted by what the other group has done to you or to your group. It's really predicted by what you are planning to do to the other group. So the brutality of the content of these rumors is, in a sense, part of the coordination about what we're going to do to them when we get the action going — which also suggests that the function of these rumors is not to represent reality, but to serve social functions.

What I was struck by when I read Horowitz's book was how similar the content of the rumors that he's describing in these ethnic massacres all over the world, how similar that is to the kind of misinformation that is being circulated on social media. This suggests that a lot of what is going on in social media is also not driven by ignorance, but by these social functions.

One point you make is that to avoid being easily contradicted or discredited, these kinds of "mobilization motivations should gravitate towards unverifiable information: Events occurring in secret, far away in time or space, behind closed doors, etc." This helps explain the appeal of conspiracy theories. How do they fit into this picture?

When we look at falsehoods there is a tension. On one level, there is a motivation to make it as bizarre as possible, for all the reasons we have been talking about. On the other hand, if you are trying to create this situation of mobilization, you want the information to flow as unhindered as possible through the network. You want it to spread as far as possible. If you're in a situation where everyone is looking at a chair and you say, "Well, that chair is a rock," that's something that will hinder the flow of information, because people will say, "Well, we know that's really a chair."

So while there is this motivation or incentive to create content as bizarre as possible, there is also another pressure or another incentive to avoid the situation where you're being called out by people who are not motivated to engage in the collective action. That suggests it's better to develop content about situations where other people have a difficult time saying, "That's blatantly false." So that's why unverifiable information is the optimal kind of information, because there you can really create as bizarre content as you want, and you don't have the risk of being called out.

We see a similar kind of tactic when conspiracy theorists argue, "Well, we are only raising questions," where you are writing or spreading the information but you have this plausible deniability, which is also a way to avoid being called out. Conspiracy theories are notorious exactly for looking for situations that are unverifiable and where it's very difficult to verify what's up and what's down. They create these narratives that we also see in ethnic massacres, where we have an enemy who is powerful, who is evil and who is ready to do something that's very bad. Again, that completely fits the structure of mobilizing rumors that Horowitz is focusing on. So what we've been arguing, here and elsewhere, is that a lot of conspiracy theories are really attempts to mobilize against the political order.

In the section "Falsehoods as Signals of Dominance" you write that "dominance can essentially be asserted by challenging others," and argue that when a given statement "contradicts a larger number of people's beliefs, it serves as a better dominance signal." I immediately thought of Donald Trump in those terms. For example, he didn't invent birtherism, and when he latched onto it he didn't even go into the details — there were all these different versions of birther conspiracy theories, and he didn't know jack-shit about any of them. He just made these broad claims, drawing on his reputation and his visibility, and established himself as a national political figure. I wonder if you can talk about that — not just about Trump, but about how that works more generally.

Yes, I can confess that I too was thinking about Donald Trump when writing that particular section of the paper. So I will talk a little bit about Donald Trump, but I will get to the general case. I think one of the first examples for me of that tactic was during the presidential inauguration in 2017, where the claim was that there were more people at Trump's inauguration than Obama's inauguration, and everyone could clearly see that was false.

In the section "Falsehoods as Signals of Dominance" you write that "dominance can essentially be asserted by challenging others," and argue that when a given statement "contradicts a larger number of people's beliefs, it serves as a better dominance signal." I immediately thought of Donald Trump in those terms. For example, he didn't invent birtherism, and when he latched onto it he didn't even go into the details — there were all these different versions of birther conspiracy theories, and he didn't know jack-shit about any of them. He just made these broad claims, drawing on his reputation and his visibility, and established himself as a national political figure. I wonder if you can talk about that — not just about Trump, but about how that works more generally.

Yes, I can confess that I too was thinking about Donald Trump when writing that particular section of the paper. So I will talk a little bit about Donald Trump, but I will get to the general case. I think one of the first examples for me of that tactic was during the presidential inauguration in 2017, where the claim was that there were more people at Trump's inauguration than Obama's inauguration, and everyone could clearly see that was false.

Just to start with that particular observation, I think with that sort of denial — for example, "This is not racism, this is not sexism," or whatever — part of the function is again to have plausible deniability, whereby you can make sure that the information spreads, that everyone who needs to hear it will hear it and it's not really being blocked. Because you could say that outright racism or outright sexism would be something that would stop the spread of the information. So people who are in a mobilization context are always caught in this cross-pressure between making sure that the signal is as loud as possible, and that it is disseminated as widely as possible. Often there is this tension between the two that you need to navigate. I think looking at and understanding that conflict and that tension is an important theoretical next next step.

As we say numerous times in the chapter, this is a theoretical piece where we are building a lot of hypotheses which are in need of empirical evidence. So I think one important next step is to gain and develop the empirical evidence or empirical tests of these hypotheses, to see what actually seems to hold up, and what may be misguided.

One thing I'm very interested in personally is to to look into who uses these tactics more than others — who is most motivated to engage in these kinds of tactics to win conflict. This is a line of work that we have been studying, and one thing we are finding is that people who are seeking status are the most motivated to use these kinds of tactics to gain that status.

I always like to end by asking: What's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

I think the most important question that you may not have asked is this: We started out talking about motivated reasoning, so what is the difference between what we are bringing to the table, compared to the traditional theories of motivated reasoning? Those argue that you hold certain beliefs because they feel good. You like to believe certain things about your group because it gives you self-esteem. You like to believe the other group is evil because that also helps you feel good about your group. When social scientists have abandoned the ignorance argument for those kinds of beliefs and looked into social function, then they say, "Well, the social function of these beliefs is to make you feel good about yourself."

What we are saying is that while it is probably true that these beliefs make you feel good about yourself, that's not really their function, that's not their real purpose. We're saying that evolution doesn't really care whether you feel good or bad about yourself. Evolution cares about material benefits and, in the end, reproductive benefits. So the beliefs that you have should in some way shape real-world outcomes.

We are arguing that these false beliefs don't just exist to make you feel good about yourself, but exist in order to enable you to make changes in the world, to mobilize your group and get help from other group members. I think that's an important point to think more about: What it is that certain kinds of beliefs enable people to accomplish, and not just how it makes them feel.

Journalists who present GOP's attack on democracy as normal politics are complicit in Republican propaganda

The first witnesses in the House select committee's investigation of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack last week were clear about what its goals ought to be. Officer Harry Dunn put it most bluntly: "Get to the bottom of what happened. "If a hit man is hired and he kills somebody, [the] hitman goes to jail. But not only does the hitman go to jail, but the person who hired him does. There was an attack carried out on Jan. 6, and a hitman sent them. I want you to get to the bottom of that."

The others agreed. "We do need to get to the bottom of it," Sgt. Aquilino Gonell echoed. "Who incited, who brought those people here."

"That is what I am looking for, is an investigation into those actions and activities which may have resulted in the events of Jan. 6," said Officer Michael Fanone. "And also whether there was collaboration between those members, their staff and these terrorists."

"Fanone hit the nail on the head there," Officer Daniel Hodges followed up. "I need you guys to address if anyone in power had a role in this. If anyone in power coordinated or aided or abetted or tried to downplay, tried to prevent the investigation of this terrorist attack."

These were not partisan witnesses with a partisan agenda. They were law enforcement officers with a patriotic agenda. What they asked for was precisely analogous to what was asked for from the 9/11 Commission, whose example Democrats had originally hoped and tried to follow, only to be thwarted by Republican opposition, organized by House Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. What they asked for was a full accounting, to ensure that it would never happen again.

This ought to be utterly uncontroversial, especially for journalists, whose job it is to get to the bottom of things. But not anymore, it seems. Instead, the very existence of the hearings was treated as a partisan exercise of power, utterly contradicting the fact that Republicans had scuttled the balanced 9/11-style model Democrats had initially tried to advance. And much of this came from journalists who obviously knew better.

CNN's Chris Cillizza first excoriated McCarthy for his committee picks, correctly observing, "He has zero interest in getting to the bottom of what really happened (and why) when the US Capitol was stormed by rioters," and noting that Rep. Jim Jordan's proposed "presence on the committee ensures then is that it will be a circus." But the next day Cillizza turned amnesiac, with a piece headlined, "Nancy Pelosi just doomed the already tiny chances of the 1/6 committee actually mattering." Not only would the committee would be seen as partisan, Cillizza argued, but "you should give up on" any hope that it "might produce a report that would help us understand what happened in the lead-up to that day," without noting that this new claim directly contradicted what he'd written just the day before, about Jordan in particular.

With reactions like this, journalists violate something even more fundamental than getting to the truth — that is, getting the truth to the people. Seeking the truth just to know it for oneself isn't journalism. Journalism is a public profession, a civic profession. Its purpose is to make the world legible, so that citizens can make democracy work. It's about the making of common sense. That's why autocrats the world around throw journalists in jail. Or shut down news outlets altogether, like Apple Daily in Hong Kong. When it happens abroad, we have little trouble seeing it. In contrast, the purpose of propaganda is to make the world illegible, making it impossible for people to be effective citizens. We have little trouble seeing this when it happens abroad, particularly in such perceived global adversaries as Russia and China.

Yet this is what much of mainstream "journalism" is doing right now here at home: making the world illegible so citizens throw their hands up in despair. It couldn't come at a worse time. The GOP is trying to normalize Jan. 6, normalize Donald Trump's pathological destruction of democratic norms and institutions, and move toward the establishment of a competitive authoritarian system in place of electoral democracy. And the press, for its own muddled reasons, is helping them do this. Prominent media figures and institutions are normalizing the attempted slow-rolling overthrow of American democracy, and de facto allying themselves with Republicans by misreporting their fundamental hostility to democracy as just another bout of partisan warfare, in which both sides make equally serious, facially valid claims.

It's not easy to see this as propaganda, because we assume that propaganda comes from one side or another, whereas this "journalism" goes out of its way to "balance" both sides. But when both sides have been so profoundly different for so long, pretending otherwise can only make the world illegible, whether the issue is infrastructure, voting rights or the future of democracy itself. Critics have complained about such practices for decades, offering alternatives as well — see James Fallows' 1997 "Breaking the News" or Jay Rosen's 1999 "What Are Journalists For?" as classic examples.

But the widespread misreporting of McCarthy's attempted sabotage of the 1/6 investigation starkly casts things in a harsher light. This isn't simply "flawed" journalism. It isn't journalism at all. It's the opposite: It's propaganda. It actively undermines the capacity for understanding, and thus, for self-governance. It was aptly described as "The absurd coverage of the January 6 committee" in a particularly perceptive piece by Jon Allsop for the Columbia Journalism Review.

"Both sides" metastasized

"This is, indeed, bothsidesism as we've come to understand the term, insofar as it bent over backward to find Democratic culpability in a problem that Republicans created," Allsop writes, saying it represented "a slippage from a clear-cut understanding of the term" as previously understood, "the idea of false equivalence."

There was that, of course — coverage "casting it as part of a 'partisan brawl,' or juxtaposing soundbites from Pelosi and McCarthy without adding much context" — but there was also coverage that "committed far graver sins; arguably, the worst of it was so bothsidesy that it approached onesideism, scolding Democrats while letting Republicans off the hook."

Allsop goes on to note three particular problems, starting with Brian Beutler's observation of a perverse inequivalence: "the commonplace journalistic assumption that 'Republican bad faith … is just a feature of the landscape,' whereas a given Democrat is 'an actor with agency, and subject to scrutiny.'" Along the same lines, Beutler earlier wrote, "Baking the presumption of GOP bad faith into everything, rather than treating it as a series of choices by human agents, creates a kind of impunity (through exhaustion or savviness or whatever else) where it isn't even worth pressing them on their conduct."

Second, Mehdi Hasan's observation on "Pod Save America" that "in the eyes of many pundits, a given political development is often framed as being Bad News for Democrats, but not for Republicans." Third, there's the particular kind of what I'd call brain-dead analysis that, "taken on its own terms, [gets] lost down a series of empirical and logical dead ends."

Allsop cites a couple of examples: One was the claim that Pelosi set a dangerous precedent, when in reality, Republicans have repeatedly been willing to break precedent whenever it suited them, so the idea that "they need the cover of Democrats doing it first is absurd." The other was the discussion of "credibility," linked either to accepting insurrectionists onto the committee, or to criticizing Pelosi for destroying its bipartisan nature. This either ignores renegade Republicans like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger or discounts them based on "Alice in Wonderland" logic: "Such an analysis implies that, to satisfy the demands of bipartisanship, Republicans aren't Republican enough if they take seriously the thing the committee was created to take seriously. This, clearly, is circular, and self-defeating."

Allsop doesn't tie these different problems together, but that part is easy. It starts with "both sides" journalism treating both parties symmetrically, when they're fundamentally different in important ways. One way they differ is in terms of bad-faith politicking, which has grown especially pronounced since Newt Gingrich's speakership. Once the press accepted and normalized Gingrich's tactics, Democrats were at a perpetual disadvantage, so much so that framing anything "as being Bad News for Democrats, but not for Republicans" was simply a way of reflecting how much the game had been rigged in advance. Finally, the brain-dead analysis reflects the media's tendency to record and accept Republican descriptions of their fantasy world, and then to pretend it reflects reality.

Another feature or bug of the "both sides" approach is what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls "the savvy style," which he has described this way:

When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to "win." Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can … well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders' game invites the public to become "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement," which is strange. Or it lavishes attention on media performances, because the insiders are supposed to be good at that: manipulating the media.

This was always a bad idea, including when Rosen wrote that in 2011. But consider the last few decades, when the celebrated media performances go from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Gingrich to George W. Bush — and then to Trump and his eager sycophants.

By trying to be "balanced" and savvy — and maintaining the relationships on which insider-sourced journalism depends — the dominant media response has obscured what's obviously going on: Republicans are deeply complicit with Trump (even more so after Jan. 6) and adamantly opposed to a truth-seeking investigation.

All this happens, mind you, while the majority of journalists are Democrats. But it's not their party affiliation that most intimately impacts how they do their jobs. That comes predominantly from their professional ethics, which are misunderstood and under-scrutinized, as described in Jeremy Iggers' 1999 book, "Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Good," and from peer group pressures and expectations. Generations of right-wing attacks have taken their toll, resulting in deep-seated tendencies to bend over backward in order not to seem biased. Conservatives get to rail against the liberal media whenever they want, and the media responds by normalizing it — well, that's just what conservatives do! — while bristling at any criticism from the left.

"Both sides" rooted in asymmetric politics

The ethos of "both sides" "journalism" requires treating both parties symmetrically, but the two parties have never been symmetrical, as Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins showed in their 2016 book, "Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats" (Salon review here).

"The Democratic Party is focused on producing concrete solutions for citizens whereas the Republican Party is obsessed with conservative ideological purity," I wrote at the time. "This is useful for understanding how the nation got to a point of contemplating a possible Donald Trump presidency. (In the authors' view, Trump is the unintended product of a Republican Party purification process.)"

One key factor underlying this asymmetry was first fully documented in Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril's 1967 book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans." As I summarized in 2018, "At the level of individual opinion, more people identify as conservatives than liberals, and conservative ideology ('free markets,' 'limited government,' etc.) is more popular. But on the other side of the ledger, support for specific liberal policies like Medicare, Social Security and so on is even more lopsided." It was a disconnect the authors called "almost schizoid."

This fundamental difference explains a great deal, including the contrast between the Trump infrastructure train wreck and Biden's (so far) low-key success. Trump saw infrastructure as a symbolic signature issue, and reveled in staging a series of "infrastructure weeks," but couldn't marshal the technical know-how to get a functional deal done, and never even really tried. Biden and the Democrats, on the other hand, have been working on so-called "human infrastructure" issues for decades. The term itself is new for most, but the thinking behind it isn't. (Rosa DeLauro's almost 20-year campaign to advance the expanded child tax credit is a particularly striking example.) So they're better prepared for this legislative task than Republicans ever could be.

This basic reality is not just ignored, but actively obscured by "both sides" coverage. Take, for example, this short, telling passage from CNBC:

Republicans have so far refused to raise any corporate or individual taxes to offset the new funding, which will be added to an existing transportation bill for a total of $1.2 trillion. The White House, in turn, has refused to impose user fees on the improved highways and rails.

Nice, neat, symmetrical and factual, at least on the surface. But beneath the surface it's profoundly deceptive. User fees are regressive taxes, falling disproportionately on the poor and the working class, whose incomes have stagnated for decades now, with only brief periods of respite. Corporate and high-income individual taxes are progressive taxes, which were cut sharply under Trump, and are far below historical averages.

So that symmetrical formulation fails to describe an asymmetrical reality, which is reflected in public opinion as well. A mid-June survey conducted by Invest in America and Data for Progress (memo here) found that huge majorities of likely voters support "paying for new investments in infrastructure by making corporate taxes fairer" and "increasing taxes on individuals who earn more than $1 million a year on income from stocks and bonds and on individuals who earn more than $400,000 a year." by margins of 45-points and 38-points, respectively." That was no fluke; a mid-July AP/NORC poll had similar results.

Furthermore, "likely voters overwhelmingly oppose increasing user fees (like highway tolls) or the gas tax in order to fund infrastructure investments." So on both alternatives, the public overwhelmingly supports the Democratic position. But how many members of the public understand that, and what impact does that widespread consensus have, when the practitioners of "both sides" journalism do their utmost to obscure it, making it seem that the public must be evenly divided, aligned with whichever party they voted for in the last election?

The AP/NORC poll mentioned above also revealed remarkably strong support for all kinds of specific infrastructure spending, which is significantly at odds with the picture painted by media coverage of supposedly deadlocked Senate negotiations. Results range from 83% support for "roads, bridges and ports" to a low of 45% support (but only 29% opposition) for electric vehicle charging stations. Notably, funding for local public transit — which Republicans generally oppose — is supported by 61% to 14%, and funding for caregivers for the elderly — which Republicans also want to drop — is overwhelmingly popular, with 75% support. How different would American politics be if journalists made the will of the American people clear, rather than obscuring their substantial agreement on matters of fundamental public policy?

The asymmetry of bad faith

That's only the beginning. Let's return to "The Political Beliefs of Americans," whose authors called for an end to the "almost schizoid" disconnect they observed between broad ideology and specific policies:

There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people's wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.

That restatement never happened. Instead, the racist backlash to advancing civil rights provided a framework for sharply increased attacks on "big government," which liberals became increasingly reluctant to defend. At the same time, as explained in "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon interview here), the GOP focused on fragile, threatened identities — first around race, but then about gender and religion as well. Bad faith was central to this strategy—not just because these three identities were deeply rooted in the bad-faith mythology of the Lost Cause, but also because it depended on constantly raising the level of perceived threat.

Asymmetric bad faith took a quantum leap under Reagan, who slashed taxes dramatically while railing against deficits, a core GOP bad-faith dynamic ever since. It took another quantum leap under Gingrich, culminating in the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about an affair at the same time that Gingrich himself was covertly cheating on his second wife.

Bad faith has long since become pervasive throughout the GOP, and completely normalized by the press. Commenting on a recent Punchbowl News article about McConnell "taking a very hard line on the debt ceiling," Brian Beutler noted, "The bad-faith GOP strategy of threatening to tank the economy while Dems are in charge, based on pretexts Republicans plainly don't believe, and even though the Dems don't engage in the same kind of nihilism, is just presumed and unexamined (and, of course a problem for Dems)."

Bad faith can be found in Republican claims to be "the party of life" as they cheerfully spread COVID disinformation. Bad faith can be found in their claims to be "the party of law and order," while they heap contempt on the officers who defended the Capitol and want them to get to the bottom of that attack Bad faith can be found in their claims to be the party of patriotism, as they defend Confederate monuments and defending the Jan. 6 insurrectionists from scrutiny or consequences, paving the way for the next attempted overthrow of government.

When journalists cannot honestly report what is happening, when they normalize the ongoing destruction of democracy, they become complicit in it. When their posture of balance makes the world more illegible, so that democratic self-governance becomes all but impossible, they're no longer journalists. They have become propagandists, and cannot be allowed to define the standards of a profession they no longer practice.

The Christian nationalist assault on democracy goes stealth — but the pushback is working

In April 2018, researcher Frederick Clarkson exposed the existence of Project Blitz, a secretive Christian nationalist "bill mill" operating below the radar to shape and enact legislation in dozens of states, using a network of state "prayer caucuses," many of which had unsuspecting Democratic members. Its plan was to start with innocent-seeming bills, such as requiring public schools to display the national motto, "In God We Trust," and to culminate with laying the foundations for a "Handmaid's Tale"-style theocracy, enshrining bigotry in law under the guise of "religious freedom."

Salon was the first to report and build on Clarkson's findings, as well as subsequent progressive organizing efforts which eventually drove Project Blitz back underground, following a high-profile USA Today exposé (Salon follow-up here.) Now, three years later, Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, has unearthed the playbooks Project Blitz has used since going dark, and discussed their implications with Salon in an exclusive interview.

"The playbooks advise legislators to cloak their religious mission in the guise of more secular intentions and they've renamed several bills to make them sound more appealing," Clarkson reported at Religion Dispatches. But there's another, more hopeful message: These playbooks "also tell a story of the resilience of democratic institutions and leaders in the face of movements seeking to undermine or end them."

Clarkson told Salon, "While most people to the left of the Christian right view the Project Blitz playbook with revulsion, I see it as a gift to democracy. The playbook and their accompanying briefings and events laid bare their intentions and their game plan." Because of that, he continued, "We were handed a vital tool for the defense of democratic values and, arguably, the wider defense of democracy itself. The things that happened in response, I think, are underappreciated, even by some of those who should be taking great pride in their victories."

In particular, Clarkson said, "We were fortunate that Rachel Laser, the then-new president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recognized this right away and made taking on Project Blitz a signature campaign of her presidency." One highlight of Laser's work was "organizing dozens of national religious and civil rights organizations to issue a joint letter to state legislators opposing the anti-democratic, Christian nationalist intention" behind Project Blitz.

He also cited the webinars staged for various national groups by Alison Gill of American Atheists, Elizabeth Reiner Platt of Columbia University Law School and Clarkson himself, which "laid out the implications of the Project Blitz campaign," Clarkson said. (My reporting on that is here.) That in turn led to the formation of Blitz Watch, which focused attention on the continuing threat.

In Clarkson's article for Religion Dispatches, he writes, "In 2020, depending on how one counts, 92 bills were introduced, 8 of which passed. In 2021, so far, 74 bills have been introduced, 14 of which have passed, according to Blitz Watch." So Project Blitz is still in action, and still a threat. But it's not the massive and successful onslaught that its founders intended and hoped for — and the fact that it was forced into stealth mode shows how successful the pushback has been.

At the end of his story, Clarkson offers this summary:

The ongoing exposure and response to Project Blitz has taught us several things. First, that it's possible to stand up to and prevail against anti-democratic movements and measures, and that our democratic institutions are more resilient than they sometimes seem. Sen. John Marty showed that — when he spoke up for the integrity of his faith and stood down a national smear campaign led by Fox News, as noted earlier. Librarians and their allies showed that, even in the face of demagogic attacks on the competence and integrity of public libraries, state legislators could be made to see reason. Efforts since 2018 by scores of national organizations organized by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Blitz Watch, have also shown that it's possible to defend democracy and its institutions against a secretive and formidable opponent of democratic values, and of democracy itself. What's more, journalism has once again shown that sunlight remains the best disinfectant.


Elaborating on this last point, Clarkson told Salon, "Scores of national media outlets covered either Project Blitz directly, or covered the patterns of bills introduced in legislatures across the country, especially the most common, In God We Trust bills…. Thus Project Blitz was exposed as part of wider problem of manipulation of state legislatures, and found itself compared to the tobacco and the pornography industries as corruptors of democratic institutions."

What's equally important is that these lessons can also provide tools and strategies to counter the right's latest culture war offensive — the racist backlash flying under the banner of fighting "critical race theory." Although the two campaigns are dissimilar in some respects, in both cases the right is defending a founding myth (America as a "Christian nation," or America as a flawless "beacon of liberty") and perverting or taking hostage a progressive value to claim it as their own (religious freedom or racial equality). In both cases, the reliance on blatant deception tells us that conservatives themselves understand that progressives hold the stronger hand. The right may be more mobilized now — just as it was before Project Blitz was first exposed — but it won't win if progressives can learn, and adapt, the lessons of their recent success.

As Clarkson first reported, Project Blitz originally divided its bills into three tiers. The first tier aimed at importing the Christian nationalist worldview into public schools and other aspects of the public sphere. A signature example is display of the motto, "In God We Trust," a Cold War replacement for "E pluribus unum" — out of many, one — which better reflects America's pragmatic, pluralist foundations.

The second tier, "Resolutions and Proclamations Recognizing the Importance of Religious History and Freedom," aimed at making government a partner in "Christianizing" America, largely by promoting bogus historical narratives. For example, Clarkson told me, the model "Civic Literacy Act and the Religion in History Acts," required the study or posting of "the founding documents" in the public schools, but with a twist:

"Curiously, the Mayflower Compact is included as a founding document," he said, "but there is no mention of the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty [the law Thomas Jefferson wrote which served as the model for the First Amendment] ... because it throws a monkey wrench into the Christian nationalist narrative, which seeks to link Christianity and national identity from the British colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth to the present."

The third tier contained three types of proposed laws that "protect" religious beliefs and practices specifically intended to benefit bigotry. "Although category three is divided in three parts, you could also see it as having two main underlying intentions," Clarkson explained in a later story. "First to denigrate the LGBTQ community, and second to defend and advance the right to discriminate. This is one way that the agenda of theocratic dominionism is reframed as protecting the right of theocrats to discriminate against those deemed second-class, at best. As the late theocratic theologian R.J. Rushdoony said, 'Only the right have rights.'"

The basic structure of Project Blitz's agenda hasn't changed much, but its presentation has. "The 2020-2021 playbook offers slicker arguments than previous years," Clarkson notes. "For example, they deny that they seek a theocracy, try not to be overtly Christian, present secular arguments for their legislation and attempt to give the appearance that they respect religious pluralism. But they don't quite succeed."

The contradictions he notes are not surprising. Authors of these proposed laws insist, for example, that they're not out to "change our model of government into a theocracy" and that the bills don't "mimic or enact any particular religious code." But the inclusion of "The Ten Commandments Display Act" isn't very convincing on that score. They further insist that the model bills promote "religious tolerance" and "do not force any religion on anyone," yet the "National Motto Display Act" calls for the posting of the Christian religious slogan "In God We Trust" in public schools and buildings. Still they allege that "tolerance [is] sorely lacking in those who reject various aspects of religious teaching," an old talking point that frames rejection of imposed religion in public spaces as "intolerance."

That last point is another example of how the right attempts to usurp progressive values and turn them on their heads. It also represents an attempt to erase religious liberals, progressives and radicals from the public sphere, by pretending that only "secular humanists" can possibly oppose what they are doing.

The 2019-2020 playbook was more narrowly focused, dealing only with bills related to sexual orientation and gender identity. That made sense, since it was the rapid shift in public attitudes around LGBTQ rights that put the religious right into its current defensive posture, out of which it conceived its counter-offensive: recasting religious bigotry as a defining feature of faith, and claiming a right to discriminate as an essential aspect of "religious freedom." The fact that the other tiers were dropped from the 2019-2020 playbook is a tell of sorts — but of course the playbook's authors never expected it to become public.

The 2020-2021 playbook returned to the full three-tier format, under a new rubric of "categories," adding two additional ones. "Category 4 offers 'talking points to counter anti-religious freedom legislation,' which is simply a breakout of the talking points previously included in other sections," Clarkson notes, while "Category 5 provides four new model policies dealing with prayer in public settings — three for public school settings and one for municipal settings, such as city council meetings."

One important new ingredient

One new bill that Clarkson draws attention to would criminalize libraries and librarians, and became infamous even before Project Blitz adopted it:

The "Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act," introduced by then-freshman Missouri State Rep. Ben Baker (R-Neosho), ignited a state and national controversy in January 2020 shortly after he took office. …
His bill sought to create "parental review boards" with the authority to "convene public hearings" and restrict access to anything they deemed "age-inappropriate sexual materials." Not only would their decisions be "final," but the bill also prescribed fines or jail for librarians who "willingly" violated board decrees regarding what is inappropriate, and included the potential state defunding of libraries accused of violating the statute.

This bill is deceptive in two key ways. First, as Clarkson notes, it "feigns a democratic method to achieve an anti-democratic result." These board members wouldn't be chosen in a general election, but by voters who show up in person at a scheduled public meeting where the issue is raised. "Thus the boards could be elected by small groups of zealots able to pack an otherwise routine evening meeting of a town council," Clarkson writes. These boards would then be given powers to overrule existing library boards, which are either democratically elected or appointed by democratically elected officials. In short, this is an attack on local democratic control, the very principle it pretends to embody.

The second deception is over the term "age-inappropriate sexual materials," since the impetus for the original bill wasn't about sexual content at all, but rather gender representation:

Baker said he was originally concerned about the popular-but-sometimes-controversial Drag Queen Story Hour in libraries and bookstores around the country.
Drag Queen Story Hour describes its events simply as "drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools, and bookstores … [where] kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress up is real."

Baker sees something more sinister at work. Any break in rigid gender stereotypes is inherently subversive to his snowflake sensibilities, as he explained to the New York Times: "What inspired this bill is becoming aware of what is taking place at our publicly funded libraries with events like Drag Queen Story Hour, and materials that have a clear agenda of grooming our children for the L.G.B.T.Q. community with adult themes and content that fit the description of a objectionable sexual nature."

In this worldview, any breakdown in rigid gender stereotypes is associated with "grooming our children" for the LGBTQ community," a trope used by the right dating back at least to the Eisenhower-era John Birch Society, when scientific knowledge about gender orientation and identity was virtually nonexistent. Not only does this lack any scientific credibility, it's also a hysterical overreaction, since no one is forced to attend Drag Queen Story Hour. If this law were passed, as an official with American Library Association warned, not just Drag Queen Story Hour could be censored, but also displays relating to Pride Month, Black History Month and other specific commemorations.

This attempted intrusion into local library politics is just one example of how Project Blitz overlaps with the new wave of white backlash under the banner of fighting "critical race theory." For several decades, he right has repeatedly mobilized to take over nonpartisan school boards, and occasionally library boards, as a way of building grassroots power and grooming candidates for higher office. Such elections usually have low turnout and relatively little campaign organization, which makes them attractive targets for extremists running scare-tactic campaigns. The parental oversight bill takes things one step further by empowering small activist groups who invadie local government meetings, but the organizing principle is the same: Use fear and stealth to seize power, and use simulated democratic legitimacy to advance a divisive, reactionary agenda.

These library-centered battles served to underscore a broader point that Clarkson made to Salon. "When people are invested in democratic institutions like public libraries, or any aspect of government, it is important not to 'other-ize' government, which in a democratic society is intended to be an expression and function of what we need and want to do together, and is necessarily an expression of democratic values," Clarkson said.

"That librarians and allies around the country rallied to the defense of the archives of democratic knowledge, culture and practice is a case example of how we need not be bullied by Christian right demagoguery. Screechy charges may make headlines and bring in ad revenue on right-wing talk radio, but most people, most of the time, do not want their schools and libraries messed with by authoritarian bigots and mobs of the easily led."

Reflecting on lessons learned

Exposure was the key to success, according to two important figures in this struggle, both mentioned above. Rachel Laser is president of Americans United For Separation of Church and State, and Alison Gill is vice president for legal and policy matters at American Atheists.

"To oppose Project Blitz effectively, we first had to raise awareness about this campaign," Gill said.

"Project Blitz's strategy was to start with seemingly less controversial legislation that organizers thought they could slip past the public," Laser said, "then build to even more harmful, more controversial bills. They had some success early on. But once we exposed that strategy and people became aware of Project Blitz and its agenda of codifying Christian nationalism, the initiative began to unravel, because people don't want to force religious beliefs on public schoolchildren and they don't want our laws to license discrimination in the name of religious freedom."

Gill focused more on exposing the secretive workings behind the Project Blitz operation. "At first, the campaign worked discreetly and without broadcasting their intentions to lure unsuspecting lawmakers into state prayer caucuses," she said. "These caucuses then provided a structure with which to pursue the Project Blitz legislation. By elevating the campaign to media and lawmakers, highlighting its connection to Christian nationalism and showing that these bills were not organically driven by in-state interest, we succeeded in neutralizing their advantage."

Gill cited two other lessons as well. "Our work to oppose Project Blitz reinforced the importance of cross-movement collaboration," she said. "Project Blitz is a campaign that targets civil rights in multiple fields — LGBTQ equality, access to reproductive services and religious equality — and so coordination with organizations across affected movements was required to effectively oppose it."

That took time and crucial information, Laser added: "It wasn't until we learned of the Project Blitz playbook and their organizing strategy that we were able to build a coalition of allies to fight this movement at its source, rather than only state by state and bill by bill."

Gill cites the pooling of resources as another important factor. "Project Blitz provided Christian nationalist lawmakers and activists with all the tools they needed in one place to pursue these bills and flood state legislatures with harmful legislation," she said. "However, the resources necessary to oppose these varied bills were scattered and less organized, so initially the opposition work was less cohesive. By bringing advocacy and messaging resources together at BlitzWatch.org, we helped ensure that lawmakers and advocates opposing Project Blitz had access to all of these tools."

More worrisome than Project Blitz itself, Gill said, are the forces behind it. "The same forces pushing forward Project Blitz have now seized upon new issues, and they are already flooding state legislatures with dangerous model bills," she said. "There were at least four major waves of harmful legislation propagated in 2021: anti-trans youth legislation, religious exemptions to COVID-related public health protections, broad denial-of-care bills, and bills that undermine abortion access."

Of those, she says the most dangerous element is a "renewed emphasis on Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) measures at the state level. RFRAs create a limited exemption from state laws whenever religious organizations say that their activities are burdened. RFRAs have been used to attack nondiscrimination protections, access to contraception and abortion, and even child labor laws."

Such laws were a major focus of conservative activism during Barack Obama's presidency, although "none were successfully passed after significant public setbacks in 2015 in states like Indiana," Gill noted. "In the wake of the pandemic and state-imposed public health restrictions," she said, "activists have rebranded these bills as necessary to protect churches from government overreach." Three states — Arkansas, Montana and South Dakota — passed RFRAs this year, and we should expect to see many more coming in 2022, she warns.

It's also important to consider how these lessons can be applied to the racist backlash formulated around the bogeyman term "critical race theory," which Fox News has repeated thousands of times without ever clearly defining it. This can be seen in the state legislative map as well. Chalkbeat has tracked efforts in 27 states to "restrict education on racism, bias, the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history, or related topics," compared to efforts in 12 states to expand education. Brookings reports that seven states have passed such laws, though only one explicitly mentions "critical race theory." Brookings lists actions taken by state boards of education, other state actors and local school boards as well. So the scope of right-wing activism is clear, as is the need for an effective response.

For Laser, the parallels are clear. "White Christian nationalism is the belief that America is and must remain a Christian nation founded for its white Christian inhabitants, and that our laws and policies must reflect this premise," she said. "They completely reject church-state separation. White Christian nationalists oppose equality for people of color, women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and the nonreligious.

"The same white Christian nationalist ideology that is behind Project Blitz is also driving the backlash against a deliberate caricature of critical race theory," she continued. "Therefore, a similar strategy to the one that has hamstrung Project Blitz — recapturing the narrative about our nation's ideals, exposing the real intent of the extremists, making clear how their agenda harms freedom and equality for all of us, and bringing together a diverse coalition of people and groups to speak out against this harmful movement — should be part of the strategy to combat opponents of racial justice."

Gill sees similarities, but differences as well. "Both campaigns are similar in that they focus on redefining and manipulating language for political advantage — 'religious freedom' and 'critical race theory,' respectively," she said. "However, there are also significant differences. The anti-CRT campaigns seem at once better funded and less organized than Project Blitz. Moreover, there is a degree of moral panic associated with the anti-CRT efforts that was not as present for Project Blitz."

Still, she offered three specific lessons learned from the resistance to Project Blitz:

  1. Raise awareness about the anti-CRT campaign and bring to light where it came from, who is funding it and for what purposes.
  2. Build collaboration between the various sectors that support diversity education in schools to push back against anti-CRT efforts. Successful coalitions must include educators, experts in diversity education, political leaders, civil rights leaders, parents and students.
  3. Ensure that tools and messaging to oppose anti-CRT efforts are effective and widely available.

If America's founding was really "as pristine as the religious myth requires it to be," Clarkson observed, "it cannot be marked by the racism and genocide that the facts of history reveal. History is thus an existential crisis for Christian nationalist beliefs. That's why history must be revised and the evils that mark so much of our history be erased, rather than acknowledged and addressed. The attack on the straw man of CRT is of a piece with what we might call the purification of American history in the name of God's history."

But history and politics tend to be messy, not pure. "The Christian right, supported in part by the Project Blitz playbooks, is using — and mastering — the tools and institutions of democracy in order to erode or end them," Clarkson said. "They know that well-organized factions can win elections, beginning with low-turnout party primaries, and that the Christian Right minority can gain the mantle of democratic legitimacy by out-organizing those of us who actually believe in it." So it's up to "everyone to the left of the Christian Right," as Clarkson puts it, to mobilize for democracy.

"This includes identifying some common approaches to history, as well as religious freedom, which will remain a battleground," he said, "as well as better approaches to electoral organization at all levels of government. This will mean jumping into electoral democracy with both feet, and learning the mechanics and calendar of electoral democracy." This may mean, he warns, avoiding the distractions of cable news, social media and other forms of entertainment in favor of real-world organizing. "To borrow from and with apologies to the late Gil Scott-Heron," Clarkson said, "the mobilization will not be televised."

An edition of the Bible aimed at right-wing evangelicals has quietly scrubbed references to slavery and 'the Jews'

Long before Donald Trump made attacks against "political correctness" a key theme of his 2016 election campaign, evangelical leaders like Wayne Grudem, author of "Systematic Theology", have railed against it, particularly when they see it invading their turf — with gender-neutral language in Bible translations, for instance. But a new study by Samuel Perry, co-author of "Taking America Back for God" (I've previously interviewed his co-author, sociologist Andrew Whitehead), finds Grudem himself involved in much the same thing.

"Whitewashing Evangelical Scripture: The Case of Slavery and Antisemitism in the English Standard Version," looks at how successive translations have changed in the English Standard Version of the Bible, for which Grudem serves on the oversight committee.

In revisions from 2001 through 2016, Perry shows, the word "slave" first gains a footnote, then moves to the footnote and then disappears entirely — in some contexts, like Colossians 3:22, though not others — to be replaced by the word "bondservant," which could be described as a politically correct euphemism. A similar strategy is used to handle antisemitic language as well, Perry shows.

It's one thing for politicians to hypocritically switch positions mid-air, or hold contradictory positions simultaneously, but it's quite another thing for theologians — or at least it's supposed to be. Evangelical Christians in particular are supposed to revere the literal truth of the Bible, not fiddle around with it to make it sound better to contemporary audiences. So Perry's findings deserve much wider attention, which is why Salon reached out to discuss what he discovered and what to make of it. The interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Your paper examines how a recent Bible translation was successively revised to tone down and ultimately erase language supporting slavery and antisemitism — in effect, to make the Bible more "politically correct," more in tune with contemporary moral sensibilities, although those doing so would surely object to that characterization. How would you characterize their work?

It's a fascinating story. All Bible translations have to navigate these waters, so the English Standard Version is really just an example of it, and they're kind of a fascinating example because they have marketed themselves as an essentially literal translation that resists the PC push. The general editor, Wayne Grudem, had for years denounced contemporary Bible translations, like the New International Version, for doing those kinds of things: becoming PC, changing the language to conform to modern sensibilities, that kind of thing, especially with regard to gender.

So for years they have said, "Hey, we're not going to translate certain things in a gender-neutral fashion, because we want to be as literal as possible, and if you like that it's capitulating to the feminist PC culture." So ESV has marketed themselves as a very popular evangelical translation that is used most faithfully by complementarian Protestant Christians for that reason: because it's conservative and because it's supposed to be literal.

But at the same time, the fact that that the "slave" language in the New Testament is so obvious creates a real apologetics problem, because of all this talk about "slaves obeying your masters," and how slaves should subject themselves not only to good masters but bad masters, and how slaves should stay in the station of life where they were called. It creates this really ugly impression of the New Testament, and especially Paul advocating for slavery.

So what you can see in the English Standard Version is that with each successive wave, from the 2001 revision of the Revised Standard Version to the 2011 revision and then finally in 2016, our most recent revision, was that they started by introducing a footnote in 2001 to the "slave" word, and then in 2011 they replace the slave word and put it in a footnote, and then they said, "We're going to call this a bondservant. So it's different from a slave."

By 2016 they didn't use slave language at all. If you read that translation you would have no idea that the original translation — and I think the most appropriate translation — would be "slave." All you see is this kind of Christian-used churchy word "bondservant," which you never hear outside of a biblical reference. Nobody knows what that means, but it's a way that the English Standard Version and other Bibles like it can kind of say, "Hey, these are slaves, but they're not real, real slaves. They're not really bad slaves like we think of in the antebellum South, like chattel slavery. It's something different."

So they're changing the text on one hand, while pretending to be more faithful on the other?

Yes. What I write about this in this article is an example of the way evangelical Bibles try to do both things. On the one hand they're trying to appeal to people within their community, and to say, "Hey, we interpret the Bible faithfully and consistently," but at the same time, they're also trying to translate such that they can avoid charges that the Bible is socially regressive and condones oppressive relationships and is socially or culturally backward. So this is kind of an example of that.

In previous studies, I showed how the English Standard Version, in particular, had actually taken the Revised Standard Version of 1971 and made the gender language more conservative. So what they did with the slave language, they did the opposite with the gender language. They actually made gender language more complementarian, more about men's and women's roles, and that kind of thing.

So ultimately this is a broader project of mine on demonstrating how really Bibles are constructed by individual choices by groups who have incentives. I don't mean incentives monetarily, though sometimes money is involved, like the consumer market. All these Bibles have to sell. But oftentimes there are culture-war issues going on. They want to be able to demonstrate, "Hey, the Bible is not culturally regressive. Look, there's no slave language at all!" Or they want to be able to say that the Bible endorses women submitting to their husbands: "Look how clear it is right here!"

So what you can do is just adjust the language here and there in the translation and make it back your own theological preference, or the preference of the people you're trying to market that Bible to. And this is fascinating thing. It's so interesting when you think about how fluid the language can be, based on whatever purposes you need, whoever you're marketing that Bible to.

But that's part of a much broader phenomenon, isn't it? I mean, you specifically say that it's not unique.

Let me give you another example. This is one I don't talk about in the article. The English Standard Version has been adopted recently by the Gideons — you know, the people who put Bibles in hotel rooms. So for years, the King James Version was the Gideon Bible. They later moved to the New King James, but since 2012 the Gideons weren't going to use the King James anymore, they were going to use the ESV.

They worked out a deal with Crossway, the makers of the ESV, to adjust some of the language in the ESV to conform to the preferences that the Gideons wanted, because they had always had the King James Version and they liked that. So certain verses and texts in the ESV were modified to conform to the preferences of the Gideons, who were going to buy massive amounts of Bibles and wanted to bring it into greater conformity with the KJV. They're not drastic changes, yet the ESV folks were willing to compromise on the language. It was like, "Hey, if this is what your group needs, sure. We'll move some stuff to footnotes, we'll change stuff around here and there."

There's all kinds of things that go on like that, but in the example I'm talking about here it's about how this particular Bible which has a reputation for being anti-PC is pretty clearly moving toward greater political correctness, so that they can avoid the charges of promoting slavery.

What about the issue of antisemitism? That was handled differently but along similar lines, was it not?

Again, Wayne Grudem is a culture warrior. Within the last five years he became kind of a shill for Donald Trump. He went on record several times to talk about why Christians should vote for Trump, and wrote a shocking, breathtaking article where he argued that he didn't think Trump had ever intentionally lied. He said, like, Trump may bend the truth or may not know all the facts, but he never intentionally lied, which makes my head explode.

So Wayne Grudem is a culture warrior, politically active, a very conservative anti-PC guy. He had for years argued against any change. Especially in the Gospel of John, there's lots of instances where John talks about this group that literally is translated as "the Jews." That's exactly what he's saying, he's saying "the Jews." But if you actually read the things that he's saying about this group called "the Jews," it's really ugly. They are chasing the apostles around, they're persecuting Jesus, they're scheming, they're looking for an opportunity to kill him. They just look like murderous, scheming people. Paul does this several times as well. So most modern New Testament translations have modified that language. They don't translate that word as "the Jews" anymore because it sounds blatantly antisemitic. What they do is they translate it, like, "Jewish leaders" or "religious leaders" or something like that, so they specify, these are the bad ones, these aren't all the Jews.

But the ESV and Wayne Grudem have for years said, "Oh, you guys are PC wimps for doing that." But the editorial committee of the ESV has realized over time that it looks really, really ugly. So what they've had to do is to introduce footnotes over time, where they can qualify when they use that word "the Jews." They do it strategically, because it's not every time you see the word "the Jews." But every time you see the words "the Jews" and the context is "Hey, this is a really bad group of people," they put an asterisk there, and a footnote that says, "Hey, no, John is not referring to all the Jews. This is probably just a group of religious leaders who are persecuting Jesus and his followers."

These are just examples of how Bibles get modified and adjusted in order to make them more palatable and attractive, and by extension make Christianity more palatable and attractive. That's the end goal, and part of it is about making that Bible more usable and user-friendly. In a broader scheme, these people are Christians and they want people to find Christianity attractive too. They want to be able to guard against accusations that Christianity is OK with slavery and antisemitism. So you've got to head that accusation off by helping your people out a little bit, putting a footnote in there, changing the language.

You begin your article by saying, "Religious communities in pluralistic societies often hold in tension the task of reinforcing core identities and ideals within the community while negotiating public relations among those outside the community." You add, "Christian communities have sought to accomplish both projects materially through Bible modification." The first task is accomplished via what scholars have called "transitivity." What does that mean?

Transitivity is not my word. That was come up with by a scholar named Brian Malley, who is a cognitive anthropologist. About 20 years ago he wrote a great and, I think, very underrated book called "How the Bible Works." One of the things he writes about is how evangelical Bible study isn't really an attempt to get meaning out of the text, as if people were coming to it like blank slates. What happens within a group context is that groups come to the Bible with theological presuppositions. They already have an idea what the Bible is. What they do together is they basically try to explain how the text that they are reading affirms what they already believe.

So they'll come to the text and they'll find a verse and they'll try to fit that verse within their broader scheme. "OK, this is what we think God is all about, this is what we know he likes and prefers, this is what we believe." This is why you end up with so drastically different readings of the Bible. This is why when Democrats come to the Bible, Jesus ends up looking like a Democrat and when Republicans come to the Bible, he sure does look like a Republican. We oftentimes just bring our own biases and lenses and interpret a passage of scripture with that. So transitivity, and how Bible translations really reinforce this transitivity project, is because they can adjust the content of the Bible to support what the community already believes.

This is a more general process, right? It's not just the ESV?

This isn't just the English Standard Version, this is all of these translations. Really blatant examples would be things like the 1995 project called "The New Testament and Psalms, An Inclusive Version." This translation team took the New Revised Standard Version and said, "You know what, we don't believe that God would want to translate anything that would support racism, antisemitism, ableism or any kind of gender identity at all." So they went through that Bible and they removed all traces of gendered language — God is no longer "father," he is "a parent" or "father/ mother," Jesus is not "the son," he's "the child." So they made the Bible conform to their own beliefs of what they felt God would like and God would want. That was an example of a transitivity project. They were making the Bible conform to their own views, and ESV has also done that with respect to gender. They made the gendered language of the RSV more conservative, so that it would back up their own theological and cultural preference.

You have coined a new term, "intransitivity." What does that mean, and what's a good example?

The gendered language of the ESV is a transitivity move, making the text conform to your own tribal or cultural positions. "Intransitivity" refers to the idea that you're trying to eliminate the possibility of a negative evaluation of your own group or the Bible by translating a passage in a more culturally acceptable way. Establishing intransitivity means you're trying to cut off the possibility of a negative social interpretation.

So retranslating those passages about "the Jews" to be about "religious leaders" or "the Jewish leaders" or that kind of thing is an intransitivity project. It is a move to be able to cut off outsiders who say, "Hey Christianity is antisemitic and the Bible is antisemitic." They can say, "No, that's not how the verses read." The same with the slavery example. You cut off the negative social interpretations by saying "No, these are 'bondsmen,' not slaves."

You go on to say that this study examines the ways evangelical translation teams seek to accomplish both agendas simultaneously — the transitivity and intransitivity agendas — creating a "materialized instantiation of engaged orthodoxy." What does that mean?

"Engaged orthodoxy" is the sociologist Christian Smith's term. A little over 20 years ago he talked about evangelicals as this unique group, in that they hold two ideas in tension. One is that they want to be different from the culture and they want to have distinct theological identities, so they value theological conservatism. It's self-policing. You can see this now, it's the most obvious thing in the world. All the debates are about, you know, are we leaving our orthodox theological roots by coming to be more culturally adaptive or "woke" or whatever?

So evangelicals want to be orthodox, and they desire that aggressively. And yet a part of evangelical identity is also that we are not retreating from the world, we are engaging the culture. You can call it culture warfare, and that's part of it, but there's a mandate to transform the culture with the gospel. So engaged orthodoxy is this idea that we are fighting for cultural distinctiveness and orthodox theology, yet at the same time we are engaged in the fight, we are trying to influence people who are outsiders with the gospel, with the Bible and with our culture.

So when I say a "materialized instantiation of engaged orthodoxy," what I mean is that through both of these moves with the Bible — they're trying to modify the Bible to make it conform to their own theologically conservative faith, while at the same time modifying other parts of the Bible to avoid negative characterizations of the Bible and their faith — they're engaging in this process of engaged orthodoxy. They're trying to be orthodox and conservative, while at the same time not trying to put up unnecessary barriers to people finding the faith attractive. So they want to be conservative, but they don't want to be blatantly racist or blatantly oppressive, that's just too far, that's too much.

Yes. That sounds tricky!

They really find themselves in a pickle sometimes because of examples like Wayne Grudem, who trashes PC Bible modification, and says, "Hey, we need to be conservative and literal," yet at the same time they don't want to translate things too literally, because it ends up looking pretty negative if you're talking about slave language or antisemitism. So they have to be subtle, which is one of the reasons why they don't necessarily announce all the changes that they make. They just change stuff sometimes. Sometimes they announce it, sometimes they explain it. Other times they just kind of do it. They make changes and don't really broadcast that, because they want to make people feel like "Hey, this the Bible, not something that is our little project that we keep on modifying."

You draw attention to the fact that changes were made to the ESV in 2001 without being talked about, but then in 2011 they actually announced it in the preface. What did they say in that preface, and what did that accomplish?

In the preface they started to telegraph that they're going to change some of the slave language and gave a little bit of the reasoning. But the reasoning they provide is intended to support the change that they wanted to make for, I think, more politically correct kinds of reasons. So they're trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to be characterized as a literal translation that is faithful and they don't want to come across as capitulating to the culture or being politically correct, Grudem really backs them into a corner that way.

They don't sell to their target audience of conservative evangelicals on the basis of being politically correct; they sell because they're literal or because they're faithful. So what they were trying to do in that preface was explain that these words for slave in the Old Testament and New Testament—in the Old Testament it's ebed, and in Greek, in the New Testament, it's doulos. So what they're arguing in the preface is that, hey, in the Old Testament and the New Testament, sometimes that slave language, those words, could be used to define a broad spectrum of relationships. Sometimes it describes people who are legitimately like slaves, and other times it describes something more like a servant or a bondservant, somebody who's not necessarily volunteering for it, but who could benefit from the relationship and earn money, and even get their freedom someday.

So they're trying to set the reader up to say, "We sometimes translate these words differently depending on the context," because sometimes what they feel the authors have in view is not "slave" like we talk about in the South, where you are a slave on the basis of race, you are a slave for life and so are your children.

So that's their theory. How good a theory is it?

The only problem with that is that most scholars that I've read and respect on these issues would argue that what both the Old and New Testament authors have in mind really is a slave. It's not like this weird, churchy word "bondservant," which is intended, I think, to create some rhetorical difference between what a slave really was and this kind of nice version of slavery that Christians would like to pretend the Bible talks about.

But it doesn't really exist. It was still dehumanizing. It was still somebody who, like your children, was property. You were still owned by people and you couldn't just leave if you wanted to. That wasn't the deal. So it kind of attempts, on the part of evangelicals, to introduce an idea that, like, slavery wasn't so bad sometimes, rather than just saying, "Hey, it's a slave."

What happened in the preface in 2011 was that the ESV said, "We need to change these words so that we can make these relationships a little bit less offensive." Ultimately they're saying, "We don't want you to think, every time you hear the word 'slave' in the New Testament or the Old Testament, about Southern Dixie slavery, because that's really ugly. That sounds really bad." If the New Testament is saying "slave, obey your master," that sounds really horrible, and it is really horrible. That creates a problem that they try to solve with this translation.

You're focused on the key process of biblical revision. But there's a larger cultural process and historical record to consider. Historically, biblical references to slavery played a central role in justifying it, especially as abolitionist sentiment increased from 1830 onward. All the distancing in the world can't change that history. More recently, anti-abortion evangelicals have tried to claim the abolitionist mantel for themselves, likening Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision, while also ignoring their own historical indifference, if not acceptance, to Roe when it was decided, given the Bible's silence about abortion. How do you think your analysis should be seen in terms of this broader framework of claiming spiritual, moral and political authority?

I think the strategy of Bible modification is actually a way to solve some of that historical, reputational problem. As you say, there there is a record of evangelical Christians using the Bible to condone and defend slavery as an institution, because it is obviously there and it's easy to do, given that the New Testament authors didn't condemn it in any way, and in many ways enabled and justified it as an institution,. That was readily used by pro-slavery advocates in the antebellum South, and under Jim Crow for issues like segregation. Even up to the late 1990s, Bob Jones University was citing biblical references for segregation or prohibiting interracial dating on campus.

Bible modification is a way that you can clean that up by saying, "You know what? These people were obviously misinterpreting scripture, because it's right there. Look, it doesn't say 'slave,' it says, 'bondservant'!" You can point back at this group of conservative Christians in the past as people who misunderstood the Bible, rather than reading it in the plain language like we have it now. That is very important in this evangelical culture of biblicism: They want to interpret the Bible in plain language, and to be able to do that you have to adjust the language, to make it conform to exactly what you want to say.

What about the anti-abortion side of this?

I haven't detected any instances of Bible modification that are "pro-life" angles, though I think you see gestures toward that. For example, Andy Schlafly, the founder of Conservapedia, said in 2009 that he was going to start something called the Conservative Bible Project, where they say explicitly, "We're going to going to retranslate the Bible to conform to conservative political leanings. We're going to fight the liberalism that has crept into Bible translations." They said on the front end that they were going to translate the Bible such as to highlight the pro-life implications of certain texts. They're transparently saying that they want to elevate this kind of cultural interpretation, this political interpretation, that is more squarely biblical. They're reverse-engineering it.

I was just looking at the phenomenon of proof-texting pro-life verses this morning. I was reading over Focus on the Family verses that they have put together to argue for pro-life positions. It is interesting how selective those texts end up being — texts about how "God does not punish the children for the sins of the parents." Using that as a response to, "Well, what what about abortion in the case of rape or incest" by pointing to those verses is a pretty selective reading, given that God explicitly commands the wiping out the Canaanites, including children, including women who were with child, including children who in the womb.

So there are obviously instances in the Old Testament where you can argue that Yahweh formally commands [abortion], and you get this obviously selective reading of key texts. From there, I think it's a pretty small step to, "OK, how do we how we get rid of these problematic verses? How do we make these verses conform?"

If I were to pay attention to where I think those changes might pop up, it would be passages where God in the Old Testament formally commands the wiping out of Canaanites, the putting to death of women with children or of young children. Those are particularly problematic, given the pro-life leanings of evangelicals.

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

I would like to underscore that this isn't just a problem with the English Standard Version. The ESV is a really explicit example because they're relatively young and you can see how they're revised the text over time pretty clearly. So they end up being a really fascinating example of this.

But I think you can also see examples of the New International Version cleaning up its translation over time to become, in some ways, more politically correct. It's a fascinating story in itself, because in the mid 2000s you have all this controversy about gendered language, and the NIV feels pressured to say, "OK, we won't do this, we won't make the language inclusive," because all these evangelicals spoke out against it.

Well, eventually they did it anyway, in the form of what's called Today's New International Version in 2005. Well, that gets panned by evangelicals, nobody buys it, it's a sales failure. So they pull Today's New International Version off the shelves, and they no longer sell it. But then they did a revision of the NIV where they basically just snuck in all the translations they did in 2005, except now it's called the "New International Version, 2011 edition."

So that's an example of how the NIV translation team, the Committee on Bible Translation at Zondervan, wanted to appeal to evangelicals because that's their primary consumer market, while at the same time adjusting the text to be more user-friendly for those outside conservative evangelicalism. That's another example of this tendency toward Bible modification in the direction of both trying to appeal to one subculture while also trying to appeal to those outside the culture.

This forecaster predicted Democrats' big wins in 2018. Now she's trying to stop them from losing in 2022

Political scientist Rachel Bitecofer made a name for herself as an election analyst who saw the 2018 blue wave coming long before anyone else. On July 1 of that year, she presciently predicted a 42-seat gain for Democrats — a near-perfect call, when others still envisioned smaller gains. At the same time, she warned that the landscape would be very difficult for Democrats in 2022, based on the same understanding of negative partisanship and the ways the electorate has changed. The 2018 midterms were a referendum on Donald Trump's presidency more than it was about individual candidates and individual races, she argued, foreseeing that aggrieved Republicans would be similarly motivated in 2022.

Salon's 2019 interview with Bitecofer helped her gain the recognition she deserved, leading to her first appearance on MSNBC's "The Last Word." In that interview, she told Salon:

Under my model, Democrats win the White House in 2020, and then in 2022 they're going to have a very tough electoral cycle, because turnout for Democrats will go back to normal. And because Democrats have poor electoral strategy, they're going to compound that problem, probably by not appealing to Democrats to get them to the polls.

For all the attention Bitecofer gained since that interview, that basic message still hasn't penetrated the Democratic establishment as a whole. So rather than fruitlessly try to change their thinking, Bitecofer has decided to go around them, leaving the academic world and creating her own super PAC — Strike PAC — to do the kind of messaging her research suggests is key to winning elections with today's electorate. There are no big-money donors involved. She's counting on grassroots support to deliver a grassroots message. The first batch of ads she's released paint a clear picture of the threat to democracy the Republican Party now presents, and an equally clear picture of how Democrats should respond.

Salon spoke with Bitecofer about her PAC, this new wave of advertising and the thinking behind them — and of course how she sees next year's critical midterm elections. This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

On "Morning Joe," you said your new PAC "is about bringing a brand offensive against the whole Republican Party. It's not just about Donald Trump, but it definitely includes him." Three things struck me about that. First, that seemed to be exemplified by your ad, "Fuse." Tell me about that one. Why is it shaped the way it is, and why now?

All four of our launch-packet ads are targeted toward different aspects of this branding offensive. "Fuse" is geared towards a national audience. In political advertising, the conventional two types are what we call "persuasion" — which is trying to get voters who don't have a firm vote to come over and vote for you — and the other type is "mobilization," making sure your core voters will show up.

What Strike PAC is doing is not within those two buckets. It certainly has overlap — it's performing both persuasion and mobilization. But what it's arguing is, "Look, the GOP doesn't really run anything except a marketing/branding op and it's predominantly a branding offensive against the left." They don't spend a lot of time on their own brand, but they do spend a lot of time in their messaging on discounting, discrediting and debasing our brand. That will go from everything from economics to the "woke" war, so it's always about showing us as unattractively to voters as possible. We've never answered that.

Democrats, up until now, have been told by their consultants, "Don't worry about it," or "Don't push back on 'socialism' or 'defund the police.'" To their credit, candidates are starting to understand when somebody is lobbing missiles at you, you can't just stand there and pretend it's not hitting. They are starting to try to put forward a response. But the it's a defensive mechanism, it's not offensive. The GOP is saying, "We're going to have a debate about these topics," and when you enter into that field, you are basically on the defense the whole time because you're having a conversation that's been structured by the opposition party.

So that's what "Fuse" is trying to change?

It's flipping that GOP tactic over to our side. It's attacking the Republicans to make a conversation about their anti-democratic power grab, that goes back from contesting the results of 2020, an armed insurrection, Trump actually trying to use the Justice Department to stage a coup, and the Republican Party's wholesale embrace of that.

It's not like Trump did these things and the Republican Party stood against him. They have slowly but surely normalized this anti-democratic behavior. In fact, they have doubled down on it by going into these state legislative sessions trying to restrict voter access for progressive parts of the electorate, even going so far as to put provisions that take the certification process away from nonpartisan actors and into their partisan hands.

That conversation is something you might see if you're me or you, if you're very political, but for the broader electorate it's happening completely invisibly. There's very little media coverage — certainly not saturation coverage like you would see for Clinton's emails — about this power grab, what that means for democracy and what it means for Democrats in the next cycle.

So "Fuse" is about fixing that problem, putting the stakes of 2022 in clear-eyed focus for the other half of the electorate. Because the Republican electorate has been told now for a while that the other side is coming after democracy, right? So it's their belief in a Democratic Party that has been articulated by the GOP. It's completely out of whack of reality, but Republican voters believe that Democrats are trying to "destroy democracy," and what they're doing is saving it. It's not like they don't have a motivation. So we really need this side of the electorate to realize that this meta-conversation about American democracy is on the ballot in 2022.

To me, "bringing a brand offensive" pretty much describes how Republicans have run the vast majority of their national campaigns at least since Ronald Reagan, if not Richard Nixon. Democrats have virtually never done so—not even when Trump first ran in 2016. Why do you think that is?

That's exactly right. You could believe it's a problem that began when polarization really began to take off in the mid-2000s when asymmetry appears, and to some extent that's true, because Republicans developed this technique of making every election a referendum on the Democratic brand. But you're right, it does have its roots back in the 80s.

That said, we really do see a distinct version of the modern GOP that has its origins in that 2004 Bush re-election campaign with Karl Rove, to use the gay marriage issues to turn out on their side, but also to talk about politics — including Senate and House races that might have otherwise been more local — with the intention of making them about the national party, about the national political climate and the national brand. That really starts to solidify with the 2010 midterms. They made it a referendum on Obamacare and Nancy Pelosi, and tied every candidate to that as tightly as they could. So every candidate really didn't stand for re-election on their own performance in office or voting record, things that people think traditionally mattered. Instead, it was all about whether they were a Democrat.

We never made that adjustment at all. In fact, it seems like we don't even really recognize how distinctly different voter behavior in the two coalitions are and how hyper-partisanship has changed things. Whether or not we want that change, it's there, right? We've been grasping for this old-school model of electioneering, it's like when Sega was replaced by Nintendo.

The GOP is running this very strategic, very intentional branding campaign, and we're still talking about politics in terms of policies and things like that. We're arguing that we are making a huge mistake when we're tinkering around in the branches of electioneering infrastructure on the left, because our real problem lies at that root level, where we are not engaged in a campaign technique that matches the moment.

That segues to the third thing I wanted to ask about. "Bringing a brand offensive" sounds like a logical outgrowth of your election analysis in terms of the hyper-polarization driven by negative partisan. So, how did the idea of Strike PAC develop out of your earlier work?

You could say it had its genesis on election night 2020. Around 7 o'clock it was clear that Biden was going to win the presidency — at least to me — with the Midwest swinging back to the Democrats. But it was also becoming increasingly apparent that Democrats had delivered a tremendous underperformance down-ballot. I understood exactly why those two things were, the most important factor being the asymmetry in terms of how they do politicking, how they do campaigns and elections at that messaging and strategic level.

The way that you would nationalize the 2020 campaign down-ballot is that instead of Biden running against Trump, the party should have run against Trump and the Republican brand. You don't make it about one guy, you make it about the whole party embracing and covering for him and staying next to him. But you also make it about economics. Reaganomics has now got a 40-year track record, and it's a total shitshow. It should be easy to eviscerate. In 2020, for example, Democrats could have made the economic argument for the HEROES Act. The HEROES Act was introduced in July and then blocked by Mitch McConnell in the Senate. The Democrats should have been from top to bottom, even at the state legislative level, hammering the Republicans for denying economic aid in a crisis. And that did not happen.

I also saw many things that I assumed would get fixed after 2016 go completely unaddressed. It was dramatically underwhelming in terms of what changed. And then there was suspension of field operations [by Democratic campaigns]. That was a huge mistake. Yes, I understand that, ethically, you do not want people knocking on doors in a pandemic. But when the opposition party is doing it and it is the only thing that really ever shows a measurable effect — at least if you're doing it to mobilize people, not persuade them — then you have to find a way, right?

So I was watching that and I was deeply concerned. At that point I wasn't even sure if Democrats would hold onto the House. It's just unbelievable, they had the best fundamentals you could ever hope for in 2020. You've got a man who's mismanaging this pandemic, completely incompetent. At that point his negligence had led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people and you don't make that a central theme? Like, "Hey! These people can't do government!" So I realized these things were not going to change unless I found a way to do it myself.

While "Fuse" exemplifies the idea of a brand offensive against the GOP, you have another ad that does that as well, "Hold the Republican Party Accountable," which starts with Donald Trump saying, "Part of the problem is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore. You'll never get back our country with weakness." Tell me about this ad.

It's not one that we necessarily would show in its entirety to target voters, because it's a little long. But this ad is about trying to get people to understand that we seem to have two conversations in America. We have the right talking about how extreme and crazy the Democrats are. Then we have Democrats bitching about that, bitching about "woke" culture and self-inflicting. It's like, the Republican Party makes a critique, and then Democrats jump in and start having that conversation too, just amplifying it.

We don't have any conversation on this side about a party that literally is extreme, has an extremism problem which has been quantified throughout dozens of political science articles, and Democrats just assume, "Well everyone knows the Republican Party is extreme."

Actually, the average person on the street, if they're not one of the 10% of people like us and your readers, you ask them about the Republican Party and they are apt to say, "Low taxes, right?"

There's no media ecosystem that's focused on how crazy the Republican Party is. The assumption is that the mainstream press has a liberal bias, but left-wing topics are not centralized in the way that right-wing topics become. There's no intensive conversation about what the Republican Party has been doing for the last five years as it has progressively fallen down the pathway towards fascism. So that ad is about telling that story and tying those disparate events into a cohesive story.

our website says, "We modernize electioneering strategy. STRIKE PAC's electioneering model revolutionizes how Democrats campaign from top to bottom." More specifically, you promise "Messaging that creates a 'reverse' referendum on the GOP by putting them on the defense" and implementing "high-stakes, nationalized messaging maximizing coalitional turnout and conversion." You have two state-level ads that seem to embody these points. Let's talk about the Virginia ad first. Virginia's important because it's an off-off-year election — its state-level elections are not on the regular calendar. Two states do that, New Jersey and Virginia. New Jersey would be more interesting if it spent more time in political competition, but it doesn't. So Virginia has long been seen as a temperature check for the newly-elected president. There was a long history of breaking against the new party in power that really only started to fall off in the 2013 election, when [Democrat] Terry McAuliffe won the governorship even though Obama had won the White House the year before.

Nevertheless, political conversations will center very much around the narrative that comes out of Virginia's 2021 election. Whoever wins in that cycle will go into 2022 with the political media giving them a more positive narrative. That's incredibly important for Democrats in particular because they're expected to do well now in Virginia, and expectations matter. And No. 2 because any political scientist will tell you that one of the most striking and robust patterns is the midterm effect, where the president's party loses seats in the Congress in the subsequent midterm election. So when we talk about Democrats facing tough fundamentals, that's one part.

So what they need to do is they need to hold onto their trifecta in Virginia [the governorship and both houses of the state legislature], so the media narrative is positive. In terms of Virginia, the worry is because the messaging from the Democratic Party and allied organizations doesn't focus on coalitional turnout and doesn't nationalize and speak plain messaging, that turnout might decline enough where you could even have McAuliffe win the governorship, but because of that ballot drop-off problem we saw in 2020, Democrats maybe lose the [legislative] majority, and the narrative then becomes mixed.

So that's the problem. What's the solution?

What we're doing in Virginia is going to be heavily focused on stake-framing, and just really napalming the GOP brand, getting people exposed for the first time to a message that argues that the Republican Party has been a shitshow for the economy and for you, personally and economically. All of these credit-claiming things we see from Democrats is a step in the right direction, but credit claiming is not as good as telling them other people are coming to take things away. You really want a sophisticated messaging.

In the case of our first ad, we chose to focus on the issue of the voting laws, because I could see the Democrats having this wonky policy conversation like they normally do, calling it voter suppression and access. It'd be great if we had that electorate, but we do not. We do not have those voters. We have the ones that the GOP talks to more effectively and so we must make it clear to people: This is a power grab. They're coming to steal your vote. If they can take power in Virginia, they're going to pass a law like they did in these other places. Those laws aren't about "voter access," they're about election rigging.

You also have an ad about the California recall targeting Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. How does that embody your strategy? And how does that contrast with the Democrats' ineffectual response to the 2003 recall of Gray Davis?

Yes, exactly. You hear that the electorate is much more Democratic than it was in 2003 and that is verifiably true, OK? But that doesn't mean that California isn't still at risk of having a repeat of 2003. In the recall in 2003, the turnout was in the 30% range, and when you're talking about only 30% of California, there's a very motivated Republican Party versus a complacent Democratic one. Because Newsom will probably poll pretty decently and [folks will say] "Oh, this is in the bag. It doesn't really matter. I'm not worried about it."

We're doing a couple things with this ad. Again, we're doing the nationalization component that's lacking in Democratic messaging, and is the bread and butter of the GOP. But it's also innovating — I wanted to show an example of something that other people might want to copy, which is to make the frame of the recall not about Newsom. Because if it's about Newsom, then you're going to have this conversation about whether he shut down too long, or too little and blah blah blah. You're just playing right into their hands. That's the conversation they want to have.

Instead, you want to personalize the stakes of the recall to the electorate, so that they feel the connection, and you want to paint to them a picture: "It's not about Newsom or the Democrats, it's about you controlling California and turning it into a liberal wonderland. And they're coming for it!" You want to make voters feel motivated about the recall, and also attacked. Their identity is being attacked. That's how the Republicans would approach it. That's how they defended Scott Walker, which is what I'm modeling this on.

Another key aspect of your modernization strategy is "Building a positive, values-driven firewall Democratic brand." You've released another ad called "This is What Democracy Looks Like" that starts with John Lewis saying, "We may have come here on different ships, but we are all in the same boat now," and proceeds with short clips from a wide range of notable Democrats—from Sherrod Brown to Katie Porter, AOC, Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock. What was the thinking here?

That ad in particular is again a movie-style ad. It's aimed specifically at Democrats, but ultimately the same methodology will be adapted to go after young people, especially voters of color. Latinos are a huge persuasion target for conversion right now and even young Black voters, but younger white voters in particular. The GOP, in my opinion, still over-performs with white young people, people under age 30, relative to what the Republican platform, and their embrace of racism and fascism, should warrant. When you've got one party that is constantly taunting the Democrats — "They support Hamas, and they're socialists, yada yada yada," you want to create an image for those younger voters: "No, this is what the Democratic Party really is."

Another aspect of your modernization strategy is "Undermining the Republican brand and areas of perceived dominance, like the economy." You did this in an ad you showed on "Morning Joe" [at 9:25] comparing Democrats' and Republicans' record on the economy since 1933, on GDP growth, job creation and the stock market, using sports imagery from football, basketball and baseball to drive home the point that Democrats do much better on all these key indicators. The difference is stark, but Democrats never talk about it.

That's exactly right. If you ask the average voter, the GOP often wins or at least breaks even on the question of which party is good for the economy, although the facts bear out a completely different story. But instead of making an affirmative case for ourselves, especially as we move through Reaganomics — and even by the early 2000s the failures of that economic philosophy were already legion — instead of running on that, saying "The GOP tried this thing and it totally destroyed our infrastructure, it destroyed our K-12 education system," and going on what I've called a brand offensive, you see Democrats try to align themselves rhetorically with their opponents, saying "I'm a fiscal conservative."

The economy tends to be the most salient issue, or second-most salient, every election cycle. So why would we concede on an issue that's that important to so many people? Especially when we're better at it? So that's why we're going after that, and the other sacred cows for the GOP, national security. I'm going to go after national security as well because the performance of the Republican Party over the last 20 years on foreign policy and national security is terrible.

That's good to hear, because I was going to ask about what's to come. Could you say a bit more about that?

What's to come will depend on you — I mean you, the readers, the listeners and the people who support this idea — understanding that we lose winnable elections and want to stop. Because never before been has a super PAC been raised from such humble roots as someone like me. I don't come from the electioneering world. I don't come from money. I don't have a good Rolodex to start this from. So, this is what I consider to be a people PAC. How far I'm able to get with my creative concepts and my strategy is going to depend on how successful we are. If my goal was to become personally famous in political nerd circles, I'm on a fine trajectory for that. But if my goal is to win as many races as possible and to disrupt what might be the collapse of American democracy in 2022. I need to be able to deploy all this creative energy in a sophisticated way to where it needs to go and how it needs to go.

The playbook I intend to run in electioneering doesn't come from any established playbook. It's kind of like Space-X is to space and to NASA. NASA is focused on space, but Space-X was able to start their program by looking at how that other one was shaped and made and being able to understand what the strengths and weaknesses of that old system were and design one completely to the realities of space travel.

There are two other aspects of your strategy I'd like you to discuss. First, "Innovative persuasion and mobilization messaging and micro-targeting strategies." We can see some of that in the state ads we just talked about, but what else do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I can't speak with specificity about all of the things I have cooking. I'm trying to build an organization. But I will say that what people see from this launch is just the tip of the iceberg as to what I have planned in deploying messaging in ways where people are forced to see it. The old Democratic model was TV-reliant, it had an old playbook. The direct mail system runs on this basically phoned-in template. My vision and plan is to build this organization so I can come in and redo how we talk to voters and how we work on winning elections, in all of those spheres and more.

The second aspect is about "unleashing the power, scalability and scope of digital for year-round party branding" Same question: The seeds of that are clearly present in the ad we talked about before — showing young voters what the party really is — but do you have future examples in mind?

Here's one thing I will tell you. The status quo of electioneering on the left is "Oh, we're innovating now. We're telling people what we're doing," which is fine and dandy. But if you're assuming that telling people "I'm doing this stuff for you" is good enough to get people to actually show up to vote, that's a mistake. And then a lot of the innovation is focused on how we go back and get these white working-class voters to vote for us.

If you don't understand that realignment is moving in one direction and one direction only, and that what we should be doing is leaning into our own realignment — which is especially white-collar, educated voters, especially as the newer ones that are moving in party politics, who maybe have been voting Republican because their parents were Republican — we should be working on breaking their party brand loyalty. Kind of like Coke vs. Pepsi.

You want people to see what the Republican Party is actually doing and hear about what it's up to — but not in ways that are focused on "Think of how this will hurt some nameless, faceless other," which is how all of our messaging is structured on the left. Instead, we have to make it highly personal to the particular voter and really target that hard.

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

You didn't ask what the URL is for people to donate to Strike PAC!

This PA lawmaker is a Christian zealot, an academic fraud and an insurrectionist. He's the tip of the iceberg

On May 9, the New Yorker published a feature story by Pulitzer winner Eliza Griswold about Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who could well be the Republican nominee for governor next year, as a flagship example of the swelling power of Christian nationalism within today's GOP. That's an issue I focused on in a 2018 story largely driven by a paper called "Make America Christian Again," co-authored by sociologist Andrew Whitehead. I described this phenomenon as "an Old Testament-based worldview fusing Christian and American identities, and sharpening the divide with those who are excluded from it," and quoted from the paper:

Christian nationalism … draws its roots from "Old Testament" parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism.

Despite the "Old Testament" slant, this version of Christianity has no room for Exodus 22:21: "You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt," or numerous other biblical passages — which is why Christian nationalism can't be considered synonymous with Christianity per se. Many people in Trump's base perceive it that way, however, as that paper first showed. And Griswold rightly chose Mastriano as a shining — and troubling — example of what that means in practice today.

First elected to the State Senate in a special election in May 2019, Mastriano has quickly gained prominence over the past year, as Griswold explains:

[H]e has led rallies against mask mandates and other public-health protocols, which he has characterized as "the governor's autocratic control over our lives." He has become a leader of the Stop the Steal campaign, and claims that he spoke to Donald Trump at least fifteen times between the 2020 election and the insurrection at the Capitol, on January 6th.

Since Griswold's story was published, Mastriano has claimed to have Trump's endorsement for governor, along with a promise to campaign with him (though a Trump adviser has disputed this), while new evidence casts doubt on his claims of non-involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. On June 2, he was one of three Pennsylvania lawmakers who toured the Arizona election "audit," calling for the Keystone State to follow suit, the latest front in Trump's effort to delegitimize Biden's election.

Griswold's story is important and compelling, drawing attention to a perennially undercovered phenomenon whose importance is only growing as much of the GOP's traditional issue package has fallen to the wayside — but certainly not its culture war component. Griswold touches base with a wide range of relevant experts, and brings much-needed attention to the under-appreciated power of Christian nationalism within today's GOP, even as Mastriano and others involved with it disingenuously reject that identification.

But right-wing religious politics is so poorly understood by outsiders that any story will inevitably leave a lot out. Beyond that, journalists must navigate layers of deception and denial — reflected in repeated televangelist scandals, for example — that have made the religious right such a perfect epistemic fit for Trump's gaslighting style. That fit, and what lies behind it, was highlighted by retired intelligence analyst James Scaminaci III in a 2017 essay, "Battle without Bullets: The Christian Right and Fourth Generation Warfare." (The confusion of Christian nationalism with Christianity on the one hand and American democracy on the other reflects the main thrust of what "fourth-generation warfare" is all about, as I'll describe below.)

To avoid such deception, the term "Christian nationalism" could be more sharply clarified, to dispense with its adherents' denials. The religious movement Griswold mentions — the New Apostolic Reformation — could be more clearly defined, and doing that can shed light on Christian nationalism's lesser-known, but more nefarious fellow-traveler, Dominionism — a creed that adds two more elements: a belief in "biblical law," as adherents define it, and the religious supremacy of their version of Christianity.

All of these are not just threats to American democracy but are also biblically questionable, to say the least, which should be a focus of primary concern to those they appeal to most strongly. At a more granular level, there's a need to illuminate the groundwork for the emergence of figures like Mastriano that's been laid over time — for example, through the state-level organization of Project Blitz, devoted to passing three tiers of increasingly theocratic laws. It's also important to examine Mastriano's Christian nationalist deceptions prior to entering politics, as well as the role of fourth-generation warfare. Let's consider each of these in turn.

Defining Christian nationalism

Griswold summarizes Christian nationalism as "a set of beliefs … which center on the idea that God intended America to be a Christian nation, and which, when mingled with conspiracy theory and white nationalism, helped to fuel the [Jan. 6] insurrection." She quotes the aforementioned sociologist Andrew Whitehead (Salon interview here) saying, "Violence has always been a part of Christian nationalism. It's just that the nature of the enemy has changed."

She follows with five lengthy paragraphs of Mastriano's biography before returning to a discussion of Christian nationalism by giving center stage to its gaslighting denials:

Many white evangelicals reject the Christian-nationalist label. "Christian nationalism doesn't exist," Franklin Graham, the evangelical leader, told me, calling it "just another name to throw at Christians." He added, "The left is very good at calling people names." Mastriano also rejected the phrase, writing to me, "Is this a term you fabricated? What does it mean and where have I indicated that I am a Christian Nationalist?"

She goes on to note that "historians and sociologists have found the term useful" and brings several expert voices to bear. But centering their denials as she does conveys a false impression that their positions possess some legitimacy. Whitehead addressed this in an email:

Yes, Graham and Mastriano's claim is absurd. Christian nationalism clearly exists and Americans are found all along a spectrum of how strongly they embrace it. … Survey after survey of the American public demonstrates that Christian nationalism is present within the population, and especially among white evangelical Protestants, where upwards of 80% are at least somewhat favorable of a fusion of Christianity and American national identity.


Graham and Mastriano are clearly within that 80%, and they're more than "somewhat favorable" toward that fusion of Christian and American identity. Graham's father, the Rev. Billy Graham, was the public face of popularizing Christian nationalism in post-World War II America, as Anthea Butler noted on his death in 2018.

"Fusing Christianity and Americanism together to create a potent cocktail of Evangelical Christian Nationalism" was part of Billy Graham's lifelong work, Butler wrote. It began with his Feb. 3, 1952 service on the Capitol steps, an AP account of which she directly quotes. That in in turn lead to the establishment of the National Day of Prayer and the prayer breakfasts run by the secretive organization described in Jeff Sharlet's book, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power."

As Butler went on to note, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Franklin Graham simply represents a more strident version of 1950s Billy Graham."

Typically, Christian nationalists have been proud to conflate their religious faith and the national identity. So why, I asked Whitehead, are they now upset about being called "Christian nationalists"? He said he had no data available to answer the question:

My guess is that despite being proud of their Christianity and national identity, they see the clearly negative outcomes associated with embracing Christian nationalism and so they balk at being placed in that group. In one sense they want to be able to take pride in both identities, and claim this culture for Christianity, but not wrestle with the repercussions of melding those identities.

Is that a sign of insecurity, I wondered? Perhaps, Whitehead said. Or it may reflect ignorance of what the term means and why academics study it, which of course is "because it is a powerful force in our culture. ... "My sense is that they generally fear anything that might make them reflect on their personal beliefs and actions and consider harm they might be doing to Christianity and democracy in the U.S."

This idea that Christian nationalism is actually harmful to Christianity, is a central concern of Christian critics and opponents of Christian nationalism, as seen in John Fea's book, "Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump," for example. As I explained in my review:

Fear is Fea's central concern, and the one most directly at odds with the Bible. "The Bible teaches that Christians are to fear God — and only God," Fea writes. "All other forms of fear reflect a lack of faith."

An unacknowledged lack of faith may be Christian nationalism's mortal flaw. But it's one secular writers avoid discussing, with a knee-jerk aversion to questioning anyone's religious faith, even when it's bad faith shot through with obvious contradictions and manipulative or even malicious intent. Christian nationalist avoid scrutiny from their co-religionists by demonizing any secular scrutiny whatever, leaving themselves accountable to no one. Their seemingly inexplicable affinity for Donald Trump is a natural consequence.

As Whitehead's research makes clear, Christian nationalism is very much about drawing lines of inclusion and exclusion, and defining the cultural and political landscape in their own terms. It's only natural to ask if their denialism can be seen as a power move, meant to deny others the power of drawing contrasting distinctions.

"This makes sense to me," Whitehead responded. "Language shapes and forms our realities and so being able to say something 'doesn't even exist' allows them to shape that reality. It is similar to consistently pointing to antifa or 'critical race theory' as threats. It doesn't matter so much if those terms are defined, or even exist in any substantive reality. Using them, or in the case of Christian nationalism saying it doesn't even exist, allows them to forego any sustained interrogation of their personal actions or beliefs."

Denialism frequently goes hand-in-hand with projection, such as Franklin Graham's claim that "The left is very good at calling people names." When asked about this, Whitehead said:

Political scientist Paul Djupe shared this wonderful concept, the inverted golden rule. He finds white evangelical Protestants generally "expect from others what you would do unto them." They assume any attempt to understand the reason why they see the world the way they do (Christian nationalism as a cultural framework) is merely to smear them in some way. Which again, isn't true. Perhaps their fear of such an attack is because this is generally how they treat their perceived opponents.


The New Apostolic Reformation

Griswold reports on Mastriano's involvement with events "events held by a movement called the New Apostolic Reformation," though he denies directly working with the movement. "Many members believe that God speaks to them directly, and that they have been tasked with battling real-world demons who control global leaders," Griswold explains. "Prominent members in the group go by the title Apostle or Prophet to hark back to early Christianity."

This movement was named by C. Peter Wagner, its chief architect. Three of his key teachings — the "Dominion Mandate," the "Seven Mountain Mandate" and the "Great End-Time Wealth Transferal" — are summarized by a Christian critic here. Battling demons is such a central part of the NAR worldview that it can fairly be viewed as a syncretic religion, incorporating elements of the pagan religious traditions it pretends to be fiercely battling against — in that sense, as scholars of religion might note, a replay of the Colossian syncretism.

Roland Chia, a professor of Christian doctrine at Trinity Theological College, put it this way in an article titled "Paganising Christianity":

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of NAR is their acquiescence to and legitimisation of neo-pagan and shamanistic practices such as contact with angels (or spirit guides), angel orbs, portals of glory, teleportation and 'grave-sucking' (the belief that one can obtain the anointing of the deceased servants of God by visiting their graves).

A precursor movement known as "Latter Rain" was declared heretical by the Assemblies of God (America's largest Pentecostal denomination) in 1949, and related practices were again condemned in 2000. That second ban had significantly less impact, thanks to the growth of mass media, which has significantly eroded traditional church authority in favor of charismatic hucksters who spread their messages through cable TV, YouTube and other online channels, as well as live mega-events publicized to a global audience, such as the August 2011 event former Texas Gov. Rick Perry used to launch his presidential campaign. One of that event's organizers had written that there was a "demonic structure behind the Democratic Party" — specifically, the demon Jezebel. That "demonic structure" is the reason Black people are so wedded to the Democratic Party rather than the "party of Lincoln," she argued, ignoring the whole history of the "long Southern strategy."

The bottom line is that the NAR is a long way from traditional Christianity. Despite some strategic backtracking, its own proponents, such as Wagner, proudly proclaim as much: NAR represents a "new wineskin" in which the pastor appoints the elders, who report to him, as opposed the "old wineskin" of mainstream Protestant denominations, in which pastors report to church elders. One can clearly criticize the NAR without "attacking Christianity," just as it's legitimate for believing Christians to criticize Christian nationalism as damaging to their faith by shifting focus onto divisive fights over flawed human creations. In both cases, extremists demonize secular scrutiny as a way of escaping orthodox religious scrutiny, while themselves claiming to embody true religious orthodoxy. It's a game of spiritual three-card monte.

The NAR's untethering from institutional roots gives it a fluidity ideally suited to political activism, as Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers," told me.

The NAR has been much more explicit about its political aims than some of the more traditional or established religious right groups. The theology is very much tied to political developments in the here and now. In the Trump era, they also played a significant role in political mobilization. For a subsection of the Christian right, the NAR has functioned as a kind of Overton Window.


In her New Yorker article, Griswold wrote: "The N.A.R.'s overarching agenda — to return the United States to an idealized Christian past — is largely built upon the work of the pseudo-historian David Barton, who has advanced the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation."

This overlooks the fact that the NAR's agenda is global, and looks forward to a fantasy future in which the wealth of the "wicked" is magically transferred to believers. But it's accurate enough within the framework of domestic American politics, which is Griswold's focus. Barton, who was vice-chair of the Texas Republican Party from 1997 to 2006, has been a key figure in advancing Christian nationalist ideology, both through the GOP and through his fraudulent scholarship on America's founding.

"Barton has been discredited by every American historian I know, including evangelical historians who teach at the most conservative Christian colleges in the country," evangelical historian John Fea told me in 2018. But because his fake history is so politically useful, the fact that all legitimate historians reject his claims is a feature, not a bug. Stewart discussed his significance:

Even as David Barton has cultivated links with the big names in Republican politics, he has stayed close to some of the most extreme representatives of the Christian nationalist movement. He paired up with evangelists Lance Wallnau, who wrote a book comparing Donald Trump to King Cyrus, and Andrew Wommack, who has said opposition to Trump was "demonic deception" and "one of the signs of the End Times," in the Truth & Liberty Coalition, an activist and messaging organization whose mission was described on their website as "the reformation of Nations by igniting the latent potential in the Body of Christ." The website champions "the 7 Mountains Mandate, a powerful, transformative campaign intended to bring about social transformation," a reference to the idea, popularized by C. Peter Wagner and others, that Christians who hold similar beliefs are to dominate seven key areas of culture and society.

Project Blitz — and an instructive precursor

Just after mentioning Barton, Griswold writes this:

"Mastriano's significance, alongside that of the N.A.R., is that he is attempting to create a theonomy — a system of enacting God's law on earth," Frederick Clarkson, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, told me. Bills that Mastriano supported in the legislature would have mandated teaching the Bible in public schools and would have made it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples, among other things.

What's left out here is that the bills in question supported are part of an organized nationwide effort known as "Project Blitz," first uncovered by Clarkson in 2018 (Salon report here.) Barton was also a key architect, heading one of its three organizational sponsors. The bills are arranged in three tiers, with the first aimed at importing the Christian nationalist worldview (including Barton's bogus history) into public schools and elsewhere in the public sphere, the second aimed at making government a partner in "Christianizing" America, and the third using a false narrative of religious liberty to privilege religious bigotry. As I wrote:

Bills protecting the "right" to discriminate against the LGBTQ community are the most salient example of how Project Blitz aims to produce a radically altered "Handmaid's Tale"-style America. But even the most innocent-seeming proposal — introducing the motto "In God We Trust" into schools — has a divisive, discriminatory, damaging impact, sharply at odds with its presentation.

As I described in a later story, Project Blitz commonly works through deceptively named "prayer caucuses," outwardly presented as social bodies devoted to religion, faith or prayer, and not specifically pushing a religious right agenda. "By deceiving caucus members about its ultimate goals and purposes, it can then deceive others as well," I noted.

Clarkson has continued to research and report on Project Blitz and its broader Dominionist connections. Most recently, in late May, along with his PRA colleague Cloee Cooper, he published an article on the "convergence of far-right, anti-democratic factions In the Pacific Northwest" and its national consequences. The story focused on two former military officers with Dominionist ties, one of whom, Matt Shea, was a Washington state representative from 2009 to 2020, and was founding chairman of the Washington Legislative Prayer Caucus in 2018, a year after he was elected chair of the state legislature's Republican caucus.

Shea provides an instructive complement to Mastriano, whose rapid emergence in the Trump-COVID era can be challenging to comprehend, compared to Shea's well-documented record. Clarkson writes:

In May of 2013, Shea spoke at a founding meeting of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) along with prominent Patriot and far-right leaders including Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers.

The "Constitutional Sheriffs" are a far-right organization claiming that county sheriffs have a unilateral right to decide what laws are constitutional and whether they will enforce them. Needless to say, this doctrine is entirely unsupported by the Constitution itself, in which the word "sheriff" never appears. This is simply a form of lawlessness in "law-and-order" drag.

This lawlessness came to the fore with Shea's involvement in the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by right-wing activists. "For this," Clarkson writes, "he was characterized as a domestic terrorist in a well-documented December 2019 investigation commissioned by the state House of Representatives," which concluded that Shea presented "a present and growing threat of risk to others through political violence." He was subsequently removed as GOP caucus chair, and didn't seek re-election in 2020. Included in that investigation was Shea's 2016 manifesto on the Biblical Basis for War, "which reads like a to-do list for religious civil war," Clarkson noted, including the assertion that "Assassination to remove tyrants is just, and is not murder." John Wilkes Booth would surely approve.

"Shea and Mastriano have had different trajectories in their respective state legislative careers," Clarkson told me via email. "Shea launched his career in public life via leadership in Christian right organizations. Mastriano seemed to get right into it — apparently anointed by NAR leaders.

"In one sense, this is what one would expect in any movement or party," he explained. "People will necessarily come from different places to get to where they are. The larger context is the long-term effort by the Christian right to take state legislative seats and chambers. That these politicians used their offices as launching pads for insurrection is troubling, but not really surprising."

This leads us to the question of Mastriano's previous history, and how it prefigures his ongoing insurrectionary activity.

Sgt. York and history: Mastriano's academic fraud

As mentioned above, patterns of denial and obfuscation common to Christian nationalists make it difficult to get a fix on Doug Mastriano's actual commitments and involvements. He clearly knows the strategic value of keeping his position ambiguous. In a 2016 article about Russian hybrid warfare, he wrote about how well this works for Vladimir Putin, citing Putin's use of the "so-called 'little green men' who appeared in Crimea in 2014 — soldiers without national affiliation on their uniforms, who seized key places in the peninsula" as an example.

"This approach was cloaked in a veneer of ambiguity, which played upon the fears and doubts of Western political leaders," Mastriano wrote. "The ambiguity gave Putin near complete flexibility to lower or raise Russian intervention based upon the level of Western resolve." This is highly illuminating, since Mastriano has pursued a similar strategy of deceptively fostering and exploiting ambiguity, as Griswold's account clearly shows.

Before his recent rise in politics, Mastriano's earlier history shows a clear pattern of deception, alongside his Christian nationalist beliefs. This was summarized in a March 20 story by Mark Scolforo of the AP, focused on Mastriano's academic research into the legendary World War I Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Alvin York, who led a small group of U.S. soldiers behind German lines on Oct. 8, 1918, killing more than 20 German soldiers and capturing 132. That research earned Mastriano a doctorate in history from the University of New Brunswick, along with a book contract from the University Press of Kentucky. But there were two major problems, as Scolforo notes:

For more than a decade, other researchers have questioned Mastriano's claim to have conclusively proved exactly where York was during the October 1918 battle. They argue his research is plagued with errors and that a walking trail he helped build actually takes visitors to the wrong spot.

In the past two months, University of Oklahoma history graduate student James Gregory has filed complaints with Mastriano's publisher and with the Canadian university.

"Many of his citations are completely false and do not support his claims whatsoever," Gregory said in a Jan. 25 email to the University Press of Kentucky, identifying footnotes with no apparent relation to their corresponding book passages.

I contacted Gregory, who told me he had cited 35 such examples in his letter to the Kentucky press. Half of those were simple transcription errors, he told Salon, but the rest were "examples of academic fraud. They are instances where Mastriano has made a claim and cited a source, yet the source does not say what he claims. He does this often. ... He also likes to make claims of half-truths or make false 'confirmations' without any evidence."

The most glaring false confirmation is the photo used on the cover of his book — purportedly of the German soldiers York captured on Oct. 8, 1918. That same photo appears in the National Archives catalogue, and is dated Sept. 26. Mastriano knows this, but insists that the archive records are wrong, Gregory explained, forwarding a Feb. 22, 2017, email from Mastriano complaining about records at the Army Heritage and Education Center. "I have no idea why the tag in AHEC says 26 September. It is simply wrong," Mastriano wrote, following a description of York's movements after the battle, which attempts to explain why that photograph was taken by a soldier from the 35th Army Division, not the 82nd, in which York served.

Mastriano's tortured explanation conflicts with two accounts of the 35th Division's movements that Gregory consulted. "Honestly, Mastriano is really showing his lack of skill as a researcher," Gregory told me, explaining that the 35th Division was roughly 33 miles away from the French village where York's famous battle occurred on Oct. 8, 1918, and there is no plausible way that a photographer from the 35th took any photo related to anything York did. One history of the 35th, however, noted that the division had captured an estimated 450 prisoners on Sept. 26, evidence that the National Archives' official date for the photo makes sense.

So Mastriano put a fake photo on the cover of his supposedly legitimate historical work, and has defended it with bald-faced lies. This episode has become a major embarrassment to the University Press of Kentucky, whose director told Gregory by email, "We are reviewing all of the author's manuscripts."

There's more. "Every time Mastriano writes about York, he focuses on York's religious convictions," Gregory told me. "Even in the introduction of his book, Mastriano breaks into a discussion of York's faith," claiming that "people who have tried to attack York's deeds are just attacking his faith and therefore those detractors are an example of cynicism in our age."

Gregory summarized Mastriano's pseudo-scholarly approach this way: "To question Alvin York is to question God. Therefore, anyone who speaks against York is against God and his ability to interact with our daily lives. This is the problem, as I see it, with Christian nationalism and history. Those who write about history through the lens of religion run the risk of writing in a way that creates an ultimatum: If you do not believe that God helped Alvin York, then you do not believe in God."

Christian nationalism provides a compelling, coherent narrative for its proponents — but at the cost of ignoring, rejecting or demonizing anything that does not fit. That includes much of the Bible, as well as the Constitution. It selects the elements it wants and ignores, denies or rejects the rest.

What is "Fourth-Generation Warfare"?

As Frederick Clarkson told me:

Shea, Mastriano and others are coming at this from a "fourth-generation warfare" perspective, seeking to delegitimize the institutions of democracy with a moral narrative that casts them as evil or occupied by evil, and presenting themselves as a moral alternative with a more compelling moral narrative. James Scaminaci is spot on that this is a core strategy of the Christian right in all of its manifestations, and is a good lens through which to view many current events.

He's referring to Scaminaci's essay "Battle Without Bullets: The Christian Right and Fourth Generation Warfare," which described Donald Trump's final campaign argument in 2016 as "a classic example of a right-wing strategy developed in the late 1980s: Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW)," which involves "going beyond the charge that one's individual opponent is wrong or misguided, to claim that the system is illegitimate and one's opponents have no right to power or even to exist."

The hard right in all its manifestations (cultural, religious, militarist, etc.) has always held that liberalism — if not democracy itself — is illegitimate. What's new about 4GW is that it provided the right a shared model of how to systematically delegitimize an opponent. Although 4GW theory's claims of historical accuracy have been severely criticized, it works well as an organizing mythology for its proponents.

In brief, 4GW theory holds that the three prior "generations" of modern warfare involved massed manpower, massed firepower and non-linear maneuver, but we have now reached a new phase: "4GW expands warfare beyond the physical level to include the mental and moral dimensions," Scaminaci explained. "At the highest level of combat — moral conflict — the central objective is to undermine the legitimacy of one's opponent and induce a population to transfer their loyalty from their government to the insurgent." In other words, 4GW normalizes the concept that political opponents are enemy combatants, building on generations of religious conservatives demonizing liberals as evil or demonic.

This mentality and its fruits — if not the explicit theory itself — now informs Trump and his allies' relentless claims that the 2020 election was stolen, along with the GOP's ongoing efforts to make it easier for them to steal the next one. When legitimate office holders use their powers illegitimately to change the system, simultaneously claiming that they're the ones doing everything correctly, that's 4GW at work. It's also the logic behind the "constitutional sheriffs" movement noted above, as well as the state legislatures that tried to interfere with the 2020 election and are now trying to rig all future ones. The same applies to the "Oath Keepers," with their selective list of which oaths they will keep and their assumption of a unilateral right to interpret their meaning and act accordingly.

Christian nationalism helps support all of this, deploying its warped and selective version of Christian faith to attack all other Americans, not to mention other Christians. While pretending to represent the ultimate in Christian belief and American patriotism, it is really a fundamental attack on the core values of both.

The 'third wave of autocratization': Analyzing red-state America's place in a landscape of democratic decay

As the Jan. 6 insurrection recedes in time, media attention is beginning to focus on potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates, including "new faces" like Kristi Noem and Josh Hawley, old also-ran Ted Cruz and others and, of course, Donald Trump. In a representative democracy, it's only natural that elected leaders — or credible potential ones — should be a significant focus of attention.

But there's an air of unreality hovering over all such portrait-mode coverage when a broader landscape view shows that the very survival of democracy is up for grabs — not just in the U.S., where GOP House members are in deep denial about the Jan. 6 insurrection while Republican legislators have introduced voter suppression bills in 47 states, but around the world. The Swedish-based V-Dem Institute's 2021 annual report notes that "the global decline in liberal democracy has been steep during the past 10 years and continues in 2020" and concludes that the "level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020" has fallen "to levels last found around 1990." At that time there was a jubilant buzz about the "End of History." Now there's an undertone of dread that we could "meanly lose, the last best hope of earth," as Abraham Lincoln warned.

Talk of as many as 24 potential GOP candidates in the next cycle recalls pre-2016 talk about the GOP's "deep bench," which, as I noted at the time, was a media-hyped myth. Those andidates fell into three groups: governors with horrible to mediocre job-creation records plus some ex-governors who hadn't run in a while, first-term senators with paper-thin résumés in a particularly dysfunctional Congress, and assorted wild cards, including Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, as well as a certain New York real estate developer turned reality-TV star. I focused primarily on the shared failure of GOP economics, the party's purported strong suit. "The degree to which key articles of GOP economic faith clash with overwhelming expert judgment is staggering — and there's nary a hint of it in most of the media," I wrote. "It's a disconnect reminiscent of global warming, but much less widely recognized."

The problem goes much deeper now, to the shared failure of Republican patriotism, as their party has turned against democracy. While media awareness may be better, without grounding coverage in a "landscape view" of the problem journalists are fumbling the biggest story of our time — the global threat to democracy, and the enormous potential for a renewal that could finally realize democracy's full promise for all.

America's place in a landscape of democratic decay

What's known as the "third wave of autocratization" — characterized by creeping democratic erosion rather than violent coups — continues to spread: V-Dem's report notes that "25 countries, home to 34% of the world's population (2.6 billion people), are in democratic decline by 2020." One especially disturbing highlight "is that India — formerly the world's largest democracy with 1.37 billion inhabitants — turned into an electoral autocracy," meaning a system in which elections continue to be held but the chance of power changing hands is virtually nil. Prior to Jan. 6, the U.S. seemed far from being in a similar situation, but that is effectively what the new wave of GOP voter suppression laws could accomplish, especially with added provisions that jeopardize the post-election process.

America is still a long way from becoming India — but things can change quickly. The U.S. score on V-Dems "Liberal Democracy Index" or LDI is 0.73 (out of a possible 1) while India is less than half that, at 0.34, a precipitous decline since 2010 that places it among the planet's top 10 major "autocratizers." While the U.S. doesn't make that ignominious list, it's marked in red to "signify cases of significant and substantial autocratization." In 2010, the U.S. was among the highest-ranked nations, and is now no longer in the top 30, falling below Chile and Greece, countries with recent histories of military rule.

"The U.S. is somewhat unusual among the decliners," a trio of V-Dem researchers — Anna Lührmann, Dan Pemstein and Juraj Medzihorsky — told Salon via email. "Most of the decliners are reasonably young democracies," they wrote, adding that the U.S. has had a high and stable LDI in their rankings since the civil rights era. "The U.S. is a very different case than India or Brazil and also the various Eastern European countries [which] have much shorter democratic histories, despite being at similar levels in 2010."

The American case, they note, "shows that it is possible for this illiberal playbook, which we're seeing play out in diverse places ranging from Brazil to India, Hungary and Poland, to gain traction even in consolidated liberal democracies."

The party landscape: Even starker

Things look even more perilous from two other landscape views: the landscape of parties across the world, and the landscape of state-level government. A V-Dem briefing paper and its followup, entitled "Walking the Talk: How to Identify Anti-Pluralist Parties," found that the Republican Party has shifted dramatically in recent decades, from being in the same ideological territory as the British Conservative Party in 2000 to the neighborhood of India's Hindu nationalist BJP now, while the Democratic Party has barely moved at all.

"In 2000 the GOP was a party that was clearly committed to democratic standards as listed in the paper," the V-Dem scholars wrote. "In 2018 (the last point of measurement), this commitment was not clearly visible." They continued:

The data shows that the Republican Party in 2018 was far more illiberal (that is anti-pluralist) than almost all other governing parties in democracies. Only very few governing parties in democracies in this millennium (15%) were considered more illiberal than the Republican Party in the U.S. Conversely, the Democratic Party was rated slightly less illiberal than the typical party in democracies. In 2018, the Republican Party scores much higher than almost all parties in democracies on almost all of these indicators.

The shifts they observed were especially dramatic in two of four areas: "demonizes opponents" and "encourages violence."

Given the asymmetric change between the two major American parties, I asked if there were other countries that could shed light on what might happen next, or whether we were in uncharted territory?

"We did not see any sufficiently similar examples that we could bring up," Medzihorsky responded. "Given the information that we have, we refrained from speculation."

The red-state landscape of democratic decay

Another landscape perspective that can shed some light is that of state-level government, explored by University of Washington political scientist Jacob M. Grumbach in a paper called "Laboratories of Democratic Backsliding." Inspired by the V-Dem model, Grumbach developed a measure of subnational democratic performance called the State Democracy Index. He tested a range of different theories about what might contribute to democratic erosion over the period from 2000 to 2018, "based in party competition, polarization, demographic change, and the group interests of national party coalitions." Strikingly, he found "a minimal role for all factors except Republican control of state government, which dramatically reduces states' democratic performance during this period."

I reached out to Grumbach to ask about his findings and their significance. He began by discussing certain consequences of the American federal system:

Even compared to other countries with federalism, American federalism is especially decentralized, giving more control over political institutions to the lower subnational units. This means that the U.S. can experience extreme regional differences in democratic performance, as it did during the slavery and Jim Crow periods. Current regional differences in U.S. democracy aren't as big as they were in Jim Crow, but they're substantial and growing.

Grumbach's data only goes through 2018, but we're now seeing a vast wave of Republican efforts to suppress democracy and crack down on dissent and education, as I discussed in a recent Salon story on conservative "cancel culture." I asked Grumbach where he thought we might be headed.

We've seen 300-something new voter suppression bills out of Republican state legislatures since the 2020 election, as well as anti-protest bills and bills to outlaw particular forms of educational content that challenge nationalistic interpretations of U.S. history. We've also heard continued claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. All of these are threats to key tenets of democracy, including free and fair elections and civil rights and liberties. Although the politics and policy moves have been distinct, we've seen similar threats to democracy in Hungary and Brazil in recent years, which makes me concerned about the global trends.

The V-Dem 2021 report outlines a typical pattern to the process of "autocratization": "Ruling governments first attack the media and civil society and polarize societies by disrespecting opponents and spreading false information, then undermine elections." That seems like a strikingly accurate description of what happened during Trump's four years in the White House. But Grumbach's work points to a lengthy prehistory as well. I asked how we should understand the whole story, from the state-level story he describes through Trump's time in office to the fall-out today. He responded:

This is such an important question. I argue that Trump — and the [Jan. 6] insurrection — were just the latest and most visible manifestations of a longer term antidemocratic trend in the GOP. We've heard about "Stop the Steal" since 2020, but the GOP has for decades been selling conspiracies about mass voter fraud and suggesting that Democratic governance is illegitimate. The GOP currently is a coalition of two groups, an elite coalition of the very wealthy and an electoral base motivated by white identity politics. Both of these groups have an interest in pursuing minority rule through voter suppression, norm erosion, gerrymandering and other tactics.

Finally, Grumbach noted another dimension where partisan differences were minimal:

It's important to note that my main State Democracy Index focuses on electoral democracy, and there you see the GOP leading democratic backsliding. However, when I focus the measure on civil liberties and freedom from state authoritarianism, this kind of illiberalism has been bipartisan. American federalism puts policing and incarceration authority at the state level, and Democratic, divided and Republican state governments have all pursued "tough on crime" policy that has led the U.S. to become the most heavily incarcerated country on earth (more than dictatorships with larger populations).

How that came about is one of three interconnected social policy strands described by Cornell historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann in her 2017 book, "Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America." (I'll be interviewing her for a forthcoming Salon feature.) Last year's Black Lives Matter demonstrations signaled a long-overdue challenge to that wretched bipartisan consensus, forged in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. Because national Democrats have shown at least some willingness to respond to this challenge, Trump and the Republicans have sought to demonize them for it, so this may become another party-polarized dimension — or, more optimistically, part of a new consensus, as suggested by various public opinion polls, as well as the almost 2-to-1 passage of Florida's Amendment 4, which restored ex-felons' voting rights (although that was later gutted by the Republican legislature and governor, an issue now in litigation).

Discerning the differences between the two realms — electoral democracy and civil liberties — is precisely what a landscape view of politics makes possible: differences of history, agency, motivation and possible futures. Making sense of these different landscapes and their relationships is crucial to navigating them — and perhaps making meaningful democratic governance possible.

Denialism vs. democratic decay

Perhaps inevitably, there's a nascent right-wing denialist response that tries to reject any such analysis of democratic decay. At the Free Beacon, Aaron Sibarium wrote a story criticizing Grumbach's scoring system, and more broadly all such systems, called "The Myth of Measuring Democracy." But simply claiming bias and crafting a self-comforting narrative doesn't exactly prove a counter-argument.

Bias could emerge, Sibarium argued, through "the choice of variables used as proxies for democracy and the process by which those proxies are assessed." He attacked Grumbach for the first, and V-Dem for the second:

At least three of the factors that decrease a state's democracy score — voter ID laws, high incarceration rates, and denying felons the right to vote — are things that large majorities of Americans support. According to Grumbach, maximizing democracy means defying the popular will.

Sibarium called V-Dem's framework, "the most balanced," then went on to say that "it too reflects the liberal consensus — because the indicators are all scored by liberal academics."

Both Grumbach and V-Dem offered detailed responses. In essence, Grumbach said, Sibarium assumes that democratic support would make slavery democratic — one answer to what's known as "Wollheim's paradox." Grumbach also said his index includes measures that capture both sides of the paradox, meaning "policy responsiveness to majority opinion and procedural indicators of how costly it is to vote, how gerrymandered districts are, etc."

"Because people might have different opinions on how to measure democracy, I simulate 100,000 different measures that weight indicators differently," Grumbach explained. "Across the 100,000 measures, it is clear that GOP control of state government reduces democratic performance. This finding isn't an artifact of some particular way that I measured democracy."

The V-Dem trio called Sibarium's criticism "part incorrect and part banal." It was incorrect in labeling the expert scorers "liberal academics," they said: Many are outside the academy and they come from all over the world. "Ascribing all of these experts from different countries and backgrounds the same ideology — 'liberal' or otherwise — is simply silly," they said.

The criticism is banal, they said, "because of course the values are a mathematical representation of expert opinion. ... The purpose of the project is to measure concepts that are incredibly important but inherently difficult to observe."

"Scholars have subjected the V-Dem data to a multitude of validity tests, and it has generally held up well," they said. "We also emphasize that our measures exhibit uncertainty — experts disagree! — and provide public estimates of the scale of that uncertainty."

n short, the measures used by V-Dem, Grumbach and others are meant to inform our understanding of how well or poorly democracies are functioning, not to dictate judgments. They don't pretend to tell us everything. The unique status of the U.S. as the highest-ranked democracy to undergo "significant and substantial autocratization," its two-party system with only one party radicalizing, its decentralized federalism and its distinctive, highly contested racial history, among other factors, mean that it's imperative to seek out other approaches as well.

Leaders, norms and violence: A different landscape view

One of the most helpful of those is to look back at our own history, as in Nathan Kalmoe's book "With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War" (Salon interview here). Kalmoe has a lot to say about how political leaders and partisan media affect the potential for violence — another example of a "landscape mode" effect, as opposed to a "portrait mode" direct-causation account.

"Whether looking at U.S. history or cross-nationally at politics around the world," Kalmoe said in a more recent exchange, "party leaders, including media figures, play a key role in how ordinary partisans think and act. That extends to extremes like violence."

Leaders both embody and influence group thinking in multiple ways, he said:

Leaders are experts whose judgment their followers trust, and leaders are seen as definitional group members whose words and deeds set the norms for the group. Party leaders are especially influential when they simultaneously represent multiple political and social identities (e.g., race, religion), and those group alignments make violence more likely.
Leaders mobilize violence in many ways, not just direct calls for violence, though those may be most powerful. They also encourage violence with their failure to condemn violence by their own group, by violent metaphors and coy remarks implicitly supporting that violence, and by using vilifying and dehumanizing language that makes it easier for group members to rationalize harming their opponents.
Leaders set norms for the group and those norms can shift overnight. In conventional politics, for example, we see instant 10 or 15 point swings in policy views among partisans when top leaders endorse a policy, even when it goes against the party's ideology. In the historical context of Civil War violence, northern Democrats followed their party in initially supporting and then violently rejecting the war to uphold Lincoln's election, including a change in their willingness to kill and die in that war.

Once a new group norm is established, Kalmoe continued, "leaders and group members then police the new bounds, silencing and expelling dissidents within the group. We're seeing that now with Republicans rallying around defense of Trump's multifaceted attempts to reject his loss in a free and fair election."

In short, despite the unique situation we find ourselves in, there's nothing exceptional, or even especially unusual, about the partisan leadership dynamics involved.

Profound change? Landscape of a possible future

But in a broader sense our situation may be historically unique, as suggested by Ian Hughes, author of "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy" (Salon interview here.) Hughes combines studies of key 20th-century pathocracies (Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, etc.) through the lens of the "the toxic triangle" — destructive leaders, susceptible followers and conducive environments — with an argument that democracy can be understood as a multi-layer defense system against such disordered leaders and the pathocracies they create.

"This system of defenses comprises the rule of law, electoral democracy, the principle of liberal individualism that underpins the separation of church and state, social democracy and legal protection for human rights," Hughes explains. Those principles have all come under relentless attack during the Trump era, in ways for which we were woefully unprepared. But now there's a chance to recover, and rebuild.

Now that he's stripped of official power, "Trump is not the real issue anymore," Hughes told me via email. He sees "an opportunity to step back, understand the big picture" and "move the U.S. and the world onto a better path," not just a slightly improved one.

"We are at a historic moment of profound change," Hughes said, going on to explain:

Most of the social institutions that have been holding society together, however brutally and inequitably, are failing. They are failing in two senses. First, they have contributed to what Biden referred to in his Inaugural Address as the cascading crises of our time — climate change, species extinction, levels of inequality within and between nations that are undermining social cohesion and international order, the erosion of democracy and the persistence of authoritarianism, and the emergence of cultures of animosity, polarization and blame. The list goes on. These cascading crises are the fruit of failing systems of economics, politics, technology, gender, religion and education.
These social institutions are also failing in a second sense. Not only have they helped create the multiple crises we face, they are also (as Einstein might have said) incapable of resolving these crisis, given the level of thinking they are trapped within.

Hughes sees much more than a landscape of failures. "There is also hope, enormous hope," he said. "For each of the social institutions I listed above there is a global movement aimed at building something new, of making that radical rupture with existing paradigms." He continued:

In economics, for example, there is a whole variety of movements exploring "beyond growth" economics, circular economies, economies where care is recognized and rewarded, an economics that can rein in the parasitic and destructive system of contemporary financial capitalism, and so on. The same is true for gender and race with the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter movement being part of a much broader reimagining of societies where participation and diversity lead to radical system transformations. Well-being and spiritual movements are questioning the valorization of material wealth as the epitome of human development and are reclaiming values of empathy, cooperation and love from their monopolization by organized religion. In the area of technology, movements demanding the responsible development of new technologies and the taming of the destructive uses of existing technologies now have global reach.

Conventional, portrait-mode analysts look at Joe Biden's agenda in terms of distinct issue categories — pandemic relief, infrastructure, voting rights and so on, and consider the major political actors in each realm. But Hughes' description of democracy as a multi-layer defense system suggests a more expansive landscape viewpoint, with a powerful central theme.

From that perspective, Hughes said, "Biden's agenda can be assessed by the degree to which it can successfully join up all the 'rivers of progressive change' and empowers them further as a means of dismantling the structures that continue to shore up Trump and the pathological incarnation of the GOP," Hughes said. The central question, then, is "to what extent can Biden not bring the U.S. back to normal, but help bring about something new."

The portrait-mode approach to politics naturally favors the "return to normal" orientation. Familiar figures doing familiar things, to familiar praise, regardless of the medium- or long-term results. But a landscape view more readily accommodates change: We can at least potentially see different pathways, different destinations and even imagine different landscapes that might become visible if we stood on different, distant peaks.

"The degree to which Biden is able to empower these forces for building something new is also the degree to which he will have successfully constrained the former guy and his yesterday's men in the GOP," Hughes said. "In a sense, Trump and the GOP are a perfect fit for our dysfunctional times. Biden's challenge — and the challenge of any democratic leader at this historic moment — is to change our times so that Trump and his fellow authoritarian narcissists stand out as the misfits they truly are."

Conservatives claim to hate 'cancel culture' — but it's the heart of the right-wing agenda

You know who's not canceled? The endless parade of conservative pundits and politicians complaining about "cancel culture." You know who is canceled? George Floyd is canceled. Breonna Taylor is canceled. Ma'Khia Bryant is canceled. Andrew Brown Jr. is canceled. They are the true victims in America's longest-running culture war. Anyone who tells you different is just gaslighting. You want "cancel culture"? America is plagued with cancel culture. And no one is more American than conservatives, as they never cease reminding you.

Despite earlier boutique appeal, the term "cancel culture" had only faintly registered with the broader public before the July Fourth holiday last year (Google trends), when then-President Donald Trump gave a speech at Mount Rushmore, warning of "a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for," and saying that his opponents' "political weapons" included ''cancel culture' — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees."

It was a ludicrous accusation coming from the man who's signature line — "You're fired!" — was the quintessential expression of actually-existing cancel culture. More recently, Trump had been the main driver of the cancellation of NFL Colin Kaepernick, demanding not just that the NFL quarterback be fired, but driven from the country. That absurdity prompted CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale to post a list of people or institutions Trump had called out to cancel on Twitter over the years, ranging from corporations like AT&T, Apple and Macy's to newspapers like the Dallas Morning News and the Arizona Republic to liberal commentators like Paul Krugman and Touré and even conservatives like Karl Rove, Rich Lowry, Charles Krauthammer and Jonah Goldberg.

But now that Trump himself has been canceled by the votes of 81,268,924 Americans, "cancel culture" has become a go-to weapon of choice for Trumpian conservatives, fueled by a branded string of stories in conservative media, including the New York Post, Breitbart, the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire. With Trump himself no longer dominating news cycles 24/7, there's a huge void to fill. Conservative "cancel culture" panic helps fill that void by providing a shared cookie-cutter framework to both fuel and give shape to that panic — which is in fact a genuine cultural panic about the white right's loss of power to impose its worldview, and resulting judgments, on others. To hold onto power, conservatives are committed to building the "cancel culture" narrative, casting themselves as victims — along the lines of my December Salon story on perceived victimhood.

A meaningfully meaningless term

As Media Matters editor Parker Malloy argues, regarding the terms "cancel culture," "woke" and "identity politics": "Whatever real definitions these words had before they were co-opted by the right have been diluted to the point of meaninglessness." For conservatives, that meaninglessness is a feature, not a bug. Those words mean whatever a right-wing accuser needs them to mean in the moment. They are talismanic terms, representing the very cultural power the right feels itself losing in today's rapidly changing world. "Cancel culture" in particular has a profound Orwellian or even Nietzschean power: a transvaluation of values, transforming a moment of existential loss into one of triumph, at least for as long as we let them get away with it.

There are, however, two modest constraints on meaning we can observe: the notions that cancel culture is something new, and that it comes exclusively from the left. The reality is exactly the opposite. For as long as culture has been changing, conservatives have tried to stop it by suppressing or demonizing anything that challenges their worldview. Not all conservatives, of course, and not in all ways. But this has been a central thrust of conservative thought, not just in the modern political era, when the terms "liberal" and "conservative" emerged, but as far back as ancient Greece, as Eric Alfred Havelock showed in "The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics."

In American history we can see dramatic examples of conservative cancel culture in the Alien and Sedition Acts, in the 4,743 post-Civil War lynchings to terrorize and suppress black political power, in the post-World War I Palmer Raids, in which 10,000 were arrested and 556 deported, in the McCarthy era, during which hundreds were imprisoned and 10,000 to 12,000 Americans lost their jobs — including the long-neglected anti-gay Lavender Scare — and in the FBI's COINTELPRO Program, which targeted the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements, labelling Martin Luther King Jr.'s SCLC as a Black nationalist "hate group." Trump's obsession with canceling people he fears fits squarely within this historical tradition. After all, his political mentor and second father-figure was Joe McCarthy's lead investigator, Roy Cohn. We shouldn't be the least bit surprised or confused by the cancel culture hysteria being promoted today as a front for the same evils it pretends to be fighting against.

Still, the term itself is new compared to this centuries-long history, so it warrants clarification. In early April, the Washington Post's Clyde McGrady provided an excellent guide, "The strange journey of 'cancel,' from a Black-culture punchline to a White-grievance watchword." McGrady offers a concise cultural history, from legendary songwriter/producer Nile Rodgers' experience with a bad date, rendered into the 1981 Chic song "Your Love Is Cancelled" to its appearance in "New Jack City" a decade later to 2000s songs "Hustler's Ambition" by 50 Cent and "I'm Single" by Lil Wayne and finally to Black Twitter.

"Declaring someone or something 'canceled' on Twitter was not really an attempt to activate a boycott or run anyone from the public square," McGrady explains. "Saying someone was 'canceled' was more like changing the channel — and telling your friends and followers about it — than demanding that the TV execs take the program off the air."

It's worth highlighting that Rodgers' bad-date experience at the root of all this sprang from his working-class common man rejection of tossing his cultural weight around:

[A]t heart, he was still a humble kid whose parents had struggled with drug addiction and who felt fortunate to have made it as far as he did. So, when his date asked the maître d' to remove people from a table so they could sit there instead, Rodgers bristled. …

Her attempt to use his celebrity to push people around was a dealbreaker. "No, no, no, I don't do that," Rodgers remembered explaining. "I don't play that card."

In short, canceling everyday people in the way that conservatives portray "cancel culture" to work was the exact opposite of what motivated Rodgers to coin the term in the first place, as well as how it's been used on Twitter. Think about that anytime you hear the term used.

You should also think of everything conservatives are doing — or trying to do — right now to cancel the views of those they disagree with. The following are just a few prominent examples. In each case, it's about those who wield power "canceling" — or at least trying to cancel — those who would challenge them. Their efforts to cancel democracy at the ballot box (with 361 bills in 47 states as of March 24) and in the streets (81 anti-protest bills in 34 states as of April 21) are deadly serious threats to American democracy.

But the right's most persistent, long-running cancel-culture attacks center on education. As Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting noted on William F. Buckley's death, "Buckley's career began in 1951 with the publication of 'God and Man at Yale,' an attack on his alma mater that urged the firing of professors whom he felt were insufficiently hostile to socialism and atheism."

Cancel culture in education

In March, Boise State University abruptly suspended all 52 sections of a required general education course, "Foundations of Ethics & Diversity," citing "allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values." Suspending 52 sections of a required course without investigation for perhaps a single student complaint is of course wildly out of bounds, as pointed out by John K. Wilson at the Academe blog:

Even if one instructor had done something terrible in one class, that would only justify (in the most extreme cases) suspending that instructor temporarily and finding a substitute to continue the class. It could not justify suspending all 52 classes in which there was no evidence of any misconduct.

Shedding light on the over-reaction, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported, "The cancellation of the classes comes after more than a year of lawmakers' efforts to rein in classes at Idaho universities and colleges." But the legislature wasn't acting on its own, as Wilson made clear:

The Idaho legislators are being pressured by right-wing nonprofits who demand censorship of liberal ideas on campus. A December 2020 report from the right-wing Idaho Freedom Foundation and the Claremont Institute declared that "eliminating social justice initiatives at Idaho's universities is necessary for meaningful reform, as well as disrupting their ability to provide stable careers for social justice advocates." The report called for the state legislature to act by "penalizing universities that continue to emphasize social justice education." This report urged the state legislature to violate academic freedom and ban classes it deemed too liberal: "Direct the University to eliminate courses that are infused with social justice Ideology." Leading right-wing think tanks are actively demanding a ban on courses based on their ideology. This is an example of conservative cancel culture far more extreme than anything pushed by left-wing activists.

The report doesn't just call for eliminating individual courses, however. It calls for the elimination of five whole departments — Gender Studies, Sociology, Global Studies, Social Work and History — that it claims are infused with "social justice" ideology. (A sixth blacklisted department has since been added: Criminal Justice.) Eight other departments (later updated to nine) are on a watch list of sorts, judged to be "social justice in training." What conservatives want here is strikingly similar to what Viktor Orbán has done in Hungary, where he's just announced the privatization of 11 public universities, to be run by political allies.

Boise State's recklessly illegal actions are just the tip of the iceberg. On April 15, Education Week reported that Republican lawmakers in eight states (including Idaho) have drafted bills restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. "The bills use similar language as an executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity trainings for federal workers," it reported.

Georgetown political scientist Donald Moynihan saw all this coming years ago. In a New York Times op-ed just before Trump took office, Moynihan — then at the University of Wisconsin — focused attention on what was really happening where he worked.

"At least three times in the past six months, state legislators have threatened to cut the budget of the University of Wisconsin at Madison for teaching about homosexuality, gender and race," his article began. All the discussions focused on the dangers of "political correctness" (the buzzword of choice before "cancel culture") bore no relation to his own experience teaching at public universities in three states over 14 years. "Students can protest on the campus mall, demanding that policies be changed; elected officials can pass laws or cut resources to reflect their beliefs about how a campus should operate," he wrote. "One group has much more power than the other."

I asked Moynihan about how he came to write that piece when he did. Here's what he said:

I was first engaged on speech issues when the then-governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, proposed to remove "the search for truth" from my university's mission statement. (He would later claim it was a typo.) He then reduced tenure protections for faculty and new policies that would have made it easier to bring guns on campus.

Republican politicians would talk about free speech on campus, but seemed to be intent on eroding the conditions to protect such speech. Politicians were also willing to target faculty members. The chair of the Assembly Higher Education committee started monitoring faculty syllabi and calling for the firing of faculty whose courses he did not like.

That was when I spoke out…. It seemed deeply unfair that state officials would so blatantly use their power to determine what was, and what was not, acceptable speech. ...

Soon after a Ben Shapiro talk was interrupted for about 10 minutes the legislature proposed and the conservative Board of Regents adopted a new set of policies that they said protected free speech but effectively forced campuses to punish students for protest. Our Board of Regents was almost uniformly conservative appointees who seemed to see it as their job to attack the institution they had been appointed to represent.

I'll have more to say about Shapiro's role below. But it's part of a broader campaign. "Conservatives have been successful at demonizing the people who work on campus — faculty, staff and students — as threats to free speech," Moynihan told me. "Attacking universities became a staple of the far right, propelled by an entire ecosystem of media funded by donors like the Koch or DeVos families, such as Campus Reform. [More on them below, too.] Tucker Carlson had a themed segment called 'Campus Craziness.'"

Worse than that, Moynihan said:

The mainstream media bought it. It wasn't just on the right. Journalists at the Atlantic or writers in the New York Times told us that students were becoming dangerously intolerant, and faculty were brainwashing them. My op-ed in the Times was one of the few that pushed against that general narrative. The dominant narrative, even in places like the New York Times, was that conservative speech was being suppressed, and the students and faculty were the villains. Someone counted this! They found that over an 18-month stretch, there were 21 op-eds about the suppression of conservative speech but just three, including mine, on conservative threats to speech.

Remember: Moynihan's op-ed ran just days before Trump took office, having made complaints about "political correctness" a recurrent campaign theme.

"Once the general narrative was established, even trivial examples — students at Oberlin complaining about food names - were presented as serious and representative threats to speech," Moynihan continued. "There were also a series of college tours by people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro who said offensive things designed to enrage people, and then generated protests and interruptions that embellished their brands as fearless free-speech champions."

In March 2018, Sanford Ungar reported on results from the Georgetown Free Speech Tracker:

[M]ost of the incidents where presumptively conservative speech has been interrupted or squelched in the last two or three years seem to involve the same few speakers: Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter…. In some instances, they seem to invite, and delight in, disruption.

At Vox, Zack Beauchamp put a finer point on it:

What Ungar is suggesting here is that the "campus free speech" crisis is somewhat manufactured. Conservative student groups invite speakers famous for offensive and racially charged speech — all of the above speakers fit that bill — in a deliberate attempt to provoke the campus left. In other words, they're trolling.

Trolling takes other forms as well, as Alice Speri reported for the Intercept in early April. Her story carried the subhead, "Campus Reform and its publisher, the Leadership Institute, are siccing armies of trolls on professors across the country." Campus Reform purports to expose "liberal bias and abuse on the nation's college campuses," but regularly relies on misrepresentation, first to elicit faculty comments and then to mis-report them, making them seem as sinister as possible. "Over the last several years, Campus Reform has targeted hundreds of college professors," Speri reported, "leading to online harassment campaigns, doxxing, threats of violence, and calls on universities to fire their faculty."

A Trinity College assistant professor, Isaac Kamola, "has tracked more than 1,570 stories posted on Campus Reform since 2020 and surveyed the 338 individuals they targeted." He "found that at least 40 percent of respondents received 'threats of harm' following a Campus Reform article, mostly via email and social media." She goes on to say, "Less than half the people surveyed by Kamola reported receiving support from their universities' administrations, and more than 12 percent reported facing disciplinary action as a result of a Campus Reform story. Three people said they lost their jobs."

In short, they were canceled. And no one put them on national TV to talk about it. That's just one more way in which conservative gaslighting about cancel culture advances the very thing conservatives claim to be concerned about.

"Having created the narrative of the intolerant liberal campus as a problem, conservative politicians could propose a solution," Moynihan continued. "They could make a case for why their policing of speech on campus was actually protecting free speech. They effectively persuaded many that politicians should be trusted to monitor speech on campus, more than the people who lived on campus and have historically done a pretty good job of protecting speech."

But none of this matched reality. "Wisconsin has a long history of protest and counter-protest on campus, some of it quite violent. The idea that students had suddenly become aggressive seemed clearly wrong to me," Moynihan recalled. "These terms I kept hearing just did not fit with my experience with the students I engaged with. The gap between my lived experience on campus and what was being portrayed in the media was large."

At the same time, "I looked around the world and saw a very disturbing trend: Authoritarian governments in places like Hungary, Turkey and China were policing speech on campus as part of their effort to stifle dissent, using many of the same tools that U.S. state legislatures are adopting," Moynihan said. "For example, a bill in Florida encourages students to record and monitor their professors to expose their views. What could be more chilling to speech in the classroom? This is the same tool that China uses to control universities: Student informers report any dissent against the party."

Canceling democracy at the ballot box

Trump's refusal to accept his defeat in the 2020 election was the epitome of attempting to cancel democracy. But it was only an intensification of processes already underway. Republicans have only won the popular vote for president once in eight elections since 1988. They have not represented a majority of voters in the Senate since 1996. Their $30 million REDMAP project in 2010 created the most sweeping partisan redistricting of the House in US history, as former Salon editor in chief David Daley recounted in "Ratf**ked." Baseless claims of voter fraud have been repeatedly invoked in justifying and motivating voter suppression efforts. More broadly, a new study of state-level democratic backsliding since 2000 found that "Republican control of state government, however, consistently and profoundly reduces state democratic performance during this time period."

Still, what's happening now goes considerably further. A majority of Republicans refuse to believe Biden legitimately won the election, leading to an avalanche of new voter suppression bills — 361 bills in 47 states as of March 24, according to the Brennan Center, which reported:

Most restrictive bills take aim at absentee voting, while nearly a quarter seek stricter voter ID requirements. State lawmakers also aim to make voter registration harder, expand voter roll purges or adopt flawed practices that would risk improper purges, and cut back on early voting.

Sharply underscoring the cancel culture motivations — the conflict between established state power and shifting public opinion — the report continued: "The states that have seen the largest number of restrictive bills introduced are Texas (49 bills), Georgia (25 bills), and Arizona (23 bills). Bills are actively moving in the Texas and Arizona statehouses, and Georgia enacted an omnibus voter suppression bill last week."

The most infamous aspect of the Georgia law is its restriction on giving water to people waiting in long lines to vote. But as election law expert Rick Hasen explained in a New York Times op-ed, there's something even more sinister involved, a "new threat of election subversion" that "represent[s] a huge threat to American democracy itself." Specifically, "The Georgia law removes the secretary of state from decision-making power on the state election board," which is aimed at Brad Raffensperger, who refused to "find" 11,780 votes to overturn Biden's victory. "But the changes will apply to Mr. Raffensperger's successor, too, giving the legislature a greater hand in who counts votes and how they are counted," Hasen explained.

It's hardly an isolated case, he noted: "According to a new report by Protect Democracy, Law Forward and the States United Democracy Center, Republican legislators have proposed at least 148 bills in 36 states that could increase the chances of cooking the electoral books." More precisely, the press release says:

Many of the bills would make elections more difficult to administer or even unworkable; make it more difficult to finalize election results; allow for election interference and manipulation by hyper-partisan actors; and, in the worst cases, allow state legislatures to overturn the will of the voters and precipitate a democracy crisis. If these bills had been in place in 2020, they would have significantly added to the turmoil of the post-election period, and raised the prospect that the outcome of the election would have been contrary to the popular vote.

This is what a real cancel culture crisis looks like. And it's 100% conservative from top to bottom. There are of course some individual conservatives who strongly object — but nowhere near enough.

Canceling democracy in the streets

But democracy doesn't begin and end at the polls. The First Amendment protects basic freedoms that make meaningful democracy possible, including "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Republicans have been busy trying to cancel our democracy on this front as well, with 81 anti-protest bills introduced in 34 states during the 2021 legislative session, "more than twice as many proposals as in any other year, according to Elly Page, a senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law," the New York Times reported on April 21. (Those laws are tracked here.)

"Republican legislators in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed bills granting immunity to drivers whose vehicles strike and injure protesters in public streets," the Times reported. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. "We've seen at least 15 bills introduced that would create new immunity for drivers who hit protesters with their cars," Page's colleague Nick Robinson told Democracy Now! on April 26. That just one of many objectionable features in a recently-passed Florida bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed while claiming it was as "anti-rioting." The ACLU of Florida characterized it instead as "anti-protest." Just three people would be enough to constitute a "riot" and 26 would constitute an "aggravated riot," potentially facing long prison sentences.

"Under this new bill, let's say you just go to a protest, and a handful of people kick over a trash can. Just by being part of that crowd, you can be arrested and prosecuted for rioting and face a felony," Robinson explained. "Actually, under the law, no one actually has to commit any violence at all. If there's just a danger to property, then people can be arrested for rioting."

In short, this a naked governmental power grab, meant to squelch popular protest, and aimed specificallyat Black Lives Matter protesters. How do we know? Florida lawmakers said as much, and they included a provision blocking any Florida city or county from cutting police budgets without explicit permission from the state.

Conservative anti-protest cancel culture is nothing new, of course. The Palmer Raids were supposed to head off a Russian Revolution-style violent uprising, but only turned up a total of four pistols from thousands of arrests. More recently, Republican state lawmakers have focused on criminalizing climate activism, as the Brennan Center reported in March:

Since 2016, 13 states have quietly enacted laws that increase criminal penalties for trespassing, damage, and interference with infrastructure sites such as oil refineries and pipelines. At least five more states have already introduced similar legislation this year.

The laws are based on post-9/11 national security legislation to protect vital physical infrastructure, "but most state critical infrastructure laws focus more narrowly on oil and gas pipelines," the Center noted. "While protecting critical infrastructure is a legitimate government function, these laws clearly target environmental and Indigenous activists by significantly raising the penalties for participating in or even tangentially supporting pipeline trespassing and property damage, crimes that are already illegal."

And there's one final conservative cancel culture twist: the question of who's calling the shots:

Many laws are modeled on draft legislation prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC, a powerful lobbying group funded by fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Shell.

Cancel culture In Congress

Those are three broad areas where conservative cancel culture is both widespread and deeply dangerous to democracy. But that's hardly the whole story. Consider what's happened with two key Biden appointments, Vanita Gupta, for Associate Attorney General, and Kristen Clarke to head the DOJ Civil Rights Division. Both were subject to dishonest, racist right-wing smear campaigns, as CNN reported, and Gupta was confirmed 51-49, with just one Republican vote (Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) on April 21. Both were relentlessly portrayed as dangerous extremists, when they've actually been leaders of mainstream civil rights organizations — the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (Gupta) and Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights Under Law (Clarke). Both were attacked for supposedly being anti-police (no racial stereotyping there, right?) even though both had been endorsed by police organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police (Gupta) and the Major Cities Chiefs Association (Clarke).

The attacks on them were part of a broader pattern of attacks on nominees who are women and/or people of color, including Xavier Becerra (Health and Human Services), Deb Haaland (Department of Interior) and Neera Tanden (Office of Management and Budget). Becerra was confirmed 50-49 — with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine as his only GOP vote — while Tanden's nomination was withdrawn.

All this is simply accepted as normal now, but it's prima facie evidence of a concerted conservative cancel-culture effort to stifle the voices of key Democratic constituencies. It's visible in the broad reach of voter suppression efforts, of protest suppression efforts and curriculum suppression efforts as well. They've all but given up on advancing anything like a governing agenda. At the Atlantic, Ron Brownstein observed:

With their opposition to President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan, Republicans are doubling down on a core bet they've made for his presidency: that the GOP can maintain support among its key constituencies while fighting programs that would provide those voters with tangible economic assistance.

To accomplish that, they have to cancel reality itself. No problem — Republicans have been doing that for decades. The only difference now is that they've stopped doing anything else.

Why is online political culture so distorted and awful? Sociologist explains why — and how to fix it

It's become commonplace to speak about online political culture as a set of echo chambers that only serve to reinforce our existing views — but is that really the best way to understand it? Absolutely not, says Duke sociologist Chris Bail in his new book, "Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing."

The echo chamber metaphor tells us something about what's happening online, but not enough to guide us toward discovering solutions, Bail argues. In fact, it can be misleading, because breaking people out of echo chambers doesn't make them less polarized — it does the opposite, as Bail discovered with the first experiment on the pathway that led to this book.

What's more, online polarization is only one facet of the problem. "I believe the rapidly growing gap between social media and real life is one of the most powerful sources of political polarization in our era," Bail writes. You could even argue that people are internally polarized between their online and offline selves — though in very different ways for different sorts of people.

Bail's first book, "Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream" was a nuanced exploration of how a tiny handful of fringe anti-Muslim organizations managed to hijack the public discourse about Islam (Salon interview here.) Innovative explorations of online data were a central part of his analysis, along with a diverse mix of other approaches. His new book deals with generalized versions of many of the same themes explored in "Terrified," using a similarly mixed-method approach to gathering data — most notably via in-depth interviews with subjects of online experiments, whose results in turn are compared with a wide range of other research. But what's most telling is Bail's central insight into the root of the problem.

"We use social media platforms as if they were a giant mirror that can help us understand our place within society," he writes. "But they are more like prisms that bend and refract our social environment — disturbing our sense of ourselves, and each other." While more attention has been focused on the polarizing dynamics of extremists, theirs is not the only story that matters.

"The most pernicious effects of the prism operate upon the far larger group of social media users who are appalled by online extremism and eager to find middle ground," Bail observes. We are also misled by perceptions of much greater polarization than actually exists, a "feedback loop between the social media prism and false polarization," as Bail puts it. "One of the most important messages I'd like readers to take away from this book," he writes, "is that social media has sent false polarization into hyperdrive."

What's happening isn't necessarily something new and strange, Bail argues, just because the setting may be.

"We are addicted to social media not because it provides us with flashy eye candy or endless distractions, but because it helps us do something we humans are hard-wired to do: present different versions of ourselves, observe what other people think of them, revise our identities accordingly," Bail writes. This applies to moderates as well as extremists. "Although we scan our social environment, consciously or unconsciously, we are often quite wrong about what other people think," he continues — and the distorting prism of social media only compounds this problem.

The prism metaphor represents a shift in analytic frameworks so clarifying and compelling that it reminds me of the Copernican revolution. "Our focus on Silicon Valley obscures a much more unsettling truth: the root source of political tribalism on social media lies deep inside ourselves," Bail argues. Echo chambers are still there, just as the Moon still revolves around the Earth, but the larger landscape has been radically transformed, and things fit together in promising new ways.

Bail spends his first three chapters dealing with "the legend of the echo chamber" and what happens when we break out of it, and then looking at typical extremists and moderates, before focusing squarely on the social media prism itself.

Offering a thumbnail diagnosis, Bail says, "The social media prism fuels status-seeking extremists, mutes moderates who think there is little to be gained by discussing politics on social media and leaves most of us with profound misgivings about those on the other side, and even the scope of polarization itself." ("Status-seeking extremists," it should be noted, are not the same thing as strong partisans. How and why their views are held sets them apart.)

Getting rid of social media is unrealistic, he argues — it's become too much a part of our lives. But there are both bottom-up and top-down ways of reshaping our online experience. We can all make our own online experience more consensus-seeking, rather than divisive, and entire social media platforms could shift incentives — or new platforms could be intentionally created for that purpose.

Every one of Bail's chapters threads together multiple lines of thought — some dating back decades or centuries — interweaving the frontiers of online social science research with the traditions they emerge from. In the first chapter, he highlights the origins of social network research in the late 1940s with sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton, for example, and the origins of the term "echo chamber" in a 1960s book by political scientist V.O. Key.

In Chapter 4, he goes back even further. "One of the most ancient ideas in Western thought is that rational deliberation will produce better societies," Bail notes, an "idea [that] gained momentum during the Enlightenment." It's a noble idea with a persistent vaporware problem. Bail gives a lightning-quick description, passing from French salon culture through Jürgen Habermas' account of mass communications as echoing aspects of salon culture in a newly-created mass public and on to early internet fantasies of realizing salon culture online, which he describes as "a heavily idealized vision" that "may now seem whimsical," but whose basic logic "continues to motivate many technology leaders." (Note the name of this online publication, founded in 1995.)

As Bail puts it, our experience suggests that "social media are less like an eighteenth century salon and more like a sprawling football field on which our instincts are guided by the color of our uniforms instead of our prefrontal cortexes." There are ways to mitigate the situation, as he argues in his last two chapters. But doing so requires a lot of careful rethinking about the behavior, motivations and perceptions of both extremists and moderates.

Destructive extremist trolls do a lot to drive polarization, rooted in their own sense of powerlessness. "Many people with strong partisan views do not participate in such destructive behavior," Bail writes. "But the people who do often act this way because they feel marginalized, lonely, or disempowered in their offline lives. Social media offer such social outcasts another path."

In a section titled "Lonely Trolls," Bail notes that one such extremist "repeatedly mentioned that he had 'a couple thousand quote followers,' and he was truly proud to court count several prominent conservative leaders among them." But it turned out this person "only had about 200 followers," and "the high-profile conservatives he thought were following him we're actually people with copycat accounts."

Though isolated in their offline lives, trolls often coordinate with one another online, including launching attacks on their perceived enemies, which "serve a ritual function that pushes extremists closer together." Some extremists are political converts, particularly keen to prove their new loyalties as a kind of ongoing purification ritual.

Another purification ritual that extremists of all sorts engage in is to attack moderates on their own side. What's more, some closely monitor their followers, and can be even more savage in attacking anyone who stops following them. This leads to a broader comment about cult-like dynamics. "Proving one membership in a cult often becomes a sort of ritual," Bail writes, "in which members reward each other for taking increasingly extreme positions to prove their loyalty to the cause."

Bail concludes his chapter on extremists by identifying two interrelated processes driving such radicalization: It normalizes extremism on one's own side and exaggerates that on the other side. The more intensely extremists interact with each other, the easier it becomes to believe that everyone thinks that way. Thus, Bail writes, "At the same time that the prism makes one's own extremism reasonable — or even normal — it makes the other side seem more aggressive, extreme, and uncivil."

But extremists are only part of the story, Bail argues. "The most pernicious effects of the prism operate upon the far larger group of social media users who are appalled by online extremism and eager to find middle ground." The overrepresentation of extremists doesn't just drown out the voices of such "moderates," but discourages them from speaking up in the first place — not just for fear of attack by extremists, but also for fear of being mistaken for extremists themselves. Most people care more about social relations than they do about politics — particularly national politics. "Moderates Have Too Much to Lose," as one of Bail's sections is titled.

So the decision not to engage with politics online is a perfectly rational one for the vast majority of people. But it doesn't have to be, if the online experience can be changed. What's central to doing that is disrupting the aforementioned feedback loop between social media and false polarization. In the chapter dealing with bottom-up approaches, Bail describes three learning strategies "to hack the social media prism." First comes learning to see and understand how the prism distorts both our own identities and other people's. Second is learning to see ourselves through the prism and to monitor how our behavior gives the prism its power. Third is learning how to break the prism by changing those behaviors, replacing them with more productive ways of engaging with ideological allies and opponents alike.

It's a challenging task, but recent social science research suggests it's more doable than you might think. Bail and his colleagues have spent years developing new tools to help facilitate the process (available at Duke's Polarization Lab.).

One of the simplest tools is the "Troll-O-Meter": Answer six questions about an account and you can calculate the probability that you're dealing with a troll. Further help is offered with a chart of the most common terms used by political trolls over the last three years and the advice, "Take a look through the last dozen tweets of the person you think might be trolling you."

Users are invited to "Check out our tools for identifying and connecting with moderates who do not share your political views, as well as our issue-tracker that identifies the topics where research indicates you are most likely to find compromise."

Bail's discussion in the book, as well as the online instructions and explanations, help explain the logic of the approach, but three insights are worth highlighting. First is the concept of a "latitude of acceptance," meaning a range of attitudes one finds reasonable, even if one might not initially agree with them. Encountering ideas within one's latitude of acceptance makes one more likely to engage, and perhaps even end up agreeing.

Second is the value of listening. Rather than just jumping in feet first, Bail says, "Take some time to study what those people care about and, more importantly, how they talk about it." Arguments that resonate with the worldviews of others are inherently more persuasive. Third is to avoid talking about polarizing opinion leaders. People have low confidence in leaders generally, and such conversations tend to divert attention from ideas and issues back to identities.

While these bottom-up strategies can improve online discourse, in his last chapter Bail argues that "the only way we can create lasting improvement is to create a new playing field." This might seem improbable given the dominance of Facebook and Twitter, but "taking the long view teaches us that platforms come and go," he writes, and he's not looking for a new behemoth.

"I think there is room for a new platform for political discussion," Bail argues. "Would everyone use it? Of course not." But the social science is clear: "Most people get their opinions about politics from friends, family members or colleagues who proactively seek information about politics, regularly engage with others about such information, and care enough about issues to try and influence people in their social networks who trust their opinion."

Bail is agnostic about how such a platform might be created, but does discuss an experimental effort to explore how such a platform might work: an anonymous issue-based discussion forum that proved both depolarizing and enjoyable for participants. Whether that could be scaled up as a business, nonprofit or government-funded entity remains to be seen. But the basic principle seems clearly established, and the need is inarguable.

Existing social media platforms are politically dysfunctional because they were never supposed to be otherwise. "What's the purpose of Facebook?" Bail asks. "The company calls its mission is to 'bring the world closer together' but the platform began as a sophomoric tool that Harvard undergraduates used to read each other's physical attractiveness." And other platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram, had equally banal beginnings. No one's really tried to build a platform that would actively and intentionally promote the practice of democracy. With the clarion call of this book, perhaps that may change.

But will that be enough? Bail's analysis of the problem of online polarization is clarifying and compelling, but it's not the only mega-problem facing us, and I couldn't stop thinking about that as I read the book. Nor could I ignore other efforts to build consensus and strengthen dialogic politics, including ones I've written about before, such as "deliberative polling" with James Fishkin, or "citizens' assemblies" with Claudia Chwalisz.

So I had some questions to ask Bail about how his work fits into the larger framework of problems and possibilities facing us today. This supplementary interview, conducted by email, has been edited for length and clarity.

You analyze our current social media environment and point to ways it could be made less polarizing and more conducive to good government. Your analysis focuses on polarization as a group-identity based problem. While it seems reasonable that reducing polarization is necessary, it's not necessarily a sufficient condition for a healthy democracy. Reducing polarization after the Civil War led us to three generations of white supremacy under Jim Crow. You're advancing a major rethinking of online political culture, and it seems crucial to address that.

I am certainly aware of the broader public debate about the place of polarization, vis-a-vis other pressing social issues. I have a few general concerns about approaching this issue in a zero-sum manner. The first is that there are almost no counterfactuals that can help us realistically understand the effect of depolarization efforts on societal well being. We cannot analyze an alternative reality where the Civil War didn't happen, or where subsequent depolarization efforts did not happen. Also, it is nearly possible to tease out the impact of those efforts from the many other sources of social malaise at the time — to give only two examples, economic factors related to the restructuring of the economy of the U.S. South, or the long-term impact of war.

My second general concern when people wonder whether polarization is really a pressing social concern is: What is the alternative? Many of the most pressing challenges of our era — changing beliefs about race or the climate, for example, are not simply questions about passing legislation; they are fundamentally about winning hearts and minds. In other words, I worry too often that we are equating polarization with voting alone, and not the broader set of issues that determine what kind of country we aspire to be, or the value of social cohesion more broadly.

My third general concern (which sort of creeps into one of your other questions below), is that people are far too quick to equate Republican elected officials with Republican voters. There is quite a bit of evidence that many Republicans hold beliefs about issues as varied as background checks for handguns and the minimum wage that are far away from those of their leaders. This is why I took such care to discuss the "missing moderates" on the Republican side on social media — people like Sara Rendon.

My fourth general concern is that people too quickly equate depolarization efforts with compromise. Attempting to engage with the other side need not result in caving in on the issues that one is passionate about. I believe there is an intrinsic value to mutual understanding in democracy, even if it is not as vital as some of the early theories of democracy might have believed.

I certainly do not want to paint too rosy a picture here.There are extremely concerning developments in U.S. politics which mean there will be no easy fixes to the many issues that confront us. However, I do often worry that the sudden turn against depolarization efforts on the left will be counterproductive, and ultimately make it more difficult to create the lasting social change that so many Democrats want.

Relatedly, there needs to be some form of reality testing. Climate change is real, just as COVID is. (It didn't disappear on Nov. 4, as Donald Trump predicted.) A healthy online political culture that gets us all killed because it ignores reality doesn't seem fully thought out.

I personally agree with this point. But I also think it is dangerous to assume that one party is completely against reality. This is certainly true of many Republican leaders, and it is also true at the extremes of the Republican Party. But most of the data that I have seen indicates Republicans were in fact very worried about COVID. Perhaps not quite as much as Democrats, but — particularly in the early days of the pandemic — the partisan gaps in concern were fairly small, even if they eventually grew over time.

On global warming, it is also dangerous to equate skepticism about, say, the Paris Climate Agreement with concern about climate change. Many of the Republicans I studied over the past few years were in fact concerned about climate change (and believed it was real), but skeptical that the government could do anything to stop it. By the way, there is also evidence that as many as 40% of Republicans believe "the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change" (see, for example, this Pew report).

I think the debates about voter fraud are perhaps more concerning indicators of the potential of partisan differences in the definition of reality. Many of the studies done so far, however, use relatively imprecise wording that, in my opinion, make it difficult to parse people who are genuinely convinced that voting fraud happened from people who are simply upset or displeased about the result of the election (especially given growing evidence of expressive response to surveys among Republicans). This article captures my views on this pretty well — once we start to focus in on the people who really, sincerely believe that voter fraud happens, it might be much less concerning.

Your own data — along with other data on Congress, or on ideological and partisan alignment — shows that political polarization is asymmetric. It's true that "both sides do it" and also true that both sides do it at least somewhat differently. How does this affect your analysis?

The goal of my book was not to explain who is responsible for polarization, but to document how social media shapes the process. A proper analysis of the several decades of asymmetric polarization that you describe would require a much deeper historical analysis. I recommend Matt Grossmann's book "Asymmetric Politics" on this point.

You mention James Fishkin's work in passing, the main thrust of which is that reliance on rationality has been, shall we say, naive. But I see your work as pretty much in the same bin, albeit more ambitious. How is what you're trying to achieve different, or is it complementary?

My concern with Fishkin's argument is that rational deliberation alone will produce consensus. I think it leaves out the role of identity and status in shaping inter-group deliberation. I do not think it is possible to have rational deliberation on social media, at scale, until we learn to recognize how identity and status shape the process of deliberation. Even then, I am only cautiously optimistic.

One might say the point of your book is to argue for intentionally designing our online platforms to serve a collaborative public good, instead of our existing unplanned environment. But aren't conservatives already moving toward an intentionally polarizing alternative? How does this complicate the path toward a more healthy online public square?

I assume you are referring to Parler? It's not clear to me at this point that Parler will survive. The analyses I've seen so far indicate that it is mostly Republicans with extreme views who moved to that platform, and that overall growth has stalled. I have not done careful empirical analysis of this issue, however, so I would point you towards the first few working papers that have come out about Parler from the Stanford Internet Observatory and a lab at Boston University.

German scholar explains how Trump and the Capitol riot leveraged an entire universe of conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theories take can bewildering forms, as has become especially clear in the current era, when a recently deposed U.S. president became instrumental in spreading and popularizing an entire interlocking universe of demonstrably false conspiratorial narratives. But the historical development of conspiracy theories is becoming clearer, thanks to research across multiple disciplines, synthesized for a broad audience in German scholar Michael Butter's recent book, "The Nature of Conspiracy Theories."

None of that work in any of those disciplines — from psychology and sociology to philosophy, literature and cultural studies — gives us any reason to believe that conspiracy theories are going away anytime soon, simply because Donald Trump has left office. But they can help us make sense out of their persistence, which is why Salon reached out to Butter for an extended conversation.

In the first part of this interview, published two weeks ago, Butter — who teaches the history of American literature and culture at the University of Tübingen — discussed how conspiracy theories were long taken for granted. Winston Churchill, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln offer just a few entirely typical examples of major historical figures who believed in them. But conspiracy theories aren't universal throughout human history, Butter explained: They depend on the existence of a public sphere and the right sort of media environment.

Centuries before the internet, the printing press was responsible for the birth of conspiracy theories in their modern form. Butter also described the ways conspiracy theories can be categorized — they describe conspiracies from above or from below, from outside a society or from within — as well as the social and psychological needs they meet, and how they underwent a three-phase process of stigmatization that pushed them out of the mainstream after the 1950s.

In part two of the interview, Butter describes the three-phase process that brought conspiracy theories back into the public sphere as we know them today, their structural similarities with populism, the important case study of Donald Trump as a case study, what can be done to counter them and more. This transcript has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

In describing the comeback of conspiracy theory — which perhaps culminated with Donald Trump and QAnon — you outline what might be called a three-phase process of evangelism, in whose final stage we reach online conspiracy theories, which you characterize as "more rumors than fully fledged theories." How did this evangelical revival begin, and what defined it?

Conspiracy theories never really became unpopular. They were just flying under the radar for a while, in Europe far more so than in the United States. In the United States, conspiracy theories were always more part of popular discourse because of the [John F.] Kennedy assassination, because of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and also Watergate, than they were part of public discourse in Europe. Still, you could make the argument that full-blown conspiracy theories in the U.S. as well in Germany during the '70s and 80s and '90s were part of rather hermetic subcultures that are difficult to enter and whose members have problems articulating their ideas and finding a broader audience.

In the United States, of course, the emergence of talk radio and other venues, even before the internet, helps these people voice their ideas, but if you look at the Western world in general, I think it's really the emergence of the internet that turns these subcultures into what we could now call counter-publics, publics that are more easily found and whose members have far less trouble now finding a public for their ideas.

This again happens in different steps, in that during the late '90s we have these precursors of the internet like USENET, where people are writing in forums. Of course this is not yet happening in life on any large scale, because people are not online all the time. You need a modem, you need to connect through your landline telephone and you can't do that all the time. So you might download comments and then contribute to the discussion and people might look it up later. But on the other hand, it's very close to what's happening in social media these days — just a little slower.

Then, of course, a couple of years later we get platforms like YouTube where you can upload your own conspiracy film, something that before the advent of digital technology was really only possible for professional filmmakers and people who were very rich and who could afford all this equipment. Now you can just do these things on your laptop. The first version of the "Loose Change" films, which had tens of millions of viewers, was allegedly produced for just $1,200 on a laptop. Suddenly you can do that and put it online and you will find an increasingly big audience.

Then the third step would be what's happening to conspiracy theories because of social media — the echo chamber they increasingly generate and the specific conditions that they impose on how messages can be framed. If you have only 140 or 280 characters at your disposal, you can't really develop the conspiracy theory in the way a 90-minute YouTube video can do it. You have to restrict yourself to certain bold claims, and you don't provide any evidence.

I think in American culture the first case we can observe is what is called the "birther" conspiracy theory, which claims that Barack Obama was never eligible to become president because he allegedly was not born in the United States. I tried very very hard, with students of mine, to find anything on the internet where this conspiracy theory is developed in detail in the way older conspiracy theories were developed. But it's not really there. You only find the rumors, you find little bits and pieces of evidence. People taking apart the birth certificate and arguing that it's a forgery. You don't find a full-blown, completely developed conspiracy narrative about that.

At the same time, it's not the case that one of these online forums entirely replaces the others. Even now, in 2021, we still find fully fledged conspiracy theories. It's not all about conspiracy rumors these days, and it seems to me that these longer documentaries are even making a comeback. So there is this film "Plandemic" that you probably have heard about, which is really returning to a form that was popular 10 years ago with the "Loose Change" films, and there's a second part that's up now which is called "Indoctrination," which I think runs nearly two hours. So these older forms don't disappear and they're coexisting with the newer ones now.

You talk about how conspiracy theories today have a lot in common with populism, even though historically that's not usually the case. What do they have in common, and what distinguishes them?

There are a couple of structural analogies between populism and conspiracy. For example, both of them clearly divide the world into good and evil. For conspiracy theories, it's always the conspirators and the victims of the conspiracy and for populism is always the elite and the common people, and the elite is always acting against the interests of the common people.

This is coming back to what we talked about earlier, that contemporary conspiracy theories usually target an alleged conspiracy from above, and it's usually elites that are imagined as conspiring from above. So we could say that both populism and contemporary Western conspiracy theories have a common enemy and that is the elite.

Now, of course not all populist discourse accuses the elite of conspiring actively against the people. But usually accusations of conspiracy are one way of explaining why the elite is acting against the interests of the people that tends to coexist with other explanations within a populist movement.

For example, very often the elite is being accused of having lost touch with reality, of neglecting the common people — they're so caught up in other things, so detached from reality, that they no longer know what people need. Sometimes the elite is also accused of being corrupt, meaning that everybody that wants to just enrich themselves — which is why they act against the interests of the people — but they're not following one common systematic plan. And then there are those people who say, "Wait a minute, it's not that they are detached from reality. It's not that they're all corrupt. They are all part of a devious plot."

To a certain degree these explanations can overlap and the accusation of conspiracy grows naturally out of the other explanations. So we could say that accusations of conspiracy are one specific way in which members of the populist movement make sense of the fact that the elite is allegedly acting against the interests of the people.

Another analogy is that both populism and conspiracy theory are stigmatized in similar terms, aren't they?

Yes. Both populism and conspiracy theory are stigmatizing terms. If you call somebody a conspiracy theorist, you imply that you don't need to take them seriously, that this person is making baseless claims. If you call somebody a populist — I would suspect even more so in Europe than in the United States — you are also accusing them of being a fraud, of being somebody who is offering simplistic solutions to complex problems and is trying to rile up the masses.

Something we've observed again and again is that populists and members of populist movements accept people who believe in conspiracy theories, even though they themselves do not believe in these conspiracy theories. They say, "Well, you know, the elites are looking down on these people and think they are idiots because they believe in conspiracy theories. But they also think that we are idiots and should not be taken seriously, so there should be a space for these people within our movement." That's another parallel between populism and conspiracy theory.

You deal with Donald Trump as a case study, illustrating where conspiratorial thinking has most recently come to fruition. How did he rely on conspiracy rumors at first, rather than full-blown theories?

Trump is an interesting case, in that I think that he has been using conspiracy theories and conspiracy rumors very smartly from basically 2011 or 2012 onward, though most recent developments may have changed this. But initially he uses conspiracy rumors — those about Barack Obama's alleged birth outside of the country — to turn himself into a political figure. And this works — he's quite popular with Republican voters, suddenly, early in 2012 — and then he shuts up again, because he doesn't want to run against Obama just yet.

But he resuscitated these accusations against Obama and against conspiring elites in 2015, when he decided to run for the presidency. The interesting thing about Trump is that he usually does not articulate conspiracy theories. He doesn't really commit to anything; he restricts himself to conspiracy rumors. He just makes very short accusations, and usually leaves a safety net for himself. So he will always use phrases like "A lot of people are saying," or "I hear all the time," or "I've been told," or "Think about that." I would argue this is a strategy, because he does not want to alienate traditional Republican voters who have very little sympathy for conspiracy theories, and also people who might be receptive to his increasing populist stances, but who also favor other explanations of why elites are neglectful or corrupt over explanations of conspiracy.

But then, as you describe, that changed. When did that happen, and why?

It's only a couple of weeks before the 2016 election that he really makes this move from conspiracy rumors to conspiracy theories. In October 2016, the TV debates are over and he is behind in the polls to Hillary Clinton, and this tape has just been leaked to the press where he talks about sexually harassing women. I think this is the moment where Trump realizes that there is no chance that he's going to win over undecided voters or moderate voters. He knows that a lot of Republican voters will vote for him because they always vote for the Republican candidate and they really hate Hillary Clinton, but he now can reach out to people who are really receptive to his populist and conspiracist rhetoric.

So in his first public appearance after his tape goes public, he steps in front of his audience in Florida and talks for 45 minutes about a huge global conspiracy led by international banks and Hillary Clinton in order to destroy the American people. So here he really becomes a full-blown conspiracy theorist, because he knows he needs those people to vote for him now. This works and he wins the election, because, of course, of a couple of other factors interfere in his favor — James Comey's letter and also other things — and after the election he goes back to conspiracy rumors, at least usually.

This is the phase of the process I describe in the book. But since then things have developed further, and my 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.

Author reveals how the 'hard right' — and the conflict within conservatism — led to the Trump calamity

Signs are increasing that Donald Trump is headed toward the devastating electoral loss that experts expected four years ago. But even if they're right this time, what does that tell us about what's ahead? And what if they're wrong yet again? Either way, Trumpism won't be going away on its own, nor will any of the other illiberal eruptions across the West and around the world, which have left conservatives as bewildered as anybody else.

With Election Day looming, you probably don't have time for a 500-page book to help make sense of how we got here. But when it comes to making sense of things afterward, when there's time for deeper reflection, Edmund Fawcett's new book, "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition," plays a vital, invaluable role. This new book is a follow-up to Fawcett's 2014 book, "Liberalism: The Life of an Idea," and the contrast in the subtitles is telling. Fawcett is a British political journalist who spent 30 years at the Economist, including stints as chief correspondent in Washington, Paris and Berlin and as the magazine's European and literary editor.

The idea of liberalism he describes as "a search for an ethically acceptable order of human progress among civic equals without recourse to undue power." But fights, by their very nature, are a much messier matter, and all too often involve "undue power." Indeed, there's not just one fight involved within the conservative tradition, but a seemingly endless number. Still, there's one overarching battle between hardcore resisters of liberal modernity — those Fawcett calls the "hard right" — and those seeking accommodation, whom he calls "liberal conservatives."

Dealing with both politics and ideas in four countries — the U.S., Britain, Germany and France — Fawcett traces the story through four phases, from an initial period of "frontal resistance to liberal modernity" in the 19th century to the period since 1980 when the success of liberal conservatism, symbolized by the rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher opened the door to the rise of the hard right, including the election of a certain American president. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book is titled "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition" But as you lay it out, it's actually a multitude of fights, both internal and external. Let's start with the external fights against the modern world itself — the world of market and the Industrial Revolution — and the forces of liberalism and democracy. What was at stake in those fights?

What is it that conservatism is against, as it were? What did it think it was resisting in liberal modernity? That's a prime question. What conservatives reckon they're resisting has changed as modern liberal life has changed. So let's start with history. There's no conservatism before the early 19th century. It's essentially a political movement of old, established elites who were used to ruling and are now confronting an utterly new, unimagined condition of society, dominated by modern capitalism and great social fluidity, great social mobility and growing discredit of elites.

At the same time, very soon, pressures arise not just for liberal demands — freedom for citizens, economic liberty and cultural freedom from old kinds of tutorial government and moral interference — not just that, but conservatives very quickly (as do liberals) face demands from democracy that those liberal promises of modern life be extended to everybody, whoever they are. So that's the 19th-century challenge that conservatives faced. They're all different in different countries, each has its own particular history, but that is a common thread.

In the 20th century, and now, that contest has changed. Conservatives at the end of the 19th century and early in the 20th century learned how to dominate this new condition of society. They were the defenders of property, defenders of the social order. What did that mean from, say, 1900 to 1950? That meant, above all, defending the capitalist order, putting food in the shops and wages in the pockets. But capitalism is this fantastic engine of great social change, turning everything upside down. So in our lifetime, conservatives have always faced two ways: They've been resisters of liberal modernity, of innovation, of moral change, but on the other hand they've been the great defenders of its driver, namely capitalist innovation. So this is a tension inside conservatism that runs right through it, and I think explains a great deal of where conservatives are today, fighting against each other.

The internal fights can be divided into three kinds that overlap or interpenetrate: There's the broadest fight between hard-right resisters and accommodators, narrow fights among specific factions at any one time, and medium-scope fights over how to define what conservatism is, how to order things. The resister/accommodator divide can be symbolized by the twin figures of Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke, each of them anti-modern, anti-Enlightenment and anti-rationalist, but in very different ways. How can we best understand them as illuminating the conservative tradition, at least in its origins and its primordial outlook?

If we could take the third sort first: In talking about all these things I think there is politics first, political decisions. Those always involve the government, voters and parties. To understand conservatism, you need to keep your eye on that. But at the same time, there are what you could call the thinkers of conservatism, people who pore over these rather subtle questions and ask "What is conservatism? Who is the true conservative?" Burke and Maistre were that second kind of person.

Take Burke as a good example. Burke actually was more or less ignored during the 19th century by most people calling themselves political conservatives. He was rediscovered, indeed sort of invented, at the end of the 19th century as a philosopher of conservatism, for a political movement that, successful though it was, didn't really have a philosophy. Indeed, the best it could do, if asked, was, "Well, we don't believe in ideas." One of the reasons conservatives have been able to say that — "We don't believe in ideas. We don't need a philosophy" — is that either they were the upper classes or they were the descendants of the upper classes, people whose job was to rule by their nature. They were used to ruling. They weren't used to having to explain why they should rule, or what they were ruling for.

So it took quite a long time to figure out that they needed political ideas, political philosophy, something called conservatism. And indeed Burke was a very, very late invention. There's an 1886 "History of Toryism" which barely mentions Burke. As for Maistre, he was much too crazy and outrageous. He was a brilliant writer, but he was much too angry in his opposition to modern life to make him a good intellectual flag-bearer for conservatives in democratic times.

To finish up on the topic of who is and who is not a conservative, it shows itself very strongly in the United States, where you have three strong traditions since the middle of the last century. You have the kind of modern Burkeans, people like Russell Kirk, who dug up his ghost and tried to reinvent him in an American context. That has always been rather a kind of hothouse conservatism that doesn't really fit into modern American life. And the other two were the economic liberals — the people who want the market and business to do whatever they want, on the theory that would make things work out best — and then there's a much more sort of moral thread, with the neoconservatives who were interested in the texture of social life, and I suppose you could throw in there the religious right with their moral concerns. So those were three or four very strong threads in American Intellectual conservatism, And they're still there.

Your book traces the history of conservatism across two centuries, divided into four periods, in the U.K., France, Germany and the U.S. The first you describe as "frontal resistance to liberal modernity," from 1830 to 1880, with chapters titled "A Right Without Authority," dealing with politics and "Turning Reason Against Liberalism," dealing with ideas. How do these two relate to one another?

The first is the political movement as I described it, of old elites, established powers, who suddenly find themselves under challenge from new contestants. You saw it in the United States with Whigs and Democrats, you saw that in Britain with Tories and Liberals, you saw it in Germany and France. The intellectual counterpart of that struggle was, on one side, people like Burke and Maistre, who said, as it were, "Tradition, belief, unreason, these will be the flags with which we will go forward into the future."

On the other hand, there were conservatives who I mention in the chapter you just described who said, "Not at all. We have to use reason, we have to use the lessons of the Enlightenment in a conservative and orderly cause." These were people like James Madison, an American example, and Friedrich Gentz, a German. You have here this opening conflict within conservative thought between the traditionalists and the romantics, on the one hand, and the rationalists on the other.

You write: "In the 1830s, the right's primary choice was either to resist or to compromise with liberal modernity. By the 1880s, it faced the further question of how far to accept democratic modernity." How did these two choices differ, in terms of what was at stake? What options existed, and how did the right respond?

Good question! Liberalism and democracy need to be distinguished. Liberalism, as it were, lays out the feast. Democracy draws up the guest list. Liberalism promises people — it doesn't always deliver, but it promises people a number of good things: protections from arbitrary power, social progress, civil rights. It promises many freedoms. Democracy is quite different. Democracy promises those things to everybody, whoever they are. And there's a big difference. You can have a club of very equal people, where there's no ranking, where everybody respects everybody else. But the club itself can be extremely exclusive. It sounds almost banal to stress the difference, but that is vital to understanding liberal democracy. Historically, by the end of the 19th century, both conservatives and liberals were facing a demand that the liberal promises of modern life be extended to every last person. When you think about this, that promise wasn't even delivered on paper until the middle of the 20th century, and in many respects is still not delivered successfully to everybody.

So, the second period you describe as "adaptation, compromise and catastrophe," that's from 1880 to 1945. In what sense was there adaptation and compromise? What are some illustrative examples?

If you take the period as a whole, and look at the main conservative parties in Europe and the United States over that period, all of them, broadly speaking, accepted a degree of the welfare state, accepted a degree of big government. They accepted the New Deal in the United States, and in Europe they accepted the welfare state. They accepted, in other words, a very tempered capitalism in which government played a large role in propping up capitalism when it got into trouble and propping up people when they got into trouble, with social safety nets and so on. That broad consensus, hard-fought and very spotty, was by and large the consensus that mainstream conservatives accepted by the middle of the 20th century. That was so with Eisenhower, with Nixon and even to a limited degree with Reagan.

So what do you mean by "catastrophe"?

In any story of the political right, one can't escape the disaster of the rise of fascism and Nazism. I'm not suggesting that conservatism was directly to blame for these things. That would be wrong. But the conservative classes found themselves in 1945, for a variety of reasons, at a zero point from which they had to reinvent themselves.

That leads right into the third period you describe as "political command and intellectual recovery," from the end of World War II to 1980. How did conservatism recover during that period?

In the 1945 to 1980 period on the right, in a funny way, politics stopped driving intellectuals and intellectuals came to drive politics. It's a fascinating period, intellectually, for the right in the United States. There were a number of intriguing thinkers. They were ignored at the time, but they were working away quietly for what became the Reagan revolution, both in terms of economic policy and, to a larger extent, in terms of social and ethical questions. They were broadly derided or ignored, but they came into their own in the 1980s, and they've been in the saddle ever since.

How did that compare with what was happening elsewhere?

There was a similar revival elsewhere, but it was slower, and it wasn't so well paid for. In the United States, there were many big philanthropic donors, right-wing think tanks that supported particular intellectuals like Richard Weaver or Friedrich Hayek. It was a big, very well executed campaign of intellectual renewal. It was less organized in Europe, but it existed there as well.

The fourth period you describe as "the contest for supremacy between liberal conservatism and the hard right," starting in 1980. Say a bit more about these two terms, both what they mean generally, and specifically in this time period.

It's difficult when writing about politics, for one has to be given at least five seconds to get the canoe into the water. All these labels are very slippery, particularly the labels "liberal conservatism" — that sounds like a contradiction in terms — and the term "hard right," which many conservatives particularly dislike because they feel it's a slander or a slur. But let's say "liberal conservatism," with all those provisos, is a good label for the kind of conservatism I was describing earlier, the kind of mainstream conservatism running from Eisenhower to Nixon and even to a certain extent some of the Reagan years.

That's an OK label for the kind of mainstream conservatism that I was describing, by and large, in government. However much they turned up the gas on the campaign trail, Eisenhower, Nixon and even Reagan were within a recognizable band. It was particularly liberal in economic matters, for the free market, very business-friendly, but also liberal to an extent in the social and ethical sense. Nixon wasn't a great moral or ethical campaigner. Reagan, I don't think, believed it himself personally. He threw bones to the moral right, but it wasn't his thing.

So that's liberal conservatism. It has a counterpart in Europe. The hard right, I think, is a different thing. It's what liberal conservatives are in retreat from. If you look at the present Republican Party, I would call that a hard-right party.

What is the hard right? Well, it combines two elements. It's a strange combination, on the one hand, of ultra-marketeers, who would let business do what it chooses and will do what business wants, but on the other hand of politicians speaking loudly for the forgotten man, for disaffected voters in the name of the people. The hard right is curiously for global free markets and at the same time one-nation populist. You see this odd combination across Europe and in the United States. Although there are local differences, that's the hard right.

Conservatives get quite upset when you say, "You conservatives have a fight on your hand between the liberal strain of conservatism and the hard right." Why? Because, particularly in Europe, in France and Germany, the hard right is associated with old neofascist parties but it is by no means any longer limited to those. Indeed, it's gone way beyond them. The National Rally, as it's now called in France, and the Alternative for Germany have both the elements I've mentioned: rowdy popular elements and a free-market elite element. One of the leaders of the German hard right worked, I think, for Goldman Sachs. That gives you an idea of the hard right as an elite and popular combination.

You see the same in the United States with the Republican Party. Partly because of his outsized personality, people have over-focused on Trump as if somehow he invented the hard right. He didn't at all. The hard right invented him. You could say the same thing about Boris Johnson, the Brexiteer in Britain. He didn't invent Brexit or UKIP [the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party] or the new Tory party. It chose him.

Here in America, Trump is presented as a figure who came out of nowhere. You show that he's part of a hard right that's been growing for decades, before gaining ground with his election and Brexit happening close together. How specifically would you explain him as a part of the hard right? What characteristics does he share that would make him a part of it? If you'd like, perhaps say something about how today's hard right echoes characteristics that have been there in the past.

In a way, he's a kind of gifted improviser. I don't think he has or has ever had a lot of aims or principles. In that, he rather resembles Boris Johnson in our country — gifted campaigners with a fantastic sort of canny popular touch. If you look for a consistency of aim or opinion, it's very hard to find. If you wanted a word for Trump, I think it would be opportunist. He saw a moment to move into politics, and he succeeded very well. But, the party he took over had been moving to the hard right for a long time without him.

One of the figures to whom the American hard right at the moment owes an enormous amount is Pat Buchanan. He was writing the kind of lines that Trump delivers back in the 1970s. If "Trump" were a movie, Trump would be the star, but Pat Buchanan would get the screenwriting credit.

To answer the other part of your question, the hard right does have historical precedent. There has always been in conservatism, as it has adapted, as it has become more liberal and mainstream, as it has appealed to more and more democratic voters — democratic with a small D — there's always been a resistant fringe of those who say, "We're compromising too much."

There's a quick caution needed here in that when talking about the hard right, it's very easy to be misheard and have people say, "Ah! Fawcett's out of his mind, the hard right isn't fascist." I'm not saying for a moment that the hard right is fascist. There are many, many ways in which a conservative can become less liberal or less democratic without becoming fascist. Fascism in the 1920s and '30s was something specific. It came out of a particular historical context in Europe, after a disastrous war in which Germany was defeated. History doesn't repeat in that way. Fascism is not the right parallel.

Nor indeed is populism quite the right label for the hard right. Populism in the American context meant something quite specific, it was a movement flanking progressivism at the end of the 19th century. It had wide working-class and farm support. Populism as it's kicked around nowadays is a very loose idea. In fact, populism in connection with the hard right is an elite phenomenon. The hard right is not the people fighting the elite. The hard right in the United States and Europe is one elite, namely the hard right, a very conservative elite, fighting another, a more liberal elite. Hence the subtitle of my book: "The Fight for a Tradition."

I guess you would say that's true in other countries as well?

Yes. As for early hard-right politicians, you have Pat Buchanan. In Britain, there was a politician who may not be known to Americans, but is very well-known in Britain, Enoch Powell. He was a Tory politician, a ferociously clever person who ran himself out of politics in the 1960s by racialist outbursts which discredited him. His contribution to Tory politics is a bit like Pat Buchanan's contribution to Republicanism in the United States. Powell's contribution was, first, anti-European — get Britain out of the European Union — and nationalistic, to go it alone and not count on foreign friends, not even on the United States. Secondly, it was hyper-liberal in the economic sense. This strange cocktail, you see, was present in Enoch Powell — that same cocktail that I earlier described as hard right.

In opposition to that, you talk several times about successful conservative leaders. In one place you say "Like [Benjamin] Disraeli, or Margaret Thatcher, Churchill seemed to resolve in one capacious personality the [Conservative] party's inner conflicts." There are several other places where you make comments like that about how successful political leaders of conservatism resolved tensions that, once they passed from the scene, seemed to spill out all over the place. Could you say something about the importance of such figures? I'd also like to ask about Reagan as one such figure, because after him came the unraveling, as you mentioned before.

Reagan belongs in that category of conservative politician. It includes Thatcher and Angela Merkel today, the chancellor of Germany. They managed to keep their parties together, although like every successful party, each has a tremendous internal dynamic and conflict. In order to keep your party together, you have to give something to each side, and arguably both Reagan and Thatcher gave much too much to the market liberals, those who say "Markets will solve everything; government is always the problem." We're still living, I think, both in Europe and the United States, with the limitations of that policy. You can say that they gave too much in terms of the cost to society. However, in party terms, they were quite successful in keeping their parties together. The split in conservatism, the rise of the hard right and the rout of the old liberal Republicans, didn't begin until after Reagan and Thatcher were gone.

So what problems opened the door to the hard right after Reagan and Thatcher?

There were three levels. There was a historic internal change in society and economy, connected with the collapse of old industries, the collapse of unions. If you look back to our society and economy in the 1960s and '70s, out of which Reagan and Thatcher came, it's almost unrecognizable. So that's one thing, a huge, huge change. Second, the end of the Cold War, in 1989 and 1990. That was a convenient, if dangerous, framework for thinking about the world and other countries. That's now gone. Those two changes together — huge social and economic change inside, great global change outside — have meant that an old framework of ideas in which conservative politicians argued with each other is gone, and needs replacing. Good as they were at keeping their parties together, neither Thatcher nor Reagan handed on any kind of replacement.

Into that vacuum has come the hard right. It's not a program, it's not a long-term solution to anything. It's actually intellectually incoherent. It promises global free markets on the one hand, and a kind of self-reliant, protective nation on the other. It doesn't add up. However, it's politically extremely appealing.

In your coda you discuss the choices facing conservatives. But in your preface, you write that your book "is written in comradely spirit with a question for the left: if we're so smart, how come we're not in charge?"

I hope we will die on the left, but I sometimes think also we will die of the left.

I don't expect a quick answer, because then why write the book? But I wonder if you might have a tentative answer to offer, that points to a direction for further discussion and inquiry?

What is the answer to the question, if the left is honest with itself? The answer is that we may have the answers, we may be the virtuous ones, but we have never, in 200 years, persuaded a majority of our fellow citizens that we are the way to go. That seems to me too deep a pattern for there not to be lessons drawn from that. What is the lesson? In essence, a boring, dull and unpopular lesson on the left: That is that we have to cooperate with liberal-minded right-wing people at the center of politics if we want to get into government and govern, as opposed to being the party of criticism or a movement of protest, however necessary and legitimate.

To throw in a further thought, the condition of the left is part of a larger explanation of the political hole that we're in. It's not just that on the right, a hard right is dominant at present, and liberal conservatives are dispirited and in retreat. On the left, there isn't a really persuasive, strong and responsible alternative.

That said, contingency plays a part of the mess we're in politically. Think of the three times the 21st century arrived: First 9/11, a horrendous event for which it would take decades for the consequences to work themselves out. Then the 2003 Iraq war, necessary or not, which broke the liberal Republicans and broke the center-minded Labour Party in Britain. And third, the crash of 2008, which more or less finished the idea that markets look after themselves. You had these three hammer-blows which were, in their way, contingencies. Neither party, neither the left or the right, has really digested any of that.

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

"Is the fight on the right going to go on after Nov. 3?" And do you know what the answer is?

From reading your book?

Not only. We are thinking in parallel here. I liked the piece you wrote, "It's not just about Trump." I completely agree. Of the fight on the right, you could say, "It's not even about Trump." So my answer to the question you didn't ask is, yes, the fight on the right will go on.

How to reduce the destructive political power of the Supreme Court — and save Democracy

With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the nomination of a polar opposite replacement, only one response that makes any sense: Expand the Supreme Court. The only real question is by how much. There are other responses that can do some good — perhaps even more good. But without court expansion, the existing court can, and almost certainly will, strike them down.

Yes, some call it an extreme step. But there's a more extreme step: Simply ignore the court's decisions — as some Republicans argued in the 1850s, in response to the Dred Scott decision. More to the point, this is an extreme situation that demands extreme responses. As Boston College law professor Kent Greenfield tweeted on Sept. 21:

Some #SCOTUS facts:
  • 15 of the last 19 appointments were made by GOP Presidents. (16/20 if #Trump gets another.)
  • The last year a majority of the justices were Dem appointees: 1969. Meanwhile, the GOP won the popular vote in the presidential election once in 30 years (2004).

It's also been more than 20 years since Republicans represented a majority of voters in the Senate, making the condition of minority rule even more extreme. It's also self-reinforcing: As Greg Sargent notes, a 6-3 conservative majority could strike down a new version of HR 1, the pro-democracy reforms that House Democrats passed in 2019, including wildly popular nonpartisan redistricting commissions.

The same fate awaits virtually everything else Democrats have campaigned on, as The Nation's justice correspondent, Elie Mystal, argued last February in an article bluntly titled, "If We Don't Reform the Supreme Court, Nothing Else Will Matter":

Not a single significant policy or initiative proposed by the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination is likely to survive a Supreme Court review. Nothing on guns, nothing on climate, nothing on health care — nothing survives the conservative majority on today's court.

And that was seven months before Ginsburg's death. Now, as election law maven Richard L. Hasen puts it, "Trump's New Supreme Court Is Coming for the Next Dozen Elections." This threat to our democracy comes at a time when others around the world are increasingly turning to citizens' assemblies as a way to expand democracy beyond elite-defined partisan bounds, as I discussed last December. At least one new book lays out a plan for introducing direct democracy at the national level, starting with advisory referenda.

This wildly anti-democratic situation — although temporarily normalized by our myopic, dysfunctional elites — actually violates deeply entrenched bipartisan norms, as underscored by University of Washington political scientist Scott Lemieux:

American political elites have generally supported the strong form of judicial review that emerged in the late 19th century because the Supreme Court generally tracked with the constitutional views of the dominant political coalition. A Supreme Court representing an entrenched, unpopular minority faction that refuses to allow the popular majorities from the other party to effectively govern would be neither democratically legitimate nor politically stable.

What's more, Lemieux notes, previous violations of this norm "all led to constitutional crises that ended only when the court itself backed down," including Franklin D. Roosevelt's oft-misremembered confrontation, which put an end to the court striking down New Deal legislation, most notably the Social Security Act. Nor is there any "normal" way out through political victory, Lemieux warns: A 6-3 conservative majority "would be essentially impossible for Democrats to displace through ordinary means, irrespective of the results of future elections."

So what might seem in isolation like an extreme or unwarranted norm-breaking move by Democrats is actually the exact opposite: an act of restoration to the guiding shared norms that have predominated across better than two centuries. Continued violation of these shared norms will only intensify the erosion of trust that brought us Donald Trump in the first place, and which he has greatly intensified with the enthusiastic cooperation of Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell.

So expanding the Supreme Court is the only option. As I said earlier, the real question is by how much.

How many seats?

Adding six new seats to the court would compensate for McConnell's double theft, with a two-seat penalty for deterrence. It would reflect the reality that norms are not self-enforcing. As Henry Farrell explains at Crooked Timber, "norms don't just rely on the willingness of the relevant actors to adhere to them. They also rely on the willingness of actors to violate them under the right circumstances. If one side violates, then the other side has to be prepared to punish."

Indeed, the more nakedly one side pursues power as an end in itself, the more necessary it becomes to punish them, since they've proven themselves immune to anything else. Trump's lawlessness is Exhibit A in this regard, but it was his commitment to the GOP's judicial agenda that allowed him to win in the first place, and that has bound the party and its followers to him even now, in the midst of an horrific plague he's done far more to spread than to stop.

Adding just three seats would be a gift, creating a balanced 6-6 court that would necessarily rule more narrowly and less contentiously. Law professor Eric Segall, author of "Supreme Myths: Why the Supreme Court Is Not a Court and Its Justices are Not Judges," made precisely this argument about the 4-4 court in 2016.

After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia that year, amid widespread expectation that Hillary Clinton would be elected president, Segall told me in an interview, he believed "this was a moment in time that we can get left and right at the table and constructively weaken the Supreme Court for both sides.

"If you give me 10 minutes with every member of Congress I could convince them," Segall said, "because they get more powerful as the court gets weaker, by definition." By the way, the court originally had an even number of justices — six. Nothing about the current arrangement is enshrined in the Constitution.

Then there's going big: Adding 10 seats could open to the door to a whole different world, with a structure similar to the federal circuit courts, as Elie Mystal argued in the Nation article mentioned above. Most cases would be heard by a three-judge panel, chosen at random. It would take a majority vote of such a panel for the full court to consider a case. This would also tend to reduce the court's power, and produce narrower, more moderate decisions that intrude less on democratic decision making, Mystal contended.

He also linked to a proposal from the group Fix the Court for a system of fixed 18-year terms staggered to ensure an even distribution of presidential appointments. After 18 years, judges would shift to senior status, a well-established circuit court practice. Some claim this would violate the Constitution. But it seems clear that the court itself could rule otherwise, and there are good reasons to think that it should. That idea has gained increasingly broad ideological support, but as Mystal acknowledges, the existing court would likely strike it down.

Again, that's why old-fashioned, blunt-force court-packing is the most viable option — at least initially. Pack it big enough — with 10 new justices, as Mystal suggests — and you could wind up with a new court that would then OK a term-limit system.

But whatever the number and however it's conceived, court expansion is an absolute necessity, as Mystal's prognosis makes clear. As he argued more recently: "Name me an inventive, nonpartisan solution to the current dilemma faced by Democrats, and I will show you a constitutional defect the conservative Supreme Court will use against it. The only exception is court expansion."

This doesn't mean other ideas shouldn't be considered — I think they should. But it's futile to pursue them without court expansion leading the way.

Imbalances and obstacles

There are two further imbalances we have to fight. First comes the decades' worth of asymmetrical "constitutional hardball" and even anti-democratic "constitutional beanball," which I've written about here before. As the above-cited Scott Lemieux recently noted, this began in the Nixon administration and has given Republicans a twofold benefit: "The court has been generally and increasingly conservative, and yet Republicans have both placed a higher priority on it and have had negative attitudes towards it."

At bottom, conservatives are driven by a "restoration fantasy" of a world that never existed, and the Supreme Court is their way of getting there. Some sign onto a 19th-century fantasy of utterly unregulated capitalism, some to a Christian nationalist fantasy of America as a biblical nation — or, more radically, to a Christian Reconstructionist fantasy chillingly similar to "The Handmaid's Tale." In the legal arena there are the dual fantasies of "textualism" and "originalism," which is now incoherently collapsing into a bewildering array of forms — "Originalism is a 'They' not an 'It,'" as Segall describes.

What unites all these contradictory worldviews is a rejection of science, progress, facts and America's increasingly diverse, actually existing majority. The Supreme Court is all they have left. Without it, all is lost in their paranoid worldview. Liberals have never taken such a desperate, extremist view — at least not since the 1850s, when there were good, credible reasons to do so.

The second imbalance is that while Democratic voters have finally woken up — Lemieux points to midterm polling, along with the mountains of cash raised in the wake of Ginsburg's death — Democratic elites have not. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and others have repeatedly refused to discuss expanding the court, despite the obvious deterrent power such a threat could carry. (Joe Biden has not ruled it out, as Kamala Harris made clear in her recent debate with Mike Pence — but he isn't talking about it openly either.) Democrats' self-defeating, one-step-at-a-time focus is the exact opposite of the long-term strategy Republicans have pursued for decades. The elites' narrow focus has a long-term demobilizing effect, which has suited the Democrats' corporate wing just fine. But that simply can't be sustained any longer, in the post-Parkland, Climate Strike, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 world that now confronts the threats Mystal cites.

If Democrats don't act to expand the court if and they take power in January, they will be signing their own death warrants. As Mystal tweeted:

Expanding the court upon victory is going to be the HEIGHT of the Dems political power to do this. The illegitimate process to install ACB will be fresh.
Also, it's the height of the reform argument. Trump broke the court just like he broke everything else. LET'S FIX IT.

One major obstacle to overcome is the misguided notion that democratic norms are self-reinforcing. Another is confusion over what those norms really are and how they work. As Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber points out, the perception of FDR's court-packing as a dangerous, norm-breaking effort that failed — as it's presented, for example, in "How Democracies Die" — is incomplete, at best. Something more fundamental was going on. In the face of Roosevelt's threat, the court stopped striking down popular legislation, including the Social Security Act: "One norm that had been pretty systematically trashed – judicial respect for what citizens and their democratically elected representatives actually wanted – was only preserved through Roosevelt's credible threat to upset another norm."

Segall sees that as a valuable precedent. "This Court needs to be scared into humility," he told me. "FDR did it and it worked, like, for 30 years."

Weakening the Supreme Court

"As a general policy matter, I'm in favor of anything that weakens the court and makes it less partisan and less political," Segall said when I asked about Mystal's idea to have small groups of justices sit in panels, potentially reviewing each other's decisions. The lack of review makes the court into a political body, he argues in "Supreme Myths," so having most decisions made by smaller panels, while it would not end that problem, would surely diminish it.

But there's be a hitch. "I am not 100% sure that's as clearly constitutional as some other proposals," Segall warned, "because Article III [of the Constitution] says that the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court. One. So, I don't know."

On the other hand, we've had generations of experience with circuit courts structured precisely as Mystal describes, and no one thinks twice about calling them "courts." While the existing conservative majority might well strike down such an innovation, an expanded court could be expected to lean the other way — another argument for moving quickly. Once you have 19 justices sitting there, the shear impracticality of them all hearing every single case and debating it in such a large forum casts the question in a very different light.

Segall describes another de-escalating, depolarizing path. "Kent Greenfield at Boston College [quoted above] is about to have an op-ed in the New York Times saying that Congress should create a specialized constitutional court, like Europe has, to resolve constitutional questions," he said. "Then Congress can use its jurisdiction under Article III to deprive the Supreme Court of appellate jurisdiction over that court."

Jurisdiction-stripping is an idea that's gotten significant traction on the right in recent years. But it's grounded in text, as Segall notes, since the Constitution says Congress has the authority to restrict or limit the Supreme Court's jurisdiction. To me, the most appealing use of jurisdiction-stripping would be to protect voting rights. John Roberts' delusional ruling striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act utterly disregarded the 15th Amendment's specific authorization that "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." It would be perfectly reasonable for Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act again, this time citing this specific text, along with that of Article III.

Pitfalls of weakening the court

Mystal is skeptical, to put it mildly. "I'm not a huge fan of the various 'jurisdiction stripping' proposals, for a couple of reasons," he told me. "That's exactly the kind of thing Republicans will do to take away minority rights. Remember, as a Black person the thing I fear most is not Republicans or Democrats. It's white majorities trying to kill me. I like the court as a theoretical check against such majoritarian tyranny."

Of course, the Court's record in that regard isn't exactly awe-inspiring, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor recounts for the New Yorker. The 8-1 gutting of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, less than a generation after the passage of the Civil War amendments undergirding it is just one of the less-remembered examples Taylor cites.

But there's a broader problem as well. "I don't have a whole lot of confidence that the Supreme Court will rule that their jurisdiction has been stripped," Mystal said. "More to the point, I fear that they will rule that jurisdiction-stripping is OK on issues where Republicans are already winning, but suddenly rule that the Dems cannot strip jurisdiction on something they actually want to overturn."

In fact, he specifically thinks my idea won't work: "We're not going to have Congress say, 'People can vote and the Supreme Court can't say no,' and then have the Supreme Court just say, 'Oh well, I guess people can vote,'" he said. "The court has already largely ignored the 15th Amendment. They'll ignore jurisdiction stripping too to stop black people from voting."

Finally, as Mystal noted, this doesn't really help with state law, "which is a lot of law and a lot of the most horrible law." He offered a speculative case in which the court rules 6-3 to uphold a new Alabama law restricting abortion "to the first three hours of pregnancy out of wedlock, or whatever." It doesn't officially overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, but effectively outlaws abortion — and jurisdiction-stripping doesn't help. "If your court reform doesn't deal with awful state laws in the South," Mystal said, "then your court reform doesn't really work."

On the other hand, Segall clearly opposed the more extreme move of simply ignoring the court's decisions, as recently advanced by Ryan Cooper and Jamelle Bouie. "If we're going to live in a country that follows the rule of law, I think we have to follow the court's decisions, unless we decide to be a parliamentary system and not a republic anymore," Segall said.

Which is not to say the principle of judicial review has always been respected, or even claimed. Cooper correctly notes that "The weird thing about judicial 'originalism' is that the explicit principle of judicial review is nowhere to be found in the Constitution." (That doesn't bother Segall, given his critique of originalism.) Cooper goes on to say:

Actual judicial review was a product of a cynical power grab from Chief Justice John Marshall, who simply asserted out of nothing in Marbury vs. Madison that the court could overturn legislation — but did it in a way to benefit incoming president Thomas Jefferson politically, so as to neutralize his objection to the principle.

This accurately captures the political nature of that decision, as well as of the Supreme Court more generally. But there's more to the story. "Just because the Supreme Court rules on something doesn't always mean whatever it says goes," Segall told me. "For example, in 1962-63, they end prayer in public schools, but the reality is that in the South there's still prayer in the schools." The INS v. Chadha decision of 1983 supposedly ended the practice of legislative vetoes, but Congress and the president both still use them. And then there's the case of Brown v. Board of Education. As Segall notes, 10 years after Brown, schools in the the South were almost entirely re-segregated. "So I think we already know how we can undo court decisions. It's been done before."

These court-ignoring examples all tilt right. And the counter to them tilted to the left, Segall explained: "It wasn't until 1958 and Cooper vs Aaron" — which denied Arkansas school authorities the right to delay desegregation — "that the Court basically said, 'We're supreme, you have to follow us,' as opposed to 'We decide cases, and let the chips fall where they may.'"

So the historical record doesn't look good. Questioning the court's legitimacy on moral grounds is one thing, but this "solution" seems more treacherous than the problem it's meant to solve.

A troubled record

The examples Segall cites echo the longer historical record laid out by Taylor, which highlights just how poorly protected Black people, women and other disempowered groups have almost always been. "The insistence that the Supreme Court is not a political body is a principle of high folly in American politics," Taylor notes, adding that "as the branch of government that is least accountable to the American public, the Supreme Court has tended, for most of its history, toward a fundamental conservatism, siding with tradition over more expansive visions of human rights."

Along with the familiar 19t-century examples of Dred Scott and Plessy, Taylor cites the "Civil Rights cases" (mentioned above), and, turning to the court's most clearly progressive era, she elucidates how fragile and contingent the achievements anchored in the Brown decision actually are. She notes both the national security argument the Truman administration made against segregation ("Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills," its amicus brief warned), and the rapid backsliding of the court itself:

The Brown decision was a public indicator of progress, but its decree was quickly undermined when, the following year, the Court prescribed that school desegregation be undertaken with "all deliberate speed." Without a directive that the ruling should take effect immediately, the South was provided legal cover to drag its feet, as the racist "massive resistance" to school integration began to take hold. ...
Even when the Court has ruled in ways that appear to be in the interest of minorities or socially and economically marginalized populations, its decisions can be ephemeral, susceptible to partisan shifts, while creating the dangerous illusion of permanence.

This ephemeral status "reduces rights to privileges," Taylor argues. Rather than depending on the Supreme Court, she suggests, "It is through acts of solidarity and struggle that we have been able to secure our rights and liberties." Taylor concludes by saying, "It is long overdue to end the Court's undemocratic role in U.S. society," but without offering any specific suggestions about how to do this. The expansions of democracy I have mentioned in passing—citizens' assemblies, direct democracy through referenda and initiatives — point to one important facet of what can be done. But the Court's existing power must also be reined in. That's what's front and center now.

A fight for peace?

Elie Mystal's approach is notable for combining a fighting spirit with a long-term willingness to depoliticize the court. In February, he argued that adding 10 justices would give Democrats "the political leverage to make the Republicans an offer they couldn't refuse," by compelling them to agree to a larger judicial reform package (including an ethics panel for the Supreme Court), in exchange for a promise that "the 10 new justices could be evenly split" between nominees of both parties. Does that sound like a contradiction? Maybe not.

"I want to fight like hell to win control of the court so that a Democratic run court can be depoliticized," he said. "I know that sounds like a tension, but I can square the circle. Basically the legal arguments between conservatives and liberals on the court and in the law do not break down so cleanly on Republican v. Democrat lines. "That's what makes the law so cool and interesting. But we rarely get to have those debates, because Republicans choose judges based on one thing: the judge's willingness to overturn precedent if it conflicts with the Republican political agenda. That's pretty much it."

That's largely happened because the Federalist Society has taken over the business of selecting Republican judicial nominees, combined with the long-term influence of the Christian right, as described in books like "The Power Worshippers" and "Building God's Kingdom," with results tallied and reflected on here.

"The kind of judge who believes that you can just throw away the 50 years of settled precedent codified in Roe v .Wade, because you personally think abortion is immoral, is also a nutty, extremist judge who believes all other sorts of crazy things," Mystal explained. "You get a whole raft of radical judicial ideology by trying to litmus-test everything around abortion. It's how you get judges who also think the 15th Amendment is just a suggestion, but the Second Amendment is the word of God. It's how you get judges who are constantly waging ideological battles instead of ruling on the specific cases and controversies before them."

Ironically, there was a time when conservatives made just that kind of argument — but it was riddled with bad faith. Mystal would have us focus on what's legitimate. "The goal of depoliticizing the courts is to get more people who are looking at the specific facts of the case, as opposed to always tacking to their ideologies," he said.

"If you want to look at cases, then having a 'diverse' set of backgrounds and experiences and opinions is actually good. There are case-by-case 'conservative' points of view that I actually agree with," Mystal noted. "I don't mind having 'conservatives' on the Court, I mind having intellectually dishonest Federalist Society extremists on the court who are only there to strike down a couple of opinions conservatives hate and carry on an ideology war at all other times."

Mystal concluded with a crucial caveat: "Where I differ from, say, Barack Obama ... is that you have to win the war first before you de-escalate. Conservatives play to win, and Democrats must too. We can have peace, after we win."

Democrats desperately need to heed that call to arms. But they also something more than the fervent desire of their base for a big win. They need an argument. That's where Segall's final point on court-packing comes in.

"In 2020, an institution of life-tenured lawyers second-guessing social, political and educational issues — any kind of issues — based on imprecise text and contested history is a broken institution," he said. "That has to be the Democrats' argument. If they vote to expand the Supreme Court, he concluded, "We're not making it stronger to be more Democratic or more liberal. … We're packing it to make it weaker."

Scholar explains how the conservative movement transmits 'sanitized versions of white supremacist ideology'

As the longest sustained period of racial justice protests in American history segues into the heat of election season, dark shadows have appeared, from the vigilante killing of protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin — and widespread conservative defenses of the teenage accused murderer — to ludicrous charges against protesters, including "terrorism," to the Trump administration's crackdown on federal antiracism training, calling it "anti-American," and Attorney General Bill Barr's call for protesters to be charged with sedition.

So much for the notions that Donald Trump has no ideology, or, for that matter, that getting rid of him will make America great again. In July of 2016, I wrote about why such views were myopic: "Trump advances core paleoconservative positions," researcher Bruce Wilson told me, including "rebuilding infrastructure, protective tariffs, securing borders and stopping immigration, neutralizing designated internal enemies and isolationism."

Trump's record as president has been surprisingly consistent for such an erratic figure, with his purely rhetorical support for infrastructure as the most notable exception. And therein lies a key to the current moment: With infrastructure removed from the equation — the most broadly popular position Trump's ever embraced — the remaining white nationalism stands out in stark relief, highlighted in the frenzied push toward violent confrontation around the election, and beyond.

Dr. James Scaminaci III has just published a report about the long historical genesis of this recent push for Political Research Associates, "Battle With Bullets: Advancing a Vision of Civil War." Scaminaci has a PhD in sociology from Stanford and has worked as a civilian intelligence analyst with expertise on the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, and organized crime. So the spread of social chaos, internecine violence and associated enabling ideologies is a subject he's familiar with.

Scaminaci traces the roots of culture-war and race-war narratives as far back as the Haitian revolution of the early 19th century. He observes that Steve Bannon nurtured those carefully at Breitbart News and they have played a key role in radicalizing Trump's base over the past five years, to the point where some of his supporters are visibly preparing themselves for violence. Some parts of this story have been relatively well covered, but Scaminaci provides a much more integrated and historically extensive account of how we reached our present state. I reached out to him recently for an interview by email to discuss some of his key insights and how they provide us with a much clearer picture of the forces pushing America toward civil war. The following has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

In your article, you write: "Over the last several years, a narrative around the threat of civil war — and more specifically, a racial civil war — has been growing on the Right." You observe that this comes in different versions and has deep historical roots, dating back to the colonial era. Before getting into the details, why is it important to recognize this history and learn about it?

I wanted to convey that what we are seeing now on the right wing has a long history, a history that is either overlooked or ignored. Jill Lepore and other scholars looking at the right have noted that modern day "patriots" cast themselves as lineal descendants of the founding fathers and the American Revolution — that they are revolutionaries against the existing "tyrannical" federal government. But that history is drenched in violence and blood against Black and indigenous peoples. That context cannot be omitted. And the idea that whites are under existential threat from Black folks also needs to be put into historical context.

Second, the right-wing idea that the federal government is "tyrannical" is largely the product of white supremacist politicians, both Republican and Democratic, and intellectuals like William F. Buckley. This was the idea that post-World War II federal support for civil rights was federal overreach, was unconstitutional, and that it upset allegedly harmonious race relations in the South and eventually in the North.

According to white supremacists, the existential threat to white people in the Jim Crow South came from Black folks, whether children or adults, even touching anything that could be shared with whites. A schoolbook touched by a Black child became a Black textbook. Blacks and whites could not share drinking fountains or sit in the same seats on a bus.

What I wanted to portray in "Battle With Bullets" is that whites have long viewed any expression of nonviolent Black agency as an existential threat to themselves that required whites to resort to a brutal, genocidal racial civil war. One can understand the palpable fear of a slave revolt before 1861. But white supremacists have claimed that registering to vote, voting, moving into a white neighborhood after a history of redlining, moving into managerial or foreman positions in the workplace, or being cast as heroes or superheroes are existential threats.

You write that "The most dangerous versions of that [civil war] narrative come from leaders with paramilitary forces, while other appeals seem intended to generate a heightened sense of crisis." Can you give an example of each and then help us understand how the two are related?

Roger Stone is a political operative who has graduated from ratfucking political operations into calling for a civil war or violence or martial law. He is an ideological chaos agent. He can help set the narrative mood for the right wing. As Chip Berlet has written, elites know how to write the score for scripted violence. Somehow, the gunmen always know who to kill. In a similar category are the numerous Christian right leaders who broadcast the same civil war message to their Christian nationalist supporters and followers. I also quoted [Dallas megachurch pastor] Robert Jeffress in the article.

David Neiwert owns the beat on tracking the transmission of fringe ideas to the conservative mainstream. Even a decade before Trump, the ideological lines were blurring.

In 2008, Michael Savage, a right-wing radio host, said, "[T]he white person is being erased from America's future. ... There is a racial element to the immigration invasion." Then Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly claimed, "So now, it's becoming a race war." The Center for American Progress went on to note that O'Reilly claimed that immigration reformers "hate America ... because it's run primarily by white, Christian men" and were seeking "to change the complexion...of America."

That is no different from Jean Raspail's theme in "The Camp of the Saints" or the narrative at The Social Contract, a white nationalist journal which published Raspail's novel. Or Glenn Beck on Fox News in February 2009, airing his racial civil war scenario within one month of the first Black president taking office. Or a variety of Christian Right leaders during the Obama years calling for or suggesting a racial civil war is coming, including Tony Perkins, Larry Klayman and Rick Joyner.

In 2006, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted the "symbiotic dance" between white supremacist groups and John Tanton's hardline anti-immigration movement, as well as the sharing of conspiracy narratives between white supremacists and the "patriot" militia movement.

The conservative movement, both the political and religious wings, transmit sanitized versions of white supremacist ideology. The latter is premised on preparing for, if not instigating, a racial civil war in America.

John Jackson, a scholar who covers "scientific" racism, in a recent article titled, "Going Full Nazi,"asked the question: "[W]hat is the point of drawing a line between the 'mainstream' and the 'alt' right? Perhaps there is no useful distinction to be made." The angry white guys with guns are dangerous because they have weapons of war. But the dividing line between them and the "Fourth Generation Warfare" chaos agents creating a crisis of legitimacy is increasingly blurred.

You write that this rhetoric is rooted in a narrative adapted from the 1973 French novel you just mentioned, "The Camp of the Saints." Can you explain its basic narrative?

The novel has seven key ideas that its critics and proponents have noted. One, mass migration is an invasion. Two, immigrants and refugees are invaders. Three, the invaders will eventually destroy Western culture and replace Western populations. Four, the West's political elites do not have the moral strength to defend the West. Five, the invaders must be physically removed and/or violently repelled. Six, there is a difference between the "real country" and "real citizens" and the "legal country" and "legal citizens." Seven, multiracial, multiethnic or multi-confessional societies are not only unstable but undesirable, and lead to the "balkanization" of societies — a view also imported from Serbian genocidal propaganda into the American and global right.

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

You note that for both France and the United States, the historical roots of this narrative go back to the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. In the U.S. this has produced the "white genocide theory" and in France the "great replacement" theory. What distinguishes them and what draws them together?

The "white genocide" theory is premised on the fear of a Black slave revolt against the white slave-owning society. The "great replacement" theory is based on the fear of massive nonwhite immigration coupled with lower white birth rates leading to a "replacement" of the white population with a nonwhite population, and the transformation of the culture.

White supremacists use the more palatable, more sanitized "great replacement" theory interchangeably and conflate them. But they have different causal mechanisms.

On the other hand, the neo-Nazis and other proponents of the "white genocide" narrative consider any action by Black people to improve themselves, to gain access to privileged white spheres of social action or to more equitably redistribute power and status as an existential threat. "Great replacement" proponents do not share this outlook. Nor do "great replacement" proponents, in general, blame Jews for what they consider to be massive immigration.

You write, "It would be a mistake to see these various 'White Replacement' narratives as isolated from mainstream conservative thought in Europe or America." How has their influence spread through terrorist acts?

In the right-wing information sphere, ideas swirl around, mix, recombine and mutate over time to fit changing circumstances. Raspail's "Camp of the Saints" is foundational to this narrative or worldview. Raspail directly influenced the emergence and popularity of the "great replacement" theory, which is the catchall theory cited by white terrorists.

But Bat Ye'or's conception of the problem — that European elites conspire with Arab elites to produce both subservience to Islam and the "great replacement" — directly influenced the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who was motivated to provoke a decades-long civil war to stop the formation of what Ye'or called "Eurabia." Breivik, as well as the "great replacement" narrative, have inspired numerous white terrorist acts around the globe.

Returning to the American context, How did Steve Bannon and Breitbart spread their influence?

Bannon's principal contribution was to use Breitbart News to mix white supremacist ideology into the Republican Party and the Christian Right, and to heavily promote Raspail's "Camp of the Saints." In 2015 and 2016, Breitbart was the largest driver of ideological influence on the right.

How has this spread through the Trump administration?

The "Camp of the Saints" worldview largely shapes Stephen Miller's approach to immigration issues. Raspail's bottom line was that "the barbarians had to be repelled" either by violence or cruelty or both. Trump's immigration policy has been cruel, and as Adam Serwer noted, "cruelty is the point."

You also call attention to the Christian right's specific variant called "demographic winter," and argue that this has played a central role in evangelical support for Trump and his wall. What should people know about that?

The term "demographic winter" appears to have come from Don Feder, communications director of the World Congress of Families [a far-right, anti-LGBT Christian group]. He is the most prominent WCF official linked to the Tanton anti-immigration network and was apparently influenced by Bat Ye'or's "Eurabia" ideas, which circulate widely in conservative and right-wing Jewish circles.

In November 2005, Feder's view of Muslims in France reflected the worldview of Raspail and other "Eurabia" writers. Feder blamed the French riots of that year on "demographic winter," "lax immigration policies" and "brain-dead multiculturalism." Where "demographic winter" differs from Raspail, the "great replacement" and the Eurabia narratives is that liberal elite support for women's reproductive freedom and gay marriage are the principal culprits, in addition to massive Muslim immigration.

What resonates with conservative Christians and Christian nationalists is the idea that Christian (Western) civilization is under threat from nonwhite immigration, Christians are being persecuted in the West and around the world, and only a strong, authoritarian leader building a wall can save them.

Survey data supports my contention that white evangelical Protestants have a "Camp of the Saints" worldview: Seventy-eight percent favor strict limits on "legal immigration," 76% favor "building a [border] wall," 69% support a "temporary" Muslim ban and, 54% favor "preventing refugees from coming into the United States," according to October 2019 PRRI data.

The last section of your article deals with the emergence of the "Boogaloo boys" during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. How can we better understand them in terms of the longer history you've laid out? What lessons need to be learned?

The first lesson to be learned is that Donald Trump and local elected Republican officials, especially the so-called "constitutional sheriffs," have a much closer relationship to the armed wing of the Christian right. Bruce Wilson and David Neiwert have been tracking that.

The second lesson is that Trump is openly orchestrating armed demonstrations of force against Democratic Party governors and mayors.

The third lesson is that it is very easy to take off your camouflage fatigues and put on a Hawaiian shirt and pretend you just got concerned — but not before you spent around $2,000 on a rifle, tactical gear and ammunition. Journalists should stop being so credulous.

The last lesson is that claims that the "patriot" militia support Black Lives Matter protests are preposterous. The BLM protests are not simply about wrongful deaths at the hands of law enforcement — something a majority of whites can see and empathize with.

BLM is calling for reckoning, a "Third Reconstruction" of America — politically, economically and culturally — in the context of a deliberate confrontation with that racist, violent history. Even at the intellectual level of the "Never Trumpers," those potentially most sympathetic to BLM, there is a blindness or an inability to confront that larger American history and the smaller Republican Party history regarding racism. To think that "angry white men with guns" have thought it through is absurd.

What's the most important question I haven't asked? And what's the answer?

I do not know the answer to the question: "Why do scholars and journalists not consider the religious basis of America's long-term crisis of legitimacy in terms of politics and science?" But I would suggest that scholars and journalists have glommed on to the least important of Richard Hofstadter's explanations, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," and ignored his more trenchant analysis in "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," which focuses on the epistemological disruption caused by fundamentalist Protestantism. They also ignore Marty Lipset's and Earl Raab's use of the concept of monism in describing the right wing in "The Politics of Unreason." Those old guys were on to something.

The threat of right-wing theocracy has raised its ugly head once again

With both parties' conventions behind us as we head into a quasi-apocalyptic election, there's more need than ever for a sense of balance. Not the kind of false balance that equates truth with lies, or soothing psychological balance that lulls us with a false sense of security, but rather a balanced sense of history and political possibility that helps us understand where we're going, and why. Understanding America's real history is particularly important, as shown in Nathan Kalmoe's new book, "With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War," as discussed in our recent interview.