“Whip Covid Now?”

It’s more than “The Science”

IT’S REFRESHING AND ENCOURAGING to see Anthony Fauci again at the podium, and to receive actual information about the pandemic from him. This was presaged by Joe Biden’s declaration that Covid policy would “follow the science,” be dictated by “the science,” rely on “the science,” etc. It’s a good thing, but a bit heavy on science per se as a sacred totem, rather than a foundation for actual policy. The change from science denial and outright quackery to science worship is jarring. It’s as if we’ve gone from a diet of greasy fast food and donuts during the Trump administration to keto, all at once.

I’ve griped before about overuse of the word “science,” because it’s a trigger word for the rabidly anti-elite crowd of deplorables the previous regime courted and ultimately rode to insurrection. As a messaging strategy it would be better to use phrases like “people’s examinations of . . .” or “what we’ve learned about . . .” or “experience has shown . . .” rather than simply invoking the authority of an institution viewed by many as a snooty clique of know-it-alls who don’t live in the real world.

But the problem actually goes beyond messaging, for science really shouldn’t be the sole arbiter of pandemic policy, nor of public health policy in general. Policy is by nature political—the words do share the same root, after all—and political considerations as well as social, cultural, and economic ones cannot be ignored when shaping action against the virus. Those forces got us into this mess as much as the virus itself did, and it will take mastery of those forces, as well as virology, to get us out.

The virus’s spread wouldn’t have happened without a surging global economy, dense urbanization, and easy global transit. In the developed world, dense gatherings in bars and restaurants, in sports stadiums and concert halls, in offices and classrooms, and in the public transportation that gets people around accelerated the spread. In the U.S. it was supercharged by a mass culture that values an ironic sort of individualism that prizes such gatherings of strangers while downplaying shared responsibility among them.

The political element of the pandemic was highlighted when Donald Trump flogged his followers to resist wearing masks. “Liberate Minnesota!” and other exhortations rendered public health measures not only political but partisan, and tapped into deep suspicions of government authority and even of any sort of community responsibility. Subsequent behavior by White House officials reinforced the anti-mask, anti-distancing spirit, all capped off by Trump’s kabuki-like unmasking on the Truman balcony.

The appeal to resist public-health measures was no doubt reinforced by the real economic pressures people endured. Public-health efforts like the closing of various workplaces and congregating spaces took a serious toll throughout the economy as their employees, as well as those of related industries, lost income. Then, when they or their friends were out of work or unable to get to work, and were at the same time deprived of the simple pleasures of congregation with others, the desire to resist restrictions was strong. The president’s false denials of the pandemic’s danger gave permission to do so, based on a fantasy: that everybody could do what they wanted without fear and anybody who said otherwise was not just a fool but a socialist.

So there’s no sense denying that these measures are inherently political. If medical science were the only basis for governmental actions to control the pandemic, impossibly strict measures would be taken—total home quarantine for weeks, cessation of all air and rail travel, and the like—which would cripple the economy completely and likely bring even stronger resistance. Wrestling citizens to the ground and dragging them away to quarantine may have worked in Wuhan, but not here. What was needed months ago, and is still needed now, was a policy that modulated social activity in ways that slowed the spread while minimizing the social and economic pain, and at the same time compensated affected industries and their workers for the loss of income and revenues. Andrew Cuomo offered early on an apt metaphor of “tightening and loosening the valve” as conditions dictated, though further specification of exactly which “valves” should be turned would help.

Most important, any measures enacted require careful messaging to explain why they’re worth doing and why they’re consistent with American values. This doesn’t always work miracles—Gerald Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” are cases in point—but a campaign that makes masks and distancing seem normal and widespread, involving ubiquitous examples of government personnel and influencers, would have helped.

Instead, what we got from the Trump administration was an all-or-nothing characterization of pandemic policy: “shut down” vs. “open up,” health vs. the economy, tyranny vs. liberty, science vs. the people. The Biden administration should avoid playing into this dichotomy. The president should be explicit in characterizing his decisions as attempts to balance many interacting needs, informed by scientific knowledge that tells him the likely consequences of the various alternatives. It is, after all, how these decisions are actually made.

What They Oughtta Say

Republicans are finished if they don’t repent.

It’s significant that ten Republican representatives have had an epiphany about Donald Trump and have voted to impeach him. It’s also significant that the rest of that crumbling party have not. Instead, they have trotted out a buffet of excuses, deflections, and legalistic sleights of hand, from which sympathetic colleagues and constituents can choose to prop up their creaking ego-defense mechanisms. He didn’t do anything wrong. It’s too late. Free speech is protected, even for the president. What insurrection? And the always popular what-about: What about those goons that tore up Minneapolis and Portland? (Answer to the last one: they weren’t trying to murder legislators and the vice president while overthrowing the government).

It seems unlikely that any of these arguments will hold up over time. The FBI is already on the case, and will very possibly unearth evidence of more direct participation by officials in the attacks on the capitol. When they do, public opinion will turn against the stop-the-steal gang and big donors will abandon them. Then the Republicans will face a thumpin’, as George Bush would put it, in the 2022 elections.

They will be called to answer for their actions, and they’ll need a better one than a simple doubling-down on Trumpist fantasies. They need to make speeches on the floor of the House and Senate that will begin to reset their standing in the public eye and scrape off at least some of the vomit that’s forming a crust on their reputations. So in the spirit of bipartisan love of country, I offer some templates for speeches various members ought to give.

For the 147 house members who voted to overturn the election results:

I rise today to express my regret for voting as I did to question the outcome of the past election. In the white-hot fervor of the campaign it was all too tempting to rationalize my party’s losses by clinging to the false claims of election fraud. When a large section of the voting public believes a lie that may help you, and when that lie is promulgated and reinforced by the president of the United States, it is all the more tempting to believe it and spread it.

I say these things not to excuse my behavior, but to make some sense of it. Ultimately, only I am responsible for my actions. And while it is true that I was only expressing the views of the majority of my constituents—representing them, that is—it is also true that I played a part in planting those views in their minds. And so, to my colleagues in this House, I apologize, and I pledge to work with all of you to institute reforms that will strengthen our elections, and to participate enthusiastically in investigating how we came to face an armed insurrection against this body.

To my constituents, I apologize for misleading you. Our side lost the presidential election because we simply didn’t get enough votes. I continue to believe a different outcome would have been better for our country, but I do not believe that the nation faces ruin because we lost. I will continue to work as hard as I can to advance the issues and values that I campaigned on, and most of all, for the needs of all the citizens in my district. I look forward to facing you all with a clear heart and renewed resolve two years from now as I again ask for your vote.

For Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz:

“I resign.”

For those who may be discovered to have actively abetted the insurgents:

“Guilty, your honor.”

For brand-new freshman Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado), who delights in carrying a Glock everywhere she goes and pushed her way through the metal detectors into the House chamber, and for all those who, huddled together while assassins pounded on their door but still refused to put on a fucking mask:

“Yes, doctor, I’ll get this Clozapine prescription filled right away. ”

Deathbed Confessions

They only work if they’re sincere, folks.

LIKE NANCY PELOSI, I was raised Roman Catholic, though unlike her, I don’t pray for the president. I long ago gave up on the efficacy of prayer, and the Speaker’s futile efforts convince me that I was right to do so.

The faith included lots of good tenets and practices, like abstaining from meat on Fridays, which meant we sometimes had pancakes for dinner, and voting Democratic (both rituals have since fallen out of practice). But an important rite that has survived the ravages of time is confession, by which one is cleansed of sin through self-examination and entreating the lord for forgiveness. Once you’ve confessed, your ticket to heaven is punched—you’ve got it made. It’s a little like self-pardoning, though you need to have a priest sign off on it.

Confession is a wonderfully elevating and redeeming invention, and you can tell it’s good for you because it’s difficult and unpleasant. But it contains a serious flaw, in my view: its power is absolute, no matter how sinful you’ve been or how late you come to realize the error of your ways. You could debauch your way through a long and hedonistic life, bearing false witness, coveting your neighbor’s wife, and gobbling meat every Friday, then at the last minute wipe the slate clean and waltz into the hereafter with Mother Teresa, Mr. Rogers, and all the rest. That never seemed quite fair to me, but it was confirmed by the sisters in my Sunday school, so it’s true.

Which is why I can’t absolve Lindsay Graham, Mick Mulvaney, William Barr, or any of the many sinners who have borne false witness for four years. They sold their immortal souls cheap, to a devil who didn’t even have to work very hard at the art of the deal. Now on the deathbed of their political party they’re seeking redemption, insisting the Prince of Darkness has gone a step too far this time, that he isn’t the same righteous man he was eight months ago, and that their moral compass forbids them from following him any further down this wicked path.

But there’s another little quirk in the confession game, a catch, really: your confession only works if you mean it.

May they all burn in political hell.

Woman, Man . . . What Was That Again?

WHEN MY FATHER WAS 99 YEARS OLD, he had had a stroke and suffered from dementia. During my visits with him in Connecticut, he’d usually make a lot of odd requests, like a new pair of pants (which he didn’t need) or a new radio (though he still had his), and my wife and I would run all over town to get it for him. No need to argue, we decided; it was easier to just spend a day accomplishing these little missions, even though he usually forgot he wanted whatever it was by the time we got back. Sometimes instead of making requests he’d tell fantastic yarns about what he had done in the past or what he was going to do. Once he claimed he needed to get to New York because he was on a mission with the United Nations to make world peace.

On one of my last visits, he insisted I take him to Florida. “We’ll just go down to New Haven and take the train. It won’t be a big deal; we’ll be back by dinner time.” I hemmed and hawed, I negotiated, I deflected, I even explained that it was impossible to do. But he was insistent. Finally he made an ultimatum: ARE YOU GOING TO DO THIS FOR ME OR NOT? He looked me straight in the eye, and I just had to swallow hard and tell him no.

I was reminded of this when I heard about Donald Trump’s hour-long phone call to Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state. Even though I had loyally fulfilled my father’s unreasonable demands for years, even though I wanted to make him happy, it was simply impossible to fulfill this wish. He was blind and immobile, and in the last months of his life (he made it to 100). And though reachable by train, Florida was of course not a day trip from Connecticut. But these rational arguments were superfluous; it was just a crazy idea anyway. My father was mentally impaired and it had become increasingly difficult to satisfy his wishes. Now it was impossible.

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is mentally impaired too, about as severely as my father was. In the cognitive fog he occupies, no rumor or claim sounds goofy, no dark conspiracy is implausible, no demand seems unreasonable. He can’t understand anything. He can’t express anything clearly. He can’t cope with the slightest frustration.

His impairment will very likely protect him from prosecution for some of his crimes, as it will be difficult to meet the standard of “criminal intent,” necessary for conviction in so many of them. In many ways he is a pitiable human being.

What excuse do the Republican senators and representatives have for enabling him these four years? What moral defense might they offer for reinforcing and amplifying his ravings to advance their sordid political aims?

What Hasn’t Happened

OPERATION WARP SPEED WAS GOING GREAT until it entered Earth’s gravitational field. Now it sputters along as Captain Kirk is having trouble getting the vaccine beamed down to the people who need it.

If a new vaccine can be designed and produced in less than a year, shouldn’t it be possible to design a distribution system for it over a similar period? Millions of doses are now chilling in storage while officials seem to have just begun scratching their heads over what to do with them. What hasn’t been done to get these doses into people’s arms?

It seems that the federal effort has consisted only of shipping doses to the states, leaving state and local officials to figure out the rest. This would have been a good approach under the Articles of Confederation, though the Trump administration apparently didn’t get the memo about the new Constitution that was enacted in 1789. But even without an active federal role, states and cities should have been working on a distribution plan all along. And they should have vaccinated many more people by now.

There are several issues that could have been worked out ahead of time. First, in what order of priority should people receive the vaccine? This one has actually been given a lot of thought by health officials, perhaps because it’s more political than the others and therefore more interesting to them. But it’s actually not the most pressing issue. The slow and haphazard start of the vaccination program is not caused by confusion over priorities, but by a simple lack of logistical planning. Whether the elderly get the shot before the transit workers is moot if there’s no coherent system in place.

The second issue is that some target populations are location-specific, while others are scattered throughout the population. This means that some are easily identified and served: medical workers can be vaccinated as employee groups right in their workplaces; so can grocery clerks, transit workers, meatcutters, schoolteachers, nursing-home residents, and the like. For groups like these, mobile vaccination teams could schedule group vaccination dates at the worksites. For other, amorphous categories of people, like age groups or those with preexisting conditions, vaccinations would have to be done in central facilities, with recipients coming by appointment.

The second complication has to do with the two-dose nature of the vaccines. The shot must be administered twice and within a fairly narrow time frame, but some authorities are already compromising the requirement, giving out as many first doses as possible. This may be politically satisfying but is medically unwise, especially if vials that would have been used for second doses are being squandered now. Is anyone tracking this to make sure that second doses will be available when these people need them? If the initial rollout of the vaccine has been this chaotic, it’s hard to imagine that any system of record-keeping has been put in place to get the second doses to people at the right time.

Here’s what should have happened, or should be happening now:

The federal government should have developed a downloadable software app for state or local agencies to track the vaccine’s administration. It would record the identity of each recipient and the date and place of vaccination, then immediately reserve a dose for that person the requisite number of days hence, with a printed copy for the recipient. This would be linked to that state or locality’s allotment of doses and to the manufacturers’ production schedules, so that no initial dose could be given without guaranteeing a future dose for that person.

The feds should have also allocated funds for the states to do the following:

Governors should have established and trained mobile units to visit hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, prisons, campuses, and worksites to vaccinate location-specific groups. These could consist of teams of medical or nursing students—many on hiatus due to the pandemic anyway—compensated by a small stipend or college credit and supervised by a medical professional. In rural areas National Guard units could be activated for the same purpose.

To serve amorphous categories, local authorities should announce invitations to the general public by category, in turns by whatever priority is decided upon: age groups, diabetics, the immune-compromised, cancer patients, etc., then “all others not yet served” at the end. Evidence of group membership (a medical bill or prescription, for example) could be shown at the vaccination site. Reservations could be made by phone or online, and logged on the aforementioned software app.

Governors should have commandeered public spaces—underused because of the pandemic—for vaccination sites serving these amorphous groups. School gyms are the most obvious choices, but sports arenas could help in large cities. After all, localities arrange elections every couple of years; it shouldn’t be any harder to organize this.

These suggestions are meant just to illustrate the sorts of things that should have been thought through early on. They undoubtedly miss much of the complexity of the task we face, and there are likely fatal flaws in them. But I’m only one person, and I’ve only put an hour or so of thought into it. Imagine what smarter people, in larger numbers, could have done in six months.

Pardon the Mess

PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ORGY OF PARDONS to associates and friends threatens the most fundamental conception of fairness and law. They are almost universally self-serving, as evidenced by their issuance to “tough guys” like Paul Manafort and Roger Stone but not to “rats” like Michael Cohen, who fessed up to helping “Individual #1” in the Stormy Daniels payoff and many other nefarious deeds. But even more troubling are the preemptive pardons almost certain to come for his family members, Rudy Giuliani, various White House and other government grifters, and even himself. These bums almost certainly have committed more crimes still undiscovered, and blanket pardons will ensure not only that the perpetrators won’t be punished but that the crimes themselves will never be proven to have happened.

The great nineteenth-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim understood the importance of punishment for violations of social norms. Throughout history the primary purpose of punishments, from public stoning to stocks and pillory, to imprisonment, to corporal and capital punishment, is not simply to deter crime but to repair the social order. Punishment in all its forms allows the community to exorcise the evil in its midst, to celebrate the consensus that the offender is “not like us,” and to assert that the behavior in question is abhorrent to the community.  Punishment, even if it’s only public shaming, helps heal the wound that has been opened and strengthens the bonds that hold the community together. Modern use of the term “offender” makes this clear: we are collectively offended by the crime, and we do not let it go unacknowledged.

Durkheim even went so far as to claim that societies need offenders to maintain social norms. If there are too few violators, the community will actually create them by raising the standards of behavior. He used as evidence communities like convents and monasteries. Such communities, consisting presumably of highly virtuous people, impose all sorts of superfluous rules so that there will be offenders who must be called out. These restrictions—the rule of silence, strict adherence to myriad rituals, self-abasement, and so forth—all insure that now and then there will be an opportunity to identify offenses, shame the offenders, and thus buttress the community’s hold over its members.

That reaffirmation is denied when a preemptive pardon is given. The public is denied the opportunity to reclaim its virtue and repair the moral damage. And these pardons make it impossible to discover that a crime has been committed, since any legal case brought against the offender would be moot and thus a waste of public resources. Moreover, persons pardoned for crimes not yet identified have no incentive to cooperate in investigations of other crimes. Without the threat of prosecution, why would a participant in a conspiracy ever inform on the others? 

While the pardon prerogative seems absolute, there must be some adjustment that would restore the wounds to the social order, to identify and acknowledge the damage done. As it happens, there may be a variety of ways to curb the use of preemptive pardons without the need for a constitutional amendment.

I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve seen a lot of “Law & Order,” and I’ve learned that defendants pleading guilty in a plea deal are required to allocute to their crime, describing in some detail what they did. Legislation could require a recipient of a pardon to do the same. This would offer some satisfaction of society’s need for restoration of the rule of law, which is utterly lacking if guys like Roger Stone walk free while thumbing their nose at the courts.

Or, legislation could require the president to identify the crimes for which the pardon is issued. In this case, the offender might request a pardon out of concern for his or her risk of prosecution for some specific crime, which the president would name in the pardon statement.

Finally, preemptive pardons could be challenged in the courts. Although these pardons have been issued before—Gerald Ford’s blanket pardon of Richard Nixon, for example—they have not been challenged in a court of law, and could potentially be found unconstitutional. Such a court challenge could be accomplished by continued investigation and prosecution of, say, Rudy Giuliani. Upon conviction, Giuliani and his counsel could challenge the sentence based on the president’s preemptive pardon, and we could see what happens then.

In any event, requiring some sort of revelation of the crimes being pardoned would have severely curtailed Trump’s use of this oddly autocratic tool, since any such revelation would be sure to implicate him.

Take the Twenty-fifth!

Last chance, Republicans.

BACK IN THE SIXTIES when government worked, the Congress passed and the states ratified the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. It lays out, among other things, procedures for replacing a president who is incapacitated. Its Section 4 is the bit that’s relevant these days: it allows for the involuntary removal of a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Although this clause has never been invoked, it is generally agreed that such a disability could be due to physical incapacity like a stroke or coma, or to addiction, or to other sorts of mental instability. It is also generally agreed these days that the current president qualifies on the latter count; to wit, he’s nuts.

So wake up, Republicans! Your salvation is at hand! All you have to do is get Mike Pence to poll the cabinet on the president’s fitness, get a majority of them to state the obvious, et voila! Pence becomes acting president, while GOP senators and representatives lament the sad fate of their leader and curse the dastardly illness that brought him down. Everybody wins: the Republicans are freed from their bondage to Trump’s base, having supported Their Man until he “got sick.” They can even use Trump’s attempt to raise the relief checks to two thousand dollars as evidence of his illness. Meanwhile the Biden team gets a more orderly transition as Pence opens up federal offices to them, and the republic is spared another month of national degradation and possible nuclear holocaust.

The Amendment pointedly specifies that Pence would be the acting president, not simply the president, which would be a deliciously just end to the man who crowed about how much he has loved appointing “acting” officials to evade Senate confirmation.

Readers with a memory might recall that I’ve made this argument before. But this time the president’s condition is more obvious and far, far more dangerous. Trump has arguably done more damage to the country since the election than he did for the four years preceding it, and by extrapolation one might expect even more in the next few weeks. The trend is not good, so it’s a serious proposal this time.

Speaking of nuts, it’s becoming clearer every day that the Constitution’s framers must have been having a psychotic break when they gave the president unlimited power to issue pardons for federal crimes. Given their oft-expressed fears of presidential overreach, the pardon just seems like a stink bomb some joker must have scrawled into the document when nobody was looking. What was the perceived upside? What problem did they think it would solve?

This goes on my list of amendments the country really needs, along with anti-gerrymandering, the electoral college, and campaign finance limits. I daren’t even dream of gun control. But failing an amendment, I think there’s a work-around that would require only congressional action. I’m not a lawyer, but I have watched a lot of “Law & Order,” and one thing I’ve learned from it is that if you plead guilty to a crime in a plea deal, you’re required to allocute to your crime, confessing in detail to what you did. And if that allocution is found to be incomplete, your deal can be voided.

It seems to me that anyone pardoned by the president, particularly in one of these broad pardons for crimes not yet known, ought to be required to say what the crime was, lest the pardon be revoked. This gives the public the satisfaction of justice—at least in the sense of having learned of the crime and stigmatized the offender—while still offering mercy. And it would obviate pretty much every pardon President Trump has issued or ever will, because almost every allocution would implicate him.

Also: I’m getting pretty tired of hearing about the legions of people who don’t plan on getting the Covid vaccination. It seems clear that the media drumbeat about them—well intentioned as it may be—is doing little to change their minds, and in fact is likely encouraging them. Sure, the president and his lackeys bear the most responsibility, having given their dubious imprimatur to vaccine resistance. More subtly, there are millions of Americans for whom an earnest plea from Joe Biden or Anthony Fauci is a strong disincentive to comply. But constant media coverage of a fringe idea tends to give it legitimacy: if the major networks are talking about it, it’s a “thing,” isn’t it?

I’ll bet that in the end most of these deniers will get vaccinated. We already know—having learned from the past two presidential elections—that what people say they’re going to do and what they actually do are two different things. When they see others clamoring for their shot, they’ll rush to get in line. After all, there’s nothing like a scarcity to make people want something. It’ll be like toilet paper. Or bread flour. Or puppies.

Two Thoughts on Dr. Jill Biden

AS RONALD REAGAN WOULD SAY, there you go again. The snipers are getting an early start on attacking the Biden presidency with ad hominem trivialities. Remember the squabble over Obama’s missing lapel flag pin? Remember the brown-suit kerfuffle? This time it’s Jill Biden’s use of the honorific “Dr.” in front of her name, signifying her earned doctorate of education. Joseph Epstein offers that one in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. In it he claims that her use of the prefix “sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic,” and that her dissertation had an “unpromising” title. But the most errant misfire is his offer of this sage advice: “A wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child.” Jill’s daughter Ashley seems evidence enough that she has delivered a child—a feat which I’m sure Joseph Epstein has not accomplished.

But while Epstein’s rant is petty and overplayed, it’s not uncommon for academics to be challenged. As a “not-that-kind-of-doctor” myself, I have had to walk a similar line. On the job I was “Dr. Fogarty” or “Professor Fogarty,” but code-switched for most social occasions. Once in a while I’d be in a situation that called forth both my social and professional identities, and I’d be introduced with the title. And once in a while I’d be called out on it, either accidentally (“So where’s your practice?”) or explicitly (“But not an MD, right?). In those occasions I’d choke down the temptation to give a lecture on the history of medicine, ending with the reminder that “people were calling us professors ‘Doctor’ during the Renaissance, when you guys were still barber-surgeons.”

Moreover, there are plenty of public figures who are not physicians but are called “Dr.” without hesitation. I refer to Dr. Martin Luther King for example, who was also “Reverend” King, and worthy of respect either way. Then there’s also Dr. Henry Kissinger, though that honorific may have stuck because of his uncanny affinity to Dr. Strangelove. And people lacking any advanced degree at all stride through society as Doctors with impunity, like Dr. John, who is no doctor even if he may have been in the right place at the right time. Dr. Dre made a fortune selling headphones, but could he deliver a baby? And Dr. Seuss just gave himself a title because no kid wants to read doggerel poetry by a guy named Theodore Geisel. At least Dr. Doolitle could talk to the animals.

Oh, and all of them are male.

But as a practical matter it’s probably best to play down the titles except in situations where they matter. I learned this from the department chair in my first academic job. He told me of the the time when, short of cash, he sent his kids to the movie theater down the street with a check. Calling the theater ahead, he said “This is Dr. Richard Fox; I’m sending my two children to you with a check for their admission; is that okay?” To which the manager replied “Well, DOCTOR Fox, they’ll be coming right back home because we don’t take no checks.”

Rhett and Scarlett Watch Atlanta Burn. Again.

Covid has us enjoying the Hollywood classics . . .

THE SCENE: As Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue face runoff elections that will determine the leadership of the Senate, Donald Trump continues his attack on Georgia’s election apparatus, particularly its annoying tendency to count the votes from majority-Democrat Atlanta. As election day draws near:

Loeffler: Oh, David—that Yankee Trump is tearing through Atlanta, telling people that the vote is rigged. I fear they may be discouraged from voting at all! It’s so awful, I may swoon!

Perdue: Take a good look, my dear. It’s an historic moment you can tell your grandchildren about—how you watched the Old South fall one night.

Loeffler: Are you implying that we might lose this election?

Perdue: I’m not implying. I’m saying very plainly that the Democrats are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coalmines… and way better policies. All we’ve got is Tom Cotton, and racism and… arrogance.

Loeffler: You act as if you don’t care. But you’re a Republican, and a United States Senator.

Perdue: For profit, and profit only.

Loeffler: Are you trying to tell me you don’t believe in the cause?

Perdue: I believe in Donald Trump. He’s the only cause I know. The rest doesn’t mean much to me.

Loeffler: I hate and despise you, David Perdue. I’ll hate and despise you til I die.

Perdue: Oh no you won’t, Kelly. Not that long.

Loeffler: Who’s that man looking at us and smiling? The nasty, blond one?

Perdue: That’s Lindsay Graham. He’s from Charleston. He has the most terrible reputation.

Loeffler: He looks as if… as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy. [to Graham] Sir, I haven’t seen you in these parts before. Have you come down to Georgia to help us win this battle? I hear from the media that you’ve spoken to some of our election officials . . .

Graham: Oh, miss Kelly, I don’t know nothing ’bout fixin’ elections! I don’t know how I could’ve given such an impression!

Perdue: Panic’s a pretty sight, isn’t it? Let’s get out of here together. No use staying here, letting the South come down around our ears. Too many nice places to go and visit. Mexico, London, Paris…

Loeffler: No! As God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be out of office again. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness I’ll never be out of office again!

Perdue: This is one night they may be turning us out. I’m very drunk and I intend on getting still drunker before this evening’s over.

Loeffler: Fiddle-dee-dee. Won’t you be heartbroken, especially knowing that we’ll have to get real jobs?

Perdue: Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. But seriously, what will you do if you lose?

Loeffler: I’ll call for a recount. After all, tomorrow is another day!

Our Codependent Party

WHEN WILL ROGERS DECLARED “I’m not a member of any organized political party . . . I’m a Democrat,” it was the timing of the pause that made it funny; otherwise it was a simple acknowledgement of a sad truth. The Democratic Party is a rather loose confederation of interests and identities that’s always at risk of unraveling. To win elections Democrats must appeal to people of color as well as to working-class whites, two groups who have historically been pitted against each other by corporate interests. Add to this mix the new white-collar tech elite and its easy to see the strains. Meanwhile the Republicans maintain a solid core that hews to a rigid orthodoxy of small government, low taxes, cultural purity, and implied or overt racism.

But that’s not the only handicap Democrats have to face. On top of everything else, when Democrats enter office they usually face bigger challenges than Republicans do. Consider the past several administrations:

  • In 1992 George Bush the Elder has to break his promise of “no new taxes” after a decade of conservative fiscal policy drives unemployment up and economic growth down. “It’s the economy, stupid” is the mantra of Clinton’s campaign, which succeeds in unseating the incumbent. Eight years later Clinton leaves office with a 30-year low in unemployment and a budget surplus—the first since 1969 and not repeated since.
  • In 2000, George Bush the Younger takes over and spends two terms stoking rapid growth, mostly benefiting the wealthy. The country parties like it’s 1999 until the bill comes due: the Great Recession reveals that the financial markets are a house of cards.
  • Barack Obama inherits an economy battered by bank failures, factory closures, and widespread mortgage defaults causing hundreds of thousands to lose their homes. He spends the better part of his first term simply rescuing the economy from total meltdown, all while Mitch McConnell and the Republicans resist every effort, most notably a massive program to rebuild the country’s badly-deteriorated infrastructure while creating millions of jobs. After Obama’s two terms the economy is growing steadily, with unemployment down from ten percent to 4.7 percent.
  • In 2016 Donald Trump declares war on global trade, cuts taxes, slashes regulation, and juices the finances of the wealthy. It’s another gala ball for the better off while the income and wealth gaps yawn even wider. This time it’s a pandemic that drops the hammer, but the economy isn’t the biggest problem President-elect Joe Biden will have to face. Rather, it’s the scorched-earth attack on government, American ideals, and democracy itself that the incoming administration will have to try to repair. Effective operation of the government has been hobbled by humiliating and then purging experts in key departments, and by staffing them with incompetent grifters and lackeys. Ideals of global leadership have been trashed by withdrawal from agreements like the Paris Climate Accords and the Iran nuclear deal, and this is not to mention the attempts to bribe or bully other governments to serve Donald Trump’s personal agenda. The Justice Department has become the president’s personal legal team, pursuing his enemies and coddling his cronies. And Trump has cheapened democracy by casting doubt in the electoral process as well as in reality itself, as the most fabulous myths are promulgated by his tweets and even by the White House communications office.

The overall pattern is clear. Republicans, believing that government is the source of our problems, set about proving it whenever they hold power by wringing from it as much privilege as they can for themselves. Then when the public wises up and votes them out, Democrats are left to clean up the mess, often while the Republicans do everything they can do thwart their efforts.

It all puts me in mind of my teaching days, when many of my students were adult women who had come to higher education late, often due to early and unsuccessful marriage. I learned from them the term “codependency,” by which the partner of a drug or alcohol abuser takes on the burden of compensating for the abuser’s behavior. And this seems to be the Democrats’ lot: the Republicans run the government like teenagers, indulging themselves with short-term bingeing, a bacchanal worthy of an Animal House toga party. Then on the morning after, the Democrats are obliged to quietly take out the trash and bring the country back to normal, all the while pretending that the system is working.

But the system is not working.