Put Fairness over Convenience

The voting-suppression skirmish is spinning out of control.

THE RUBBLE OF THE 2020 ELECTION has barely cooled from the firebombing it took from the Former Guy, his minions in Congress, and their lackeys in the right-wing media. And yet, even after the climactic battle has been decided, the war over the electoral process roars on.

According to the Brennan Center, as of February legislatures in 33 states were working on 165 bills to restrict voting. Measures include voter ID requirements, restricting voting periods and registration opportunities, cutting or prohibiting mail voting, on and on.

Meanwhile the House has already passed H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” which would expand automatic and same-day registration, early and absentee voting, and vote-by-mail. It would tighten campaign finance regulations and require greater disclosure of finances. And most significantly, it would eliminate gerrymandering, requiring states to redistrict by independent commissions.

These two opposing forces—one a widespread series of guerrilla attacks on the right to vote, the other a top-down attempt to disarm them—are bringing what used to be an ongoing cold war skirmish to the point of crisis. Progressive activists tell us that if states are allowed to pass laws limiting absentee voting and reducing the period in which voting can take place, the Democrats will never win another election. But at the same time, Republicans are similarly convinced that if H.R 1 passes, they’ll never see another electoral victory.

The fact is that H.R.1 has no chance of passing into law—not without eliminating the Senate’s filibuster rule, which carries dire risks for the future when the Republicans have congressional majorities. But the Republicans have a problem, too: H.R 1 is popular, even among Republican voters.

This rush to all-out political war feels a bit like a poker game in which each player is bluffing, raising the stakes beyond anyone’s ability to pay. What’s needed is some sort of Grand Bargain, a compromise bill that would give both sides the political cover needed to get something passed and disarm this issue. And I think a compromise could be reached that does the right thing for the country. It involves taking out the provisions of H.R 1 that make voting easier while preserving and strengthening those that make it fairer.

By way of explanation, some history. Back in the 1960s and 70s, voting day was the first Tuesday of November.* You showed up at your assigned polling place and voted. There was no early voting, no same-day registration. You had to actually be away from home to vote absentee. And when you presented yourself at the polls, you told the poll worker who you were and signed your name. In that pre-digital age, your signature was your bond.

Yet Democrats and Republicans traded election wins pretty regularly. John Kennedy won handily in terms of electoral votes in 1960. Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in 1964 and won sizable majorities in both the House and Senate, even though he lost much of the old south that Kennedy had carried four years earlier. Richard Nixon won big in 1968, though the Democrats maintained strong majorities in both houses. Aided by cheating in 1972, he carried every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976, then lost to Ronald Reagan.

So somehow, even given the much more restricted election rules of decades past, Democrats fared pretty well. We don’t need voting to be easier to win. We don’t need mail-in ballots, nor same-day registration, nor drop boxes. We definitely don’t need the ability for third parties to collect absentee ballots, for this is the one actual case of voter fraud we’ve seen in recent years—committed by Republicans in a 2019 North Carolina congressional special election.

What we do need is for voters in every precinct to have an equal chance of casting a ballot. We need guarantees of equal numbers of polling places and voting machines per capita, of equal hours for voting, of a reasonable voting period—say, a four-day weekend—in which to vote. We need reasonable access for the disabled and the indigent. We need a paper-ballot record of every vote. And we especially need an end to gerrymandering, by which Democratic votes get packed into supermajorities in a few districts and spread into minorities across many others. And if the Republicans insist on imposing a voter ID requirement, give it to them, with the proviso that an ID is easy to obtain for everyone. After all, in the 21st Century, eyeballing signatures for verification really does seem almost comically antiquated.

Most of the fairness measures we need are contained in another bill, currently stuck in the Senate. This is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would reinstate most of the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, preventing the use of discriminatory election rules and procedures. In particular, it would empower the federal government to pre-emptively review states’ election procedures to ensure against racial bias. This is the provision of the 1965 law that kept southern states from re-imposing Jim Crow voting restrictions, but was discontinued by the Supreme Court in the Shelby case. The new bill would apply this provision to all 50 states, thereby skirting the Court’s rationale that it unduly burdened specific states.

The only thing we really need from H.R. 1 is the anti-gerrymandering provision, not only to reform elections but also to reform the way Congress operates overall. And the removal of “dark money” from PACs would be a nice bit of gravy.

*I’m going from experience here. My attempts to determine the actual voting rules in the various states during this period were not fruitful, but it seems that many of the expansions of voting access have occurred in recent years. I’d welcome corrections on this.

Dispatches From the Culture Wars

Children pressganged into the Cancel Crusade.

SINCE DONALD TRUMP WAS REMOVED from office and, perhaps more importantly, removed from Twitter, Republicans have been casting about the wreckage of American politics for a guiding theme. The Big Lie is still holding on, but will likely wane in credibility as the Biden administration delivers actual solutions to actual problems. Seemingly aware of this, GOP sachems have latched on to “cancel culture” as the next threat to our way of life.

How gleeful they must be over the recent resignation of Alexi McCammond, the young black Axios journalist dumped before even starting her new job as editor of Teen Vogue. The sin of this darling of the Left, formerly a prominent talking head on MSNBC, was that she posted anti-Asian and homophobic tweets when she was seventeen years old. The libs, it seems, are making themselves howl without any effort from the Right. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

One can hardly blame the magazine for dropping McCammond from such a prominent position. An editor-in-chief sets the theme and style of a publication, and so becomes a symbolic representation of its values. And particularly as Teen Vogue is, as the title proclaims, aimed at young readers still finding their own footing in the world, there could be no latitude for excuses and no time for a period of investigation, apology, or rehabilitation. They had no choice but to fix the problem before it could be a problem.

Still, one wonders how many of us could withstand a close examination of the various utterances made by our seventeen-year-old selves. I know I couldn’t, and I doubt either of my now-middle-aged children could. Like today’s Teen Vogue readers, we were all still trying out our personas, still learning about what sorts of people we might become. What 17-year old hasn’t said stupid and even hurtful things, or told a joke that was offensive—or might become so ten or twenty years later?

Neither I nor my children are likely to be bothered by any of that, because we were teens before the age of social media. We struggled through our formative years in obscurity, where our every utterance wasn’t broadcast to the world and preserved for posterity. Our ill-timed comments, our tactless advances, our ethnic stereotypes were shared only with those within earshot, and they evaporated as soon as uttered. They were mostly forgotten; even if they were remembered years later they lost their bite. It’s one thing for an old acquaintance to say you made a racist comment a decade ago, quite another if it’s documented in black and white.

My grandchildren don’t have the protection of teenage obscurity. Their every remark will be fodder for whatever vetting awaits them in the adult world of work and reputation-building. They live in an arena of amateur PR, constantly projecting a self-image like Hollywood hopefuls, even as that self-image undergoes the same wracking, churning evolution that ours did. My 21-year old grandson may grimace at the persona he projected even a couple of years ago, but unlike his elders, he’ll be dogged by that persona for the rest of his life. How many bright and virtuous people of this generation have already disqualified themselves from political office, or from public careers in journalism or education or commerce?

I’m not arguing that this is unfair or that people should be excused from the errors of their past. Such an argument is pointless, at least in the case of those who seek to make their living in a line of work that requires a certain public image. The important lesson here is that teens have to realize that the internet is a public space. They shouldn’t have to live in the spotlight as children, but they do.

The Potato Head issue nobody wants to talk about.

THERE’S AN AWFUL LOT OF INK BEING WASTED on Mr. Potato Head these days.  Is he—that is, are they—a man or a woman, or are they trans-gender, or non-binary, or what? The right-wing media would have us believe that somehow George Soros and the eastern elites have deemed it a crime to imprison a potato-based toy in the shackles of gender identity. The reality, of course, is simply that the manufacturer has chosen to describe the product generically as “Potato Head,” even as it continues to sell both “Mr.” and “Mrs.” versions. It’s like General Motors referring to one of their products as a Chevrolet, even though it might be a Malibu or a Camaro or a Blazer. So you needn’t worry about whether Hasbro offers a potato head that looks like you.

But all of this is a way to distract us from the real issue: that there’s no potato at all in the Potato Head world! When I was a kid I was the happy recipient of a Mr. Potato Head, this at a time before they had even thought of making a Mrs. Potato Head. What they had thought of was to make an actual potato part of the whole eponymous system: what you got in the package was a pair of eyes, a nose, a mouth, two ears, and a very cool hat. You supplied the real potato yourself. This seemed like pure marketing genius to me: here was a product they got good money for, even though they left out the most essential piece! All those parts were worthless unless you had a potato.

Moreover, attaching human body parts to a vegetable was what made it fun—you could put the parts anywhere you wanted to, Picasso-like, and get some laughs out of that. And you could take advantage of the irregularities in real potatoes, maybe by making a wrinkle or bruise serve as a pirate’s scar or weird goiter. And of course, you could make a visual pun using a potato’s “eyes” as the eyes of Mr. Potato Head—hilarious! You can’t do any of that these days; the “potato” is a plain, uniform hollow plastic blob with holes for mounting the various parts. What’s the fun in that?

So let it go, Tucker Carlson. “Potato Head” doesn’t have a gender. It doesn’t even have a potato.

Aid to Sisyphus

A shame-free approach to the student-debt crisis

IN A CONTINUATION of his fairly breathtaking sweep of actions to fix long-neglected ills, President Biden has signed an executive order to cancel much of the debt owed by students swindled by for-profit schools. This is literally the least the government can do to address the Denali of debt the nation faces. It is not only ruining the lives of thousands of graduates who owe far more than the $38 thousand average debt load, according to Student Loan Hero.  At $1.7 trillion nationwide, it is hindering economic growth overall.

The student-debt problem was a prominent topic in the early primary debates back in 2020—you know, back when Joe Biden had zero chance of securing the nomination. At that time everybody recognized that it was a looming national crisis, but of course the format of the “debates” made any real discussion impossible. What we got was little more than up-or-down questions as to whether student debt should be erased. This posed the issue as the typical binary choice, pitting those who have paid off their debts after years of sacrifice against the less prudent who have either borrowed too much in the first place or lived too well afterward. The grasshopper versus the ant, in Aesop’s terms.

One would think a financial problem like this would invite lots of subtle solutions; something more clever than simply cancelling debt. After all, Wall Street has invented all sorts of crafty investment instruments and tax dodges, some so arcane that most professionals barely understand them. As it happens, some limited solutions have been enacted in a sort of patchwork approach meant to address specific injustices. Depending on the source of the loan, some can be forgiven or cancelled if the borrower becomes a teacher or worker elsewhere in the public service sector. Some are relieved if one’s educational institution closes, or if the borrower is disabled. And there is now the aforementioned cancellation due to fraudulent practices by schools.

Still, these are targeted remedies aimed at “deserving” borrowers who either were wronged by their institution or have “earned” relief in some way; most borrowers aren’t eligible for them. A more subtle approach is the Income-Driven Repayment program, established 25 years ago to reduce inequity of access to higher education based on income. It serves over eight million borrowers today, but imposes burdensome and recurring paperwork requirements to prove ongoing need. And it too is aimed at a particular population, those who by circumstances beyond their control have less access to higher education.

What about the average person who simply overreached in their choice of school, or has entered a field that isn’t lucrative enough to support their debt load? What about those who, like the journalist in today’s Times, has paid out in interest more than she borrowed in the first place but now owes even more? If the average debt load of graduates is 38 thousand dollars, surely there are many who spend at least the early years after graduation making minimum payments to service the interest while getting nowhere on the principal. Most are neither frugal nor profligate, neither wise nor foolish; they simply need a break.

What’s needed is a remedy for these people, but one that avoids the odium of a giveaway to the irresponsible. So why not simply erase the interest on the loans? Make every outstanding loan interest-free from now on, thus making every payment a direct reduction in the loan’s principal. This will require everyone to pay back what they borrowed without having to pay also for the time it took to pay it back. It lets no one off the hook. It ensures that the government or private lender gets their principal back (those private-lender loans could be assumed by the government through a lump-sum payoff). Meanwhile, every debt-burdened graduate would see a monthly reduction in their principal, while those who borrowed more conservatively would retain their advantage over the less wise or less frugal.

It seems like a no-risk position for a politician. In other words, an opportunity to start looking  for some bipartisanship.

Did I Just Buy a Stanley Steamer?

Last fall I bought a new car, as I do for every tenth birthday. I really like it; it’s equipped with all sorts of wonderful features that weren’t available when I bought my previous car. It’ll interact with my phone to play music, navigate to wherever I want to go, and of course even make phone calls. It’ll read incoming text messages to me, and enable me to reply orally to them. It keeps track of the pressure in its tires and all its other mechanical needs. If it runs low on fuel it’ll guide me to the nearest gas station. Its cruise control will adjust my speed to keep me a safe distance back from other traffic. Luckily, it also will compensate for my many new distractions by warning me if I depart from my lane, and will even hit the brakes if I’m about to squash a pedestrian.

There’s just one little issue that’s been bugging me lately: advanced as it is, I can’t shake the feeling that my new car is already becoming obsolete. This comes to mind when I make my weekly drive to the National Museum of Transportation outside St. Louis, where I volunteer as a guide. I’m mostly a railroad guy, but I often spend part of my shift in the auto building describing our excellent collection of cars, ranging from the earliest “motor carriages” to the Corvette Stingray and “Bobby Darin’s Dream Car,” a custom-built mid-century fantasy.

The one that gives me pause is the Stanley Steamer. The Stanley brothers built their first steam car in 1897, when the internal-combustion engine was a fussy and unreliable technology. But the Stanleys were stubbornly consistent if nothing else: they were still making Steamers in 1924, by which time Henry Ford had sold literally millions of highly reliable Model T’s, and at a fraction of the cost. By then the Steamer was a clunky throwback, selling to a few old-timers who were familiar with steam technology and viewed the automobile as more hobby than transportation. The one displayed in our museum is accompanied by a “Jay Leno’s Garage” video in which Jay starts his Stanley—a comically elaborate ritual lasting half an hour or so.

The museum also displays two electric cars, both made in the 1980s. Like the Stanley, these were more hobby cars than reliable modes of transport, with short range and inadequate top speeds. But unlike the Steamer they were ahead of their time, not behind it. What held them back was the lack of efficient and lightweight batteries—both of our models use sixteen lead-acid car batteries for power—and the lack of enough charging stations to give them reasonably useful range.

Nor were these the first electric cars. Electrics actually had a following in the earliest days of the automobile, for a number of reasons. They were simple, compared to both steam and internal-combustion cars, having very few moving parts, no gearshift, no balky ignition system, no smelly exhaust. Women could drive them, in an age when motors and gearshifts were considered the province of men. They were reliable, and they could be manufactured relatively cheaply. But they too were more toy than transport, useful for a Sunday spin around the town green but no way to get to work and back on a daily basis.

Today the electric car is on the brink of making my new car the Stanley of its day. Some Tesla models now can go 400 miles between charges, and some say that battery technology is still in its infancy. Charging stations are springing up around the country, making road trips more feasible. Most of the major carmakers are producing electrics; General Motors has set a goal of making them exclusively by 2035. Moreover, many more startup companies are beginning to enter the market. We may even see a replay of the 1920s, when scores of auto makers competed for a share of the new booming market, a time when St. Louis was second only to Detroit in producing them.

We’re not quite there yet: charging stations need to be as common as gas stations are now, and the charging process needs to be faster. Batteries need to be even smaller and more efficient. and ultimately the electrical grid will have to be beefed up to handle the increased demand for juice. But it will happen, as it must, because we simply can’t keep drilling oil out of the ground, transporting it and its distillates thousands of miles, distributing it to thousands of filling stations, and ultimately turning it into a toxic mix of fumes and earth-heating greenhouse gas.

My next car will almost certainly be electric. By then, I’ll feel like one of those geezers who stood by his Stanley Steamer while the rest of the world had moved on.

Kill the Bots!

. . . before they kill us.

EVER SINCE ISAAC ASIMOV’S “I, ROBOT” short-story collection supposed that machines could be made so sophisticated as to become sentient, each new advance in artificial intelligence has brought new worries about them. Recent portrayals of these worries in popular media include the creepily sinister HBO series “Westworld” and the hilarious and scary “X-Files episode,” “Rm9sbG93ZXJz,” which I highly recommend (available on Prime video).

So far the imagined scenarios haven’t happened. True, millions of workers in repetitive or dangerous or high-precision jobs have been replaced by robotic machines. But while that has caused its share of economic displacement and consequent social disruption, it’s been going on since the Jacquard loom threw weavers out of work, spawning the Luddite movement of the early 19th century. We’re used to that.

It turns out that our robots really are coming after us though, but in a way most of us didn’t anticipate. They aren’t reproducing themselves and forming armies to attack us with ray guns; rather, they are reprogramming our brains in a turnabout of their own creation. I refer to the algorithms of Facebook, Twitter, and the other social media platforms, which are poisoning our political discourse by getting us to believe the most extravagantly bizarre and dangerous ideas.

How it works has become well understood by now: the platform offers news clips from a variety of media sources as well as various postings from other users, then examines which ones we view the most and automatically directs us to more of the same sort of content. Over time, this leads us down a funnel of information, as we are exposed to an increasingly narrow range of ideas and isolated from anything contrary. And since radical ideas require ever more radical ideas to make sense of them, that information becomes more and more extreme, like the dose of an addictive drug. It’s a perversion of the old programming truth: garbage in, more garbage in. The result is that a significant portion of the voting public believe the Qanon mythology of lizard-headed Democrats that drink the blood of babies (though not as large a proportion as that of the Republican members of the House of Representatives, it would seem). Oh, and they also believe that Donald Trump won the election by a landslide, which led to the sacking of the nation’s capitol and attempts to assassinate government leaders.

So what is to be done? Many worry that the First Amendment prohibits legislative tinkering with the free speech rights of the social media providers as well as of their users, but there could be ways to fix the problem without running afoul of the Bill of Rights. What would stop Congress from simply prohibiting the use of algorithms that employ user responses to shape their news input? After all, the algorithms restrict their access to a variety of views, not widen it.

Such a law would be less constraining of free speech than the old “fairness doctrine,” by which broadcasters used to be obliged to offer airtime for opposing political points of view. The platforms could still offer a variety of news feeds to choose from, including radical media companies, activist groups, and individuals. All they’d have to do is stop actively leading users to them. Disabling the algorithms could free them from having to laboriously monitor the veracity of potentially thousands of information providers. It probably wouldn’t even have a very large impact on their ad revenue, which is what’s driving the whole system in the first place.

It’s another parallel to the COVID-19 problem: A law like this would work like a vaccination, allowing people to safely associate with whomever they wish, in groups as large as they wish. Some will get infected anyway, but the spread of disinformation wouldn’t go viral.

ANOTHER GRAMMATICAL IRRITATION. Too many people who should know better (I’m talking to you, TV journalists) have acquired the habit of using the verb “is” twice in a row within a sentence. They begin with a clause like “The problem is,” then redundantly add the verb again to provide the answer. Example: “The problem is, is that vaccines aren’t getting to people fast enough.” It’s usually slipped in so quickly you hardly notice it, but it’s there. Barack Obama, possibly our most literary and erudite president since Woodrow Wilson, is actually one of the worst offenders, but one hears it everywhere on the air.

Let’s Make a Deal

. . . and put the Big Lie to rest.

ONE OF THE ROOT CAUSES of our troubles these days is that America is divided into two warring camps, not by ideology or policy, but by wildly different perceptions of reality. An astonishing proportion of Republican voters believe that the election of Joe Biden was rigged somehow, depriving the country of the rightful continuation of the Trump presidency. A smaller segment of the party believe in conspiracies hatched by QAnon and others, and some of them believe the wrongs they portray should be righted by force, including armed insurrection. Even more discouraging, various Republican members of the House and Senate continue to promulgate these lies, adding oxygen to the simmering embers that erupted into flame on January sixth.

The nation has been gravely damaged by this, and it can’t be repaired until those in authority who are participating in this madness disavow the Big Lie, and do so in a way that helps their followers really examine their thinking while saving face. The problem is that there’s little evidence that any of them will find the moral courage now to do so. Their next election is already at risk: they depend on those voters they have defrauded into delirium to stick with them at any cost, since they’ve thoroughly alienated all the others. And even then, are there enough crazy people among their constituents to put them over the top?

Some way has to be found to incentivize them make the right choice, one that gives them a decent chance of reelection while forcing them to do the right thing. So here’s an idea: Have Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, and Nancy Pelosi strike a deal giving the offending members the opportunity to recant and apologize, with expulsion from office the alternative. I have not included House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, by the way, because he’s one of the offenders.

Their reconciliation would have to include (1) frank declaration that the election was not rigged and the vote totals not falsified, resulting in a completely legitimate outcome; (2) admission that they falsely promoted contrary beliefs for their own political benefit; (3) an earnest apology to the House or Senate and to their constituents; and (4) a written and signed pledge to shun such rumors and their promoters in the future.

There are plenty of reasons for McConnell to agree to a deal like this. For one thing—the main thing, I’d guess—it would give him better control over his caucus by de-fanging the mad dogs within it. It would also cool the passions of voters in these and other constituencies, by helping them break free of the fabulist cult they’ve stumbled into. They’d be less prone to nominating radical nut jobs in the next election cycle, and thus would better defend the party against Democratic challengers. And even if a member opts for expulsion (on what principle or calculation, I don’t want to imagine), they could be replaced in the short term with more reliable party loyalists by friendly Republican governors.

And one other thing: it would help save the republic.

THE NOT-SO-BAD NEWS ABOUT WEAKER VACCINES. We’re learning that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is less effective, at only 66 percent overall, than the Pfizer and Moderna ones at 95 percent. This sounds like a failure that might as well be shelved, but that’s a mistake. Aside from its single-dose advantage, it turns out that a 66 percent efficacy is still plenty effective in stopping a pandemic. The flu vaccine is only 66 percent effective too, and we haven’t had a bad flu epidemic for a long time.

The trick to understanding this, like the trick to understanding all of epidemiology, is to focus on the population instead of the individual, or better put, to focus on the individual and the community as mutually interdependent. A vaccine that’s 66 percent effective will reduce your likelihood of getting sick if exposed to the virus by about a third. That seems good but not great, until you realize that it also reduces everyone else’s likelihood of getting sick by a third (assuming everyone else is vaccinated). And that means that your likelihood of being exposed in the first place is reduced by a similar amount. This virtuous cycle repeats in a continuous feedback loop as everyone else’s likelihood of exposure is reduced, until the unfortunately dubbed herd immunity sets in.

More Evidence for Evolution

. . . in politics as well as biology.

TWO DISPARATE ARTICLES in the paper this morning remind us of the power of evolution by natural selection. The first warns of the new, more dangerous strains of the Coronavirus that threaten to overwhelm even our efforts to contain the pandemic that is already approaching a death toll of half a million Americans.

These new strains arise because viruses evolve very quickly.  Trillions of them reproduce trillions more every hour in a population of any size, creating gazillions of opportunities for random mutations to occur. Most of these mutations are harmful to the virus and they disappear, but even if only an infinitesimally tiny fraction of them get a survival advantage—for example, one that helps them persist a little longer in the air, or worse, makes them more resistant to a vaccine—then that mutation spreads faster throughout the community. Soon it is the dominant strain of the virus, and while it spreads it too has more chances to mutate and evolve. The nasty irony is that half-baked efforts to control the virus—like failure to enforce wearing masks, or a vaccination effort that’s too slow—makes it evolve even faster because these efforts give the “improved” mutated virus a greater advantage over the original.

The evolution of viruses helps us understand Darwin’s explanation of how species evolve, and it should convince everyone of the theory’s veracity. The same process works for every living thing, though it takes much, much longer for more complex species because they don’t reproduce a new generation every second as viruses do. Humans, for example, take years to reach childbearing age.

Evolution also works in politics, as suggested by an article by Sabrina Tavernise in the Times. It describes one woman’s journey out of the rabbit hole that is the QAnon theory—you know, the one that actually posits a child-molesting and child-eating cabal of lefties headed by George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and other notables, some of whom are lizard-people. If this sounds like I’m trying to be clever by exaggerating its claims in some darkly humorous way, I am not. And this is what has made us all scratch our heads in wonder: how is it possible that anyone, anyone at all, could swallow such a fantasy? My own reaction has generally been denial—that they don’t actually believe it, but just enjoy the collective euphoria of joining in its spread. But the willingness of some to kill and die to “save the children” suggests otherwise, that they earnestly think a horrible wrong must be eradicated. Some of these people really do believe.

The woman in the article began her descent as a Bernie Sanders enthusiast, because he addressed her concerns about the growing inequality of American life, the shrinking opportunities of the working class, and the excessive power of wealthy elites. But when Sanders failed to win the nomination, she needed an explanation as to why. Social media supplied them: there were conspirators at the head of the Democratic Party who would sabotage the will of the people in a variety of nefarious ways. And when the mainstream media failed to report on these conspiracies, then the media themselves must be in on them. In fact, the media were denying the conspiracies by presenting “facts” purporting to prove them wrong, which meant those facts themselves were cooked up by someone or some group that was manipulating the media.

This is where natural selection comes in. Each time evidence was produced to counteract a crazy assertion, a new, even wilder claim had to be invented and believed in order to explain the inconsistency. And aided by a fast-reproducing news cycle that produces thousand of mutations—that is, thousands of falsehoods—every day through viral social media, a person’s vision of the truth can evolve into the most deadly plague.

By election time, the whole electoral process had spun out of reality. The election will be dishonest. They did a recount and it checked out? The officials doing the recount are crooked. The officials are Trump supporters? Then the machines are rigged. How could they get away with that? Because they were made in a foreign country led by a dictator. The paper ballot totals match those of the machines? Then paper ballots were falsified. But Republicans run the process in these states. Then they’re being bought off by the conspiracy. And so it goes. You can’t believe anyone, so you have to choose a side and stick to it.

Natural selection explains the evolution of both human physiology and human folly. What a piece of work is man, indeed.

“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.