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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories of Friendship
A few months ago, when millions of Americans were watching the Netflix series Emily in Paris because it was what we had been given that week, I cued up the first episode and was beset almost immediately by an intense longing. Not for travel, or for opportunities to wear beautiful clothes—two commonly cited high points in an otherwise charmless show—but for sports. Specifically, watching sports in a packed bar, which is what the titular character’s boyfriend is doing when the viewer meets him.The scene is fleeting, and it’s also pretty bad. It doesn’t come close to capturing the sweaty intensity of a horde of nervous fans, poised to embrace each other in collective joy or drink through despair. I know this because I am, sometimes unfortunately, a person who has spent a good chunk of her adult social life watching sports in bars, both with my actual close friends and with 500 or so fellow travelers at the New York City bar that hosts expatriated University of Georgia alumni during college-football season.During the pandemic, I’ve been able to maintain, on an outdoor TV, the ability to watch a game with a couple of my closest buddies, which is a balm. But the other experience—the one Emily in Paris was trying to portray—has been lost entirely. In noticing all the ways the show misunderstood its joys, I realized how much I missed it, and especially how much I missed all of those people I only sort of know. Of the dozens of fellow fans and bar employees I’d greet with a hug on a normal fall Saturday, I follow only a handful of them on social media; for most of the others, I know only the first names, if that. But many comforted me through mutual, bone-deep disappointment, or sprayed champagne at me in exhilaration.In the weeks following, I thought frequently of other people I had missed without fully realizing it. Pretty good friends with whom I had mostly done things that were no longer possible, such as trying new restaurants together. Co-workers I didn’t know well but chatted with in the communal kitchen. Workers at the local coffee or sandwich shops who could no longer dawdle to chat. The depth and intensity of these relationships varied greatly, but these people were all, in some capacity, my friends, and there was also no substitute for them during the pandemic. Tools like Zoom and FaceTime, useful for maintaining closer relationships, couldn’t re-create the ease of social serendipity, or bring back the activities that bound us together.Understandably, much of the energy directed toward the problems of pandemic social life has been spent on keeping people tied to their families and closest friends. These other relationships have withered largely unremarked on after the places that hosted them closed. The pandemic has evaporated entire categories of friendship, and by doing so, depleted the joys that make up a human life—and buoy human health. But that does present an opportunity. In the coming months, as we begin to add people back into our lives, we’ll now know what it’s like to be without them.American culture does not have many words to describe different levels or types of friendship, but for our purposes, sociology does provide a useful concept: weak ties. The term was coined in 1973 by the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, and it comprises acquaintances, people you see infrequently, and near strangers with whom you share some familiarity. They’re the people on the periphery of your life—the guy who’s always at the gym at the same time as you, the barista who starts making your usual order while you’re still at the back of the line, the co-worker from another department with whom you make small talk on the elevator. They’re also people you might have never directly met, but you share something important in common—you go to the same concerts, or live in the same neighborhood and frequent the same local businesses. You might not consider all of your weak ties friends, at least in the common use of the word, but they’re often people with whom you’re friendly. Most people are familiar with the idea of an inner circle; Granovetter posited that we also have an outer circle, vital to our social health in its own ways.During the past year, it’s often felt like the pandemic has come for all but the closest of my close ties. There are people on the outer periphery of my life for whom the concept of “keeping up” makes little sense, but there are also lots of friends and acquaintances—people I could theoretically hang out with outdoors or see on videochat, but with whom those tools just don’t feel right. In my life, this perception seems to be largely mutual—I am not turning down invites from these folks for Zoom catch-ups and walks in the park. Instead, our affection for each other is in a period of suspended animation, alongside indoor dining and international travel. Sometimes we respond to each other’s Instagram Stories.None of the experts I spoke with had a good term for this kind of middle ground—the weaker points of Granovetter’s proposed inner circle and the strongest of the weak ties—except for the general one. “Friend is a very promiscuous word,” William Rawlins, a communications professor at Ohio University who studies friendship, told me. “Do we have a word for this array of friends that aren’t our close friends? I’m not sure we do, and I’m not sure we should.”The extent to which individuals are separated from their moderate and weak ties during the pandemic varies by their location, employment, and willingness to put themselves and others at risk. But even in places where it’s possible to work out in gyms and eat inside restaurants, far fewer people are taking part in these activities, changing the social experience for both patrons and employees. And even if your job requires you to come in to work, you and your colleagues are likely adhering to some kind of protocol intended to reduce interaction. Masks, though necessary, mean you can’t tell when people smile at you.Friends are sometimes delineated by the ways we met or the things we do together—work friends, old college buddies, beer-league-softball teammates—but they’re all friends, and Rawlins thinks that’s for the best. “Living well isn’t some cloistered retreat with just a few folks,” he told me. “The way worlds are created is by people sharing with and recognizing each other.” Many different kinds of relationships are important, he says, and man does not thrive on close friendships alone.This realization, new to me, is also somewhat new in the general understanding of human behavior. Close relationships were long thought to be the essential component of humans’ social well-being, but Granovetter’s research led him to a conclusion that was at the time groundbreaking and is still, to many people, counterintuitive: Casual friends and acquaintances can be as important to wellbeing as family, romantic partners, and your closest friends. In his initial study, for example, he found that the majority of people who got new jobs through social connections did so through people on the periphery of their lives, not close relations.Some of the most obvious consequences of our extended social pause could indeed play out in the professional realm. I started hearing these concerns months ago, while writing a story on how working from home affects people’s careers. According to the experts I spoke with, losing the incidental, repeated social interactions that physical workplaces foster can make it especially difficult for young people and new hires to establish themselves within the complex social hierarchy of a workplace. Losing them can make it harder to progress in work as a whole, access development opportunities, and be recognized for your contributions. (After all, no one can see you or what you’re doing.) These kinds of setbacks early in professional life can be especially devastating, because the losses tend to compound—fall behind right out of the gate, and you’re more likely to stay there.The loss of these interactions can make the day-to-day realities of work more frustrating, too, and can fray previously pleasant relationships. In a recent study, Andrew Guydish, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UC Santa Cruz, looked at the effects of what he calls conversational reciprocity—how much each participant in a conversation talks while one is directing the other to complete a task. He found that in these situations—which often crop up between managers and employees at work—pairs of people tended to use unstructured time, if it were available, to balance the interaction. When that happened, both people reported feeling happier and more satisfied afterward.Now Guydish worries that reciprocity has been largely lost. “Zoom calls usually have a very defined goal, and with that goal comes defined expectations in terms of who’s going to talk,” he told me. “Other people sit by, and they don’t get their opportunity to give their two cents. That kind of just leaves everybody with this overwhelming sense of almost isolation, in a way.”This loss of reciprocity has extended to nondigital life. For example, friendly chats between customers and delivery guys, bartenders, or other service workers are rarer in a world of contactless delivery and curbside pickup. In normal times, those brief encounters tend to be good for tips and Yelp reviews, and they give otherwise rote interactions a more pleasant, human texture for both parties. Strip out the humanity, and there’s nothing but the transaction left.The psychological effects of losing all but our closest ties can be profound. Peripheral connections tether us to the world at large; without them, people sink into the compounding sameness of closed networks. Regular interaction with people outside our inner circle “just makes us feel more like part of a community, or part of something bigger,” Gillian Sandstrom, a social psychologist at the University of Essex, told me. People on the peripheries of our lives introduce us to new ideas, new information, new opportunities, and other new people. If variety is the spice of life, these relationships are the conduit for it.The loss of these interactions may be one reason for the growth in internet conspiracy theories in the past year, and especially for the surge in groups like QAnon. But while online communities of all kinds can deliver some of the psychological benefits of meeting new people and making friends in the real world, the echo chamber of conspiracism is a further source of isolation. “There’s a lot of research showing that when you talk only to people who are like you, it actually makes your opinions shift even further away from other groups,” Sandstrom explained. “That’s how cults work. That’s how terrorist groups work.”Most Americans were especially ill-prepared for the sudden loss of their weak ties. The importance of friendship overall, and especially friendships of weak or moderate strength, is generally downplayed in the country’s culture, while family and romantic partners are supposed to be the be-all and end-all.The physical ramifications of isolation are also well documented. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Brigham Young University, has found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death from any cause by almost 30 percent. “The scientific evidence suggests that we need a variety of kinds of relationships in our lives, and that different kinds of relationships or social roles can fulfill different kinds of needs,” she told me. People maintain hygiene, take their medication, and try to hold themselves together at least in part because those behaviors are socially necessary, and their repetition is rewarded. Remove those incentives, and some people fall into despair, unable to perform some of the crucial tasks of being alive. In people at risk for illness, lack of interaction can mean that symptoms go unnoticed and arrangements for medical care aren’t made. Humans are meant to be with one another, and when we aren’t, the decay shows in our bodies.The small joys of running into an old co-worker or chatting with the bartender at your local might not be the first thing you think of when imagining the value of friendship—images of more intentional celebrations and comforts, such as birthday parties and movie nights, might come to mind more easily. But Rawlins says that both kinds of interactions meet our fundamental desire to be known and perceived, to have our own humanity reflected back at us. “A culture is only human to the extent that its members confirm each other,” he said, paraphrasing the philosopher Martin Buber. “The people that we see in any number of everyday activities that we say, Hey, how you doing? That’s an affirmation of each other, and this is a comprehensive part of our world that I think has been stopped, to a great extent, in its tracks.”Rawlins describes the state of American social life as a barometer for all that is going on in the country. “Our capacity for—and the possibilities of—friendship are really a kind of measure of the actual freedom we have in our lives at any moment in time,” he told me. Friendship, he says, is all about choice and mutual agreement, and the broad ability to pursue and navigate those relationships as you see fit is an indicator of your ability to self-determine overall. Widespread loneliness and social isolation, on the other hand, are usually indicative of some kind of larger rot within a society. In America, isolation had set in for many people long before the pandemic, making it one of the country’s many problems both exacerbated and illuminated by extended disaster.In some senses, that means there’s cause for optimism. As more Americans are vaccinated in the coming months, more people will be able to return confidently to more types of interactions. If the best historical analogue for the coronavirus outbreak is the 1918 flu pandemic, the Roaring ’20s suggest we’ll indulge in some wild parties. In any case, Rawlins doubts that many of the moderate and weak ties people lost touch with in the past year will be hurt that they didn’t get many check-in texts. Mostly, he predicts, people will just be so happy to see one another again.All of the researchers I spoke with were hopeful that this extended pause would give people a deeper understanding of just how vital friendships of all types are to our well-being, and how all the people around us contribute to our lives—even if they occupy positions that the country’s culture doesn’t respect very much, such as service workers or store clerks. “My hope is that people will realize that there’s more people in their social networks that matter and provide some kind of value than just those few people that you spend time with, and have probably managed to keep up with during the break,” Sandstrom said. America, even before the pandemic, was a lonely country. It doesn’t have to be. The end of our isolation could be the beginning of some beautiful friendships.
Welcome to the ‘Drivers License’ Cinematic Universe
I’m not proud to say that my first reaction to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” the ballad that seemed to come out of nowhere to break streaming records in the first month of 2021, was, That’s it? Rodrigo, a 17-year-old Disney actor, sings in the quavery, Lorde-derived vocal style that seemed all too faddish a half-decade ago. Her heartbroken lyrics skip the sort of fun wordplay that Taylor Swift, an obvious inspiration, specializes in. The arrangement centers on one pinging piano note, until the bridge erupts cinematically. What’s more, the story spun by Rodrigo’s lyrics seems incomplete. The singer gets her driver’s license and cruises around the suburbs feeling sad about an ex who left her for an older blond girl. That’s a premise, a sketch, a slice of life—but why was it a smash hit?[Read: TikTok teens are going viral faster than ever]One answer clicked into place as I scrolled through TikTok and YouTube videos of listeners singing their own versions of the track. Some rework “Drivers License” to be from the point of view of the ex whom Rodrigo pines for: “I saw you driving around the suburbs / heartbroken cuz I love someone else.” Some give the perspective of “that blond girl,” who feels bad for making Rodrigo’s narrator feel bad. There’s a version that imagines the protagonist in the future, telling her younger self that everything will work out. Then there are the joke takes that empathize with the driver’s license itself, or with the dude stuck in the car behind Rodrigo. Such covers—part of the so-called “POV” trend of imaginative roleplaying on TikTok and other platforms—show how a sense of unfinishedness is actually the song’s strength. You can live inside of “Drivers License.” This fascinating song is, to use modern entertainment jargon, a cinematic universe.Rodrigo already hails from a kind of cinematic universe. She’s currently starring in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, the TV dramedy whose cheeky title riffs on the way that the High School Musical franchise has iterated repeatedly since the 2006 movie that started it. Broadcast on Disney+ to an atomized teen audience consuming media in its bedrooms, Rodrigo has the kind of fame that remains invisible to large swaths of the population—until something like “Drivers License” bubbles up and becomes ubiquitous all at once. Within four days of its release, the song had taken the title of the most Spotify streams in one day for a non-holiday song. In its opening week, it landed at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100: a rare feat for what amounts to a debut single. (Rodrigo’s previous songs had all been soundtrack cuts.) It’s No. 1 again for a second week, and stars such as Swift and Cardi B are shouting it out on social media.The “Drivers License” phenomenon draws upon another cultural dreamscape, too: the reams of gossip generated wherever telegenic young adults find fame. Scouring social media last year, fans of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series had speculated that Rodrigo was dating her co-star Joshua Bassett, even though neither of them ever acknowledged a relationship. Then, the popular theory goes, the two actors broke up and Bassett started seeing another Disney TV star, Sabrina Carpenter. Many fans immediately took “Drivers License” to be about that alleged love triangle—but you don’t need pre-existing knowledge to be sucked in. The song’s key line comes when Rodrigo’s mannered vocals give way to a hot wail as she sings, “Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me.” Listeners are directed to a delicious mystery: Who is the you Rodrigo sings to, and what song did that person write about her? @andimitchellll This song. Everything. @livbedumb #driverslicense #singing #cover #rewrite #fyp #viral ♬ original sound - ANDIGood songwriters often plant little riddles like this one, and celebrity-driven pop tends to amp the intrigue with outside context. When, for example, Beyoncé sings about a you, listeners might reflect on their own personal romantic sagas while also thinking about the singer’s iconic marriage to Jay-Z. In our present era of militarized fanbases, pseudo-intimate social-media accounts, and remix-and-share music platforms, the potential for pop to feel interactive—like a puzzle to solve or a video game to plug into—is only growing. In the case of “Drivers License,” the “song you wrote about me” could refer to Bassett’s lovey-dovey 2020 single “Anyone Else.” Carpenter, at 21, seems to fit the description of the “older” “blond girl” that Rodrigo sings about being jealous of. While Rodrigo has played coy as to the true meaning of “Drivers License,” the speculation has profited all involved. Bassett’s new single, “Lie Lie Lie,” accuses some sad-sack ex of playing the victim. Carpenter’s latest song, “Skin,” has lines such as: “Maybe you didn’t mean it / Maybe ‘blond’ was the only rhyme.”Those response singles are fun to dig into—but they’re also risky. As a precedent, think of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” a 2002 sing-along implying Britney Spears as a treacherous jezebel: Given the wrenching arc of Spears’s life since then, it retrospectively feels like Timberlake contributed to a harmful public pile-on. Working out relationship drama in public can be profitable to a point, but when the principals are young and commanding extremely online fanbases, there’s a real danger in stoking overheated narratives about fetishizable heroes and harassable villains. Interestingly, Carpenter’s “Skin” seems to be partly about that danger. “Maybe we could've been friends if I met you in another life,” she sings. “Maybe then we could pretend there’s no gravity in the words we write.” A fan version of “Drivers License,” imagining the “blond girl” replying to Rodrigo, put it more plainly: “Your fans, yeah they love you, but they don’t see that my feelings are real.”[Read: There’s never been a story like Britney Spears’s]Indeed, the healthier manifestations of “Drivers License” mania are in such fan-made, perspective-shifting covers. In general, those covers are often well-sung, moving, and clever. They also reveal the TikTok-friendly virtues of “Drivers License” in the first place: the way that the turns of the first verse and chorus create a standalone melodic narrative, the way those turns kick up walloping waves of emotion, and the way Rodrigo’s lyrics suggest characters who are specific enough to envision but generic enough to customize. The POV trend is big right now across pop culture—Swift’s 2020 album Folklore used three different songs to switch among the perspectives in a teenage love triangle—and it’s tempting to say that empathetic fantasy is emerging as a hot pandemic pastime. But maybe “Drivers License” just makes a tearful update to the eternal appeal of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” The most irresistible songs invite you to not only wonder whom they’re about, but to imagine that the answer could be you.
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The First Amendment Is No Excuse for Letting Social-Media Companies Do Whatever They Want
There is a rich historical irony to the fact that today, conservatives are the ones who argue most forcefully that the decisions by private companies to “deplatform” certain speakers threaten what President Donald Trump described in 2020 as the “bedrock” American right to freedom of speech. Until very recently, this was an argument made almost exclusively by those on the left.The decision by Twitter, Facebook, and a host of other social-media outlets to ban Trump from their platforms after the January 6 attack on the Capitol intensified conservatives’ long-standing concerns that the powerful tech industry is violating their free-speech rights. Trump encouraged and amplified these arguments when he issued a (largely symbolic) executive order in May 2019 declaring that “free speech is the bedrock of American democracy,” and insisted that “in a country that has long cherished the freedom of expression, we cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to hand pick the speech that Americans may access and convey.”The deplatforming of the president appeared to many conservatives to offer vivid proof that these companies are just as dangerous to freedom of speech as Trump had claimed. Steve Daines, a Republican senator from Montana, took to Twitter to attack “Big Tech” for “censoring [Trump] and the free speech of American citizens.” Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro, claimed that the platforms’ decision to restrict speech “threatened our democracy.” And on the floor of the Capitol building, newly sworn-in Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia wore a mask bearing a single word—CENSORED—in stark white letters. Many liberals, meanwhile, insisted that the decision to deplatform the president had nothing to do with freedom of speech, at least not as protected by the First Amendment.[Nora Benavidez: First Amendment rights—if you agree with the president]This is something of a reversal. Indeed, the idea that private actors, not just government officials, might threaten the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment, as well as the other rights protected by the Constitution, was first suggested by big-government liberals, whom contemporary conservatives love to hate. In the early 20th century, progressive legal scholars such as Felix Cohen and Robert Hale argued against the notion that the Constitution protects rights including freedom of speech from only government action. Private corporations wield tremendous power over individuals’ lives and fortunes, and to overlook that power when interpreting the meaning of constitutionally protected rights, Cohen and Hale believed, would make no sense.This argument eventually found favor with progressive justices on the Supreme Court during the New Deal and led the court to conclude—as it did in the 1946 decision Marsh v. Alabama, for example—that the First Amendment could prevent private corporations from excluding speakers from property they owned and controlled when doing so was necessary to ensure that “the channels of communication remain free.” In later decades, although the Court struggled to define exactly when and under what circumstances the First Amendment applied to private actors, it continued to insist that it did sometimes apply. In 1968, for example, the great liberal lion, Justice Thurgood Marshall, wrote an opinion that held that a shopping mall’s private owner could not exclude protesters from the mall’s passageways without violating their First Amendment rights. Only after President Richard Nixon appointed four pro-business conservative justices did the Supreme Court reject this view of the First Amendment, and insist that private corporations have no constitutional obligation to grant access to their property to speakers they dislike, no matter how powerful those corporations might be.When Trump and other conservatives complain that the decision to remove the president from popular platforms violates his freedom of speech, they place themselves in strange company. They acknowledge, albeit only implicitly and perhaps opportunistically, that early-20th-century progressives were correct to worry about private power’s threat to constitutionally protected liberties.This recognition is welcome, if overdue. For decades now, nearly all of the important forums of mass communication in the United States (radio and television stations, newspapers and magazines, movies and, yes, social-media platforms) have been privately owned. Given this state of affairs, private companies’ decisions about what speech to allow or exclude from their property obviously have the capacity to limit the free and open debate that sustains American democracy. The difficult thing is figuring out what to do about it.In recent weeks, some conservatives have suggested that courts should impose the same First Amendment duties on today’s social-media companies that the Marsh v. Alabama Court imposed on a private owner of a company town. In principle, this approach makes a lot of sense. Just like the company town in Marsh, Twitter and Facebook today provide an important forum for public conversation and debate. They represent, as Senator John Cornyn has argued, the new “public squares” of the internet age.[Evelyn Douek: Trump is banned. Who is next?]In practice, however, extending the rule from Marsh to social media would effectively make the nine justices on the Supreme Court (many of whom have, by all appearances, a poor grasp of the basic mechanisms of digital technology) the final arbiters of freedom of speech on social media for 330 million Americans. One might doubt whether the Court is best positioned to assess how free-speech principles translate to this new technological environment. Even if one doesn’t doubt that, the Supreme Court has evinced no desire to extend its holding in Marsh to new kinds of private property. If anything, the opposite.Rather than imposing First Amendment duties on the powerful private companies that operate today’s virtual public squares, some on the left have argued, the best option for preserving freedom of speech on social media is to allow the companies to self-regulate, by creating internal speech policies that limit their ability to pick and choose what speech to allow on the platform. This is an idea that, unlike the probably doomed idea of reviving Marsh, is already being put into practice.Over the past few years, social-media companies have expended considerable effort developing internal policies that they claim are designed to ensure that “all people can participate in the public conversation [on the platforms] freely and safely.” Instead of exercising the unbounded freedom that post-Nixon First Amendment cases give them to exclude whomever they like from their platforms, companies such as Twitter and Facebook have declared themselves bound by a principled, though not legally mandated, duty to promote freedom of speech on their platforms, and have developed policies that allow speech to be removed, flagged, or hidden only when it satisfies certain conditions. These policies also provide limited due-process rights to those regulated by them.When they banned Trump, the platforms took care to justify the decision by reference to these policies. Twitter, for example, provided a detailed explanation of why Trump’s speech violated its policy against glorifying violence and therefore could be removed despite the company’s general preference for “the public [to] hear from elected officials and world leaders directly.” Mark Zuckerberg made a similar argument to explain why Facebook was banning Trump until the end of his presidency, and just recently Facebook asked its court-like Oversight Board, established a few months ago to provide independent oversight of its speech-regulating decisions, to evaluate whether the ban violated the company’s policies.These efforts to justify Trump’s deplatforming by reference to social-media companies’ internal speech policies—and in particular, Facebook’s willingness to have that decision reviewed by an independent, quasi-judicial Oversight Board—suggest that the project of platform self-regulation is gaining traction. The important question facing internet users in the United States and around the world is whether the platforms’ self-regulation will be sufficient to protect the important democratic and expressive freedoms that the American free-speech tradition cares about.There are reasons to be skeptical that self-regulation will be enough. Perhaps the primary reason is the fact that, notwithstanding their presumably sincere commitment to freedom of speech, social-media companies are, in the end, for-profit entities that offer a forum for speech in order to make money. Will they protect expressive freedom even when it conflicts with corporate profits? Conversely, outside the extraordinary circumstances of the Capitol invasion, will they take down genuinely harmful speech that brings readers to their platforms? Past history suggests that the answer to both of these questions will be no. Certainly the often–ad hoc and inconsistent decision making that the platforms demonstrated during the 2020 election campaign is alone concerning.Given all of this, it is worth considering a third option that has been used in the past, and could once again be used, to protect expressive freedom from private power: laws requiring that the private media companies governing the mass public sphere abide by basic nondiscrimination and, often, due-process obligations. Even when the First Amendment intruded further into the private sphere than it does today, statutory nondiscrimination and due-process requirements were lawmakers’ primary tools to ensure that the private companies that controlled the telegraph and telephone wires, the radio and television airwaves, and the cable networks did not use their power to discriminate in favor of certain political viewpoints, or otherwise undermine the vitality of public debate. The most famous, and controversial, example of these laws was the Fairness Doctrine, which imposed extensive, if vague, nondiscrimination duties on radio and television broadcasters, and to an extent, cable-television companies, from the 1930s until the late ’80s, when Ronald Reagan’s FCC repealed it. But the Fairness Doctrine is only one example of a much wider array of media nondiscrimination laws, many of which continue to ensure, to this day, that, as one senator put it in 1926, the “few men” who control the “great publicity vehicles” of radio and television do not limit the range of ideas and viewpoints that the public can hear.In this context as well, a significant shift in political attitudes has occurred. For much of the 20th century, conservatives were the ones who railed against the constraints that federal laws like the Fairness Doctrine imposed on private media companies, and liberals and progressives defended these policies against attack. Today, however, many conservatives argue for the need to impose statutory nondiscrimination duties on social-media companies, while many liberals express alarm about the constraints such bills would impose on the freedom of private companies.Although some of the bills that have been proposed to rein in social-media companies’ power are certainly poorly drafted and could easily be abused by self-interested politicians, advocates on the left should not give up on the possibility of using regulation to protect freedom of speech on the platforms. Designing nondiscrimination rules that can work effectively in social media’s new technological environment will be no easy feat. But that does not mean it cannot be done. There is no reason Congress could not impose minimum procedural requirements on the platforms when they act to remove their users’ speech.[Steve Randy Waldman: The 1996 law that ruined the internet]All of which is to say that the debate about free speech on social media should not be viewed primarily as a debate about whether the social-media companies violated Trump’s freedom of speech when they banned him, or whether they violate anyone else’s freedom of speech when they make thousands of similar decisions every day. Instead, it should be viewed primarily as a debate about what freedom of speech means on social media, and, perhaps most importantly, about who gets to decide—courts, corporations, or legislatures. That liberals and conservatives have switched perspectives on these questions in recent years reflects the extraordinary political fluidity, and perhaps possibility, of the current moment.However the political alignments work out, Trump’s deplatforming illuminated a basic insight worth keeping in mind: Private companies not only participate in the marketplace of ideas but also determine to a significant extent who else can participate in it. We should not take comfort in the fact that the speech-regulating decisions by Big Tech companies do not and cannot violate the First Amendment as it is currently understood. Conservatives are correct to be worried about the threat that the private platforms pose to freedom of speech, even if this makes them more like big-government liberals than they might be willing to acknowledge. Those big-government liberals should realize as much, and act accordingly.
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Why Your Primary-Care Doctor Doesn’t Have the Vaccine
The Grants Pass Clinic in southern Oregon is more than ready to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to its 20,000-some patients. It has seven exam rooms devoted to vaccination. The staff has ordered fridges and syringes. The phones ring nonstop, with patients calling to ask when they can come in to get their shot. But the clinic has barely any doses to give out.Christi Siedlecki, the CEO of the clinic, has tried to get them. She registered her clinic’s interest in providing vaccinations with the state, and the state told her she was approved. But still: no vaccine. She asked the local health department for some doses. They gave her 30. “Obviously, that won’t get us far, but at least it’s something,” she told me recently. The only reason she’s getting them, she suspects, is because of “all the begging and bugging I do every day.”Most primary-care doctors haven’t received doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to dispense to their patients, according to two different trade groups for small-practice doctors. (Federally Qualified Health Centers, which get federal funding to provide care in underserved areas, have had better luck, and are part of the Biden administration’s vaccination plan.) Like Siedlecki, many primary-care doctors are begging their local and state health departments for doses, but mostly without success.Primary-care doctors see themselves as ideal foot soldiers in the battle to vaccinate America. After all, they know the extent of their patients’ preexisting conditions, are accustomed to soothing fears about vaccines, and can reach elderly patients quickly for an appointment. In Pennsylvania, a family doctor named Kevin Wong told me he has a 100-year-old patient who won’t leave his house. If he had the vaccine, Wong would be willing to make a house call.That would be a smoother experience than the one many seniors have had as they’ve sought vaccination in recent weeks. Some people are walking into their local health department to ask for the vaccine, only to be turned away and told to call an overwhelmed phone line. “I have been calling my doctor, my hospital, my insurance, and the Health Department since the beginning of December to get a COVID-19 vaccination,” a Floridian named William Klein wrote to his local paper. “No one had any information.” A 75-year-old named Betty told a Los Angeles Times reporter recently that though she would like to get the vaccine, “I have no idea where.” Another Florida man said he had to click 800 times to enter his date of birth on a cantankerous county website.“The most vulnerable populations, just like the ones that are most affected by COVID, are not necessarily the ones that are going to be able to scour the internet to find a place to go,” says Anders Gilberg, senior vice president at the Medical Group Management Association, which represents doctors in private practice. Many people already get their flu vaccine at their primary-care doctor’s office. So why not the COVID-19 vaccine?The reason, in short, is that there is simply not enough of the vaccine to go around. Seniors might be frustrated, but so are local and state health departments, governors, doctors, and pretty much everyone else I’ve called in the past week. They’re all saying the same thing: They wish they could get more doses of the vaccine—especially the Moderna version, which does not have to be kept at ultra-low temperatures. They also want it sent to them by the federal government on a more predictable schedule. The Biden administration might help with both of these problems, but so far, it has been a long and bitter month of waiting.“We desperately want to put vaccines in the hands of providers. But we can’t give them vaccines until we receive them,” says Michael Weber, who runs the health department in the county where Siedlecki’s clinic is located. Before last week, the health department had received a total of just 300 doses of the vaccine.Let’s back up to the halcyon days of December, when it was thought that there was a chance—a chance!—that vaccination would go smoothly. The first doses of the vaccine went mostly to hospitals, in part so they could vaccinate their own employees, and in part because hospitals had the ultra-cold storage the Pfizer vaccine requires. It’s also faster to deliver 100 doses of vaccine to one hospital than a few doses of vaccine to 100 doctor’s offices.In addition to hospitals, states sent the vaccine to county health departments because, the thinking was, health departments could get doses into arms quickly. Health departments “know how to do mass-vaccination clinics,” Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, says. They know how to set up a big tent with metal chairs and vaccinate hundreds of people within a few hours. Getting the vaccine to other types of doctors and pharmacies, as I heard over and over in recent days, is impossible until there’s more of it.This shortage of doses is why, in Palm Beach County, Florida, 100,000 seniors were on a waiting list recently for only 4,000 doses of vaccine. In Louisville, Kentucky, 40,000 people have signed up to wait for their dose. Walton County, Florida, opted against even maintaining a waiting list, because it was taking too long to call everyone back to schedule their appointment.These waiting lists might seem strange, given that states supposedly haven’t administered all of the vaccine they’ve been allocated. As of this writing, for example, North Dakota is performing the best, having used 74 percent of the doses it’s received. If states have extra vaccine sitting around, why not give it to Siedlecki or Wong or another doctor to give to some of those patiently waiting seniors?Because those doses, which exist but haven’t been used yet, “are spoken for—they’re gone,” Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, told me. Some are in hospitals, and some are reserved for long-term-care facilities, where CVS and Walgreens are vaccinating residents as part of a federal program. It’s taking the pharmacy chains some time to get through these facilities, making it appear as though there’s a big pile of vaccines sitting there, just waiting to be injected. (Plescia thinks the distribution numbers aren’t accurate, and that state data systems might not be showing the latest immunization figures.) Those numbers look bad for states, which makes health directors less eager to send precious vaccines to a bunch of small-practice doctors, only to risk having more doses of vaccine sit around unused.When the Trump administration earlier this month urged states to begin vaccinating people older than 65 and those with underlying conditions, the public-health world erupted in quiet panic. The federal government hasn’t sent them enough vaccine to cover everyone over 65, and some states haven’t yet finished vaccinating health-care workers—the first-priority group. Health directors are saying that deliveries of the vaccine have been small and unreliable. The problem, they say again, is the supply.Both Moderna and Pfizer are trying to increase vaccine production, according to a White House coronavirus adviser who would only speak to me on the condition of anonymity. But because the technology to make the vaccine is so specific, it doesn’t make sense for the government to build a new factory for manufacturing it, the adviser said. In the time it would take to build a new facility to make the vaccine, the companies could expand their own production lines—something they’re already doing. The best hope for quickly expanding vaccine supply lies with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which should be ready soon.The Biden administration might use the Defense Production Act to increase the production of medical supplies like syringes and needles that health workers need to administer the vaccine. It also plans to treat the pandemic like a natural disaster, giving states money and operational support through FEMA to help get vaccines into arms.But even if the new administration achieves that, it might not make vaccination angst-free for at least a few more months. Hannan, with the Association of Immunization Managers, predicts that it might be April or May before people will be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the comfort of their doctor’s office. The White House adviser I interviewed said it might be even later on, after the country has already reached herd immunity.But eventually, the vaccine will have to flow through doctors’ offices. Doctors are, after all, still the core of American health care. Some seniors are willing to battle through an 800-click website to get themselves immunized, but not everyone is. As Shawn Martin, CEO of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told me, if primary-care doctors aren’t eventually able to administer the vaccine, “I don’t think we’ll ever vaccinate 300 million people.”
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A Powerful Genetic Tool Is Revolutionizing Cold Cases—Mostly for White Victims
The victims of the so-called Golden State Killer lived in subdivisions and middle-class neighborhoods. They included a nurse, a medical student, a bank loan officer, and a lawyer shortlisted for a county-court judgeship. Investigators puzzled over these cold cases for more than 30 years. Then, in April 2018, their efforts finally paid off when they identified a suspect, a 72-year-old former police officer, as the Golden State Killer using a powerful new technique called genetic genealogy.This past August that man, Joseph DeAngelo, was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to 13 counts of murder. But the influence of this one case has spread much wider, creating a new tool for criminal investigation. Very quickly, police around the country began embracing genetic genealogy, which uses online consumer databases to identify suspects through family connections. Investigators can upload crime-scene DNA to these sites and then build out large family trees to look for potential suspects.Within months, genealogists using these databases had helped law enforcement solve a burst of cold cases, many of them rapes and murders dating back to the 1970s and ’80s. These first cases, as with the Golden State Killer case, tended to be notorious crimes—ones that received widespread coverage, had evidence preserved, and centered on victims with families who continued to press for justice. They were just the sort of crimes that both the public and the police would remember and reexamine.[Read: What it means to name a forgotten murder victim]These cases represent a very select group. The average American murder victim is a Black man in his 20s, likely living in or around a major city. An Atlantic analysis of publicly available genetic-genealogy cases in the first two years following the Golden State Killer’s arrest—from April 2018 to April 2020—found that, in cases involving murder, a disproportionate number of both the victims and the suspects are white. The victims are also overwhelmingly female.These findings take into account dozens of murder cases solved with the help of genetic genealogy, spread across 27 states; while not comprehensive—because not all cases are publicized—this set of cases does offer insights into law-enforcement priorities.Genetic-genealogy cases require investments of time and resources, and often involve hiring outside genealogy consultants. As genetic genealogy becomes more routine, the types of cases solved may become more typical of America’s homicide victims. To some extent, this is happening already. But so far this new technique has been applied primarily to cases with white victims, reflecting biases in the criminal-justice system and in society at large. Black communities are often over-policed, a deep-set problem that 2020’s protests against police killings put in stark relief. But they are also under-policed, and it is this second problem that has distorted the use of genetic genealogy.Our analysis found 104 murder victims whose alleged killers had been identified through genetic genealogy. Of the 89 murder victims whose race investigators shared with us, only four were Black. Seventy-nine were white. For context, more than half of murder victims in the U.S. were Black in 2019, the most recent year for which FBI statistics are available.On another count, too, the murder victims in our analysis differed from the national trend. In 2019, more than three-quarters of victims were male. In our analysis, the opposite was true: 87 of the 104 murder victims were identified as female. Here, there is likely a simple explanation. Genetic genealogy requires uploading crime-scene DNA to genealogy databases normally used for finding family members. Investigators use matches, often distant cousins, to build family trees and zero in on suspects. In our analysis, 64 of the victims were also sexually assaulted when they were murdered; because sexual assaults often produce DNA evidence, they make strong genetic-genealogy cases. The majority of sexual-assault victims are women, so the majority of genetic-genealogy victims are, too. (Our survey also found about two dozen sexual-assault cases in which victims were not murdered, but because living victims are usually anonymous and investigators could not share even basic demographic information about them, we excluded them from our victim analysis.)The racial disparity is less straightforward.It came as a surprise to Ryan Backmann, the founder and executive director of the database and advocacy group Project Cold Case. (Backmann is also now a spokesperson for Innovative Forensic, a company that offers genetic genealogy services to law enforcement.) He estimates that about three-quarters of the homicide victims whose families he works with on Project Cold Case are Black. National statistics on the victims of unsolved homicides are hard to come by, but a Washington Post investigation of unsolved homicides in 52 cities across the country over the past decade arrived at a similar conclusion: Almost three-quarters of the cases the investigation documented had Black victims.[Read: Who will hold the police accountable? ]For practical reasons, Backmann says, law enforcement is selective in its use of genetic genealogy. The work is costly and labor intensive, which means that investigators currently reserve it for high-priority cases and situations in which they’ve exhausted other leads. Much of the time, they outsource it to the private labs that pioneered this kind of forensic analysis. Parabon NanoLabs, which is responsible for more than 70 of the publicized arrests, charges $1,500 for lab work and $3,500 for up to 15 hours of genetic-genealogy research. “We work cases that are sent to us,” CeCe Moore, the head of Parabon’s genetic-genealogy unit, says. Moore says she too has noticed what seems like a disproportionate number of white victims, especially in the first wave of high-profile cold cases sent to Parabon.We contacted half a dozen police departments that have used genetic genealogy to solve cases, in an effort to better understand how they chose these cases and how the findings of our analysis might affect their choices in the future. The three that responded all said these decisions were made at a level above the department, such as a state crime lab or a district attorney's office. When we reached out to those offices, only one, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, responded to our request for comment: The bureau told us to talk to local law enforcement, which had told us to talk to the bureau. The International Association of Chiefs of Police also did not respond to a request for comment, but in the past it has officially encouraged genealogy companies to work with law enforcement and has written that this technique “has enormous potential benefits for public safety, the clearing of innocent parties, and the provision of justice to victims’ families.”Right now, there are no uniform standards for deciding when to use genetic genealogy. “I’d love to say that it’s a science and that there’s a very rigorous and rigid process, but my impression, frankly, is that it’s much more random than that,” says Daniel Medwed, a criminal-law professor at Northeastern University. “My hunch is that it’s up to the individual detectives’ creativity and savviness.” Three criminal-justice experts separately suggested that detectives and criminal investigators, more than 80 percent of whom are white, might unconsciously gravitate to cases with victims of the same race.The media’s well-documented tendency to give disproportionate coverage to cases involving well-off, white female victims only exacerbates this effect. Reading the news, you might think that “young, pretty, white women are being killed at astronomically high rates,” says Amy Michael, a biological anthropologist at the University of New Hampshire who works on unidentified bodies. But it’s actually Black men and Indigenous women who are disproportionately likely to be murdered, she says. “So where is that?”[Read: The criminalization of gentrifying neighborhoods]Medwed also stresses that sustained pressure on law enforcement by victims’ families can affect which cases police work hardest to investigate. “The families of white victims might be more connected, might be more politically connected, and have more capacity for pulling on the levers of power to get the local police department to act,” he says.Whether because of media coverage, political pressure, or family advocacy, the high-profile cases are the ones that get the most resources, says Kenna Quinet, a professor emeritus of criminology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. “Law enforcement is a reflection of society,” she says, so the priorities of law-enforcement officials mirror the priorities of the society they serve.Our analysis also found that homicide suspects identified through genetic genealogy are more likely to be white and less likely to be Black compared with national statistics. In the cases for which investigators shared information about a subject’s race, the majority (78 percent) of suspects were listed as white, and a minority (19 percent) as Black. This set of cases is relatively small, but the dynamic it shows is distinct: Nationally, the greatest share of homicide suspects (about 51 percent in 2019) are Black. Homicide tends to be an intra-racial crime, meaning that victims and offenders are usually of the same race; starting with more white victims is likely to lead to more white suspects.Moore, the genetic genealogist, says that Black suspects and victims are harder to identify with genetic genealogy since the existing consumer databases skew toward people of predominantly European ancestry. European doesn’t necessarily mean white, as ancestry and race are not the same. Racial categories are not biologically defined, so genetic analyses can only capture ancestry. The majority of Americans who self-identify as Black actually have some European ancestry, according to a 2015 study, while millions of white-identifying Americans also have some African ancestry.In any case, Moore says, people with mostly African ancestry tend to have fewer matches—a dynamic that’s only been exacerbated as Black genealogists wary of police use have deleted their profiles or opted them out of law-enforcement matching on GEDmatch, a popular genealogy site that allows DNA profile uploads. (While 23andMe and AncestryDNA maintain much larger DNA databases, they do not allow uploads. The only way to get a profile in those databases is to take saliva tests.) And because genetic genealogy sometimes requires building family trees that go back more than a century, a dearth of records for enslaved people, as well as difficulty accessing the records that do exist, can introduce further complications.Black genealogists have been especially cautious about law enforcement co-opting databases originally built for genealogy research. “As a person of color, I have a whole other set of questions and concerns,” the genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith says. Communities of color have particular reasons to distrust police, and Sewell-Smith worries, for example, about how taking a genetic test and matching with a distant relative suspected of a crime might now be grounds for surveillance by police hunting for leads. She ultimately decided to delete the DNA kits she had uploaded to a public genealogy database used by law enforcement.The fact that solved genetic-genealogy cases overwhelmingly feature white victims has done little to engender trust in the Black community. “The public face of these cases has been largely of one part of our population,” Sewell-Smith points out. “It’s only been white folks.” Another Black genealogist has a brother who was killed in an unsolved murder. (The Atlantic agreed not to name her because of family privacy concerns connected to the murder.) She understands the pain of victims’ families, but she still worries about law-enforcement misuse of genealogy databases. And anyway, she never expected that they would help in cases like her brother’s. “It was 30 years ago, and nobody’s looking. It’s like, one Black man dead,” she says. “I know nobody’s looking.”Lately, Moore says, she has encountered more suspicion from family members when trying to identify unknown victims who are Black. In February, NBC News reported on a Black woman who said police had lied about an unidentified victim in her family in order to get her DNA, which instead resulted in the arrest of her son for murder. (The son, whose case is pending, pleaded not guilty.) “We have to be careful,” Moore says. “If the perception of investigative genetic genealogy is negative, people will not participate.”As the newness of genetic genealogy has worn off, investigators have started using it for lower-profile cases. “I have seen a maturing of investigative genetic genealogy,” Moore says. “The cases that we’ve been getting more recently seem to be a better representative of violent crimes in general.” One case that stood out to her was the murder of Treeanna Nichols, a 22-year-old Black mother from Pasadena, California; investigators made an arrest this past May. Moore says the team is working on more cases with marginalized victims, such as people of color and sex workers. The scope of genetic-genealogy cases may continue to widen as the technique becomes more common, but it will still run up against the same limit—the biases that exist in American policing.In May, genetic genealogy got the prime-time-TV treatment in an ABC true-crime series called The Genetic Detective, starring Moore. The six cases covered in the show’s inaugural season have a total of 14 victims. One is Asian American; the other 13 are white. Moore says they did try to get victims of color on the show, but those cases didn’t pan out, because of timing or lack of buy-in from the agency or the victim’s family. In any case, viewers certainly noticed the lack of racial diversity, and some of them wrote to her wondering why the series was so white. The long-planned show was airing, after all, during the mass protests against racial injustice following the death of George Floyd.Haley Weiss contributed reporting.
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Hospitalizations Are Down
Today marks two weeks of declining COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S., 14 straight days without a blip upward, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. Case numbers, too, are declining, and today the seven-day case average is down a third since its peak, on January 12.That day, the count of current hospitalizations was 131,326; it’s now down to 108,957. It’s the first significant decline since September 21, when the climb down from the summer surge stopped just under 29,000. As the country passes the milestone of 25 million cases, it’s a stable indicator pointing in the right direction.During the winter surge, hospitalization numbers bumped over a number of small, false summits, in which hospitalizations declined for a day or two before continuing their rise. They also rose for a couple of days after coming down from January 6’s absolute peak of 132,474.But two weeks of decline indicate that fewer people are getting sick. An average hospital stay as of November for patients with COVID-19 was 4.6 days, down from 10.5 days in March, so if hospital numbers are down it means that people are leaving the hospital without new patients replacing them. And the typical course from symptom onset to death is roughly two weeks. Accounting for the lag in deaths reporting, this substantial decline should start showing up in the daily deaths figure, which has plateaued in recent days and is a mixed picture nationwide.[Read: The pandemic is finally softening. Will that last? ]Falling hospitalizations are also occurring across the U.S. By the COVID Tracking Project’s conservative definitions, they’re falling week over week in 36 states and D.C., staying the same in 12, and rising in just three. In two of those states, Vermont and Hawaii, the rise is in double digits, 15 patients in the former and 27 in the latter. The increase in Kansas is greater in raw numbers—an additional 109 patients in the past week—but its hospitalization rate of 243 per million is in the middle of the pack.Among the encouraging news is that California is one of the states in the “falling” category. On January 7, the state peaked at 22,851 hospitalizations. Today it’s at 18,309, a 20 percent decrease in a little less than three weeks—although intensive-care units in Southern California and the San Fernando Valley remain full. California is large enough that changes there translate into changes in national numbers: That decline of 4,542 patients represents 19 percent of the nationwide decline in that period.Hospitalizations across the Northeast, though declining, have dropped just 11 percent in the past two weeks, the smallest decrease in any region. This indicates a point of concern: New York. It’s one of eight states with a hospitalization rate over 400 per million, and unlike the others, its recent hospitalization trajectory doesn’t yet suggest a peak.Two weeks ago, 8,926 people were hospitalized in New York. Today it’s 8,831. And the trends where the worst of the pandemic began, New York City, represent the bulk of the problem. Hospitalizations in the city are currently 3,730, up from 3,318 two weeks ago. There are 1,593 people hospitalized on Long Island, compared with 1,629 on the 12th. In the Mid-Hudson region, north of the city, hospitalizations are at 1,071, compared with 1,044 on the 12th. All these totals are far lower than the region’s spring surge, but they’re considerably higher than the summer and fall numbers, and stagnant hospitalization numbers in the region mean a lot of serious cases.The overall trend is encouraging, but there are significant unknowns. Restrictions are being lifted in many places across the country: California and New York, Chicago and elsewhere in Cook County, Boston. The more infectious and potentially more deadly B.1.1.7 variant has been found in 24 states, though in small numbers. Almost 20 million people have received at least one vaccine dose, as the Biden administration plans to push the number of daily doses given from 1 million to 1.5 million. How all of these factors will interact is impossible to predict, an uncertainty that provides reason for ongoing caution. But for now, the momentum is headed in the right direction: fewer hospitalizations, more vaccines.
The Weekly Planet: Why Biden is Buying 645,000 New Cars
Every Tuesday, our lead climate reporter brings you the big ideas, expert analysis, and vital guidance that will help you flourish on a changing planet. Sign up to get The Weekly Planet, our guide to living through climate change, in your inbox.The U.S. federal government owns 645,047 motor vehicles, according to its most recent report on the matter. This fleet is, for the most part, a menagerie of trucks: construction vehicles, Ford F-150s, armored vans that sit next to NASA launchpads so astronauts can quickly flee in case of an emergency. Many of those trucks—about a third of the federal fleet—are the white, cube-like U.S. Postal Service vans. Another third are passenger cars. The government owns a lot of vehicles.Since he took office six days ago, President Joe Biden has recommitted the United States to the Paris Agreement and canceled the Keystone XL pipeline. More policy is expected this week. But his most interesting climate actions so far haven’t taken the form of executive orders or really appeared in writing at all. Yet they offer a clearer view of Biden’s approach to climate change—and its aspiration to reshape the American economy—than anything we’ve seen so far.His plan for the federal fleet, in particular, encapsulates Biden-era climate policy in its ambition and limits. He debuted the initiative yesterday while signing an executive order pledging that the government would buy more American-made goods.“The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we're going to replace with clean electric vehicles made right here in America, by American workers,” he said. This initiative will create 1 million electric-automaking jobs, he claimed. (That’s a big goal: At the end of last year, about 930,000 Americans worked in automaking, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)This is, in a certain light, a sensible consumer decision—you could even call it pedestrian. By going electric, Biden’s government is making the same choice that hundreds of thousands of Americans have already made. Electric vehicles have cheaper fuel costs, and lower lifetime-maintenance costs, than gas vehicles, according to AAA. The government will spend less over time to run an electric fleet.Yet this type of policy isn’t meant to reflect the present-day market so much as influence the country’s future political economy. It rewards two of Biden’s strategic constituencies: unions in the Upper Midwest and young climate advocates. It is practicable: Democrats can accomplish it using only their narrow congressional majorities and Biden’s authority as chief of the executive branch.And it’s our first glimpse of Democrats’ new, souped-up approach to procurement policy, the catchall name for any action that uses the government’s power as a purchaser to create new markets and mainstream new technologies. You might see it as a climate version of Operation Warp Speed—the federal program that bought hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses in advance—but procurement policy predates the pandemic. Fifty years ago, the government used its procurement power to nurse the fledgling microprocessor industry into maturity.The policy, again, doesn’t exist in writing yet, so we don’t know how quickly or comprehensively it will be implemented. Will Biden replace federal gas-burning vehicles earlier than otherwise planned? Will the changeover take four years or 14? These details will shape how much electric automakers notice and benefit from the policy. Only about 1.6 million plug-in electric vehicles have been sold in the U.S. ever; in 2019, for instance, fewer than a quarter million EVs were sold. If Biden were to replace, say, the entire federal fleet over five years, the government would buy about 129,000 new cars every year—a huge total, equivalent to about a quarter of Tesla’s worldwide production last year. But if the fleet isn’t fully replaced until 2035, the policy will make a much smaller dent.It is limited in other ways. The federal fleet, although it is truly enormous, pales in comparison with the American private fleet. (It would fill up less than half of the parking spaces in Des Moines, Iowa.) In 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, the federal fleet consumed the equivalent of 386 million gallons of gasoline, emitting about 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide. But the country as a whole used 142 billion gallons of gasoline that year. The federal fleet was responsible for about a 20th of 1 percent of U.S. carbon emissions in 2019. Every ounce of carbon reduction matters, but this policy will succeed or fail based on whether it accelerates electric-car adoption nationwide—not on whether it has a noticeable effect on American carbon emissions.At least … I’m pretty sure that’s the right way to think about it. I’m still figuring out how to judge the Biden administration. One of the tics of my profession is that when a presidential administration turns over, so do we. I mean this literally, in a personnel sense—the networks appoint new White House reporters—but also in a broader and more conceptual sense. Mainstream American journalism always has an adversarial relationship with the presidency, but the content and context of our rivalry changes. Finding the bounds of that new relationship takes time.I’ll admit that, in some ways, covering the Trump administration was pleasantly straightforward. I believe, and The Atlantic believes, that (1) climate change is real and (2) dealing with it will require federal action. Many senior Trump officials were foggy on the first axiom and hostile to the second. Their policy reflected it. As a reporter, I just had to find out what they were doing, consider whether it did anything about climate change, and then publish my conclusions. Easy!Biden is trickier: His administration seems intent on actually doing things. It has already outpaced Donald Trump’s standard. So what new standard should it meet? The goal of international climate policy might be atmospheric stabilization, but that exceeds the ambit of any one country or president.For now, my lodestar is net zero by 2050, which Biden has laid out as a national goal. According to a recent landmark study from the ZERO Lab at Princeton, meeting that goal in the U.S. would require, by 2030, closing virtually all coal plants, expanding the power grid by 60 percent, and making sure that at least half of all new cars sold are EVs. That 2030 goal is close enough in time for us to have a sense of how much work remains to be done. And it shows why, for Biden’s federal-fleet plan to get results, it must happen quickly. Turning over the federal fleet by 2035, for instance, is not enough.Someone Else’s WeatherKaren Buczynski-LeeOur reader Karen Buczynski-Lee captured this swollen river coursing through Bagni Di Lucca, a town of 6,100 in Tuscany, earlier this month.Every week, I feature a weather photo from a reader or professional in this part of the newsletter, because the climate is someone else’s weather. If you would like to submit one, please email Hazy Things1. How hard will it be to—as I wrote above—retire virtually every coal plant by 2030? Harder than you might think, if you know only about the coal industry’s public collapse. The country’s 50 most fossil-fuel-intensive utilities plan to retire only a quarter of their coal power by the end of this decade, according to a new Sierra Club report. Even though many of these utilities claim to have net-zero-by-2050 goals, their renewable plans are insufficient to meet future demand: On average, their planned solar and wind construction amounts to only a fifth of their existing coal and natural-gas capacity. In a recent edition, I wrote that power has faded as the leading cause of U.S. emissions, but don’t mistake that for complacency: There are a lot of coal plants in the country and we are not doing enough to replace them.Because all utility stories are local, the Sierra Club report lets you see whether your utility’s net-zero plan meets its standard. (For those of us who live in the Northeast or mid-Atlantic, none of our utilities merited inclusion in the report.)2. A lot has happened in the electric-car world recently! Tesla’s stock price went up so much that Elon Musk became the world’s richest person. Yoinks. Tesla was also added to the S&P 500, and immediately became the fifth-largest company in that index, worth more than Disney and Netflix combined. In the past month, too, General Motors unveiled a new ad campaign touting its “all-electric future”—completing the company’s big ol’ flip-flop on EVs since the election. Before November, GM supported Trump’s fuel-efficiency rollback and was suing the state of California to block its EV policy. (Ford, however, took California’s side from the beginning and opposed the rollback.) Now GM says it’s all in on Biden’s vision.Corporate vacillation aside, I will confess a professional interest in these new GM ads. They trumpet the arrival of “Generation E,” which stands for “Everybody In” and also, presumably, “Electric.” “We emit optimism, not exhaust,” a youthful voice blurts at one point, over a montage of tanned Millennials and retirees in suspiciously good shape. But the ad’s lead pitchman is no Millennial at all. He’s a magazine writer—just like me! It’s Malcolm Gladwell, the podcast host and staff writer for The New Yorker.General Motors“Change,” Gladwell utters on a black stage. “You can resist it and be left behind—or embrace it and move forward.”A GM ad is a bit of a surprising spot for Gladwell to appear, since he wrote, in 2010, about the company’s government bailout. “Who really rescued General Motors?” he asked then, ruling in favor of career GM executives who were later fired by the Obama administration. How fortunate, then, that Gladwell can now interview the new career GM executives at his leisure—and have the results, no less, distributed by GM itself. (Coincidentally, a month before he wrote the GM story, he wrote a story asking “why we pay our stars so much money.”)Anyway: an odd choice! Sometimes journalists do become professional spokespeople—there aren’t many ways to get a raise in this industry—but they usually have to leave journalism first to do so. In a statement, a spokesperson for The New Yorker told me: “We have no plans for him to write about the auto industry.” She passed on my interview request to Gladwell, but he didn’t get back to me.3. When you look at satellite imagery on Google Maps, the camera lens is usually at a 90-degree angle to the ground. This Wes Anderson–like view gives satellite photography its particular bluntness. It makes Earth look dimensionless, if not flat.In the past few years, technicians have gotten much better at capturing Earth from oblique angles—using satellites, for instance, to look through the Grand Canyon rather than at it. I wrote about one of the first such images—of Denver—a few years ago. Now the technique has become far more common. In a new Medium post, the data-visualization expert Rob Simmon collects some of the best oblique photos taken so far.Thanks for reading. Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here.
How to Fix Congress One State at a Time
Lisa Murkowski did not waste time, and she did not mince words. Just two days after former President Donald Trump provoked an insurrectionist mob to storm the Capitol on January 6, Alaska’s senior senator told her local newspaper: “I want him to resign. I want him out.”Murkowski was the first GOP senator to demand Trump’s exit after the deadly riot. The speed and bluntness with which she spoke out against the former president surprised her allies, who saw in her words the first reverberations of how Alaska voted in November. Murkowski wasn’t on the 2020 ballot, but in passing a ballot measure to change the way the state elects its leaders, Alaskans effectively gave their long-serving senator a fresh infusion of political freedom: She no longer needs to worry nearly so much about a conservative primary foe defeating her next year. “I think we’ve seen the result of it already,” former Alaska Governor Bill Walker told me.The ballot measure that Alaska adopted by a narrow margin last fall represents the farthest-reaching changes to any state’s election laws in recent memory, giving a boost to political reformers who are trying to increase voter participation while reducing the incentives for partisanship across the country. Its advocates hope the reforms will be a model for other states, leading to a shift in how both Congress and state legislatures function in the years ahead. And for the next two years, they will have their eye on Murkowski.The referendum scraps party primaries in favor of a single nonpartisan primary, a move that might help Murkowski more directly than any other politician in Alaska. In 2010, Murkowski was defeated in a Republican primary and secured her second full term only after mounting an unlikely write-in campaign in the general election. She’s up for reelection next year, and before Alaska passed its ballot measure, Murkowski was seen as once again vulnerable to a primary challenge because of her votes against her party, whether in rejecting the GOP’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act or opposing Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.As recently as September, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was teasing a possible primary challenge to Murkowski. But as remarkable as Murkowski’s immediate denunciation of Trump was, equally notable was the silence among her peers that followed. Palin said nothing, and Trump loyalists made no serious move to rebuke, censure, or oust Murkowski even though they have threatened other Republicans, such as Representative Liz Cheney, who faces a primary challenge in Wyoming and an effort to remove her as chair of the House GOP conference in Washington after voting to impeach the president.The absence of a backlash to Murkowski’s move against Trump is more evidence that the new laws have altered Alaska politics, supporters argue. The idea isn’t to push Murkowski, a lifelong Republican, to the left—she’s already ruled out switching parties—but to allow her to keep voting independently when she sees fit, whether that’s to break with Trump or to work across the aisle on areas of common ground with President Joe Biden.Opponents of the Alaska ballot measure have sued to stop its implementation. But if it survives a legal challenge, the state will hold a nonpartisan primary for all statewide and federal offices beginning this year. The top four candidates will advance to the general election, where Alaskans will use ranked-choice voting to determine a winner. The referendum also significantly boosts disclosure requirements for campaign financing in an effort to crack down on so-called dark money pouring into state elections.[Read: The Democrats trying to overturn an election]California dropped partisan primaries a decade ago, and Maine voters approved the use of ranked-choice voting in 2016, but Alaska is the first state to combine the two reforms. Alaska and Maine are separated by more than 4,000 miles, but many of their voters share a similar distaste for the two major parties. More than six in 10 voters in Alaska aren’t registered as either Republicans or Democrats, and both states regularly elect independent candidates to statewide posts. The impetus for change in Alaska somewhat mirrored the dynamics that led Maine to adopt ranked-choice voting, after the conservative firebrand Paul LePage twice won gubernatorial races without once securing a majority of the vote. In Alaska, the conservative Republican Mike Dunleavy captured the governorship in 2018 after the incumbent, Walker, a political independent, dropped his reelection bid and endorsed the Democrat Mark Begich in the final weeks of the race.Walker’s former chief of staff, Scott Kendall, wrote the ballot measure and raised money for its campaign. He also has ties to Murkowski, having served as her lawyer when she won reelection in 2010. “Her greatest leadership moments have been her greatest weaknesses,” Kendall told me, referring to the senator’s high-profile breaks with Trump and GOP orthodoxy that made Murkowski vulnerable on the right. “I have watched as the two-party election system, the plurality system, has been trying to shake these people off. I was really kind of feeling around personally for a system that couldn’t be manipulated.”Kendall pitched the idea around, seeking money from political organizations who could help fund a statewide campaign to pass the ballot measure. Groups aligned with both parties turned him down. “‘Tell me how it’s going to elect Democrats. Tell me how it’s going to elect Republicans,’” he recalled hearing. “To me, that was not the point.”Ultimately, the ballot measure faced opposition from prominent members of both the GOP and the Democratic Party in Alaska. Murkowski, who declined an interview request, never took a position on the proposal. Dunleavy urged voters to reject the reforms, and one of his top aides quit his government post to launch a group to campaign against it. Begich also came out against the proposal. The opponents, Kendall told me, even included two groups who almost never see eye to eye: the Alaska affiliates of Planned Parenthood and the National Right to Life Committee. Yet the ballot measure narrowly prevailed, topping 50 percent by just a few thousand votes.“In retrospect, I’m still kind of shocked we pulled it off,” Kendall told me. “They should have beaten us.”The drive for election reform began organically in Alaska, but the money that pushed it over the line came from out of state. One of the effort’s biggest backers was a group called Unite America, which has ambitions that extend far beyond the Last Frontier. The organization—one of a constellation of groups trying to fix the nation’s democratic dysfunction—began in 2014 as an effort to back centrist candidates before pivoting in recent years to push systemic changes to the way Americans elect their leaders. Its benefactors include Kathryn Murdoch, a daughter-in-law of Rupert Murdoch whose philanthropic efforts to fight climate change and enact political reform diverge ideologically from the conservative ethos of the Murdoch family’s media brands. Unite America’s public face is Nick Troiano, a 31-year-old whose job is to sell men and women much older and wealthier than he is on the necessity of investing tens of millions of dollars to rewrite election laws across the country.Troiano grew up as a Republican in rural Pennsylvania, a young politics junkie who listened to conservative talk radio and had a photo of Ronald Reagan on his bedroom wall. But he became disillusioned with the party in college, interning with a group trying to recruit a unity presidential ticket in 2008 and then working with the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission in 2010, tackling the national debt. “It just became so clear to me that the country is going broke because our political system is broken,” Troiano told me over Zoom recently. He finally left the GOP entirely in 2013, after Senator Ted Cruz and other hard-liners orchestrated a government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act.Troiano is now trying to elevate “political philanthropy” from a bit player to a major force in the industry of politics, with a long-term plan to change election laws in enough states to change Congress itself. The big idea: If more lawmakers in the House and Senate are, like Murkowski, rewarded rather than punished for working together, the institution as a whole will be far more responsive to voters. Yet groups like Unite America face criticism from leaders in both parties who see their push for electoral reforms as merely a cloaked campaign for ideological centrism—for a politics that champions the mushy middle instead of clear principles of governance. They’re trying to boost people, Begich told me, “who may not have any philosophical belief on a lot of issues—people who just kind of move with the polls.”The challenge, as he sees it, is one of scale and money. Of about $14 billion in political spending during the 2020 election, just a tiny sliver—about $37 million—went to advocacy for nonpartisan ballot measures in a handful of states. After spending $3 million in 2018, Unite America mobilized more than $30 million in the past two years, and it hopes to ramp up to $100 million through 2022 and more in the years after. In addition to nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting, the group is pushing states to expand voting by mail (which many already did in 2020 because of the pandemic) and to end gerrymandering. Unite America scored wins in Alaska and in Virginia, where voters approved a nonpartisan redistricting commission, but in Massachusetts, voters rejected a ballot measure to adopt ranked-choice voting. Florida came close to approving a top-two primary system; a ballot measure earned majority support but fell short of the 60 percent threshold needed to pass.In the months since the election, Troiano and other advocates have been trying to figure out why reform succeeded in Alaska but failed in Massachusetts. One reason, he told me, was simply that Alaska voters were more dissatisfied with the political system—and their leaders—than voters in Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, Democrats largely backed ranked-choice voting, but the proposal drew opposition from Governor Charlie Baker, a popular Republican moderate. The ballot measure was perceived, Troiano said, “as a solution in search of a problem.”But the other lesson from 2020 might be more instructive about the future prospects of political reform. Combining a series of complicated reforms into a single package proved easier to sell to voters, Troiano told me, “than when we’re only talking about one reform and having to explain the nuances of how it works.”Critics of the Alaska ballot measure agree with Troiano, but their conclusion is a harsher one: They blamed Unite America and other advocates for using the bulk of their ads to highlight the proposal’s crackdown on dark money, a perennial source of complaint in Alaska, rather than the far more complicated, and significant, changes to how elections are run. “It was a little bit disingenuous the way they approached it,” Begich told me. He said he supported the campaign-finance piece of the ballot measure but opposed ranked-choice voting. “I’m not willing to settle for a second best or third choice. I want my first choice,” Begich said. “If I lose, I lose, then we go to the next election.”In California, both Republicans and Democrats have complained about the top-two primary system because it results in general elections that shut out the opposing party in many areas that are deeply conservative or liberal. Expanding to four candidates in Alaska was aimed at limiting that dynamic, but critics of the proposal say that in certain parts of the state, Democrats or Republicans could still be shut out. “That limits people’s choices. That does not expand them,” Nora Morse, a Democrat who served as Begich’s campaign manager, told me. “If I’m looking at four Republicans on the ballot,” she said, “I’m going to be voting for someone who’s the least-worst candidate.”Supporters of ranked-choice voting argue that it eliminates the spoiler effect, allowing voters to support a long-shot candidate without worrying that it will end up helping the candidate they dislike the most. But Kendall said some Democrats told him that in a conservative state like Alaska, the spoiler effect was their best chance of winning.Others like Morse said that Alaska’s history of electing independents and the occasional Democrat like Begich negated the need for overhauling its laws. “I don’t think the system is broken,” Morse said. “In fact, we’ve had a lot of opportunity for people who don’t necessarily fall in a Democratic or Republican mindset to get on the ballot and to win.”Begich, who served a single term in the Senate before the Republican Dan Sullivan defeated him in 2014, also faulted the national group for trying to use Alaska as its guinea pig. “We were their experiment because we’re a cheap market to get into, and a small population base,” Begich said.That’s not a point Unite America would argue with. Troiano sees the Alaska victory as “a proof of concept” that the group can pitch to donors to stand up campaigns in other states, whether through voter-led ballot initiatives or lobbying state legislatures. Walker, the former governor, told me he hopes the Alaska model will “sweep the country.”I asked whether the reforms that voters approved last year would have made a difference in his tenure. “Absolutely,” he replied. Walker said that he would not have governed differently—“I didn’t hold back,” he insisted—but that his proposals for closing the state’s budget gap might have drawn more support. Time and again, he recalled, members of both parties—although more Republicans than Democrats—would tell him they couldn’t back bills, because they wouldn’t “survive a primary.” “I was just irate when I heard,” Walker told me. “I said, ‘Don’t use those words in my presence or with anyone.’”The dynamic is a familiar one in Washington, where Republican senators worried about their right flank will likely be reluctant to lend Biden any support for his agenda. The fear of a primary defeat has tamed even renowned “mavericks” like the late Senator John McCain, who tacked sharply to the right for a time after he lost the presidency to Barack Obama in 2008. Thanks to Alaska’s new election laws, however, Murkowski might not be one of them this year. If her quick and sharp call for Trump’s resignation is a guide, she feels free to break with the Republican base when she wants to. And even though Alaska hasn’t run a single election under its new system, supporters see the political liberation of its senior senator as the earliest sign of its success. “I think we can expect to see more of the same,” Kendall told me. “Now her greatest leadership moments are to be rewarded, rather than punished.”
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How Early Trump Supporters Feel Now
Now that Donald Trump’s presidency is over, how do the Americans who supported him at the beginning of his political run feel about his performance in the Oval Office? I put that question to 30 men and women who wrote to me in August 2015 to explain their reasons for backing his insurgent candidacy.Among the eight who replied, all in the second week of January, after the storming of the Capitol, some persist in supporting Trump; others have turned against him; still others have lost faith in the whole political system. They do not constitute a representative sample of Trump voters. But their views, rendered in their own words, offer more texture than polls that tell us an approval rating.[Anne Applebaum: Coexistence is the only option]As I did in 2015, I’ll let the Trump voters have their say. But this time I’ll conclude with some thoughts of my own, in my capacity as a Trump critic who knows that Americans have no choice but to coexist, as best we can, because our political and ideological differences are never going away.Our first correspondent, a communications executive for a hospital, argued in 2015 that Trump was a good choice because he was an authentic leader and negotiator who had run large organizations. He voted for Trump again in 2020. Here is what he’s thinking today: I’ve been a Republican all my life. I subscribe to conservative values both economically and morally, and the Republican Party has always been my political home. The best way I can sum up the past four years is that Trump made it very hard for someone like me to be a Republican. My life is as close to the American dream as possible. I have been married for almost 20 years to the same woman, I have two boys—one is disabled (autism), but I have the resources to take care of him, and a comfortable middle class job. I attend a church and generally don’t suffer any real external strife. I’m very fortunate. There were things about the Trump administration I liked. I was a huge fan of his Supreme Court appointments. I supported his economic policies. COVID-19 has been horrible for the nation, but in assessing Trump’s response, I think he did the best he could and it could have been a lot worse. More than 300,000 Americans dead is a tragedy but the original projections were in the millions, so he must have done something right. [Note: Almost 400,000 had died by the time this was written, and the initial projections had varied; some were as low as 81,000.] I think when the history of Operation Warp Speed is written by disinterested professional historians, it will be remembered in the same manner we remember the Manhattan Project. Maybe Trump will get credit for that, maybe he won’t, but I do think he deserves some. The problem with Trump is that every time he opens his mouth he says something racist, misogynistic, or, in the past week, downright treasonous that makes me want to crawl under a rock. For the first few years, I would defend his behavior, but eventually I just couldn’t. The events of this past week by a few thousand protesters egged on by President Trump are a travesty that no reasonable person can excuse. I don’t talk much politics anymore, unless it’s with close friends or relatives. For the first time in my professional life I feel [that] stating my political affiliation would cost me, if not my job, then at least my professional standing with peers. For that reason I ask again that you keep these comments anonymous. So while I think Trump’s policies were supportable, his rhetoric and personal style was not. Savannah Guthrie actually summed up the problem pretty well when she said, “You are the president of the United States, not someone’s crazy uncle.” I don’t think Trump ever got that. I think in the long term the country will be fine. We’ve been through a lot as a nation and the arc of history bends toward justice, but in the short term I think Trump’s rhetoric and actions will leave a huge part of the country adrift. The actions of the rioters last week are inexcusable, but what about the millions of people who voted for Trump because they just always check the box marked “R” or agree with him on his policies? Where are they going to go? Will they have a political home? And if they don’t, what happens to our elected body politic? I am going to be watching the Joe Biden administration closely. I do not think the election was stolen; I think he won fair and square. I had an opportunity to meet Biden when he was doing the Cancer Moonshot at the end of the Obama administration. He has built a political career on two pillars: relationship-building consensus and personal empathy. That’s not exciting to the left who would rather be led by someone like Bernie Sanders or [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], but it may be what the country needs right now. And in case you were wondering, I’m not talking about bipartisanship for its own sake. I thought in 2008 and continue to think Barack Obama is a pompous asshole. I don’t feel the same way about Biden. The second correspondent argued in 2015 that Trump knows politics is a joke. “It really doesn’t matter who becomes president; it still doesn’t give the American people any power,” she wrote. “At least with Trump, I’ll be greatly entertained & maybe, just maybe, he can shake up the system. Many are right; it’s not about trusting Trump; it’s a collective middle finger to the establishment.”And now?“I didn’t vote for Trump the second time,” she emailed. “I didn’t vote for anyone. I still don’t believe in our current political system. I feel the chips are stacked against us and there’s not much we can do to change that. I thought Trump could’ve been different but learned quickly that he was just like all the other politicians and maybe even worse.” She has now “completely stepped away from politics” because she cannot handle the drama and hate. “Trump is a very manipulative and polarizing figure. He’s definitely contributed to the immense divisiveness of the country,” she wrote. “At first, I felt guilty for ever supporting Trump, but I think the Republican and Democratic Parties are mostly to blame. They’re the ones that created the hot mess for him to thrive in.”The third correspondent told me in 2015 that he’d vote for Trump, despite knowing that he would do a terrible job: I really am at the point of letting the whole thing burn down and explode. Trump would help us get there faster and more efficiently. Like the Joker from The Dark Knight, I just want to see the world burn … Once it’s all burnt down maybe we can have that constitutional convention we really need to fix things and get this country back on track if it still exists. In fact, he now says, he reconsidered his position in 2016, once it became clear that Trump could actually win. Never voted for him and voted for Joe in 2020. But Trump did live true to what I thought about him being like the Joker from Batman. He tore it all down and in a very bad way. Worst president in U.S. history. I guess one thing is that it may tear apart the Republican party, so we get more than two parties in this country. A center right party that isn’t run by a wannabe dictator would be good for progress maybe. The Trump side of the Republican Party is hopeless … Government was rigged in a way before to benefit special interests, corporations, rich people paying less taxes, etc. But the sheer graft and crony politics from him is madness. In contrast, the fourth correspondent claimed in 2015 that “Trump is refreshingly blunt, honest, and pro-American.” Today? “Trump will go down as the most charismatic and successful president despite a mere four-year term,” he wrote. “Trump might not run again, but his voters now know what the standard is.” In his telling, “My observations were slightly off back in 2015.I underestimated the number of attacks that the intelligence bureaus would launch against Trump. I underestimated the fervor of the media in its incessant effort to destroy him … Trump was and is an existential threat to the Washington establishment. They had to remove Trump even if it meant fixing two elections and manufacturing two impeachments.” (I always find it odd that Trump and some of his staunchest supporters claim that even the 2016 election, which he won, was rigged.)The fifth correspondent, who wrote in 2015, “It's going to take a successful capitalist to stop and repair the damage that’s already been done by Barack Obama in his attempt to destroy the greatest capitalistic nation ever,” had this to say after observing Trump in the White House: As far as the country’s economy goes and the advancement in job creation, the building of a border wall, tax cuts, eliminating job-killing regulations and making our lives financially better and more stable, President Trump was phenomenally successful. He was even successful on foreign affairs, doing what no President has done before, by scaling back the number of troops and conflicts, [and] brokering peace deals in the Middle East. The only problem this President has, and has had, for over four years, is the Democrats, along with the media and their constant dismissal of his win. It’s been exhausting that they didn’t do anything but lie and obstruct him at every point, instead of helping him in his attempt to make America great again. He has exposed everything bad about our country and it’s elected officials. He was our last great hope, and almost did everything that he promised us, and then the coordinated worldwide attack to take him down along with our country happened. We are tired and exhausted, but we know that this man should be remembered in history as one of the greatest Presidents, ever. I’m proud to have supported him. The sixth correspondent explained in 2015 that on two issues he cared about greatly, trade protectionism and immigration restrictionism, Trump had been consistent in his position for years.How does he feel about Trump today? Not good: I became disillusioned with the Trump Presidency almost right out of the gate. I watched with growing frustration as Trump refused to act on DACA, immolated his honeymoon period in stupid fights over inauguration crowd size, and incompetent executive action via a rushed travel ban. The disillusionment moved to disgust with Trump’s actions against [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions. One of the most effective, ideologically sympathetic, and loyal officials in the Trump administration who was unceremoniously dumped simply for trying to avoid the appearance of impropriety by recusing himself from the Russia investigation. There haven’t been a lot of wins in the Trump years for people that were hoping Trump represented an opportunity to change the GOP and enact good policy. The GOP largely has adopted all the character flaws of Trump and morphed [them] into a kind of confrontational Reaganism. The sole bright spot has been on trade issues largely because U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has proven himself to be qualified and ideologically sympathetic, and the assistance of Jerome Powell in monetary policy during the trade war can’t be understated either. But even trade hasn’t been without its moments. The decision to levy tariffs against our allies rather than trying to build a bloc to confront China is a failure. In 2020 I did reluctantly vote for Trump again after debating voting for Howie Hawkins and the Green Party. I largely decided to vote for Trump again due to the rhetoric coming out after the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett and punitive measures proposed as revenge for the audacity of Trump to nominate a Supreme Court justice during his term of office: statehood proposals for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, court packing schemes, etc. Every day since November 3 I have regretted my vote. I have watched friends and loved ones descend rabbit holes of conspiracy theory. Most of my interactions online have been trying to convince people I care about that the election was not stolen. It has been like playing whack-a-mole starting with Sharpiegate in Arizona, to Dominion voting-machine conspiracies, to the idea [that] state legislatures can unilaterally choose new electors, to the lie that the Vice President can override the certified electoral votes from the states. I have watched with horror as otherwise smart and successful people gobble this garbage up. These lies have done enormous damage to the country, culminating in the shameful and disgusting events of January 6. The lies were started by Donald Trump, they were fueled by elements of conservative media, and cynically exploited by elected Republicans to fundraise and build a name for themselves. Even if you wanted to ignore that the President ginned up a coordinated attack on the Article I branch of government (which you shouldn’t!), he betrayed his supporters by lying to them and his lies have gotten them killed. Trump needs to be impeached and removed from office on a unanimous basis, and it should be done as quickly as possible. Not just for the sake of preventing Trump from a future of holding office, but also because the precedent needs to be set that similar moves taken by other Presidents in the future will not be tolerated. On January 6, the unthinkable (a violent mob descending on the Capitol to achieve a political outcome) became the thinkable. Impeachment and removal will be a step toward making it unthinkable again. On a less important but relevant note for those on the Right, it would also allow us the freedom to advocate for populist policies without the distraction and deadweight Trump has been. The seventh correspondent is a self-described liberal who cast votes for John Kerry and Barack Obama before backing Trump because he was worried that the United States of America was not winning anymore. “I do not believe that I am a racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other negative label that has been affixed to Trump supports,” he wrote in 2015. “Yes, I really do feel that Donald Trump has the interests of America at heart. He has already made his money and lived a life of glamour and fame, and another few billion dollars won’t have any real impact on his quality of life. Rather, I genuinely believe that Trump feels the need to fight for the country he loves.”His assessment today: A lot has changed in my life over the past five years. Then, I was an atheist. Now I am a devout Christian. Then, I was a newly married 29-year-old man. Now I am a 34-year-old father of two. Then, I had just started to turn away from the Democrat Party and embrace Donald J. Trump as a long-shot Presidential candidate, now I live and breathe MAGA. The truth is that my support for President Trump has never wavered, and has only grown over the years. President Trump did something that very few politicians in my lifetime have done: He followed through on his campaign promises. He put America first; he renegotiated trade deals; he built the wall; he has worked to end wars that should have been ended long ago; he forged new Middle East peace deals; he strengthened our military greatly and drastically improved the VA; and he made the economy absolutely boom. [Note: The wall along the border is far from complete and Trump’s record on the VA is mixed, to say the least.] He is worried by Trump’s loss but retains hope in America and counsels love across political divides: Do I wish that President Trump would continue to serve as our President for the next four years? Of course! In fact, I believe with every ounce of my being that President Trump won the 2020 Election. But the Swamp (also known as the Deep State, or Uniparty) is much deeper, more threatening, and downright corrupt and malicious than many of us imagined. And now with Big Tech banishing President Trump and countless other Conservatives from their platforms in the most brazen act of censorship this side of North Korea, I fear that the fabric of our country is fraying. BUT … all hope is not lost. I love Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I love this country, and I love my fellow Americans. So many forces within our country and abroad (looking at you, CCP) are trying to turn Americans against each other. They are practically urging a second Civil War, with Conservatives pitted against Liberals in a bitter fight to the death. But as tempting as that may be for extremists on both sides, most of us just want to raise a loving family, hold a decent job, and be kind to others. Many of my best friends and closest family members are Liberals or Joe Biden voters, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. As Jesus said in Mark 12:31, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In this volatile age, those are words that I think we should all take to heart. The final correspondent argued in 2015 that Trump was an alpha male who loved America. Her 2020 email was easily the longest––so long that I can’t include it all. Here is the main thrust of it: Please keep my name secret as we are living in dangerous times for Trump supporters, and people are getting canceled and losing their jobs, punished for wrongthink, etc. I don’t think we have free speech anymore in this country. I don’t attend rallies, wear Trump gear, or actually go anyplace these days except to buy groceries. I try and keep a low profile but I devour the news on the internet so I think I am pretty well-informed on Trump, election fraud, and COVID, which are all important topics to me. Here are my thoughts: President Trump did more for the world in the cause of liberty, prosperity, and peace than any other president in my lifetime, and I am 71. He brought peace to the Middle East FFS. Unlike Obama, he didn't just talk about it; he did it, and he deserves at least 3 Nobel Peace Prizes, maybe 4, hard to keep up. I will continue to support him for the rest of my life. I am 100 percent certain that this election was stolen and that Donald J. Trump is our rightful president for the next four years. I saw the evidence, the videos, the news clips which showed him leading and then he lost votes which went to a 3rd party placeholder before being given to Biden. I saw the boarded up windows which prevented the Republican poll watchers from participating, and how in some places where the judge allowed them in, they had to use binoculars because the Democrats still kept them 20 feet away if not more … All we wanted was a free and fair election and a chance to be heard. That was denied us … Democrats bitched for four years about the election being stolen from Hillary [Clinton] but we didn’t shut them up and curtail their free speech like Democrats are doing to us, as well as Twitter, Facebook, etc. Now they all are trying to shut us up. Why, if the election was fair and honest? Twitter is a cesspool of hate I do not understand why anybody goes on there. That being said, Social Media has no right to decide what information I am permitted to read. They are supposed to be a platform for free speech and the exchange of ideas, but instead they block President Trump and ban conservative views. Then they went after Parler. Then they went after GAB. Facebook. Twitter, all of them are in this suppression together. What are they afraid of? Free speech? They should be regulated like Ma Bell because they are basically a utility company now, and without social media a politician's message cannot be heard. Hence no free speech in the public square. If you don’t agree with Democrats, then the Dems use social media to punish you for wrongthink. You are canceled. You can lose your job. You go on a blacklist. People who support Trump or worked in his administration are now blacklisted as punishment for their beliefs. This is what they do in communist countries, not free America. What the hell has happened to our country in the past year anyway? Riots and looting are permitted if performed by antifa but not peaceful protests by Trump supporters. Antifa infiltrates our rallies to make us look bad. Nobody cares. It is not investigated. [The Freedom of Information Act] is denied, citing privacy concerns. Thus anger among conservatives continues to build up like a volcano about to explode because we are stymied at every turn and there is no outlet, no justice, just corruption. We had the greatest economy going for everybody … Unemployment was down for Blacks and hispanics. Business was booming. And then along came the Wuhan Flu from China (note: Hong Kong Flu was never called racist, Spanish Flu was never called racist, just all of a sudden we can’t name the flu after the country of origin anymore because “racism” WTF). This Flu was supposed to be so deadly that people were going to drop dead in the streets and foam at the mouth, so the President asked that we shut down the country for two weeks to flatten the curve to make sure the hospitals were not overrun. I complied. I had enough toilet paper and paper towels for a month. But then the lockdown continued … week after week … month after month … I have to stand in line at the store to be allowed in and hope the shelves are not bare … just like in commie countries. People are selling single rolls of TP in the parking lot. I am running out of supplies. I can’t get a haircut, let alone a dye job. We are now nine months into the two-week shutdown. Small businesses have been destroyed including my little arts and craft business, which provided supplemental income to my retirement. Even if the lockdown were lifted tomorrow and people were told that the crisis was over, small business is never coming back. Why bother when we now know the government can shut us down again at any time and we can lose our investment? Besides, the brainwashing is too complete. People are still going to wear masks forever (not me) because they won’t trust that the crisis is over. They will still be afraid to eat out at a restaurant and attend events because the brainwashing is that ingrained into them now and we do not trust our institutions to tell us the truth anymore anyway … They told us to self-isolate and not see our family for months on end … to cancel Thanksgiving and Christmas. They told us we couldn’t go to church and sing but we could go to Democrat-approved BLM riots which were based on a lie anyway. The government, especially the Dem governors, got to determine which businesses were essential and could remain open, and what they could sell. Back in the spring [Governor Gretchen] Whitmer decided that we couldn’t buy seeds to plant gardens, or buy baby clothes. Who gave the government the right to do this stuff? How come I can go to Walmart and Costco but can’t go to a mom and pop store, which would probably be less crowded? The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees every American the right to life, liberty, and property but the government took away my property and my ability to make a living with the lockdown. It was unconstitutional (to say nothing of it not working, as the states with the most severe lockdowns have the most cases of COVID, if you can trust the numbers, i.e., Florida vs. California). Where are the lawsuits? How come nobody is standing up for my rights, including my elected GOP reps? Everything is a health crisis now so it’s okay to suspend the Constitution without due process. Only Trump stands up against the Dems for my rights. In closing, I’d like to address this last correspondent directly. First, I’m so sorry about the loss of your business. And I share your dismay at the pandemic. I’ve been locked down for months. I miss my friends so much. I didn’t get to see my grandparents this Christmas, not because anyone told me I couldn’t, but because I studied the spread of COVID-19, and gathering didn’t seem safe. I miss restaurants and bars, too. I will return to them. And believe me: The majority of Biden voters want so badly for this pandemic to end, and to return to normal as soon as possible.[Read: The coming Republican amnesia]Because I am a journalist who frequently criticized Trump, you may regard me as an “enemy of the people.” But as much as I wanted Biden to win, I still actively sought out allegations of election irregularities. If my inquiries had turned up any evidence of fraud that could’ve changed the outcome, I would’ve shouted it from the rooftops. Instead, I found a lot of misinformation being spread in an effort to raise money from the Republican base. Some very unethical but savvy people turn disaffection into political contributions. I urge you to look into how much was raised and how it was spent––and, more generally, to at least consider the perspectives of the conservative writers that the Christian author and essayist Alan Jacobs assembles here. I imagine that when Barack Obama was president, you sometimes criticized him, and when you did so, that didn’t mean you were disrespecting everyone who voted for him. The same goes for many of the attacks on Trump: They are aimed at the man himself, not all of his supporters. As for the future, every one of my anti-Trump friends in the deep-blue state where I live is committed to fair federal elections every two years in perpetuity. And while a small faction would like to limit your free-speech rights and mine, or take away your guns, lots of us who voted against Trump twice and for Biden are staunchly opposed. I expect my side to win.When I’m feeling discouraged about America’s future, I turn to history, not because all of its lessons are encouraging, but because it reminds me that the United States has overcome challenges more formidable than any we face today––thank goodness we are not in a Civil War where brothers are fighting on battlefields, in a decade-long Depression, or facing Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany as they try to take over the world. Let us celebrate the pleasant surprises and mobilize to meet the catastrophes as neighbors trying to improve the future, not paralyzed by the present or stewing about the past.
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The Space Force Is Still Here
The headquarters of the United States Space Command was supposed to be based in Colorado. Since then-President Donald Trump revived the command in 2018, the state had been its temporary home, and last February, when the search for a permanent location was still on, he had teased that the current arrangement could win out. “I will be making a big decision on the future of the Space Force as to where it is going to be located, and I know you want it,” Trump said at a rally in Colorado Springs last February. “You are being very strongly considered for the space command, very strongly.”The Space Command is not the same thing as the Space Force, which was created in 2019 (and which, by the way, is not the same thing as NASA, either). The Space Force trains service members, some of whom serve under Space Command. But in Trump’s mind, they are wrapped up together, as one of his signature accomplishments. Space is cool and flashy, and who doesn’t love Mars? When Trump mentioned the Space Force at a rally, the crowd erupted in cheers. A new Space Command headquarters would, in theory, help cement part of his legacy—Trump, the president who made space great again.Instead, Trump leaves behind a small controversy. On the day he was impeached for the second time, his administration announced that the headquarters would not stay in Colorado, but would relocate—to Alabama.The Air Force, the department overseeing the search, had twice recommended Colorado over other sites under consideration, in late 2019 and again this year, according to a former senior defense official who served in the Trump presidency. (The Atlantic agreed to grant the official anonymity in order to speak about internal deliberations.) But when then-Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett came to the White House with that recommendation earlier this month, Trump ordered officials to go with Hunstville.“This was a political decision by the White House,” the former defense official told me. “The service recommended Colorado, and everyone expects the new administration will reopen this.”The decision roiled Colorado lawmakers in both parties; Democrats said out loud that Trump had prioritized politics over the command’s 1,400 military and civilian workers and their families. Florida Senator Rick Scott said in a statement to The Atlantic that he’s disappointed his state wasn’t chosen, and that he is “reviewing the decision.” Alabama Senator Richard Shelby said in a statement to The Atlantic that “it’s our understanding that Huntsville was, in fact, the recommendation of the Air Force, and for good reason.” Barrett, who no longer serves as Air Force secretary, said in a statement that the process included “insights from the national security leadership” and senior military commanders, and that “careful deliberation” went into her selection of Huntsville. An Air Force spokesperson would not comment on “pre-decisional recommendations,” but said that Trump “was informed and consulted during the decision-making process."Read: How exactly do you establish a Space Force?The Biden administration could have an easy time unwinding the headquarters decision, one of the many Trump-era policies it will likely roll back. But though the Space Force has often been treated as the butt of a bad joke, it is one Trump initiative that will last. It may not be the grand, legacy-making organization Trump imagined, but the Space Force isn’t going anywhere.In the last year, the Space Force has slowly transformed into a real military service. The branch, which primarily oversees satellite operations, has debuted its own seal, organizational structure, and terminology. It has already deployed its first troops—not into space, but to the Middle East, where they’ll support combat operations that rely on space systems. Abolishing the force would require an act of Congress, and the legislature doesn’t seem to have an appetite for that. At Biden’s inauguration ceremony, the Space Force flag appeared on the Capitol along with the flag of the other armed forces. “Nobody’s debating whether the Space Force should exist,” Jared Zambrano-Stout, an aerospace consultant and a former chief of staff for the Trump administration’s National Space Council, told me. “They’re debating about what it should be doing.”Which puts President Joe Biden in an interesting predicament. The Space Force has always been more boring than its name implies, amounting to some organizational reshuffling of Air Force personnel and operations. But Trump has used it to fuel his own vision of American bravado, which his supporters have adopted. On the day of the Capitol attack, some supporters in Washington, D.C., and around the country complemented their Trump regalia with Space Force flags. With Trump gone, the new administration now finds itself having to embrace a piece of government saturated with MAGA spin and disdained by the left, and make it seem as ordinary as it actually is.The Space Force seemed like a Trump whim at the outset. “I was saying it the other day—’cause we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space—I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force,’” he said in March 2018, speaking to an audience of Marines in California. “And I was not really serious. And then I said, ‘What a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that.’”But an armed service dedicated to space operations is not a Trump invention. The concept emerged in the 1990s as the United States began relying on satellites during ground combat, and in 2001, a commission chaired by the former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld considered the suggestion. A pair of lawmakers in the House resurrected the idea of a space corps a few years ago, but it didn’t take off until Trump glommed on, and it was all hands on deck. “The vice president put us to work and said, ‘Okay, the president wants this, so we need to figure out what’s the best way for us to put it together,’” Zambrano-Stout said.[Read: Trump’s space ambitions are too big for one president]The country had last established a new military branch 70 years ago, and the Space Force’s circumstances were very different. Most of America’s forces were founded with the country itself, except the Air Force, which emerged after a world war. The national-security community had been debating the value of standing up a space force of some kind eventually, but Trump jumped the gun, providing a new rationale: It sounded good to him. “He only asks me about the Space Force every week,” then-Vice President Mike Pence joked as staff worked to formulate the plans.By late 2019, a defense bill arrived on Trump’s desk that included, among other things, the go-ahead from Congress to establish the sixth branch of the American armed forces. Despite Trump’s sweeping rhetoric, which conjured images of space cadets battling enemies in orbit, the organization was mostly a shiny rebrand. In public, Trump avoided the full truth of the final product—that the Space Force would operate within the Department of the Air Force rather than stand alone, that Congress stipulated that its workforce must be built from existing Air Force personnel. But for a salesman like Trump, the appearance of the thing was more important than its substance.[Read: Why the Space Force is just like Trump University]In true Trump fashion, the Space Force’s public image became an exercise in exaggeration. Recruitment ads beckoned prospective guardians—as Space Force members are called—to consider that “maybe your purpose on this planet isn’t on this planet,” painting an entirely unrealistic picture of the work. “Let’s face it: If you’re a Space Force person, you’re going to be in a room monitoring satellites,” says Victoria Samson, a military-space expert at the Secure World Foundation, which has briefed the Biden team on national space issues. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s definitely not as sexy as Starship Troopers going into space.” Even staffers working in the Trump administration wished that he wouldn’t mention the Space Force at his rallies, worried that politicizing the effort would invite only more ridicule.In 2021, officials will hammer down the service’s objectives and priorities. Right now, the nation’s space operations are spread across military branches. Which systems will be consolidated into the Space Force, and which will remain in the domain of the Air Force, the Navy, and others? Within the space-focused parts of the military, the Space Force is already seen as a desirable assignment: A survey of Army officers who work on space operations found that nearly all of them want to transfer to the Space Force.Outside the military, the Space Force is still sometimes treated as a farce. Netflix is already at work on the second season of an eponymous show premised on that idea. One episode drew from a White House meeting in which Trump suggested to military leaders that the first lady should help design the Space Force uniforms “because of her impeccable fashion sense,” according to Time magazine. On the show, Space Force staffers end up modeling the designs, some adorned with glitter, and reporting back to the White House. “There is a concern that there’ll be a knee-jerk reflex of people who aren’t familiar with space issues to be like, ‘That was a Trump program; let’s get rid of it,’” Samson told me. But those calls will likely come from people who believe the Space Force is a Trumpian vanity project, not people within the Biden administration itself, who likely know differently.[Read: The false hope of an American rocket launch]Biden has not publicly commented on the future of the Space Force under his watch. (A spokesperson for the new administration did not respond to a request for comment.) The topic is unlikely to come up during his speeches soon, as he prioritizes the economic and health crisis caused by the coronavirus. But when that moment comes, several space-policy experts have told me, it might not hurt for the president to offer some kind of reset, to remind Americans that the Space Force is not a political prop, but a group of hardworking military professionals. “We are a spacefaring nation, and we live in an era that will be defined by rapid, worldwide growth in space,” John Raymond, the four-star general who leads the Space Force, said in a statement to The Atlantic. “The mission of the United States Space Force is to protect the national security interests of the United States."Raymond previously served as the head of the Space Command, the unit at the center of the recent debacle. In 2019, the Air Force considered several locations in Colorado, California, and Alabama for the command’s permanent home, judging the candidates on multiple factors, and by the end of the year was prepared to recommend Colorado Springs. But the service restarted the search the following spring, in part because some lawmakers had complained about the process, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a Senate hearing at the time. A final decision would not come until after the November election, but electoral politics had nothing to do with it, Esper said. When a new list of contenders was later announced, Florida, whose lawmakers had expressed frustration to the White House about the Air Force’s selection criteria, had made the list. Texas, New Mexico, and Nebraska had also made the cut, but California was dropped.In an alternate timeline, in which Trump hadn’t encouraged his supporters to go to the Capitol and still had a Twitter account, he probably would have tweeted enthusiastically about the Space Command news. Now that his administration has ended, the Space Force has its first opportunity to develop an image independent of its original benefactor. “We don’t think about the Truman Air Force. When we think about NASA, we don’t think about Eisenhower,” James Vedda, a senior policy analyst at the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy, told me, by way of comparison. Someday, it might not be the Trump Space Force, either.
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The Atlantic Daily: The Riot Sympathizers Aren’t Going Away
Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.In his inaugural address, President Biden called for unity. He’ll find plenty of work to do in pursuit of that goal: America’s new president oversees a country brutally divided.Last week, my colleague Anne Applebaum reported that “32 percent [of Americans] were still telling pollsters that Biden was not the legitimate winner.” And the group of insurrectionists who mobbed the Capitol on January 6—and the millions of Americans who sympathize with them—aren’t going away.GETTY / THE ATLANTICCoexistence with riot sympathizers might be the only way forward. “Although Trump will eventually exit political life, the seditionists will not,” Anne writes. She explores how the country could employ peacekeeping strategies used abroad.Congress must convict Trump to deter future attacks. In the forthcoming impeachment trial, “the Senate must make clear that attempted coups, no matter how clumsy or ineffective, are the type of crime that is answered with swift and permanent exile from American political life,” Adam Serwer writes.The Capitol riot could drive GOP defectors into the president’s camp. “If Biden could lastingly attract even a significant fraction of the Republican voters dismayed over the riot, it would constitute a seismic change in the political balance of power,” our polling expert Ronald Brownstein notes.Maybe “unity” is not what American needs right now. “Questing for unity without executable ways to hold bad actors accountable will render the pursuit useless,” the writer and professor Syreeta McFadden argues.One question, answered: Will the vaccines work against the mutated coronavirus strains?Our staff writer Sarah Zhang reports: In a word, yes.But in a few more words: There are three separate variants of major interest right now, first detected in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil, respectively. The more transmissible U.K. variant doesn’t seem to affect the efficacy of the vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna at all. But the South Africa and Brazil variants share a trio of particularly worrisome mutations. Data today from Moderna suggest that vaccine-induced antibodies are not able to bind the South Africa variant as well as they do the usual virus—but they still work well enough to be protective. That’s because the vaccine normally stimulates many times more antibodies than the minimum necessary to protect against the virus. Out of prudence, though, Moderna is looking into how an additional shot of its vaccine or an updated booster based on the South Africa strain could protect against waning immunity, especially in the long term as the virus continues to evolve. But for now, the most important thing is to keep vaccinating as fast as we can. Tonight’s Atlantic-approved isolation activity: Revisit the TV of the Trump era. The best shows of the past four years, Sophie Gilbert argues, looked away from the 45th president.Today’s break from the news: Hank Aaron died at 86. The home-run record-setter and baseball star was “was a quiet leader who unflinchingly risked his life in the name of racial justice.”Sign up for The Atlantic Daily here.
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The Fight Over Britain’s Pandemic Myth
Britain will soon pass the grimmest of milestones: 100,000 people dead from COVID-19. This appalling tally is higher than anywhere else in Europe, and almost twice that of Germany, the biggest country on the continent. Depending on how it is measured, Britain is now the second-worst-hit nation on Earth relative to its size.There is simply no escaping the reality that the country has suffered a catastrophic failure of governance. On March 17, six days before Boris Johnson ordered Britain’s first full national lockdown, his chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, told members of Parliament that, based on modeling provided to the government, a “good” outcome over the course of the pandemic would be if deaths were kept below 20,000.And yet, Britain has also shown wisdom. Although its vaccination program remains in its early stages, it has raced ahead of every other country in Europe, having bought more doses, sanctioned their use more quickly, and begun their rollout with more urgency. Even as Britain’s death tally approaches 100,000, more than 6.5 million vaccinations have been administered, far more than Germany or France. This has been helped by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, the most cost-effective and easiest to use of the inoculations approved so far, which was developed in Britain in part because of early and heavy government backing. If the country’s record in saving lives has been one of abject failure, its vaccination record is anything but.This stark contrast makes the job of judging Britain’s overall performance complicated. How much weight should we give to speed of recovery over the extent of the ongoing calamity? How can we disentangle one from the other? Should we? Where must we allocate blame and credit, and in what proportion?These questions cannot be answered objectively. They will become the subject of daily talk-radio phone-ins, academic studies, and sweeping first attempts at historical narratives. They will also become part of the daily muscle fiber of British politics, exercised in Parliament and in the media, subject to claim and counterclaim, lie and obfuscation, half-truth, supposition, and unprovable counterfactual.Crucially, this battle will not be one between teams of political archeologists digging for the truth, but between storytellers fighting to define the national myth of what happened. For this reason, Johnson’s opponents have cause for concern, no matter how solid their case against him appears. Johnson—whatever you think of him—is a master politician who has spent a career defying the usual rules of political gravity, avoiding blame for his failures, claiming credit for others’ victories, being forgiven for errors of judgment that might have been career-ending for another leader, all while growing in power and stature. And this time, he has some striking counterintuitive advantages.[Read: Britain failed. Again.]Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli Nobel Prize winner, has talked about the “cognitive trap” of confusing experience and memory. What we experience in life isn’t what we remember. Instead, we form a story of what happened, to make sense of events. “There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present,” Kahneman explains. “Then there is a remembering self, and the remembering self is the one that keeps score.” Kahneman describes this remembering self as the storyteller, choosing the experiences we have been through, editing them down, and fitting them into a narrative that makes sense. What define these stories, Kahneman says, are big changes that happen, significant moments in our lives, and endings. “Endings,” he notes, “are very, very important.”Every country offers supporting evidence for Kahneman’s thesis, picking bits of its national experiences to form its historical narrative. In the United States, for example, the battle rages between two accounts: one of the land of the free born in 1776, of men created equal and endowed with unalienable rights; the other of a country that emerged a century and a half earlier, in 1619—a land of apartheid and slavery. A similar tension can be seen in France, which holds itself up as a nation of liberté and égalité, but spends less time thinking of revolutionary terror, Algeria’s colonization, or the many citizens who feel neither free nor equal today. In Britain, too, we are master storytellers: an island nation that ruled the waves, and the plucky underdog who defied the odds to prevail against mightier foes. We are the battle-hardened warriors of Agincourt, not the losers of the 100 Years War; the civilized rulers of empire, in comparison with the ghastly Belgian or German butchers. At our core, we see ourselves as an ancient oak of liberty and law and constitutionalism and moderation, not as the country of peasants’ revolts, regicide, and aristocratic privilege.But they are all stories, not accounts of actual experience. The events we choose to remember are the ones that tell the story we want to hear, those that reflect the values we hold today and the country we hope to be: the Magna Carta and Henry VIII, two world wars and one World Cup. The terrible losses that dominated most of Britain’s Second World War story are overwhelmed by the moments of glory that followed. We largely remember 1944–45, not 1939–44.Kahneman tells the story of an audience member at a question-and-answer session who complained that he had listened to a symphony for 20 glorious minutes only to have the whole experience ruined by a horrible screeching sound at the end. Johnson is betting that the opposite is true today, that he can define the story of Britain’s pandemic based on the memory of its ending, not the bulk of its experience.And he might be right.In November 2007, Johnson released a children’s book called The Perils of Pushy Parents, which he had written and illustrated. The “cautionary tale,” as its front cover describes it, tells the story of the Albacore family, whose parents come close to a tragicomic death, plunging off a cliff after relentlessly haranguing their children to turn off the television and succeed in life. Just as they plummet over the edge, the pair suddenly snap out of it: Like some bounding antelope The wheelchair-jockeys clear the slope, And in that instant something stirs Inside their heads. A sprocket whirs. Their brains switch on, their eyes demist, They realise that they still exist. At this moment, a hand shoots out from on the heath to catch them before they hit the rocks. So goes Johnson’s first and, thus far, only children’s book, a tale of close calls, happy endings, and libertarian wisdom. This is a picture of the parent Johnson wants to be—the opponent of pushiness and authority, the individualist. Let the kids watch TV, Johnson advises. Let them be.This is also the leader Johnson supposes himself to be, and the leader many of his Conservative MPs raging against his successive lockdowns want him to be. One narrative of Britain’s pandemic response that has taken hold is that this kind of mild libertarianism is a key reason the country has performed so badly. At each turn, Johnson has resisted taking control until the escalating death toll left him no other choice.[Read: How the pandemic revealed Britain’s national illness]In this and other ways, the pandemic revealed Johnson’s governing instincts, and some of his principal weaknesses. In 2020, Britain faced two waves of infection. During the first, in March, he clung close to his scientific advisers, who advised against locking down too hard or too soon, fearing that the crisis could last years before a vaccine was available and that a shutdown would lead only to bigger subsequent outbreaks. Johnson accepted this advice until the political climate changed as other countries imposed shutdowns and academic models showed that without action, deaths could run into the many hundreds of thousands. Although Britain obviously failed relative to other places in the first wave of the crisis, this earlier period was a collective failure of the British state, including Johnson.The second wave, which began to crest in December, is a different story. Johnson once again resisted stricter measures taken elsewhere to suppress the virus, but this time he did so against the advice of his experts, who, from October on, were pushing for more draconian rules. Johnson’s alibi here is that his judgment was sound, but he got unlucky because a much more transmissible variant of the virus suddenly appeared. This is both true and misleading; it omits the reality that he was resisting stricter measures to control the virus even after the new variant’s discovery.One Johnson ally who knows him well told me that the prime minister likes to leave decisions as late as possible, which is often an advantage in politics. Brexit is a prime example of this: In securing both a revised withdrawal agreement to leave the European Union and a trade deal to set the future economic relationship between the two sides, Johnson repeatedly sailed close to the wind, risking “no deal” calamities while threatening to break international law to secure concessions and public support. However, in a pandemic, this is the worst way of governing possible. As a decision is delayed, better choices are removed, leaving only bad options. “It’s deeply frustrating,” said the Johnson ally, who declined to be identified discussing the prime minister’s private deliberations.Rory Stewart, the former international-development secretary who challenged Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019—and was later expelled from the party by Johnson—shares this assessment. He told me that the prime minister had flip-flopped throughout the crisis, never sure what he was principally trying to achieve and ending up with the worst of all worlds as a result. “From the beginning, he has lacked the two most important traits you need in a crisis: urgency and the ability to communicate clearly and consistently,” he said.“Boris has a habit of procrastinating until something good turns up,” Stewart said. “Even in December, Boris was not quite sure whether the priority was to reduce the number of excess deaths or whether he had loyalties to the libertarian right of his party.” Johnson’s struggle reflects Britain’s wider problem during the pandemic. Was its strategy to save as many lives as possible, or to protect ordinary life without overwhelming the health service? Or was it just to muddle through?Still, everyone I spoke with noted Johnson’s extraordinary resilience and capacity to reinvent himself. Despite Britain’s disastrous coronavirus record, Johnson remains level in the polls with the Labour opposition, and an election is not due until 2024. Now, in the new phase of the crisis, in which the government is seeking to restore people’s liberties, Johnson is on his home turf. “Boris articulates his role in life as being the captain of the rugby team,” Stewart told me. “He likes to find issues where he can give the positive pre-match pep talk.”In a sense, all politicians try to form a narrative of events that suits them. The debate, as Stewart noted to me, is usually about where the story ends. “You want it to be at the point things were good,” he said. “Your opponents want it to be at the point it was bad. Boris has been very good at winning these debates.”By the summer, Britain may have a good story to tell: of a country that came together in its hour of crisis to vaccinate the elderly and the vulnerable before almost any other country, using British-made medicines, delivered by its greatest institution, the National Health Service. The disaster of 2020 was an aberration, a once-in-a-lifetime event that overwhelmed the world, not just Britain, to be followed quickly by the country’s salvation—an exhibition of national vitality embodied by the prime minister who literally almost died before fighting back himself.The story does not have to be entirely true to be powerful. It just has to have enough truth to not be absurd and, regardless, is a nicer story to believe than the one in which the country failed miserably, not once but twice. At the end of Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s novel about a boy who is trapped on a boat with a tiger, disbelieving investigators force the protagonist to tell them what really happened. He then recounts a horrible story of cannibalism and amorality that he somehow survived, but challenges the skeptics as to why they don’t believe his original account. “Which is the better story?” he asks.Johnson’s success or otherwise in winning the narrative battle of Britain’s pandemic experience has implications that go beyond his own future as prime minister—the fight to define the story of the pandemic is global as well as British.For much of the past few years, following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the political crisis in London has worked to undermine other euroskeptic movements across the continent. The once-feared contagion effect of Brexit has sunk from view as the EU has out-negotiated and outperformed the U.K. Britain’s failures during the pandemic only added grist to the mill of those warning against “populism”; commentators from across the continent and the United States have compared Johnson to nationalists such as Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.The danger of these attacks is that, first, Johnson is not Trump, in being neither authoritarian nor even particularly anti-establishment, and, second, they risk being exposed should Britain’s relative performance change for the better. In France, there is real concern among those at the very top of government, according to analysts I spoke with, about the febrile political situation facing President Emmanuel Macron before his reelection campaign next year. The country’s pandemic response has been middling-to-poor—though nowhere near as bad as Britain’s in raw death count—but France is one of the worst-performing countries in terms of its vaccine rollout. Just as Johnson must battle to define the pandemic story at home, Macron faces his own fight. Should Britain, or any other European country, be free of COVID-19 restrictions months before France, the French story may quickly change.[Read: The U.K.’s coronavirus ‘herd immunity’ debacle]Already, Johnson and his government have sought to present Britain’s vaccine-rollout success as a benefit of Brexit (even though they would have been legally free to do exactly as they have done within the EU). If he is able to make good on the country’s early successes—and that remains a big if—it will not only give him cover for the failures of 2020, but provide a victory to drive the other story of his premiership, that Brexit has been a success and Britain can make it on its own.Johnson is showing the fleetness of foot that has led some of his more strident critics abroad to label him a “shapeshifting creep.” He has moved Britain from its position as the most pro-China major state in Europe to the most hawkish, offered a route to citizenship for millions of Hong Kong citizens, imposed sanctions on Belarus before the EU, and quickly congratulated Joe Biden on his victory while Trump continued to challenge the result. He is attempting to shift Britain’s international story as well as its domestic one.Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, agrees that this rule, that crises are remembered for their end rather than how they were experienced, has often held. However, Powell warns that voters tend to vote for parties or leaders based not on what they have done, but on what they will do next. “If he runs as the man who solved the coronavirus, he might have trouble,” Powell told me. Stewart agreed. “He can create a narrative to pull things back for him, but he will be subconsciously weakened.” Yet Johnson doesn’t need to win the debate; he needs only to have a narrative of success to build into the story he will eventually sell at the next election.For Britain, like all countries emerging from this crisis, the challenge is whether the story that is eventually believed serves to improve the country or to cover up its failings. Regardless of Johnson’s success or otherwise in his role as national team captain, cheering it on and convincing it of its triumph and potential, overseeing a genuinely impressive early vaccine rollout, there is little doubt that 2020 exposed catastrophic weaknesses in the state and its political leadership that left nearly 100,000 people dead. That cannot be wished away.
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