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Best of The Atlantic
Best of The Atlantic
American Museums Are Going Through an Identity Crisis
The Philip Guston retrospective was supposed to be one of 2020’s blockbuster art shows. The exhibition would have been the first in 15 years to examine the celebrated artist’s catalog, bringing hundreds of provocative paintings to four prestigious stops: the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Tate Modern in London; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. It felt topical and exciting.The paintings, however, include depictions of the Ku Klux Klan—satirical, even cartoonish ones that Guston described as “self-portraits” contemplating the nature of being evil. But given this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and systemic racism, the museums decided to postpone the show to 2024. Their directors released a joint statement in September arguing that the artwork had to be delayed “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.” Later, they pointed out the fact that the show had been curated by an all-white team.The backlash to the four-year postponement began immediately. In an open letter, nearly 100 respected artists called the move an indication of museums’ “longstanding failure to have educated, integrated, and prepared themselves to meet the challenge of the renewed pressure for racial justice that has developed over the past five years.” In other words, the group of signatories, which included several Black artists, felt that the museum directors had delayed the show to avoid self-examination and were censoring Guston’s work out of fear. (The museums subsequently shortened the postponement by two years.)Conversations about racial inclusivity at museums have been taking place for decades. But the controversy surrounding the Guston show is one of the clearest indications yet that the national reckoning over race has permeated the country’s cultural institutions in a way that’s impossible to ignore. The museums involved are playing catch-up by hiding the controversial material—a clumsy, reactive move that might be well intentioned but in reality undermines the purpose of the artwork. The issue with the satirical Guston paintings isn’t the fact that they depict the KKK; it’s that the artwork would have been displayed without enough context. Such dramatic solutions—postponing shows, erasing content—only come at the expense of the art itself, when the flaw actually rests with how larger infrastructures operate.For smaller museums that don’t have the heft of those involved in the Guston show, this reckoning is also happening amid pandemic-induced economic fallout. According to a survey conducted by the American Alliance of Museums, a third of museums across the country are expected to close within a year, with the smallest—and often more localized and culturally specific—being the most vulnerable to shutting down. Furloughs have become the norm, even as museums transition to featuring their galleries virtually or reopening at limited capacities. Indeed, museums are caught in a disheartening dilemma: They’re facing growing calls for diversity, equity, and inclusion, but without the funding they need they’re more likely to close than to be able to meet those demands.I spoke with several museum directors and curators about how they’re handling the changing attitudes within their industry. All of them told me that although museums like the National Gallery of Art are facing backlash, working on strategies such as improving hiring practices, changing training of museum staff, and providing more racial context in exhibitions can help museums not only avoid such conflicts in the future, but also ensure that they maintain their reputations as trustworthy institutions. Lori Fogarty, the executive director of the Oakland Museum of California, a museum hailed as one of the most progressive-minded in the country, told me that the protests have had “a very, very deep and profound impact on our work.”[Watch: How many museums are dedicated to American slavery]With about 20 years in the museum industry, Fogerty has seen discussions about diversity ebb and flow, but the current wave isn’t just about diversifying boards. During the eight months her museum has been closed, she has offered advice to her fellow museum directors. To them, she’s explained that museums should not be impassive establishments, but community centers that can cultivate relationships between the visitors and the collections, encouraging them to share their lived experiences and making museums more welcoming of culturally specific perspectives. Re-prioritizing the reasons to add a piece to a collection or to mount an exhibit can help. “Historically, I would say [collecting decisions depend on] institutional curatorial expertise right there with artists’ intent, and way down the road, thinking about the visitor experience or relevance to the community,” she told me over Zoom this month. “That is shifting … I think we are at a moment of complete reimagination for museums.”Think of the approach as “social cohesion,” Fogarty explained, as in having museums emphasize “building trust, understanding, and connection” that can be measured through their attitudes toward the museum’s offerings. The Oakland Museum, for instance, asks visitors to evaluate their experiences, answering questions like “Did you see yourself or your story reflected here?” and “Did you see other people’s stories and gain a new understanding?”Given the fact that 80 percent of the museum’s visitors come from within a 50-mile radius, and that people of color make up more than half the museum’s annual audience, Fogarty’s goal to make the museum more welcoming has been easier to hit. Other museums face a steeper hill to climb: Thousands of miles to the southeast, in Jackson, Mississippi, the museum director Betsy Bradley of the Mississippi Museum of Art has also been implementing new strategies for cultural sensitivity, but the work has been challenging. The community her museum serves is unlike that of Fogarty’s, and sensitivity means more than just incorporating local voices and visitor input. “We have people in our community who have lived those experiences and carry in their bodies either vestiges of trauma or the incredible resilience that has been built,” she said. “And so for our museum, we are working to recognize that truth about an interpretation of a work of art is as valuable as the academic truth.”There have been exhibitions, she told me, where preparation and putting community first would have been invaluable. In the spring of 2019, an exhibition featuring silhouettes, including those of enslaved people, offended Black staffers when the curators focused only on the artistic style and academic merits of the portraits, rather than acknowledging and exploring their history during a staff-only tour before the exhibit opened. Before that, Bradley green-lit an exhibition in the fall of 2017 about cotton called “White Gold,” by the artist Thomas Sayre, but she and her team didn’t consult with Black historians about how to frame the context of the piece until late in the process. They assumed it would be clear to visitors that the art wasn’t meant to celebrate cotton, but when she approached the NAACP, the Mississippi chapter’s then leader Derrick Johnson bristled at the idea. “He just looked me in the face and said, ‘But you’ve already decided you’re gonna do it,’” Bradley recalled. She conceded that the show moved forward anyway, but with the organization’s input the exhibition figured out a way to emphasize Sayre’s intentions to reflect cotton’s legacy, not honor the industry. “For a long time we thought that museums in general were in this academic safe space,” she explained, “that we can make decisions about content and about the integrity of that content as it relates to art history and artistic vision.”Each “mistake,” as Bradley put it, helped her understand how to balance both the aims of a featured artist and the needs of the community a museum serves. But the problem isn’t just in communicating with the right experts; she pointed out that museums have long struggled with issues in curatorial training, and with their organizational structures. Historically, those seeking to work in the museum field study art and art history, programs that are often Eurocentric and rarely require taking culturally specific classes. The collection departments at museums don’t tend to engage with the educational staff—who help interpret exhibitions by organizing lectures and seminars that can enhance public understanding of a display’s importance—until too late. “When I was first in the art-museum world as an educator, we were presented exhibitions after they had been curated and decided upon,” she said. “And then it was our job to figure out how to teach from those exhibitions. How the content mattered, how relevant it was to our community, all those decisions were made outside my office.”In that sense, context enters the conversation at the end of the decision-making process. And even when educators are involved, they can sometimes focus too much on scholarship—as with the “White Gold” exhibit—trapping museums in a cycle of overemphasizing academics and under-emphasizing analysis in a racial and historical context, leading to misguided exhibitions. “What curatorial processes could benefit from are open-ended questions rather than setting out theses to prove,” Bradley said.[Read: Museums must attract diverse visitors or risk irrelevance]Since then, the Mississippi Museum of Art has hired interpretation specialists, established collaborative team meetings across departments, and created community advisory councils and anonymous online panels that review ideas for exhibitions. This way, conversations about the potential impact and meaning of a display happen “right at the beginning,” Bradley said. Beyond that, she’s been building a leadership team that includes staff without traditional curatorial or art-history backgrounds, instead bringing in people with community-organizing and creative-placemaking experience.Fogarty and Bradley’s efforts have been mirrored across a handful of museums around the country, including those in the process of being built. Kim Kanatani, the director of the forthcoming Institute and Museum of California Art and the former deputy director at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, has been studying their strategies during the slowdown caused by the pandemic. “This time has been invaluable in terms of reflection … As a young institution, we have a tremendous opportunity to be able to move forward and learn from what past missteps have happened within the art and museum world,” Kanatani told me over Zoom. She has been overseeing an architectural design for the museum that stresses education alongside artistic appreciation, and an internal organizational structure that places audience engagement on an equal footing with the institute’s collection program.Elsewhere in the state, at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, the historian and curator Tyree Boyd-Pates has been working to ensure that cultural sensitivity is what he calls a “baked-in” element of the collection process. He’s been spearheading the museum’s efforts to acquire artifacts from the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, and with each submission the museum allows the donor to retain the copyright, helping to maintain cultural context instead of simply taking the submission. “We are making sure that the institution is angled as a partner and a collaborator, not as a sole proprietor of these objects,” he explained over the phone. “Traditionally museums are viewed as institutions that commandeer as opposed to support and uplift and amplify.”[Read: If public libraries, why not public museums?]It’s been “refreshing,” he added, to see larger museums like the National Gallery of Art grapple with their ethics, but such promises to ensure racial equity are “the bare minimum.” Visitors feel the same way: According to another survey conducted by the American Alliance of Museums, most museumgoers want museums to be more actively inclusive, not just deliver charitable statements.Still, these historic institutions can be resistant to change. Kanatani observed that museums can seem like “elitist mausoleums,” indifferent to the world outside of their walls adorned with treasures, and halls encased with artifacts. And if not indifferent, then at least too slow to adapt: Consider the way the museum directors involved in the Guston controversy felt they needed until 2024 to contextualize the artwork’s racial elements. But as the signatories of the open letter pointed out, “If [the directors] feel that in four years, ‘all this will blow over,’ they are mistaken. The tremors shaking us all will never end until justice and equity are installed.”Museums have found themselves in a difficult position. They seek relevance to stave off the pandemic-induced economic decline, but relevance means tackling race, a topic they’ve been unprepared for and are therefore reluctant to face. Yet, in attempting to retroactively fix their shortcomings, larger museums can often overlook the nature of the art itself. Context, controversy, and uncomfortable subject matter shouldn’t diminish the work; art welcomes interpretation and embraces analysis. Museums must learn to do the same. “Nobody I know in the museum world wants to stifle an artist’s voice or vision,” Bradley of the Mississippi Museum of Art said. “We want to learn from them, and we want to learn about ourselves from encountering them. But there has to be an element of care.” Even in a pandemic, museums can play a role in bringing a community together.
theatlantic.com
Biden Could Expand Abortion Access, Even Without the Senate
Joe Biden is now poised to become the next president of the United States. His victory, however, is bittersweet for many Democrats, especially those for whom abortion rights are a top issue. Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives, and their odds for a Senate majority seem to be dwindling. Just eight days before the election, Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Without a Senate majority and with a hostile Supreme Court, some may wonder whether any progress on abortion rights can be made in the next four years.Abortion-rights advocates need not accept that all is lost. They simply need to look outside legislation and the courts for their answer. First, President Biden can reverse the Trump administration’s rules that limited the contraceptive mandate and forced Planned Parenthood and other organizations to leave Title X’s family-planning program. But beyond restoring the Obama-era status quo, the Biden-led executive branch could pursue an administrative action that would expand reproductive rights further than ever before: His administration could reexamine an FDA policy that places severe restrictions on mifepristone (also known as RU-486)—the only drug the FDA has approved to safely and effectively terminate an early pregnancy (one within its first 10 weeks). Removing this policy would expand access to abortion in most states, even if the central holding from Roe v. Wade is limited or overturned and states are allowed to navigate their own course on abortion.[Read: Is this really the end of abortion?]When the FDA first approved mifepristone 20 years ago, abortion-rights activists were optimistic about the medication’s potential to transform abortion care. In theory, women would be able to obtain a medication-abortion prescription from their regular primary-care physician or ob-gyn, pick up the drug at their local pharmacy, and end their pregnancy in the privacy of their own home. Fewer women would need to travel long distances to an abortion or family-planning clinic, walk past abortion protesters, or undergo a surgical procedure to terminate a pregnancy. This reality, however, has never fully come to fruition. Though the approval of mifepristone has made abortion easier for many women, and the drug now accounts for 39 percent of all abortions, abortion care remains largely isolated to abortion clinics. This means that many women must still travel long distances to essentially pick up a prescription. The primary reason for this is an unnecessary federal policy that can be removed by the executive branch.When the FDA approved mifepristone to terminate a pregnancy, it imposed stringent dispensing requirements that make the drug difficult to prescribe and obtain. The current iteration of those restrictions (known as a risk-evaluation-and-mitigation strategy, or REMS) is generally interpreted to stipulate that only certified providers prescribe the drug; that women pick up the drug in person from a clinic, doctor’s office, or hospital (not a pharmacy); and that women sign a patient-agreement form, which attests that they received counseling on the risks of the medication. The fact that health-care providers must not only become certified to prescribe the drug, but also dispense it themselves, imposes logistical barriers that make it impractical for the average provider to offer early abortion care. Most physicians’ offices are not set up to buy and sell prescription drugs to patients—that is the purview of pharmacies. Understandably, providers are not inclined to create this infrastructure, especially for a single drug. So who has taken on the burden of certification and distribution? Abortion providers located in abortion and family-planning clinics. As a result, clinics still provide 95 percent of abortions today, and private physicians’ offices provide only 1 percent, which has kept abortion care segregated from the rest of health care. As the number of clinics has declined across the South and Midwest, many women are forced to travel long distances to access this medication. Five states have only one clinic left. It is well documented that women who must travel long distances to a clinic tend to have later abortions, which are riskier. And the impact of these travel burdens is felt much more harshly by poor women and women of color.These distribution limitations have no medical benefit. Every major health organization to examine the issue, including the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Family Physicians, has concluded that the REMS is unnecessary for patient safety. In fact, many riskier drugs, including Viagra—whose fatality rate is six times higher than mifepristone’s—are on the market without any distribution restrictions. Mifepristone is also not subject to any limits on its distribution when it is prescribed to treat Cushing syndrome, even though in those cases it is used chronically, and at higher doses. Furthermore, recent research suggests that medication abortion is safe and effective when prescribed via telemedicine and shipped directly to a woman’s home. This research aligns with common sense, given that the REMS allows women who obtain mifepristone from a clinic to take it at home. Thus, the in-person dispensing requirement does not protect women from any of the drug’s risks; if a woman experiences a complication—rare but certainly possible—it will not occur at the clinic.[Elizabeth Stone: My abortion before Roe v. Wade]Two ongoing lawsuits are challenging the legality of the mifepristone REMS—one related to the pandemic and one attempting to invalidate the REMS whole cloth. In July, the federal district court for Maryland temporarily enjoined the in-person dispensing and signature requirements as unconstitutional during the coronavirus pandemic. But the REMS can be removed much more easily without the courts. The FDA could ask the drug distributor, which sponsored the FDA’s review of the drug, to submit a modification request that would allow the agency to evaluate whether the REMS can be safely released. The sponsor could also submit a request of its own volition to force the FDA to reconsider the REMS. After a scientific review, an objective FDA would almost certainly conclude that the scientific evidence shows that the REMS is unnecessary. A new FDA commissioner, appointed by Biden, could start the process immediately. Though a decision to remove the mifepristone REMS would likely be challenged in the courts, a plaintiff would be hard-pressed to prove that the FDA—a scientific agency—acted improperly by listening to scientists.The result: a win for reproductive rights that is not dependent on the Supreme Court or Congress. Removing the mifepristone REMS might not expand abortion access everywhere—especially not in the 19 states that have their own limits on the drug’s distribution (or other states that might pass similar statutes). But it would widen access in the remaining 31 states, ensuring, for instance, that medication abortion would be available to women through telemedicine, obviating the need to go to a clinic. Patients would still have to obtain a medication-abortion prescription, but without the REMS, any provider could prescribe it (so long as they follow state abortion laws) and patients could pick it up from their regular pharmacy. The political risks for Biden would be low, given that most Americans support the right to first-trimester abortion and that expanding its accessibility should reduce the need for second-trimester abortions, which are more controversial. This action would also give him an opportunity to reassure the women in his base that he is fighting for their interests, especially in light of the losses many are expecting in the Court with Justice Barrett’s confirmation.
theatlantic.com
The Damage Will Last
“The guardrails of our system actually worked,” the political analyst Amy Walter marveled on Monday evening, capturing how many reacted to the Trump administration initiating a formal transition of power to the Biden administration. American democracy had survived its weeks-long brush with disaster, despite President Donald Trump’s baseless fraud claims, surreal press conferences, and shaky legal challenges. All of this brought relief (“excellent news for American democracy”), triumphalism (“we saved ourselves and America”), ample use of the past tense (“Never forget how dangerous and abnormal this all was”), and ridicule of the Trumpian sideshow (“rage tweeting” and “comical lawsuits”).This isn’t over, folks. While the decision to begin the transition process does amount to an implicit concession by the president, Trump hasn’t yet explicitly acknowledged his loss—and there are indications he might never do so. As I write, in fact, the president is continuing to insist that the “2020 Election Hoax” will “go down as the most corrupt election in American political history,” that he will continue to press this case, and that he “will never concede to fake ballots & ‘Dominion.’”[Adam Serwer: The crisis of American democray is not over]Trump’s attack on the election wasn’t and isn’t a sideshow. As far as American democracy is concerned, this is the main show. A democracy at grave risk one day cannot be pronounced healthy the next. The precedents Trump has set, the doubts he has sown, and the claims he has made will linger. Restoring faith in the democratic process will take time and effort—and a favorable result is by no means guaranteed.As I wrote during the 2016 campaign, when Trump was threatening to not accept a loss to Hillary Clinton, democracy depends on the consent of the losers. The capacity of candidates to lose gracefully—or, more specifically, to consent to the winning candidates’ right to govern, and to restrain themselves from stirring up grievances among their supporters—is at the core of democracy.As the authors of Losers’ Consent, a 2005 survey of old and new democracies around the world, pointed out, it’s typical for the losers of an election to be dissatisfied with the results of the race and the democratic process that produced them. But assuming that the vote is free and fair, they wrote, functioning democracies are predicated on the recurrence of a subtle miracle each election cycle, one we tend to not appreciate until it’s missing: The losers overcome that “bitterness and resentment” and prove “willing, first, to accept the decision of the election and, second, to play again next time.”At the moment they might be most tempted to subvert democratic institutions, the losers must instead recognize as legitimate a process that just yielded a bad outcome for them. Since winners have much more of an incentive to continue playing the democratic game than losers do, “losers are the crucial veto players of democratic governance,” the authors wrote.When I spoke with him ahead of the Trump administration authorizing the transition, Shaun Bowler, one of the co-authors of Losers’ Consent and a political scientist at UC Riverside, told me that he assessed Trump’s refusal to concede as not mere noise but also signal. When a football team loses the Super Bowl, he noted, the defeated players don’t rough up the referees and denounce them and the opposing team as crooked. They don’t seize the cameras as a victorious player declares, “I’m going to Disney World!” and yell, “No, you’re going down!”“If you don’t [have] respect for the rules of the game, you don’t play that game anymore,” he explained.The commentators who discount Trump’s attacks on the election tend to argue that Trump is unique, and so his challenge to the democratic process is best seen as an isolated event. But just as the president’s America First worldview channeled a real current of thought in the United States about the country’s role in the world, even as it amplified and shaped those views, Trump’s particular challenge to democracy is rooted in broader discontents.“America is in deep trouble,” André Blais, another co-author of Losers’ Consent and a political scientist at the University of Montreal, told me late last week, pointing to the country’s struggling democratic institutions and severe partisan polarization. Blais believes that “there are very few politicians of the Trump type,” which is why he remains “cautiously optimistic” about American democracy over the long term. But he noted that the essential dynamic of losers’ consent is obviously “not working well” in the United States, and not just because of the president’s reaction to the election result. “The principle that it’s your turn sometimes and not your turn other times—at least some people don’t seem to accept it” anymore, Blais said.[John Dickerson: Why you don’t mess around with presidential transitions]Bowler said it was important to avoid overstating the danger that Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat poses to the U.S. political system. But he appended a big caveat to that note of reassurance: There’s no direct precedent in modern American history, or even among other democracies, for what’s happening now in the United States. He ticked off a series of potential foreign analogs before dismissing each one. Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, refused to accept the results of his country’s 2006 and 2012 elections, but he wasn’t yet president at those times and democracy in Mexico is far less entrenched than it is in the United States. Charles de Gaulle railed against France’s Fourth Republic for years, but its collapse in 1958 gave way to a Fifth Republic that remained democratic. “This really hasn’t happened before [to] this degree,” Bowler said. “An established democracy walking away from its own democracy, walking away from its own processes.”And the thing about something unprecedented is that it sets new precedents. Many of the rituals that have helped heal a divided country after past elections—the concession call and speech, the meeting of the current president with the president-elect at the White House, the orderly transition—have been absent in the weeks since the 2020 election. Other rituals (the incumbent’s presence at the president-elect’s inauguration, for example) could vanish as well. Refusing to recognize defeat and attempting to reverse the outcome of the election even if there’s no sound basis for questioning the results could take root as new precedents. That might be especially true if Trump’s brand of populism remains a gathering force in the United States. The political logic of populism argues against acknowledging electoral defeat, because populists would rather attribute their losses to elite conspiracies than acknowledge that they lack popular support.Bowler said his concerns extend beyond Trump to the many (though not all) Republican leaders who have supported his unsubstantiated attacks on the integrity of the election. (Republican calls for Trump to concede have grown louder in recent days as states have certified election results.) There might be rational short-term political reasons for why they’re doing so, he allowed, “but there’s a longer-term consequence, which is that they’re standing by while someone denies the legitimacy of the electoral process and they’re saying, [to] varying degrees, ‘Yes, that’s right.’”There are also clear signs that Trump’s message is resonating widely with his supporters. Republican trust in the electoral system has plummeted. (The president, in fact, has followed his announcement of the transition by tweeting about the high numbers of Trump voters who believe the election was stolen and who have lost confidence in the country’s democratic system, tending the doubts he has sown.) The key question, Blais told me, is how many Republicans truly believe Trump’s claims of fraud and how many are simply echoing the president’s narrative out of disappointment with the outcome—a distinction that the blunt instrument of polling can’t capture. “I assume it’s a small minority” who are true believers, Blais said, “but if it’s not a small minority this is really a huge concern.”[Tom Nichols: A large portion of the electorate chose the sociopath]The recent threats of violence against public officials underscore the danger. “Once people begin questioning the legitimacy of the result and questioning the integrity of public officials, then things can begin to unravel pretty broadly,” Bowler said. “We can guess that from now on lots of close races will be contested and called out as being corrupted, so we will see lots of elected officials having to defend themselves from charges of fixing elections.” In today’s information environment, he added, conspiracy theories and allegations of cheating involving the 2020 election will stick around and animate actors—including networks such as OAN and Newsmax—with a stake in keeping alive bitter memories of the race. Trump supporters might remain politically disaffected for much longer than is typical after disputed contests, creating a segment of the electorate that is not just temporarily disappointed but also chronically disillusioned.“People can nurse grudges for a long time,” Bowler said, especially when those grudges stem from claims of cheating. That’s why it’s so important for losing candidates to concede.The statement Bill Clinton delivered on December 14, 2000, after the Supreme Court halted the recount of votes in Florida, is one of the best examples of losing gracefully. “Last night President-elect Bush and Vice President Gore showed what is best about America,” he said, referring to Al Gore’s concession speech and George W. Bush’s victory address. “The essential unity of our Nation was reflected in the words and values of those who fought this great contest.” Gore’s statement, and then Clinton’s, effectively delivered the presidency to Bush after one of the most contentious elections in American history. In Losers’ Consent, the authors cite Gore’s decision to concede after the Court’s ruling as a striking example of the “democratic bargain” functioning properly—especially since Gore had lost so narrowly, and polls at the time showed that 97 percent of his voters thought he was the rightful president of the United States.Recently, just as Trump was tweeting about the “meaningless” 2020 vote, I got on a Zoom call with Terry Edmonds, Paul Glastris, and John Pollack, the three speechwriters who worked on Clinton’s statement. They recalled springing into action once word came of the Court’s decision and Gore’s plan to concede, gathering on a well-worn yellow couch in Edmonds’s basement West Wing office to figure out what the president would say next.They were young, idealistic, and aggrieved by what they perceived as an injustice rendered by the nation’s highest court—and, more practically, were now apparently out of the jobs they thought they might have in a future Gore administration. They recalled that early elements of the draft “came in hot.” Typed notes from Pollack observed that there was “justifiable frustration” and “even anger” over the fact that tens of thousands of ballots in Florida hadn’t been tallied, and pointed out that Gore got more votes than any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. The country’s democratic system, he wrote, was based on the premise that every American’s vote should count. “It felt like the system, to me personally, was broken or breaking,” Pollack recalled.Many of these points didn’t make it into the full draft that Pollack eventually walked over to the Situation Room and sent to Clinton, who was visiting the United Kingdom at the time. The heat had been dialed down. But that draft, while expressing the president’s commitment to ensuring a “smooth transition of power” to Bush, dwelled on Gore’s “principled defense” of “the right of every citizen to vote, and to have that vote count” and the need for “healing the partisan breach, and restoring public confidence in our electoral system.”[Read: How Bill Clinton’s statement on Al Gore’s 2000 concession evolved]The draft “wasn’t bitter” or “angry,” Glastris recalled. “It just acknowledged what the people who voted for Al Gore and supported Bill Clinton were feeling. It was, in its own way, magnanimous.”But in the humbling experience that is the speechwriter’s lot, Clinton sent back the draft hours later having crossed out, with a black Sharpie, every word but “I … Vice President Gore” and “I … want to … the American people.” He’d rewritten it all. The reference to Gore’s defense of counting votes was gone. The mentions of the partisan breach and lack of confidence in U.S. elections were gone. Yes, the nation was divided and he disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision, Clinton allowed in the remarks he ultimately delivered. But he accepted the verdict, echoed Gore’s concession speech, and emphasized the need to rediscover “unity” and “common ground.”“We worked for [people], for both the president and the vice president, who were statesmen, who were adults in the room, who understood that this was a moment that called for a lot more conciliation than rancor,” Edmonds told me.“What I think [Clinton] did was take out anything that anyone could point to and say, ‘Sore loser,’” Glastris added. “His audience was the history books. His audience was the next administration. He didn’t want to … mar the message he wanted to deliver, which is: ‘You won. Pass the baton.’”Pollack told me that he had deliberately tucked away his early notes on the statement in his official speechwriting file for posterity because he’d felt the point that every vote must count was so central to American democracy and the episode of American history he was living through, even if it wasn’t necessarily appropriate for Clinton to focus on it in his remarks.But what happens to our democracy when the grievances of those who lose elections aren’t carefully wordsmithed out of presidential remarks and pocketed for the enlightenment of future generations, to avoid igniting the kindling of despair that elections leave behind? What happens when they are instead aired far and wide—indeed, fanned by an American president declaring the country’s entire democratic system “RIGGED”?Trump is a unique political actor, Blais said, but “if the results of 2000 had happened today, [even] without Trump, but with all this partisan polarization, I don’t know what would have occurred.” He exhaled sharply, plainly bewildered by what he was witnessing across the border in the United States. “This will be tough. Very tough.”
theatlantic.com
America Failed at COVID-19, but the Economy’s Okay. Why?
Here is a remarkable, underappreciated fact: The U.S. economy has performed far better than that of many of the country’s peers during this horrible year. The International Monetary Fund expects the U.S. economy to contract by 4.4 percent in 2020, versus 5.3 percent in Japan, 6 percent in Germany, 7.1 percent in Canada, and nearly 10 percent in both the United Kingdom and France.This fact is not a result of the United States managing its public-health response better than those countries, allowing it to reopen from lockdown sooner and for consumption to roar back. Indeed, many of those peer nations have had significantly better outcomes, as measured by COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalizations, and death rates. Nor is it a result of the U.S. preserving more jobs. The unemployment rate here is far higher here than it is in Japan, Germany, or the U.K.America owes its macroeconomic good fortune to Washington muscling through a giant and successful stimulus in the spring—a policy victory that Congress and the outgoing Trump administration are doing their best to cram into the jaws of defeat.[Annie Lowrey: Why the Trump administration doesn’t want to help]The United States came into the coronavirus recession with a few structural advantages, including a highly diversified economy. Countries dependent on a single hard-hit industry—Spain on tourism, for instance—have tended to falter regardless of their health or macroeconomic response. The U.S. is also lucky not to have to rely on exports for growth. World Bank data show that sales abroad account for 12 percent of our gross domestic product, compared with 18 percent in Japan, 32 percent in Canada, and 47 percent in Germany. This means that the collapse in global trade during the pandemic has hit other countries far harder than the U.S.Another structural advantage is that Washington prints the world’s reserve currency, which means that it tends to suck in global capital flows when uncertainty is high, “as in a pandemic,” Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics told me. That pushes up American asset values and lowers American borrowing costs. The U.S. labor market is also more flexible than those in other countries, Zandi noted. “Americans are more willing to adopt new technologies, to move for a job, and [to] make big changes in how they live and work.” That makes absorbing big, strange shocks easier.The United States has been better not just in form but also in function, with regard to combating the economic fallout of the pandemic. It has had best-of-class monetary policy: This spring, the Federal Reserve, the country’s most capable technocratic institution, calmed the financial markets with an alphabet soup of special programs while dropping interest rates to zero and flooding the markets with cash.Yet Washington, improbably, has truly distinguished itself with fiscal policy, at least earlier in the year. The U.S. has fewer, stingier, more complicated, and more conditional safety nets available to people than many other advanced economies—less generous “automatic stabilizers,” in economic parlance. But when COVID-19 hit, congressional Democrats negotiated a series of enormous, highly effective temporary stabilizers with Republicans who were ready to go big, among them Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. In the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, Congress provided forgivable loans to small businesses; sent $1,200 checks to most Americans; added gig workers to the unemployment-insurance system; and put a $600 weekly top-up on unemployment checks.“We’d never seen such a rapid and massive amount of stimulus being doled out by Congress, ever,” Gregory Daco, an economist at the international forecasting firm Oxford Economics, told me. “Contrast it with what happened in the global financial crisis” that precipitated the Great Recession in 2007. “It took three times longer to get a stimulus package half the size.” Indeed, the U.S. provided fiscal support equivalent to roughly 12 percent of its GDP, data from Moody’s Analytics show, one-third more than Germany and twice as much as the U.K. Other than Australia, no large, wealthy country did more to support its economy.The investment paid off. The U.S. increased millions of low-income families’ earnings over the spring and summer, and increased the amount of money in American pockets overall. This meant that while the economy experienced a sharp, miserable contraction, as businesses closed down, trade halted, and fear took over, it has bounced back better than many of its peers. The U.K., Germany, Canada, and France are all doing worse—in some cases far worse—in terms of output.[Annie Lowrey: The pandemic proved that cash payments worked]Still, the U.S. is not exactly the North Star leading the world out of the death, destruction, and devastation of 2020. Some peer countries did better in macroeconomic terms—countries that did not bungle their public-health responses and managed to add good amounts of stimulus as necessary, too. Australia, South Korea, and Taiwan have saved lives, jobs, and output, all together.Moreover, Washington shored up output without shoring up employment, a queasy policy legacy for the 10 million Americans who had jobs a year ago and do not today. The Paycheck Protection Program created in the CARES Act did help many small businesses keep employees on their books in the early days of the pandemic. But many small firms are ailing now; the hospitality industry has been decimated; and state and local governments are shedding workers. Other countries elected to directly subsidize employment, paying businesses to keep workers on the books, though often at lower pay.America’s strong GDP number also masks the brutal inequality of the recession. Young workers and low-wage workers have been hit particularly hard, meaning that the people least capable of bearing any financial pain are being asked to bear the majority of it, especially since the initial federal unemployment-insurance bonus ended. The decision in many states to not open public schools for in-person instruction has also hurt parents, especially women, hundreds of thousands of whom have dropped out of the labor force to supervise their children’s online learning. “Working mothers and single mothers are having a miserable time in this recovery,” Michelle Holder, an economist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, told me. She also noted that the recession has amplified deep racial disparities, with a large share of Black and Latino workers losing jobs and many leaving the labor force entirely.The United States’ relative GDP success might not last much longer, either. The country is facing not just a slowing recovery but also a potential reversal. Eviction moratoria and student-loan-payment deferrals end on December 31. The Federal Reserve is in a public spat with the Treasury Department, which is trying to end and reclaim the financing for some of the Fed’s special-support programs. The financial benefits from the $1,200 in helicopter money and the additional $600 in unemployment checks are fading too. Credit-card and debit-card usage is decreasing. Restaurant reservations are down. Measures of consumer mobility, like surveys of miles driven and flights taken, are dropping. Layoffs are increasing, and unemployment-insurance claims are stuck above 1 million a week.[Derek Thompson: The workforce is about to change dramatically]The situation is made yet more dangerous by the intensification of the pandemic. “We’re in a scary exponential phase of the virus,” Daco told me. “That means higher hospitalizations, more deaths, more restrictions on activity, more fear, and therefore less consumer spending, less business investment, and a slowdown in economic activity.” Any advantages the U.S. had are dwindling. “We’re looking at a double-dip recession and deep scarring” if Congress does nothing, says Diane Swonk, the chief economist at Grant Thornton, an accounting and advisory firm.The U.S. is still winning the global recovery, at least in GDP terms. But Congress seems uninterested in repeating its springtime success. Republicans are negotiating for an insufficient stimulus, with Democrats holding out for a bigger one that might never materialize. And not even the widespread deployment of a vaccine in 2021 will make workers whole again.
theatlantic.com
Democrats’ Shaky Future in the House
Joe Biden marked an unexpected and unwanted milestone this month when he won a clear popular-vote majority in the presidential election but saw his party suffer substantial losses in the House of Representatives.That unusual combination of results—the first time it’s happened in more than 120 years—crystallizes the core challenge Democrats face in translating their consistent victories in the popular vote into congressional power. In geographic terms, their coalition is deep but narrow. The party has consolidated its hold on the nation’s largest metropolitan centers, which allows it to amass substantial popular-vote victories, but it has systematically declined in the smaller places beyond them—a dynamic that’s intensified during Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency.The distortions created by this geographic sorting have been most apparent in the Senate. There, the GOP’s dominance of less populated, heavily rural states has allowed it to control the upper chamber more than half of the time since 1980, even though Republicans have represented a majority of the nation’s population for only one two-year span during that period. Democratic senators are guaranteed again to represent a majority of the nation’s population next year, whether or not the party wins the two Georgia runoff elections in January, which would allow it to control the chamber.While Democrats will still run the House, Republicans’ unanticipated gains there underscore how the growing concentration of the Democrats’ political support into a few large places threatens their position in that chamber as well. With three House seats still to be decided (one each in California, Iowa, and New York), Republicans have substantially narrowed the majority that the Democrats amassed in their 2018 sweep. So far, Democrats will control 222 House seats and Republicans 210; immediately before the election, the balance was 232 Democrats to 197 Republicans, with one libertarian and five vacancies.These results closely follow the outcome of the presidential race. While Biden is on track to win the popular vote by well over 6 million, the best estimates are that he may carry only about 223 House districts. With very few districts backing a presidential candidate of one party and a House candidate of the other, that left Democrats with very little margin for error in their search for 218 seats.[Read: The Democratic truce is over]It’s unusual for a president’s or president-elect’s party to lose House seats while he wins, but it’s hardly unprecedented. Based on official House statistics, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Grover Cleveland (twice) won elections while losing ground in the House. But each of those Democratic presidents won with less than half of the popular vote, well below the 51 percent Biden has captured at last count. Republicans Ulysses S. Grant and William Howard Taft won a majority of the presidential popular vote but lost a handful of House seats (two and four, respectively). The most recent president to win a majority of the popular vote and lose a substantial number of House seats was Republican William McKinley in 1896. (His 48-seat loss came after a landslide two years earlier in which the GOP won nearly three-fourths of the House.)The juxtaposition between Biden’s substantial popular-vote win and the GOP’s substantial House gains captures the geographic sorting that is reshaping American politics. Growing advantages in the biggest places are the key reason Democrats have now won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections, something no party had done since the formation of the modern party system in 1828. Based on the latest data, Biden won fully 91 of the nation’s 100 largest counties. That’s more than the 87 Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, and far beyond the 69 that Bill Clinton took in 1992.But even as Democrats have improved their position inside the nation’s largest and most economically vibrant metropolitan areas, their support in exurban, small-town, and rural regions has collapsed. While Bill Clinton twice won about 1,500 counties (roughly half the counties in America), Hillary Clinton carried just less than 500 (roughly one-sixth). Though Biden won the popular vote by at least 3 million more votes than she did, he only slightly expanded her geographic reach: So far, he’s carried 509 counties, based on the latest count from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.When measured in House districts, the performance of Democratic presidential candidates has similarly narrowed. According to data collected in Brookings’s Vital Statistics on Congress, Bill Clinton carried a clear majority of House districts in his two victories, while winning only a plurality of the popular vote in both three-way races. But Al Gore lost most House districts while winning the popular vote in 2000. And both Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 lost most House districts while winning the popular vote (2008 was an exception to this pattern: Obama won 242 House districts while winning almost 53 percent of the popular vote).In one sense, Biden’s success in winning more districts (about 223) than Obama in 2012 (209) and Hillary Clinton in 2016 (205) constitutes clear progress for Democrats, reflecting the expansion of the party’s support in white-collar suburbs. But it still highlights the constraints on the Democrats’ reach: Trump won more House seats (230) in 2016 while losing the popular vote, and George W. Bush in 2004 won many more (256) while winning slightly less of the national vote than Biden did this year.Those disparities explain why many analysts in both parties believe Democrats face a natural disadvantage in the House, even before factoring in gerrymandering.“If you apportion the House in a fair drawing, it favors Republicans, because Democrats live in these urban enclaves that are 80 percent [Democratic] and they waste a lot of votes,” Tom Davis, a former Republican representative from Northern Virginia who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, told me.The consequences of this imbalance are growing more significant because, as in Senate races, it’s getting harder for either party to win House seats in areas that vote the other way at the presidential level—especially in a presidential-election year.Through the late 20th century, it was common for a large number of districts to support House candidates from one party and presidential nominees from the other. About 190 districts split their votes during landslides for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, largely because many conservative southerners still voted Democratic for the House even as they backed those GOP presidential candidates.But as more voters have treated congressional elections as choices between competing parties rather than competing individuals, the number of split districts has dwindled, reaching a modern low of 26 in the 2012 election and rebounding only slightly to 35 in 2016.This year could set a new record for the fewest split-ticket House seats. Depending on the final vote tallies, it’s possible that each party will win only about 10 seats that voted for the other side’s presidential candidate. Democrats have reelected 10 members in seats that voted for Trump (though Biden may win some of those districts as the final votes are counted, removing them from the split-ticket category). Republicans in turn reelected three GOP incumbents in seats that Biden carried, beat four Democratic incumbents in Biden districts, and won one open seat that he took.[Read: A rising Republican’s bet on a losing president]Even so, the bulk of the Democrats’ House losses came in districts that Trump carried in both 2016 and 2020; the party has lost eight such seats already, with two still undecided. Democrats expected to lose some of those districts with Trump himself on the ballot. But they were surprised—and disappointed—by two trends.One was the victories by Republican House candidates in several urban and suburban districts that Biden carried, including seats around Miami; Omaha, Nebraska; Dallas; Philadelphia; and Orange County, California. The clear implication of those results is that some college-educated, suburban voters who rejected Trump supported Republicans for the House, perhaps because they did not want to give Democrats a free hand to advance their agenda. (The share of college graduates exceeds the national average in almost all of the Biden districts that elected Republicans to the House.) “We have voters who didn’t want to vote for Trump but wanted to be able to support the kind of Republican House candidates who they traditionally supported,” Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told me.The second disappointment for Democrats is that Biden did not win more Republican-held suburban seats that voted for Trump last time. Biden did win three Republican-held seats that Democrats captured this election (two redrawn districts in North Carolina and a suburban Atlanta seat); he also flipped about 10 seats that Trump won in 2016, and that House Democrats took in their 2018 sweep. But Biden fell short in many of the party’s new targets for 2020, including suburban Republican-held districts around St. Louis; Cincinnati; Indianapolis; Phoenix, Arizona; Austin, Texas; and Houston. Those were also places where Democrats expected to offset any losses in the Trump districts they won in 2018. But against the headwind of Trump’s continuing strength in these new targets, Democrats could not capture any of them in the House contests. “Trump was sneaky strong—not enough to win, but he was not the albatross that we expected him to be” for down-ballot Republicans, the GOP communications consultant Liam Donovan told me.In one sense, those seats were always tough targets for Democrats: They are almost all much more Republican in their core political DNA than the Trump districts the party won in 2018 House races. But the inability of either Biden or Democratic House candidates to capture them reinforces the party’s worry that Democrats can’t hold very much more than 218 House seats on a lasting basis. The most traditionally Republican-leaning suburbs still resist them (particularly in Midwest states, where those suburbs remain predominantly white). Meanwhile, the GOP’s red curtain over rural America looks almost impenetrable at this point.Adding to the Democratic challenge, Republicans this month maintained control of legislatures in states such as Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia, which will give the GOP the upper hand in the redrawing of congressional-district maps next year, following the 2020 census. The Democratic position in the competition for the House is still stronger than it was during the redistricting process 10 years ago, though. The party’s advances in white-collar suburbs, particularly around Sun Belt cities such as Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix, means it is now competing on a wider House battlefield than it was then. But in states where Republicans control redistricting—and they will control the redistricting of more congressional seats than Democrats—the GOP may be able to draw Republican-leaning seats that submerge those newly blue suburban areas into immense tracts of red rural terrain.For Democrats, the surest way to defend their House majority may be to rebuild their capacity to compete in at least a few more small-town and rural districts. That proved impossible with Trump polarizing the electorate so sharply along cultural lines. The future of the House Democratic majority may depend on whether Biden succeeds in his uphill quest to lower the temperature of partisan conflict and narrow the nation’s gaping political divides.
theatlantic.com