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theatlantic.com
Lately, I’ve Taken To
What is the role of poetry in the world? Writers have been wrestling with that question for centuries. In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poetry helps us strengthen the muscles of our morals, and that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Fast-forward to Joe Biden’s inauguration in January: Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb,” a call not just for unity but for justice. That moment was an affirmation for those who believe deeply that poetry is an instrument for social good, and one that can reach people across many miles and boundaries. But many have questioned whether poets, in the end, have much power to effect change. Earlier this month, the age-old debate surfaced on the internet, sparked by a tweet arguing that poetry isn’t socially powerful.In “Lately, I’ve Taken To,” Linda Gregerson doesn’t address this question head-on. But she does show how poetry can act as a way of processing the world, of giving shape to our nebulous pain, both personal and political. She connects her own autoimmune-related hearing loss to the vanishing ozone layer—another instance of a system defeated by its own defenses, a reaction to supposed harm that ends up causing harm itself. That brings her to the 2012 terrorist attack carried out in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik. There is grave danger, she says, in preoccupation with borders and barricades. In linking these disparate strands, she gives them a new dimension.So does poetry matter? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Most people aren’t reading poetry. But some people are. For those of us who do, poems like Gregerson’s serve to deepen our humanity. Maybe that’s enough.— Faith HillYou can zoom in on the page here.
theatlantic.com
How Liberals Killed the New Deal
“Let the public service be a proud and lively career,” President John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his January 1961 message to Congress. “Let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government,” he continued, “say with pride and with honor in future years: ‘I served the United States government in that hour of our nation’s need.’”Kennedy’s message succeeded: Young Democrats, heeding his call, filled the offices of the nation’s executive agencies. And yet just 20 years later, Ronald Reagan, another newly elected president, stood in front of the U.S. Capitol and declared a kind of war on the values Kennedy vaunted. “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Reagan said, a statement that marked a definitive break with the big-government liberalism of the postwar period.How did government go from being the solution to society’s ills to being the cause of its problems? The answer, paradoxically, lies with the political left as well as the right. In the ’60s and ’70s, as the federal government expanded its reach, and as a growing conservative movement fulminated against it, many liberals also grew disillusioned with the government’s unchecked bureaucratic power. The postwar liberal faith in government crashed against the realities of how that government was working, its excessively close ties with industry, and what it was doing to the American people and to the land itself. Citizen advocates turned to new nonprofit organizations to protect a “public interest” that the government, they argued, did not reliably serve.Under pressure from both the left and the right, the traditional liberal establishment fell into disarray. Given the Biden administration’s efforts to pass trillion-dollar infrastructure and social-welfare legislation, harkening back to the New Deal, it’s worth revisiting this earlier time, when liberals themselves helped break apart the postwar liberal coalition which had supported a strong and active federal government, and helped make it harder for the government to do big things. Have liberals learned to embrace big government again? And should they? The answer hinges, in part, on whether they can reconcile themselves to government’s imperfections—or make big government better than it was in the past.[Luke Savage: Why liberals pretend they have no power]The New Deal and Second World War created a kind of managed capitalism in the United States that generated rising wages and strong economic growth. In his influential 1952 book, American Capitalism, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith articulated a liberal conception of “countervailing powers” held in balance by the regulatory state. Large businesses would check one another’s excesses through competition, and powerful unions would represent the interests of workers. Government would play a crucial role, ensuring that the system did not tilt too far in one direction or the other. Galbraith called this balancing role “perhaps the major peacetime function of the federal government.”In this economic system of the ’50s, the federal government actively partnered with industries and frequently initiated transformative infrastructure projects. Major hydroelectric-dam construction accelerated in the ’40s and ’50s, spurred on by agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and the Tennessee Valley Authority and following the triumphant completion of Hoover Dam and Grand Coulee Dam. Kaiser, Bechtel, and other leading engineering and construction companies used government dam contracts to expand domestically and overseas. Writing in 1950, the historian and prominent liberal Henry Steele Commager celebrated the Tennessee Valley Authority as “the greatest peacetime achievement of twentieth-century America.” TVA, Commager said, “triumphantly allied science and politics” and showed that “public intelligence can operate most effectively through government and that government can be more efficient than business.”The federal highway program further accelerated a postwar construction boom, as it established toll-free highways linking major cities. President Dwight Eisenhower declared that highways were “an obligation of Government at every level. The highway system is a public enterprise.” Labor, capital, and government worked in tandem to fuel the postwar economic boom, remaking the American landscape to manage water, energy, transportation, and housing.It was against this conjunction of administrative power—the postwar alliance of big government, big business, and big labor—that best-selling writers such as Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader rose up in full-throated opposition in the early ’60s. Excessively close ties between government and industry, Carson argued in her 1962 best seller, Silent Spring, exacerbated a misguided vision of a simplified, pest-free environment. Government campaigns against the gypsy moth and fire ant, Carson wrote, were “ill-conceived, badly executed, and thoroughly detrimental.” Carson’s critique of the quest for biological control attacked the concentrated power of government institutions that too often represented industry’s perspective. “The fundamental wrong,” Carson explained in a 1963 speech, “is the authoritarian control that has been vested in the agricultural agencies.”Carson’s skepticism about the government adequately representing the public interest echoed through the growing environmental movement over the next decade. “People are beginning to ask questions instead of meekly acquiescing,” Carson wrote of mounting citizen opposition to pesticide-spray programs. Americans had to wake up to their civic responsibilities and stop trusting the government to act responsibly, she argued. “Until very recently,” Carson said, “the average citizen assumed that ‘someone’ was looking after these matters and that some little understood but confidently relied upon safeguards stood like shields between his person and any harm. Now he has experienced, from several different directions, a rather rude shattering of these beliefs.”In his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader, like Carson, blamed the government as well as industry for the problems he identified. The traffic-safety establishment, Nader wrote, was a “great power with no challengers.” Nader called on active citizens—including independent, civically active lawyers, engineers, and scientists—to force the government to protect American consumers from dangerous cars and badly designed roads. He urged a “bodily rights revolution” that would protect American citizens against manifold external threats from industry and government. Automobile accidents were one of the most serious “manmade assaults on the human body.” Nader’s safety campaign later extended to his advocacy for clean air, clean water, and safer workplaces, and to his fervent opposition to toxic chemicals and nuclear power.During the spring and summer of 1966, Nader emerged as a spokesperson and key broker on important new highway-safety legislation. In the closing moments of legislative drafting, Nader sat in one Senate anteroom while Lloyd Cutler, a Democratic lobbyist representing the auto industry, stayed in another. A Senate aide went back and forth between Nader and Cutler as they hammered out the bill’s final details. The old Democratic Party establishment, with its governmental and business ties, was being forced to negotiate with one of its new liberal critics.[Lessons from Nader: How not to be a bully-coward]Nader and other citizen activists searched for ways to build something larger than individual crusades. They aimed to enlist energetic young researchers and professionals to press government agencies to fulfill their public missions and regulatory roles. The media, the courts, and administrative and legislative processes would be their field of operation. Civil-rights and anti-war movements fueled their belief that the government could not be trusted and needed to be watched over and held accountable. Notable liberal foundations, including Ford and Carnegie, played important roles launching this new public-interest law movement. Ford’s generous grants, totaling more than $2 million from 1967 to 1972, helped establish the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and other new law groups with significant environmental portfolios. The new legal defense organizations, as their names suggest, were directly inspired by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s landmark civil-rights litigation against government institutions.Gordon Harrison, the Ford program officer who oversaw the foundation’s environmental-law grants, viewed government agencies as the primary target. The law firms, Harrison explained, needed “to bring suits against government agencies, to oversee the performance of government agencies and take other legal actions to provide the agencies with a broader view of social interests than they normally get.” Government, Harrison argued, “should not be all-powerful.” Society needed a “counterforce” to government that was “not beholden to the government in any way.” Ford’s public-interest grants aimed to create an “antagonist of government” that would stay clearly within the bounds of the American legal system—in fact becoming an integral part of that system.These activists outlined a new understanding of political economy that saw both business and government as flawed institutions that needed to be counterbalanced by a “third sector” consisting of nonprofit and public-interest organizations. Liberals had long emphasized that market failures and inefficiencies justified the government’s regulatory role. The new environmental regulations of the early ’70s appropriately aimed to remedy classic examples of market failure, such as air and water pollution. But public-interest advocates aimed at a different problem: what some observers called “government market failure.” As a seminal 1978 study of public-interest law sponsored by the Ford Foundation explained, the public-interest movement assumed “both types of failures—the market and the government.” The movement’s adherents believed that “political and economic pressures on the decision-making process” caused failures that could be solved only by “extra-governmental efforts.”The public-interest movement reconceptualized the policy process. James Moorman, an early innovator in environmental law, described the new situation as a “triangular ‘public interest model’ of government”—one that he considered “far better” than the earlier “regulated vs. regulator model.” The triangular model pitted public-interest groups against corporations and others in a contest to direct government policy. “In the 1950s,” Moorman said, “it was assumed that government lawyers were public interest lawyers.” But that assumption no longer held, Moorman explained. The public interest existed separately from the government. Citizens who wanted clean air and water, for example, needed lawyers of their own to represent them before the government. During the ’70s, policy advocacy and litigation by public-interest groups proliferated across a range of issues, including women’s rights, civil rights, mental health, poverty, and criminal justice.[Louis Hyman: The new Deal wasn’t what you think]The field of public-interest environmental law that appeared at the close of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency thus constituted an attack on federal agencies from within the liberal establishment itself. Environmental lawyers created new independent law firms to hold government true to a public purpose that was going unfulfilled, either because private interests dominated and “captured” the agencies or because the agencies themselves were isolated and misguided bureaucratic fortresses.David Sive, a pioneering environmental lawyer active in the Sierra Club who was an early NRDC trustee, described the problem of pervasive bias toward industry on the part of regulatory agencies: “The Federal Power Commission is power-oriented, the Atomic Energy Commission is atom-oriented, the Interstate Commerce Commission is railroad-oriented.” By embracing the private objectives of the companies that they were meant to regulate, Sive and others argued, federal agencies themselves had become an environmental threat. Citizen groups had to “fight not only the developer, which may be a private company, but the very governmental agency which is supposed to regulate that company.”The newfound liberal faith in courts reversed ’30s New Deal thinking, when liberals touted independent executive agencies as the solution to major social problems. “We must use the courts because administrative agencies are not working properly,” Moorman said. When public-interest lawyers boasted of their eagerness to “sue the bastards,” they referred to lawsuits against government officials and agencies. In one typical early report, 90 percent of the accomplishments cited by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund sought to block government actions, intervene in public proceedings, or influence government regulatory and permitting practices. The government projects under attack included new highways, bridges, airports, and dams; the dredging of harbors; pest-control efforts, such as DDT-spray campaigns; and water-management plans.The very success of public-interest law led its elite founders away from a movement-centered approach to social change, which was more time-consuming, harder to control, and unfamiliar. The Environmental Defense Fund argued in an early fundraising pitch that the group’s litigation produced results “faster than by lobby, ballot box, or protest.” Public-interest groups embraced professional expertise and inside-the-Beltway strategies rather than mass protests and political action. Lawyers often could halt proposed development projects, at least temporarily, by intervening in administrative processes—for example, by demanding and then contesting the environmental-impact statements required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.In one early demonstration of these legal superpowers, the Center for Law and Social Policy, a tiny law firm then just a few months old, won a court order in March 1970 that halted construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline. “At that moment I was so overcome that all the voices and the scene just faded into the distance,” Moorman, the lead lawyer on the suit, later recalled of this seductive moment when David defeated Goliath. “I’ve never had an experience quite like it. Never have I accomplished anything in the practice of law which has had such an emotional impact on me as that injunction did.” From a dingy office of only a handful of lawyers in Washington’s Dupont Circle, Moorman had helped stop—albeit temporarily—one of the most costly and ambitious engineering projects in U.S history.Running for office in the aftermath of the deceptions of Watergate and the Vietnam War, Jimmy Carter promised to “take a new broom to Washington and … sweep the house of Government clean.” As president, Carter sought to incorporate the 1970s’ public-interest critique of government into a positive vision for government action and reform. Carter placed dozens of public-interest lawyers in important government positions where they could shape the agencies that they had been suing and pressuring. He took to heart the idea that the government might be responsible for wasteful and environmentally destructive projects, and he was willing to spend valuable political capital clashing with powerful congressional Democrats over the construction of big dams. He also shared the view that federal regulation had resulted in cartel-like control of major industries, including the airline sector, telecommunications, and trucking, and he supported the breakup of those arrangements. “Many regulatory agencies,” Carter said bluntly in 1980, “protect monopolies.” Carter also sought to introduce more flexible regulatory strategies that could achieve environmental and health-protection goals at lesser economic cost.Yet Carter ultimately failed to create a new liberalism that could champion federal action while also recognizing government’s flaws and limitations. Although public-interest advocates outside the administration sometimes supported aspects of the president’s reform efforts, they more often harshly criticized his administration for its compromises and inadequacies. Attacking the government was what they knew how to do, the role that they had defined for themselves. As Carter’s term in office proceeded, the public-interest movement’s support for the Democratic president diminished. In 1979, for instance, Carter reluctantly signed a bill authorizing a controversial dam project despite environmental litigation under the Endangered Species Act. Marion Edey, the director of the League of Conservation Voters, announced that Carter could not “feel assured of active support.” Edey, a former ally whom Carter had tried unsuccessfully to appoint to the Council on Environmental Quality, now declared, “I cannot say we will or will not support the president for re-election.” Nader similarly wondered aloud that same year, “What more could Ronald Reagan do?”Disappointed liberals flirted first with Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful challenge to Carter in the Democratic primary. Kennedy’s robust effort to push the sitting Democratic president off the ticket, recalled one Carter appointee who had come out of the Nader network, helped strip away “the traditional support that the left had, and it left the reelection campaign somewhat without a theme. The public really didn’t have anything to hang on to as sort of their reason in wanting to reelect this President.” In a rousing speech at the Democratic Convention in Madison Square Garden in August 1980, Kennedy suggested that Carter, the Democratic nominee, was no standard-bearer for liberal values. “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on,” Kennedy proclaimed to great applause. “The cause endures. The hope still lives. And the dream shall never die.” In a symbolic rejection of the Democratic president, Kennedy took the stage with Carter but refused to join hands in a show of party unity.Disappointment with the Carter administration also fed a broad critique of both parties and the political establishment. Rather than boost Carter’s efforts to stay in power, Nader declared in mid-1979 that the two-party system was “crumbling and bankrupt,” and that the differences between the two major parties were like those between “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” A new political party was needed, Nader said. “It’s time to replace the two-party system with new parties, new spirit, new programs, new constituencies, new optimism.” Some liberal critics of Carter embraced the independent candidacy of John Anderson, a Republican who had opposed the Vietnam War and embraced the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights, and environmental causes. The ecologist Barry Commoner also plunged into a third-party presidential campaign on the new Citizens Party ticket. The third-party campaigns illustrated a disunity on the left that weakened Carter’s reelection campaign, and they foreshadowed Nader’s 2000 run undercutting Al Gore 20 years later.Liberal disarray was hardly the only reason that Carter lost to Reagan in 1980 and that the Republican Party took control of the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1955. High inflation and unemployment and the Iran hostage crisis created stiff headwinds for Carter’s reelection and for the Democratic Party. The Republican Party’s continuing “southern strategy” on civil rights remade both parties’ coalitions and further contributed to Carter’s defeat. But Kennedy’s primary challenge and Anderson’s third-party candidacy took their toll. The public-interest critique of government held up those in power against a model of what they might be, rather than what the push and pull of political compromise and struggle allowed. Could liberals and the left build political power and govern? Carter’s failure to hold together the Democratic coalition and to win reelection suggested that the answer might be no.Liberals attacked and criticized, and then lost control of both the government and the narrative that surrounded it. Nonprofit, issue-based advocacy had become a potent and permanent force in U.S. politics, but now an emboldened and ever more conservative Republican Party threatened the public-interest movement’s fight to protect health, safety, and the environment. Reagan also attacked government agencies, but his policy solutions differed radically from the ones touted by liberals and the left. Reagan and other market-oriented conservatives sought to liberate the private sector from regulation. Reagan acted to undermine, rather than invigorate, federal oversight. Instead of seeing a role for citizen activists who were pressing the government to do more and do better, Reagan embraced a simple duality of state versus market. He sided with regulated industries against government regulators, and also against labor unions.Reagan’s election thus definitively marked the end of the era of New Deal liberalism, during which Americans had optimistically looked to the federal government for solutions. Focusing solely on Reagan’s flaying of big government and the growing strength of the conservative movement, however, overlooks exactly how the post–World War II administrative state lost its footing. Liberal advocates had spent the ’60s and ’70s amply and harshly documenting the government’s problems. Now many public-interest advocates found themselves making a kind of about-face. Their efforts to safeguard the government’s regulatory role after Reagan’s election pushed them to defend the administrative state they’d so recently treated as the problem. In the stark right-left stalemate that ensued, liberals could easily lose sight of their ’70s dilemma: How could liberals make a strong case for the government as an essential solution to societal problems while continuing to expose all the ways that government agencies could wield destructive power against citizens, communities, and the environment?Public-interest advocates showed how both markets and government are inherently limited and flawed. Yet so, too, was the public-interest advocacy that Nader and others helped pioneer. The movement’s emphasis on purity and its frequent disdain for traditional institutions, including political parties and unions, turned a generation of liberals away from local and state politics, and from the pursuit of the institutional power necessary to make political change. Policy gains reliant on professional expertise and administrative maneuvering failed to inspire a broad and powerful movement that could bridge gaps across class and race. The movement’s litigation strategies, strikingly successful for the left in the ’70s, also were soon adopted by conservative antagonists and stifled by a conservative judiciary. Additionally, citizen-based strategies used to prevent overdevelopment and protect the environment, including such legislative crown jewels as NEPA, have made it difficult to respond to major societal problems by building housing, transportation, and energy infrastructure, such as the electrical grid or offshore wind power. Empowering citizen activism and amplifying citizen voices, seen from another vantage point, also could shift power from broadly representative government bodies to narrow, self-organized groups that protect a particular interest, such as the value of private property.By primarily playing the role of uncompromising outside critic, the public-interest movement neglected to build support for government in a way that could facilitate policy making in a politically divided nation or that could support internal reforms that might improve government operations. Americans continue to struggle to formulate an approach to governance that acknowledges, and strives to balance, the inherent limitations of government, markets, and citizen action. A half century later, the regulatory accomplishments of the early ’70s have provided a legal framework that somewhat constrains U.S. capitalism. The nation’s air and water are cleaner, and its workplaces are safer. At the same time, government itself is unpopular and often incapable of action that addresses new threats, especially climate change. We need to reinvigorate the government and also continue fighting to improve it and hold it accountable. The struggle to remake liberalism for a new age endures.
theatlantic.com
The Perils of Public-Health Emergencies
COVID-19, one of the most formidable viral foes that the world has faced in a century, has caused more than 4.5 million deaths. The United States and nearly every other country besides were correct to declare it a public-health emergency. But now federal, state, and local officials are grappling with when to end the temporary emergencies declared in early 2020, in many cases with the expectation that they’d last just weeks. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has been renewing its emergency order every 90 days, told governors earlier this year that its crisis footing would likely continue for at least the entirety of 2021.How will we know when this crisis is over? There is no consensus. In fact, elected officials, health experts, and issue advocates disagree all the time about what even constitutes a public-health emergency or crisis. Is “COVID-19 misinformation” an example? A narrow majority of the San Diego Board of Supervisors says so. Is pornography? Sixteen state legislatures say so. Is climate change? Abortion? Laws limiting access to abortion? The list hardly ends there. Ongoing campaigns treat vaping, racism, opioid use, campus sexual assault, youth suicide, air pollution, alcohol abuse, and more as public-health emergencies.Those are all issues that may warrant public-health interventions, such as sending heroin addicts to treatment, reducing suicides with free counseling, or asking pediatricians to warn parents about the dangers of unsecured guns in the home. But declaring a public-health emergency or crisis means more than simply taking a public-health approach to a problem. In a public-health emergency, civil liberties as core as freedom of movement can be abrogated. And deliberative democracy is degraded or suspended in favor of greater power for executives, such as Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, and Ron DeSantis, or unelected bureaucrats, such as the presidential adviser Anthony Fauci and the L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. Even when a public-health emergency is warranted, authoritarian abuses can follow. To declare an emergency often or with no limiting principle or criteria for returning to normal invites abuse, and can make conflict hard to resolve, because what constitutes legitimacy is disputed.[Celine R. Gounder: Americans are losing sight of the pandemic endgame ]For example, states are divided as to whether, at this stage of the pandemic, local officials should be able to impose mask mandates or order public employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. When striking down the CDC’s eviction moratorium, the Supreme Court wrote, “It is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of the COVID–19 Delta variant. But our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends.”So what exactly should count as a health emergency in the future? The law professor Lindsay F. Wiley, the director of the health law and policy program at American University, argued earlier this year for a narrow definition. “Unlike more general emergency and disaster declarations,” she writes, “these authorities should be contingent on a demonstrated threat of a serious communicable disease with epidemic potential—one that is believed to be caused by a novel or previously controlled infectious agent that is readily transmissible from person to person and likely to cause a large number of deaths or serious disabilities.” A multinational Ebola outbreak qualifies. Vaping doesn’t.Wiley’s restrictive standard is prudent. In an American ebola outbreak, a speedy, effective response could mean the difference between a handful of deaths and many thousands, and deliberative democracy as it normally functions might be incapable of combining the speed, subject-area expertise, and execution required to stamp out the pathogen. But powerful factions on today’s right and left are perpetually seduced by the prospect of imposing their favored policies by fiat, seeking to sidestep public opinion and democratic deliberation by exploiting emergency rules.When this tactic succeeds, it throws democracy itself into crisis.Abortion policy is one instructive example. When civic institutions are functioning normally, the faction that wants to prohibit all or most abortions in the United States has little prospect of succeeding. Too many Americans believe such a ban would infringe too much on reproductive rights.But under the distinct logic of a public-health emergency, abortion could be prohibited anyway, or so Bruce Blackshaw and Daniel Rodger argued earlier this year in the journal Bioethics. As they point out, the implicit moral theory of public-health emergencies is that the utilitarian benefit of saving many lives at the population level justifies some curtailment of individual rights. During the coronavirus pandemic, they note, freedom has been severely constrained. And now many people support vaccine mandates, though such measures would infringe on rights to medical privacy and bodily autonomy. “Abortion is of similar gravity in terms of the numbers of deaths,” the authors argue. “If fetuses are considered to be persons,” they continue, “abortion constitutes a significant public health crisis. Consequently, widely accepted public health ethical principles justify overriding individual rights to bodily autonomy in order to prevent maximal harm to the population of fetuses.”Of course, different factions contest whether an embryo or a fetus is fully a human life or only a precursor to it. But banning abortion via public-health emergency should fail regardless, no matter the death toll, because abortion deaths are not a “health emergency”—by which I mean they are not an imminent and unexpected danger that requires unusual speed and expertise to address. Elected officials and members of the public have had ample time to ponder and debate abortion. No new, unforeseen circumstances justify removing it from our normal civic processes.To change policy, one must convince citizens, win over legislators, or prevail in court—not persuade one like-minded official to declare an emergency, only to have a pro-abortion-rights successor reverse everything by declaring, “Lack of access to abortion is the real emergency.” Imagine the civic chaos that would follow if abortion were adjudicated in that manner.Or consider guns. Earlier this year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (who has a wildly inflated opinion of his sometimes-disastrous response to COVID-19) declared gun violence a public-health crisis in his state. “If you look at the recent numbers, more people are now dying from gun violence and crime than COVID,” he declared. “Just like we did with COVID, New York is going to lead the nation once again with a comprehensive approach to combatting gun violence.”[Read: Why can’t the U.S. treat gun violence as a public-heatlh problem?]Combatting gun violence is a worthy goal. And in declaring the emergency, Cuomo announced certain steps that I happen to favor, such as requiring police departments to release incident-level data on shootings and investing in jobs programs for at-risk youth. But gun policy ought to be decided through normal democratic processes, not emergency declarations, because Americans have had ample time and information to consider the matter.We all have issues that we wish Congress or our state governments would prioritize or address with the policy we “know” to be better. But marshaling emergency powers to get around deliberative democracy is corrosive and likely to make the status quo more, not less, dysfunctional. Every time politicians say “We should treat this like a public-health emergency,” the public should reflect on whether their intention is to wield power they couldn’t otherwise get. Even during an emergency, officials should not deploy their extraordinary authority in ways that the polity would reject if it had more time and knowledge. How the people are represented may be temporarily altered. The ideal of government by the people should not be.And just as government officials shouldn’t expect to apply emergency powers except sparingly and in genuine crises, they should also recognize that those powers cannot go on forever. The longer that the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, the less the use of emergency powers to address it can be justified, because at some point legislators catch up enough to reassume responsibility.The Delta variant may have “changed the war” against COVID-19, as the CDC famously declared, but we’re past the point where scientific expertise is the main skill set America requires. As Michael Brendan Dougherty put it in National Review, “Governors and presidents cannot set policy just by ‘following the science.’ Science has no legitimate way of assessing the public’s tolerance for certain measures and intrusions. Nor does it have the ability to weigh competing and contrary claims of political and economic liberty against public-health priorities."Such are the inescapably political questions Americans must face in a future where COVID-19 looks likely to become endemic, but vaccines offer strong protection against serious illness and death. The virus may always remain in our midst. The practice of meeting its challenges by exercising power outside the normal channels of deliberative democracy must not.
theatlantic.com
Why Biden Bet It All on Mandates
When President Joe Biden rolled out his plan requiring vaccinations on a mass scale, he sounded a bit like a gambler at a point of desperation. Biden’s presidency, and much of his legacy, hinges on defeating the prolonged pandemic. During a dismal summer of rising infections and deaths due to vaccine holdouts and the Delta variant, the pandemic seemed to have defeated him. Under the new rules, Biden hopes to pressure about 80 million more Americans to get their shots. It’s a political risk that opens him up to Republican attacks that he’s intruding on peoples’ freedoms, ahead of midterm elections that could easily strip the Democrats of their congressional majority. Biden gets this. He’s all in, win or lose.“There are going to be people who don’t believe in the mandates and don’t believe they should be told what to do,” Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told me, encapsulating an argument that his party plans to make ahead of the midterms. “We’re supposed to live in a country where you’re not being dictated everything.”While Scott’s sentiment may resonate with hard-line Republicans, he appears to be misreading the larger public mood. As frustration with the pandemic mounts, Republican leaders look to be on the wrong side of an effort to expand vaccinations through a more forceful show of executive power. Under Biden’s plan, businesses with more than 100 employees will face fines unless they require their workers to be vaccinated or get weekly COVID-19 tests. Not only do most people favor vaccine mandates, but even a good chunk of Republican voters who’ve gotten their shots are inclined to blame the unvaccinated for the pandemic’s persistence.Forcing people to get the shots wasn’t Biden’s first choice. Inside the White House, the preference was that Americans do this on their own. But with so many people still unvaccinated even though the shots are readily available, Biden was losing patience.“Months ago, because of the potential political blowback, no one wanted to resort to mandates,” a senior Biden-administration official told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “But then it became clear that we didn’t have any other choice, because, essentially, we had pulled out all the stops. We tried trusted messengers [to promote the vaccines]. We made it very convenient. It wasn’t enough.”Biden’s bet, while risky, grows more solid by the day. Republicans are making a counterargument that they believe their base wants to hear, which would be fine if their base were sufficient to wrest control of Congress from the Democrats. Biden is trying to appeal to a wider audience. Two of the most prized voting blocs in an election—suburban and independent voters—favor Biden’s vaccine-mandate plan by solid margins. They don’t see the vaccine requirement as government overreach; for them, it’s a step toward reentering a world they remember from two years ago.“Republicans could be making a real mistake on the long-term play on this issue, especially heading into the midterms,” Rob Stutzman, a longtime Republican strategist based in California, told me. “Voters are looking at this through a personal lens, not a political lens. If I’m vaccinated, I’m really annoyed that we’ve had a second surge that was made worse because of the unvaccinated. And I’m annoyed because that means I have to put a mask back on and I have kids in school who are now at risk.”[Read: The fundamental question of the pandemic is shifting]Twenty years ago, after hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Center and blew a hole in the Pentagon, George W. Bush signed the PATRIOT Act, making it easier for the federal government to surveil Americans in the name of national security. Enough Americans were traumatized by the events of 9/11 to make that sort of encroachment on civil liberties palatable, so long as it meant the government would safeguard them from another terrorist attack. Over the years, the trade-off proved a devil’s bargain, as government watchdogs have chronicled abuses of privacy that had nothing to do with foiling another attack on U.S. soil.Biden’s vaccine mandates are more grounded in American tradition. George Washington ordered that his Continental Army be inoculated against smallpox while fighting the British during the Revolutionary War. Schools have long required vaccinations for diseases such as polio. “Nobody wants the government to tell you what to do,” says Frank Luntz, a longtime Republican pollster who has shared some of his research on COVID-19 with the White House. “But—and this is a big but—they’re even more afraid of the government allowing people who are standing beside them, traveling with them, working with them, and partying with them to give them COVID.’’In the Reagan era, much of Republican identity was bound up in support for business and lower taxes. But the threshold question these days for Republicans looking to rise within the party is their fealty to Donald Trump. A strong argument can be made that Biden’s plan is helpful to businesses and the larger economy, and something that, in less polarized times, Republicans might have actually embraced. People are less likely to go to a movie theater if they fear that the couple eating popcorn in the seats next to them might be unvaccinated. They are less likely to attend a conference—injecting money into both the local and national economies through airfare, hotels, car services, and meals—if others in the crowd are unvaccinated.Allison Berry is the health officer for two Washington State counties. One night this summer, a local bar held a trivia contest, and in the days that followed, 17 attendees tested positive for COVID-19. These people, in turn, infected more than 100 others. Two people eventually died from the outbreak traced back to that one night at the bar. Trying to stanch the spread, Berry issued an order earlier this month that bars and restaurants require proof of vaccination from customers looking to eat or drink indoors. For that, she was doxxed, with people posting what they thought was her home address online. She also received death threats. “I’m a young, single mom, so that was particularly threatening,” she told me.But Berry also received notes of gratitude from local business owners who said their sales had increased because people felt safer coming in. Last month, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced that most state workers needed to be vaccinated if they wanted to keep their job. Vaccine requirements, he told me, “are the alternative to shutting down your economy. People forget. What we did a year and a half ago is shut down our whole economy. That’s what we’re trying to avoid. This approach is so we don’t have to shut down restaurants.”[Read: How the pandemic now ends]Recent polling suggests that Republicans willing to get behind mandates have political cover. Start with the fact that more than 75 percent of the adult population has gotten at least one vaccine dose. (An NBC poll from last month found that 55 percent of Republicans said they’d already been vaccinated.) Consider also that vaccinated Republicans are largely blaming unvaccinated Americans for rising COVID-19 cases, a position that squares with Biden’s. An Axios-Ipsos survey from August showed that 64 percent of vaccinated Republicans said those who hadn’t gotten shots bore most responsibility for the worsening crisis. Only 29 percent blamed Biden.“If [Republican officials] want their base, I’ll take the other 70 percent of the country,” Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a New York Democrat and the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told me. “They’re on the ass end of a very powerful issue.”Most of the Republicans angling to inherit Trump’s base have come out hard against vaccine mandates. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, has called Biden’s plan unconstitutional. He’s threatened to fine cities and counties that require their employees to get vaccinated.Last week, I went to Capitol Hill to gauge whether Biden’s plan has any bipartisan support. I was curious about the relatively few Republican leaders who aren’t necessarily in thrall to Trump. As senators entered and left the chamber, I looked for more moderate Republicans who might want to discuss the issue on the merits. I asked Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, in February, what she thought of Biden’s plan.“I do not think having a federal mandate will encourage people to get the vaccines that I, for one, want them to get,” Collins said, standing in a Senate elevator. May I ride with you? I asked, hoping to talk more. “No.”I brought up the issue to Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican who is retiring next year. “I strongly prefer the private sector to use incentives and am disappointed we haven’t put in place a public-service campaign for vaccines,” Portman told me. (Before I could ask for clarification, Portman said he had another interview to do and didn’t have time to talk.)No one in the White House is eager to discuss the pandemic’s political implications. Their view is that that’s a mistake Republicans have made. “The first rule that Republicans should have learned when it comes to COVID is you don’t play politics with COVID,” Anita Dunn, a former senior Biden White House official, told me.Fortunately for Biden, he’s presiding at a moment when good public policy and smart politics are converging. When it comes to COVID-19, the real political peril lies in doing too little, not too much. California Governor Gavin Newsom proved that by easily surviving a recall election that was partly a referendum on the state’s own aggressive COVID-19 measures.
theatlantic.com
Elon Musk Must Be Pretty Relieved
The space tourists are back.On Saturday night, the private astronauts braced themselves as their spacecraft streaked through Earth’s atmosphere, deployed parachutes, and then drifted down off the coast of Florida. When the capsule touched the waves, they might have heard a voice from mission control radio in: “Thanks for flying SpaceX.” As if the passengers had just touched down on a runway at O’Hare instead of surviving a fiery reentry. As if they hadn’t just spent three days flying higher than the International Space Station, with a window seat that looked out on the contours of entire continents.The mission, known as Inspiration4, was the first-ever spaceflight of a crew made entirely of non-professional astronauts. The tech billionaire who chartered the trip for himself and three others paid “under $200 million” for it, and for that kind of money, SpaceX let him customize the experience, from the food menu to the flight plan. The crew—the businessman Jared Isaacman, the geoscience professor Sian Proctor, the physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux, and the data engineer Chris Sembroski—spent their time in orbit doing a few science experiments and generally basking in the microgravity. They even made a call to Tom Cruise, who plans to fly SpaceX to shoot a movie on the space station someday.But although money can buy you a wild trip into orbit, it cannot shield you from the forces of nature, nor guarantee that you’ll make it home safely. Last year, when SpaceX started flying professional astronauts to the space station on NASA’s behalf, I wrote that the company is now responsible for astronaut safety to a degree no private business has ever experienced. The same is now true for everyone who books their own seat. However easy or safe this mission might have looked, spaceflight is dangerous.Over the years, I’ve talked to many people who worked in the American space-shuttle program, including the astronauts who flew on the vehicles, and they all say the same thing about space travel: that there will always be a bad day. That people will die. When I checked in with several retired astronauts ahead of Inspiration4’s launch, they were excited about the mission, and thrilled for its crew to see Earth as they once had. But their stance on the hazards hadn’t changed. Beneath the shiny veneer of private space travel, with its futuristic-looking spacesuits and touch-screen displays, is the hard reality of risk. A series of successful missions adds up only to that. The astronauts of America's space-shuttle era know better than perhaps anyone else that each new launch presents a new opportunity for disaster. As one former shuttle astronaut put it to me: “The shuttle was pretty routine until it blew up.”In the past, when new engineers joined SpaceX’s human-spaceflight program, they toured a special NASA room, closed to the public, where the agency keeps debris from the space-shuttle disasters that claimed the lives of 14 people. Benji Reed, the senior director for human-spaceflight programs at SpaceX, once told me that he often visits a memorial at Kennedy Space Center when he’s in town. Seven oak trees stand in a circle, one for each astronaut who died on the Challenger in 1986, the mission that included the first “ordinary” citizen, the high-school teacher Christa McAuliffe.The SpaceX astronaut capsule, small and gumdrop-shaped, is safer than the spacious, winged space shuttles were. If SpaceX detects a malfunction soon after liftoff, the Dragon capsule can shove itself away from the Falcon 9 rocket and toward safety. The shuttles didn’t have such an escape system; they were far more technically complex, with overstuffed control panels. “You had switches literally right next to each other, and if you threw the wrong one, you could make your day a lot worse rather than a lot better,” Doug Hurley, a NASA astronaut, told me in 2019, while he was training to fly SpaceX’s Dragon. The capsule, he estimated, had only about 30 manual switches and circuit breakers, compared with about 2,000 on the shuttles.[Read: SpaceX’s private astronauts are flying higher than the space station]That first flight test, which Hurley and fellow NASA astronaut Bob Behnken completed last year, was quickly declared a success. The real assessment came well after the astronauts were out of the water, when engineers looked at the data and inspected the hardware. It turned out that during Hurley and Behnken’s descent through the atmosphere, the heat shield, the hardware that protects the capsule from the scorching conditions of reentry, eroded more than SpaceX had expected.SpaceX officials said that there was “nothing to be concerned” about, but the company decided to redesign part of the heat shield, and to also make a change to the capsule’s parachute, which had deployed closer to the water than anticipated. It’s not uncommon for engineers to discover a few uncomfortable truths post-flight, even some that really make them wince. “It does not matter how close you get to failure, as long as you don’t cross the line,” George “Pinky” Nelson, a retired NASA astronaut, once told me. Nelson flew on the last shuttle mission before the Challenger disaster, and on the mission that resumed the program two years later, after NASA decided it would keep flying.The Dragon program’s history hasn’t been without incident. Less than a month after Hurley and Behnken came home, their Dragon capsule was destroyed in an explosion. SpaceX had been running some tests on the spacecraft on the ground at Kennedy Space Center, igniting its engines. The smoke could be seen for miles on the Space Coast, but SpaceX stayed mostly quiet about the incident, even refusing to comment on some up-close video footage, shared widely, that showed the capsule engulfed in flames.[Read: The new ‘right stuff’ is money and luck]The Inspiration4 crew traveled in a different Dragon capsule, which last year transported four professional astronauts to the space station. SpaceX didn’t modify much aside from installing a big, bubble-shaped glass window so that its first private customers could have a good view. Isaacman told reporters before launch that the crew had just spoken to Musk, who “did give us his assurances again that the entire leadership team is solely focused on this mission and is very confident.”Sandy Magnus, a retired astronaut who flew on the shuttle program’s final mission in 2011, told me she wasn’t worried about the Inspiration4 crew for that reason. Of course SpaceX was going to be on high alert for its first-ever flight of private astronauts. But future missions will garner less attention, especially if the passengers are just little-known rich people and not Tom Cruise. Reed told reporters this week that SpaceX wants to fly paying customers “three, four, five, six times a year at least.” Another successful mission, another beautiful splashdown, doesn’t guarantee the next one—that’s the lesson NASA personnel have tried to impart on SpaceX, in briefings, meetings, and lectures. Complacency kills. “Ten flights down the line, when it becomes routine, that’s when you really have to be careful,” Magnus said. The Challenger disaster occurred when senior NASA officials ignored warnings from engineers about a piece of hardware that could fail in very low temperatures, and though it hadn’t happened before, the shuttle was about to launch in some unusually cold weather. Years later, engineers noticed that some foam insulation on the shuttles peeled away during launch, but the situation seemed fine—until some of that foam damaged Columbia’s heat shield in 2003, causing the shuttle to break apart during reentry.[Read: America’s new vision of astronauts]What will the consequence be for private space travel if the worst occurs? If disaster happens while SpaceX is transporting NASA astronauts, the agency could decide to give SpaceX another chance after some years of careful investigation and reckoning. But what if the lost astronauts are ordinary people, enticed on board by someone wealthy enough to invite them? That would be up to SpaceX, and Elon Musk. Musk has long said that he envisions a future where space travel resembles air travel. Franklin Chang-Díaz, a retired NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle seven times—and is one of only two people with that many spaceflights—told me that he believes the industry is moving in that direction. The deadly mistakes of early air travel led to safety improvements, but now “most people don’t pay attention to the fact that you’re going to be flying in a pressurized vehicle, and you’re going to be flying at 30,000, 40,000 feet about the Earth, and going at 400, 500 miles per hour,” Chang-Díaz said. “All you want is just to have your internet and maybe something to drink.”Space travel is not like that now, and won’t be for some time. It is more like climbing Mount Everest, or some other similarly extreme adventure—among the riskiest vacations humankind has to offer. In this new chapter of spaceflight, paying customers, buoyed not by a sense of national duty as the first astronauts were, but by something personal, will have to make their own risk calculations—for themselves and the family they might be leaving on Earth. Because, as any astronaut would tell you, spaceflight is always harder on the families.Nelson said that NASA officials kept his family more closely in the loop as he trained for his post-Challenger mission than they had before previous missions, in an effort to reassure them, and SpaceX has taken similar measures so far. Arceneaux, Inspiration4’s youngest astronaut, told me that a meeting with SpaceX’s engineers, which she attended with her mother, gave her what she needed to feel that she trusted the company. She understood the risk, but she felt as confident as she could. The greater public isn’t mentally prepared for disaster in the same way. “I think the public, in the back of their mind, knows that astronauts have been killed before,” Nelson said. But it’s always a shock. “The public never expects people to die,” he said.
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theatlantic.com
The ‘Justice for J6’ Rally Did Not Resemble January 6
No one overran the U.S. Capitol this time or tried to subvert American democracy. What the people who came to the rally on a stretch of grass near the Capitol Reflecting Pool on Saturday afternoon really wanted to do was talk. Talk and argue. And then talk and argue some more.The “Justice for J6” rally was supposed to highlight the plight of those charged with non-violent crimes in the January 6 insurrection and who, the organizers claim, have been denied fast and fair trials. In reality, the afternoon was a forum for any number of grievances, some difficult to discern. One guy walked around in a Batman costume. Another was accompanied by a service dog whose collar read: “Abolish the Democrats.” Two men argued about whether the 2020 election was stolen, as former President Donald Trump has falsely claimed. Two others argued about God. A retired firefighter in a navy blue uniform, complaining about the election results, said the U.S. had become a “banana republic.” “I’m a firefighter, too, and this guy is talking pure bullshit,” a man who’d been listening in said. If there was any mortal danger, it was a blend of heat-stroke and tedium.[Read: The insurrection was just part of the plot.]Still, authorities prepared for the worst, not knowing who might show up. “I’ve certainly gotten messages from all over the country telling me to be careful and not to go near the Capitol on Saturday,” Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the lead manager in Trump’s second impeachment trial, told me earlier in the week. “So, they’ve got people worried, there’s no doubt about that.” Ahead of the rally, the Capitol police had warned about “concerning online chatter.” They ordered temporary fencing around the building and brought in reinforcements to prevent a recurrence of the January 6 melee that left five people dead. In a show of force midway through the event, dozens of officers clad in black riot gear arrived and took positions near the stage. But it wasn’t that sort of crowd. Or much of a crowd at all. A few hundred people might have attended, though it was hard to say for sure because so many were journalists. There were even a few anti-Trumpers who came to see the spectacle (and argue). Elected officials stayed away.The most prominent speakers were on nobody’s A-list: Joe Kent and Mike Collins, who are running for Congress in Washington State and Georgia, respectively. Both are pro-Trump Republicans. Trump has already endorsed Kent, and it’s easy to see why. He’s running against the incumbent, Jaime Herrera Butler, who was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January. If Kent wins in 2022 and the GOP retakes the House, he told me after the rally, as a newly-minted congressman, he’ll dig into the 2020 election.: Did Trump win? I asked. “Yes,” he said, without hesitation. Kent said he wants the GOP-led House to hold a “full congressional inquiry” into the election, where members would subpoena witnesses and evidence “and have it done once and for all.” (Joe Biden’s victory has already been validated in post-election audits.)[Read: Republicans own this insurrection.]Other speakers included family members and friends of various people charged in the storming of the Capitol. One read aloud a letter from a “concerned mother” of a man who’s been denied bail despite a non-violent offense and, the writer said, has been suffering in prison. “He’s lost his job, lost friends, and is in the process of losing his home. He’s been denied visits from family. His jailers treat these men like scum. … I just wanted to let your organization know of the terrible conditions these brave men are being subjected to. Even death row inmates get haircuts and are allowed to shave. This reminds me of how the Jewish people were treated by the Nazis.” (From the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website: “The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators.”)Organizers also showed video from January 6 that included a picture of Jacob Chansley, who was known as the “QAnon Shaman.” Chansley has been in jail since his arrest in January. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to obstructing a congressional proceeding: Congress’s certification of the 2020 results. Chansley is among the best known of the Capitol rioters, having shown up shirtless in facepaint and horns sprouting from a fur hat.“This man has not been accused of violence,” Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign aide who helped organize the protest, told the crowd. “This man has not been accused of destruction of property. He has been accused of dressing horribly, I think. It’s a matter of opinion. … What he did that day, and if anybody did anything similar, does not deserve nine months” in jail. Earlier in the week, I spoke to Chansley’s attorney, Albert Watkins. Chansley’s sentencing on the felony count is scheduled for November 17. He told me his client does not want to be thought of either as a “martyr” or a “political prisoner,” but “rather someone who wanted to be accountable and held accountable for his actions on January 6.”When I went inside the Capitol afterward, it was empty except for clusters of police at various entrances. Congress isn’t in session and members had been advised by law enforcement to avoid the complex. A couple of riot shields were propped up against a wall, unused.“Quiet day,” I said to one of the police officers.“I’ll take it,” he said.
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theatlantic.com
Evacuations Are Admissions of Failure
Because the United States has no real plan to handle climate change, average citizens end up in situations like this: At 6 a.m. the day before Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana late last month, my wife and I joined half of New Orleans’s population in evacuating. The drive to our daughter’s home in Houston, usually a six-hour trip, took 18 grueling hours. Stuck in stop-and-go traffic, we inched along at five miles an hour. The most impatient evacuees sped along both shoulders of the interstate, forcing themselves into a traffic lane when a broken-down vehicle or a narrow bridge blocked their way.We had prepared sandwiches before we left to avoid possible COVID-19 exposure at packed restaurants along the highway. Because our car had always made the trip to Houston on one tank of gas, we did not anticipate stopping along the way. But as the day wore on, our car’s thermometer rose to an outside temperature of 102 degrees, and our fuel gauge began to sink below a quarter of a tank. Fifteen hours after leaving home, we found an open gas station in a small Texas town, where other New Orleanians had stopped to fill up and ask directions to motels.[Read: When the climate crisis becomes unignorable]Images of Americans hurriedly evacuating from their homes are becoming commonplace as climate-related disasters grow in frequency and intensity. Just this past month, as my wife and I were leaving Louisiana, Californians fled the Caldor Fire as it surged toward Lake Tahoe. Mass evacuation, though, shouldn’t be routine. It is a last resort. When leaders choose it as their primary plan, they are admitting that they cannot protect their citizens from threats of climate change. They are, in effect, ceding responsibility to the individual. Those who stay and those who go are on their own.Sixteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina sideswiped New Orleans while moving northward from the Gulf of Mexico. The storm itself left only moderate damage to the city. But in the hours after the storm, federal levees designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collapsed, flooding the city with saltwater more than 14 feet deep in some neighborhoods. Many people drowned in their own bedroom the first night of the flooding; others, trapped in their sweltering attic awaiting help that never arrived, died of heat and dehydration.For months after, people—those who stayed and those who returned—were left without potable water, electricity, reliable telephone service, postal delivery, police patrols, stoplights, public schools, scheduled garbage pickup, street repairs, and many of the other public services on which modern urban life depends. The tragedy that shocked television viewers around the world was one of the first glimpses of how climate change would overwhelm unprepared governments. As I wrote at the time, “New Orleans is simply where the future arrived first.”[Read: How America handles catastrophe]I’ve lived in New Orleans for most of my life. Katrina was our family’s first evacuation. We eventually traveled thousands of miles from refuge in Dallas to a longer stay in New Jersey, before returning home five weeks after the city had flooded. In our still-damp house, mold crawled up walls and over furniture that had floated from one room to another. With our house uninhabitable, my wife and I slept in a day-care center until we found half of a shotgun duplex to rent in the 20 percent of New Orleans that did not flood. We spent the next few months gutting and cleaning our ruined house, for which we were still paying a mortgage at the same time that we were paying rent. Then a contractor took over and rebuilt the house to the point that, a year after Katrina and the collapse of the city’s levees, we could live in our second story while work continued downstairs. With a place to live and our jobs still secure, we considered ourselves lucky—at least compared with the thousands of New Orleanians who had lost their home, their family members, or both.No one who has lived in a ruined city through the years it takes to rebuild forgets the emotional toll of the experience. Living under the constant threat of yet another evacuation and possible catastrophic damage gradually erodes the will to stay. In the year following Katrina, the population of New Orleans plummeted from 455,000 to 188,000; building back to even the pre-Ida figure of 380,000 has taken 15 years.Lake Charles, a city about halfway between New Orleans and Houston, faced widespread devastation one year ago after two hurricanes—Laura and then Delta six weeks later—struck the area. Laura, equal in force to Ida, was then the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Louisiana since 1856. As Carly Berlin reported in Southerly, “According to the USPS data, Lake Charles, La.—a city hit by back-to-back hurricanes during the most severe Atlantic hurricane season on record—tops the list for out-migration between 2019 and 2020 out of 926 metro areas surveyed.”The effects of wildfires are similar. A year after the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed much of Paradise, California, more than 90 percent of the town’s 27,000 residents had not returned. The current population is about 6,000.[Read: A deadly tsunami of fire]If evacuations are not the answer, then what can be done? Governments that are committed to protecting public safety must work to fundamentally change the conditions that threaten their residents. In 1953, a North Sea flood in the Netherlands killed 1,836 people—very close to the estimated death toll in Katrina. The low-lying country—much of which is below sea level or less than a meter above it—began an ambitious flood-control program. Enacting the Delta Works plan in 1954 and completing the project in 1997, the Netherlands has succeeded in protecting its citizens from a major environmental threat. But what evidence exists that the United States is capable of safeguarding the citizens most immediately endangered by climate change, especially when one of our two main political parties continues to deny the existence of such change?Despite significant improvements to the New Orleans levees since 2005, evacuation remains the primary response to major hurricanes. State and local governments have adopted elaborate “contraflow” strategies that dedicate all traffic lanes in a single direction away from the zone of destruction. However, this strategy of last resort has its limitations. As New Orleans officials pointed out as the recent storm approached the city, such a plan requires at least 72 hours to execute.Ida was still a tropical depression in the Caribbean Sea just 68 hours before it slammed into the Louisiana coast on August 29 as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained 150-mile-an-hour winds. So the state’s carefully constructed plan could not be implemented, and 200,000 New Orleanians, along with tens of thousands of other Louisianians, crowded the two lanes of Interstate 10 west in a traffic jam that stretched nearly unbroken from New Orleans to the Texas state line. Ida won’t be the last storm for which evacuation is essentially impossible.During this most recent experience, the city’s planning shifted to include what Collin Arnold, New Orleans’s director of emergency preparedness, described in The New York Times as “post-storm evacuation.” He noted, “We’re not intentionally choosing it. It’s changes in the climate that are doing it to us.” The ferocity and speed of hurricanes fueled by climate change may dictate that we simply hunker down in the path of the storm while the government prepares to try to get us out of the damaged city after the hurricane passes.Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, recently announced that “many of the life-supporting infrastructure elements are not present, they’re not operating right now. So if you have already evacuated, do not return.” Although the advice is understandable in the aftermath of a Category 4 hurricane, the governor’s notice to evacuees may well be heeded literally.My family has lived in New Orleans for hundreds of years, weathering yellow-fever epidemics, citywide fires, wars, hurricanes, and floods. Sooner or later, though, as climate change worsens, an evacuation will be ordered from which none of us will choose to return.
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theatlantic.com
Arizona’s Audit Continues to Be a Chaotic Mess
If you’ve forgotten about the Arizona “audit” of Maricopa County’s votes in the 2020 election, you can be forgiven. At times, it seems like the audits’ backers have forgotten about it too.Arizona state-Senate Republicans launched the process this spring as a response to false claims of election fraud spread by several of themselves, as well as former President Donald Trump. The Senate hired Cyber Ninjas, a firm run by a “Stop the Steal” backer that has repeatedly declined to offer any evidence it is qualified for the job. The process was originally expected to conclude by May 14. This was a hard deadline, because the coliseum rented for the count was due to hold another event. But the count missed that deadline, and the process resumed later in May.May turned to June, and Donald Trump was reportedly telling people that he expected to be reinstated to the presidency in August, once the audit proved that fraud had tainted the election results. (Never mind that there remains no evidence of widespread fraud, and that there’s no mechanism for a former president to be reinstated mid-term.) By July, the due date was mid-August.[David A. Graham: Republicans’ phony argument for election audits]Now August is past, and Trump hasn’t been reinstated—and neither has the public seen the results of the audit. In fact, it’s been hard for the public to have any sense of what’s going on at all. I spent several days this week trying to get answers from several of the principals and couldn’t get any closer to an answer. Finally, on Thursday, a spokesperson for Arizona Senate Republicans said the findings of the audit would be released in a public hearing on September 24. That would be five months after the audit began, nearly 11 months after the election, and four months after the initial scheduled completion date.And who knows if they’ll even meet the new deadline. Officials said late last month that the audit was supposed to be complete. On August 23, Arizona Senate President Karen Fann said the final report was delayed because members of the Cyber Ninjas team had fallen ill with COVID-19. Nonetheless, Fann said she expected the state Senate to begin reviewing a partial report two days later. But that never happened. The Arizona Mirror reported later that week that no report, partial or not, had actually been delivered. A spokesperson for the audit, Randy Pullen, told me yesterday the reports have not yet been delivered to the state Senate.This kind of disorganization has been typical for the Arizona audit, which was troubled from its inception. (Election-security experts bristle at the very use of audit, noting that the term has a specific meaning in both industry parlance and state law, one this exercise doesn’t match.) In addition to Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan’s prejudice on the result, Cyber Ninjas had no experience running an operation of this size. That became clear as the audit missed deadlines and outside observers noted not only serious flaws in how the audit was being conducted, but also changes in the procedure on the fly, which undermine the reliability of the count. The audit is being funded largely by private money, which keeps taxpayers off the hook but also raises questions of influence and farms out a governmental function to conservative donors.At times, officials have been said to be going beyond looking at ballots to pursue bizarre conspiracy theories, like reviewing whether bamboo threads were on ballots, a nod to a claim that boxes of ballots had been flown in from China. Ken Bennett, the Senate’s liaison to the audit, briefly announced that he was resigning his post before reversing himself. Cyber Ninjas has implied that it has found discrepancies in its work, but the company has not made public what they are or how large they are. Maricopa County’s elected leadership, which is GOP-dominated, has repeatedly refuted sloppy claims made by the auditors.The U.S. Department of Justice and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs have both logged numerous objections to the audit, but so have Republican election officials from other states. The audit has even taken friendly fire. State Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Republican who supported the exercise at the start, said in July that she had changed her mind. “Sadly, it’s now become clear that the audit has been botched,” she tweeted. “The total lack of competence by [Fann] over the last 5 months has deprived the voters of Arizona [of] a comprehensive accounting of the 2020 election. That’s inexcusable, but it shows what can happen when Republicans do not take election integrity deadly serious.”The only real information to emerge has been about the procedures for the audit, not its results, and those have come thanks to court decisions, as judges rule that the Senate or Cyber Ninjas must turn over information about its procedures. On Wednesday, Fann instructed Cyber Ninjas to release records, after the Senate lost a case in the Arizona Supreme Court over withholding them.[David A. Graham: The unfolding disaster in Arizona]Yet the actual report remains missing in action. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing: The process has been so flawed that the results are practically meaningless. In fact, the temptation would be to write the whole thing off as slapstick, if the stakes weren’t so high. As Trump’s claims about reinstatement show, the Arizona audit is the bleeding edge of Republican efforts to cast doubt on the American system of elections as a whole.Meanwhile, several other states have undertaken their own reviews of the 2020 results, despite no evidence of serious fraud that would have affected the result there, either. In Pennsylvania, legislators authorized a subpoena that appears to violate state law. County clerks in Wisconsin have been baffled by requests from an investigator hired by the speaker of the state assembly. In many cases, officials have explicitly said they were inspired by what’s happening in Maricopa County. That seems to include importing the inefficacy and chaos that has characterized Arizona’s audit.
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theatlantic.com
Texas Democrats Have an Opportunity
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has leaned into the culture war, signing laws effectively banning abortion and critical race theory, loosening gun restrictions, and approving an almost certainly unconstitutional law barring social-media companies from moderating content. He has thwarted coronavirus restrictions in a state that has seen hospitals become overwhelmed with patients and more than 6,000 deaths from the pandemic in the past month, sought to fund more border barriers, and approved new voting restrictions targeted at Democratic constituencies following the 2020 election.Actual governing has taken a back seat to the culture war. The state has done little to force energy companies to prepare for another winter storm like the one that killed hundreds of Texans in February. The governor’s efforts to curry favor with obsessive Fox News watchers by micromanaging how cities and schools try to contain the coronavirus are unpopular, especially with so many Texans getting sick and dying, and hospitals having to delay nonemergency care.[Adam Serwer: Greg Abbott surrenders to the coronavirus ]Republican politicians in Texas revel in their status as frontline culture warriors, for the positive attention it draws from conservative media and for the negative attention it draws from the national media, both of which increase their popularity within the GOP-primary electorate. What’s unusual today is the number of Texans getting tired of the bit. For the first time since Abbott became governor, a majority of Texans disapprove of the job he’s doing.Texas Democrats have put up a fight—their flight to D.C. in an effort to stop the new voting restrictions drew national attention—but they’re simply outnumbered, and there are no Democrats holding statewide office who can challenge Abbott. Despite whispers that Beto O’Rourke, who has spent the past couple of years trying to build up Democratic strength in Texas, will challenge Abbott, there are as yet no candidates at the top of the ticket who could provide a contrast or an alternative vision.Facing little pressure from his left in a state that ended up redder than the polls predicted in 2020, Abbott has focused on ensuring that he can’t be outflanked on his right by primary challengers, who currently include Don Huffines and Allen West. He assumes that when the general election comes, he’ll be able to crush whomever the Democrats put up. Because Democrats haven’t won statewide office in Texas since Kurt Cobain was alive, it’s a good bet—but it’s not a sure one.One theory of Democratic resurgence in Texas goes something like this: At some point, the penchant of Texas Republicans to govern so as to please their own primary electorate, rather than the state as a whole, will induce a backlash that results in Texas voters giving the Democrats a chance. The Texas abortion law, which bars the procedure before most women know they are pregnant and deputizes private citizens to seek $10,000 bounties on their fellow Texans, may be too much even for many voters who otherwise consider themselves anti-abortion. The law also contains no exceptions for rape or incest—only 13 percent of Texans favor a ban that strict. In response to a question about the lack of an exception, Abbott recently vowed to “eliminate all rapists,” which is something he probably should have done already if he had the power to do it. The state legislature’s agenda, coming in the aftermath of the February power outage and amid the coronavirus crisis, offers a particularly glaring example of the Texas GOP prioritizing culture-war matters over basic governance.All of which will offer an opportunity to test this theory in real time. Mike Collier, who is running against Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in 2022 after losing to him by five points in 2018, literally wrote a book on the subject.“I believe that when a Democrat wins, for the first time in however many years, the story will be that Republicans pandered so hard to the right, they could not come back, because Texans would say no,” Collier told me. “And I think that’s exactly what’s happening.” Patrick is seen as more extreme than Abbott—he made national news early in the pandemic when he suggested that senior citizens should be willing to sacrifice themselves to save the economy, and again in August when he blamed Black Texans for the state’s recent surge in coronavirus cases.There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of Democrats’ chances, though. Texas has certainly trended bluer over the years—in 2012, Barack Obama lost Texas by 16 points; in 2020, Joe Biden lost it by a little less than six. O’Rourke’s strong showing against the Republican senator and social-media troll Ted Cruz was in a midterm year with a Republican in the White House. Public opinion tends to turn against the president’s party in a midterm election. Texas’s population growth has mostly been in cities, which means Republicans will probably find it a simple matter to further gerrymander legislative maps to take advantage of their dominance in rural areas, if they are allowed to do so.[Adam Serwer: How Texas turned purple]Democrats have pointed to demographic changes—Texas’s growing diversity and an influx of white-collar workers—as lifting their political hopes. But I wouldn’t bank on that either. Republicans often raise the specter of outsiders threatening to turn Texas into California; Patrick likes to say, “We need to keep Texas, Texas.” But Patrick is actually from deep-blue Maryland. Lots of people move to Texas to play cowboy. U.S. Representative Chip Roy made a joke about hanging during a congressional hearing; Roy represents an affluent district, so presumably the proposed lynching would take place in the parking lot of an organic grocery store. In 2018, O’Rourke actually beat Cruz among native-born Texans.Privately, Texas Democrats will also acknowledge concerns about the organizational state of the party. Their resistance to the new voting restrictions was resourceful and creative, but it also collapsed when several members of the caucus came back to the legislature. Many of them feel as though the national party has written off the state as red forever and is unwilling to invest the resources that local Democrats would need to win it. But they also admit they were out-organized in 2020, when they had high hopes of taking the statehouse, and instead, Donald Trump showed surprising strength in the predominantly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley, an outcome they would prefer to characterize as unique to Trump, but one that may be evidence of a broader shift among Hispanic voters across the country.“The Democratic Party has taken those voters for granted. And the Republicans want them. And so the Republicans are working way harder to win them over than we are to keep them,” Colin Strother, a Democratic strategist who works with clients in South Texas, told me. “If [Democrats] lose south of I-10, we will never be blue.”Those dramatic political maps of 2020 can be misleading—some of Trump’s success amounts to attracting small numbers of votes in sparsely populated areas, and some Trump voters also voted for down-ticket Democrats. But the Republican agenda might not be as unpopular in South Texas as people outside the state assume.“The last thing Biden said in the last presidential debate was ‘We’re gonna transition away from oil and gas,’ which is what provides all of our jobs,” Strother said. “‘Abolish ICE’? Those are good jobs on the border. You can make 70 grand a year with a high-school diploma working for ICE.”Texas Democrats told me that Biden’s remarks about phasing out oil in his final debate with Trump seem to have done him real damage in the Rio Grande Valley, where many people rely on energy jobs. The culture of multiracial coalitions—the foundations of Democratic urban politics across the United States, in which Black and Latino voters converge on the basis of shared political and economic interests—is less present in Texas border counties, where nine out of 10 residents are Hispanic and authority figures like sheriffs, police, and judges reflect those demographics. Republicans’ tough border talk finds a sympathetic audience in the valley, because many of the residents work for the federal border agencies.Texas Democrats have tried to strike a balance between acknowledging concerns about genuine problems at the border and criticizing Republican hyperbole. “The unfortunate part is that for us on the southern border, and for us that represent the southern border and know those border towns and communities quite well, we know the reality. It is never the horror story and the horror movie that Republicans paint for the counties north of I-10,” state Senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents San Antonio and several border counties, told me, pointing out that most asylum seekers are rejected, and most border crossers end up being expelled under a Trump-era coronavirus declaration that Biden has kept in place. “It’s not like it’s some, you know, mass of people that are coming across, like in that Cheech and Chong movie.”Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the rise in migration has led to a backlash. “My constituents deserve to be secure in their homes … it’s unfortunate we can’t accept everyone, but that’s the way countries work,” Gutierrez said. He told me that because immigration is a federal issue, what the state needs is more immigration judges and prosecutors to process claims and deport migrants if necessary, and high-tech means of surveillance along the border—rather than spending state money on a border wall, which he described as useless symbolism. “What we see on the ground just does not have a simple answer, and Greg Abbott’s 13th-century solutions like an $800 million fence are not the answer we need … Don’t let Texas taxpayers pay for your political advertising.”Many of these communities are also very religious. Democrats I spoke with shared anecdotes about religious leaders urging congregants to vote Trump at the top of the ticket; Webb County Democratic Chair Sylvia Bruni told the reporter Jack Herrera that she left her church after her former priest “called Democrats ‘baby killers’ from the pulpit and encouraged the congregation to vote for Trump.” One Texas Democrat, who asked not to be named so as to speak candidly, told me that they had made an error in thinking of parts of South Texas as “Latino Texas instead of as rural Texas.” That’s probably too pat—for example, the Rio Grande Valley boasts an extremely high vaccination rate compared with white, conservative rural areas—but in some ways, it’s a useful frame.[Read: The new swing voters]All of which is to say that while Abbott may be alienating many Texas voters, 2022 is still a ways off, and it’s not clear whether the GOP is winning over more Texans than it’s losing. A strong candidate at the top of the ticket may help Democrats streamline their message and raise money, but there are also questions about whether the most likely contender, O’Rourke, wounded himself with statements about guns and race during his primary campaign for president. O’Rourke has generated more enthusiasm than any Texas Democrat in a statewide race in recent memory, but he is also not the model of the centrist, even conservative Democrat who prevails in gubernatorial races in states like Louisiana and Kentucky.Colin Strother, though, still described O’Rourke as a unifying figure, a kind of “campfire” that Democrats in the state could “gather around.” O’Rourke has proved that he can raise money, he represented a district along the border (and made border crossings one of the few issues where he remained to the right of many of his primary opponents), and he’s spent the past couple of years doing more of what many Texas Democrats identify as their biggest weakness—organizing and registering voters. But he may also be an ideal target for the kind of culture-war campaign that Texas Republicans are very good at waging. “He’s gonna have to go do the requisite squirrel-hunting trip with him in hunter’s orange with a double barrel over his shoulder,” Strother said. “He’s gonna have to go to South Texas and shoot some hogs, you know what I mean?”
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theatlantic.com
Justin Trudeau Disappointed Me. I’m Still Voting for Him.
Let’s start with what’s undeniable: Justin Trudeau has achieved a progressive’s wish list of policy accomplishments. Since becoming Canada’s prime minister in 2015, he has raised taxes on the rich, legalized marijuana, put a rising price on carbon, renegotiated NAFTA, centered women’s rights in the country’s foreign policy, reduced child poverty to its lowest level in decades, and resettled tens of thousands of refugees. By any measure, Trudeau is the most progressive leader of my lifetime. So why don’t progressives—even ones, like me, who have worked for him—love him?The answer is complicated. Canadians go to the polls on Monday in an election that Trudeau called from a position of strength. He was hoping to ride his array of policy achievements to turn his minority government into a majority one, but a new wave of the pandemic—Canada’s fourth—has changed his prospects.The public has not been enthusiastic for an election; my progressive friends, close observers of Canadian politics, have mostly tuned out. In fact, the only people energized by this campaign are the angry mobs trailing Trudeau at his rallies, shouting obscenities at him, even throwing stones at the prime minister. They hate Trudeau as much for his support of vaccine passports as for the multicultural project he champions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Trudeau has been struggling. His poll numbers have dipped. His main opponent on the left is viewed as more trustworthy. The primary national rival to his Liberals, the Conservative Party, has seen a surge of support. Trudeau looks frazzled and defensive trying to explain why he called an election at all. The air of inevitability that characterized his previous victories, in 2015 and 2019, has dissipated.I am in a unique position: I was a foreign-policy adviser in Trudeau’s first administration and supported him without reservation. Trudeau had swept to power with an ambitious progressive platform. He took his beleaguered Liberal Party, which had been reduced to the third-biggest party in Parliament, to an overall majority, a remarkable and, in Canada, unprecedented rise. I felt inspired and hopeful after that election, as did many young people. A new generation of progressive leaders was coming to power in Canada. Trudeau was admired around the world not simply for saying all the right things from a progressive point of view, but for his platform and the diversity of his cabinet. And I saw that, even in private, Trudeau was hardworking and well informed; he asked the right questions and was sincerely committed to the progressive agenda.[Read: Justin Trudeau’s feminist brand is imploding]Over the past six years, he has compiled an admirable policy record, but this has been overshadowed by a number of political and ethical scandals. Trudeau got into an entirely unnecessary turf battle with his own attorney general over a criminal prosecution involving corruption at a major Canadian company. (The prime minister was found to have broken conflict-of-interest rules, his second violation of ethics laws.) During the 2019 election, photos of Trudeau in blackface surfaced. His Liberal Party lost seats in Parliament and the popular vote. It still managed to hold on to power, but not by much. The outcome this time around could be worse. Whether the Liberal Party hangs on to government comes down to whether progressives rally around Trudeau, abandon him for less flashy alternatives on the left, or, disenchanted, stay home entirely.This election poses a dilemma for Canadian progressives—one which center-left voters face in the United States and, indeed, much of the West: When do you support someone whose policies you overwhelmingly agree with, but whose personal choices are not to your liking? When do you keep the personal and the political separate, and vote solely for platform?These questions are not abstract; they carry serious consequences. If the other side wins, then all our cherished progressive policies go out the window. At the same time, we cannot be completely amoral, the way, for example, many supporters of Donald Trump are—evangelical voters and country-club Republicans alike who looked past Trump’s financial and moral shortcomings because he promised to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices or cut taxes for the wealthy. A line has to be drawn somewhere. Progressives must demand integrity from our leaders—especially on issues such as diversity, respect for women, and corruption.When I worked in government, I would often ask young people what they really thought of the prime minister. After all, Millennials and progressives were the reason Trudeau had won in 2015. Every person I spoke with, even those who disagreed with Trudeau, wanted to like him. They wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. But many were skeptical. Something about Trudeau rang false to them, or seemed too scripted, which became an issue when Trudeau’s personality faults came to light.[Read: Justin Trudeau falls from grace]One common occurrence on the left is the search for infallibility in our politicians. We want ideological purity and an unimpeachable record clear of misdeeds. In the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama warned progressives about “circular firing squads,” in which people who agreed on most issues took morbid pleasure in pummeling one another. This is perhaps the greatest failing of the modern left: We seek moral perfection in a world of politics where compromise is the cost of doing business. Run afoul of progressive dogma or say the wrong thing, and one is liable to get canceled.Purity tests exist on the right as well, but they are not about character. Instead, the right moralizes internally over who is tougher on crime, on immigrants, on China, on owning the libs. Trump likely cannot recite a single Bible verse and has a perverse history with women but still won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote last year. His handlers seemed to understand that Trump was but a mascot for a right-wing agenda. As Trump’s then–chief adviser, Steve Bannon, told Vanity Fair the year Trump was elected: He is “a blunt instrument for us. I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.” The question of character doesn’t even come up. Trump’s base is unfailingly loyal, willing to overlook even grotesque personality defects in service of its policy wishes.Perhaps a better comparison for Trudeau is another Republican president. When I think of the prime minister now, I see him not as a dashing JFK figure but as a Ronald Reagan of the left—a former actor and drama teacher who compellingly serves as chief spokesperson for the progressive agenda. Trudeau might fumble his words at times, and stumble into controversies, but he plays the part well—and gets the job done. That ought to be part of the moral calculus in supporting him: Trudeau is an effective leader whose policy accomplishments are worth his personal failings.[Read: The woke will always break your heart]Progressives like to say we are different. We hold our leaders accountable, even at the risk of losing. We take pride in living out our politics in deeply personal ways, defending our beliefs when they are tested. Trudeau knows the power of such idealism. He ran for election describing himself as a feminist, took a knee at a Black Lives Matter rally, and openly condemns systemic racism.But progressives also want bold action. On this, Trudeau’s record is strong. The answer to his lagging numbers could be to discard the moral posturing entirely, double down on what he has already delivered, and push for even more ambitious policies, especially for working-class voters. It won’t refurbish his brand, but it would remind people why they supported him the first time.Justin Trudeau has disappointed me in numerous ways—the ethics scandals, the dress-up photos, the glacial progress on climate change, and the delayed reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. But on election day, I will still cast my ballot for him, not out of religious devotion to the left or because I view Trudeau as infallible, but because politics requires compromise to deliver change. The future is on the ballot, as are policies that will affect generations to come. Moral perfection can wait. A country still needs to be governed.
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theatlantic.com
France Is Mad
The dining room of the French Ambassador’s residence is one of the most beautiful places in Washington D.C., a confection of frothed plaster overlooking a garden in the poodle-clipped style the French so love. Before COVID, the room was known for the discussion sessions held there and hosted by a gracious series of ambassadors. It’s been a long time since anyone was able to enjoy an in-person event at the residence. So when invitations arrived to celebrate Constitution Day, September 17, at the residence in a lunchtime discussion with a former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and an equally distinguished French judge, well, the RSVPs returned quickly.The timing, however, was unfortunate, as it coincided with an angry upset in Franco-American relations. The United States had snatched a $90 billion submarine contract with Australia from French shipyards. To add (security policy) insult to the (lost jobs and revenues) injury, the redirected submarine contract would consolidate a new U.S.-U.K.-Australia naval defense agreement in the Indo-Pacific, an agreement into which France had not been invited.Worse still, the French received word only hours before the public found out, reportedly because the Americans and the Australians each insisted that the other deliver the bad news.The French administered a symbolic protest by cancelling a gala event planned for Friday evening: a commemoration of the 240th anniversary of a naval battle that helped secure the American victory at Yorktown in 1781. But lunch? Attendees hastily confirmed: lunch was safe. Or so it seemed.The first hour of the lunch event harkened back to pre-COVID days: there was champagne in the foyer, courteous welcomes by embassy senior staff, all as it used to be. Guests took their seats. Opening remarks were elegantly spoken, all off the record, but so guarded and careful that there would be no news in them even without an agreement not to quote them. Steve Clemons, an editor-at-large at The Hill and the whisky-smooth master of ceremonies, set the conversation in motion. But about 15 minutes in, Clemons was obliged to make a regretful announcement: the ambassador had a very important meeting and would be leaving immediately.Somebody loudly asked, “Off to the state department?”Only later did we learn where the ambassador was heading: not to the state department, not to the Pentagon, not to the White House, but upstairs to pack before flying to Paris for “consultations.”Earlier in the meal, somebody had cracked a joke about U.S.-French relations: how they’d sunk so low that they were now under water. The Americans laughed. The French did not.But on the plus side: they did not shove us out on the sidewalk either. A powerful symbolic message was sent. France is mad, but not so mad that we will deprive our American friends of lunch and dessert. (Crème brûlée, in case you were wondering, under the crackling crust individually crafted by a sous-chef with a miniature flamethrower.)It’s like a scene from a marriage that endures despite the quarrels. The aggrieved partner walked out in a rage, but not before ensuring that the other had been properly fed.
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theatlantic.com
The Atlantic Daily: What to Make of The Latest Booster Shot Recommendation
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.Boosters-for-all is looking more like boosters-for-some, for now.Per the plan set out by the White House last month, next week was supposed to mark the rollout of booster shots for all Americans over 16, as long as they were eight months past their initial course of vaccines. But today an FDA advisory committee recommended only offering such shots to people over 65 and those with a high risk of severe disease who got their second Pfizer dose more than six months ago.How did this whole thing get so messy? First, let’s look at the science. Then, the politics. Then, what it all means for you.On the science Today, the FDA’s panel of outside experts reviewed data on vaccine performance and debated what we should be asking of our shots, my colleague Katherine J. Wu explains.The shots, Katie says, were designed to prevent severe disease—and are still doing just that. And so, since the White House announcement, researchers and laypeople have been debating whether boosters are really safe and effective for everyone, particularly considering the limited data available.In the end, the scientists weren’t convinced. “I’m actually feeling more optimistic than I have in weeks, because everything I saw today … really followed the science,” Katie told me.On the politics In announcing a timeline before the FDA approved it, President Joe Biden “front-ran the scientists” and “put his thumb on the scale,” Peter Nicholas, who covers the White House, told me over the phone in advance of today’s panel vote. The administration’s initial announcement raised concerns among some public-health experts that the process had been politicized. Vaccinated Americans, the people who’d primarily benefit from these boosters, arguably form Biden’s base.And now Biden is in a tough spot. “He has to follow the FDA’s guidance here,” Peter told me. “He can’t pressure the FDA—can’t start firing FDA officials, saying, ‘I have to have this booster program,’ or then he would really look like Donald Trump.”On what comes next The rollout looks restrained for the moment, but the FDA still needs to officially rule on the panel’s recommendation. And next week, the CDC will meet to discuss the issue“I don’t want people to despair that they’ve lost something that was promised to them,” Katie told me. “The ringing endorsement from today’s meeting is that the vaccines are still doing their job incredibly well.”If it’s any consolation, now might not be the best time for a booster anyway.Explore the week that was. Our senior editor Alan Taylor rounds up the past seven days in photos.Read. Gayl Jones is the best American novelist whose name you may not know. Her first book in more than two decades, Palmares, is out this week.Also out this week: Joy Williams’s first novel in decades, and Colson Whitehead’s latest, Harlem Shuffle. Watch. The Emmy Awards air Sunday night, so this is your last weekend to binge the nominees before the broadcast. An eclectic batch of shows are nominated.What’s new to watch this weekend? Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, the second season of which starts today, is “one of the most batshit-expensive soap operas ever made,” our culture writer Sophie Gilbert maintains. “And that’s perfect.”Cry Macho is another unpretentious, melancholy farewell from 91-year-old actor-director Clint Eastwood.The Card Counter is “an impressive character study” of a poker player who served as a prison guard in Iraq, our critic David Sims writes.Listen. With his debut album, Montero, Lil Nas X proves he’s the future of pop.On The Experiment, our staff writer Hannah Giorgis discusses her cover story on the unwritten rules of Black TV.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.
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