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Last week the US wanted to break up Big Tech. Now it’s trying to supersize it.
Donald Trump sits next to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at a 2017 event. | Chip Somodevilla / Getty The TikTok/Microsoft deal — if it happens — will make it harder to shrink Facebook or Google. Do you think Donald Trump cares about that? Last week, US lawmakers hauled the heads of four giant tech companies into a virtual antitrust hearing, ostensibly over concerns their companies are too big. This week, the president of the United States is sort-of-kind-of-maybe trying to help a different giant US tech company become even bigger — by forcing the Chinese owners of TikTok to sell it to Microsoft. There are all kinds of perspectives on a potential sale of TikTok from ByteDance to Microsoft. Some rational people think it’s a good idea: They don’t want the popular social video app with a huge presence in the US to be controlled by a Chinese company because Chinese companies are, in various ways, extensions of the Chinese government. Others quite rightly worry about potential retaliation from China against US companies that do business in that country, as well as the breakdown of the entire concept of an open internet. But it seems to me that one of the striking parts of the whole deal would be that the US government, which says it worries about the reach and power of its homegrown tech giants, is now actively encouraging a deal that would supersize one of those giants. Which suggests that the US isn’t really worried about the reach and power of its tech giants. Caveat time! There are many confounding, surprising, and improbable components to the ByteDance-TikTok-Microsoft-White House-China story, which is very much a moving target. This afternoon, for instance, Donald Trump insisted that in order for the deal to go through, the US government would have to get a “very substantial portion” of any sale price if Microsoft does buy TikTok from ByteDance. Trump, of course, says all kinds of things, all the time. Many of those things are not true. But if he actually means it this time, it means the deal looks much less likely than it did a few hours earlier. And while we’re at it, let’s be clear that it’s hard to make a real antitrust argument against a Microsoft-TikTok deal, at least as antitrust law works in the US right now: TikTok may worry the social media giant Facebook, but Facebook still dwarfs TikTok; same thing for Google’s YouTube. Facebook, for instance, says it has 256 million users in the US and Canada; TikTok says it is at 100 million. It’s also not a coincidence that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was not in Washington last week, testifying along with the heads of Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. With the exception of its Xbox gaming platform, Microsoft has a very modest consumer internet presence in the US psyche*. If any big tech company is going to acquire TikTok, it would be Microsoft. But let’s also be very clear: While Microsoft has turned itself into a giant tech company that focuses on business customers, it is still very much a Giant Tech Company — one that the US government spent years trying to break up because of the way it abused its status as the dominant computer operating system in the 1990s. In its last 12 months, Microsoft generated a staggering $143 billion in revenue — for context, that’s two Facebooks. And while its growth is coming from enterprise customers and cloud services, Microsoft still dominates personal computers. If you’re not reading this on a phone or tablet, the odds are very high you’re reading this on a Microsoft Windows-powered machine. In short: If you were worried about the concentration of tech power in the US, you wouldn’t add the most consequential new social media platform in years to a company that made $44 billion in profits — four Amazons — last year. (That said! In the near term, Facebook execs won’t complain while Microsoft figures out, structurally and technically, how to separate TikTok from its current owner/operators and rebuilt large portions of it. Big companies usually expect to take a year or more to swallow up a significant acquisition; this one could be way more difficult.) If US lawmakers were truly concerned about the power of tech giants, they would be actively be debating laws to rein that in, instead of punting the work to enforcement agencies like the DOJ and the FTC. And an entire faction of US politicians wouldn’tspend their time in important antitrust hearings focusingon made-up claims that big internet companies are bad because they censor conservatives. If anything, you could argue that a TikTok sale to Microsoft makes it even less likely that we’ll see real antitrust movement against Google or Facebook. If that deal goes through, both companies can credibly argue that TikTok is now an even fiercer rival to their business because it has Microsoft behind it. Again: I’m happy to entertain arguments for or against TikTokSoft — it’s a genuinely fascinating and important inflection point for tech and world politics. But next time you tell me the US government is Very Worried About Big Tech, you’re going to have work much harder to convince me. * Not for lack of trying: If Microsoft had succeeded in its attempt to buy Yahoo many years ago, or if it hadn’t burned billions trying to build a consumer ad business, maybe things would be different. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
Alabama’s and Mississippi’s troubling Covid-19 curves, briefly explained
Covid Tracking Project National Covid-19 cases appear to be plateauing, but new hot spots are emerging. For the first time in a while, there is a bit of good news to report about America’s coronavirus pandemic: Nationally, cases have plateaued — and in some places, they have begun to decline slightly. But, as always is the case when looking at the national numbers, the situation is more complicated than it seems. Over the last two weeks, the average number of new cases reported daily has dipped from more than 66,000 to roughly 60,000, according to the Covid Exit Strategy tracker. The number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 nationwide has also fallen in the last 10 days, which would suggest an ebb in the virus’s spread. The explanation for the drops is pretty simple: Arizona, Florida, California, and Texas — the four states that had driven much of the summer wave — have seen their daily new cases drop by between 11 percent and 28 percent over the last two weeks. Hospitalizations in those states have also tailed off. Deaths are still at their highest levels since May, however, with the US currently averaging more than 1,000 Covid-19 deaths every day. Earlier in the summer, there seemed to be a disconnect between case numbers and death counts, with the death count remaining low even as new case counts rose. But this time, the case count is declining and the death count is rising. Because of the lag between when a person’s case is reported and when their death would be reported if they fall victim to the coronavirus — which can sometimes be a month or more — we may not see the drop in cases reflected in the death data for a while. It’s too soon to say any of those four states are out of the woods entirely. Certain areas, like the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, are still struggling, and experts warn that any progress could be quickly reversed. “It would not take much — schools reopening in person, or people relaxing precautions a little bit because we’re ‘past the peak’ — for us to have a growing epidemic again,” Tom Hladish, a research scientist at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, told me. But if the summer’s hot spots are in fact starting to turn a corner, the worry is new ones will flare up. The US had enjoyed a steady decline in cases and deaths after the New York City region got through the worst of its outbreak in the spring — until Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas began reopening their economies and cases picked up again in June. This was an important reminder that the US does not have one outbreak but many, and any improvements in one place could be quickly offset if new areas experience a spike in cases, hospitalizations, and, eventually, deaths. With that in mind, I asked public health experts which states show signs of an accelerating outbreak and looked at the data myself. There are some states that have had worrying trends for a while but flew under the radar while much of the nation’s attention focused on the Big Four. Georgia and Nevada typify that group; their daily new cases, positive test rates, and hospitalizations are stubbornly high. Others are definitely trending in the wrong direction: Missouri and Oklahoma are two states where cases and positive test rates have gone up recently. But two states stood out from the rest, the unfortunate candidates most likely to become the next US hot spots: Alabama and Mississippi. Alabama There are various ways to measure the scale and trajectory of a state’s outbreak — percent of tests coming back positive, number of new cases per million people, number of hospital beds occupied — but by any of these metrics, Alabama is in a bad place. At the beginning of July, Alabama was averaging fewer than 1,000 new Covid-19 cases every day. Today, the daily average is above 1,600. The percentage of tests that are positive is more than 21 percent and rising, according to Covid Exit Strategy; experts say that the positivity rate should be 5 percent or less in order for a state to feel it is adequately managing its outbreak. According to the Covid Tracking Project, about 800 people were hospitalized with Covid-19 in Alabama on July 1; today, the number is 1,529. Going by the number of new cases per million people — a good proxy for how saturated a state is with Covid-19 infections — Alabama has the fourth-worst outbreak in the US. It also ranks fifth in the number of people hospitalized per million people. Right now, 72 percent of the state’s hospital beds are occupied, which the public health researchers at Covid Exit Strategy characterize as an “elevated” level of hospitalizations. Taken together, these are a troubling set of trends. Alabama did issue a statewide mask order in mid-July, which may help to ensure the situation does not spiral out of control, and Gov. Kay Ivey has extended the mandate through August. But the state has been reluctant to order businesses closed again after starting to reopen its economy in late April, and Ivey has been insistent about starting in-person instruction at Alabama schools. “It is worth watching whether face mask orders in place ... help to curtail or prevent widespread outbreaks,” Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said. It will likely be several weeks before any effect would be seen, given the lags in reporting. Mississippi Mississippi is, if anything, even worse off than its neighbor to the east. The number of daily new cases roughly doubled from 639 on July 1 to 1,178 on August 2. More than 20 percent of tests are positive, and that number has been steadily rising for the last two weeks. A month ago, about 800 people were hospitalized with Covid-19 in Mississippi; today, nearly 1,200 are. It now ranks second in new cases per million people, behind only Florida. Most troubling is the growing death toll. The state reported 52 new deaths on July 31, a record, and dramatically higher than one month ago, when Mississippi was seeing 10 deaths per day on average. Its large Black population and high poverty levels could make the state particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, considering being a person of color and of a lower socioeconomic status have been linked to more adverse outcomes. “Both Alabama and Mississippi have an awful lot of counties that are predicted to be vulnerable on the basis of their population demographics,” William Hanage, a Harvard epidemiologist, told me, “Whether age, race, or socioeconomic status, or some combination of all three.” The state has so far not reimposed any social distancing restrictions or issued a statewide mask requirement, according to Boston University’s database of state Covid-19 policies, adding to the concern among public health experts. Gov. Tate Reeves did impose a mask mandate for specific counties and warned bars may have to be closed if the virus continues to spread. But the state has also pushed ahead with opening schools; one of the first school districts to restart classes has already reported that one student has tested positive for the coronavirus. The school district said it has notified people who came into close contact with the student, the public health practice known as contact tracing. But the level of spread in the state and the lack of contact tracing workers could make it difficult to do that work at scale; NPR reported last month that the state had not hired enough people to meet its estimated contact tracing needs. Given the trend lines in Mississippi, Harvard Global Health Institute director Ashish Jha predicted the state would become first in the nation in the number of new cases as a share of its population. Mississippi will become nation's #1 in new cases/popAlready #1 on test +Can't open schools now. They'll just shut downIf MS wants kids in school, recipe knownStop indoor dining/bars/gymsStatewide maskingFix testingThen, may be, kids can go to school safely. LaterFin— Ashish K. Jha (@ashishkjha) August 2, 2020 In other words, Mississippi may soon be the worst Covid-19 hot spot in the country. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
The TikTok-Microsoft-Trump drama, explained
President Donald Trump is reportedly expected to issue an order compelling social media app TikTok to sell its US operations. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images Trump says he isn’t banning the app — for now — because he’s open to having Microsoft buy it instead. President Trump won’t try to ban TikTok in the US — at least for now. On Monday, he reversed his stance on the wildly popular video streaming app and said in a White House press briefing that instead of banning it, he would allow a US-based company to purchase the app. “I don’t mind if — whether it is Microsoft or someone else — a big company, a secure company, a very American company, buys it,” said Trump about TikTok. Trump also warned that TikTok will be “out of business in the United States” by September 15 if the company doesn’t reach a deal to sell by then. Though TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, is best known as a place where teens share short, often lighthearted musical videos, it has become the center of geopolitical controversy between the US and China over technological power. For months, Trump and other bipartisan politicians have periodically raised concerns about TikTok as a potential national security threat, worrying that the app’s Chinese parent company could censor content in the US or access American users’ sensitive data at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party. The company has vehemently denied these accusations. But reports last year showed a lack of TikTok content about subjects controversial with the Chinese government — such as videos of the Hong Kong protests. These reports have fueled US government suspicions that the company is influenced by the Chinese government, particularly as China has been expanding its surveillance state in recent years and US-China diplomatic relations have become more strained. Over the past few days, TikTok reentered the spotlight when Trump told reporters on Friday evening that he planned to ban the app effective “immediately” — saying he would do so using emergency economic powers or an executive order. But getting rid of an app used by some 100 million Americans isn’t as easy as it seems, even if you’re the president. According to a New York Times report, after Trump’s advisers convinced him that an executive action to ban TikTok would face severe legal and political consequences, Trump agreed that instead of issuing a ban, he would allow the tech giant Microsoft to continue its previous talks to buy TikTok, which had reportedly been in the works for weeks. Since Microsoft is a US based-company, the idea is that if Microsoft took control, it would ensure all of TikTok’s user data is stored in the US, secure from the potentially prying eyes of the Chinese government. Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella talked to Trump about it over the weekend, according to a Microsoft blog post published on Saturday evening, and has agreed to work out a deal — or not — by September 15. Here’s a rundown of the recent controversy surrounding TikTok and what’s expected to happen next: TikTok’s political troubles TikTok has faced intense political scrutiny for months now, long before Trump’s latest call for a ban. Republicans have escalated their attacks on TikTok this summer, with some bipartisan support from Democrats as well. Last Thursday, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) sent a letter to the Justice Department demanding that the agency open an investigation into TikTok and Zoom over reported violations of “Americans’ civil liberties” and national security concerns about relationships between these companies and China. This followed statements in July from Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who both said the Trump administration was considering banning TikTok altogether. For the past year, it’s been thought that the app has been under government review for national security reasons. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin confirmed this last week, and said he’s expecting the review to conclude soon. The government committee in charge of this review, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), has the power to recommend the president force TikTok to sell to a US company. Even if Trump doesn’t issue a full ban, a government decision that forces TikTok’s parent company to sell it off would be a game changer for the social media industry, and would threaten to disrupt the app’s extraordinary popularity. And for established social media giants Facebook and Google, the decision could significantly weaken their fiercest new competitor. A forced sale of TikTok could have negative consequences beyond the people running TikTok, too. The move threatens to jeopardize the success of an app that’s had a meteoric rise from a relative underdog to one of the most downloaded apps in the world. And since TikTok is one of the only recent social media startups to compete with tech giants like Facebook, weakening TikTok could further concentrate power among a few tech giants in the US. “While we do not comment on rumors or speculation, we are confident in the long-term success of TikTok,” a spokesperson for TikTok told Recode on Friday, adding the company is “committed to protecting their privacy and safety as we continue working to bring joy to families and meaningful careers to those who create on our platform.” How a sale would work You may be asking how Trump can force a company as popular as TikTok to sell itself, or go so far as to try to ban it. The answer is complicated and bureaucratic. To force a sale, Trump could issue an order for ByteDance to divest from TikTok through CFIUS, an interagency committee that reviews foreign acquisitions and investments in US businesses that can threaten national security. The committee, chaired by Mnuchin, has the power to block or reverse mergers and acquisitions involving US and foreign companies. Increasingly, the agency has been exercising its authority over foreign-owned tech companies operating in the US. Last year, CFIUS helped block one of the biggest deals in tech history, after Trump followed its recommendations to stop Singapore-based Broadcom from acquiring the US semiconductor company Qualcomm. The committee also forced Chinese owners to divest from the dating app Grindr and the health startup PatientsLikeMe. But as Brookings Institution fellow Geoffrey Gertz has written, tech companies weren’t always the target of CFIUS. In the past, the committee “tended to focus on companies with military or intelligence connections,” but more recently, personal data and high-tech intellectual property have become a bigger focus for the committee. Last year, CFIUS started investigating ByteDance, which had purchased the Chinese-owned lip-sync video platform in 2017 and then rebranded and launched a similar app in the US under the name TikTok. When that investigation comes to a close, the committee’s recommendations will reportedly lead to Trump’s order for ByteDance to sell TikTok or divest its US operations. It’s unclear how CFIUS would enforce a potential unwinding of ByteDance and TikTok, but last year, the committee issued a $1 million fine to an undisclosed company for not following through on a mitigation agreement, its first penalty of that kind. It could also fine TikTok — or Trump could just continue to dangle the threat of banning TikTok altogether, no matter how legally or politically contentious that would be. What comes next If Microsoft or another major US company does purchase TikTok, it’s likely that TikTok as we know it would remain largely unchanged. TikTok is a valuable brand in a lucrative industry with a massive, devoted user base — so for Microsoft, buying TikTok would be an opportunity to seriously compete with other major tech companies like Facebook and Google in the social media space. Microsoft also has experience when it comes to purchasing already successful companies and allowing them to retain their independence — as it did when it acquired the platform for software developers, GitHub, in 2018, and the video game Minecraft in 2014. Depending on how Microsoft chooses to run TikTok — if it acquires it — the app could continue to grow, and with the backing of a major US tech company, it might more seriously take on other social media companies, including Facebook. Microsoft isn’t the only potential buyer — other firms could try to buy TikTok or share ownership. Reportedly, Microsoft may invite outside investors to join them in the deal, according to the Wall Street Journal. It’s too soon to say what impact a sale would have on the app’s popularity and growth. But in the meantime, there are plenty of Clippy jokes to make. On Monday, a spokesperson for TikTok told Recode in a statement that the company is “committed to continuing to bring joy to families and meaningful careers to those who create on our platform as we build TikTok for the long term. TikTok will be here for many years to come.” Update, August 1, 3:10 pm PT: This article has been updated to include a statement from President Trump and new reporting about potential government action against TikTok. Update, August 3, 12:05 pm PT: This article has been updated to include new comments from President Trump and new reporting about ongoing negotiations between Microsoft and TikTok. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
After revealing in a sermon that she is trans, a Baptist pastor is fired by the church
Junia Joplin came out as trans in a June sermon to her Baptist church in Mississauga, Ontario. She had hoped to keep her job. | Jah Grey for Vox As Christian congregations grapple with LGBTQ acceptance, Junia Joplin hoped that candidly telling her story would help her keep her job. Junia Joplin, the Mississauga, Toronto, pastor who came out as a trans woman in a livestreamed sermon on June 14 (and who was profiled shortly thereafter by Vox), has lost her job after a congregational vote. Joplin’s sermon proved hugely popular within the world of queer Christianity, in large part due to her skill as a preacher and how she weaved together themes of God-given acceptance and the struggle to embrace one’s truest self. “I want to proclaim to my transgender siblings that I believe in a God who knows your name, even if that name hasn’t been chosen yet,” she said during the livestream. “I believe in a God who calls you a beloved daughter even if your parents insist you’ll always be their son.” Shortly after delivering her coming-out sermon, Joplin, a pastor at Lorne Park Baptist Church, said she received an outpouring of support from parishioners, including some she hadn’t expected to be in her corner. But the church’s leadership council sent her a terse email shortly afterward, saying “no decisions have been made yet.” A July 20 vote on whether to remove Joplin from her position was carried out by drive-through balloting due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In a narrow 58-53 result, the congregation decided against Joplin’s continued employment by the church. Lorne Park issued the following statement to Vox: The Corporation of Lorne Park Baptist Church confirms that the congregation has voted to terminate the employment of Rev. Junia (June) Joplin as Lead Pastor of the church. The Church has journeyed for the past month through a process of attempting to discern God’s will resulting from June’s announcement of June 14, 2020 that she is a transgender woman. The vote concludes the first stage of that process. After a month of prayerful discernment and discussions between June and the congregation, it was determined, for theological reasons, that it is not in God’s will that June remain as our pastor. We wish June God’s grace and peace as she departs from us. Joplin said those who voted to remove her were also asked whether their decision was based on theological reasoning. Eight of those people said they saw no theological basis for her firing, but voted to remove her for other reasons. On the theological grounds laid out in the church’s statement, Joplin said she came out ahead, 61-50. She still lost her job. In the wake of Joplin’s firing, Lorne Park has undergone considerable upheaval. Six of its eight executive council members stepped down, as did two members of the church’s pastoral team, Joplin said. The “Who We Are” page on the church’s website is notably sparse. Joplin’s firing was also a disappointment to trans Christians, who hoped she would avoid the fate of other pastors and church leaders who have come out as trans and subsequently lost their jobs. Yet there might be some room for optimism in the closeness of the vote. “What you’re seeing played out [in recent years] are the ways in which the gradual increased understanding of queerness in the general population is changing the policies of the churches,” said Michael Pettinger, co-editor of the book Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms. “It’s intriguing and really encouraging that [Joplin] could get almost a 50/50 split. That would have been unimaginable 50 years ago.” How Baptist church policies are ultimately decided gave some trans Christians hope that the congregation would vote to keep Joplin behind the pulpit at Lorne Park. Unlike with, say, the Catholic church, which has a central governing body dictating how churches are allowed to carry out their business, each Baptist congregation is allowed to establish its own rules.Though Joplin said many churchgoers were very supportive, some who hadn’t gone through the process of becoming official members of Lorne Park were not allowed to vote, even if they attended regularly. “I’ve had church members reach out to me and say, ‘You’ve got to remember the membership is not the same as the congregation,’” Joplin told Vox. “In other words, if it had been a vote that actually reflected the people in the pews, then it would have gone differently.” She also said that she’s somewhat frustrated that people who voted for her removal didn’t bother to talk to her after she came out. But arguments against her were ongoing within the larger Lorne Park community. Adam McKerlie, who has been going to the church since he was very young and now attends with his wife, Lauren, said via email that he had been involved in a Facebook argument that reflected the groundswell against Joplin. “A previous pastor of Lorne Park spoke out against June, going as far as using her incorrect pronouns and name. When I called the pastor out on Facebook, it generated some discussion and seemed to split our old youth group into people who were with June and those who were against, which was sad,” McKerlie said. “I unfortunately didn’t have a lot of hope for how the vote would go. I was surprised with how close it was, but saddened by the decision.” McKerlie and his wife said they will no longer be attending Lorne Park. Joplin told Vox that she has heard, at least secondhand, that some of the arguments supporting her firing went beyond suggesting a trans woman shouldn’t be a pastor. “You had two congregations. The congregation that was, like, ‘Who cares if our pastor is trans? That’s fine. It changes nothing. She’s just as good as before, if not better,’ and then the other congregation is, like, ‘Well, not even cis women can be pastors,’” Joplin said. “Our denomination has been [ordaining women] for 60 or 70 years! Folks just had no clue that’s what our values are, because people don’t bother to learn.” This exact debate — between embracing queer Christians and rigidly adhering to traditions that might be out of date — is at the center of arguments across Christian denominations right now, said Pettinger. “What we’re seeing now is a kind of struggle in the conscience of people who have always believed that there was something wrong with gender- and sexuality-variant people suddenly realizing that, in fact, no, the question is not the worthiness or the worth of these people or the lives they live. The question is actually the sinfulness of homophobia,” Pettinger said, pointing to how often anti-LGBTQ Christians note that they’re “not homophobic” but still don’t think queer people should have a place in the church. “It’s almost more about their need to maintain an identity as a good, loving person in the face of increasing evidence that, in fact, this is not a good and loving position,” Pettinger added. “It’s really intriguing to me that we’re seeing that shift at exactly the time we’re once again dealing with the legacy of racism and white supremacy in this country.” None of that will get Joplin her job back, however. She told Vox she is exploring her legal options — in Canada, it is illegal to fire someone for being trans, but there are exceptions based on religious grounds. She also said that any severance payment from the church would likely come with strings attached that would make it harder for her to tell her story and build support for the next pastor to come out as trans to their congregation. Joplin, who is American, has started looking for the next thing, which is somewhat constrained by her need to stay in Canada and not return to the US, both for medical reasons and because her children will remain in Canada. Church hiring is a long and complicated process. The soonest she might begin a new job would be in early 2021, she said, and it’s far more likely she would start later than that. So until she finds something else, Joplin is guest preaching (though it doesn’t pay nearly as well as a regular job), and has a GoFundMe she hopes will buy her some financial breathing room to figure out what’s next. And yet she, too, has hope. “Christianity has had to change in some enormous ways over the last 150 years, and it’s going to change more. ... Either stories like mine are going to invite the church to change, or it will die, at least in the way we know it. That’s sad in some ways, but the church constantly needs to die and be resurrected. That’s our story,” Joplin said. “If the 10 percent of every church that’s LGBTQ+ identified and if the one person out of every 100 that was trans came out in their congregation and spoke up, I think together, we could bring about a lot of change.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
The 6 most interesting Michigan races to watch in Tuesday’s primary
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) speaks at the opening plenary session of the NAACP 110th National Convention at COBO Center on July 22, 2019, in Detroit, Michigan. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images Rep. Rashida Tlaib is facing off against a Democratic primary challenger on Tuesday. After its surprise swing for President Donald Trump in 2016, Michigan will be one of the most highly watched states in the 2020 election. Though the biggest question on everyone’s mind is whether Democrat Joe Biden can reclaim this Midwestern state, Michigan is boasting a number of other competitive races in November, including Sen. Gary Peters’s (D) bid for reelection and a slew of House races flipped by moderate Democratic candidates in 2018. Right now, the polls for Biden and the Democrats look pretty good. The RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight polling averages for the state both show Biden leading Trump by about eight points. “Michigan is moving out of the very top tier of swing states,” Michigan State University political scientist Matt Grossman told Vox. Numerous members of the House from Michigan, including Reps. Debbie Dingell and Elissa Slotkin, have cautioned Democrats to not get too comfortable, but Trump’s campaign has temporarily stopped putting up television ads in the state — ceding valuable airtime to Biden. “Trump is in much worse condition now than he was” even in 2018, said longtime Michigan pollster Bernie Porn, president of EPIC-MRA polling. Coronavirus and the lasting economic decline are driving the drop, Porn noted, adding the president’s aggression toward nationwide protesters hasn’t helped him in Michigan. Trump’s performance in November could have big implications for down-ballot races in the state as well, including Peters’s competitive Senate race and freshman Reps. Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens’s attempt to keep swing districts blue. If Trump has a weak result in Michigan, it could impact the entire GOP ticket. While Michigan’s Senate race is a big draw for November, it’s less exciting on Tuesday; both Peters and Republican John James are running unopposed. But there are a number of primaries for US House races, including a Democratic primary opponent challenging outspoken progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and Democratic and Republican primaries to replace outgoing libertarian Rep. Justin Amash. Michigan polls will close at 9 pm ET, and Vox will have live results powered by our partners at Decision Desk. Until then, here’s what you need to know about the most important races. Michigan US Senate race The Michigan Senate race will be pretty quiet on Tuesday, but it will be an important one to watch in the fall. Michigan is one of just two opportunities Senate Republicans have to flip a Democratic seat. Still, actually beating incumbent Sen. Gary Peters could be much easier said than done. This year, Peters will face Army veteran and businessman John James, who ran against Peters’s fellow Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) in 2018 and lost — albeit narrowly. Peters was first elected to the US Senate in 2014, after a tenure in the US House of Representatives. Peters is certainly not known for seeking the spotlight; he keeps a relatively low media profile, and polling reveals a sizable chunk of Michigan voters don’t recognize him. “Peters is the sort of least-known of the incumbents running for reelection; he just doesn’t have much of an image,” said Grossman. “Other than Alabama, it’s the Republicans best offense.” But the booming economy hoped for by James and other Republican candidates who tied themselves close to Trump has evaporated. Even though James has out-fundraised the incumbent, Peters has a healthy lead in the polls. The Peters campaign in particular has gone after James for his past statements in favor of defunding the Affordable Care Act, and James has softened his rhetoric on the issue. “Peters is running well among independents, getting 67 percent of the independent vote,” Porn told Vox. As for James, “Right now in his messaging, he’s trying to erase association with Trump.” Michigan’s Third Congressional District Libertarian and outspoken Trump critic Rep. Justin Amash was first elected to represent the Third Congressional District in 2010. After switching his party from Republican to independent in 2019 (before switching to the Libertarian Party), Amash announced he was stepping down. Amash’s departure has set up a competitive Republican primary to replace him. The GOP contenders on Tuesday include Iraq War veteran Peter Meijer, state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, veteran Tom Norton, entrepreneur Joe Farrington, and attorney Emily Rafi. Meijer has the most money and national backing, including from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R). But Meijer’s opponents have also attempted to paint him as not friendly enough to Trump, according to local news site MLive. Whether that hurts Meijer or helps him in an uncertain political environment for the president remains to be seen. The winner will face Democrat Hillary Scholten, an immigration attorney who is running unopposed. Scholten has outraised her Republican opponents, a promising sign that the race could be competitive. This district tends to be Republican, and Cook Political Report rates it Lean Republican, but Democrats are very much hoping to put it in play in the fall. Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District A field of Republicans is squaring off to see who will challenge Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D), the moderate Democrat who flipped the district in 2018. The Eighth Congressional District encompasses parts of Lansing and its suburbs, and Trump won it in 2016 before Slotkin beat Republican Rep. Mike Bishop in 2018. Bishop is not attempting to reclaim his old seat; the Republican candidates vying in Tuesday’s primary include former attorney Paul Junge, attorney Kristina Lyke, and businessman and veteran Alan Hoover. Still, Slotkin has the backing of the Democratic party and significant fundraising. A former CIA analyst, Slotkin was one of a number of women with backgrounds in the military or US intelligence to be elected to Congress in 2018. Michigan’s 10th Congressional District With incumbent Rep. Paul Mitchell (R) retiring this year, this district that sits on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula (the so-called “thumb” of the mitt) is open. Republicans hoping to replace Mitchell include state Rep. Shane Hernandez, businesswoman Lisa McClain, and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Doug Slocum. Democrats Kimberly Bizon, the 2018 nominee, and Army nurse Kelly Noland are also running. This district is rated Solid Republican by Cook, so whoever wins the Republican primary will likely win the seat in November. Michigan’s 11th Congressional District Republicans are also gearing up to face first-term Rep. Haley Stevens (D). Like Slotkin, Stevens flipped this formerly Republican-held district in 2018, beating Rep. Lena Epstein (R). The district, which sits in Detroit suburbs, narrowly went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Epstein is forgoing a rematch in 2020, leaving the competition to Republicans like lawyer Eric Esshaki, former fashion designer Carmelita Greco, director of diversity for the district’s GOP Committee Whittney Williams, businessman Frank Acosta, and former Rep. Kerry Bentivolio. Most of the Republicans running on Tuesday have little political experience. Although the 11th Congressional District was considered very competitive in 2018, Cook Political Report has moved it to Lean Democratic in 2020. Stevens has done a lot of fundraising and has the full support of the Democratic party. Michigan’s 13th Congressional District Unabashed progressive and member of “The Squad” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D) is up for reelection in 2020. In this safely Democratic district, her primary face-off against Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones — an influential Detroit politician whom Tlaib had run against in the past — will be where the action is.Jones won a 2018 special election to replace the district’s former longtime Rep. John Conyers, who resigned in 2017. But Tlaib narrowly edged out Jones in the August 2018 primary election and prevailed in November, even after Jones launched a write-in campaign. Even though she has been critical of House Democratic leadership in the past, Tlaib recently secured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement. “Rep. Rashida Tlaib is a tireless advocate for the residents of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Her leadership has secured critical funding to stop water shutoffs and replace lead pipes.” Tlaib has an advantage as the incumbent, but she and Jones have been in close matchups before. This race will be one to watch. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
Spend August reading the exquisite dark fairy tale The Vanishing Half with the Vox Book Club
Courtesy of Riverhead Books The Vanishing Half is an exquisite dark fairy tale about passing for white. The Vox Book Club is linking to to support local and independent booksellers. This August, the Vox Book Club will be reading one of the best new novels of 2020: Brit Bennett’s exquisite The Vanishing Half. And at the end of the month, we’ll be joined by Bennett herself to discuss the book live on Zoom. The Vanishing Half is a rich, extravagant fairy tale of a book. It concerns a set of twin sisters, Stella and Desiree, who grow up in an all-Black town where the population is devoted to ensuring that each successive generation has lighter skin than the one before it. At 16, light-skinned Stella and Desiree run away. Desiree goes on to marry the darkest-skinned man she can find. And Stella starts passing for white. There’s a lot to delve into here: the history of narratives of passing, the power of American fairy tales, the question of how we are bound by our bodies and our families. So, as we did in July, we’ll publish two book club discussion posts in August, both on Fridays. Each one will deal with different aspects of The Vanishing Half; we’ll have expert guest stars, and both posts will assume you’ve already read the whole book. (Consider this your spoiler warning!) Our virtual meeting with Bennett will happen August 27, and it will be a culmination of the whole month’s worth of conversation. I can’t wait to see you there. Here’s the full Vox Book Club schedule for August 2020 Friday, August 14: First discussion post on The Vanishing Half Friday, August 21: Second discussion post on The Vanishing Half Thursday, August 27: Virtual live event with author Brit Bennett. Sign up for the Vox Book Club newsletter and we’ll send you the RSVP link as soon as it’s up! Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
The murder spike in big US cities, explained
Chicago police officers investigate an officer-involved shooting outside the department’s 25th district station on July 30. | Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via Getty Images Murders are up in big cities this summer. Here are seven possible reasons why. As if a Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t bad enough, the headlines suggest America is in the middle of a new wave of homicides — from New York City to Chicago to Minneapolis. The data backs up the headlines, suggesting that homicide numbers are significantly higher in at least some major US cities. But it’s not yet clear if this is part of a nationwide phenomenon, or if it’s something isolated to a few major cities. To make matters more confusing, other types of crime, including violent crime overall, appear to have decreased in many of the same cities. The increases also aren’t enough to erase the decades-long gains made in combating crime, which has fallen steadily since the 1990s. Even the cities that have seen increases are generally safer than they were just several years ago. But the homicide increases are alarming nonetheless. What could explain an increase in homicides? Some experts have cited the protests over the police killings of George Floyd and others — which could’ve had a range of effects, from officers pulling back from their duties to greater community distrust in police, leading to more unchecked violence. Others point to the bad economy. Another potential factor is a huge increase in gun purchases this year. Still others posit boredom and social displacement as a result of physical distancing leading people to cause more trouble. Above all, though, experts caution it’s simply been a very unusual year with the coronavirus pandemic. That makes it difficult to say what, exactly, is happening with crime rates. “The current year, 2020, is an extreme deviation from baseline — extreme,” Tracey Meares, founding director at the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, told me. That offers a bit of good news: It’s possible that the end of the pandemic will come and homicide rates will fall again, as they generally have for the past few decades in the US. But no one knows for sure if that will happen, or if we’re seeing a shift in long-term trends. Not being certain what’s going on isn’t exactly new in the field of criminal justice. Consider: Rates of crime and violence have plummeted over the past few decades in the US, yet there is no agreed-upon explanation for why. There are theories applying the best evidence, research, and data available, ranging from changes in policing to a drop in lead exposure to the rise of video games. That a decades-long phenomenon is still so hard to explain shows the need for humility before jumping to conclusions about the current trends. “We don’t know nearly enough to know what’s going on at the given moment,” Jennifer Doleac, director of the Justice Tech Lab, told me. “The current moment is so unusual for so many different reasons that … it’s really hard to speculate about broad phenomena that are driving these trends when we’re not even sure if there’s a trend yet.” All of that said, here’s what we do know. Homicides are up this year in large US cities There are several good sources, from criminologists, economists, and other data analysts, for what’s happened with crime and violence so far this year: a Council on Criminal Justice report written by Richard Rosenfeld and Ernesto Lopez; an analysis by Jeff Asher; and City Crime Stats, a website from the University of Pennsylvania set up by David Abrams, Priyanka Goonetilleke, Elizabeth Holmdahl, and Kathy Qian. The Council on Criminal Justice report, published in July, looked at crimes in 27 US cities, ranging in size from New York to Cincinnati through June 2020. The authors looked for “structural breaks” in which reported crime increased or decreased more than would be expected, based on data from previous years. They found structural breaks in homicide and aggravated assault increases starting in late May and June 2020, and structural breaks in robbery increases starting with the Covid-19 pandemic. But there weren’t statistically significant changes in gun assaults or domestic violence, though data was limited for the latter. And other kinds of crime, including larceny and drug offenses, trended down. Here’s the graph for homicide increases, which were led by spikes in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, according to the report: Council on Criminal Justice That certainly suggests there were more homicides. But it’s hard to say if that’s a result of more shootings, as some news reports have suggested, given that reported gun assaults weren’t significantly different.It’s unclear what’s driving the increase in homicides if more shootings aren’t. “It does look like violence is up in a number of cities,” Rosenfeld, one of the report authors, told me. “How widespread the increase is, it’s very difficult to know.” A later look at the data from 23 large cities, from crime analyst Jeff Asher, led to similar findings: Murders are up sharply, while other types of crime appear to be down. Updated data on 23 big cities (250k+) with crime statistics available through June. Murder is up a combined 23% in those cities, but overall crime is down 7.2% with violent crime down 2.2% and property crime down 8.8%.— Jeff Asher (@Crimealytics) July 30, 2020 City Crime Stats’ data complicates matters a bit. While Asher’s analysis looked at changes from 2019 to 2020, City Crime Stats compares the 2020 crime trends in 26 major cities to a five-year baseline. With this approach, the homicide increases don’t seem quite as dramatic in many cities, and other types of crime appear to be mostly down as well. Still, homicides do seem to be significantly up in many of the cities included in the City Crime Stats data set. Here, for example, is Chicago, which shows this year’s rate (the red line) rising above the five-year baseline (the gray line and shading): City Crime Stats There’s a lot of variation from city to city. Denver, Minneapolis, New York City, and Philadelphia are on the high end of homicides or seeing a flat-out increase. Austin, Baltimore, Boston, and Cincinnati are in line with historical trends or actually down. Overall, though, Abrams said his data suggests there was an overall, significant increase in homicides from May to June: “We did find a statistically significant increase in homicides — about 21 percent — in aggregate in the cities we looked at in the month after versus before those protests,” he told me, cautioning that we can’t say with any confidence if the protests were the cause. “Same for shootings, but that’s from a smaller number of cities.” One interesting note is that in Chicago, as well as some other cities, the increase in homicides began before the protests over the police killing of George Floyd. And in some cases, as in Chicago, the spike abruptly ended almost as quickly as it started, only to surge again weeks later, after the protests had died down. So it’s hard to blame only the protests for a spike — especially because we know other factors likely played a role, such as the start of summer, when crime tends to go up, and the end of stay-at-home orders. The city-by-city variation wouldn’t be unique to 2020. It’s perfectly normal, even when talking about national crime waves or declines, to see some places go up and others go down for different kinds of crime. The US is a big country, and there’s a range of local factors that can affect different kinds of crime. Still, there’s enough in the three data sets to draw some conclusions: At least in major US cities, homicides are up overall this summer — in some cases, significantly higher. But other kinds of crime, including violent crime overall, aren’t up and may actually have decreased so far this year. There was also a brief spike in burglary in major cities starting in late May, a spike that was so brief and contained to specific cities that experts told me it was likely due to the riots and looting surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests. As Asher noted on Twitter, this disconnect between murders and other crimes would be odd: “Violent crime and murder almost always move in the same direction and they are never this far apart nationally.” One way to reconcile this may be the nature of crime reporting. All of this data is based on reports to governments, typically local police departments. But with people stuck at home, and no government agency operating normally this year, perhaps these reports are just less likely to happen or get picked up this year, especially lower-level crimes involving drugs or stolen property. At the same time, it’s far harder for a homicide to go completely unreported — it’s difficult to ignore a dead person. This is why, for much of US history, the homicide rate has been used as a proxy for violent crime overall: The nature of homicide made it a more reliable metric than others for crime. In other words, it’s possible that other kinds of crime are up this year, but they’re simply going unreported. At any rate, homicide does seem to be up overall, at least in major US cities. One note on domestic violence: Some activists and experts worried it would increase this year as people were forced to stay home more often. The Council on Criminal Justice report and City Crime Stats’ analysis suggest that’s not the case, showing no significant change or a drop in some places. But there’s reason for skepticism: Both sources are pulling data from a limited number of cities. And reporting limitations may especially apply to domestic violence, since this year victims are potentially more likely to be trapped with their abusers and unable to make a phone call for help. There are plenty of caveats to all this data. It only represents the trends in large US cities, which means it might not be representative of the country as a whole. And it only covers 2020 through June or July, which means there are five or six months for trends to change. But the trend in some places, particularly with homicides, is alarming. We know less about why there might be a spike, but there are some theories So why did homicides increase in some cities? When I posed this question to experts, they again cautioned that no one can say with certainty what’s going on. That said, they offered some possible explanations, based on the limited information we have so far: 1) The pandemic has really messed things up: Looming over absolutely every discussion about 2020 is the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s no different for discussions about crime and violence. This year is very unusual, with many forced to stay at home and living in fear of a new, deadly virus. That could lead to all sorts of unpredictable behavior that experts don’t understand yet, and that might take us years to explain. 2) Depolicing led to more violence: In response to the 2014 and 2015 waves of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, officers in some cities pulled back, either out of fear that any act of aggressive policing could get them in trouble or in a counter-protest against Black Lives Matter.While protesters have challenged police’s crime-fighting effectiveness, there is a sizable body of evidence that more, and certain kinds of, policing do lead to less crime. Given that, some experts said that depolicing in response to protests could have led to more violence — what some in years past called the “Ferguson effect,” after the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of Michael Brown, and also seen in Baltimore after the 2015 killing of Freddie Gray. 3) Lack of trust in police led to more violence: In response to the “Ferguson effect” in 2015, some experts offered a different view of what was happening: Maybe people had lost trust in the police and, as a result, they relied more on street justice and other illegal activities to resolve interpersonal disputes — an interpretation of “legal cynicism,” explained well in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside and supported by some empirical research. Perhaps Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests led to a similar phenomenon in some cities this year. 4) More guns led to more gun violence: There’s been a massive surge in gun buying this year, seemingly in response to concerns about personal safety during a pandemic. And as the research has shown time and time again, more guns mean more gun violence. A new, preliminary study from researchers at UC Davis already concluded that gun purchases led to more gun violence than there would be otherwise through May this year. That could have further exacerbated homicide increases. 5) Overwhelmed hospitals led to more deaths: One way to explain a flat or dropping violent crime rate as homicides rise is that the violent crime was more deadly than usual. With health care systems across the US at times close to capacity or at capacity due to Covid-19, maybe hospitals and their staff had less ability to treat violent crime victims — increasing the chances they died this year. That could translate to more deaths, and homicides, even if violent crime remained flat or declined. 6) Idle hands led to more violence: Throughout the pandemic, a lot of people have been bored — with forms of entertainment, from restaurants to movie theaters, closed down. Schools are shut down too, millions are now unemployed. Other support programs that can prevent violence were shuttered due to the lockdowns. All of that could have led to conflict, and possibly more crime and violence. But, experts cautioned, this is all speculative, with little evidence so far to support it. 7) A bad economy led to more violence: With the economy tanking this year, some people maybe were pushed to desperate acts to make ends meet. Disruptions in the drug market, as product and customers dried up in a bad economy, may have led to more violent competition over what’s left. The bad economy also left local and state government with less funding for the kinds of social supports that can keep people out of trouble. All of that, and more, could have contributed to more crime and violence — but this, too, is extremely speculative. Another possibility: None of these explanations is right. With limited data in strange times, it wouldn’t be surprising if it turns out we have no idea what’s going on right now. “We can bet on it being unpredictable,” Doleac said. Again, there’s still no consensus about what’s caused crime to decline since the 1990s. In that context, it’s no surprise there’s nowhere near a consensus as to why a homicide spike that may not even be a national or long-term phenomenon has occurred so far this summer. The trends could change after a strange 2020 It’s possible that, before we understand why it’s happening, the year’s alarming homicide trends could recede. It’s happened before: In 2005 and 2006, the homicide rate briefly increased, only to start declining again before hitting record lows in 2014. In 2015 and 2016, the rates also spiked again only to start to dip after. In both instances, these years were effectively blips and the overall crime decline America has seen for the past three decades continued. Maybe after this very weird year ends, crime and violence trends will, similarly, go back to the previous normal. But that’s not a guarantee — and it’s not something, experts said, that we should rely on. “We don’t really understand why crime and violence went down,” John Roman, a criminal justice expert at NORC at the University of Chicago, told me. “Being able to say we should expect this unexplained phenomenon to continue strikes me as sort of irrational.” Even if we can’t explain what may be causing a homicide spike in some cities, there are certain strategies that might help fight crime in the short term — such as deploying police in crime hot spots (though that would have to be done carefully and with reforms, given the current political climate around policing), a “focused deterrence” program that targets the few people in a community engaging in violence with a mix of support and sanctions, and using civilian “interrupters” to personally intervene in cases in which violence seems likely to break out. But all of these approaches rely largely on in-person contact, which requires ending the pandemic. “The police, public health, and community approaches to violence reduction require that people meet face-to-face; they cannot be replaced by Zoom,” Rosenfeld and Lopez wrote in the Council on Criminal Justice report. “An underappreciated consequence of the pandemic is how social-distancing requirements have affected outreach to high-risk individuals.” So priority number one should be to end the pandemic — ending its potential ripple effects on crime and enabling evidence-based approaches that can help reduce crime. But to do that, the US public and governments will need to truly embrace strategies that have worked for countries like South Korea and Germany against Covid-19: physical distancing, masking, and testing, tracing, and isolating the sick. “Seeing what’s happening with these [crime] numbers can point us to or at least get us thinking about what potential policy levers we could employ that would be helpful,” Doleac said. “Otherwise, our attention is probably better focused on making sure we’re all wearing masks.” Beyond the pandemic, police are going to have more trouble fighting crime — including any current or future spikes — if large segments of the community don’t trust them. That’s where police reform comes into play. It’s a complicated topic, separate from a possible spike in violence this year. But, in short, experts say police should, at a minimum, show the communities they serve that they understand the concerns, acknowledge mistakes, and will change how officers are deployed and targeted. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that protests against police will flare up, just as they did from 2014 to 2016 and have again this summer. To the extent the protests lead to more violence — whether by leading to depolicing, or sowing and exposing distrust in law enforcement — that’s going to create public safety problems. To put it another way: There’s a lot we don’t know about crime, why it happens, and how to stop it. But it’s going to be much easier to wrap our heads around these issues once things get closer to how they should be — and that means seriously addressing the pandemic and protests against police brutality. Unfortunately, the US is going in the opposite direction, with the current resurgence of the coronavirus and President Donald Trump exacerbating police-community tensions with his push to deploy unsolicited federal agents in US cities. “How optimistic should we be for the rest of the summer?” Roman said. “I think the answer is not terribly optimistic, because none of these factors seem to be abating with the return of Covid.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
Trump’s tweets about saving the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream,” explained
The annual Memorial Day Parade in New Canaan, a Connecticut suburb. | Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images White identity politics trump free market regulatory reform. Dedicated readers of President Trump’s Twitter feed were treated this July to a new theme, former Vice President Joe Biden’s supposed desire to “abolish suburbs.” Trump has warned the “suburban housewives of America” that Biden “will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream.” The tweets are dog whistles aimed at reviving a failing presidential campaign. But formally speaking, these are allusions to the administration’s plan to withdraw the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. On July 29, Trump tweeted that, thanks to him, suburbanites “will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.” He claimed this initiative to make housing less affordable will guarantee that “crime will go down.” ...Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2020 At an event in Midland, Texas, later that same day, Trump further elaborated that under his watch “there will be no more low-income housing forced into the suburbs.” “It’s been going on for years,” Trump said. “I’ve seen conflict for years. It’s been hell for suburbia.” Narrowly, this is a fight about an Obama administration rule with few practical consequences. But it’s also about one of the most important issues in American politics, which is the systematic underproduction of housing due to excessive regulatory barriers. Trump’s campaign to rally suburbanites against the cause of increasing housing stock is important because it could shape how an influential voting bloc thinks about these issues. Somewhat ironically, the Trump administration itself had been on the other side of this fight until this summer. Most conservative economists think the Obama administration’s instincts on land use regulation were broadly correct. But then, Trump decided to turn a bit of regulatory quibbling into a culture war hammer. And conversely, many Democrats eager to jump on the president’s tweets and accuse him of racist dog whistling have yet to confront the reality that policy in their home states is often uncomfortably Trump-like in reality. House building is very heavily regulated An interesting lacuna to America’s mostly market-oriented economy is building houses. Most of the population lives in places where this activity is subject to a comprehensive regime of central planning, which states and which parcels of land can have houses built on them, what the minimum size of a parcel is, how many dwellings can be built on a given parcel (typically just one), how tall the building can be, how much yard space and parking there needs to be, etc. Some of the regulation of house-building is about safety — electricity needs to be up to code and sewage needs to be able to be disposed in a responsible way. But most of it isn’t. There’s nothing unsafe about a 12-unit, four-floor apartment building — it’s just illegal to build one in most places. Building rows of houses that share exterior walls is a space-efficient and cost-effective means of creating single-family homes, but it’s illegal to build them in most places. Big, shiny condo towers only make sense in places where land is very expensive, but there are some parcels of very expensive land where it’s illegal to build them. These rules profoundly shape the built environment in almost every American metropolitan area. But they are particularly significant for metro areas where land is in short supply due to a coastal location, proximity to mountains, or both. The basic problem is that land use regulatory decisions are made at a localized community level, which as William Fischel observes in his book, Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation leads to a kind of systematic undervaluing of the value of building more houses. Any new construction causes localized nuisances (more noise, more traffic, less parking) but the benefits of more abundant housing are fairly diffuse. In their recent book Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis, Katherine Levine Einstein, David Glick, and Maxwell Palmer show this is exacerbated by the tendency of community meetings to empower a self-selected group that is whiter and richer than the population as a whole. The fundamental dynamic exists essentially everywhere, but it’s especially severe in big coastal metro areas that are also very politically liberal. While traditionally, criticism of this dynamic has come largely from right-of-center economists (the kind of people who love to complain about regulation), as Conor Dougherty details in his recent book Golden Gates: Fighting for housing in America, a new generation of progressive activists in West Coast cities have been fighting for change. A subset of the problems with American land use policy relates to race and segregation. Back in 1917 — long before the main era of civil rights victories in federal courts — the Supreme Court held in Buchanan v. Warley that cities and towns could not establish explicit racial segregation rules on their land use policies. As Christopher Silver explores in his article “The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities,” this simply created a situation in which “cities hired prominent planning professionals to fashion legally defensible racial zoning plans.” In other words, zoning schemes were drawn up with the intention of de facto upholding patterns of racial segregation. As Jessica Trounstine explores in her book, Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities, neither the Civil Rights Act nor the subsequent Fair Housing Act really ever accomplished much to alter the pattern of de facto housing segregation — in part because the systems that generated segregated living patterns were formally race-neutral dating all the way back to the 1920s. The Obama administration tried, in a modest way, to improve the situation. The Obama administration’s baby steps on housing The Obama administration clearly took the view that regulatory barriers to creating new housing supply were an economic problem. His Council of Economic Advisers put out a report about this, and Chair Jason Furman gave a speech on the topic and repeatedly highlighted it as an issue. In September 2016, the council introduced a “housing development toolkit” — a set of best practices for jurisdictions looking to reduce barriers. They also offered some technical assistance to local communities that wanted to rezone for more housing supply. In 2015, the council promulgated a new regulation — the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule — that essentially required local governments to try harder to comply with Fair Housing Act objectives. That meant, in practice, requiring local governments to identify rules that could contribute to patterns of racial segregation and develop plans to undo them. This was always controversial in conservative circles, but the controversy essentially took two forms. One, exemplified in this 2018 article by the Cato Institute’s Vanessa Brown Calder, was essentially technical. She wrote, “If policymakers are interested in determining the cause of racial segregation in cities, they don’t have to collect data and guess at it. A major cause of racial segregation is already known: zoning regulation. Zoning regulation segregates by race because race is frequently correlated with income.” She believed we should reduce zoning barriers, not create a new checkbox compliance process. The other, exemplified in this 2015 National Review article by Stanley Kurtz, took a culture war approach and darkly warned that “the regulation amounts to back-door annexation, a way of turning America’s suburbs into tributaries of nearby cities.” As far as critiques go, Calder Brown’s is much closer to the mark. As historian Tom Sugrue argued on July 29, the reality was that AFFH, the Obama fair housing rule, was having a marginal impact at best and scrapping it would not change much in practice. 15/The Obama administration's #AFFH rules, basically shelved by Trump's HUD well before this month's presidential twitterstorm, were never going to solve the problem of separate, unequal housing, housing unaffordability (especially in suburbia), and persistent discrimination.— Tom Sugrue (@TomSugrue) July 29, 2020 However, while the Trump administration’s Housing and Urban Development Department has always been critical of AFFH, this summer Trump has gotten personally involved with the issue — he’s switched the administration’s stance from Calder Brown’s technical critique to Kurtz’s demagogic one. The Trump administration used to agree with Obama Housing policy has not been much of a topic of public debate in the Trump years. But in its official statements, Trump’s HUD under Ben Carson has essentially agreed with the Obama administration’s diagnosis: Excessive regulatory barriers to housing construction are an economic problem for the country. In the fall of 2018, Carson vowed to “look at increasing the supply of affordable housing by reducing onerous zoning regulations.” ICYMI: @HUDgov is taking on the #NIMBYs. I agree with @Noahpinion that we must look at increasing the supply of affordable housing by reducing onerous zoning regulations. Zoning laws are holding back America’s cities. #YIMBY— Ben Carson (@SecretaryCarson) September 12, 2018 A year later, Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers diagnosed excessively strict zoning rules as a major contributor to rising homelessness, writing that “President Trump signed an executive order that will seek to remove regulatory barriers in the housing market, which would reduce the price of homes and reduce homelessness.” Like Obama’s actions on this front, Trump’s actions did not amount to very much. The federal government is a marginal player in land use politics and will continue to be one unless Congress enacts new legislation empowering more serious changes. Conceptually, Trump and Obama’s economic teams were reading from the same playbook — rules should be changed to allow denser development on expensive land, especially in the highest-priced metro areas. Joe Biden’s housing plan, unlike Trump’s or Obama’s, could actually make this a reality by calling for Congress to create a program that would link HUD and Department of Transportation grant money to zoning changes. Doing so and forcing jurisdictions to allow denser housing types would not, in the real world, “abolish the suburbs.” Most people would keep living in single-family homes under pretty much any regulatory scheme. But conceivably, America’s expensive suburbs could come to be dotted with sporadic clusters of townhouses or mid-rise apartments, increasing affordability and reducing segregation. Trump is now promising to save the suburban housewives of America from that fate. Democrats denounce this as racism or worse — with Sen. Chris Murphy (CT) calling Trump “a proud, vocal segregationist.” Oh my. I mean, it’s not even a dog whistle anymore. Our President is now a proud, vocal segregationist.— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) July 29, 2020 But realistically, just as Obama wasn’t abolishing the suburbs, Trump isn’t creating segregation. He’s simply saying that he will let America’s local governments maintain the land use regimes they have — regimes that have created incredibly segregated patterns of dwelling in places like Murphy’s home state of Connecticut. Nothing that Trump says or does is preventing Connecticut’s Democratic state legislature and Democratic governor from tearing down those barriers. But they remain in place — as do comparable barriers throughout the suburban Northeast — because voters and elected officials have chosen to leave them there. Given the marginal federal role in land use issues, the biggest question going forward may be less whether Trump demagoguery convinces suburbanites to vote for him, than whether it convinces blue state suburbanites that the land use status quo Trump is defending genuinely reflects his values rather than theirs. On a conceptual level, after all, MAGA anti-immigration politics and progressive anti-development activists’ rallying cry of defending neighborhood character really do have a lot in common, and a lot of good could be accomplished if blue states decide that's a reason to embrace diversity and change practical land use policy in theory and rhetoric. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
Arizona’s primaries could provide a hint as to whether Democrats can take the Senate
Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) wears a mask depicting Arizona’s state flag as she listens to testimony during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 6, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Shawn Thew/Pool via Getty Images Here are three races to watch in Arizona’s primary election on August 4. When it comes to Arizona, much of the nation’s political attention this year has been focused on whether former Vice President Joe Biden can flip a state President Donald Trump won in 2016. But exactly how either Trump or Biden governs could be decided not by the presidential election but by races lower on the ticket — including one for Arizona’s Senate seat. This Tuesday, August 4, voters pick their favored candidate in that primary and several others across the state. For the Senate, sole Democratic candidate Mark Kelly will coast to victory unchallenged. But a challenge against incumbent Sen. Martha McSally in the Republican primary could show just how much enthusiasm there is for her — and, perhaps, for whether Democrats can take her Senate seat to help them build a majority in both houses in Congress. Meanwhile, the Democratic primary in the Sixth Congressional District, which is potentially up for grabs in November, is shaping up to be a battleground over how the party moves forward, whether that means embracing a more progressive strategy (that’s perhaps politically riskier) or a potentially safer, more moderate approach. There’s also an interesting local race for sheriff: Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio — who was convicted of criminal contempt of court in 2017 for continuing his racist immigration enforcement in defiance of a judge’s order, though he later received a presidential pardon from Trump — is running to get his old job back. Here’s what you need to know. 1) The Republican primary for US Senate Former astronaut Mark Kelly has the Democratic primary on lockdown, as he’s running uncontested. But things are a little murkier for sitting Rep. Martha McSally, who’s facing a primary challenge from businessman Daniel McCarthy. Polling for the GOP primary is very thin, but it’s widely believed McSally has the advantage as the incumbent — albeit one who was appointed to her seat after losing to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in a bid to replace former Sen. Jeff Flake in 2018, who did not seek reelection that year. The question, political observers said, is how much of an advantage McSally actually has. If McSally wins but sees a considerable amount of voters pull away to McCarthy, that could demonstrate little Republican enthusiasm for her as a candidate — and perhaps spell trouble for her in the general election. “If there are any issues between McSally and the base, it will be revealed in the primary,” Paul Bentz, a political consultant in Arizona, told me. “If McSally’s victory is smaller than expected, it would spell trouble for her in the general, as she would run the risk of some of the Republicans choosing to stay home — or vote for president but skip her race.” That would be bad news for a campaign that’s already seemingly behind. According to a RealClearPolitics average of the polls, Kelly currently leads McSally by nearly 7 percentage points. So if it looks like McSally is facing a formidable challenge, that could be bad news for her and other Arizona Republicans, but good news for Kelly and Democrats looking to retake the Senate. 2) The Democratic primary for Arizona’s Sixth Congressional District One primary fight in Arizona could expose some of the remaining splinters within the Democratic Party between its more progressive wing and its more moderate members. In the Sixth Congressional District, Hiral Tipirneni, Anita Malik, Stephanie Rimmer, and Karl Gentles are fighting to run against Republican incumbent David Schweikert in November. Tipirneni, a physician, and Malik, a former tech executive, are believed to be the favorites, with Tipirneni boasting a huge fundraising advantage but Malik leading a challenge to her from the left. Malik ran against Schweikert in 2018 but lost by a little more than 10 percentage points. Tipirneni also ran in 2018 — against Republican Debbie Lesko in the Eighth Congressional District — and lost by 5 percentage points in the special election and 11 in the general, although she beat expectations in what’s considered a very safe Republican seat. This time, Tipirneni took her campaign to the Sixth Congressional District. That’s invited accusations of carpetbagging, or seeking office in a district in which she has no personal connections. But it’s also opened rifts between the progressive and moderate wings of the party, with progressives largely on the side of Malik, who supports Medicare-for-all, and moderates on the side of Tipirneni, who’s called for keeping private insurance plans while letting people buy into Medicare. “If Tipirneni loses, it would definitely show that progressives are incredibly engaged,” Bentz said. That may have implications in the general, too, in one of the dozens of seats Democrats could win to further bolster their hold on the House. The Sixth District is rated “Lean Republican” by the Cook Political Report, but it’s also a district with the kind of suburban voter who has swung against the president and his party in recent years. Some experts believe Tipirneni stands the better chance at appealing to a Republican-leaning district, especially given that Malik lost to Schweikert before. “My read is that, based on recent history, Tipirneni will be the far more formidable opponent,” Mike O’Neil, a political consultant in Arizona, told me. “I have no idea who will win the primary, but my guess is that most pros want Tipirneni based on her impressive recent track record.” It’s a reflection, in other words, of many of the same fights Democrats have wrestled with in other stages: backing a possibly safer, more moderate candidate over a perhaps riskier, more progressive choice. 3) The Republican primary for Maricopa County sheriff The first thing you should know about the Maricopa County sheriff’s race is that Joe Arpaio is running again. The former sheriff was previously convicted for violating a court order meant to stop racial profiling. Arpaio explicitly used racial profiling in his fight against unauthorized immigration, deploying his deputies in predominantly Latin neighborhoods to arrest people. Due to the indiscriminate racial profiling, his deputies would often arrest immigrants who were legally authorized to be in the US. But Trump pardoned the former sheriff in 2017. Arpaio was, not coincidentally, a major supporter of both the president and his tough approach to illegal immigration. Although the pardon was immediately controversial, it bolstered Arpaio’s reputation as a Trump ally. Now Arpaio is hoping that his reputation will get him back to the office he used to run. But first he has to win the Republican primary against Jerry Sheridan — a former chief deputy who served under Arpaio and was also found in contempt of the same court order — and Glendale police officer Mike Crawford. Arpaio would then have to beat Democratic incumbent Paul Penzone, who defeated Arpaio in 2016 by more than 11 percentage points and later reversed some of Arpaio’s policies. Some political observers are pretty certain about Arpaio’s chances: If Arpaio wins the primary, O’Neil said, “He will lose the general.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
Kansas, of all places, is shaping up to be an important 2020 battleground
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach with his wife Heather in Topeka, Kansas on November 6, 2018. | Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images The most important Kansas primary elections, briefly explained. Kansas has a slate of important primary elections on Tuesday, setting up what could be one of the most competitive general election seasons in recent memory. From the presidential contest and an all-important Senate race to several House elections, the state is shaping up to be one of the more unlikely 2020 battlegrounds. Why? Because Kansas, where the electorate tends to skew moderate, seems to be souring on Donald Trump. The New York Times reported private polling has shown a close race between Trump and Joe Biden in the state. Trump won Kansas by more than 20 points in 2016, but a few months before the 2020 election, voters are pretty evenly split on the president’s job performance, according to Morning Consult. His approval rating has dropped by 20 points since he took office. In 2018, Democrat Laura Kelly won the governor’s race to put her party back in power for the first time in a decade. This is a state where more than half of voters identify as moderate or liberal. And its population has been growing more suburban and urban, despite its prairie reputation. “We have a big chunk of stereotypical suburban voters that are transitioning to be more Democratic now,” Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, told me. “They’re not as comfortable today with the politics of the Republican Party, and a lot of them voted for Laura Kelly. Those voters carry a lot of heft.” In all likelihood, the presidential election isn’t going to be won or lost here. If Joe Biden prevails in Kansas, he’s probably on his way to a landslide. But the battle for control of the US Senate could be decided in this state. And the general election campaign could look quite different depending on which Republican triumphs in Tuesday’s primary. Kansas’s US Senate Republican primary Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, US Rep. Roger Marshall, and businessman Bob Hamilton are the leading contenders for the Republican Senate nomination, vying for the opportunity to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Roberts. Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images Sen. Pat Roberts on May 7. Kobach is a well-known commodity and has been an immigration hawk for years. As Miller puts it, he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.” He served two terms as secretary of state before running for governor in 2018. But Kobach’s inflammatory rhetoric and hardline views have sometimes put him at odds with the more moderate Kansas electorate, and he lost the governor’s race. He hasn’t been able to raise much money for the 2020 Senate race, though as Recode’s Teddy Schleifer reported, libertarian tech billionaire Peter Thiel pumped almost $1 million into the campaign to support Kobach. But he does enjoy support among Kansas’s more conservative voters, which has kept him at the front of the primary field. Marshall won his US House seat in 2018 before quickly being courted by the Republican establishment to run for Senate after the national party’s preferred choice, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, declined to enter the race. He is a party-line Republican; at times, he’s sounded open to reforms like a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, but he has also vocally supported Trump’s agenda. There is no getting to Kobach’s right on that particular issue, however, and so the primary campaign has assumed a familiar mainstream-versus-conservative tenor. “He’s the kind of Republican that, if Republican leadership has negotiated a compromise spending bill with Democrats, Marshall is going to vote for it because leadership is going to vote for it,” Miller said of Marshall. “He’s not going to vote no on principle.” Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images Rep. Roger Marshall speaks to reporters on October 23, 2019. According to the New York Times, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other senior Republicans have begged Trump to endorse Marshall over Kobach, fearing the latter would be more vulnerable in a general election after his 2018 loss. But Trump has so far not waded into the race and likely views Kobach as an ideological ally. Hamilton, who started his own plumbing business in the 1980s, is the wild card. He’s put more than $3 million of his own money into the campaign, portraying himself as the archconservative outsider. Polling on the race has been sparse, with the last survey from June showing Kobach with a 9-point lead (35-26) over Marshall and Hamilton sitting in third with 15 percent. At this point, the Kansas Senate race is likely to be somewhat competitive, in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1932, no matter who the Republican candidate is. Barbara Bollier, a state senator expected to easily prevail in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, has raised more than $7 million so far, much more than any of her potential GOP opponents. “I think that’s really shocked people, to put that lightly,” Miller said. “I think she’s proving herself to be a better candidate than a lot of people wanted to give her credit for.” But national forecasters expect the race to be tighter if Kobach, who has already lost a statewide election in the Trump era, wins the Republican nomination. Sabato’s Crystal Ball currently rates the Kansas Senate race Likely Republican, but that would change if Kobach emerges with the nomination. “I do think a Kobach nomination endangers the Senate seat, and makes the overall GOP path to retaining a Senate majority harder,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor at the Crystal Ball, told me. “We will make the rating of Kansas more competitive if Kobach wins.” Kansas First Congressional District Republican primary Marshall is vacating his seat in Kansas’s First Congressional District so that he can run for Senate. The district, which covers most of western Kansas, has a strong Republican bent; the Cook Political Report rates it R+24, meaning it’s 24 points more Republican than the US overall. That means the winner of the GOP primary on Tuesday is all but assured to wind up in Congress next year. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the district Safe Republican. Tracey Mann, a former lieutenant governor, is considered the frontrunner, though Bill Clifford, a doctor and businessman, has spent more than $500,000 of his own money to try to make the primary competitive. “I think people would be surprised if Mann didn’t win,” Miller told me. The expected Democratic nominee after Tuesday’s primary, Kali Barnett, is “a good candidate in the wrong district” for the general election, Miller said. “If she gets 30 percent, that’s an accomplishment.” Kansas Second Congressional District primaries Oddly enough, it is the Republican incumbent in the Second District, which covers most of eastern Kansas besides the immediate Kansas City region, who is facing the most notable primary challenge. Rep. Steve Watkins is currently facing felony charges for alleged voter fraud. Prosecutors have said he used an inaccurate address to vote in a 2019 municipal election, leading him to vote in the wrong city council election. Watkins has said the address mix-up was a simple mistake and called the charges “hyper political” and suspicious, according to the Kansas City Star, insinuating the prosecutor is trying to help his Republican primary opponent, Jake LaTurner. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images Rep. Steve Watkins in the Capitol on on Feb. 11. LaTurner, 32, is the Kansas state Treasurer. He’s also received the endorsement of the Kansas Farmer Bureau, one of the most important interest groups in the state. LaTurner has criticized Watkins over the voting scandal, saying he is putting a winnable seat at risk. There has been no public polling heading into Tuesday’s election. Whoever comes out of the GOP primary is expected to face Democrat Michelle De La Isla, mayor of Topeka. She has raised a healthy amount of money in the primary (more than $700,000) and could use her compelling life story — she had been homeless for a time in her native Puerto Rico before moving to Kansas, getting a college degree, and entering political life — to make the general election campaign a close one. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the race Likely Republican, but some other forecasters like the Cook Political Report place it in a more competitive category. “Her primary is just a formality,” Miller said of De La Isla. “Democrats are, I think, very interested in this district.” Kansas Third Congressional District Republican primary Rep. Sharice Davids is the Democratic incumbent. She took the seat in 2018, part of the wave that won her party control of the House. “It’s your poster child for high-education, high-income suburbia, zipping off Democratic at warp speed,” Miller told me. “It’s hard to see Republicans seriously contesting a district like this.” It’s still teetering on the edge of being competitive: Cook rates the district R+4 and Lean Democratic, though Sabato’s Crystal Ball is more confident in Davids’s chances, putting the race in the Likely Democratic column. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images Rep. Sharice Davids speaks at the event in the Capitol on March 10. The Republican primary field, to determine who will challenge Davids, is cluttered. Three candidates — businesswoman Amanda Adkins, ex-nonprofit CEO Sara Hart Weir, and former mayor Adrienne Vallejo Foster — have raised at least six figures and have legitimate political credentials; Adkins notably served as an adviser to then-Gov. Sam Brownback. The candidates in the Third District, Miller told me, are “falling over themselves to be as pro-Trump as possible.” “That’s where they’ve come into conflict with each other,” he said. “Who’s the Trumpiest here?” Given the changing political nature of the district, that could end up being a problem in the November race against Davids. But first, one of them must make it out of Tuesday’s primary. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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“The end of arms control as we know it”
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the New START treaty in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP The last agreement limiting America’s and Russia’s nuclear arsenals is months away from expiring. In December 2019, a secretive group of elite Americans and Russians gathered around a large square table. It was chilly outside, as Dayton, Ohio, can get in the winter, but the mood inside was just as frosty. The 147th meeting of the Dartmouth Conference, a biannual gathering of citizens from both nations to improve ties between Washington and Moscow, had convened. Former ambassadors and military generals, journalists, business leaders, and other experts came together to discuss the core challenges to the two countries’ delicate relationship, as members had since 1960. In recent years, that has included everything from election interference to the war in Ukraine. But now the prospect of an old danger worried them most, just as it had the group’s quiet supporters President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev decades before: nuclear catastrophe. Proceedings typically start with a lengthy summary of the relationship, touching on security, medical, societal, political, and religious issues up for discussion. This time, the synopsis was unnervingly short. “We went right into the nuclear issue,” said a conference member, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak openly about the event. “There was a belief we were in serious danger because it’s the end of arms control as we know it.” “It was dramatic and sobering,” the member added. The US and Russia were then barely over a year away from losing the last major arms control agreement between them: New START, short for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. That agreement limits the size of the two countries’ nuclear arsenals, which together account for 93 percent of all nuclear warheads on earth. The deal expires on February 5, 2021, and those sitting around the table feared its demise. The trepidation inspired the group’s four co-chairs to do something the Dartmouth Conference hadn’t done in its 60-year existence: release a statement. “Given the deep concerns we share about the security of our peoples, for the first time in our history we are compelled by the urgency of the situation to issue this public appeal to our governments,” they wrote, calling for the US and Russia to invoke the treaty’s five-year extension. Photo12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev in Washington, DC, in September 1959. Today, roughly half a year before New START stops, the group’s members continue to stress the consequences. “We’re at a decisive point,” said retired US Army Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, who was at the December meetings. “The entire arms control regime of the past 50 years is about to pass.” Seventy-five years ago this week, the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, unleashing a weapon of mass destruction on the world. Decades of painstaking diplomacy between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers, the US and Russia, helped keep both nations from unleashing that destructive power on each other ever since. But now the US and Russia are mere months from throwing it all away. New START may soon join other defunct arms control agreements, including one prohibiting ground-based intermediate-range missiles scrapped in 2019 and another allowing overflights of nuclear facilities likely to end this year. One reason for all of this: President Donald Trump wants to put his own stamp on arms control history, one way or another. “They would like to do something, and so would I,” Trump told Axios about a July call he had with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “If we can do something with Russia in terms of nuclear proliferation, which is a very big problem — bigger problem than global warming, a much bigger problem than global warming in terms of the real world — that would be a great thing.” But Trump’s administration acknowledges its view of nuclear issues is much wider than the weapons America and Russia have: It also involves China’s arsenal. “The president has directed us to think more broadly than the current arms control construct and pursue an agreement that reflects current geopolitical dynamics and includes both Russia and China,” a senior administration official told me on the condition of anonymity. “We’re continuing to evaluate whether New START can be used to achieve that objective.” That evaluation has turned into a delicate process with Russia, with high-level and working-level meetings taking place in Vienna to see if New START can be salvaged. Officials from both countries met again at the end of July in Austria’s capital, while China — which the US wants involved to discuss limiting its nuclear and missile capabilities, even though it isn’t a party to New START — didn’t show up. That may explain why Trump waffled on getting China involved. “We’re going to work this first and we’ll see,” he said outside the White House when asked about folding China into negotiations with Russia. “China right now is a much lesser nuclear power — you understand that — than Russia ... we would want to talk to China eventually.” Some say Trump has good reasons to rethink things. The Russians have cheated on previous deals. Washington could use Moscow’s clear desire to extend New START to its advantage, like getting them to promise no meddling in the 2020 election. And China, some believe, should be included in a modern set of agreements soon, if not now. But even former Trump officials say those rationales shouldn’t mean the end of New START. “New START is working,” Andrea Thompson, the State Department’s top arms control official from April 2018 to October 2019, told me a few months after leaving the government. Former Vice President Joe Biden agrees, and has already vowed to seek an extension in the few weeks between the start of his presidency and the deal’s expiration. Yet there’s still a chance Trump doesn’t continue the accord and Biden can’t strike a way forward. If New START ends, then, the general animosity between the US and Russia could lead to a nuclear arms race and prompt China to keep building up its forces — a situation unlike anything we’ve seen since the Cold War. “We’re creating the greater threat of a conflict that could literally destroy each country and perhaps even our planet,” Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and defense secretary, told me. The following account of the looming death of US-Russia arms control is based on conversations with over 20 current and former US officials, lawmakers, and experts on three continents. It traces the story of arms control from its origins to its possible end in the coming years, and what that end could mean for all of us. The long and dangerous road to arms control Washington and Moscow didn’t just sit down one day and decide, “Hey, we really should lower tensions and put restrictions on our nuclear arsenals.” They basically had to be scared and pressured into doing so. It took decades of demonstrations, terrifying close calls, and nuclear surprises before both sides decided it was time to talk. Below are five of the most important moments on the path to arms control, briefly explained. 1) The rise of the anti-nuclear movement: After American forces dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, vividly demonstrating the horrifying power of those weapons, many Americans, and people around the world, rallied against them. The movement ebbed and flowed, but the overall result was that sustained pressure restrained US policymakers, Christopher Miller, an expert on US-Russian nuclear history at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, told me. 2) The US-Soviet standoff over Berlin: In 1958, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, wanted US, French, and British troops to leave West Berlin so the city could fall under Soviet-controlled East German authority. President Dwight Eisenhower left office without a resolution to the standoff. President John F. Kennedy escalated things, saying in a 1961 address: “We will at times be ready to talk, if talk will help. But we must also be ready to resist with force, if force is used upon us. Either alone would fail. Together, they can serve the cause of freedom and peace.” In the end, a Kennedy-Khrushchev backchannel de-escalated the situation, but the Berlin crisis showed that any major disagreement between the two powers could eventually heighten and conceivably go nuclear. The implications were staggering. 3) The Cuban missile crisis: On October 14, 1962, the United States discovered the Soviets had put nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the southern tip of Florida. What followed was a 13-day crisis that brought America to the brink of war with the Soviet Union. It finally ended in a deal where each superpower would remove missiles from a single region: the Soviets from Cuba and the US from Turkey. “I got introduced to the nuclear equation and dangers early on,” said Sam Nunn, who would go on to serve as a US senator from Georgia from 1972 to 1996, and to become a major figure in US nuclear policy, about his time as a congressional staffer on a trip to Germany during that period. “It was a very close call.” 4) China’s nuclear test: China tested its first nuclear device on October 16, 1964, becoming the fifth nuclear state (in addition to the US and USSR, Britain and France also had nuclear weapons by this point). China used technology given to it by the Soviets years before and caught the Americans mostly by surprise. Both nations felt immense responsibility for letting the nuclear genie out of the bottle, experts say, in part because they had paved the way to getting the technology necessary to make the bomb. The US and Soviet Union thus worked to make arms control a reality. A mushroom cloud seen in China’s first atomic weapon test on October 16, 1964. 5) Breakdown in Soviet-Chinese relations: The decline in Moscow’s relations with Beijing compelled the Soviets to build trust with America, despite much reluctance. After forming an alliance in the 1950s, ideological differences — namely the centrality of communism to domestic and foreign policy — led both capitals to drift apart from one another. Disagreement over a mutually claimed uninhabited island erupted in 1969, confirming the break. But the split caused some heartburn in the Soviet Union, as leaders didn’t want spiraling relations with powers to its east and west at the same time. Moscow decided it could improve its ties with the US by curbing its nuclear arsenal. In other words, it took an increasingly dangerous period before the US and the Soviet Union finally realized they had to build trust to avoid disaster. “There was a real strong feeling that this was an opportunity to try and contain what could happen,” Panetta, the former Pentagon and CIA chief, told me. That feeling turned into action, and produced the first major arms control deals between the world’s most heavily armed nations. “This is a turning point in the history of the world” The first, most promising arms control talks between the Americans and Soviets formally began in November 1969, and after a little over two years of negotiations, the two countries signed a landmark nuclear arms treaty in Moscow. The accord consisted of two agreements. The first was the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) of 1972, which restricted each country to just two anti-missile systems: one for the nation’s capital and another to protect an intercontinental ballistic missile field. This was a big deal. Those systems were developed to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles: If the Soviets fired a ballistic missile at America, for example, the US could launch a missile of its own to destroy the Soviet one. Both countries considered putting these defenses throughout their lands to protect key places like major cities, military sites, and critical infrastructure. But by only having two sites, the US and the Soviets basically agreed to leave most of their respective countries vulnerable to attack. Should the US fire a missile at most places in the Soviet Union, it would be almost certain to hit its target, but any retaliation by Moscow would likely strike its target in America, too. Keeping both sides relatively weak, then, was meant to prompt the countries to think twice before launching any missiles, and perhaps persuade them to stop developing more offensive capabilities. The US Senate ratified the deal that August, and it went into effect two months later. The other part of the pact, known as the Interim Agreement, capped US and Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) forces. The US couldn’t have more than 1,054 ICBM silos and 656 SLBM launch tubes. The Soviet Union was also unable to have more than 1,607 ICBM silos and 740 SLBM launch tubes. Those two agreements, collectively known as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks — or SALT — kicked off the era of arms control between the two major nuclear powers. This was a weighty moment in history: After decades of dangerously close calls and nuclear buildups, the world’s two strongest nations walked back from the edge and talked out their problems. The deal wasn’t perfect by any means, but it demonstrated the first sign of hope that maybe they wouldn’t blow up one another — and the world. Instead of racing toward destruction, they purposely curtailed their power for their own national interest and for the common good of the world. “It is an enormously important agreement,” President Richard Nixon said in May 1972, speaking at a dinner before the signing ceremony, “but, again, it is only an indication of what can happen in the future as we work toward peace in the world. I have great hopes on that score.” Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin concurred: The agreement would “go down in history as a major achievement on the road towards curbing the arms race,” he said. “This is a great victory for the Soviet and American peoples.” Or, as one Soviet journalist covering the event put it: “This is a turning point in the history of the world.” Arms control gained momentum ... The two countries were primed to keep working on restricting the strength and size of their arsenals. “The Americans and Soviets realized their stature would improve if they took arms control seriously,” Sarah Bidgood, an expert on Russia’s nuclear program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told me. “They would look better in the eyes of the international community if they led on that issue.” That momentum got a boost from several major events. In 1974, India detonated its first nuclear bomb, which it developed using technology it received from American companies under an Eisenhower-era policy called “Atoms for Peace.” “This visionary program was based on a bargain between the United States and developing states. The United States provided research reactors, fuel and scientific training to developing countries wanting civilian nuclear programs,” Ariana Rowberry, an expert in arms control and nuclear policy, wrote in 2013. “In exchange, recipient states committed to only use the technology and education for peaceful, civilian purposes.” The program’s goal was to promote peaceful nuclear energy and scientific knowledge. But its lasting legacy is that it spurred the global spread of nuclear weapons. In fact, the policy helped build up the nuclear programs of Iran, Israel, and Pakistan, ultimately contributing to more nuclear proliferation, not less. “[I]t is legitimate to ask whether Atoms for Peace accelerated proliferation by helping some nations achieve more advanced arsenals than would have otherwise been the case,” Leonard Weiss, a nuclear expert at Stanford University, wrote in 2003. “The jury has been in for some time on this question, and the answer is yes.” Though both the US and the Soviet Union had been instrumental in driving it, this global proliferation of the deadliest weapons ever developed by humans ultimately deeply concerned Washington and Moscow. And it gave them that much more impetus to stop a widening nuclear spread. The growth of anti-nuclear protests in the US also added to the push for further arms control. A major manifestation of this movement came in 1982, when 1 million people gathered in Manhattan on June 12 to protest nuclear weapons. “The groups participating ranged from radicals seeking immediate unilateral disarmament by the United States to moderates asking a resumption of negotiations on arms cutbacks,” the New York Times wrote the next day. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., spoke to that crowd during the rally. ‘’We have come here in numbers so large that the message must get through to the White House and Capitol Hill,’’ she said. That movement inspired a similar one in Europe in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration wanted to put short- and medium-range missiles on the continent to deter the Soviet Union. The main fear was that Moscow might consider those actions so provocative that it would attack those positions and start World War III. The protests proved so successful, the University of Hamburg’s arms control expert Ulrich Kühn told me, that in Germany, for example, they contributed to the resignation of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. During this tumultuous time, American and Soviet leaders met to strike more and more deals, or at least build on previous ones. Not every attempt succeeded, but the two nations would eventually sign more agreements over the next four decades, including an update to SALT — called SALT II, signed in 1979 — and the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. These agreements played a critical role in lowering tensions between the two nations and curbing the risk of nuclear escalation. Those tensions, though, were about to rise once again. ... and arms control teetered President Reagan was worried the Americans and the Soviets would blow each other to smithereens. The reliance on “mutually assured destruction” — the notion that neither country would attack the other with nuclear weapons, because the retaliation would escalate into the annihilation of both countries — was folly to him. In fact, he called the concept a “suicide pact.” His solution to the problem? “Star Wars.” No, not the film — a missile defense system involving lasers armed with nuclear warheads in space. “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” Reagan said in a national address in March 1983. But the administration realized that creating such a system would contravene the ABM Treaty. After all, the whole point of the treaty was to ensure that each country could successfully attack the other with lots of nuclear missiles, thereby deterring either side from ever launching a strike. If the US could now successfully use space lasers to intercept incoming Soviet missiles, that would put the US at a major advantage over the Soviet Union, thus upending the fragile balance of mutually assured destruction. The “Star Wars” plan, formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), was ultimately scrapped, in part because of the ABM Treaty. Yet that the plan was seriously considered showed that the US commitment to arms control wasn’t so ironclad. The real breaking point in the era of cooperation began in the early 2000s. Months before becoming president, George W. Bush told a Washington crowd that he would reduce America’s nuclear arsenal to “the lowest possible number consistent with our national security.” But after the 9/11 attacks, Bush and his national security team concluded that the world had changed drastically. Old ways of thinking about national security needed an update, and that included arms control. The Bush administration believed that arms control arrangements with the Soviet Union not only were anachronistic (after all, the Soviet Union didn’t even exist anymore by that point) but also limited America’s ability to defend itself. Bush’s team cited two main reasons. First, the US needed all tools at its disposal to combat terror groups trying to harm America, and it didn’t want to be restricted if terrorists got a hold of a nuclear weapon. Second, concerns were mounting about Iran and North Korea improving their missile programs. Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, thought the ABM Treaty limited America’s ability to respond if those countries were to launch an ICBM at the mainland. As a result, Bush withdrew the US from the ABM Treaty, claiming it inappropriately restricted America’s might. “Defending the American people is my highest priority as commander in chief,” the president said in December 2001, “and I cannot and will not allow the United States to remain in a treaty that prevents us from developing effective defenses.” Moscow saw this as the dawn of a more confrontational United States. “Russia perceived the US was now going full steam ahead in making its own international rules,” said Kühn, the arms control expert at the University of Hamburg. This perception only deepened as the US pushed for an expansion of NATO to include members nearer and nearer to Russia’s borders. However, the Bush administration did sign the Strategic Offense Reductions Treaty (SORT, also known as the Moscow Treaty because of where it was signed) in May 2002. It committed the US and Russia to keep their deployed strategic nuclear forces between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads each for 10 years, and was ratified unanimously the following year. The Bush administration decided to make the deal, some experts say, because it was basically costless. The accord was almost unverifiable, so the US could still be flexible if it needed to be, while Washington-Moscow ties improved at the same time. President Barack Obama wanted to go further in the direction of arms control. During his first trip to Europe as president in 2009, he gave a speech in Prague vowing to reduce America’s number of nuclear weapons and announcing his intention to sign a new arms control deal with Russia. As a way to garner support from Senate Republicans for a deal with Russia, Obama kick-started a nuclear modernization program that would cost billions and led to much criticism from arms control advocates. Some in line with Obama’s stated vision felt betrayed long after. But the gambit worked: In 2010, he announced New START, which he called “the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades.” The agreement, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that April, reduced “by about a third — the nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia will deploy,” the White House explained at the time. “It significantly reduces missiles and launchers. It puts in place a strong and effective verification regime. And it maintains the flexibility that we need to protect and advance our national security, and to guarantee our unwavering commitment to the security of our allies,” the White House statement continued. The agreement went into effect on February 5, 2011, and replaced SORT. Under the terms of the treaty, the United States and Russia were to meet the limits imposed on their arsenals by February 5, 2018. But then, in 2016, a new president was elected. Trump takes control, and trashes arms control Nuclear war is a threat Donald Trump has often talked about over the years, and he has sometimes seemed genuinely concerned about it. “I’ve always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it’s a very important element in my thought process. It’s the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody’s focusing on the nuts and bolts of it,” Trump said in a 1990 interview with Playboy. Trump has said many times that he learned about the destructive power of nuclear weapons at an early age from his uncle John, a professor at MIT who was a renowned scientific mind. “He was a brilliant scientist,” Trump said in another Playboy interview, this time in 2004, “and he would tell me weapons are getting so powerful today that humanity is in tremendous trouble. This was 25 years ago, but he was right.” When Trump took office on ‎January 20, 2017, three major arms control-related agreements were in force: the INF Treaty, a confidence-building measure known as Open Skies, and New START, the agreement Obama had negotiated just a few years earlier. Yet, rather than continue the progress his predecessors made toward making the world safer from the threat of nuclear war, Trump decided to tear it all down, while pursuing an exit from the Iran nuclear deal and ineffective nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. Of those three US-Russia agreements, one is gone, another is almost gone, and the last, it seems, is on the way out. That’s not all bad, some experts say, as Russia did cheat on some of the agreements and the US showed those actions would have consequences. But most experts I spoke to are concerned that Trump is tearing down an artifice with no new blueprints to make it better, or even rebuild what exists. “The whole arms control regime is under considerable stress,” former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who now leads the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told me. “It’s badly frayed.” Let’s take each deal in turn. The INF Treaty The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987. It prohibited Washington and Moscow from fielding ground-launched cruise missiles that could fly between 310 and 3,400 miles. Both countries signed the deal as a way to improve relations toward the end of the Cold War. However, the two nations still could — and since have — built up cruise missiles that can be fired from the air or sea. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room at the White House in 1987. Then a problem arose: Russia violated that agreement. In 2014, the Obama administration blamed the Kremlin for testing a cruise missile in direct violation of the accord. (Russia says the US had violated the agreement, too, by fielding ground-based missile defense systems that can fly within the prohibited ranges. The US, however, denies fielding the banned weapons.) So in October 2018, Trump proclaimed the US would withdraw from the treaty, adding that he would give Russia 60 days — until February 2 — to comply. That led to months of hurried negotiations between Washington and Moscow to bring Russia into compliance again, but neither side caved. NATO, the US-led military alliance formed to thwart the Soviet threat, tried to increase pressure by stating in December that Russia violated the treaty’s terms. The Kremlin didn’t budge during those talks. “We would confront them on it, and they would skirt responsibility,” said Thompson, who was responsible for leading INF negotiations in the Trump administration. “We knew we weren’t going to get anywhere. They weren’t going to be forthcoming about it, but we still kept chipping away.” Ultimately, she said, “the president made the decision to leave” the deal. That officially happened in August 2019. “Russia is solely responsible for the treaty’s demise,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the time. “The United States will not remain party to a treaty that is deliberately violated by Russia.” The wisdom of Trump’s choice depends on whom you ask. “Make no mistake, Russia caused this mess when they decided to develop, test, and deploy” the treaty-violating missile, said the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s Alexandra Bell, “but the Trump administration may have had more luck” than Obama did. “Now there is no clear plan about what to do next.” Jeffrey Edmonds, who served as the National Security Council director for Russia in the Obama administration, told me he thinks Trump made the right call. “Nothing was going to bring the Russians back into compliance,” he said. “It kind of poisons the well when it came to arms control in general. If you are pro-arms control, you shouldn’t want to hold on to arms control agreements that don’t work, because it limits your ability to pursue other arms control agreements.” With the INF treaty gone, some argue the US could now place ground-based intermediate-range missiles in Asia, mainly in Japan, to thwart China. Most experts I spoke with said there’s little chance of that happening soon. “This is a theoretically interesting point,” said Mike Green, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, “but at this point, the Japanese ability to host US deep-strike weapons on Japanese soil is pretty low.” However, three American experts who traveled to Tokyo to meet privately with local officials earlier this year said the issue often came up. Each time, though, there was this added twist: Japan might consider building and basing ground-based missiles of its own. That’s not something Japan is seriously pushing for right now, they noted, but it would fit with the island nation’s trend of beefing up its defenses. At a minimum, those in favor of putting US missiles in Japan say it’s worth a shot. “I believe it is realistic, and I am hopeful that we will have an opportunity for basing these weapons in Japan,” Rebeccah Heinrichs, a nuclear expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington, told me. “But it’s going to take some work.” Open Skies Originally an idea by Eisenhower and made a reality in 2002, the Open Skies Treaty allows nations to conduct unarmed flights over another country’s military installations and other areas of concern. Entering into effect 10 years later, it has since helped the 34 North American and European signatories, including the US and Russia, gain confidence that others weren’t developing advanced weapons in secret or planning big attacks. In other words, the treaty was put into place to prevent arms races — and wars. In May 2020, Trump decided America would withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, kicking off a six-month clock before the US could officially leave the deal. “It has become abundantly clear that it is no longer in America’s interest to remain a party to the Treaty on Open Skies,” Pompeo said in a statement announcing the decision. “At its core, the Treaty was designed to provide all signatories an increased level of transparency and mutual understanding and cooperation, regardless of their size,” he continued. “Russia’s implementation and violation of Open Skies, however, has undermined this central confidence-building function of the Treaty — and has, in fact, fueled distrust and threats to our national security — making continued US participation untenable.” But that same day, Trump left the door open just a crack to nixing the withdrawal. “There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together,” he said outside the White House. “I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to pull out and they’re going to come back and want to make a deal.” Still, the decision to leave was stunning, and arguably dangerous. The treaty allowed both Washington and Moscow to track each other’s movements. The imagery they collected was then shared among all the signatories, giving some less technologically advanced nations their only source of overhead intelligence. That’s vitally important for, say, Ukraine, a treaty member that wants to know about Russian military movements on its border. The worry was if the US left Open Skies, others would too. So far, that’s not the case. The Kremlin criticized America’s decision but hasn’t said if it will stay or leave. NATO allies signaled soon after Trump’s announcement that they would remain in Open Skies and other arms control pacts, and the foreign ministries of at least 10 European nations vowed to remain signatories. That makes sense, since those countries would still benefit from the intelligence collection from overflights, even though they’re likely to lose a large number of images after America’s departure. The US, then, has separated itself from multiple allies with the unilateral decision to withdraw from the treaty. But that won’t bother the president’s supporters who long cited three reasons he needed to take the US out of Open Skies. First, as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) articulated in 2019, the US could spend its money elsewhere. After all, the US has many spy satellites in space, so the utility of spending money to fly creaking planes for days over Russian and other territory doesn’t make much sense, the treaty’s critics say. The president should withdraw from the Open Skies treaty and redeploy the hundreds of millions of dollars the Pentagon wastes on the flights and equipment to increase U.S. combat power.— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) October 8, 2019 Second, many said Russia was a cheating treaty member. As Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in February, the Russians aren’t playing by the rules. “The Russians have been noncompliant in the treaty for years, specifically when it comes to their allowance of overflights and near flights [of] Kaliningrad and Georgia,” he said. It was a fair point. Russia did restrict US overflights of Kaliningrad — the Russian exclave in Europe’s northeast — to 310 miles in the territory and within a six-mile corridor of its border with Georgian conflict zones Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Meanwhile, the US rarely, if ever, impeded Russia from at least attempting to see what it wanted to. “Yes, the Russians are violating that treaty, too, by restricting flights,” Thompson, Trump’s former top arms control diplomat, told me. “The treaty does provide transparency but my sense is it’s largely a symbolic treaty — it helps the alliance — as it provides intelligence for our allies that don’t have the capabilities we do.” The impediment of flights, though, wasn’t much of a concern for former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. He told Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) in a May 2018 letter that “it is in our Nation’s best interest to remain a party to the Open Skies Treaty” after she complained about Russia’s cheating. Many experts side with the then-Pentagon chief’s stance. “These issues do not rise to the level of a material breach, nor do they justify withdrawal,” Kingston Reif, an expert at the Arms Control Association, told me in October 2019. Third, some experts claimed the deal helped Russia much more than it served America. In 2016, then-Defense Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Vincent Stewart told the House Armed Services Committee he was worried about what Russia could learn due to the treaty. “The things that you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things you can do with post-processing, allows Russia, in my opinion, to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities,” he said. “So from my perspective, it gives them a significant advantage.” He later added that he’d “love to deny” Russia overflights. That’s all fair, especially if Russia was getting better quality information than the US. But advocates of the treaty note that what Moscow learned was outweighed by what the US obtained and shared with its allies in the accord, particularly Ukraine. “The treaty has been of particular value recently in countering Russian disinformation and aggression against Ukraine,” Reif said. Yet the US dropped Open Skies, just as it soon might with New START. New START As a reminder, the New START arms control deal became effective in 2011 during the Obama administration. The treaty’s goal, essentially, is to limit the size of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, the two largest in the world. To ensure those limits are met and kept, the treaty also allows Washington and Moscow to keep tabs on the other’s nuclear programs through stringent inspections and data sharing, thereby curbing mistrust about each other’s nuclear and military plans. At the time, it was heralded as a major achievement and is still considered such by top lawmakers. “I stood behind President Obama in the Oval Office when he signed the New START agreement nine years ago. This landmark treaty has reduced the threat posed by nuclear weapons around the world,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, told me. “I’ll continue to urge the Trump administration to extend the New START treaty so we can keep safeguards in place that oversee Russia’s nuclear arsenal and ensure every measure is taken to shore up our national security.” As of mid-July 2020, the two nations had exchanged more than 20,400 total notifications about the state of their arsenals. Rose Gottemoeller, who led the New START negotiations for the US at the State Department, told me all that goes away if Trump decides not to stay in the agreement. “The Russians won’t allow for verifications and inspections without a legal basis,” she said. And without the ability to get deep insight into Russia’s nuclear forces, trust would surely erode. “The exact thing which gives us an excellent understanding of Russian strategic forces is all going to break down,” said Gottemoeller, who in 2019 stepped down as NATO’s deputy secretary. “Unless you have access to verify what’s going on with the warheads on missiles or submarines, you don’t really understand what’s going on.” Putin, Russia’s president, says he sees value in the deal. “Russia is not interested in starting an arms race and deploying missiles where they are not present now,” he told Russian officials in December. “Russia is ready to immediately, as soon as possible, by the end of this year, without any preconditions, extend the START Treaty so that there would be no further double or triple interpretation of our position.” Trump hasn’t taken up Putin on his offer yet, even though those two could extend the agreement for up to five years without anyone else’s input. If Washington is fretting the end of arms control, it sure isn’t acting like it — and neither is Moscow So why get out of a deal that almost everyone says is vital to keeping US-Russia relations stable? The answer is China. “We need to make sure that we’ve got all of the parties that are relevant as a component of this as well,” Pompeo told reporters in 2019, clearly alluding to China. ”It may be that we can’t get there. It may be that we just end up working with the Russians on this. But if we’re talking about a nuclear [capability] that presents risks to the United States, it’s very different today in the world.” It’s a legitimate concern. Beijing has spent the past few years building up its missile arsenal. It has short-, intermediate-, and long-range missiles capable of making any military, including America’s, think twice about attacking it. And while it only has about 300 warheads, far fewer than the US and Russia, it has enough bombs and missiles to carry them to retaliate. If the US wants to drop a nuke on China, China can drop a nuke on the US right back. That’s a big change from when the US and Russia signed New START almost a decade ago. Many in the Trump administration and outside experts argue it’s worth using the treaty’s imminent demise to pressure Moscow to either stop harming the US, such as with election interference, or get Beijing to join a broader arms control agreement. In July, top US arms control negotiator Marshall Billingslea extended an “open invitation” to Chinese officials to join the US and Russia in Austria for New START talks, even though Beijing has long said it won’t sign on to New START since its arsenal is so much smaller than Washington’s and Moscow’s. The Chinese government didn’t accept the offer, leading Billingslea to take a swipe at the country on Twitter. Vienna talks about to start. China is a no-show. Beijing still hiding behind #GreatWallofSecrecy on its crash nuclear build-up, and so many other things. We will proceed with #Russia, notwithstanding.— Ambassador Marshall
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Covid-19 is exposing inequalities in college sports. Now athletes are demanding change.
UCLA’s Elisha Guidry and USC’s Tyler Vaughns at a November 2019 Pac-12 game in Los Angeles. | Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images Hundreds of athletes are threatening to skip the upcoming season, unless economic and racial issues are addressed. Several hundred college athletes have announced their intention to sit out the coming season as the coronavirus pandemic continues across the United States, and as confirmed case rates rise in almost every state. Sunday, hundreds of football players from the Pac-12 Conference, which is made up of 12 Western schools, announced they would not participate in training camps or games this fall unless their conference negotiates with them on certain demands, including the implementation of health and safety procedures, creating protections for other conference sports, and addressing racial injustice. That communal action — organized under the hashtag #WeAreUnited — describes the new push by college players as one of racial and economic justice. With respect to the coronavirus, it notes that Black college athletes, like Black Americans in general, will be disproportionately placed at risk of infection if conference leaders do not implement measures that will protect players against Covid-19. But the athletes argue disparities in coronavirus outcomes also highlight existing inequalities that disproportionately hurt Black players, particularly those from low income homes. The players point out that they bring significant economic value to their conferences and colleges, while receiving almost no compensation themselves beyond scholarships that are contingent upon strict requirements of behavior and performance. “Because NCAA sports exploit college athletes physically, economically and academically, and also disproportionately harm Black college athletes, #WeAreUnited,” the athletes’ statement reads in part. “Because we are being asked to play college sports in a pandemic in a system without enforced health and safety standards, and without transparency about COVID cases on our teams, the risks to ourselves, our families, and our communities, #WeAreUnited.” According to Sports Illustrated, the players spent more than a month organizing before presenting their demands; they hope the threat of a boycott will lead to a “formal negotiation process” with their conference. “The coronavirus has put a spotlight on a lot of the injustices in college athletics,” Valentino Daltoso, an offensive lineman at the University of California Berkeley, told Sports Illustrated. “The way to affect change and the way to get your voice heard is to affect the bottom line. Our power as players comes from being together. The only way to do this is to do something collectively.” Briefly, what the Pac-12 athletes want The Pac-12 athletes have four areas in which they want to see their conference make critical changes to its policies: health, non-revenue generating sports, racial justice, and financial matters. The changes would apply to both scholarship and walk-on athletes. The health demands would primarily require the conference to make changes to limit the effects of the coronavirus, like allowing players to opt out of the season for the duration of the pandemic without losing their eligibility, and enacting minimal safety standards that cover “Covid-19 as well as serious injury, abuse and death.” Second, the athletes want all sports governed by the conference to be given equal weight. They demand an end to “excessive pay” for NCAA administrators and coaches, including Larry Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, arguing the reductions would allow for the funding of sports that do not generate as much revenue as football or basketball. They also suggest institutions with means use a portion of their endowments to cover some sports costs. The group also wants to see the conference put some of its money — 2 percent of its revenue — toward supporting financial aid packages for Black students, as well as toward community initiatives. They propose starting a yearly summit for Black Pac-12 athletes, and demand the conference fund a a council populated by student-selected experts that would work toward eradicating racial inequality. Finally, the group wants major changes to how revenue is distributed. They demand that half of the conference’s revenue be evenly distributed among its athletes and that players be allowed agents and the right to use their own names, images, and likenesses to earn money. And they have asked for guaranteed medical coverage for athletes for six years after their eligibility ends, for issues related to their sport, as well as the freedom to volunteer and pursue activities outside of sports as they choose while on their teams. Race and economic issues have long been a part of college football The unified front presented by the Pac-12 athletes represents a near-unprecedented level of solidarity among college athletes, who bring billions of dollars into their conferences and campuses, but face stringent requirements and receive no compensation beyond educational scholarships. As Vox’s Jane Coaston has explained, there is a significant overlap between college sports and issues of racial justice, especially in football programs. Football powers entire athletic departments, Coaston writes, which translates to money and prestige for universities. And college football is disproportionately fueled by Black athletes: Half of all Division 1 football players are Black, with higher numbers in the SEC and some other conferences. For this reason, as the Pac-12 statement says, issues that affect athletic programs disproportionately affect Black student athletes. In part because of these demographics, college football players are uniquely poised to demand change on their campuses. While they do take on risk when they speak out against their programs, particularly with respect to losing their scholarships, they also are powerful when united, a fact schools are increasingly acknowledging. “[C]ollege football programs are beginning to respond to demands from players — players on whom those programs rely,” Coaston writes. “That’s because in real-world terms, black college football players are part of an infrastructure that brings in billions of dollars to universities, cable networks, and sponsors — an entire industry, in fact.” But college players have had limited access to the wealth that they accrue for their programs. They cannot benefit from being turned into a video game character, for example, or from sales of jerseys with their own names across the back. The NCAA has repeatedly argued that players receive compensation in the form of their athletic scholarships, but those are also contingent on stringent standards of behavior and on performance, as well as on not getting injured. As Coaston points out, college athletes attempting to leverage their power to address social issues is not new. In the 1960s and ’70s, players at institutions like Michigan State spoke out against racism, risking both college scholarships and, sometimes, professional career opportunities. But the current moment is a singular one, with its confluence of a major civil rights movement and a global pandemic. As the coronavirus has shined a bright light on differential access to health care, education, and safe jobs — among many other issues — student athletes have found themselves with a unique opportunity to leverage their earning power to enact lasting change. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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As coronavirus cases increase worldwide, an Australian state is imposing tough new restrictions
Police and soldiers speak to dock workers as they patrol Melbourne following the announcement of new social distancing and curfew restrictions. | William West/AFP/Getty Images Victoria has declared a state of emergency, with the city of Melbourne announcing a curfew and strict social distancing measures. As coronavirus cases creep back up in Australia — a country that has maintained a relatively low rate of Covid-19 fatalities — the state of Victoria, home to the city of Melbourne, has declared a state of disaster, enacting tough new restrictions that exceed precautions taken in many places seeing similar, if not worse, increases. These restrictions include a nightly curfew in Melbourne and a cap on outdoor and essential activities, as well as a recently reimposed stay-at-home order. The heightened measures were announced on Sunday, the same day that the state reported 671 new Covid-19 infections — many of which officials were unable to successfully contact trace — and seven deaths. “The current rules have avoided thousands and thousands of cases each day, and then thousands of people in hospital and many more tragedies than we have seen. But it is not working fast enough,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said at a press conference announcing the new requirements. A State of Disaster has been declared in Victoria, with authorities to impose Stage Four restrictions on metropolitan Melbourne after 671 new coronavirus infections were announced on Sunday.— SBS News (@SBSNews) August 2, 2020 The more severe rules will be in place for six weeks, according to officials, and have the support of the federal government. They come days after a statewide mask order went into effect, and after Australia’s deadliest day of the pandemic on Thursday, with 13 deaths and more than 700 new infections. Victoria is Australia’s second-most populous state, with about 6.6 million people. It is home to the city of Melbourne and its almost 5 million residents. Many of the new restrictions apply specifically to that large city; additional restrictions on movement elsewhere in the state are forthcoming, officials say. It is Victoria’s second state of disaster in 2020, following the devastating bushfires from earlier this year. Schools will move entirely online on Wednesday, and residents of metro Melbourne will have to limit time and distance spent out of their homes. Residents will be permitted to exercise outdoors for one hour a day, and one person per household per day may go food shopping. All residents will be restricted from doing these activities farther than about three miles (specifically, 5 kilometers) from home. Residents may also leave home to pick up takeout food from restaurants, or to receive or administer care to others. Weddings must be canceled, and funeral attendance will be limited to 10 people. All other public gatherings are limited to two people, including those who share a household. Andrews has said that police will help enforce the curfew orders. “We can no longer have people simply out and about for no good reason whatsoever,” he said Sunday. “It is not an easy decision to make but it is necessary and that’s why I’ve made it, and that’s why police will be out in force, and you will be stopped, and you will be asked and need to demonstrate that you are lawfully out and you are not breaching that curfew.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who oversaw what appeared to be a successful curve-flattening policy of widespread lockdowns and social distancing in April and May, supported the measures, calling them “regrettably necessary” in a social media post. So did the national health minister, Greg Hunt, who told reporters that these measures will “help save and protect lives.” Other countries with similar — or worse — outbreaks are responding differently Australia has seen almost 18,000 cases to date, with 208 deaths. These lower numbers correspond with a significant national effort to impose lockdowns and federal messaging on social distancing, moves that experts say have helped keep the case rate low. A majority of the country’s cases are in Victoria, which has had 11,557 confirmed cases, and 123 confirmed deaths. Almost all of Victoria’s cases are inside Melbourne. The recent spike in Victoria alarmed officials in large part because many cases are of unknown origin. While contact tracing found earlier outbreaks could be tied to returning travelers — who were placed into mandatory quarantines — most current cases cannot be traced back to any one individual, leading officials to worry about advanced community transmission. “Those mysteries and that community transmission is in many respects our biggest challenge and the reason why we need to move to a different set of rules,” Andrews said, adding that the government’s response “will be imperfect. And for a little while, there’ll be more questions than answers.” On Sunday, US President Donald Trump reacted to the changes in Australian policy on Twitter, calling it a prime example of other countries’ struggling to contain the coronavirus, and claiming, “USA will be stronger than ever before, and soon!” Big China Virus breakouts all over the World, including nations which were thought to have done a great job. The Fake News doesn’t report this. USA will be stronger than ever before, and soon!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2020 But there is little indication that the United States will soon be stronger than ever, and direct comparisons between the Australian and US outbreaks reveal bleak realities: Chiefly, that the US’ chaotic, fractured response to Covid-19 has left it with a death toll far higher than Australia’s — for instance, Australia’s four deaths on Friday are enormously overshadowed by the US’ 1,123. It is true the US is a far larger country, but overall, the US has about 47 death per 100,000 people, while Australia has had about 0.8 deaths per 100,000. Looking only in the recent term, University of London global politics professor Brian Klaas noted on Twitter, “yesterday Australia had 1 death for every 6.2 million people. In the US, it was one death for every 292,000 people. So, the US is 21x worse.” In spite of this, many American states seeing similar — or more severe — increases to Victoria are not responding with commensurate measures. Many US states are seeing significant case increases, with 18 states setting single-day records for confirmed cases last week. Responses to these increases have varied significantly by state, and no state has currently imposed all the measures seen in Victoria, including a curfew, mask mandate, and distancing restrictions. For example, some dense metropolitan areas in Florida currently have curfews in place, Broward County and Miami-Dade County among them. But even as that state announced 9,642 new cases on Friday, and 257 deaths — more than double Melbourne’s entire death count — state leaders have refused to issue a statewide mask order or restrictions on gatherings, although large gatherings are not advised. Elsewhere in the world, countries are responding differently to outbreaks. In Vietnam, which saw no deaths for months, the country’s first Covid-19 death, reported on Friday, sparked a total lockdown in the city where those cases were identified. That measure comes on top of those previously instituted that have been credited with keeping the country’s case and transmission rates low, including strict travel constraints, broad testing and contact tracing programs, and quarantine and testing requirements on citizens entering the country. More than 2,000 miles away, Japan set its own record of 1,000 new cases on Thursday, but its government has said it will not declare a state of emergency. The local government in Tokyo has requested that bars and restaurants limit their hours, but have imposed no strict requirements. “When you look at the long battle against the coronavirus, it’s unrealistic to ask them to close completely,” Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike said. And in the United Kingdom, whose surge has lasted longer than nearby European countries, and where the death rate now outpaces even those countries which faced worse outbreaks early on — including Italy and France — new restrictions are in place, but many activities, including going to bars and movie theaters, are still allowed. As cities and states across the globe post local records, some in the US have attributed increases in case numbers to increased testing. Trump himself has repeated this assertion, tweeting again on Saturday the incorrect assertion, “We have more cases because we have tested far more than any other country.” Epidemiologists — including those in the Trump administration — reject this notion, saying that the increase in case numbers is tied to an increase in transmission. But without clear federal guidance on how even the hardest-hit American communities should respond, individual communities have been left to determine how best to quell the coronavirus’s spread locally. And many have struggled to do so.
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